Key matchups and numbers for Eagles v. Bears

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

I have been slammed at work this week, so I didn’t get to provide an in-depth scouting report on the Bears like I had hoped. But, here are 10 thoughts on the Eagles/Bears:

Key matchup: Fletcher Cox & Bennie Logan versus rookie center Cody Whitehair and newly signed guard Josh Sitton

This will likely be a recurring theme for the Eagles since they are built around their defensive line. But how Cox and Logan play against the Bears’ interior line, specifically Whitehair and Sitton, could go a long way towards determining the outcome of this game.

Sitton signed with the Bears 2 weeks ago, Whitehair is a rookie that made his first career start last week; the inexperience and lack of cohesion between the interior of the Bears offensive line was apparent. The Bears struggled mightily handling stunts from the Texans, which requires offensive lineman to either communicate the switches or understand who is responsible for which player intuitively. Given that they were on the road in a hostile environment, it makes sense that they struggled with the latter. Cutler was sacked 5 times and hit 12.

Schwartz likes to use stunts to supplement his pass rush since he tries to avoid blitzing if he can. Expect to see stunts used regularly this week to test whether the Bears were successful in their stated goal of improving against stunts. Don’t be surprised if Schwartz tries to stay a step ahead and throw other wrinkles designed to generate pressure by maximizing confusion. He’s shown an affinity for double A gap and corner blitzes, so he might go that route while the Bears are expecting (and prepared for) stunts.

The Bears offensive line problems led to inefficiency issues for their offense.

Langford averaged 3.4 yards per carry, Cutler averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, and the Bears were only 4 of 13 on third down conversions.

This inefficiency kept the Bears offense off the field for prolonged periods of time. Their 54 total plays was tied for 2nd fewest in league (by comparison, the Eagles ran 73 plays last week). The Bears also turned in a Chip Kelly-esque time of possession with 23:41 (compared to 36:19 for the Texans).

That inefficiency was largely due to the struggles of the interior line, which had a trickle down effect on the entire offense. So getting pressure up front and stopping the run will go along way towards making life easier for the Eagles offense.

Alsho Jeffery looks like his old self.

2015 was supposed to be Alshon Jeffery’s breakout season, solidifying himself as a bona-fide #1 wide receiver. Instead, it was an ineffective campaign marred by nagging injuries.

Those problems looked like a thing of the past last week, with Jeffery turning in an impressive 4 catch, 105 yard performance, including a nice 54 yard grab.

The Eagles secondary struggled defending the deep pass last week, getting beat twice by Terrell Pryor. Pryor made a great catch on one deep pass — nothing you can do but tip your hat and say good play. But on another, he was able to beat three Eagles defenders for a big gain. It conjured up nightmares of watching Nate Allen, Nnamdi Asomugha and Jaiquawn Jarrett be absolute sieves against the long ball. Jeffery is obviously a better receiver that Pryor. If the Eagles secondary  doesn’t improve, they could be in for a long night.

Matchup problem for the Eagles: Jason Kelce v. NT Eddie Goldman.

Keep an eye on Jason Kelce tonight, who will be matched up against another very large human being. Last week, Kelce was dominated at the point of attack by Danny Shelton, who is 6’2, 335 lbs. This week, Kelce gets 6-4, 336 lb nose tackle Eddie Goldman. Kelce’s struggles against large interior lineman are well-documented. And I would expect that to continue this week, leading to the talk of Kelce’s decline becoming a focal point of discussion leading up to next week’s game.

Bears defense is solid up the middle.

This offseason, the Bears made strengthening the interior of their defense a priority. To that end, they signed inside linebackers Danny Trevathan, who played for John Fox in Denver, and Jerrell Freeman from Indianapolis. That investment paid off, with the linebackers combining for 28 tackles against Houston.

While Lamar Miller gained 108 yards on the ground, he only averaged 3.8 ypc. The Eagles will continue to run the offense through Ryan Mathews to make life easier on their rookie quarterback. Mathews had a workman like 22 carries for 77 yards, for 3.5 ypc and 1 touchdown last week against the Browns.  I would expect a similar stat line this week; it won’t be an efficient run game, but it should be effective enough to keep the Bears defense honest.

Other pass catchers need to step up:

With Zach Ertz out with a displaced rib, expect the Bears defense to key on stopping Jordan Matthews. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Matthews double teamed with bracketed coverage over the top, forcing Wentz to rely on his other receiving options.

Nelson Agholor has all the physical talent in the world, but he’s struggled with his consistency and route running. Last week, he turned in arguably the best game of his young career, catching 4 passes for 57 yards and a touchdown. That included a nice 35 yard touchdown catch against Pro Bowl cornerback, Joe Haden. Agholor will be a key cog in the offense tonight, and must continue to play well.

That goes for Darren Sproles as well, who has struggled with dropped passes since arriving in Philadelphia. In New Orleans, Sproles routinely caught around 78% of his passes. In Philadelphia, his catch rate dropped to 64.5% and 66.3% respectively over the last two seasons. It looked like more of the same last week, with Sproles catching only 2 of 5 targets, with (by my count) 2 drops. Sproles is 33 years old. So it’s not a surprise to see his production slipping. But the Eagles have big plans for Sproles this year in this offense, and if they are going to pan out, Sproles needs to step his game up asap.

A final thought: expect to see more of Dorial Green-Beckham with Ertz out. He could become the Eagles preferred red zone target given his size and ability to catch the fade route, which is one of Wentz’s favorite passes. The Eagles have been bringing DGB along slowly, but Ertz’s absence might accelerate their plan.

Protecting Wentz.

The Bears sacked Brock Osweiler twice and got 8 hits. Those aren’t impressive numbers, which bodes well for the Eagles rookie signal caller. Even if the Bears get pressure this week, it is unclear how effective it will be at accomplishing its intended goal. Wentz was phenomenal against the blitz last week, getting sacked once, but otherwise completing 11/11 passes for 123 yards, including a key 4th down completion to Zach Ertz with a free blitzer bearing down on him. That stat line is obviously not sustainable, but Wentz showed grace under fire in his pro debut, which is atypical for rookie quarterbacks.

With that said, Wentz has to get better at getting rid of the ball quickly. He held onto the ball too long last week, getting hit 9 times. We don’t want to see Chase Daniel taking snaps this season. So it is imperative for Wentz to get the ball out quick and learn to navigate the pocket better.

Expect to see designed boot legs this week to take advantage of Wentz’s athleticism. Despite his mechanical flaws, Wentz is an unusually strong thrower on the run. The Eagles will look to take advantage of that this week to minimize his exposure to harm.

Bears struggle at home.

The Bears have lost an incredible 13 of their last 16 games at home. I don’t know if any team has a worse run of futility at home, but this has to be near the top of the list. This is welcomed news for the Eagles, who will be on the road in prime time with a rookie quarterback and head coach.

Don’t expect a shootout:

Vegas has set the over/under for the Eagles at around 42.5 (depending on what website you look at). That is tied for the third lowest in the league, higher than only the Rams/Seahawks and Jets/Bills (whoops). Simply put, I wouldn’t expect a high scoring affair. Neither offense is loaded with playmakers and the defenses seem to be playing at an above average rate.

Given this, the game will likely come down to who wins the turnover battle. Cutler had another interception last week, while the Eagles opportunistic defense came up with a key interception that helped blunt the Browns momentum. Getting pressure on Cutler will be key, even though he has done surprisingly well throwing under pressure as of late.

The Prediction:

Vegas has had the Eagles as 3 point underdogs all week. That actually seems low given that the Eagles are on the road with a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach. Given those circumstances, a good team would be at least 4.5 point favorites.  That the Bears are only getting the traditional home field advantage bump of 3 points tells you how much confidence Vegas has in them.

I have gone back and forth on this one. Jeffery gives me the biggest pause for concern; I think he is going to give the Eagles secondary fits. But games are won and lost in the trenches, and right now I think the Eagles are superior along the lines on both sides of the football.

Give me the Eagles 23-20, with the Eagles forcing a key Jay Cutler interception late to seal the game. Wentz will have a solid, but not spectacular, game, going 20/32 for 250 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, and 1 rushing td.

Season record: 1-0.

 

 

Carson Rewind

 We all know Carson Wentz had an impressive debut. But breaking down the film was even more impressive, revealing Wentz’s precise ball placement and veteran like understanding of how to beat a defense with his mind.

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

There will be plenty of time to dissect the rest of the Eagles performance in their 29-10 win over the Cleveland Browns. But this was Carson Wentz’s debut game for the Eagles, so I am going to focus exclusively on his play.

Simply put, Wentz was sensational. There really is no other way to describe his first start in the NFL.

Could he have played better? Sure. Were there some throws that he missed? You bet. Can he continue to take as many hits as he did on Sunday? Absolutely not. But for a rookie making his debut — after sitting out most of preseason with an injury — Wentz passed this test with flying colors.

Here is how Wentz’s first start stacks up with other notable rookie quarterbacks (note, I did not include players like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, who did not start their first game until after their rookie season):

QB Att/Cmp Cmp% Yards TD INT Rating
Wentz 22/37 59.4% 278 2 0 101
Luck 23/45 51.11% 309 1 3 52.9
P. Manning 21/37 56.76 302 1 3 58.6
Newton 24/37 64.86 422 2 1 110.4
Bradford 32/55 58.18 253 1 3 53.1
Wilson 18/34 52.94 153 1 1 62.5
Stafford 16/37 43.24 205 0 3 27.4
Winston 16/33 48.48 210 2 2 64.0
Mariota 13/15 86.87 209 4 0 158.3

By at least this measure, Wentz compares favorably to every quarterback on this list save for Newton and Mariota. That of course doesn’t guarantee anything — it’s only one start against potentially the worst team in the NFL — but it was encouraging, nonetheless.

It goes without say that we should expect regression at some point this year. Mariota had a historic first start by almost any measure, completing an absurd 86.87% of his passes for 4 touchdowns (on only 15 attempts!) and a college-like quarterback rating of 158.3. He followed that up by going 21/37 for 257, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, and a QB Rating of 96.3 in his second start. But eventually, he came back to earth with a handful of bad games – throwing more interceptions than touchdowns against Buffalo and Miami in weeks 4 and 5, respectively.

I wouldn’t at all be surprised if we see a similar pattern from Wentz. In fact, I would be more surprised if he didn’t regress at some point. That’s how this works with rookie QBs, even those destined for greatness.

One final stat before getting to the tape: Wentz threw for over 250 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in his first start of his career. Bradford had only one game last year out of 14 (Week 4 against the Redskins) where he accomplished that feat, and he was in his fifth season.

Now to the tape.

Football Intelligence

All offseason, we heard the Eagles organization rave about Carson Wentz’s intelligence. The 4.0 GPA; the impressive wunderlic score; a quick study in the film room. It’s hard to separate facts from a team that is trying to hype up a player they just traded a boat load of picks to acquire.

But almost immediately, Wentz validated that praise by showing an advanced understanding of the game. On his first drive of the game, Wentz was faced with a 2nd & 4 at the Browns 30 yard line. He had trip wide receivers split out to the top of the screen in a designed bubble screen to Darren Sproles. But Wentz recognized that he did not have the numbers in his favor, as the Browns had three defenders in man defense on that side of the field to cover the Eagles three receivers.

So Wentz audibled out of the play, switching instead to a hand-off to Kenjon Barner. The play wasn’t a huge success, but it was better than what would have happened had he stayed with the screen.

Just look at Sproles’ man keying on the WR screen. Had Wentz not called the audible, that 2 yard gain would have been a 2+ yard loss. But that was avoided because Wentz recognized the defense and got out of a bad play.

On the very next play, the Eagles were faced with a 3rd & 2. Wentz pulled off his best Aaron Rodgers impersonation, using a hard count to draw a defender offsides and get the first down.

This type of play is impressive for a 4 or 5 year veteran. But from a rookie on the first drive in his first career start? You just don’t see that very often.

In the second quarter, the Eagles were faced with a 1st & 10 inside the Browns 35 yard line. Wentz was under center with Ryan Mathews in the backfield in what looked like a designed run play.

But Wentz noticed that the Browns were in man coverage given the single high safety playing center field. So Wentz dropped back into the shotgun and audibled to a play that got Matthews in a one-v-one matchup on the outside. Notice how Agholor’s route clears out Matthews corner route and freezes the safety long enough to spring Matthews free.

In other words, a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start not only recognized what the defense was playing, but also had the wherewithal to audible to a play designed to take advantage of that scheme, and had the talent to execute it to perfection.

Yup, that’s pretty good.

Accurate Ball Placement

Wentz flashed pinpoint accuracy and the ability to fit passes through impossibly tight windows on Sunday. The best example came in the third quarter, with Wentz delivering a strike to Matthews between two defenders as he was getting hit. This is one of the best passes I saw in any game yesterday. You simply cannot throw it any better than this:

Wentz arguably should have sensed the pressure and stepped up into the pocket to avoid the hit: the space was there and Wentz stood stationary for what seemed like an eternity. But this is his first start. He will have time to improve on his pocket presence. So I am not going to crush the guy for taking the hit.

Wentz was especially accurate on passes of 10+ yards, completing 9/11 passes for 161 yards and 2 touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. On both touchdown passes, Wentz showed great touch and ball placement; lofting the pass over the defender and putting it on the outside shoulder of his receiver, where only he could catch it.

The other thing you will notice from both of these plays? Wentz uses his eyes to manipulate the safety and spring open his intended target. Watch that first clip again. Notice how Wentz stares to the top side of the right, and how the safety playing center field reacts accordingly. Then, in a moment, Wentz pivots and throws to Matthews when the safety is too far out of position to make a play.

I’ll need to watch the All-22 to confirm this, but it looked like Wentz did the same thing on the touchdown pass to Agholor. It’s hard to see Wentz’s head move from this angle, but it looks like he stares down Jordan Matthews (breaking over the middle of the field) just long enough to get the single high safety to bite. The key for me is watching Wentz’s shoulders: his shoulders open up just as he’s about to throw to Agholor, suggesting this was by design. That makes the touchdown throw all the more impressive.

Mental toughness

Arguably the most heated discussion last year centered on how to evaluate Sam Bradford’s performance in light of the drops from his receivers. And to be fair, the Eagles did drop a lot of passes. But every quarterback deals with drops; not all of them handle the dropped passes well.

When I rewatched the tape, I conservatively counted 4 drops (2 a piece from Matthews and Sproles) against the Browns. While the drops were bad, Wentz’s reaction to them was anything but. Wentz followed two of those drops up with completions.

The first happened during the first drive of the game when the Eagles were at their own 37 yard line. On first down, Wentz hit a wide open Darren Sproles in the hands, but he dropped the football. Instead of panicking or letting the play affect him, Wentz brushed it off and threw a back shoulder fade to Zach Ertz, on his outside shoulder and away from his defender:

Ertz obviously made an impressive catch, but credit is due to Wentz for the ball placement and letting Ertz go up and make a play on the ball. That isn’t something we saw often enough from Sam Bradford last season, who seemed more concerned with avoiding mistakes than making plays.

At a critical stage in the third quarter, Jordan Matthews dropped an easy catch on third down that likely would have been enough to move the chains. Pederson went for it on 4th down, putting his rookie QB in empty set (which tells us how much confidence Pederson has in Wentz).

Again, the drop didn’t phase Wentz. He delivered a perfect strike to Ertz despite having a blitzer bearing down on him through the A gap:

Quick side note: Wentz showed in his lone preseason game that he can recognize pressure presnap and get the ball out quick. He erased any doubt about that ability during this game. By my count, the Browns blitzed Wentz 12 times. He was sacked once, but completed 11/11 passes for 123 yards, including this strike to Ertz on 4th down.

Bottom line, Wentz showed the mental toughness to not let his teammates mistakes affect his play. Put another way, Wentz still found a way to get it done despite the drops, which is a nice change from what we saw last year:

The Take-Away

Wentz was by no means perfect. He took too many hits and had periods in the game where the offense was largely ineffective. Wentz will also face tougher tests as we get deeper into the season (hello, Seattle), so we should expect some regression.

But pointing that out feels like nitpicking what was otherwise a very impressive debut. Wentz flashed his strong arm and athleticism. But I was more impressed with his accuracy, blitz recognition and understanding of how to attack the defensive schemes that he faced. Some quarterbacks take years to figure that out. Some, like Wentz’s week 1 opponent, RGIII, never do. So to see that from Wentz during his first start? We can’t ask for more than that.

Scouting Report on the Cleveland Browns

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

The Philadelphia Eagles fast tracked their rebuilding process by trading away Sam Bradford and ushering in the Carson Wentz era. First up, the Cleveland Browns, who might be perfect fodder for the Eagles as they transition to a new coach, new scheme and new quarterback. Here is a scouting report on what to expect from the Browns and weaknesses that the Eagles can exploit.

Big Picture: The Browns are a team in the midst of a youth movement

A lot is being made about whether Carson Wentz is going to be a liability in this game. But less attention is being paid to the Browns again being the youngest team in the NFL. This offseason, the Browns let go veterans Josh McCown, Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin, Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Randy Starks, Karlos Dansby, Paul Kruger, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson. In their place are 17 rookies and 32 players with three years or less experience in the league.

So don’t let flashy names like RGIII, Josh Gordon and (I guess?) Terrelle Pryor fool you. This is a young team in the midst of a total rebuild. Add in a new coaching staff and system, and I expect to see a lot of self-inflicted wounds from the Browns on Sunday.

Hue Jackson’s Offense: power run mixed with deep passing

Hue Jackson is a brilliant offensive mind. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin once said his offense in Cincinnati was the hardest to game plan against in the entire league.

Jackson’s offense is predicated on the run game, which he uses it to set the tone and open things up for his deep passing attack. While it’s often called a power rushing scheme, Jackson mixes things up with man and zone blocking concepts as well. In Cincinatti, he’d dial up power runs with Jeremy Hill, but relied on more zone blocking schemes with the shiftier Gio Bernard.

I would expect to see a similar approach with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson this year in Cleveland, with Crowell serving as the battering ram for Jackson’s power run game, and Johnson being brought in to attack the Eagles on the perimeter.

Jackson likes to use multiple formations and creative play designs to keep defenses on their heels. In that way, he is the anti-Chip Kelly. Don’t be surprised if the Browns offensive lineman split out wide as receivers or Jackson overloads one side of the line with an extra lineman.

We all know that Jim Schwartz’s scheme is built on his defensive line getting upfield and after the quarterback. One of the achilles heels of the wide nine is that it leaves the heart of the Eagles defense vulnerable to the run. Jackson’s offense presents the early perfect season test for whether the Birds are equipped to stop the run game. Expect Jackson to use the Eagles aggression against it with a heavy dose of misdirections, screens, draws, and some read options for RGIII. Another play that can pose problems to the Birds is the power sweep, which involves multiple lineman pulling to get the running back to the edge.

 

In the passing attack, we will see shades of Chip Kelly with plays that have read and pass options built in to counteract how the defense is defending the play (hence why it’s called the read-pass option). If the defense stacks the box to stop the run, the quarterback will likely have a WR bubble screen on one side of the field, and a go or dig route on the other. If the defense defends the pass, the quarterback has the option to hand it off or, in RGIII’s case, keep it.

Another staple of Jackson’s areal attack is the four verticals. With weapons like AJ Green, Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones, the Bengals put enormous pressure on defenses by attacking the seams with tall and athletic receivers.

While the Browns don’t have the same talent at receiver — Pryor and Coleman have a long way to go before they are considered in the same breath as AJ Green —  tight end Gary Barnridge has emerged as a legitimate threat in the passing game.  Expect to see him used early and often in the 4 vertical route concept. It will be up to Mychal Kendricks, Malcolm Jenkins, and even Jordan Hicks to limit the damage that Barnridge causes up the seam:

This vertical passing attack is likely one of the reasons why Jackson targeted RGIII this offseason. While RGIII’s game has plenty of holes — more on this in a moment — he continues to excel throwing deep.

Terrelle Pryor has emerged as Griffin’s favorite deep target this offseason. At 6’4, 230 lbs and with a 4.38 40, Pryor poses a significant challenge for the Birds secondary. They don’t have any player that can match Pryor’s size (or, quite frankly, speed). RGIII routinely looked to Pryor for the long ball during the preseason, so I would expect to see Pryor targeted at least 2-3 times deep in this game.

 

The Weaknesses: Offensive Line and Quarterback

Now that you understand the basics, let’s look at some ways the Eagles defense can throw a wrench in Jackson’s offensive gameplan.

The most obvious mismatch is in the trenches. The Eagles boast one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in the league, and they will finally be let loose under Jim Schwartz’s attack scheme. Meanwhile, outside of future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas, the Browns offensive line is a mess. Gone are Pro Bowl center Alex Mack (signed by the Falcons), and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (who signed with the Chiefs), and the remaining pieces make up potentially one of the worst offensive lines in football.

The Browns are attempting to replace Mack with last year’s first round pick, Cameron Erving. Erving struggled mightily at guard last year, routinely getting overpowered at the point of attack. Part of that was expected, since Erving had played offensive lineman for only two years and was being asked to switch from center to guard. Erving has switched back to center this year, but if his preseason play is any indication, it hasn’t helped. Don’t even watch the run on this play; focus on Erving’s attempt to get to the second level and block the linebacker:

Erving has been equally suspect in pass protection. He seems overwhelmed by the position at times, which carries with it added responsibilities like protection calls, blitz recognition, and staying on point with the snap count. Here, the Bucs dialed up a stunt, and Erving looks like he is trying to block his man while wearing ice skates.

Schwartz is a smart man. He’s seen this tape and is likely salivating about the ways that he can force Erving to match up one-on-one with Cox and Logan. Expect stunts, double A gap blitzes, and other creative scheme calls designed to take advantage of Erving tomorrow.

But the offensive line problems extend beyond Erving. Joel Bitonio was great at left guard during his rookie season in 2015, but injuries and poor play derailed his sophomore campaign. Meanwhile, 31-year old John Greco was a shell of his former self last year, producing his worst rated campaign of his career according to ProFootballFocus.com. These problems reared their ugly head during the third preseason game against the Bucs, where RGIII was sacked five times.

Speaking of RGIII, I still haven’t seen anything that suggests he’s improved at the most important aspects of being a quarterback. While RGIII has immense physical talent, he hasn’t figured out the cerebral part of the game. His pocket presence is nonexistent and he routinely lowers his eye level when he’s under pressure. RGIII has a tendency to lock onto his primary target and struggles to understand how offensive plays interact with the defensive schemes he is reading.

Jackson will likely look to keep things simple for RGIII early on, with defined reads and simplified play calling in the pass game. But if RGIII’s primary option was taken away, he often held onto the ball too often, leading to unnecessary sacks. At least three of the five sacks during that Bucs game were avoidable, but RGIII’s lack of pocket presence led to the sack.

Now, Hue Jackson is one of the best in the game at working with quarterbacks. Joe Flacco once said he was the best quarterback coach he has ever worked with. So maybe Jackson  was able to help RGIII overcome the holes in his game. The reports out of Cleveland have been positive, with RGIII being named as a team captain by his teammates. If so, RGIII will pose a significant test for the Eagles tomorrow. But RGIII has already had a number of high level offensive coaches during his career, and none of them were able to unlock his full potential.  I don’t see how this ends any differently in Cleveland, and I expect him to struggle tomorrow behind that suspect offensive line.

Ray Horton’s Aggressive 3-4 Defensive Front

Ray Horton spent the early part of his coaching career cutting his teeth as the Steelers’ secondary coach. While he still runs that aggressive 3-4 defense, he will switch up his fronts to create confusion along the offensive line and pressure on the quarterback.

Horton discussed this progression with ClevelandBrowns.com after he was hired this offseason: “The genesis probably comes from the 3-4 of Pittsburgh because everybody is familiar with that, but since I left, I’ve changed quite a bit and we do some things they do not that are unique to us,” Horton said. “The personnel here will allow me to do even more creative things. I’ve talked about a multiple defensive front. It could be a 3-4, it could be a 4-3, it could be a 5-2, sometimes it will be a 4-4 depending on what we do. I guarantee we’ll have 11 on the field but the arrangement and configuration will be limitless.”

In fact, when you turn on the film you are much more likely to see Horton’s defense line up in a 4-3 under front than the 3-4.

Overall, Horton is widely respected in NFL circles as a defensive coordinator. After his time in Arizona, there was thought he would be next in line for a head coaching gig. But that opportunity hasn’t happened yet. And lately, his defenses haven’t been very good. Here are the FootballOutsiders.com rankings of Horton’s defenses:

Ways the Eagles can Attack Horton’s Scheme

Of course, a defensive coordinator is only as effective as the talent at his disposal. And while I have tremendous respect for Horton as a coach, this Browns defense figures to be a work in progress, especially early on.

Like Schwartz, Horton wants his defense to attack. But this is a young defense across the board, so that aggressiveness can be used against them with misdirections and play actions:

While the defense lacks talent, two players especially stood out in the tape: safety Jordan Poyer and cornerback Jamar Taylor.

Poyer might sound familiar to some of you, and that’s because he was a former seventh round draft pick of the Eagles. But he never stuck in Philly, and has become the de facto starter at safety after the Browns lost both starting safeties to free agency.

I counted at least four plays this offseason where Poyer took bad angles in run defense. In that respect, he reminds me of another former-Eagle: Nate Allen, who was notorious for taking poor angles in both run and pass defense:

Person can look to take advantage of Poyer in both the run and passing attack. Ryan Mathews flashed some big play ability for the Eagles last season, with a 63 yard touchdown against the Panthers and 5 20+ yard runs in limited action. If he is able to get to the second level, he should be able to feast on Poyer. The Eagles can also look to attack Poyer with DGB and Zach Ertz running go/seam routes up the middle.

Meanwhile, Jamar Taylor is a former second round pick of the Miami Dolphins that the Browns acquired on draft night in exchange for swapping seventh-round picks. Taylor’s time in Miami was marred by injuries and poor play. He started in only nine games in three seasons, and never recorded an interception or forced fumble, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

The Browns just traded 2014 first round pick, Justin Gilbert, to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a sixth round pick in 2018. (Makes the return on Eric Rowe seem a little better now, eh?). So the coaching staff might see something in Taylor that made them comfortable giving up on Gilbert so soon. But whatever they have seen, it must have been in practice, because he has been a liability during the preseason.

Here, Taylor gets beat by Mike Evans initially on the go route, and then barely makes any effort to tackle Evans before he waltzes into the end zone.

I don’t know how much the Eagles will be attacking the Browns vertically with Carson Wentz under center. But if I am Pederson, I am testing Taylor early and often, especially with Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden on the other side of the field.

The Prediction

The Eagles aren’t world beaters by any stretch. But they still have some talent on their roster, which is more than can be said for the Browns, who will likely challenge for the worst record in the league. If the Eagles can’t win this game? We are in for a long season.

I am trying to temper my expectations, here. Part of me thinks this is going to be a sloppy, ugly game with the Eagles coming out on top but not giving the fan base any reason to feel excited about the rest of the season.

But I just don’t see how the Browns keep this close, even with the Eagles starting Carson Wentz at quarterback. That Browns offensive line is a train wreck, and the Eagles defensive line will likely treat RGIII as a human pinata. I think the Eagles win 27-17, causing drastic overreaction from fans and media members about the Eagles potential for this year.

How Good Are The Eagles In The Draft Under Howie Roseman?

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

Many of you are probably wondering why the hell I am writing about the draft on the week leading up to the start of the regular season. Fair point. But in my last post, I said Howie Roseman had a mixed track record in the draft. But I largely assumed that was the case based on my understanding of the Eagles draft history.

I started to fixate on whether I had any concrete data to back it up. My fixation led to research, which led to a 2,000 word article on the draft. So here we are.

I’m going to update this post during draft season, but my goal is to quantify how successful Roseman has been in the draft compared to his peers. The first thing I learned? Evaluating the evaluators is as much of a crapshoot as the NFL draft process itself, a sentiment echoed by FiveThirtyEight.com this past April.

But there is enough evidence out there to evaluate Roseman’s track record to some extent. Here, I relied on three sets of data during the time period in which Roseman was the general manager (2010 through 2014):

  • (1) comparing the percentage of games that Roseman’s picks started with the historical expected start rate for a player drafted in the same round;
  • (2) comparing Roseman’s rate at drafting Pro Bowl and All Pro players to the league wide average and compared to some of the best in the game; and
  • (3) comparing the approximate value of the players that Roseman selected with other players from the same draft class.

So what did I find? The overall picture is a bit murky. Some metrics suggest Roseman is a below average talent evaluator compared to his peers, while others suggest he is above average. Where there is no disagreement, however, is Roseman’s rate at identifying top tier talent  — it’s not good, and explains why the Eagles haven’t seriously competed for a Super Bowl in the last six season.

Before getting to the data, a quick note.  Lurie’s “shared responsibility” front office structure makes it impossible to identify who had final say over draft picks. Was it Reid? Roseman? Kelly? I realize that everyone has their own opinion on this. But I am not concerned with parsing that out here. I am only concerned with how the Eagles have drafted under Roseman (hence the title); I’ll defer to others to assign credit or blame for a particular pick.

Judging by “Start Rate” 

There are a number of ways by which you can measure the success rate of general managers, each of which carry their own inherent flaws. Caveats aside, I am evaluating the relative success of our draft picks by comparing the percentage of games each Eagles draftee has started to the expected start percentage based on data I compiled from Pro-Football-Reference.com.

To determine the expected start rate, I examined every draft pick taken from 2010-2014 and calculated the average start rate for each round of the draft during that time period. So, for example, I found that first round draft picks from 2010-2014 have started, on average, 63.62% of their possible games. As you will see in a minute, Marcus Smith (started 0% of his possible games) would be considered a failed pick, while Fletcher Cox (89%), would be considered a success.

You can access the entire data set I compiled here, which provides some useful information regarding not only the overall strength of a draft class, but also the strength of a particular round within each draft. But this chart summarizes my overall findings:

Round Start % Range
1 63.6% 58.4% – 65.6%
2 42.5% 39.5% – 45.8%
3 34.8% 29.4% – 40.4%
4 23.4% 18.7% – 29.7%
5 17.5% 15.6% – 20.7%
6 12.3% 10.7% – 13.8%
7 10.6% 7.8% – 14.8%

Not surprisingly, the percentages track what we would have expected: higher round draft picks start more frequently than the lower round picks. I did not see any trends in the data that required me to adjust the raw numbers. For example, with the league average career at 3.3 years, one might expect higher start percentages for more recent drafts. That was not the case. So I am sticking with these overall numbers.

Start Rates of Roseman’s Picks

Here is each draft pick made by the Eagles under Roseman from 2010 until 2014. I am excluding this past year for obvious reasons and 2015 since Roseman was not involved in personnel decisions. Numbers highlighted in red indicate a player falling short of his expected start rate, while numbers in green show a player that exceeded it.

2014

Round Player Position Start % Expected Start %
1 Marcus Smith LB 0% 63.6%
2 Jordan Matthews WR 71.8% 42.5%
3 Josh Huff WR 12% 34.8%
4 Jaylen Watkins CB 0% 23.4%
5 Taylor Hart DE 3% 17.5%
6 Ed Reynolds DB 9% 12.3%
7 Beau Allen DT 6.25% 10.6%

2013

Round Player Position Start % Expected Start %
1 Lane Johnson T 91.6% 63.6%
2 Zach Ertz TE 29.7% 42.5%
3 Bennie Logan DT 79.1% 34.8%
4 Matt Barkley QB 0% 23.4%
5 Earl Wolff DB 14% 17.5%
7 Joe Kruger DE 0% 10.6%
7 Jordan Poyer DB 5% 10.6%
7 David King DE 0% 10.6%

2012

Round Player Position Start % Expected Start %
1 Fletcher Cox DT 89% 63.6%
2 Mychal Kendricks LB 82.8% 42.5%
2 Vinny Curry DE 0% 42.5%
3 Nick Foles QB 60.9% 34.8%
4 Brandon Boykin DB 10.9% 23.4%
5 Dennis Kelly T 23.4% 17.5%
6 Marvin McNutt WR 7.8% 12.3%
6 Brandon Washington G 0% 12.3%
7 Bryce Brown RB 10.9% 10.6%

2011

Round Player Position Start % Expected Start %
1 Danny Watkins G 22.5% 63.6%
2 Jaiquawn Jarrett S 11.2% 42.5%
3 Curtis Marsh CB 0% 34.8%
4 Casey Matthews LB 20% 23.4%
4 Alex Henery K 62.5% 23.4%
5 Dion Lewis RB 7.5% 17.5%
5 Julian Vandervelde G 0% 17.5%
6 Jason Kelce C 77.5% 12.3%
6 Brian Rolle LB 16.25% 12.3%
7 Greg Lloyd LB 0% 10.6%
7 Stanley Havili RB 12.5% 10.6%

2010

Round Player Position Start % Expected Start %
1 Brandon Graham DE 23.9% 63.6%
2 Nate Allen S 75% 42.5%
3 Daniel Te’o-Nesheim DE 28.1% 34.8%
4 Trevard Lindley DB 1% 23.4%
4 Keenan Clayton LB 1% 23.4%
4 Mike Kafka QB 0% 23.4%
4 Clay Harbor TE 36.4% 23.4%
5 Ricky Sapp DE 0% 17.5%
5 Riley Cooper WR 56.25% 17.5%
6 Charles Scott RB 0% 12.3%
7 Jamar Chaney LB 23.9% 10.6%
7 Jeff Owens DT 0% 10.6%
7 Kurt Coleman DB 48.9% 10.6%

So what do these numbers tell us?

  • The Eagles had 48 total picks from 2010-2014.
  • Under Roseman, the Eagles met or exceeded the expected start rate for 17 of the 47 picks.
  • So the Eagles “success rate” in the draft under Roseman is 36.17%. 
  • Put another way, 30/47 draft picks failed to meet their expected average start rate.

We can probably take issue with how certain players are characterized. For example, this approach considers Brandon Graham, Zach Ertz and Vinny Curry as misses because they didn’t start the requisite number of games. That’s clearly not right. But it also marks Alex Henery, Nate Allen and Brian Rolle as hits, and those characterizations seem equally suspect. In other words, I think it’s reasonable to assume that this evens out in the end, but I won’t argue if you make some changes to the classifications.

At first blush, these numbers suggest that Roseman/the Eagles are falling short of what we would expect. When you are meeting “average” production only 36% of the time, that seems like a problem. But I would feel more confident in that conclusion if I ran this calculation for all 32 general managers during that five year window. That would give me a much more accurate benchmark by which to evaluate how Roseman has done. I am going to leave that for leading up to the draft, since it is going to take a herculean effort to run those calculations. It will be much easier for me to spread out running the numbers over the course of the season given my other time commitments.

I filled in the gaps by looking at other research done on success rates of draft picks. The best data set I could find came straight from the horses mouth: ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky interviewed several general managers that provided their teams’ internal statistics regarding draft success rates. Teams have access to much more comprehensive data sets than I do, so I feel confident relying on this.

Here is one general manager’s bench mark for success: 1st and 2nd round picks: 56%, third round picks 35%. Those numbers are almost identical to the numbers I have compiled (combined 53.05% for 1st and 2nd rounders, 35% for third). So I feel comfortable using this as a baseline for evaluating Roseman’s picks, even if the relative definition of “success” might be different.

The Eagles had 11 first and second round picks from 2010-2014. Based on the data above, five of 11 were hits, or 45%. An argument can be made to count Graham, Curry, and Ertz as hits, but Allen as a miss. Under that assumption, Roseman’s hit rate is a much more impressive 63%.

The Eagles also had 5 third round picks during this time period, and hit on 2 of them, or 40%. I wouldn’t change any of the hits or misses as they are defined above, so Roseman beats that rate.

Finally, one general manager suggested that teams aim to gain 2.3 starters out of every 7 picks (Bill Polian was much more aggressive, saying good teams hit on 4.5 out of 7 picks, but he included undrafted free agents in that calculation, something I have not accounted for in this study). Using that 2.3 mark, we should expect 15.36 starters out of the 48 picks the Eagles had. Based on my evaluation, the Eagles drafted 10 such players: Cox, Kendricks, Johnson, Ertz, Logan, Matthews, Coleman, Graham, Curry and Kelce. Maybe we could include Allen and Henery in the mix. But getting to 15 would require us to consider players like Lewis, Foles and Boykin as starters. And I don’t think the evidence we have to date supports that conclusion. So Roseman falls short of this mark.

Bottom line: Roseman graded out positively under some metrics, but came up short on others. I think we will get more clarification once I run the numbers for other GMs, so for now let’s split the baby and call his rate middle of the pack.

All Pro and Pro Bowl Players

Another way to measure Roseman’s draft acumen is to compare the rate at which he has drafted Pro Bowlers and All Pros with the rest of the league.

According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, there have been 1,272 players drafted from 2010-2014. Out of those draft picks, 116 have been named All Pros, which is 9% of the players drafted. That means we should expect each team to draft, on average, 3.625 All Pros during that time period.

The Eagles have zero. (Although I firmly believe that Fletcher Cox should have received an All Pro award, but I digress).

What about Pro Bowls? Again courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, there were 207 Pro Bowl selections for players drafted from 2010 to 2014. That is an average of 6.46 Pro Bowlers per team.

The Eagles have three: Kelce (2014), Cox (2015), Nick Foles (2013). Even if we count Kurt Coleman’s Pro Bowl with the Panthers last year (and I don’t think we should), Roseman still falls short of the league wide average.

A recent study on NFL.com confirms Roseman’s place below the elite general managers when it comes to identifying and drafting elite talent. Mike Huguenin found the top 10 general managers had the following success rate at drafting Pro Bowl players:

  • Ryan Grigson, Colts: 9.09%
  • Ozzie Newsome, Ravens: 9.09%
  • Mike Brown, Bengals: 9.52%
  • Rick Spielman, Vikings:  10.34%
  • Ted Thompson, Packers: 10.42%
  • Bill Belichick, Patriots: 10.53%
  • Kevin Colbert, Steelers: 12.3%
  • Rick Smith, Texans: 12.33%
  • John Schneider, Seahawks: 14.58%
  • Mickey Loomis, Saints: 14.6%
  • Jerry Jones, Cowboys: 14.72% (What the hell?!)

Under Roseman, the Eagles success rate is 6.25%.

Some might question how fair this study is given that the Eagles have drafted towards the tail end of the first round more often than not. It’s a reasonable question, but one that doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. Look at that list again: it includes the Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Vikings, Seahawks, Saints, and Ravens, to name a few, teams that are routinely drafting at the end of the first round.

That Roseman struggles at drafting elite players is not controversial. If you were asked to identify the biggest weakness of the Eagles, outside of lacking a franchise quarterback, you would likely say that they lack elite playmakers. This lends credence to that idea.

Evaluating by Approximate Value

The final way I judged Roseman’s drafting ability is by using Pro-Football-Reference.com’s approximate value metric. Specifically, I examined where the Eagles draft picks ranked in terms of approximate value compared to their peers. This approach confirmed the results above: the Eagles do a decent job at accumulating league average players, but fall short when it comes to getting elite ones.

Consider this, of the 48 players the Eagles drafted, only one — Fletcher Cox — ranks in the top 10 in approximate value for his respective draft class. That’s a poor rate compared to the top franchises in the league.

Or consider this: in two consecutive drafts, 2010 and 2011, the Eagles did not get a single player that currently ranks in the top 32 of approximate value (i.e., a first round talent).

And finally, the Eagles drafted five players that rank in their respective top 32 (Cox, Johnson, Logan, Kendricks and J Matt). But that pales in comparison to the Seahawks (11), Bengals (9), and Steelers (8).

Here is a breakdown of the analysis:

2010:

2011:

  • 254 players drafted.
  • The Eagles again do not have any players rated in the top 32 of approximate value.
  • The highest rated player, Jason Kelce, just missed out, ranking 33rd overall.
  • The Seahawks and Bengals have 3, while the Cowboys and Broncos have 2.
  • Confirming our belief that the 2011 draft was historically bad, the Eagles have only one other player in the top 100, Casey Matthews, who ranked 99th in career approximate value.

2012:

2013:

2014:

The biggest concern is that the Eagles have only one player in the top 10 of their respective draft classes. This falls short of some of the best franchises in the league. Perhaps Logan, Ertz and/or Johnson make the jump over the next year or two. Or maybe Wentz becomes that guy. Either way, the Eagles are going to need to get more elite talent if they are going to realistically compete for a Super Bowl.

Final study: Rotoworld evaluated the 2011-2015 drafts based on approximate value. It doesn’t perfectly track our timeline, but it’s pretty damn close. As you can seee in the graph below, they track the combined approximate value of each franchise’s draft picks compared to the number of draft picks used.

As you could have guessed, Seattle blows everyone out of the water given their late round hits with Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, etc. Houston, Cincinnati and Carolina are also very efficient in terms of maximizing value for the number of picks they used. While the Giants, Saints, Lions and 49ers have come up short on approximate value.

Philadelphia is averaging about dead center in the NFL in terms of number of picks and approximate value.

RotoWorld

The Take-Away

We can confidently say that under Roseman, the Eagles have come up short identifying and drafting elite talent in the draft. There is less certainty regarding how they have done overall. The evidence suggests that they are right around league average, but I’ll feel more confident once I can dig into the success rates of every general manager in the league.

What do you think? Leave a comment below. I am interested to hear your thoughts and see if you have any ideas on additional ways to examine this.

Projecting the Eagles 2016 Record

It’s that time of year again. Fortunately, I waited until just about the last possible moment to post this, so now I can account for Carson Wentz.

First, thoughts on the trade:  Obviously a fantastic deal.  Bradford is a marginal QB, and clearly didn’t have a long-term future with the team.  Getting a 1st round pick back for him goes a long way towards digging the team out of the draft resources deficit they’re in.  It’s not as if the team was a SB contender with Bradford, so the opportunity cost isn’t large either.  Yes, the team might have been better with Bradford (though more on that in a second), but a slightly higher chance of eeking out a 9 win division title and losing in the first playoff game isn’t worth forgoing a 1st and 4th.

Additionally, the Vikings have serious collapse potential this year, so the 1st round pick could be more valuable than the conventional wisdom suggests.

1) They weren’t actually that good last year.  Minnesota ranked 11th by Overall DVOA.  16th on offense, 14th on Defense, 4th on STs.

2) Teddy Bridgewater played better last year than Bradford is likely to play this year.  Forget the fact that Bradford has just 1 week to get up to speed.

Here is Bridgewater from last year: 88.7 Rating, 62.71 QBR, 7.2 Y/A, 3.1% TD, 2.0% INT

Here are Bradford’s from last year: 86.4 Rating, 41.83 QBR, 7.0 Y/A, 3.6% TD, 2.6% INT

That was the best “full” season Bradford has ever had.  Even in his best year, the 7 games Bradford played with the Rams in 2013, he registered a QBR of just 52.33 and a Rating of 90.9.

That’s a long way to go to show that Minnesota’s QB play will likely be worse this year than it was last year.  It’s hard to improve on offense if that’s the case.

3) Adrian Peterson is 31 years old.  Terrence Newman is 38.  Can’t assume either of those guys will decline, but it’s certainly reasonable to suggest they might.

So while we’re having fun watching the start of the Wentz era, we’ll also be able to enjoy rooting against Bradford and the Vikings.  If the wheels fall off, the Eagles could actually have a chance to add another key piece in the first round next year (as well they should since we’re hosting).


Enough about Minnesota, what’s going to happen with the Eagles this year?

Welp, that’s a tough one.  New Coach, new system, rookie QB, multiple new starters on offense and defense.  The basis of accurate predictions is taking what we know (i.e. performance last year and recently) and adjusting that performance given what has changed.  Every bit of change means more uncertainty, making it harder and harder to gauge what will happen.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

Let’s start with the QB.  What does starting Wentz mean for the offense?

To begin answering that, I pulled all of the high-drafted (top 5 and all 1st-2nd rounders) QBs from the past 10 years that started 10+ games during their rookie year.  Here is the list:

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 1.33.59 PM

Then I took their rookie stats and compared them to what Bradford posted last year.  Here is the comparison:

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 1.38.34 PM.png

So…that’s pretty encouraging.  Bradford was certainly more efficient than the rookies, but the differences aren’t as big as you might assume.  Overall, rookie QBs starting immediately have performed better than I would have guessed prior to looking up the data.

A note on the sample: I think the Top 5 picks is the correct comparison for Wentz.  I’ve seen some concern about the fact that he played at North Dakota and that his learning curve will be steeper.  I don’t agree.  My current way of think is that the background of each player is unique and extremely difficult to parse with any accuracy.  Moreover, that is all factored into draft position anyway.  The entire league evaluates all of these quarterbacks, and each one of them has a different set of experiences and abilities upon entering the league.  If the league says Wentz is worth a top 5 pick, then it means either (1) the strength of competition doesn’t actually matter or (2) he has other traits that make up for that weakness.  Regardless, both explanations lead to the same place: Wentz was drafted in the top 5, and he should be judged based on how similarly judged prospects have played.

The only adjustment I considered making to the sample was dropping Weeden (age), but avoided it for fear of starting to bias the sample unnecessarily.

Now, it’s not enough to just look at Wentz and what the average rookie QBs have done recently.  What happens when we take a look at team offensive performance?  Below is a chart showing each of the teams from the sample above (Top 5 picks).  It shows Points Scored in the year before drafting the QB, and Points Scored during the QB’s rookie year.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 1.54.23 PM

Every team, save one, either performed in line with the previous season or improved dramatically.  Ironically enough, the only significant decline was Mark Sanchez, and that team went to the AFC title game that year.

So starting a rookie QB isn’t a death knell for team offense.  Of course, the reason those teams drafted these QBs was because they were terrible enough to get such a high pick.  If you look at the base level scoring (Year -1 column), you can see that it’d be pretty hard to get worse for some of these teams.

By comparison, the Eagles scored 377 points last year.  Some of that was due to the pace of the offense (more plays = more pts).  But by DVOA the team ranked 26th and was 22nd in points per drive.  Not good, but not dreadful either.   In other words, the team is in a relatively unique situation.  We just haven’t seen teams as good as the Eagles were last year draft top 5 QBs.

The closest analogue is Mark Sanchez and the Jets.  The Jets were a 9 win team with Brett Favre the year before drafting the Sanchize. The team traded up from #17 to #5 to take him.  The offense declined significantly by points scored and marginally be DVOA (18th to 22nd).

The bad news is that I don’t think the Eagles are making the conference title game this year.  The good news is that Wentz has a chance to be a much better player than Sanchez.  That’s a trade I’ll gladly take.

Still, the 2009 Jets seem to be our best (only reasonable) comparison.  Combined the rookie expectations and the Jets experience, and we’re looking at a small step back for the offense based on the QB position.

The OL

The OL was a major problem last year.  Jason Peters declined significantly. The unit overall ranked 30th by DVOA.  This year, Brandon Brooks replaces Matt Tobin at RG.  But Peters is another year older, and Lane Johnson might miss time to a suspension.

Given that, I just don’t see a good rationale for expecting significant improvement.  The good news (I guess), is that they were so bad last year that the bar is set really low.  I haven’t done a study on OL performance persistence (that I remember anyway), but my guess is there is enough year-to-year variability to allow for improvement this year absent any other factors.  That’s a really weak basis for prediction, but it’s possible.

Overall, I expect worse OL play this year.  Hoping for better, obviously, but betting on a resurgent season from Peters at nearly 35 years old seems overly optimistic.  The long-term neglect of the unit will really show itself this year.

The WR

Could they get any worse? Yes, but that’s unlikely.  Jorden Matthews returns and is should be right in the middle of the steepest incline of his performance curve.  Ertz is there as well.  Nobody else gained more than 400 receiving yards last year.  Celek was closest at 398.  After that?  Nothing encouraging, but at least there’s no Riley Cooper or Miles Austin.  That alone should be worth a few karma points (half-joking).

Overall, I see a small improvement from last year’s very low base.  Agholor really couldn’t be any worse.  Huff as well.

The RBs

Well they’ve basically swapped out Demarco Murray for Wendell Smallwood on the depth chart.  Taking carries from Murray and giving them to Mathews should be a net improvement, but we can’t assume Mathews will actually play enough to capitalize.  Meanwhile, Sproles is another year older (33 years old now) and his game is based on quickness.  RB is a position with a LOT of variability, so it really wouldn’t surprise me of Barner or Smallwood stepped up and surprised people this year.  But with the OL as it is, it’s tough to see any high-end upside here.

Overall, treading water seems to be an appropriate expectation from this group.

The Whole Offense

I think the offense will be worse this year than it was last year.  Weaker OL, weaker QB play, and nobody on the WR/RB side that can pick up the slack or help hide the holes.  That’s an ugly combination.

The Eagles scored 377 last year.  The league averaged 365.  So the team was 3.2%+.

Pace helped a lot though, as the team was just 23rd by yards per drive and 22nd by points per drive.  Turnovers hurt last year’s team, with 1.1 interceptions thrown per game (27th) and 0.8 fumbles lost per game (30th), but don’t forget that a high pace increases those rates as well.  With a rookie QB and a higher-than expected INT rate, I don’t foresee a big benefit from turnover regression.

Overall, I think a base-case projection of -10% to -15% for this year is reasonable.  Let’s call it -12.5%.  

Without any scoring inflation, that would put them at approximately 320 points scored.

The Defense

The Eagles ranked 17th by DVOA on defense last year.  The pass defense was 14th by DVOA, the rush defense was 28th.  They allowed 430 points, 28th in the league.

I think the defense will be much better this year.  I think the scheme fits the personnel much better than it did last year.  The DL, especially, is worth getting excited about.

The DL

Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan in the middle could be among the league’s best interior combos.  Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry get to rush the QB from the edge, with Cox likely to give them plenty of 1-0n-1 chances by drawing double-teams.  Barwin’s coverage abilities could allow Schwartz to do some creative things, but at the very least, it’s hard to see Barwin not finding a way to contribute consistently one way or another.

That should be a tougher front to rush against than last year, which was a huge weakness for the team.  The Cox/Logan combo, in particular, provides an anchor that will make everyone else’s job a lot easier.

The LBs

Thin, but intriguing.  Jordan Hicks could be great…or he could miss most of the season with injuries.  That’s worrisome because there really isn’t any depth.  As of this moment, there are just 4 LBs on the roster.  Honestly, I have no idea how to project this group.  Kendricks has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, but his inconsistency is frustrating and the coaching staff appears to be losing patience with him.  This will be his 5th year, so he’s basically out of excuses.

Stephen Tulloch is a nice piece to have on the roster, especially given the injury concerns of Hicks/Kendricks.  Nigel Bradham should be a solid SAM.  If any of those guys goes down, though, it’s unclear what happens.  My guess is the team is working on adding another LB, but obviously can’t account for that now.

Overall, the corps of Hicks/Kendricks/Bradham/Tulloch could form a strong unit, but it is VERY dependent on Hicks staying healthy.  That’s a tough bet.  Still, the LBs struggled last year (especially Demeco), so from a benchmarking standpoint, improvement is definitely possible.  If Hicks stays healthy, the LBs could prove to be MUCH better than last year.

The DBs

McKelvin and McLeod are significant additions, but I’m not sure a wholesale improvement is in order here.

Maxwell was maddening last year, but a lot of that was failing to live up to his contract.  Had he been paid less, I’m not sure everyone would be as down on him as they were.  Meanwhile, Walter Thurmond turned in a very serviceable season at S.  While McLeod will hopefully be an improvement (especially in run support), a significant increase seems unlikely.

In fact, the corps might benefit most from increased DL pressure, rather than from personnel changes.  In general, though, a slight improvement can be expected, though depth is an issue.

Total Defense

The scheme change is as big a factor as any of the personnel changes.  The 4-3 alignment fits the DL extremely well, and if Hicks can put together a healthy season, the Cox/Logan/Hicks pyramid can anchor the defense and let everyone else play downhill.  Better pressure from the DEs (I expect Graham to have a big season) will make the DBs jobs a lot easier.

However, given the lack of depth and the injury concerns, there is a LOT of uncertainty here.  The unit could be among the best in the league.  Or it could suffer 1-2 key injuries and the entire house of cards could collapse.  Imagine if Cox and Hicks missed significant time.  In other words, there is an extremely wide range of potential performances for the defense this year.

Last season, the team was -18% by points allowed.  On a per drive basis, the team was a bit worse than average (22nd and 23rd by yards and points per drive).  A big improvement has them close to league average.  Given the depth problems, though, that seems a bit aggressive.  -5% is where I’m at on a base case.  That amounts to 383 points allowed.

Special Teams

Unlikely to have a significant impact this year.  The unit was 10th in the league by DVOA last year, but was dead last in “Hidden Points”.  That means they were fairly unlucky.  The main contributors are all back (Jones, Sturgis, Sproles), though the coverage team’s ability remains to be seen.  However, even a good season from STs won’t have a huge effect on overall performance.  Without significant reason to believe STs will be either great or terrible, there isn’t much reason to adjust the overall projection.

The Prediction

That puts us at 320 points scored, 383 points allowed.  With a 2.67 exponent, that’s a 38% win percentage.  In practical terms, that’s a 6-10 season.

Below are my previous predictions. As you can see, last year really hurt the track record I was building.  Ex-ante, I would assign a LOT more uncertainty to this year than I would have for last year.  So at the very least, it’s a good reminder of just how much variability there is in exercises like this.

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The Eagles Fleeced the Vikings, and Roseman’s Redemption Campaign Continues

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

The Philadelphia Eagles traded Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings for a 2017 first round pick and a 2018 fourth round pick. Here are some quick thoughts on the trade.

  1. Howie Roseman absolutely pillaged the Vikings in this deal. 

Sam Hinkie was consistently able to take advantage of NBA teams in desperate situations. He traded Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a future 1st because the Pelicans were trying to finally make the playoffs with budding superstar Anthony Davis. Hinkie essentially traded cap space to the Kings for a future first, the right to swap picks for two seasons, and Nik Stauskas because the Kings were trying to clear cap space to sign free agents and appease Boogie Cousins. And Hinkie drafted, and then traded, Eflrid Payton to the Orlando Magic for Dario Saric and a future first round pick because he knew that the Magic wanted Payton badly.

Howie Roseman has taken a page right out of Hinkie’s playbook with this deal. The Vikings had quietly built up a young and dynamic team that had dreams of a deep playoff run. Those dreams seem dashed after Teddy Bridgewater suffered a gruesome knee injury during practice last week. Rather than sit idly by and hope Bridgewater could return next year 100% healthy, the Vikings made a panic trade to try to win now.

That the Eagles were able to get a first round pick for someone who has largely been — at best — a league average quarterback, is pretty incredible. Add in the 4th round pick which can become a third or second rounder, and this could go down as one of Roseman’s best moves to date.

But don’t make my word for it, consider reaction from around the league:

2. The trade offsets the high risk investment the Eagles made in trading up for Carson Wentz

The Eagles traded two firsts, a second, a third and fourth round pick to move up from the 8th pick to the 2nd overall to draft Carson Wentz. It was a significant risk given what we know about the success rates of first round quarterbacks (which, at last look, hovered around 40%).

But with this trade, the opportunity cost for acquiring Carson Wentz has become much more palpable:

And if we get creative and factor in the Dorial Green-Beckham for Dennis Kelly trade (DGB was a 2nd round pick, Kelly a 5th), this essentially means the Eagles traded a 3rd and 5th rounder to move up to draft Wentz.

So instead of Bradford, Kelly, a 3rd and a 5th round pick, the Eagles have Carson Wentz and Dorial Green-Beckham. Needless to say, Roseman deserves considerable praise for pulling this deal off.

3. Roseman continues to get the better of other NFL GMs in trades

I have been critical of Roseman in the past, but outside of the initial Wentz trade, Roseman has shown time and time again that he is able to get the better of NFL general managers in trades.

In just this offseason, Roseman was able to pull off the following:

  • Trading Byron Maxwell (and his considerable contract) and Kiko Alonso to the Dolphins for the right to move up from the 13th pick to the 8th pick in the 1st round, which equates to the third pick in the third round, according to the Draft Value Chart.
  • Swapping 4th round picks with the Titans for DeMarco Murray (and his considerable contract), which was approximately a 5th round pick according to the Draft Value Chart
  • Trading Sam Bradford for a 1st and 4th round pick, with escalators to a 3rd or 2nd rounder
  • Trading Dennis Kelly for Dorial Green-Beckham

Under almost any measure, Roseman got the better end of these deals. And when you consider that Roseman also acquired DeMeco Ryans for a 4th round pick and a swap of 3rd rounders and Darren Sproles for a 5th round pick, it’s hard to ignore Roseman’s track record. Simply put, he is one of the best general managers in the league at trades.

4. But Roseman needs to capitalize in the draft

While Roseman has excelled in trades, his track record in the draft since becoming the Eagles general manager in 2010 is spotty. I don’t try to parse through the “who is responsible for which pick” game, because unless you were in the draft room at the time the pick was made it is almost impossible to figure out.

But Roseman’s top picks as general manager is a mixed bag, at best. He absolutely knocked it out of the park with Fletcher Cox. Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Bennie Logan, Jason Kelce and Jordan Matthews were also very good picks.

But Roseman has also been in charge when the Eagles drafted Danny Watkins, Marcus Smith, Nate Allen, and Jaiquawn Jarrett. And although these players have turned out into solid starters, Roseman also had a hand in drafting Brandon Graham over Earl Thomas and Vinny Curry over Russell Wilson.

Even the best general managers miss, so we cannot demand perfection. And the initial returns on Wentz and Isaac Seumalo look promising. But the Eagles long term success is contingent on Roseman’s track record in the draft improving. And it starts next year, when the Eagles now have a first rounder and desperately need to infuse this team with young talent, especially now that it looks like Chip Kelly’s top two picks last year — Nelson Agholor and Eric Rowe — are not panning out.

5. The Eagles win total likely drops by a handful of games, but the season has become demonstrably more interesting to watch

Make no mistake, this is Carson Wentz’s team, a fact that Adam Caplan confirmed today:

This trade likely means the Eagles won’t be as competitive this year as we had hoped. Remember, Wentz has played one season of high school football, one and a half seasons of football at North Dakota State, and one half of a preseason game against 2nd and 3rd string competition. And until two days ago, Wentz was projected to be a third string quarterback with a year to work on his craft. Now, he has nine days to get ready to start in the NFL. The learning curve will be steep. Growing pains are to be expected. Mistakes like that red zone interception against the Bucs will occur, likely with a high level of frequency.

But, this might be the first trade in recent memory where it lowers a team’s ceiling but makes the fans more interested to watch. The long awaited future becomes the present. The hope for tomorrow is here today. Even though the Eagles won’t be as competitive, I would much rather spend this year watching Wentz’s maturation process than struggle through a mediocre season with Bradford at the helm.

And I’m especially excited to watch Wentz grow with his other weapons. Matthews and Ertz are firmly entrenched in the Eagles long term future. The quicker they can develop chemistry the better.

And this also gives us a chance to watch Wentz and DGB grow together. Can he and Wentz turn into the next great QB/WR tandem? Initially, DGB’s size will come in handy given Wentz’s habit of overthrowing his receivers. He should also become a favorite target in the redzone (hello fade route). But more importantly, this will accelerate the evaluation process of both prospects. The sooner the Eagles learn what they have in both players, the better.

6. This trade frees up much needed cap space for the Eagles next year

According to Spotract.com, Sam Bradford had a $17 million cap hit next season. And according to OverTheCap.com, the Eagles were projected to be $14 million over the cap for 2017.

While the Eagles likely could have free up cap space through roster cuts and restructuring contracts, removing Bradford’s $17 million cap hit goes a long way towards resigning pending free agent Bennie Logan. As I have said repeatedly all offseason, I think Logan has a big year for the Eagles, so signing him should be a high priority.

The Eagles also have some complimentary pieces hitting the market that they might want to retain: Nolan Carroll, Trey Burton, Donnie Jones and Caleb Sturgis. Losing any one of these guys (or more) won’t kill the team, but roster continuity is a valuable commodity. This trade improves their odds of retaining some key contributors next year, which can only be viewed as a good thing.

 

Five thoughts on the preseason

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

 

The Eagles just finished the preseason 4-0, and somewhat predictably, the glowing reviews are flowing in:

Now, I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer here, but it should be fairly obvious by now that preseason results are relatively meaningless. My favorite illustration of this comes courtesy of the 2008 Detroit Lions, who went 4-0 in the preseason but 0-16 during the regular season.  Or consider this study from the NY Times, which found that the last 18 teams that finished undefeated during the preseason went a combined 130-158 during the regular season. And of course, look no further than last year’s Eagles team, which looked unstoppable during the preseason but ended up coming woefully short when it mattered most.

It’s hard to watch preseason and not get excited when your team plays well. The game has every symptom of a regular football game, but with backups in key spots and teams not game planning for their opponents, we should take everything that we see with a grain of salt. With that said, here are five take-aways from the preseason after re-watching all of the Eagles games again.

  1. The Strength of this Team is the Defensive Line

This isn’t a shocker.

The Eagles defensive line has a chance to be special. How special likely depends on the health of Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan. If they play up to their considerable talents, this unit is going to terrorize quarterbacks all season long and could spearhead a top five defense.

Fletcher Cox is the anchor of the line and possess an otherworldly combination of size, strength, and athleticism. His hit on Andrew Luck nearly broke the internet last week, but I was more impressed with his ability to line up at defensive end and get to the quarterback. There aren’t more than three men his size in the world with that type of ability.

I still believe that Cox and Logan are going to take their games to the next level this season. This defense is going to allow them to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback, something they were prevented from doing under Billy Davis. And nothing I have seen so far has moved me off that thought process. If anything, it has just confirmed it.

But I have been just as impressed with the Eagles pass rushers. Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Connor Barwin look like naturals as 4-3 defensive ends, an impressive transition given that they have spent the last three years in a 3-4 defense. For the first time in a long time, the Eagles have multiple pass rushing threats. That type of depth is a rarity in today’s NFL.

 

I’ve also been impressed with the run defense. Lining up in the wide nine puts tremendous pressure on your linebackers, since they no longer have defensive lineman occupying the interior offensive line. That free release allows lineman to get up to the second level, leaving the defense vulnerable against the run.

So far, the Eagles have done an effective job limiting the run game. They have been funneling running backs back to Logan and Cox, the strength of this run defense. And the rest of the defense has been relentless in their pursuit of the football.

I am anxious to see if this run defense holds up once teams start game planning for the Eagles. We should expect to see a steady diet of draws, screens, counters, and other plays designed to take advantage of the running lanes up the middle. If the Eagles can adjust, this is a top 5 defense. If they can’t? Welp.

2.  Doug Pederson’s Offense won’t be Explosive, but it will be Creative, Effective and Efficient

I touched on this during my breakdown of the tight ends and running backs, but I think it deserves more attention. Andy Reid had many faults as a head coach, but knowing how to draw up plays to attack a defense was not one of them. And it seems like Pederson is cut from the same cloth.

I expect to see a lot of subtle play designs that maximize the Eagles talents while minimizing their weaknesses. Here are some quick thoughts on what we should see on a consistent basis:

  • Zach Ertz will finally have his breakout year. Pederson will look to use Ertz like Kansas City has used Travis Kelce. That means lining Ertz in the Y-Iso formation, split out as a wide receiver, and to be a focal point of the Eagles redzone offense. If you play fantasy, target Ertz as a high upside TE.
  • As we saw during the third preseason game, don’t be surprised if Trey Burton is more involved in the passing game as well. Burton is a versatile weapon that should line up all over the field. He won’t have a monster season — he’s the third string TE — but he will be a solid contributor.
  • Expect more 12 and 13 personnel to help the running game. Power football is back.
  • Darren Sproles is going to be in the top three in catches on this team, likely behind Ertz and Jordan Matthews. Screens will be a big part of that (remember how effective Reid was at calling them?), but we should also expect to see Sproles lined up in the slot and split out wide.
  • This offense won’t attack teams vertically. Sam Bradford is an obvious reason for this, as he has been allergic to deep passes during his career. The Eagles will instead methodically move the ball down the field via the horizontal passing game, which means plenty of digs, crossing routes, and slants.
  • If Pederson’s time in Kansas City is any indication, this won’t be a pure West Coast offense. Expect to see spread offense concepts incorporated into this offense, with bubble screens, read-options, packaged plays and yes, even some no huddle.
  • The offense won’t put up record numbers, but it will be efficient. Per FootballOutsiders.com, the Chiefs were 9th in points per drive last season, and 12th in 2014. And thanks to the Chiefs defense, they had the best starting field position in the NFL last season, up from 8th in 2014.

In other words, expect this offense to mirror what we saw from Andy Reid in Kansas City and during his early years with the Eagles. It won’t be flashy, it won’t be sexy, but it will be effective and efficient.

3. Sam Bradford is gonna Sam Bradford, but that might be OK.

I don’t have the energy for another season debating Sam Bradford. I did a fairly comprehensive breakdown of his game in the offseason, and feel confident in that assessment.

At this point in his career, it is unreasonable to expect Bradford to be anything other than what he has been: a mediocre starting quarterback — i.e., in the 15-20 range. Per Pro-football-reference.com, here is how Bradford stacks up with his contemporaries from a value added perspective:

  • 49. Jon Kitna
  • 50. Scott Mitchell
  • 51. Brad Johnson
  • 52. Mark Rypien
  • 53. Matt Cassell
  • 54. Matt Schaub
  • 55. Sam Bradford
  • 56. Kyle Orton
  • 57. Mark Sanchez
  • 58. Vince Young
  • 59. Jay Fielder
  • 60. Byron Leftwhich

Now, Bradford showed signs down the stretch last year. Could he finally turn it around and validate the potential that caused him to be the top overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft? Sure. It could happen. But is it likely? I don’t think so.

The good news is that Bradford doesn’t need to be a top flight quarterback for this team to compete in the woeful NFC East. The Kansas City Chiefs have gone 30-16 with Alex Smith as quarterback, and here are his per game averages, per Pro-Football-Reference.com:

Cmp

Att

Cmp%

Yds

TD

TD%

Int

Int%

Y/A

Rate

19.95

31.34

63.7%

218.8

1.32

4.2%

.43

1.4%

7.0

92.5

218 yards and 1 touchdown per game with 7 yards per attempt? That’s a Sam Bradford stat line if I’ve ever seen one.  Yet the Chiefs have made the playoffs in two of three seasons under Smith, winning 11 games in both seasons. The Chiefs accomplished that because of their strong defense and efficient offense. I don’t expect the Eagles to win 11 games, but I do expect the Eagles to have a strong defense and efficient offense. So who knows? Maybe we surprise some people this year.

4. Dorial Green-Beckham could be a good weapon for the Eagles

The Green-Beckham trade was a classic low risk, high reward move. And if the preseason play is any indication, the Eagles gamble might have paid off.

At 6’5, 237 lbs, DGB is every bit the red zone weapon, especially with the fade route. He is very good at high pointing the ball, using his size, athleticism and body control to his advantage.

Last year with the Titans, DGB was a low volume, high production wide receiver. His yards, average yards per catch, touchdowns, and catches of 20+ yards all ranked in the top 5 for rookie wide receivers.

FullSizeRender-4

But he has flashed the ability to be more than just a deep threat or redzone target. I was impressed by Green-Beckham’s ability on underneath routes last night against the Jets. He used great technique to beat press man coverage early on in the game:

The biggest knock on DGB out of Tennessee was his lack of consistency. There were rumors that he showed up to training camp out of shape and that he didn’t put in extra work to be great. Those bad habits might have been reflected in his catch rate last season, which was one of the worst rates among rookies:

FullSizeRender-5

It’s too early to call the DGB trade a success. He was traded for a reason. But it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which DGB is an effective weapon for this team, especially in the redzone. Anything beyond that, especially given the opportunity cost to acquire him, is gravy.

5. Yes, the Eagles can compete for the division

I don’t like to make predictions, but after studying the film I think the Eagles can finish this season anywhere between 7-9 and 9-7. Where they fall along that scale will likely depend on how healthy they are this year.

This team is not without flaws. The offensive line could be a mess. The corners aren’t going to lock anyone down. And the linebacking corp is one injury away from having serious issues. But as I’ve explained before, I think the Eagles scheme on both sides of the ball can limit some of these concerns.

If the Eagles were in a more competitive division like the NFC West, I’d expect them to do much worse. But the Cowboys don’t have Tony Romo for 6-10 weeks and I have no idea how they are going to get pressure on the quarterback. The Giants spent big in the offseason, but that rarely has proven to be an effective way to build a playoff contender. And while I like the roster that the Redskins have built, they are still depending on Kirk Cousins. You’ll have to excuse me for expecting him to regress this season.

The Eagles early season schedule also sets up nicely. They have the Browns at home — and let’s be honest, they are mailing it in this year — and get the Steelers without Le’Veon Bell, the Vikings without Teddy Bridgewater, and the Cowboys without Tony Romo. If they can build up some momentum, it could offset their brutal three week schedule starting Week 11: at Seattle, home against Green Bay, and at Cincinnati. Yikes.

I don’t expect the Eagles to break the 10 win barrier, but I do think they are good enough to hang around in what will likely be a weak NFC East.

 

Expect TEs and RBs to be a Focal Point of the Eagles offense

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

In case you haven’t noticed, the Eagles have several sizeable holes on the offensive side of the football. The only reliable receiver on the roster to date is Jordan Matthews, while the Eagles’ offensive line faces questions thanks to Jason Peters losing his battle with Father Time and Lane Johnson losing his battle with integrity. In a league predicated on protecting the quarterback and passing the football, that could spell trouble for the Eagles.

But the talent at tight end and running back could mitigate some of these concerns. Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and Trey Burton give the Eagles one of the deepest and most versatile tight end units in the league, and their presence should not only bolster the team’s receiving options but also help ameliorate the offensive line issues. And the oft-overlooked Darren Sproles could become a revelation in this offense, reassuming the Danny Woodhead-type role he practicaly invented in New Orleans.

These players could have helped the team last year, but Chip Kelly’s religious adherence to the 11 personnel — three wide receivers, one tight end, and one running back — meant more Miles Austin and Riley Cooper, and less Ertz, Celek, Burton, and Sproles. Of all the frustrating things about Kelly’s tenure (and there were many), his preference for allowing scheme to dictate playing time — instead of talent — was at the top of my list.

I would expect the opposite to occur under Doug Pederson, with tight end and running back being key cogs on this offense, especially in the passing game. Look no further than Pederson’s mentor, Andy Reid, to get an idea of how involved they could become. Dating back to 2000, Andy Reid coached teams have had a running back or tight end rank in the top two on the team in catches every single year (all numbers courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com):

That’s 15 years of heavily involving the running backs and tight ends in the passing game. That should be welcomed news for a team that — as Brent laid out earlier — have yet to see a good return on their investment in the wide receiver position.

More Tight Ends Please: 12 and 13 Personnel and the Y-Iso

Both Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich recently praised the tight ends as a strength of the Eagles’ offense, hinting that they will have an expanded role this year. And if Pederson’s time at Kansas City is any indication — where they routinely relied on 12 (two tight end sets) and 13 (three tight ends) personnel groups — he will follow through on that promise.

We saw this on the first drive of the first preseason game, when the Eagles lined up three tight ends in a power run formation deep in the red zone. It was a jarring site to behold after watching three straight years of the Eagles foolishly running exclusively out of the shotgun:

The benefits of using multiple tight ends in the run game are obvious. Tight ends are typically larger, and better blockers than receivers, so it helps create better lanes for a running back to exploit. The extra reinforcements will be especially important during the first 10 weeks of the season when Lane Johnson is suspended.

The extra blockers should also help in the passing game. Last season, the Chiefs had issues all along their offensive line, but especially at the guard position. The Chiefs combated those concerns by keeping in extra blockers to buy Alex Smith more time to attack the defense down field.

Here, the Chiefs line up in 12 personnel, with Kelce and Demetrius Harris as the two tight ends. Kelce gets open and scores an easy 42-yard touchdown, but the play was made possible by Harris and center Mitch Morse double teaming J.J. Watt.

Given Celek’s strength as a blocker, I would expect to see him giving help to Allen Barbre often this season, easing the blow of losing Johnson to suspension. It’s a smart use of the players at your disposal, but was rarely something that Kelly did last season.

Extra tight ends has the secondary benefit of setting up the play-action pass, which is one of the few areas that Sam Bradford performed at an elite level last year. Indeed, if you continue to run the ball down a defense’s throat with the 12 or 13 personnel, they will counter by stacking 8 men in the box to stop the run. That creates easy pickings for the play action pass over the top, something the Chiefs used successfully last season with Travis Kelce:

The Chiefs routinely exploited the matchup problems Kelce’s size, speed and route running ability presented. He was too big for safeties, too fast for opposing linebackers, and that mismatch was especially problematic in the redzone. But it didn’t just occur by happenstance. Pederson/Reid purposefully designed plays to get Kelce in favorable matchups in the end zone.

Watch this play design. The Chiefs are using their 13 personnel, with three tight ends lined up at the top of the screen. Kelce is on the outside and is going to run a post pattern in the end zone. But watch as Harris and James O’Shaughnessy run staggered post and in routes at 5 and 10 yard intervals, respectively. They occupy the middle linebackers and safeties, freeing up Kelce for a one-on-one matchup on the outside.

Zach Ertz presents a similar matchup problem for opposing defenses, and flashed big time talent down the stretch last year catching 30 passes over the final three games of the season. But Kelly rarely designed plays for his best players, including Ertz. Kelly believed that he could scheme players open and expected his quarterback to find the open target, regardless of who it was. I don’t expect that to be a problem this year. Ertz should quickly become Sam Bradford’s favorite red zone target, with Pederson designing plays like the one above to get Ertz in favorable matchups.

Pederson will also look to generate favorable matchups by the location in which tight ends are placed on the field. The Chiefs routinely spread tight ends out wide against cornerbacks, which is like posting up a power forward on a shooting guard. It just isn’t a fair matchup for the defense.

 

The final, and perhaps most significant way we will see the tight ends get more involved is through the “Y-Iso” formation.  The formation consists of trip wide receivers on one side of the formation and a tight end lined up in the Y receiver spot on the other side. Bill Belichick reintroduced this to the league a few years back, unleashing Rob Gronkowski on unsuspecting defensive backs in a hilariously unfair mismatch.The Chiefs — and many other teams in the NFL — followed the Patriots lead and have used the Y-Iso formation to great success.

According to Pro Football Focus, the amount of snaps in the Y-Iso formation has more than doubled since 2011, rising from 1,569 to 3,503 in 2015. The Chiefs and San Diego — were Frank Reich was the offensive coordinator — ranked fourth and fifth in the league in Y-Iso snaps, respectively.

In week 16 last year against the Browns, the Chiefs lined up Kelce in the Y-Iso formation at the bottom of the screen, while three receivers were split out on the opposite side of the field. Kelce is matched up one-on-one with Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, who has safety help over the top. That is, until Jeremy Maclin occupies the safety just long enough to free Kelce for the easy score.

If you watch Maclin closely on this play, I am not entirely sure he is even looking to catch the ball. It looks like he ran his route solely for the purpose of occupying the safety so that Kelce could get free. Regardless, that is just a great play design by the Chiefs, and another example of how Ertz, Celek and Burton could be used this season.

 

The Return of Darren Sproles

I’ve already laid out why I think Mathews could be an effective running back, but even at the tender age of 34, Sproles could finally become the dynamic threat in the passing game we all envisioned when he was acquired from the Saints. Sproles was Danny Woodhead before Danny Woodhead, and that fact was not lost on Frank Reich (who was Woodhead’s offensive coordinator last year in San Diego):

When Sproles was acquired by the Eagles in the 2014 offseason, he was coming off back to back seasons of being targeted over 100 times. During those two years, Sproles caught a combined 161 passes for 1,377 yards, and 14 touchdowns. He was a matchup nightmare and one of Drew Brees’ favorite targets.

But in Sproles’ three seasons with the Eagles, he has caught only 166 passes for 1,379 yards and 3 touchdowns. Kelly often praised Sproles dynamic ability, but failed to consistently use him.

If Frank Reich’s use of Danny Woodhead in San Diego is any indication, I wouldn’t expect that to continue. In 2013 and 2015 (Woodhead missed most of 2014 due to injury), Woodhead combined for 156 catches, 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns in the air. Woodhead was Phillip River’s safety valve and one of his favorite red zone targets. And despite being viewed as only a third down back, Woodhead had 597 offensive snaps last season according to FootballOutsiders.com, which ranked 13th in the league among running backs and was 201 more snaps than Melvin Gordon, who was supposedly the starter.

Comparatively, Sproles had 393 offensive snaps last year under Chip Kelly, which ranked 35th in the league and placed him behind the likes of Theo Riddick and Isaiah Crowell. Even if Sproles isn’t used as often as Woodhead was last year — and indeed, I would be surprised if he was given his age — I expect to see smarter play designs aimed at getting the ball in Sproles hands.

Notice the play design here? It’s the Y-Iso formation we covered earlier. This play isn’t as important so much as what it does for setting up Woodhead to score on the next series, but play along for a minute. Ladarius Green is in the Y-Iso formation with Melvin Gordon lined up in the backfield on the same side of the field.  Green breaks free on a crossing pattern and scoots in for the easy score.

On the very next drive down in the red zone, the Charges call the same Y-Iso formation, this time with Green on the opposite side of the field and with Woodhead in the backfield instead of Gordon. Having just been burned by Green for a touchdown, the Raiders defense doubles Green, leaving Woodhead wide open for an easy score.

This is a great play call from Frank Reich and an example of how an offensive coordinator can set up certain play calls during the course of a game. Reich knew the defense would recognize the formation and stick Green, and used that aggressiveness against them. Sub in Ertz and Sproles for Green and Woodhead — different players, but likely the same results.

The Chargers didn’t just target Woodhead out of the backfield, either. They did a great job moving Woodhead all over the field, splitting him out wide and lining him up in the slot. Against the Dolphins (where Woodhead scored 4 total touchdowns), Woodhead was able to spring free with a nifty out and up route for a score.

Later in the game, the Chargers again dialed up a play designed to spring Woodhead for an easy score. Woodhead is lined up out wide on the lower side of the field, while the Dolphins are in man coverage with a single high safety.  The Chargers break Woodhead open by running a pick play on Woodhead’s man. That’s just easy money.

 

Over the last few years, I have been calling for the Eagles to use Sproles in a similar fashion. He is so difficult to cover in space given his precise route running and overall shiftiness. They rarely took advantage of that the last three seasons, but I expect to see Sproles (and perhaps Smallwood) get an opportunity to shine in the passing game this year.

I came into this season with serious reservations about the Eagles offense and their head coach, Doug Pederson. I still have those reservations, but digging into the film more gives me some hope that the offense will not be a total train wreck.

Both Pederson and Reich have a history of catering their scheme to their personnel, which is a nice contrast from the Chip Kelly experience. Given the Eagles holes at receiver and the potential issues along the offensive line, I expect to see the tight ends and Darren Sproles more heavily involved in the offense. It might not be the most prolific offense in the league, but it should be more effective and efficient than what we saw the last two years.

 

Eagles WRs – Concentration of Draft Resources

There is a potential disaster looming for the Eagles.  I think we can all agree on that, even though many might want to stay in denial for a little while longer.

I’m talking, of course, about the WRs corps.  Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Josh Huff, Chris Givens, Rueben Randle, Dorial Green-Beckham.  And whoever else you want to throw in there (preseason star Paul Turner, perhaps?)  Of that group, only Matthews has proven himself to be a viable starter.  Beyond that, though, things look bleak.

However, my purpose today isn’t to scout or analyze the players.  Instead, I want to examine how we got here and what it means for the future.  Specifically, the WR corps is so disappointing not because it’s bad (though that certainly sucks), but because of how much the Eagles invested in it.  In the 2013-2015 drafts, the Eagles used a 1st (Agholor), a 2nd (Matthews), and a 3rd (Huff) round pick on wide receivers.  That’s a lot….I think.

It certainly feels like a lot of draft resources devoted to one position, but I wasn’t quite satisfied with that.

But how does the Eagles investment compare to the rest of the league?

I took a look at every player drafted between 2013-2015, and looked to see which teams spent the most resources at which positions.  I used the PFR draft pick value chart to assign discrete values to each pick.  It’s not a perfect method, for reasons I won’t get into, but it as good as any I can think of short of designing my own value system.

In the 2013, 2014, and 2015 drafts, the Eagles spent 1490 “draft points” on WRs.  For comparison, the #1 overall pick is worth 3000 points.  Over that same timeframe, there were 5 teams that actually devoted more draft points to WRs, and how they did it.

1 – Buffalo Bills (2492 2995 draft points)

Sammy Watkins (#4 overall via trade of #9, #19, and #115, 2289 points total), Robert Woods (#41 overall, 490 points), Marquise Goodwin (#78, 200), and Dezmin Lewis (#234, 2).

As you can see, using the #4 pick on Watkins was a huge investment, and counts for more than all of the Eagles picks combined (and then some).  Fortunately for the Bills, Watkins looks like a star.  He has 2000+ yards combined in his first 2 seasons, and registered a 62.5% catch rate last year with 17.5 yards per reception.

2 – Oakland Raiders (1811 draft points)

Similar to Buffalo, Oakland’s investment is comprised mostly (almost entirely) by its use of the #4 overall pick on Amari Cooper.  The team also used a couple of 7th round picks on Brice Butler and Andre Debose (no clue who those guys are).

As with Watkins, though, Oakland seems to have landed a star talent, which is pretty much mandatory for use of a top 5 pick.  In his rookie year, Cooper at 1070 yards on 72 catches and 14.9 yards per reception.  His catch rate was 55%.  Any way you look at it, that’s a very impressive rookie season for a WR.  Anyone who watched him play knows that his ceiling is also much higher than his stat line from last season suggests.

3 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1562 draft points)

Mike Evans (#7 overall, 1500 points), Robert Heron (#185, 17.4 points), and Kenny Bell (#162, 26.6).

Seeing a theme, here?  Tampa’s investment was also a high first round pick, and Mike Evans has been very good (inefficiency is the only knock on him, as he benefitted a lot from high usage and his catch rate over two seasons is just 52.5%).  Still, 2257 yards, 15.9 yards per reception, and 15 touchdowns over his first 2 seasons is impressive.

4 – Los Angeles Rams (1543 draft points)

Tavon Austin (#8 overall, 1400 points), Stedman Bailey (#92, 132), Bud Sasser (#201, 11)

Finally, we get to see what happens when a team misses on a high pick.  The selection of Austin was worth nearly as much as the Eagles total investment, and he’s been a huge disappointment.  He hasn’t gained more than 473 yards receiving in a season (through 3), and his yards per reception is just 9.2.  Stedman Bailey has been similarly ineffective, though he’s received far fewer targets.

5 – Chicago Bears (1502 draft points)

Kevin White (#7 overall, 1500 points), and Marquess Wilson (#236, 2).

White was injured prior to his rookie year, and has yet to play a game.


So that’s it.  Those are the 5 teams that spent more on WRs in the draft than the Eagles did from 2013-2015.  Every one of them used a top 10 pick, which makes up the bulk of their investment.  The Eagles, by comparison, took a more balanced approach:

Nelson Agholor (#20 overall, 800 points), Jordan Matthews (#42 overall, 480 points), and Josh Huff (#86 overall, 160 points).

Matthews has been the saving grace of that group, accounting for 68% of the total Approximate Value contributed by the three players (13 out of 19).

Still, he clearly doesn’t have the high-end potential of the top players listed above.  So while there might be 5 teams that invested more, it looks like at least 3 of them are going to walk away with a long-term star at WR, or at least a strong #1.  The Bears can’t be graded.  That leaves the Rams as the only team that invested as much and got less from its investment.

Of course, we haven’t even touched on the second order effects of such an investment.  The opportunity cost of those picks is huge, especially as we look at the other holes on the team.  That’s also where this analysis is weakest.  The top ten picks count for A LOT, but they’re still just one draft selection (though in theory they could be freely traded for more picks).  The Eagles, instead, used 3 separate selections on the WR position.  While that increased the odds of getting at least 1 starter (Matthews), it also meant having fewer resources to devote to the rest of the team (ahem…offensive line…).

Moreover, the Eagles didn’t stop there.  The team made another concentrated investment in the QB position.  The team used two 1st round picks, a 2nd round pick, and a 3rd rounder  to get Wentz (I’m just cancelling the swapped 4th rounders out).  They also used a 4th round pick on Matt Barkley in 2013.  Oh dear, I originally forgot the 2nd round pick used to acquire Sam Bradford. 

So, to make things clearer, over the past 4 drafts, the Eagles have used the following on the QB and WR positions:

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 3.26.19 PM

And they’ve come out with Carson Wentz and Jordan Matthews….

That, folks, is how you (potentially) destroy a team for a long time.  It means that if Carson Wentz is anything less than a true star at QB, it’ll be a long time before the team is ready to be a top contender again.

That doesn’t mean all hope is lost.  The defense looks good, and as the Giants showed (twice), even mediocre teams can win a Super Bowl if they get a great string of luck.  However, the days of perennial division titles and conference championships aren’t coming back anytime soon (unless Wentz is great).  Roster management and the draft is just an exercise in asset allocation.  The Eagles were very good at that for a long time, but lost discipline during the Chip Kelly era.  Unfortunately, it’s going to take a while to climb back out of that hole.

Pre-emptive argument note:  I’ve been a strong advocate of “saturation drafting” in the past.  However, I’ve always used that to mean using multiple LATE ROUND picks on the same position, as a way to maximize the odds of getting a rosterable player when your only options are low-probability lottery tickets.  The key to why that strategy is effective is how low the opportunity cost of those picks is.  Hence, applying the same logic to the top of the draft doesn’t work, because the opportunity cost there is huge.

 

 

 

Don’t Forget About Ryan Mathews

Patrick Causey; Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

There is a lot of angst surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles, most of which is justified. Sam Bradford is predictably mediocre. Lane Johnson is facing a 10 game suspension and the 34-year old Jason Peters will likely regress thanks to father time, so the offensive line figures to be a mess. And save for Jordan Matthews, the wide receivers look wholly unreliable.

But those legitimate concerns are starting to distort people’s views of some otherwise talented players on this football team. The perfect example is Ryan Mathews, who was one of the lone bright spots last season for the Eagles offense.

While concerns over Mathews’ injury history are fair, some have taken it a step further, suggesting that the Eagles backfield will be a train wreck and that Mathews should be outright released by the team. But a deeper look at Mathews’ productivity and film suggests that these types of reactions are completely unjustified.

The Numbers

Last year, Mathews totaled 106 carries for 539 yards with six rushing touchdowns, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. While his total numbers were underwhelming, he was an highly effective runner in the limited opportunities that he received. Mathews 5.1 yards per carry ranked second in the NFL among qualifying running backs, according to ESPN.com, behind only Thomas Rawls of the Seattle Seahawks.

FootballOutsiders.com had Mathews rated as a top 10 running back in 2015 by both of its key metrics: DYAR and DVOA. As a refresher (or introduction), DYAR, or defensive adjusted yards above replacement, is a metric which FO defines as providing  “the value of the performance on plays where this RB carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage,” whereas DVOA, which stands for defensive adjusted value over average, is defined as the “value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player’s performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense.”

In other words, DVOA and DYAR attempt to place value on a running back’s play compared to how an average player at that position would perform, and adjusts for the situation and quality of opponent.

As you can see in the below charts, Mathews excelled in both metrics:

DYAR Rankings for 2015

Rank Player Team DYAR
1 Rawls Sea 216
2 Forte Chi 192
3 Williams Pit 184
4 Gurley Stl 170
5 Bell Pit 162
6 Peterson Min 143
7 McCoy Buf 139
8 Johnson Ari 133
9 Mathews Phi 133
10 Bernard Cin 131

DVOA Rankings for 2015

Rank Player Team DVOA
1 Bell Pit 28.1%
2 Rawls Sea 26.4%
3 Mathews Phi 20.4%
4 Johnson Ari 15.7%
5 Langford Chi 12.7%
6 Williams Pit 12.1%
7 Forte Pit 12.0%
8 Bernard Cin 11.8%
9 Gurley Stl 10.0%
10 Forsett Bal 9.1%

Mathews’ ranking on this list probably surprised some of you,  which is a testament to how narratives can distort our view of a player’s value. His DVOA ranking is particularly impressive, with Mathews besting the likes of Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley, and Matt Forte, three of the best running backs in the league. While we cannot completely take these rankings at face value —  I don’t think anyone would argue that Mathews is a better running back than Gurley, Forte or Peterson   — these numbers underscore how much we might be overlooking Mathews as a viable option this season.

(Side note: for those wondering, DeMarco Murray ranked 39th out of 44 running backs in DYAR, and ranked 40th out of 44 in DVOA).

The Film

So what makes Mathews so effective? At 6’2, 220 lbs, Mathews is often described as a physically imposing, one cut, downhill runner. And indeed, Mathews doesn’t shy away from contact, as he flashes an aggressive disposition when running the football:

But it would be a mistake to pigeon hole Mathews into the downhill, thumper roll. Mathews also has good burst for a player his size, using his 4.45 40 time to beat defenders to the edge for big plays. Last season, Mathews had 5 runs for 20 yards or more, including a 63 yard touchdown against the NFL’s best defense, the Carolina Panthers.

And while Mathews will never be mistaken for LeSean McCoy, he also flashed the ability to make defenders miss, a skill set that was valuable last year given the offensive line’s incompetence (which might come in handy again this season):

In other words, Mathews possesses a rare combination of size, speed and agility, and has the Pro Bowl credentials to justify being a lead running back on a football team.

But there are two criticisms holding him back in the eyes of Eagles fans and the media: his ability to catch the ball and injury history.

Catching Ball

It’s a prerequisite for a running back to be able to catch the football in order to excel in Andy Reid’s (and by extension, Doug Pederson’s), West Coast offense. Jamaal Charles caught 75 passes combined over the 2010-2012 seasons, but in Reid’s first season in Kansas City in 2013, Charles caught 70 passes for 693 years and 7 touchdowns. From 2004-08, Brian Westbrook averaged 71 catches for 638.2 yards and 4.8 touchdowns per season.

Many have suggested that Mathews won’t fit this scheme given his struggles catching the football. Indeed, reading that last sentence likely conjured up memories for you of some horrific drops from Mathews last year:

But the concerns over Mathews ability to catch the football are being overstated. Per Prof-Football-Reference.com, Mathews has caught 166 of 212 passes during his career, which equates to a 78.3% catch rate. That actually bests Jamaal Charles career catch rate of  69.8%, (283/405) and — brace yourself — Brian Westbrook’s catch rate of 73.7% (442/599)

Admittedly, Mathews has been targeted much less frequently (212)  than Westbrook (599) and Charles (405). But 212 targets is a large enough sample size that his production should not be ignored. Mathews was reliable catching the ball out of the backfield last year, suggesting that he could be even more effective in an expanded roll this season.

Injuries

Without question, Mathews injury history is concerning. He has played in only 73 of 96 potential games during his career, and an argument can be made that it will only get worse as Mathews gets older. We already saw Mathews miss nine days of training camp because of an injury he suffered before he even started practicing. How can Mathews be counted upon if he cannot take the field?

Not to downplay those concerns, but there is a silver lining to his injury history. Mathews has only played in 19 of 32 games over the last two seasons, carrying the ball 180 times during that span. Most starting running backs eclipse 180 carries in a single season, so this actually can help Mathews’ longevity in the league since he has less wear and tear than your typical 28-year old running back.

And let’s put his injury history into context. Mathews has averaged 12.16 games per season during his career. Westbrook averaged 13.8 games per season when he was the Eagles primary running back (2004-08). And Charles has a career average of 10.6 games per season over his eight year career.

Again, Mathews’ injury history isn’t ideal. But Westbrook and Charles have proven that you can be an effective running back despite missing a few games per season (ditto Arian Foster during his prime).

I don’t expect Ryan Mathews to contend for a rushing title this year. I don’t expect Mathews to morph into Westbrook or Charles in their primes. But I do think it is reasonable to expect Mathews to have a productive season as the Eagles lead back, even if he misses a few games due to a nagging injury.