Lane Johnson’s suspension and the rationality of using PEDs in the NFL

Sorry for the absence, combination of exams/vacation/world cup conspired to occupy all of my time.  Fortunately, not much has happened that needs immediate reaction.  At least until yesterday.

As everyone knows by now, Lane Johnson is looking at a likely 4 game suspension after testing positive for PEDs.  There are a few different angles to view this from, but let’s start with the most obvious, the effect on the Eagles.  Clearly, this is a big loss.  The Eagles offense is dependent on the run game, which in turn relies on the O-Line providing lanes for Shady to work with.  Losing Johnson for four games means the Eagles, regardless of how they fill Johnson’s position, will see a decline in performance at RT.  Moreover, assuming the Eagles fill the need from within (Allen Barbre is the favorite), the team is left VERY shallow at OL for the first four games.  So an injury to another member of the OL would move the unit from a team strength to a glaring weakness.

But you didn’t need me to tell you that.  That’s the easy stuff.

A more interesting angle from which to view this story is the overall use of PEDs in the NFL.  Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret about PEDs….the NFL doesn’t care! Why would they?  They make the players bigger, stronger, and faster; they don’t cost the owners anything; and the fans don’t really care either.  The only real losers in this situation are the players themselves (assuming there are long-term negative health effects from PEDs).  So why do they take them?  It’s essentially a prisoner’s dilemma.  In total, the players are probably better off if nobody uses PEDs.  However, if only a few players take them, they are significantly better off than everyone else.  Given the number of players in the league (hard to trust/coordinate with everyone) and the immense competition for every roster spot, the rational course of action for many players is to take the drugs!  Especially when the first suspension is just 4 games.  They can’t trust the testing policies to catch the cheaters, and they can’t trust the other players not to cheat.  Theoretically, they could actually advocate for very strict testing procedures during CBA negotiations, but that’s a topic for another day.

Ok, so obviously the incentives are pretty badly misaligned and there are structural issues within the league that suggests PED use should be fairly widespread.  That brings me to the next angle to this story, and the only one I think the NFL secretly cares about (if only just a little).  The Seattle Seahawks.

Did you watch them last season?  Bigger…stronger…faster.  The team, top-to-bottom, looked to be in better physical condition than everyone they played against.  Now remember they have a coach, Pete Carroll, who has a history of bending (and outright breaking) the rules.  Most glaringly (perhaps I’m burying the lede here a bit), the Seahawks have led the league in PED suspensions since Carroll took over.

Bruce Irvin…Brandon Browner…Winston Guy…John Moffit…Allen Barbre (oh shit)…Richard Sherman (overturned due to technicality)…

That’s a lot of suspensions.  But that’s not all.  Do you think EVERYONE who uses PEDs gets caught?  I don’t know enough about the testing procedures to suggest a catch rate, but we can use logic to figure this one out.  If 100% of those who used got caught, nobody would use!  Ok, maybe a couple of players who were either really stupid or simply believed their only chance was to use PEDs would still do it, but clearly it would be a very small number.  Moving a bit further, look at the penalty for using.  It’s only 4 games!  Conceptually, think about the expected value of this situation.

Option A: Don’t use PEDs, no chance of getting suspended but you are also at a competitive disadvantage.  What’s the alternative employment for most of these players?  The rookie minimum salary is $375,000.  The veteran minimum is either $450,000 or $525,000 (with 2 years of service).  What would these players earn outside the league?  10% of their NFL salary? 20%?  That makes Option A borderline irrational, at least for players on the fringe.

Option B: Use PEDs, gain competitive advantage (or at least avoid a disadvantage).  We don’t know the odds of getting caught (I personally think they’re VERY low), but let’s be extremely conservative here and say 50%.  So if you take option B, there’s a 50% chance you get away with it (at least for the first year, we can iterate this process to account for testing schedules and PED cycles but the overall point is the same).  Conversely, there’s a 50% chance you get caught.  If you do, you’re suspended for 4 games.  So using PEDs carries an expected value of missing just 2 games?  Against the benefits of using PEDs?

Here’s where I should mention that for true fringe players, the downside of getting caught isn’t limited to just the suspension, it may actually cost them their roster spot and place in the league.  However, we also have to acknowledge the likelihood that some of these players, without PEDs, wouldn’t make the team anyway.  Add in the fact that the PED catch rate is almost certainly far less than 50%, and it’s pretty clear that using PEDs is an extremely attractive risk/reward opportunity.  That ignores potential negative health effects.  That may be important to you and me, but I’d suggest that by playing football (with all of the known concussion risks) is a clear signal that these players are not placing as high a value on long-term health as other’s perhaps would.

The Seahawks appear to have this figured out.  I’m not necessarily suggesting that Seattle has an organized, team-sanctioned PED program.  They almost definitely do not.  However, I am suggesting that there’s probably a don’t-ask/don’t-tell policy, and clearly a relaxed attitude that tacitly condones PED use.  Again, that’s a perfectly rational way for Seattle to run its team.  The team-wide benefits more than outweigh the risks.  The occasional suspension is simply a cost of doing business.  Fans can complain about it and other team’s can claim the moral high ground…but the Seahawks are the Super Bowl Champions.

Enter Chip Kelly.  Unconventional coach with a college background and a history of flouting the rules and pushing the envelope?  Sound familiar? #SportsScience anyone?

Needless to say, Lane Johnson’s suspension does not surprise me.  Not even a little.  Now let’s get controversial….I expect more suspensions under Chip Kelly.  Not necessarily soon, but over the next couple of seasons.

I’m not trying to pass moral judgment here, nor am I taking a side on whether I’d support PED use or not.  Just reading the signs and coming to what I think is the most logical conclusion.  The current league incentives encourage PED use (at least until a player gets their first suspension) and I think Chip Kelly realizes it.

Lastly, this is from a 2013 ESPN article that looked at PED suspensions by team from 2010-2013.  Here are the top 5:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.33.31 AM

Note the Bengals, Texans, and Rams also had 3 suspensions each.

Here are the teams that did NOT have a PED suspension:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.35.15 AM

The NFL…if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.


Special Teams Persistence and a few notes

A couple of notes before we talk about Special Teams:

– This Saturday, June 7th, there is an Eagles signing event at the Rockvale Outlets in Lancaster.  Brandon Boykin, Jon Dorenbos, and potentially two other players will be signing autographs from 11 am – 3 pm outside the Eagles Outlet Store.  Swoop and the Cheerleaders will also be there.  The event page is here:  I’ve been to this store several times; it’s worth the drive if you’re looking to stock up on Eagles merchandise (or just need gift ideas for friends).  (Note this is not a paid advertisement, but my father does manage the center.)

– If you’re bored at work on Friday afternoons, give these guys a listen:  Two guys at St Josephs University do a sports talk show from Noon to 2 pm.  They’ve got a site set up (linked above) with their past segments and interviews.  I usually can’t stand the major Philly Sports talk radio (big surprise), so these guys might be a nice change of pace.  Regardless, always nice to give the young’uns a chance.  You can also follow them on Twitter @SportsAndRants.


Now, Special Teams.

I’ve spent most of my time discussing the offense and defense.  Today let’s start our analysis of Special Teams.  The Eagles have made a number of roster moves this offseason that will change the composition of the STs unit.  That might be a good thing.  Last year the team ranked 25th overall by DVOA (Football Outsiders).  Of course, if changing personnel can HELP the unit’s performance, it can also hurt, so we need to be careful with the assumptions we make.  Unfortunately, the biggest single contributor, Alex Henery, is still on the team.  MurderLeg might give him some competition, but Henery has to be the large favorite for the full-time job.

Before we start analyzing the actual roster moves and the potential consequences, we should probably check the data to see if it even matters.  In other words, is Special Teams performance largely skill or luck?  If it’s luck, it doesn’t really matter what players you run out there (within reason).  Of course, Eagles fans should actually hope it’s largely luck-driven, since that means an improvement is likely (given the poor previous performance). So what does the data say?

I took the last 10 years of DVOA statistics from Football Outsiders and checked for persistence.  Here is the graph:

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 11.57.01 AM

That’s not what I was expecting.  My ex-ante hypothesis was that STs performance does not persist with any significance.  The data, however, give us a correlation value of 0.29, which is relatively strong.  That means last year’s performance DOES give some indication of what we can expect next season, though it’s far from determinative.

In the near future, I’ll pull this apart and look at the individual factors that comprise the FO data.  That might shed some more light on what we can reasonably expect from the team this year.  For example, last season the Eagles ranked 11th in “Hidden Points”, which are the factors outside their control (like opposing kickoff distance, opp. FG accuracy, etc…).  Conversely, the team ranked just 18th in Weather Points, meaning they were harmed more than average by Weather effects, though since they play outside we may not be able to expect regression there.   As you can see, there’s much more to do here.

The overall takeaway, though, is important.  Special Teams performance, as measured by DVOA, DOES persist with relatively significant strength.  That might mean we shouldn’t expect a great STs unit this year.  OR, it might mean that significant roster turnover within the unit will provide a bigger boost than some of us expect.

Finally, here are some notes from the data:

– Over the past 10 years, Chicago leads the league with an average STs DVOA of 5.07%.  Cleveland is second with an average of 4.12%.  In case you didn’t realize, STs have an effect on the outcome of the game, but not a large one.

– Indianapolis has the worst average over the past 10 years, with a DVOA of -3.10%.  Washington is next with an average of -2.57%.

– The Eagles have an average STs DVOA of 0.15%.  The worst year for the team was in 2007, when it registered a DVOA of -6.40%.  The best season of the past 10 years was way back in 2004, when the team scored a 6.80%

– The worst single season score within the entire sample belongs to the Washington Racists Football Team from last year.  They registered a DVOA of -12.0%, which is remarkable.  The best single season was by Chicago in 2007, with a score of 11.20%.  That was the year Devin Hester had 6 kick/punt returns for a touchdown.  However, the Bears still won just 7 games that season.


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.


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  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 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.

Draft Talk

Now that everyone’s had a chance to recover from the draft, it’s time to start breaking it down in more detail.  I had a few notes earlier this week, but today I want to take things a bit further.  First, though (as usual), I have to clear a few things up regarding the TPR model:

– The TPR model is not predictive; it is not meant to be.  Moreover, I developed the TPR model as a conceptual demonstration of what I believe to be the correct method of drafting.  Namely, consensus forecasts are more valuable, over the long term, than those of individual scouts.  Additionally, any useful draft board has to account for the difference in positional impacts.  Unfortunately, I don’t have nearly enough data to work with, hence the TPR model is mainly useful conceptually, and not practically.  So, just because the TPR model lists a prospect as a “reach” or a “steal” does not necessarily mean it was a bad pick, we’re just nowhere near the confidence level required to make such classifications.

However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.  While the model can’t tell us anything definitively, it can certainly shed light on particular picks and prospects that warrant increased scrutiny (that’s the law classes bleeding into my vocabulary).  So, I don’t want to represent that the TPR model is definitive.  Also, my personal opinions diverge from the model’s results sometimes (significantly in certain cases).

Hopefully that clears things up a bit.

That brings us to the Eagles draft.

Overall, I thought the team did OK:

– The trades, in particular, were phenomenal.  Getting a 3rd round pick for moving down 4 spots in the 20s is an absolute heist.  Getting anything for Bryce Brown is as well.  I like Brown, but it was abundantly clear last season that he did not fit the new offense.  The trade up for Jordan Matthews wasn’t quite as good, from a probabilistic view.  But, I’m willing to cut the team more slack here because (a) it was in the 2nd round, and (b) I really like Matthews.  With Lee coming off the board at 39, Matthews appeared to be the top WR remaining for most people (not the TPR rankings though).  As a result, he probably wouldn’t have been there at 54 (Davonte Adams, another WR, was taken at 53).

Theoretically, it’s possible the Eagles could have traded up fewer spots and still grabbed Matthews, but we have to assume Howie chose the best option available.  Hence, the Matthews trade wasn’t a great one, from a strategic standpoint, but it also wasn’t bad.

– I mentioned the possibility of saturation drafting at the WR position.  Hopefully you listened, because that’s exactly what the team did.  Rather than taking on in the first round, the Eagles took two later on.  See this post for the full breakdown of why that was a good decision.  Note, though, that the idea behind saturation drafting is that it dramatically increases the odds of finding ONE good player.  Hence, the Eagles are likely to get a good WR out of this draft.  That does NOT mean that both Huff and Matthews are both likely to pan out.

– The Eagles also seemed to follow what I had outlined as my Plans A, B, and C.   Plan A was to draft a LB (Mosley or Barr), Plan B was to draft a S (Pryor or Dix), Plan C was to trade down or take the best CB available.  Those top 4 players were off the board at 22 (Dix went with the 21st pick), so trading down became the best option.  Post-draft buzz says the Eagles also would have taken Cooks or Beckham (WRs) if they had been available at 22.  Regardless, I was pretty happy with the 1st round strategy (though not necessarily the end result).

– The Eagles did, however, take a LB after trading down to 26, just not one of the players we were all expecting or hoping for.  This, of course, is the biggest question in the Eagles draft:  Was Marcus Smith a “reach”?

The short answer is yes.  Howie admitted as much.  He said that the team really wanted an OLB and that Smith was the last player at that position they’d be happy with.  So they traded down a few spots and grabbed him.  That’s a relatively defensible strategy, provided they REALLY like this kid and there really weren’t other opportunities to trade down farther (but not too far).  However, it does seem like a low-probability play.  See the disclaimer above, but Smith was ranked just 140th overall in the TPR model.  He was selected 26th…  The only comparable “reach” in the first two rounds was the selection of Justin Britt, chosen 64th overall by the Seahawks.  He was unranked (i.e. not in the top 150).

One the bright side, the model does not differentiate between 3-4 and 4-3 positions.  Generally, I don’t think this is a big deal.  BUT, if there is one position the model is probably undervaluing, it’s the rush LB in a 3-4 scheme.  That seems to be where Smith fits.

Moreover, it’s been reported that there were two other teams ready to move up for or ready to draft pick in the late first round.  I’ve explained previously why I’m somewhat skeptical of reports like that, but to the extent it IS true, it adds confidence to the pick.

The upshot is: there were almost definitely higher probability prospects available at 26.  So Smith was not the optimal choice.  That doesn’t mean he won’t work out.  Drafting for need CAN result in fantastic picks, because a “hit” occurs where it will have the biggest impact.  However, it’s a higher risk play, because drafting for need means you pass on prospects with better chances of panning out.

So…Higher risk, higher reward (though the tradeoff is not equal, hence sub-optimal).  I’m guessing some fans are fine with that strategy, especially because the Eagles were able to trade down first before doing it.

– You’ll hopefully remember that I don’t pay much attention to the late round picks.  They usually don’t matter.  It’s fun to get excited about these guys, but the cold hard fact is that nearly all of them will end up either not making the roster or as bottom-of-the-depth-chart players.  So Taylor Hart, Beau Allen, Ed Reynolds….hope for the best, but it’s not worth spending much time analyzing them now.

The Bad News

There are a couple of higher level issues I have with this year’s draft:

– The team did not draft an OL.  I’ve made it clear that I think the aging line is a big area of risk.  The team’s offense revolves around the running game, and Foles isn’t exactly going to run away from guys that get through.  I was hoping the team would at least add a late-round OT (those guys have much higher hit rates than any other late-round position).  Maybe they means they’re confident in the current depth OL.   At some point, though, the Eagles will need to start lining up replacements for Peters and Mathis.  Herremans I was kind of hoping would be replaced this offseason…

The danger is in having to replace them all at once.  That’s the situation the team should be trying to avoid, because finding one good starter is hard enough.  Finding 3 at the same time almost guarantees that you’re going to have a big hole for at least a season or two.

– The Eagles, on paper, appear to be a worse team than they were last season.  I know this is a long term build, but it still hurts to see the team take a step backwards.  On offense, the team lost D-Jax and added two rookie WRs (not likely to contribute) and Darren Sproles (old and getting older).  On defense, the team added Malcolm Jenkins and Smith, who seems unlikely to start.  I know people expect guys like Ertz, Kendricks, Logan, etc…to get better, and that will probably happen (for at least 1 or 2 of them).  Still, I just don’t see any reasonably objective way to say this teams roster is better now than it was last season.

Again, I’d rather look long-term than short, but just start preparing yourselves for a potential step-backwards season.




Post-Draft Notes

Not going to do an in depth draft breakdown until later this week, but I did want to throw a few notes/comments up before then:

– It’s possible that Chip Kelly has an informational advantage over the rest of the league, for now.  As a college coach, Chip recruited/scouted/coached a lot of these players before.  Of course, every team had ample time to scout before the draft, but actually game-planning for a player or getting to know him while he’s in high school might provide a better insight into that player’s pro potential.  I wasn’t thrilled with last year’s draft process; I though a trade down in the 1st round made a lot of sense and felt the team reached for Bennie Logan.  However, as it stands now that draft looks pretty good.  Therefore, I’m inclined to give Chip the benefit of the doubt for the time being.  That doesn’t mean I’ll hide  my skepticism, it just means the “process” might deserve more credit than we can give it from an outsiders perspective.  If this advantage does exist, though, it will only last another year or two, so the team needs to take advantage of it now.

– Notice I kept saying “Chip”, and not “Howie and Chip”.  If there was any doubt remaining about who is really making decisions, this past weekend should have cleared that up.  Two Oregon players?  A trade up for a WR?  Chip is the one making the call, for better or worse.

– On the whole, I liked the players selected but didn’t like where they were taken.  The draft is an exercise in probability and value-maximization. I think the Eagles fell short in this regard, Regardless of how these players pan out.  Smith was clearly a reach, Howie pretty much admitted it.  Reaching for need generally does not work out…. Also, please don’t put too much stock into the “someone else was ready to take him” stories.  EVERY time there is a “reach” pick, there’s inevitably some “source” that says Teams X, Y, and Z were ready to take the player if Team A passed.  That’s a bit convenient, isn’t it?  If there were other teams ready to take a guy like Smith in the first round, SOMEBODY would have mentioned it as a possibility.   Instead, Chip decided he NEEDED an OLB out of this draft.

That’s why free agency is so important.  If you go into the draft with NEEDS, it makes it very difficult to maximize value, because you’re always scared you’re going to be left with a big hole.

Note: This DOES NOT mean Smith isn’t going to pan out.  He seems like a great fit for the defense and his speed/cover experience should help a lot.  However, the Eagles likely missed out on some additional value by not trading back farther (Howie said he didn’t want to go as far as the options he had) or taking a different player at 22 and rolling the dice to see if Smith was there at 54 (or trading up from 54 to get him, as they did with Matthews).

– I spent most of the pre-draft period talking about the WR position.  Needless to say, trading up for one wasn’t one of my preferred strategies.  I’m happy the Eagles ended up with Matthews (see his comparable players from below), but going up to get him like that is a low-probability move.

– Two Oregon Ducks.  Really?  Again, not saying they’re bad players, but what are the odds that the Eagles, going with a BPA strategy, just happened to select 2 of Chip’s former players?  This could go either way, of course, hopefully he knows these guys well.  But if could also mean he’s letting personal bias into the equation, in which case there’s a serious “process” problem.

As I said, I’ll have more later this week.  Until then, salivate over the following.  Demaryius Thomas, Larry Fitzgerald, Marvin Jones, Josh Gordon…pretty good company…

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The Rules for Drafting (Abbreviated)

Today’s the day.  Let’s go over the ground rules and lay out a few key things to watch for.

The Rules

1) Do not fall in love.  Trading up for a player or reaching for someone is a surefire way to blow things.  Regardless of how confident you are in a certain player, we know that there is a significant chance that you’re wrong.  Failing to understand the uncertainty in your own evaluations/models is a killer, no matter what industry you’re in.

2) If a players “falls”, there’s usually a reason for it.  A “reach” pick, though, is usually just a bad pick.  This ties into the first point.   Below is a chart showing the biggest “reaches”, as I’ve defined them (difference from TPR), from 2010:

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Some of those guys are good players.  Most of them are not.  Not only did most of these players “bust”, but they probably cost the teams that chose them more than they should have.  If there’s a player you really like, trade down until he makes at least some sense at that draft spot.  Chances are you are not smarter than the rest of the league.

3) The 6th – 7th round arbitrage.  Always trade down in the 6th round.  Look at these success rates:

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Do you see the difference in success rates between the 6th and 7th round?  No?  That’s because there isn’t much difference.  Think about every draft pick as a lottery ticket.  The 1st round picks have the highest probability of “hitting” and those odds decline as you progress through the draft.  BUT, once you get to a certain point in the draft (somewhere around the 6th round), the odds flatten out.  At that point, everyone has roughly the same (low) odds of becoming a starter in the league.

I realize that every team gets to the 6th round and still has “fifth” round guys or better on their board.  That’s where self-awareness comes into play.  That late in the draft, NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.  If the player of interest was that good, he wouldn’t still be there.  As far as “free lunches” in the NFL Draft go, this is the most obvious.  Trading a 6th for two 7th round picks essentially doubles your odds of success.  It’s a no-brainer, and will be available for as long as there are over-confident GMs (so forever).

There’s obviously a lot more, but I’ve gone over most of it in the past and let’s face it, you won’t remember more than 2-3 of these anyway.

Things to Look For

– Teddy Bridgewater, Dee Ford, Ra’shede Hageman, Ryan Shazier, Eric Ebron Bradley Roby.  If you’re an Eagles fan, you should be hoping to hear these names called before #22.  As I see it,

Plan A for the Eagles is Mosley or Barr,

Plan B is Pryor or Clinton-Dix,

For one of those guy to all, we need some of the guys I listed to go earlier than expected.  Also watch the WRs and QBs.  A run on either of them is very good for the Eagles.

– Watch the QBs.  Last year, the top QB prospects, according to the “experts”, fell an astonishing distance in the draft.  This might be an anomaly.  Perhaps there’s information the teams had that the draftniks didn’t, in which case those guys didn’t really “fall”.  However, it’s also possible that GMs have adjusted to the increasingly passing-dependant league by holding QB prospects up to higher standards.  Maybe GMs, in general, are not as willing to overlook flaws at the QB position like they have in the past.  If so, that’s BAD for the Eagles, and we’ll see guys like Bortles, Bridgwater, etc.. fall.  Paradigm shifts are very rare, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep an eye out for them either.

– Trade down scenarios.  It’s really anticlimactic, especially when the Eagles have such a late pick, but a trade-down might be the best outcome for tonight.  Like I said, Plan A and B involve guys slipping a bit.  That’s unlikely.  Failing a shot at a top LB or S, moving back and grabbing another pick or two looks like a good plan.  As I showed earlier this week, the WR available at 54 will likely be nearly as good as one available at 22.  Additionally, while there are just 15 players rated 80-90 in my TPR rankings, there are 53 rated between 70 and 80.  Picking up another 2nd round pick would be well worth a trade-down if the defensive impact players are off the board.

– Trade up scenarios.  Lot of talk, and I hope that’s all it is.  If the Eagles do trade up, it means the probably made a strategic error (maybe a big one), but it DOESNT mean the draft’s a failure.  Trading up CAN be the right move, it just requires a degree of confidence that should be very rare.  But “very rare” does not mean “never”.  It’s possible, and if the Eagles trade up, I’ll obviously root for that to be the case.

– Lastly, Chip should have an advantage for this year and next.  Chip recruited and scouted a lot of these players.  This is the type of inside knowledge that couldlead to the type of confidence I talked about above.  If Chip can leverage his knowledge in the draft this year, it’ll go a long way towards building the foundation of a team that can contend for a long time.

That’s all.  It’s been a ridiculously long wait, but the draft is finally here.  Enjoy it.