Free Agency Plan

Thanks to everyone who donated to the service trip I’m going on.  We raised over $3400, which is much more than I expected.

Unfortunately, the timing of the trip coincides with the beginning of Free Agency.   While I may be able to comment, I’m not banking on having the time/internet access to do a full discussion while I’m in Iraq.  I’ll certainly address the moves after I return, but before that I figured I’d give you a short-form “wish list.”

Here’s what I’m looking for:

Jairus Byrd –  I am NOT 100% on board with this signing. I think Byrd has become overrated by many fans, and isn’t the guaranteed star he’s being made out to be.  Maybe I’m just gun-shy after the Nnamdi debacle.  I made it fairly clear last week that I’d prefer to  wait another year before taking a big shot or two in free agency.  However, given how big of a whole the Safety position is (and how long it’s been that way), it would be really hard to be upset with signing Byrd.  The Eagles have plenty of cap space, and the cap itself is increasing at a fast pace, so the money isn’t as big an issue as it has been in the past.  Just try to keep expectations reasonable.  Byrd is not going to step into this defense and immediately transform it into a top 10 unit.

The Rest – Outside of potentially signing Jairus Byrd, my plan would look very similar to last year’s.  A handful of moderately priced, mid-tier guys who can add depth and, if the Eagles get lucky, become big contributors.  In particular, NT, CB, S, LB, DE, and WR are all positions that could use some immediate help or at least another body.

A guy like Chris Clemons would seem to fit the bill, but he’s 32.  Short-term stopgaps are ok, but I’d prefer players who can provide depth for 3-4 years.  As the team grows into contention, controlling roster turnover will become a big deal.

The Kicker needs some competition, and that could come via Free Agency.  Todd Herremans needs to be replaced soon, and I suppose that could come through Free Agency too.  Neither of those are “break-the-bank” positions, so it’s unlikely for any signing here to violate the “reasonable, low-priced” requirements.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Eagles appear to believe that players coming back from injury offer good risk/return investments.  Maybe I’m reading too much into last offseason, but Patrick Chung, Bradley Fletcher, and Kenny Phillips were all players with injury concerns.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see the team add a couple of similar profile players this year.  What about Sidney Rice?  Still just 27 years old, but coming off a torn ACL (and a history of injuries).  Is any team still willing to offer him a deal with a lot of guaranteed money?  If not, he’d look good in green.

 

Hopefully, we’ll see a couple of early signings, but it feels like this could be a fairly quiet FA period for the team.  I think Roseman is very confident in where the roster is and where it’s headed, and I don’t see him getting impatient now.  Next year might be a different story.

That’s all for now. If I can check in from Iraq, I will.  Thanks again to everyone who helped out.  We’ll do our best to earn it while we’re over there.

Resignings: Flexibility in team construction

Peters, Cooper, Kelce, Maclin….ALL good moves, but don’t misread them.  One of the most important aspects of team construction (when you’re essentially starting from scratch), is maintaining flexibility for as long as possible.  That sounds easy, but it requires a lot of discipline.  It means being brutally honest with yourself as to the true quality of the roster and it often means getting ripped by beat writers for a year or two.  As of right now, Howie appears to be doing this perfectly.

Remember last offseason?  The team signed James Casey to play TE (well to play a couple of different roles).  The team signed Isaac Sopoaga to play NT.  The team signed Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips to play S.

After that haul, what did the Eagles then do in the draft?   They drafted a TE (Ertz), a NT (Logan), and a S (Wolff).  Granted, Wolff wasn’t expected to play much, but the overall point is:  FA and the draft serve two very different purposes.  Free agency is for filling holes in the roster, the draft is for adding talent.  Even though the Eagles re-signings weren’t like the Free Agency deals we typically think of, they still fall into that category.

Heading into free agency, the goal of any team must be to fill any huge gaps in the roster.  If you think back to the color chart I posted last week, this means identifying the “red” areas and trying to upgrade them to “yellow”.  Those types of acquisitions aren’t the headline-generating deals, but they’re extremely important!  If you don’t fill the gaps in FA, you’re left with just two potential outcomes:

1) You have to draft somebody relatively early in the draft at that position, regardless of it he’s the BPA.

2) You go into the season with a huge gap in the roster.

Both of those outcomes are terrible, and the only way out is to get lucky in the draft and have the BPA coincidentally be the position you need.  Of course, it almost never happens that way.  Instead, you end up taking a 26-year-old Guard in the first round….

I want to make this abundantly clear, so let’s conceptualize it a bit:

Imagine you’re a team with identified NEEDS at SS, CB, DE, OT.   What’s your free agency plan?  Many fans would look at that situation and hope for the team to sign a top-end starter at 1-2 of those positions (the unreasonable fans might hope for all 4).  However, there’s a big problem with that strategy.

Namely: You don’t know who is going to be available for you in the draft.

There are two main methods of roster construction, free agency and the draft.  Free agency has no uncertainty.  The draft has a LOT of uncertainty.  The problem with that is free agency occurs BEFORE the draft.  The interplay between these two processes is tricky, and many people don’t properly connect the two when analyzing them.

Going back to our pretend team, let’s say we’ve got the 8th pick in the draft.  What are the odds that the best player available (or a player in the top remaining tier) is a SS, CB, DE, or OT?   Pretty damn good.  Now let’s say you signed a starting CB and DE in the draft. free agency.

Now your “needs” are SS and OT.  What are the odds that the BPA at your pick in the draft will be a player at one of those positions?  Decent, perhaps, but A LOT LESS than they were when you also “needed” a CB and a DE.

By filling the starters roles in free agency, you made it LESS likely that you’ll find a starting quality player at a position of need in the draft.  That’s the important takeaway.  Remember that given the salary cap, the new CBA, and the auction dynamics involved in free agency, finding a quality starter in the draft is MUCH more valuable than finding one in free agency.

The optimal draft strategy is to take the BPA and move up and down in the draft whenever there is a serious dislocation in value.  To do that, though, you need to have all of your gaps filled BEFORE the draft.  Not necessarily with star players, but with guys who can at least pass for mediocre.  Otherwise, you either reach for a non-BPA player, and likely ruin the pick, or you go into the season with a glaring hole.

So, teams that are still in the construction phase, and not yet ready to seriously contend (like the Eagles right now IMO), need to be VERY careful about signing star players in free agency.  Instead, the team should use free agency to fill those holes, and when the roster IS at or very close to contending, THEN you use free agency to put the final 1-2 pieces int place.  At that point, you’ve lost flexibility anyway, and what you NEED is certainty.  Until then, though, it makes no sense to play around in the top-tier free agent market.

With that, let’s talk about a couple of deals:

Jason Peters: Convenient timing for this signing, as I’d just said that the Eagles need to think about replacing Peters soon.  Does the extension mean they disagree?  No, though it suggests they think it might take 1-2 years longer for Peters to decline than I had projected.   Note my projection was admittedly a guess and not backed up by any research into the aging trends of left tackles.  However, I assure you that the Eagles are not banking on Jason Peters being the starting LT in 2018.  He signed for $38.3 million….but only $19.55 million of that is guaranteed.  Also, the guaranteed portion flames out quickly, and after next season the Eagles will be able to cut him with very little $ impact.

Basically, the Eagles bought themselves a call option on the downside of Jason Peters’ career.  If his play declines quickly, they can cut him loose.  If he continues to be an elite LT, they’ve got him locked up at a reasonable level.

Cooper/Maclin: This goes right to the heart of what I was saying above.  If you let BOTH walk, you’ve got a big need at WR.  You either sign someone in free agency or head into the draft knowing you need a WR who can contribute immediately.  Instead, the Eagles signed both of them, to reasonable deals (again, you should only really care about the guaranteed money).  That means the Eagles don’t “need” to draft a WR early.  However, it also doesn’t mean they won’t.  What they’ve done is given themselves the flexibility to take a WR if he’s the BPA, while also allowing them to pass on the WR if he’s not.

Like I said, Roseman is already having a great offseason, but don’t let the beat writers mislead you.  These contracts (Peters and Cooper especially) are nothing more than reasonable call options that give the team flexibility going forwards.  Neither player is guaranteed to be here beyond 1-2 more seasons.  So don’t be shocked if the Eagles take an OT or WR in the first three rounds.

State of the Roster: Building over time

Last year I provided illustrations, by color, of the Eagles offense and defense, using it to identify weaknesses and strengths.  Today I want to take that to the next level, for two main reasons.  First, PFF is now providing the same visuals.  Maybe they did this before and I didn’t know about it, but in any case, there’s no reason for me to duplicate what they’ve already done.  Here is their projected line-up.  Clicking it will take you to the source write-up.

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The second, and more important, reason that I want to do things differently is because the above chart misses out on a vital aspect of team construction.

Time

You can’t sustain success if you’re entire focus is the next season.  The team needs to be built so that it can contend OVER TIME.  Given how much luck there is in the game, it makes more sense to contend over a long period of time rather than “go for it” in any one season.  Andy Reid’s Eagles did this perfectly, they just never had things fall the right way.

This is particularly important for the Eagles because of where the team is currently in its team-building process.  I mentioned in my last post that there are still a lot of holes, and some people pushed back.  While there’s plenty of room to disagree over the projected quality of each player, I realized we first have to agree on just what timeframe we’re looking at.

For example, if we are just considering next season, than Jason Peters is far from a “hole”.  However, if we’re looking at creating a 3-4 year “window” of contention, then things become a bit more difficult.  Peters is 31 years old.  Do you think he’ll still be an above-average OT in his mid 30s?  It’s possible, but the point is that it’s not enough to just look at this coming season.

The question then becomes:  What’s the best way to alter the graphic above to incorporate longer time-projections?

Today I’ll take a stab at that.  First, though, I want to note that the goal is obviously to build a team that contends for a lot longer than 3-4 years.  However, we have to recognize the limitations, or margin of error, in any attempt to project future performance.  The farther out we go, the less accurate or predictions will be.  Therefore, once we go out to 5+ years, there seems to be very little value in attempting to projecting player performance.  That might not be right, but it’s the constraint I’m operating within for right now.

So….the projections:

As you’ll see below, I simply listed every starting player on offense and defense, then assigned them a color based on how I believe they will perform in the relevant year.  For now, we’re going very low-resolution, so I’ve separated players into just 3 groups.  Red is below-average/bad, yellow is average/mediocre, green is above-average/objectively good.  There’s definitely room to refine this (McCoy could be blue, as PFF did above), and I’ll do so after FA and the draft.

The Offense

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As you can see, I also included the salary cap numbers, mainly to show when players’ contracts were up.  Overall, the offense looks pretty good.  There are just 2 areas that could use some immediate improvement, RG and the TE/WR situation behind D-Jax.  Of course, if Maclin resigns and comes back healthy, he could easy go “green” for the foreseeable future.  That would help a lot.  Still, though, the offense looks like it’s in really good shape.

The concern comes in year 3.  As illustrated, Peters, Mathis, and Herremans are all in their 30’s, and while they can certainly perform at a high level into their mid-30’s, we have to ask ourselves:  what are the chances of that happening?  Moreover, what are the chances that all 3 of them do so?  Slim, at least in my opinion.  That’s why I really wouldn’t be upset to see the team add an OL in the draft (beyond the 7th round OL the team should be drafting every year, but that’s a different issue).

I certainly anticipate Zack Ertz moving into the starting TE role, and being a good player for a long time.  Notice, though, that still leaves a whole in the roster.  Anyway you cut it, the offense has space for another receiving weapon.

The Defense

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Now we get to the fun part, the defense.  It won’t shock anyone to learn that the defense has a lot more holes than the offense.  There are some tough calls to make here, as far as projections go.  Can Earl Wolff go “green”?  Yes, but I think the odds still favor him being just OK as a starting safety.  Similarly, some people will probably argue that Bennie Logan deserves a better rating.  Again, its possible, but I’m not convinced.  Additionally, it’s very harmful to the construction process if you assume guys will hit their “ceiling”.  Many don’t, or rather their ceiling gets adjusted downwards as their career progresses.

Most notable here is the lack of good players in the secondary.  Boykin might be able to slide over to the #1 or #2 CB spot, but that still leaves a hole to fill.  Also, remember not to focus on just the first year.  Look at year 3 above.  Naturally, the team has a few offseason to address the issues, so their not urgent, but it has to be accounted for.  Demeco Ryans isn’t getting any better, and how much longer do you think Trent Cole can play effectively for?

You surely noticed the thick black box in both graphics above.  That’s what I’m looking at as the “strike zone” for this team.  If I’m Howie Roseman, I want to turn as many of those boxes green as I can, even if it’s at the expense of next season.  Also, I want to eliminate every red box.  This is what I mean when I mention accounting for time.  You’re not just trying to build the best team you can.  You’re trying to get a lot of different pieces to fit come together at the right time.  It won’t work if your young players improve to “good” just in time for your veterans to decline.

Again, some more work to be done here, and I’m hoping to do a little research into the general career arcs of different positions (so we know things like what age an OT should be expected to decline).  Keep this in mind though when you hear about potential FAs.  How well to they fill those boxes?

Postseason Expansion: Good or Bad…or both?

Adjusting to a new schedule hence the lack of posts over the past week.  I think I’ve got a routine down, but will wait for confirmation before announcing a rough schedule.  There’s still a lot to do regarding a review of last season, then we’ll need to look towards the draft and free agency.

First, though, playoff expansion.  Roger Goodell mentioned recently (two weeks ago I believe), that the league is seriously considering adding a wild card spot to both conferences.  That would allow 7 teams to make the playoffs, with the #1 seed in both conferences having the only first round byes.

My initial reaction:  Terrible idea.

However, as is usually the case, a deeper analysis made things a bit more complicated.  So, let’s first talk about why adding a 7th team would be a good idea, then we can look at why it’s a bad idea.

Good Idea

From a business standpoint, two additional playoff games mean the league can sell another TV package.  Brian Solomon (@Brian_Solomon), a Forbes markets reporter, mentioned to me on Twitter that this could be worth around $1 Billion.  Obviously, that’s a relatively big deal.  Beyond that, adding an additional team means the #2 seed gets to host an additional playoff game.  I’m not sure what owners would say publicly about this, but there’s no doubt they love the idea of another playoff game’s gate revenue.

From a fan’s perspective, it’s hard to find fault with an additional playoff spot.  Beyond the initial negative reaction, largely derived from some abstract notion of what the playoffs “should” be or which teams “deserve” to be there, an additional game likely adds to the overall enjoyment level for fans.  Each team has an increased chance of making the playoffs.  Also, the bar for making the playoffs is lowered, meaning late season games will “mean” more for mediocre teams.  That makes those games more entertaining.  Additionally, how many non-Eagles playoff games did you watch?  My guess is a lot.   Presumably you did so because you enjoyed them.  So it’s safe to assume you’ll derive added enjoyment from an addition 2 playoff games, even if the Eagles aren’t involved.

What about quality?  Won’t lowering the bar to the playoffs just result in bad teams getting in?  Maybe, but not as much as you’d think (or I thought before doing the research).  Here’s a table showing which teams would have been added to the playoff field over the past 5 seasons if there had been a 7th spot in each conference:

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There’s definitely some mediocrity in there; I can’t say I’d be excited to see the 2011 Bears in the Playoffs.  However, there are also some legitimately good teams, whose addition clearly adds to the overall quality.  Look at the 2012 Bears or the 2010 Chargers; in either case, it’s hard to argue those teams don’t “belong” or that they somehow compromise the overall quality of the playoff tournament.

It seems that the only real complaints about an added team, from a fan’s perspective, will be from the #2 seed.  That team loses its bye, and as I showed above, has to play another game, perhaps against a very good opponent.  However, as I said above, it’s a home game.  For all of the live attendees, another home game seems like a net benefit.  For fans at home, it’s just another opportunity to watch their favorite team play.  Yes, it hurts their chances of winning the Super Bowl.  However, if the team can’t beat the #7 seed in a home playoff game….

So…pretty clearly, the addition of a 7th team is probably net benefit to all those involved (except maybe the players).  However, we do need to discuss the negatives, some of which are obvious (and minor) and some of which are relatively abstract (and potentially significant).

Bad Idea

Let’s get the easy one out of the way first.

– Injuries.  Any additional game increases the chances that a player will get injured.  This is a major argument against the expansion of the regular season.  However, this change results in just 2 added games.  Again, this negative result seems to be focused on the #2 seed in each conference.  None of the other teams are effected, and the #7 seed will gladly take the risk of injury in exchange for a spot in the playoffs.  This is a legitimate gripe, but doesn’t have anywhere near enough significance to outweigh the benefits.

Now we need to ascend to a higher level of analysis.  As we’ll see, the reason the playoff field will expand is because the benefits are mostly clear and quantifiable ($$$) and the detriments are largely abstract and qualitative.  In such a scenario, a near-term focused business enterprise (as the NFL appears to be) will always choose the $$$.

Since the NFL’s decision-making is based entirely upon the fact that it is itself a business and operates for the benefit of other businesses (the teams), any argument against playoff expansion has to focus on the business side of things.  We can complain all we want from a fan’s perspective, but unless it affects the bottom line, it doesn’t matter.

So…here are a few points, which by themselves do not pose significant risks.  However, after I list them, I’ll try to tie them together to explain why I’d be more cautions than the NFL in expanding the playoffs.

– Super Bowl quality.  The premier event of the NFL season is the Super Bowl.  Recently, the NFL has benefitted tremendously from the competitiveness of the game.  Viewership is huge and therefore the value of that entity is extremely high.  However, adding a playoff team affects the probability of producing a good game.  This is a long-term concern.  At the moment, the Super Bowl is a huge cultural event, drawing in casual viewers who don’t really care what the involved teams’ records were.  However, I’d argue that the casual viewership is, at its core, built from a foundation of more interested fans.  Those are the one’s most likely to be effected, over the long-term, by a diminution in the general competitiveness of the game.

Look back to the Super Bowls of the mid-late 80’s:

1985 – 49ers 38, Dolphins 16

1986 – Bears 46 – Patriots 10

1987 – Giants 39 – Broncos 20

1988 – Redskins 42 – Broncos 10

1989 – 49ers 20, Bengals 16

1990 – 49ers 55, Broncos 10

That’s what the NFL should be worried about.  Adding mediocre teams may effect the general competitiveness of the games.  Of course, the counterargument is that the overall parity of the league has shifted such that mismatches won’t happen like they did in the past.  That’s a fair point, but it’s not dispositive.  We’re just looking at possible risks.  Again, this is a relatively small risk, and something that would take a while to develop.  One bad Super Bowl isn’t going to change the NFL’s value much.  It would take a string of such games to really result in a decline in general interest, and even then, the resulting value effects are unclear.  However, just because a the probability of a risk is small doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

– Piercing the veil of “the event”.  3 of 4 Wild Card games this year had trouble selling out.  In fact, those games would not have sold all of their tickets had it not been for corporate sponsors willing to take large swaths of seats off the teams’ hands.  Although it’s unlikely that a #2 seed would have as much difficult selling tickets as the teams this year did, it’s indisputable that added games increase the probability of a failure to sell out.

Ok, so what?  Why is this a problem?

Well similar to the SB discussion above, the NFL has built its tremendous popularity by convincing the general public that each game is an “event” that shouldn’t be missed.  The structure of the season (just 16 games, 1 game a week, typically on Sundays) helps as well.  I submit that if the games ceased to sell-out, the foundation of the “event” would begin to erode.  Right now the NFL has a LOT of casual fans; fans who don’t really follow the team but still tune in every Sunday.  Why?  Because it seems culturally important.  It’s the same thing that drives street performers.  If you walk by one on an empty street, you’re unlikely to stop and watch/give money.  However, if you see one surrounded by a large crowd, you’re going to want to see what’s going on, right?  Apply similar logic to the NFL games.

It’s important not because of any intrinsic value but because so many other people think it’s important.  The casual fans don’t want to miss out.  However, if the games can’t even sell all of their tickets, how could it possibly be that important?

Once again, this is a long-term, relatively abstract risk.  One empty seat isn’t going to effect TV viewership.  However, consistent blocks of empty seats might.

Intermission

Just realized that I’ve hit 1500 words and am running out of time, so I’ll provide a temporary wrap up, and we can continue the analysis later.

There is no law that says the NFL has to remain tremendously valuable.  It seems inconceivable that it won’t, but large, seemingly stable businesses do collapse, and it’s likely often not the result of what were obvious defects (if they were obvious they’d have been addressed).  This needs a lot of unpacking, but for now, let’s just say that if I was the NFL, I’d be very careful about reaching for limited, near-term gains ($1 Billion split between every team is not a huge gain compared to overall value) in exchange for taking on long-term, qualitative tail risk.  What I identified above (along with other similar issues) is hard to quantify (think about general product dilution).  However, that’s precisely why you shouldn’t be too cavalier in inviting it.  Individually, the potential negative effects are all likely to be small and to only manifest themselves over the long-term.  But they are also very tough to eliminate/address, and once they take effect, it’s hard to combat.

Offseason thoughts: Riley Cooper and roster construction

The offseason has officially begun (for the Eagles), and that means its time to look at the roster from a higher level.  You can get a basic breakdown from most of the Eagles beats; I’ve just got a few thoughts to add.  The biggest point to make is: Don’t forget about the team’s strength.  Too often, fans focus entirely on team weaknesses and forget that nothing in sports is static.  Remember back to the Andy Reid peak.  Those teams were built upon the strength of the DEFENSE.  Over time, the defensive roster was allowed to atrophy while the focus was on the offense.  Fixing weaknesses is obviously vital, but the first priority, in my opinion, should be ensuring your team’s strength remains a strength.  This year, the team’s success was built upon a great offense.  However, there’s no guarantee that the offense will remain at that level.  Personally, I still think they’re still missing a “weapon” at WR.

Now, a few player notes:

– Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin are both free agents.  I do not expect both of them to be back next year, and wouldn’t be shocked if neither returned.  Cooper seems like a prime candidate to be overpaid elsewhere, and he’s exactly the type of player teams should be very careful not to overpay.  He had a very good year, but how far above replacement-level is he?

He had 47 catches, which ranked 82nd in the league this year.

He had 835 yards, good for 38th in the league.

His best stat was probably the 17.8 yards per reception, tied with Calvin Johnson for 3rd in the league.  However, the following players averaged more than 15 yards per reception: Denarius Moore, Jerome Simpson, Doug Baldwin, Nate Washington, Chris Givens.

The point is NOT that Riley Cooper shouldn’t return.  I think his skill-set is particularly well-suited to Foles’ game (deep jump balls especially).  However, in a salary-cap league, it’s important not to pay decent players like stars.  The fact is the Eagles could probably replace Cooper’s production without too much difficulty.

Maclin is a slightly different story, but I think it comes down to the same analysis.  There will likely be another team willing to pay him more than the Eagles will.

– Remain skeptical of rookie performances.  Don’t discount them entirely, but don’t overreact.  I’m talking mainly about Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff.  Both had nice years, but if you’re penciling them in as starters, you’ve gone too far.  It might help to remember Macho Harris…. I’d still like to see an “impact” NT, and Logan probably isn’t at that level.  If Wolff is starter-material, fantastic, but he might have also benefited from low-bar comparisons.  The record of late round safeties (or any position really) isn’t great, and he’s hasn’t shown enough to leave me confident he’ll beat those odds.  I’m hopeful that both players can be contributors, but neither would stop me from pursuing an upgrade in either FA or the draft (provided BPA of course).

– Best Player Available.  As far as I’m concerned, there are very few positions on the team that I would NOT draft if a player at that position was the best player available at the Eagles pick.  Running back is obvious.  QB…probably (and I’m a big Foles fan!).  Center.  That’s about it.  The Eagles are a very shallow team.  They need to add talent, regardless of where that talent comes from.  Many fans will point to the Safeties and hope for a 1st round pick to address that need.  However, that kind of thinking is how you end up drafting a 27 yr old Guard in the 1st round…

– Plug holes with Free Agency.  Most fans, during free agency, focus on the top players available.  That’s a mistake (for now).  The Eagles are still very much in the “building” phase, and it’s too early to take a shot at a star player in free agency.  If they see someone who’s young and fits the system perfectly, then go for it.  However, given where the team is, it’s more important to add depth where possible (at a reasonable price), and perhaps address STs.  It won’t grab headlines, but it’s important to building a team.  If you’ve added depth and patched holes in Free Agency, it becomes much easier to take the BPA in the draft.  In generally, teams should try to add impact talent in the draft, and plug holes in Free Agency.  Signing star players in free agency (A) forces you to overpay (winner’s curse), and (b) limits flexibility going forwards.  As a result, that approach should only be used by team’s whose rosters are close to set already.  If there is a clearly defined weakness, the risk of FA is lower.  With needs everywhere (the Eagles now), I’d rather maintain flexibility until the roster is further defined.

I’ll leave it there for today.  I’ll have a much more extensive roster breakdown soon, but I wanted to get a few of the more important thoughts out there beforehand.  After such a successful season, it’s hard to remain patient.  However, the Eagles are still a ways from being a legitimate contender.  Missteps in roster-building now can short-circuit the entire process and undo all of the progress the team made this year.

 

 

SI Curse: Contrary Indicators 101

My last final of the semester was yesterday, so I should be able to post much more frequently over the next few weeks, just in time for the Eagles stretch run.  There’s a lot to be said there, and a few things I started and have to finish, but today I want to illustrate the “SI Cover Curse”.

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Obviously, being on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as Nick Foles was last week, does not actually “curse” its subject.  So why does it seem to work so often?  Basically, it’s because it HAS to work; that’s how the system is designed.

Items with covers that change by installment use those covers to drive sales.  Think of the gossip magazines paying millions of dollars to celebrities for exclusive pictures.  They do that because people decide which ones to buy based on what the see on the cover.  Beyond the brand, it’s the only real advertising available.  As a result, you only get “attention-grabbing” cover subjects.

Now let’s look at a normal career arc for an NFL player (or any athlete).  I apologize for the crudeness of the drawing.

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Generally, players start slowly as they adjust to the NFL game (and get bigger/stronger).  After an initial period of development, they plateau, and remain there until they get old and decline.  Pretty simple.  Let’s take that graphic and break it into those sections.

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Note that this tracks closely with relative fame.  Very few players are really famous upon entering the league.  Similarly, very few players maintain their level of fame after they decline and retire.  That has obvious implications for magazine covers.  They don’t put nobody’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated (well, rarely).

Of course, that curve is far too smooth.  So let’s add a layer to show the general oscillation of a player’s career skill/fame.  Every player has peaks and valleys, which oscillate around the longer term average.

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These are rough approximations, obviously some players have drastically different career arcs (injuries, in particular, can throw things off).  However, looking at the larger point: when, in the graph above, do you think a player is most likely to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or any magazine for that matter?

How about at these points:

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At the highlighted points above, players are at their short-term peak in fame/significance.  That’s when they’re most likely to be put on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  And in order for it to be a “peak”, it MUST be followed by at least a short-term decline thereafter (otherwise it wouldn’t be a peak).  That’s the essence of the “Sports Illustrated Curse”.  Generally, players only get on there if they’ve been playing extremely well.  For example, looks at these headlines and decide which ones are actually interesting:

– No-name player plays badly!

– Famous player plays well!

– No-name player plays well!

– Famous player sucks!

You don’t have to be a marketing major to realize that the bottom two are the better “stories”.  Moreover, for a “no-name” player to actually get on the cover, he has to more than just “play well”, he has to be lights out, or be involved in a singular moment of some large significance.  This is why Nick Foles was featured.  Outside of Philadelphia, nobody knew who he was, yet he’s putting up a historically good streak of play.  That’s a story.

However, it’s only a story because he was playing SO well.  If he had been merely “good”, he wouldn’t have made it.  That leaves us with just two possible consequences of the following statement:

Nick Foles, relative unknown, played historically well for a short period of time.  Then…

– Nick Foles was just that good, and continued to play at that level until he had broken nearly every NFL passing record.

– Nick Foles was not actually the greatest QB ever, and his subsequent performance declined soon after.

Now, if the second option happens (as the odds suggest is an almost certainty), it won’t be because he was “cursed” by Sports Illustrated.  Encouragingly, Foles has been playing SO well that a somewhat significant decline in performance will still leave him as a very good quarterback.

The system within which the magazine business operates is built upon capitalizing on short-term over-performance.  It’s no surprise that cover subjects experience a decline in performance/fame soon after.  The level of play required to get Nick Foles on the cover of SI is almost certainly unsustainable; consequently, it won’t be sustained!

So the “Sports Illustrated Cover Curse”, while not an actual “curse”, is not complete bullshit.  It’s a valuable contrary indicator for those who know how to properly evaluate it within the larger context of the player/team/league/etc…

Lastly, this isn’t just a sports-related phenomenon.  It’s relatively well-known in the investment industry, though it’s tough to follow due to the long-term nature of the trends (2 year lag for an inflection point after a 30 year trend is on point, but tough to make money from).  For example…

From 2005 (the market peaked in 2007):

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From 2008 (the market bottomed in 2009):

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And the classic (some say original), from 1979:

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Checking in with Preseason projections

The bye week is a good time to revisit our preseason projections, so today, let’s look back at how I though the season would play out.  If you remember, I took two different approaches.  First, I used a basic, back-of-the-envelope points for and against projection matrix.  The base-case assumption there was 9 wins, though the average outcome of the matrix was a bit higher (9.1 wins).  Here is the matrix:

After I did that, I went through the schedule and tried to come up with benchmarks, the clearing of which were (a) reasonable, and (b) would lead to 9 wins.

Let’s start with the win projection.

The base case projection (9 wins) was built from an assumption that the Eagles would produce points at a level 15% better than the league average and allow them at a level 5% worse than league average.  Over the course of the season, I projected that to equate to an overall point differential of +37, which I plugged into the Pythagorean projection model to get to 9 wins.

Through 11 games, the Eagles’ point differential is +16.  They’ve scored 276 points and allowed 260.  Based on that, my projection looks pretty good.  If the Eagles kept up at that exact pace, they’d end up with a point differential of about +23, just two TDs from the +37 projection.

However, I think it’s instructive to dig a bit deeper and take a look at how each side (point production and points allow) has compared to our expectations.

As I said above, I expected the Eagles to score 15% more points than the league average.  To date, the team as averaged just over 25 points per game.  The league average (including the Eagles), is currently 23.4 points per game, meaning the Eagles have scored 6.8% more points than the league average.  That means the Eagles offense (technically “point production” to include defense and STs) has been worse than I expected, by approximately 1.8 points per game.

However, some of that can be attributed to the Matt Barkley game, as I obviously didn’t plan on him getting a start this year, and we can also assume that the offense would have scored at least a few more points if it hadn’t been playing with big leads (especially against the Redskins).

On defense, I expected the team to be 5% worse than league average.  Thus far, they’ve allowed roughly 23.6 points per game.  The NFL average, as we saw above, is 23.4 points per game, meaning the Eagles have been worse than average, as expected, but by a very small margin (less than 1%).

Stepping back, the offense has been slightly worse than expected, though I think we know why, and the defense has been slightly better than expected.  Overall, though, the base-case projection looks to be pretty damn close.

The Benchmarks

I then tried to game out the season, and assign benchmarks for various portions.  So how do the Eagles look when compared to the roadmap I set out?  Well it just so happens that I set one of the benchmarks to the Bye week (naturally).  If you check the link (up top), you’ll see that, for the team to get to 9 wins, I felt it had to have a record of at least 5-6 at the Bye week.

Of course, the Eagles have exceeded that by one win, and currently stand at 6-5.

Rather than re-hash how we got here, I’m just going to look forward.  Things didn’t go exactly to plan, but the general path is far from what I expected.  The key, of course, is what happens now.

In my pre-season roadmap, I called the section after the Bye week “The Dessert”.  Based on the team projections, it looked to be the easiest section of the schedule, and I somewhat aggressively said that 4-1 would be a reasonable expectation of performance for the Eagles through this stretch.  Has anything changed?  Let’s go through them:

Cardinals – Their 6-4, but have a point differential of just +2.  They’ve won their past 3 games, but have faced Atlanta, Houston, and Jacksonville over that span.  They feature a good defense and a mediocre offense.

Lions – A bit schizophrenic, as usual.  Hard to peg how they matchup against the Eagles.  The downfield passing game (Stafford to Johnson) looks to be a terrible matchup for the Eagles, but it’s not as if the Lions’ defense has impressed (ranked 22nd by DVOA).

@ Vikings – Not a good team and it’s offense revolves around the rushing game, which he Eagles have had success against.

Bears – By DVOA, this is the toughest game remaining on the schedule.  The Bears rank 5th overall by Football Outsiders.  Similar to the Lions, the primary matchup concern for the Eagles will be a great, big, WR (Marshall).

@ Dallas – Already looks to be the key game of the year and has a good chance of deciding the division (and probably the only shot at a playoff spot).  Lost to Dallas once already, so have to account for that.  However, Dallas’ other wins have come against the Giants, Rams, Redskins, and Vikings.  Not one of them ranks higher than 20th by DVOA.  Call me unconvinced…(not that the Eagles’ win resume is that impressive either).

Remember that the Eagles outperformed my projection before the bye week, so the team only needs to win 3 games to get to 9 wins.  Can it?  Absolutely.  Will it?  I think so.  Beating the Vikings means you need to got 2-2 against the Cardinals, Lions, Bears, and Cowboys.  As far as I’m concerned, those teams all count as “mediocre”, though the Bears are on the upper edge.

If we break that up even further, the immediate question becomes:

Can the Eagles get one win from their next two games? (Cardinals and Lions).

If the answer is yes, then 9 wins still looks like a likely outcome.  (and the answer IS yes)

Checking the Benchmark: The Eagles are behind, but not by much.

Before the season, I put a 9 win projection on the Eagles team.  I then went through the schedule and explained how, from my point of view, the Eagles had to perform across each stretch in order to actually achieve those 9 wins.  Well it’s now week 4, and the first benchmark I set was after the first 3 games.

Here is what I wrote; the full article can be found here.

Section 1 – The Sprint Start

3 games, 11 days.  The Eagles first stretch, in my view, comprises these 3 games (Redskins, Chargers, Chiefs).  The Chargers and Chiefs are both home games.  The Eagles, realistically, NEED to win 2 of these 3 games.  Again, it doesn’t really matter which two teams they beat (beating the Redskins would obviously help within the division).   However, the San Diego and KC games count as part of the “easy” side to the schedule.  San Diego is a mess and they’re coming across the country for an away game.  Kansas City is much improved (I think they’ll challenge for the playoffs, maybe get to 9 wins as well), and given the Andy Reid return and the McNabb ceremony, it’ll be a crazy game.

Benchmark: 2 Wins

The Eagles just finished that stretch, and only came away with 1 win.  As a result, the team is firmly off-pace.  However, there is some good news, the first of which is that the next stretch, which I labeled “the Darkness” no longer looks so difficult.  Here is what I wrote for Section 2 of the schedule:

Section 2: The Darkness

Three straight away games.  Denver, NY Giants, Tampa Bay.

This is the part of the season after which I expect a fair amount of hand-wringing.  If/when that happens, remember what we’ve said here.  The Eagles will probably lose 2 of these games, maybe even 3.  Denver is a beast; Peyton Manning against this defense is a very bad matchup.  I don’t think the Giants will be as good as most expect, but it’s still a road divisional game.  Tampa Bay is a bit of a wild card.

The key here is getting 1 win.  Again, it’s most helpful if it comes against the Giants (division) or Bucs (conference), but that’s a secondary concern.

Benchmark: 1 Win

The question now: is there any reason to believe the Eagles can win 2 of the next 3 games, bringing them back on pace?

I believe there is, and not just because the Giants look terrible and the Bucs just named Mike Glennon their starting QB.

Let’s take a look at a few statistics from the season so far.  If you were reading EaglesRewind.com in the offseason, you’ll remember I did a lot of work on finding which statistics correlated most highly with winning.  The most important, outside of the obvious (points for and against), were TO Differential, which gets a lot of attention, and Sack Differential, which does not, though it’s arguably more important.

For illustrative purposes, here are two charts showing the correlation between TO Differential and Wins and Sack Differential and Wins.  For both, the data set is all NFL teams from 2003-2012, so 320 data points.

Screen Shot 2013-09-28 at 2.04.57 PM

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The corresponding correlations are .64 (TO Margin) and .62 (Sacks).  Obviously, each is a very important indicator of team success.  The reason I say Sack Differential is more important is because, in my view, it’s much less luck-dependent.  Whereas in TO Differential, you have things like fumble recovery % to skew the results, there is very little gray area involved in sacks (though there is some).  Overall, a team has much more control over Sack Differential and it does over TOs.

So how are the Eagles doing?

Well the team’s TO Differential is currently -2, which places it 22nd in the league.  That’s not good, but it’s not disastrous either (especially when compared to last season).  Now there are two ways to looks at this number at this point in the season.  Either it’s reasonable, because it’s close to zero, or its bad, because it means the team is “on pace” for a TO Differential of -10 to -11, which would, if you look at the chart above, correlate to a Win expectation of less than 6 wins.

I’m leaning towards the more optimistic case, and here’s why: the Eagles lost 5 turnovers against KC, and KC is one of the best defenses in the league (I know not all the TOs were on offense).  Since it’s so early in the season, single games have a large effect on the overall numbers.  The Eagles schedule has them playing just TWO more teams that rank in the top 10 defenses by Football Outsiders the rest of the year.  As I just said, it’s early, but the overall point is that the most recent event (KC) is more likely an aberration than a true indication of the Eagles’ ability.

I expect the Eagles to finish the season close to EVEN in TO Differential, though it’s a very difficult statistic to predict.  For now, just know that the team probably won’t have any more -5 TO games.  If it can finish around 0, it’d be indicative of an 8 win team (obviously).

Moving to Sacks

Here is the more important area.  Through 3 seasons, the Eagles’ sack differential is also -2.  That’s a bit of a disappointment.  The Offensive Line has not played up to expectations.  Granted, with Vick at QB, you have to assume a higher than average sack rate, but the hope was that a great O-Line anchored by Peters and Lane Johnson (a potential red flag that isn’t getting a lot of attention) and a “quicker” decision system from Chip Kelly would result in far fewer sacks of Michael Vick.

Through 3 games, his sack rate is 10.8% (11 sacks).  For his career, it’s just 8.7%, so clearly things are not going according to plan.  Again, we have to talk about the opposition.  KC will probably finish the year among the league leaders in sacks, and 6 of Vick’s sacks (more than half) came against the Chiefs.  That’s not normal and won’t continue.  

On the other side of the ball, the Eagles defense has come up with 9 sacks, led by Barwin and Cox, who each have 2.  The “on-pace” number is now 48 sacks, which would be a VERY good result.  Last season the Eagles had just 30 sacks, and the long term NFL average is roughly 35.  Here’s the good news: I don’t see much reason to distrust this number.

The Redskins have allowed just 6 sacks, 3 of which came against the Eagles.

The Chargers have allowed just 5 sacks, 1 of which came against the Eagles.

The Chiefs have allowed 10 sacks, but 5 of them came against the Eagles.

Against all three teams, the Eagles were able to sack the QB more than the other competition has.  As a result, it’s somewhat likely that the Eagles pass-rush (base, blitzing, whatever), will be legitimately good this year, despite what it has felt like.

If the Eagles can keep pace and finish with anywhere close to 48 sacks, it will be in very good shape, and likely to finish the year with a positive Sack Differential.  If Vick and the O-Line can keep it to between 2-3 sacks allowed per game (so similar to the Redskins/Chargers performances), it’ll finish with around 40 sacks, and a +8 differential.

Checking the chart, that’d be indicative of a 9 win team….

Summing things up

The Eagles are in better shape than people think.  The team still lacks defensive talent, but looking at the first three games together, there’s still every reason to believe that this team is a “True” 8-9 win team.  That should be good enough to contend for the division.  I fully expect people to write the team off after this week’s game against the Broncos.  However, I’d advise you to save your seats on the bandwagon, because in a couple of months, everyone’s going to be scrambling to get back on.

Either that or I’ve been blinded by homerism…

 

 

 

 

Defensive Adjustments: The Limits of Creativity

Three games into the season, we have a pretty good idea of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the 2013 Eagles.  At least I do; it seems many others are confused.  Let me be clear:  If you are at all concerned/worried/disappointed with the Offense, you’re not watching the same games I am.  As I explained last week, the Eagles, in their last game, gave us a pretty clear example of what the offense’s “scoring floor” is.  I won’t address it any further today, but let’s just say that 16 points is a pretty good “reasonable worst-case scenario”.  Considering the turnovers and the skill of the opposing defense (Chiefs), I’m confident that’s what we saw, or at least close to it.

I’m definitely confused as the usage patterns of the offensive personnel (extremely starter-heavy), but there’s no reason to really question it at this point.  The offense is working very well, it just needs to avoid the unforced turnovers (think Kelce snap).

The defense, however, is another story.  It’s bad, it’s worse than I expected, and there’s no way to couch that statement.  Football Outsiders has the Eagles as the 29th ranked defense after three weeks, above only San Diego, Green Bay, and Washington.  Most worrisome, as you probably know, is the pass defense (also ranked 29th).  The run defense, by comparison, is well within the “mediocre” range we were hoping for (ranked 18th by FO).

So now we know the facts.  The real question is, can the Eagles actually do anything about it at this stage? 

I think they can, though how much it’ll help is up for debate.  I mentioned after the San Diego game that the Eagles were in a true “try anything” situation, meaning that the default assumption on every SD possession had to be a score, and likely a TD.  Therefore, the downside to taking additional risk (by doing things like big-blitzing) was limited.

I probably should have been more careful about the “try anything” description, because it looks like Bill Davis took it too literally.  If you haven’t already seen it, definitely read Derek Sarley’s breakdown from the KC game on Philly.com, found here.  It’s really informative and will help you make sense of the Eagles defensive issues.  I’m going to steal a couple of screenshots from him to illustrate what I’m talking about, namely: the limits of “creativity”.

Look at this picture:

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 9.46.25 AM

 

Derek has boxed the most important part.  That’s Brandon Graham lined up over the CB.  There are a couple of potential results to this play, and I can’t think of one that I like:

– Graham blitzes.  This one makes little sense to me.  Graham should definitely be used as a pass-rusher, but having him attack from a pre-snap position so far from the QB is outrageous to me.  At that point, you might as well take him off the field, because he’s essentially out of the play already.  He’s simply too far to get to the QB in time (especially against Alex Smith.)

– Graham shows coverage or jams the WR at the line, then drops into a short coverage zone.  Of the three options, this makes the most sense, though that’s not saying much.  It still results in using Graham in coverage, which doesn’t play to his strengths at all. We also have to question how seriously the offense views the “coverage” threat.  Surely no team would actually put a DE on a WR in man-to-man coverage.

– Graham plays the WR man-to-man.  Not much to say here, other than it’d be close to a fireable offense for a DC.

The result of the play, BTW, was #2.  Graham ended up in coverage, picking up the RB on a wheel route.  Notice that the BEST RESULT of this alignment involves Graham trying to run step-for-step down the field with a RB.

All-in-all, I’d say this play qualifies as “creativity for the sake of being creative”.  I’ve racked my brain, and I just can’t think of a really positive aspect to this strategy.  To be fair, it certainly falls under the “try anything” category, so if Bill Davis actually read my breakdown, then I deserve some blame as well.

In a similar vein, Derek notes that, according to PFF, Brandon Boykin rushed the passer on 11 of his 46 snaps.  Think about that for a moment.  11 different times, the Eagles chose to take their best CB out of coverage.  On a team with a decent CB corps, that’s not a big deal, and may be productive since we can assume the offense isn’t expecting it.  However, on a team like the Eagles, whose DBs don’t belong anywhere near the 1st String, that’s a really difficult decision to rationalize.

Again, “try anything”, so for that I apologize.  Let me update that.  First, I have to note the whole 3-4 defense switch conundrum.  My preseason position was that this season is purely a building block for the future.  In that sense, it doesn’t matter if the Eagles’ defense sucks.  You might as well install the 3-4, see if anyone can play in it, and have a year of experience for the guys who will stick around.  HOWEVER, that position was under the assumption the Nick Foles would be the QB.  By selecting Vick, the coaching staff sent a clear signal that it did, in fact, expect to win this year.  Once that decision’s been made, you simply must do everything you can to win, including holding off on your philosophical preferences in order to play to the team’s strengths.  There can be no half-measures…

So Billy (I can call you that, right?), here’s what you should be doing right now.

1) Get your best players on the field.  That means Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry.  I don’t mean to suggest that these guys are Pro Bowlers or anything, but the fact is they are easily among the top 11 defensive guys on the team.  Against the Chiefs, Curry played just 12 defensive snaps.  Graham played just 17.

To me, that’s unacceptable.  Get them on the field, let them rush the passer, which hopefully till let you back off the blitzes a bit.  God knows the Eagles can use as many guys in coverage as possible.

2) Stop blitzing Brandon Boykin.  This holds for Graham as well, and perhaps for Trent Cole.  Let guys do what they do best.  It’s early, but at the moment Boykin covers better than anyone on the team.  Let him keep doing that.  Let Graham rush the passer from the DE position.  It’s clear, to me at least, that he’s not going to be a long-term 3-4 OLB.  Stop pretending, maximize his value for this year by playing him where he belongs, and say goodbye after the season.

3) Be creative, but keep it within reason.  For example, how about taking that B-Graham alignment from above, and running Earl Wolff or Kurt Coleman out there instead of Graham.  Cary Williams can handle coverage, provided he isn’t asked to press.  Have Wolff jam at the line then cover the flat (which is hurting the Eagles a lot so far).  Scary thought, but maybe try the Wide-9 more often, at least until teams prove they can commit to the run (especially against an unbalanced team like Denver).

4) Stop playing a single-high safety so deep.  This part is starting to annoy me.  Essentially, the Eagles are trying to apply a band-aid to the back of the defense by keeping a S really deep in the middle of the field.  The only problem is that this is a relatively low-risk/low-reward strategy, which is the COMPLETE OPPOSITE of what the Eagles should be doing.

The brings me to Blitz Theory.  Unfortunately, I’m at 1200 words and have to go to class, so that’ll have to wait.  Briefly, though, the Eagles, in their current position, are heavily incentivized to make high-risk defensive plays (provided there’s a reasonable expectation of corresponding return).  The team will allow A LOT of points.  The key will be to also create a lot of positive defensive plays.  That means TOs, that means sacks.  With a weak defense, 3rd and 5 isn’t that promising a situation (for the D).  You need 3rd and 10 or longer (and as we’ve seen, even that’s not assured).  If that means selling out a few times and risking a big play, so be it.  The other team is probably going to score anyway.

Have to leave it there, but I promise I have a lot more to add to that thought

Refreshing the keys to the season

The Eagles open the season on Monday night against the Redskins.  Before looking to that game specifically, I wanted to refresh our list of keys to the season.  The first thing to remember is:  This season is a building block, not the finished product.  The purpose of this season is not necessarily to win at all costs (which is usually the goal). Here’s my list of goals and points of focus for this season:

Install and prove the offensive scheme.  It’s Chip Kelly’s specialty.  I think it’s safe to say that if Chip’s offense doesn’t work, he isn’t going to be here for very long.  The offense (especially with Vick) will sputter at times, but overall, Chip, the players, and the FO/Lurie need to come away from this season feeling confident in their offensive philosophy.  Expectations are very high, so any significant struggles will likely be accompanied by some very loud external pressure (press/fans).  Here, I’ll just say that we should really be judging Kelly’s offense on a curve.

Everyone needs to remember that he’s had just one offseason.  This roster (on both sides) is probably far from what Chip really wants.  We haven’t discussed it much, but there is the potential for a “square-peg / round-hole” aspect on offense, similar to what we’ve seen on defense, most notably with the Cole/Graham transition.  So the offense doesn’t need to be explosive; it just needs to prove that it can reach that level in the near future.

– Identify Defensive Foundation.  Everyone’s covered the 3-4 shift in depth, so I don’t have much to add here.  The important point is that the Eagles need to start identifying defensive playmakers.  The best Eagles teams of the Andy Reid era were actually built on defense (despite the McNabb attention) with guys like Hugh Douglas, Brian Dawkins, and Troy Vincent.  More recently, the only defensive player on the team that even approaches that level is Trent Cole.  That needs to change.

The defensive roster this year is not very talented (relatively of course).  It will get torn apart and repeatedly torched.  However, this season will be a success if we can look through the defensive wreckage and see guys like Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks making plays, or at least doing their jobs very well.

Nearly every defense in the NFL has weak spots.  The key is that if you have a few “studs”, you can use them to mask the holes.  The Eagles need to find a few of those “studs”.  Guys I’m looking at specifically are:

– Cox, obviously.  I actually think he’ll have an “underwhelming” year statistically.  The key will actually be the play of Sopoaga (or Logan).  If neither of those players can make an impact, Cox will probably see a consistent double team.  If that’s the case, he’s doing his job, but won’t show up on the stat sheet.

– Kendricks.  Covered him already.  Consistency is the key.  Similar to Cox, he needs the NT position to be decent, otherwise he’ll have a lot of blockers to fight through in the run game.

– Brandon Boykin.  Maybe the biggest surprise on the team thus far, Boykin looks like a potential long-term contributor.  He’ll play the slot this year.  However, keep in mind that Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher aren’t exactly pro bowlers.  It wouldn’t surprise me if a suspension or injury presses Boykin into service on the outside.

– Bradley Fletcher.  He’s been under the radar for most of the preseason, but I think he could end up being a key piece.  He’s never going to be a top-flight CB, but I think he can be a solid #2.  Health is the hurdle here.  He’s torn the same ACL twice, so I’m skeptical that he’ll stay healthy over the long term.  However, he’s just 27 (CBs have longer life-spans than most positions), so if he can stay healthy, it’ll allow the Eagles to spend the next 2-3 offseasons focusing elsewhere.

– Fix the Special Teams. Perhaps a bit strange in light of yesterday’s post, but this is absolutely a key step for this team to take.  They don’t need to be great; they just need to be average.  It looks like Chip has this as a priority as well, so I’m fairly confident that this goal will be met.  Keep an eye on Alex Henery though.  Eagles fans were spoiled for a long time by David Akers.  Many teams do not have nearly as positive an experience with their kicker.  Similar to the rest of the unit, Henery just needs to be average.  His kickoffs have looked good in preseason, so I’m optimistic, but let’s see how he does when it gets a little colder.

– Remember how great Shady is.  This one isn’t really a goal.  It’s just what I’m looking forward to doing.  LeSean, in my opinion, is the second best RB in the league.  He’s also one of the most entertaining players at any position.  That was lost a bit in last year’s debacle.  He’ll be THE focal point of the offense.  Additionally, the read-option game seems to suit McCoy particularly well.  He thrives on space, so the moment of hesitation the read-option creates will likely be VERY good for him.  I also expect Chip to find some more creative ways of using him whenever defenses stack the box.

Lastly, I’m hoping to see a few of the dots in this chart (standard deviations) move to the right:

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