Optimizing for Chemistry

It’s no secret I was not exactly satisfied by this offseason.  It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either (I know it’s not over, but the roster-movement phase is largely done).  Between the draft, free agency, and the D-Jax cut, it’s been hard to find a logic thread connecting all of the moves.  For the most part, it looks like the Eagles realize they’re still in the “build” stage of team construction.  That explains the draft.  Smith, Matthews, and Huff are all fine prospects, but as I’ve covered before, they shouldn’t be expected to contribute a lot in year one (the team knows this, the fans haven’t realized it yet).

It also partially explains the Jackson move.  Howie/Chip don’t want to pay a WR that much, and Jackson’s cap hit was going to hurt at some point, especially when it came time to extend Foles, Cox, Kendricks, etc… Now that doesn’t explain the TIMING of it (why now and not next offseason), but it at least has some logic to it.

On the flip side, though, there’s the trade for Darren Sproles.  If you’re still in “build” mode, you probably aren’t looking to give up draft picks for a 30+ year old running back.  I still haven’t quite figured this one out.  Similar to the rookies, I don’t think the team plans on using Sproles as much as fans seem to think they will.  If that’s true, though, a 5th round pick is a lot to give up for a part-time, fill-in weapon like Sproles.  I think this is mainly insurance.  The Eagles know they are heavily dependent on McCoy, and despite what they say, they know there’s at least the risk that the offense without Jackson wouldn’t be as dynamic (that was phrased very carefully so as to avoid another blogwar).  Picking up Sproles gets some of that dynamism (word?) back, at least in theory.  Using Sproles as a band-aid until Ertz and Matthews are ready to step up might be the play here.  I don’t think it makes sense from a resource allocation standpoint, but I can understand not wanting the offense to slide too far.

So that’s the “build” theory of the offseason.  The Eagles overshot expectations last year, meaning fans are now expecting too much this season (recency bias).  The Eagles are not yet ready to contend, and management knows this.  They’d like to contend for the division this year (and with the competition it doesn’t seem that difficult), but they’re more focused on the year AFTER next season.  That’s when the “window” should really start opening if things go according to plan.

There is another story in here, though.  As the title indicates, it’s Chemistry.  Not only is Chip trying to remake the team on the field, he’s trying to instill a different attitude off of it as well.  I don’t think anyone would argue differently.  Whether you call it chemistry, attitude, locker-room presence, or whatever, it’s clear Chip’s trying to change it.  I’m not going to get into whether that’s good or bad.  The general attitude of the team is important.  I don’t typically address it because it’s intangible and unquantifiable.  There’s not data.  Without data, it’s impossible to form an objective opinion of any real value.

BUT….we can analyze it conceptually.  Let’s assume for a minute that Chemistry is both important AND can be quantified.  So for each player we can assign a Chemistry rating, Madden-style.  So along with things like Speed, Size, Catching ability, etc…, prospects and players are analyzed by Chemistry as well.

Now, what happens if you want to optimize for Chemistry?  In other words, in that situation, if you wanted to increase the overall Chemistry rating of your team, what are the other effects?

First, we need to ask a very important question.  Is Chemistry correlated to any other attribute?  So if we assigned a discrete rating for “Skill” as well, would that rating be tied in any way to the Chemistry rating?  Let me start by saying I don’t think they’re positively correlated.  The most “skilled” players do not seem to be more likely to be high “chemistry” guys.  In fact, anecdotally, it seems more likely that the two are negatively correlated.  For now, though, let’s just assume NO CORRELATION.

If there is no correlation, and you want to optimize for Chemistry, you’re going to face a trade-off in skill.  Note that optimizing for BOTH is the same thing, you’re just trying to minimize the negative trade-offs.   So let’s say you’re choosing between three players with the following ratings:

Player A:  Chemistry (90), Skill (70)

Player B:  Chemistry (80), Skill (80)

Player C:  Chemistry (70), Skill (90)

Which player do you choose?  If you’re overall goal is to improve the “Chemistry” on your team, you will take player A, despite that fact that he is less skilled than the other two.  Or, you might compromise and take Player B.  What you WON’T do is take player C.  So one war or another, you’re NOT maximizing Skill.

If we apply this conception to the Eagles, we can see a few issues.  We believe Chip is actively trying to improve “Chemistry”.  As I’ve just explained, doing so will involve trade-offs with other attributes, most notably Skill.  Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that, in the “Chemistry” building process, there will be at least a near-term shortfall in skill.

Now think about DeSean Jackson.  Great player, but probably an asshole in the locker room and during practice.  Think of him as Player C above.  Cut him and the overall Chemistry of the team improves.  However, the overall Skill also decreases.

Over the long-term, a change in attitude is probably a very good thing.  BUT, assuming that the process of improving the team’s attitude does not involve trade-offs anywhere else is foolish.  NOTHING IS FREE (well except trading 6th round picks for multiple 7ths).

This also might explain the Matthews and Huff picks.  By all accounts, those two players rate very highly in our “Chemistry” attribute.  I can see why Chip liked them.  But if that played a role in their selection, it’s likely the team passed on more “skilled” players.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing and I’m not suggesting that it is.   Long-term, the hope is that this leads to a team that’s not only successful, but one you can be proud to root for.  But it takes time, and it requires tradeoffs.

 

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Short term setbacks and My Response to Tommy Lawlor

In my last post, I mentioned that, from my point of view, there’s a relatively significant chance that the Eagles will take a “step backwards” next season.  Many people took exception to that, specifically Tommy Lawlor over at Igglesblitz.com.  Today I will respond, after I make a few important points.

First, I have not made any projection for this team yet.  It’s very possible that after examining each factor in more detail, I’ll come to a different conclusion. However, it’s foolish to do such an analysis now.  There are simply too many things that can happen between now and the start of the season.  Moreover, we’ll get more information about specific players as we move through the summer and training camp.  Once that’s all finished, I’ll have an “official” projection that probably looks a lot like what I did last season.

Second, I’m relying on a number of factors, not just the on-paper roster changes, when I suggest the potential for a step-back.  For example: Nick Foles’ regression, injury regression, aging, harder schedule, etc….  Each of those (and there are others) requires an in-depth analysis, and deserves a full post.  I won’t do much of that today, but rest assured we’ll take a closer look between now and the beginning of the season.

Third, I am not a pessimist or perma-bear.  In fact, prior to last year, I was one of the few Eagles writers/bloggers/analysts/whatever predicting such a good season.  I thought Nick Foles should start from the beginning.  I thought Chip Kelly was a great hire, provided Lurie was confident he really wanted to be in the NFL.  I projected the team to win between 9 and 10 games.  How did I do that?  An objective analysis of the team, including a deep look into what made the 4-12 team that bad (a lot of bad luck).  Here’s the important part though:  If you’re truly being objective, the numbers and factors say what they say, and you need to be willing to believe them whether that’s good or bad.   Ideally, the team does its own analysis before the season, identifies (objectively) the expected performance distribution for that season, then tries to make specific moves to improve it.   Here, we can only do the first part.

Lastly, the rest of this post is done in typical “takedown” form.  However, I want to stress that this is NOT a “takedown”.  As Tommy said, we’re all better off when smart people look at the same information and disagree, provided we’re each willing to change our stance in light of new evidence or arguments.  The biggest virtue of blogs, in my opinion, is that they allow this type of back-and-forth in a public forum.  These blogger-to-blogger conversations happen a lot in finance and economics (though they’re not always as civilized as they should be) but rarely in sports.  That should change.  Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, he’s actually provided a response to some of the things I will say below, and I encourage you to go read it at Igglesblitz.com afterwards.

In italics you’ll find Tommy’s words.  Mine are in regular type.

First, I don’t get why Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff can’t be expected to contribute. DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin both contributed as rookies, and that was in a more complex passing offense.

The questions isn’t “can they contribute?”, it’s “how much can they reasonable be expected to contribute?”.  The track record of rookie WRs, unfortunately, is not good.  I will do a full post about this with a more in-depth look at the statistics, but for now just note that from 2000-2013, 49 WRs were selected in the 2nd round and played at least 10 games in their rookie years.  The average receiving yards of that group is 437.  Jordan Matthews was taken in the second round.  

That does NOT mean he won’t do better.  I’m very confident he will.  BUT, when you’re making a projection for him, you need to keep that context in mind.  If you say he will register around 800 yards, just know that would be nearly TWICE as good as the average 2nd round WR.  Again, I’ll have more detailed stats later, but the upshot is: be very careful in assuming any significant contributions from rookie WRs.  There are a number of reasons Matthews might be different, and they are important to note as well.  But if you’re analyzing those factors without reference to the context of average rookie performance, you’re not going to end up with very good projections.

Speaking of Maclin, why isn’t he mentioned at all? I know he’s coming off an ACL injury, but that happened last summer and these days players are coming back from standard ACL tears at a pretty high rate.

If the Eagles tried to replace Jackson with just a rookie or just Maclin, I could see some extreme skepticism. Instead, the Eagles brought back Maclin spent 2 early picks on WRs and added Sproles to help the passing game.

I should have mentioned Maclin, though Tommy hits on the primary reason for concern.  He’s coming back from a torn ACL injury.  I intend on doing a post-ACL injury study to see just what we can expect from Maclin, but for now I don’t have any numbers.  Yes, Maclin has come back from a torn ACL before.  But I’m not sure that’s a good thing.  The fact is, we don’t know one way or the other, at least until I do the analysis (provided there is good data on WR cal injuries).  However, even at 100%, he is a VERY different receiver from DeSean, and the offense will look much different with him as a #1 option.

I explained in two very detailed posts just why DeSean will be so hard to “replace”.  I won’t rehash that here, just see those posts.  We can argue about why DeSean had such a good year and whether it was him, Foles, or Kelly that deserves the credit; but that doesn’t actually matter!  The point is, whatever was going on, DeSean + Foles + Chip = one of the most ridiculous and unique seasons EVER put up by a WR.  Again, see the post.  If DeSean was still here, we’d have to look at whether that was largely luck or whether it could have persisted.  With him gone, though, we can say that it will not persist (it can’t).

While I like Maclin, I think it’s a near certainty that he isn’t putting up a 65% catch rate while going deep 40+% of the time.  He’s just not that type of player.  So the offense will undoubtedly look different, even with Maclin at full strength, whether it ends up better or worse is a tougher question to answer.

I’m less impressed by the addition of Sproles than many others seem to be.  He obviously represents some “addition”, but I think fans are getting carried away a bit.  He’ll be 31 at the start of next season and he’s just not the same player he was a few years ago.  Over the past three years, his receptions, yards, and TDs have declined.  So has his yards per rushing attempt.  We can examine the general performance/age correlation for RBs in more detail later, but I’ll tell you right now that it’s not good.  The upshot is that I don’t see any good reason to expect Sproles to exceed his production from last year (604 receiving yards) and he will likely do worse, considering his trend.  There’s a lot more to look at there, and I haven’t looked at his “advanced” stats like target rate and catch rate, but that’s my hypothesis for now.  It’s not as if Sproles is leaving some terrible offense either, he’s been catching passes from a HOFer for the past 3 years.

Combined, Maclin and Sproles and the Rookies certainly COULD fully compensate for losing Jackson.  I just don’t think it’s likely, or if it is, I don’t think it will be enough to compensate for risk factors elsewhere.  Moreover, while they might match his production on a pure yards/TDs basis, there are additional effects that are harder to account for.  For instance:  DeSean likely helped open things up for the rest of the offense more than a 100% Jeremy Maclin can.  Again, that needs analysis, but I think that hypo is more reasonable than the opposite (saying Maclin will have greater effects on the rest of the offense).

The defense added a veteran Safety in Malcolm Jenkins. That means that Nate Allen and Earl Wolff will battle for the other starting spot. Nolan Carroll and Jaylen Watkins add depth at CB. If you don’t think that is important, just go re-watch the loss to San Diego. Bradley Fletcher missed that game and Philip Rivers threw for 419 yards and looked like Peyton friggin’ Manning.

Of course depth is important, but from a pure points for/against standpoint, the 1s and 2s matter far more than the rest.  Malcolm Jenkins is a nice addition, but let’s be clear: he’s not a great player.  He’s an OK safety.  Last season he registered an Approximate Value of 6.  Nate Allen, by comparison, registered a 7.  Pro Football Focus says QB’s registered a Rating of 101.8 when targeting him last season.  He’s also never played in all 16 games.  So the value of Malcolm Jenkins is debatable.  I do believe the Safety corps will be better than last season, but I’m not seeing a great leap in performance.

I do like the Nolan Carroll addition.  No argument there, he definitely helps the CB depth chart.  Jaylen Watkins is a different story.  He’s a 4th round pick.  It’s possible he contributes on D this year, but I don’t think that’s likely, given the historical performance of later round DBs.  Note: I like the pick!  I just don’t think it will pay big dividends THIS year (which is pretty much the overall theme of this offseason).

Marcus Smith adds depth up front and gives the coaching staff an athletic option to mix into different packages if they want. He can play on the right or left side. The backup LOLB last year was Casey Matthews. That meant the coaches stuck with Connor Barwin as much as humanly possible.

Marcus Smith is a wildcard.  However, if the Eagles do take a step forward this year (record-wise), he really HAS to play a big role.  I don’t think the depth chart sets up that way.  Long-term, Smith might turn out to be a great pick.  However, we’re only concerned with this season.  I’m going to put him in the wait-and-see category for now, because we’ll learn a lot more about his potential usage during training camp and preseason.  It’s just very difficult to tell how much playing time he’ll get this year.  Without a lot of snaps, he obviously won’t be able to make a big impact.

The qualitative benefit of having better depth behind the 1s is real, but the magnitude is difficult to evaluate.  If having Smith allows the Coaches to make more optimal strategic decisions, then his impact could be big beyond the snaps he sees.  However, how much stock can you put in this?  Again, we’re not trying to predict what WILL happen!  We’re trying to get a sense of what is MOST LIKELY TO HAPPEN.  Just as we can think of hypos benefitting the team, we can also think of hypos working against them.  If you’re not looking at both sides of the coin, your analysis is incomplete.  For example, maybe Smith isn’t ready to be an impact player but the Coaches want to get him snaps to speed along his development.  Sounds reasonable, right?  Of course, that would (probably) leave the team with worse on-field performance in the near-term (this season).

Ideally Chip Kelly would rotate his players on defense to limit some of their wear and tear. The Eagles played more snaps on defense than any other team last year. They didn’t have the depth to rotate as much as they wanted. Players like Smith and Watkins and Taylor Hart and Beau Allen can help that situation. They don’t have to start or make lots of plays in order to help the defense.

Might be a valid point, and it’s one I’ll have to take a longer look at.  To the extent the additions to the defense allow the 1s to play fewer, higher impact snaps, there could be an increase in overall performance.  However, beyond Smith we’re talking about late-round draft picks.  Over the long-term, most of these guys (late rd rookies in general, not just these specific players) will NOT contribute anything significant to the team.  We know this. It’s possible the Eagles had a great draft and that each of these guys will see the field this season, but it’s NOT likely!  The objectively reasonable assumption is that guys drafted from the 4th round and beyond will contribute, if at all, on Special Teams.  I do think the Eagles STs will be much better this year than last.  BUT, STs just don’t have a very large impact on games.  They absolutely matter, but generally speaking, teams do not get a lot better just by improving on STs.

I get that the Eagles lost a star player in DeSean Jackson and didn’t replace him with an obvious star. That fact is going to skew the perception of some folks when it comes to the offseason discussion. I don’t know if Brent is in that camp and I don’t want to try and speak for him.

I’m not sure enough people appreciate the Foles angle in regard to DeSean Jackson. Foles doesn’t have a great arm and he’s not a consistently good vertical passer. Jackson had 3 catches that covered 50 or more yards from Foles. One was a short pass from Foles in the MIN game that Jackson turned into a big play with a long run after the catch. There was the 55-yard TD vs the Packers on a ball that was underthrown. Foles did make a pretty good throw for a 59-yard gain in the Oakland game.

Jackson is a dynamic deep receiver. Foles is not a dynamic deep passer. Jackson was still a good receiver for Foles and the Eagles last year, but his value becomes diminished because of the fit. You’re limiting what makes him special.

I don’t understand this line of argument.  Again, see my posts on DeSean’s performance last season.  He was spectacular last year.  One of the best WRs in the league.  That doesn’t mean getting rid of him was a bad idea, perhaps there’s a rational “scheme” or “chemistry” argument there.  But that’s LONG-term thinking, not short-term.  In the SHORT-term, i.e. next season, the Eagles offense has lost a dynamic weapon.  There’s just no way around it.  Repeating myself: This might be a long-term positive, but a short-term negative.

There is no denying that losing Jackson will affect the offense, but I think it won’t be nearly the same as if Vick or even McNabb was the QB. They were much better vertical passers. Foles excels on short and intermediate throws. This is where having a WR corps of Cooper, Maclin, Matthews and Huff should be fine. You lose some verticality, but gain some physicality.

As I said above, the offense will definitely be different.  The question is: is the “physicality” more than enough to make up for the loss of “verticality”.  Also, I don’t quite understand the QB argument.  Foles and Jackson did great things last year.  Yes, Foles is not the deep passer Vick is, but why does that matter?  Foles is still the QB, and he did great things with Jackson last season.  Maybe Tommy is saying the Eagles weren’t dependent on the deep game last year.  That’s probably true (I need to check), but it doesn’t mean that losing it won’t hurt a lot.  The WR corps certainly seems to “fit” Foles better, but just how many WRs/TEs can you really have running short routes?  Someone has to go deep, regardless of the QB’s strengths, and Jackson was really good at that.  Conversely, I don’t see the huge benefit of “physicality”, outside of perhaps the running game, which was already great.  

I think the offense will still be very good (assuming OL stays healthy, another potential issue given age), but last year the offense was great.  A small step backwards seems like a reasonable expectation.

It would have been great to see the Eagles land some major impact players this offseason, but the team didn’t miss out on anyone that I coveted. There was no Kearse or TO to go get. Brian Orakpo would have made the most sense, but he got tagged. I admit to being curious about DeMarcus Ware, but age and injuries have started to affect him. Darelle Revis would have been interesting, but I’m guessing Kelly didn’t want a “mercenary”. Revis wanted a 1-year deal so he could turn around and go for another mega-deal in 2015.

There were no slam dunk, can’t miss, gotta have him guys for the Eagles.

Agree completely.  But the above explanation is also completely irrelevant.  It perhaps explains why the Eagles didn’t make more significant additions.  But it doesn’t mitigate the fact that they didn’t.  Again, I don’t hate the offseason moves, I just don’t see them translating to big short-term benefits.

Another question some may have is at QB. If Foles gets hurt, can Mark Sanchez or Matt Barkley win games? That is a mystery. But it also would have been with Vick. He was an erratic player for the Eagles and lost his starting job last year. He didn’t want to return as a backup. I’m not worried about Sanchez or Barkley for a game or two. You can argue that having Vick would have helped if Foles went down long term, but then you have to acknowledge Vick’s biggest problem…getting hurt himself. He never stayed healthy for the Eagles and when he got dinged, his performance level dropped quite a bit.

I think Sanchez is a better acquisition than people realize. He failed in New York because the Jets saw him as a franchise QB, which I don’t, and because they failed to keep the right pieces around him. Sanchez has made some big plays in some big games. He’s just not a guy you build a team around. I think he can be a solid backup.

I like Sanchez less than Tommy does, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  We’re talking about next season, and Nick Foles was healthy (mostly) last season.  I don’t think anyone would argue that if Foles misses significant time this year, the team will take a step backwards in performance, regardless of which backup plays.  Health is always major risk factor, but I’ll have more on that later.  The fact that the Eagles got such good QB play last season means they’re more likely to receive worse play this season!  Foles’ expected regression is a HUGE issue that I’ll analyze later, but I’m very comfortable saying he will not duplicate his performance (he can play a lot worse and still be really good, though).

While the team may not have gotten the dramatic help many wanted, I do think it got better. I see the loss of Jackson and Jason Avant as a wash when you look at Maclin, Matthews, Huff and Sproles coming in. I realize I’m projecting with the rookies, but they have the size, skills and athleticism to help right away. They also have experience in a similar offense that makes the adjustment easier.

The defense didn’t lose any key players, but added a good FS, some CBs and an athletic OLB. How is that not an improvement?

Tommy’s is ignoring the fact that while some players will improve, others will get worse!  I addressed the rookie WRs projection above.  I agree that the defense got better, I just think it did so by a smaller amount than Tommy apparently believes.

Overall, what I’m seeing is: Moderate step back on offense, small step forward on defense, and an improvement (potentially large) on special teams.

If you’re stuck on Jackson, that’s fine. I disagree, but I get that.

Not “stuck” on Jackson, I’m done analyzing it as a strategic move.  But if you’re comparing last year’s team to this year’s team, it’s impossible not to address Jackson.  He’s the biggest piece either added or subtracted.  I know people are tired of hearing about him, but he simply MUST factor into any year-over-year comparison or analysis.

I just think the team brought in too many talented players to think that it took a step back. That isn’t to say the Eagles might not go 9-7 this year or something like that. There are no guarantees when it comes to results. We saw that when the 2011 offseason happened and the Eagles added all the big names, but the team got worse.

If you’re asking me whether I like the 2013 roster better than the 2014 roster, no way.  I’ll take the current group in a heartbeat. Kelly has brought in another set of players who fit his system and fit his football culture. They also happen to be pretty talented as well.

We’re much closer to agreement here than it might seem.  For the long-term, I like this year’s roster better.  For this season, though, I think there’s a significant chance of a step backwards, but that also relies on factors beyond the roster.

As I said above, most of these points need more unpacking and research, and I hope to do that over the next few weeks.  The possibility for a step backwards is there, though.  That doesn’t mean I hate Chip Kelly (I love Chip), or the direction of the team (I like it a lot). We’d be foolish, though, to drink so much Chip-flavored Kool Aid to believe he is infallible, or that EVERY one of his moves will work.  They won’t, at least not quickly, and this year that could be a problem.

Free Agency – Eagles Stick to the Plan

Got back from Iraq last Sunday, but it took me a week to catch up with school, hence the delayed posting. Thanks again to everyone who contributed to the trip.  It was very productive and laid the groundwork for us to do some very impactful work in the future.  Meanwhile, I missed the bulk of free agency, so let’s talk about that today.

First, though, the elephant in the room:

What the hell is going on with DeSean Jackson?

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this week trying to game this situation out, searching for some logical thread that will explain it adequately.  I’m sad to say I haven’t come up with anything.  Frankly, I can’t remember a situation as unexpected and bizarre as what’s going on right now.  At first, I thought it was just a leak test.  However, if that was the case the team would have issued a statement by now denying any efforts at trading D-Jax.

Sadly, it sounds like the team really is looking to remove Jackson from the roster.  His contract is onerous, but the team has plenty of cap space.  Cutting/trading him for little value seems like a strange way to deal with that.  The team could, for example, renegotiate Jackson’s contract.  However, it’s possible that Chip is also factoring in Jackson’s attitude.  I have no inside knowledge of DeSean in the locker room, but it certainly doesn’t appear as though he’s that “bad” of a teammate.  Unless there’s some unreported incident or serious cause for concern, this angle seems sketchy as well.

Perhaps we’ll get more information if/when Jackson is moved.  However, if the rumors are true, then it’s pretty clear the team has botched the process to an incredible degree.  That’s strange.  This front office (Howie/Lurie) have made mistakes in the past, sometimes big ones.  However, they’ve never been downright incompetent.  If Jackson gets released and/or traded for a late draft pick, it will be the biggest indictment of the front office yet.

In other, better, news:

The Eagles did exactly what I hoped they’d do in free agency.

If you remember my brief primer, I suggested the team follow a very similar plan as last season.  Namely, pick up a handful of mid-tier players on reasonable contracts, strengthening the middle of the depth chart.  The team is still in “build” mode, and I’d prefer to maintain flexibility for another year before looking to land a premier player via free agency.  The Eagles did just that, and it bodes well for the future.

Malcolm Jenkins is probably the “biggest” signing, and will help improve the team’s biggest weakness from last year, safety play.  Jenkins isn’t a great player.  However, when you’re replacing Nate Allen (hopefully), you don’t have to be great.  If the Eagles, with Wolff and Jenkins (or whomever else), can get anything close to league-average play from the Safeties next year, the team will be in great shape.  Moving from bad to mediocre can make a bigger impact than moving from mediocre to good.

Nolan Carroll is an interesting addition to the secondary also.  Good size/speed, and at 27 years old, he could contribute for a few years.  He’s not a guy you can pencil in as a starter, but the team sorely needed some competition/depth behind Williams and Fletcher.

Braman and Maragos are both bottom-of-the-roster, special teams guys.  Not much to say here other than to note that Special Teams was very weak last year, despite a good year from Donnie Jones.  In general, I’d like to see the team churn the bottom of the roster a bit more than it did during the latter Andy Reid years.

Darren Sproles was not a free agent signing, but he’s obvious a “major” addition, at least in the mind of the pundits.  I put “major” in quotation marks because I’m not sold.  I like Sproles, but he’s 31 and coming off a poor season by his standards.  Basically, if you think he’s going to be the extra “weapon” we were all hoping for, you’re going to be disappointed.  However, I do think he fills an important need.

The Eagles offense is extremely vulnerable by virtue of the fact that it’s built around a single, elite talent (Shady).  Bryce Brown and Chris Polk are decent backups, but they’re completely different players.  In a pinch, they can handle the carries.  Unfortunately, they don’t provide much of a receiving threat.  Sproles fits that need; he had 71 receptions last season.  It means that if Shady gets injured, the offense won’t have to be completely reworked.  None of the plays will be as effective because nobody is as good as McCoy, but the team won’t lose a significant dimension to the offense.

I don’t see Sproles taking the field much WITH Shady.  I think the team will use him to ease McCoy’s workload a bit, hopefully keeping him healthy and perhaps prolonging his career a bit.  If an injury does occur, Sproles will allow the Eagles to keep operating out of the same general philosophy.

It’s a very expensive insurance policy, for sure, but if the Eagles really do believe they can contend next year, it makes sense to sure up the biggest vulnerability on the team.  Of course, that’s hard to reconcile with letting D-Jax go for nothing….

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.