Room to Improve for LeSean McCoy as a Receiver

LeSean McCoy

LeSean McCoy had an All-World rushing season last year, racking up 1300 yards and 17 touchdowns, good enough for best in the NFL in DYAR, by far. McCoy is also a more complete player than most other backs. His pass blocking has, by all accounts, improved significantly since he entered the league. And out of the backfield, McCoy has caught 166 balls over the last three seasons — third-most among all running backs.

Despite all those catches, however, there still seems to be room for improvement in the receiving department. While McCoy has already met or surpassed his mentor’s rushing ability, Brian Westbrook was a much more natural receiver. In fact, he was probably the best wideout the Eagles had for a number of years there.

At a basic level, Westbrook averaged 8.9 yards per catch over his entire career. McCoy has only managed 7.3 yards. That’s a large difference, although it’s hard to tell exactly why McCoy is deficient in that area.

One way to get a second-level look at McCoy’s receiving stats is to look at his receptions by distance. Pro Football Focus tracks passes thrown by direction, including whether those passes were thrown behind or in front of the line of scrimmage. Here is McCoy’s receiving production by year, delineated by passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage and past it:

LeSean McCoy Receiving Statistics

For starters, McCoy has always been targeted more in the backfield. Most of those are swing passes, screen passes, and shovels. However, at least until this year, he was also turning those passes into bigger gains. There’s an interesting trend, which may or may not be significant, where McCoy’s screens have become less effective each season while his receptions on pass routes past the line of scrimmage resulted in bigger gains.

(Note that YAC, yards after catch, include yards gained behind the line of scrimmage.)

So that’s interesting. But in order to get any context for those numbers, we have to compare them to other running backs. I averaged the 2011 reception figures for five comparable backs: Darren Sproles, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, Arian Foster, and Matt Forte.

Other Running Backs Receiving Statistics

In many ways, these backs had the opposite production of McCoy. Most of their receptions came from routes past the line of scrimmage, not screens and swing passes. They were also more effective running those real pass routes than McCoy, with an average of 10.8 yards per catch beyond the line of scrimmage.

Granted, the reason McCoy runs few wide receiver-type routes is because he’s so valuable in the backfield — even as a decoy. But that’s true about these other running backs as well.

One way McCoy can take his game to the next level would be to apply himself this offseason to becoming a better route-runner and receiver when put in motion out of the backfield. That extra element made Brian Westbrook a multidimensional threat, and McCoy would be wise to follow in his footsteps.

Photo from Getty.

How the Eagles Misused Brent Celek in 2010

Brent Celek Play Pass Blocking 2010 Philadelphia Eagles

During Andy Reid’s online chat with fans at Philly.com yesterday, he was asked a question, “What are you going to do differently this year so that Brent Celek gets involved more?” Andy’s answer wasn’t particularly revealing, as usual. He only said that the team needed to put “more emphasis” on the short to intermediate passing game.

I’ve already talked about Celek’s disappointing season and have laid a large part of the blame on Michael Vick’s shoulders. When Celek was running routes, he just wasn’t being targeted as often. And throwing over the middle was where Vick was most inaccurate.

But the other side was just how differently the Eagles used Celek in 2010 from the previous season. His chances to go run routes as a receiver dropped and he was called on to pass block a lot more.

Brent Celek Play Pass Blocking 2010 DataTake a gander at the table at right. Celek was still a receiver most of the time, but his snaps as a pass blocker increased by more than half. Instead of blocking once for every six times he ran a route, Celek was a receiver only 3.4 times for every play of pass protection in 2010.

A number of factors contributed to this change in how the Eagles used Celek. The offensive line was having trouble, especially the right side with Winston Justice. However, it wasn’t as though the Eagles were constantly trying to help out the offensive line. They had the seventh-least number of blockers per pass play in the NFL. Another problem was the loss of Leonard Weaver, who was a solid pass protector. He blocked more often and more efficiently than both LeSean McCoy and Brian Westbrook in 2009.

Someone had to pick up the pass protection slack. But, unfortunately, Celek is simply a bad blocker — and he didn’t get any better with more practice. Look at the Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) statistic in the table above, calculated from PFF. It shows the total pressures allowed per blocking play. While Celek was alright in 2009, last year he was awful. He was the seventh-worst tight end in the NFL, yet the Eagles made him pass block more than all but four other players at his position.

That’s insanity. Wide receivers are the focal point of the offense, but Celek should be a great weapon down the middle, helping to keep the defenses honest. Making him pass block more not only removes that asset, but actually make Celek a liability.

Photo from Getty. Originally published at NBC Philadelphia.

Who's the Better Back: McCoy or Westbrook?

LeSean McCoy Brian Westbrook Comparison 2010 2004 Philadelphia Eagles

Recently, free agent and former Eagle Brian Westbrook said that he would like to return to Philadelphia. While such a move might make sense if Andy Reid wanted a veteran back-up, the truth is that Westbrook is a forgotten man in Philadelphia, where LeSean McCoy’s stellar 2010 campaign wiped away any doubts that he could fill his mentor’s big shoes.

When the Eagles let Westbrook walk last offseason, many people wondered if McCoy was ready for the starting job. His rookie season showed promise, but McCoy was still raw. He danced too much before hitting the hole, hadn’t mastered blocking assignments, and couldn’t be counted on in the passing game. But after changing his uniform number and physique in the offseason, McCoy was stellar in 2010. In fact, McCoy was one of the most consistent offensive leaders, racking up big numbers despite injuries at quarterback and holes along the offensive line.

However, one question remains. Is he better than Westbrook? That’s an easy answer regarding the 2010 versions of each, but we have to compare apples to apples. As I did early last season, I’m going to look at Westbrook’s 2004 season and McCoy’s 2010 — both seasons being the running back’s first as the unquestioned starter. Here are the stats:

LeSean McCoy Brian Westbrook Statistics Comparison

I broke down the numbers by rushing and receiving, so let’s examine them in that order.

Westbrook and McCoy had a shockingly similar number of carries in the same 16 games, including playoffs. Yet see who was the more efficient runner? Looks like Shady has a leg up on his predecessor at this point in his career. McCoy averaged half a yard more per carry and scored four more touchdowns. He also scored big DVOA points compared to Westbrook and had a higher Success Rate, another Football Outsiders stat that measures consistency. McCoy did benefit from a slightly better run-blocking offensive line, according to FO’s Adjusted Line Yards, but the difference was marginal at best. McCoy, in his first season as the feature back, was clearly the better runner.

Then, when you look at the receiving numbers, the paradigm shifts. Westbrook had a significantly higher Yards per Reception figure and scored eight huge touchdowns. Plus, while McCoy’s DVOA is solid, Westbrook’s is incredible. Number 36 was simply a better receiving threat.

What does this mean? Putting it simply: McCoy is a better rusher, but a worse receiver than Westbrook was at the same time in his career. That redistribution of talent fits perfectly with the rest of the Eagles current roster, which is already bursting at the seams with explosive outside threats. There’s less of a need to design pass plays for the running back when DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are on the outside (not that Terrell Owens was a slacker).

Even with these differences, it’s fascinating to watch McCoy follow in Westbrook’s footsteps, performing the same dual-threat running back role. Already, McCoy lived up to Westbrook’s example and has surpassed the 31 year-old in some areas. Only thing to see now is if McCoy can sustain it into the future.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.