Are you curious why the Eagles drafted a second tight end, Dallas Goedert, when they already have Pro Bowler and Super Bowl-winner Zach Ertz on the roster? Look no further than The Athletic, where I penned an article recently that examined the Eagles' use of multiple tight end sets last year. The numbers surprised me, especially what emerged about the Eagles in the red zone, in the playoffs, and specifically the effectiveness of Ertz and Trey Burton in the same formation. Make sure to subscribe to The Athletic Philly (hat tip to the inimitable Sheil Kapadia for asking me to contribute) and check it out:
Last year, the Eagles led the NFL in rushing by a sizable margin, despite routinely facing extra defenders in the box who loaded up to stop LeSean McCoy and the deadly zone-read attack.
This year could hardly be more different. On Sunday against the 49ers, the Eagles rushed the ball 12 times for an anemic 22 yards, the fourth-worst performance in franchise history since 1970. And this was against one of the least-stacked defensive fronts the Eagles have faced since Chip Kelly took over.
See for yourself. Here's how the Saints lined up against the Eagles to start the playoff game last year:
Even against a three-wide receiver look, the Saints dropped their second safety down into the box to combat the run, giving them seven defenders against six blockers. The Eagles faced stacked defenses like this all year -- and still bullied their way to 5.1 yards per carry.
By contrast, here's the predominant defensive alignment the Eagles faced on Sunday:
We're in No-22 territory here, but you don't need the overhead angle to see what's going on. On 1st and 10 in the beginning of the second quarter against what's supposed to be one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the NFL, the 49ers only put six defenders in the box and dropped both safeties at least 15 yards down-field.
Kelly normally salivates over this kind of defensive front. He has six blockers on the line against their six defenders -- a numerical advantage. Plus, Kelly can tip the scale further in his favor by having his quarterback read one defensive end, giving his offensive line and tight end a six to five hat-on-hat advantage. Last year, McCoy would have gained 20 yards before being touched.
You can re-watch the play yourself on Game Rewind, but it was not pretty. Forgoing the read-option for straight hand off, the Eagles ran what I believe is a Power Play. David Molk and Dennis Kelly blocked down on the defensive tackles, Todd Herremans and Brent Celek double-teamed the end, and Matt Tobin pulled to lead McCoy into the hole.
Some watchers have criticized LeSean McCoy recently for dancing in the hole, but there wasn't much of one here. As McCoy charged in, both Molk and Kelly were pushed back into his face. Meanwhile, the 49ers left defensive end split his double team. McCoy was tackled for a one yard gain.
EDIT: Fran Duffy over at PE.com looked at the same play in his weekly All-22 post.
This happened over and over. The 49ers didn't do anything special. They just played the exact opposite of every defense the Eagles faced last year: kept their safeties back in a prevent look and dared the beat-up offensive line to open holes for McCoy man-on-man. And the Eagles failed, over and over again.
There are a number of conclusions to take away from this. The first is obvious: bringing back Lane Johnson against the St. Louis Rams better improve the offensive line in a hurry. If the Eagles can't create running room when they have a numbers advantage, this is going to be a long season.
There are broader questions too. Can Nick Foles and the wide receivers step up and win games on their own? Any quarterback is going to struggle when he has no consistent run game or pass protection -- and especially when neither is the result of a concerted effort by the defense to stack the box and/or blitz. Last year opponents tried to stop McCoy and dared Foles to beat them through the air. San Francisco was one of the first teams to challenge the young quarterback with extra defenders in coverage.
Foles has been inconsistent through the first four games, showing an indecisiveness we didn't see during the team's miracle run last year. He double clutches too many balls and his long throws have been inaccurate. But he doesn't share all the blame. While Maclin has stepped up more than almost anyone expected, he still doesn't have the breakaway speed to get separation on deep routes. And Riley Cooper, lord of the drops, has a putrid 5 yards per target.
Also, at some point in the offseason Kelly trashed (or at least mothballed) the zone-read part of his offense. You see Foles keep the ball every now and then, but the Eagles have largely abandoned any effort to constrain the defense with that threat. A running quarterback could punish the light defensive front the 49ers played so often on Sunday. For now, with Foles, the Kelly offense has lost one of its great weapons -- a third dimension that wins games when all else fails.
The run game should improve when the offensive line gets healthy, but if not, we'll see how long that decision holds.
This time last year, fresh off a sickening 4-12 season and the long-anticipated firing of one of the best coaches in franchise history, we watched as the Eagles spun their wheels in a coaching search. Fresh off being rejected by some of their top candidates, the organization seemed to be turning toward Gus Bradley, although interviews with Bruce Arians, Brian Kelly, and rumblings about Ken Whisenhunt cast an ominous cloud over the proceedings. It wouldn't be until January 16th that Oregon's belle finally came back around and agreed to a surprise contract in Philadelphia.
Chip Kelly's arrival was met with lots of fanfare, and more than a few skeptics. I won't bother to link to those old columns written about the "college coach" and his "gimmick offense," but suffice it to say that no one's a skeptic now. If anything, we're still underestimating the job he did in his first year. Before the season began, I found all 113 teams in Football Outsiders' database that finished 20th or worse in both offensive and defensive DVOA. Those bad teams had an average overall DVOA improvement of +11.9% in their next season. Kelly's Eagles, as it stands now, posted a +37.8% increase, the third-largest jump on record.
But with an early bounce from the playoffs, the long offseason looms and more changes are inevitable. In today's NFL, huge improvement can always be followed by huge disappointment. In my opinion, the Eagles are much more likely to add to, grow from, and improve off of their 2013 success. But that's far from guaranteed. Here's where the team goes from here:
1. Prune The Dead Wood
Being only a year away from a 4-12 season, there are still a number of players on the Eagles roster who shouldn't be around at training camp next year, whether for reasons of age, performance, or both. Let's do a quick roundup of the top targets.
- Todd Herremans: Even moving back to guard this season didn't seem to halt the Toddfather's decline. He's not the worst guard in the league, but Herremans was the weakest link on the offensive line and you can't expect him to get better heading into his age-32 season. Maybe you offer a restructured contract and the chance to compete for his job, but guard is one of the more fungible starting positions in the league. Time to see if there's a younger, less expensive backup who can take over.
- Trent Cole: The Eagles' longtime DE-turned-OLB passed Clyde Simmons for second place on the Eagles all time sack list with a late season revival. Like Herremans, Cole is heading into his age-32 season and the third year of a contract extension. Despite his resurgence in the second half of the season, Cole never fully adjusted to his linebacker role and couldn't rescue the Eagles' moribund pass rush. We wish him the best, but it's time to move on.
- Brent Celek: Another member of the old guard, Celek turns 29 before the end of the month. He proved his worth blocking, made some key receptions down the stretch, and finished with his highest DVOA since 2008. But Zach Ertz figures to replace him more and more as the down-the-field tight end. Celek is probably still a useful player on this team for his versatility, but he's not worth the $4 million salary he's due next year. Prime (Stache) restructure candidate.
- James Casey: That was always a one year deal, disguised as three years. Not a bad blocker (and the Eagle could use an H-Back/FB from time to time), but barely saw the field the field for anything else. He probably would rather seek his fortune elsewhere too, although maybe he comes back on a reduced salary as the 3rd TE.
- Jason Avant: While Riley Cooper and DeSean Jackson had big DVOA improvement, Avant was one of the few Eagles offensive players to decline this year. He had perhaps his worse season statistically in at least 5 years. Love the leadership, but Avant's not sticking around.
- Patrick Chung: Another guy on a fake 3 year deal who should and will be cut posthaste.
- Alex Henery: I'll go into depth on this once I can crunch more numbers, but Henery isn't worth keeping for beans.
2. Keep An Eye On
There are difficult decisions elsewhere too. Would be surprised if any are cut this offseason, but the team has reason to examine these relationships closely.
- DeMeco Ryans: Leader of the defense and stout run defender who's a major liability in coverage. Turns 29 this summer and has a contract that's easy to do away with. Don't think you cut him yet, but the conversation about the future has to happen.
- Cary Williams & Bradley Fletcher: Let's consider the two corners together. Using a broad stat like passer rating, both of these players were middle of the pack. On a good defense, each is probably a solid #2 corner. They're not going to shut down the other team's top receiver one-on-one, but they'll hold their own against most everyone else and get their share of victories. The question is how highly you value that kind of production. Both Williams and Fletcher have salaries that spike substantially in 2014. Do you let one go to make room for Brandon Boykin? Do you keep them both around another year and draft replacement(s)? Could a restructure/extension be on the table?
- Brandon Graham & Vinny Curry: Both are young and relatively inexpensive, so they probably get another year in this 3-4 transition. But if the right offer came along, Graham especially could be on the block.
- Jason Peters: Nothing big here but he's entering the final year of his contract. Peters was named to his fifth All-Pro team but looked like he lost a step. Eagles hope to already have his replacement on the roster (Lane Johnson), but we can't rule out an extension if he proves he's still capable. Remember, Tra Thomas manned the left tackle spot in Philly until he was 34.
- DeSean Jackson: His salary goes up by over 50% in 2014. Hopefully both he and the team are happy with that. Or not.
3. Are They Worth Keeping?
Retaining your own free agents can be tricky, but this year there aren't too many questions. The big decisions come at wide receiver.
- Jeremy Maclin: The biggest name on this list comes with a huge "What If?" label following his ACL tear last August. I was on record for a Maclin contract extension before the injury and still want him back. The question is how healthy he is and what kind of money he's looking for. The market for wide receivers isn't especially deep, but you don't often see guys get big money coming off knee injuries. A one-year deal with the Eagles might make sense for both sides.
- Riley Cooper: The wide receiver went from racist problem-child to key contributor quickly. He has size, blocks well, and adjusts to deep balls better than most. But on a good team he's a 3rd or 4th wide receiver, and I wouldn't pay him more than that because he'll never be someone who can consistently beat single-coverage. In other words, let him test the market (where there may not be much interest) and only resign him at a backup rate.
- Michael Vick: If he resigns himself to taking a paycheck as a backup, there are worse places to do it than Philadelphia. But maybe he's looking for one last shot at a starting role, and he could get it with the Jets, Jaguars, or somewhere else.
- Donnie Jones: Fantastic job this season. Sign the man.
- Nate Allen: Actually became the best member of the safety corps, which just shows how bad the safeties were. Let him walk.
- Kurt Coleman: Bye.
- Colt Anderson: Never going to be a competent safety, but still a great special teams player. Bring him back and let him compete.
4. Seek Improvement From Youngsters
The last two drafts have been tremendously successful for the Eagles, and they have more than a handful of young players who are forming a new backbone to this team. Their improvement (or decline) will largely decide how the team does in 2014 and beyond. It will also determine who deserves contract extensions and who might not be worth the trouble.
- On defense, the young studs are Brandon Boykin, Mychal Kendricks, and Fletcher Cox. They've all shown flashes, but where is the ceiling? Meanwhile, Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff will be given every opportunity to win starting jobs, but both need to make big leaps this offseason.
- On offense you're looking at Lane Johnson, who had a successful rookie season by mostly avoiding making news. All eyes will be on him next year, to see if he can take over at left tackle after Jason Peters. Zach Ertz also seems inline for a big year as the featured tight end in 2014.
- Nick Foles' offseason matters the most. I'm not convinced he's a franchise quarterback, but he played like one in 2013. Defenses will study him intently next year, and he's unlikely to maintain his fantastic interception rate. Can he improve in other areas to maintain an edge? Foles has earned the benefit of the doubt, but we will find out.
- As for backups: guys like Bryce Brown, Chris Polk, Dennis Kelly, Damion Square, Najee Goode, and Matt Barkley need to prove they're worth trusting. Does Casey Matthews get another year? What about Curtis Marsh, Roc Carmichael, and Julian Vandervelde? Lots of question marks.
5. Identify Obvious Roster Holes
Last offseason, the Eagles had gaping holes across the defense. They drafted a smattering of young players (Wolff, Logan), and added low-to-mid price veterans (Barwin, Williams, Fletcher, Chung, Sopoaga). Due to the relative success of that plan, there aren't as many problem spots as there were a year ago. Here are the main starting spots that need help.
- Safety: It's easy to imagine a future where Wolff is the only guy left from last year, and he's certainly not a sure thing. Major upgrade still needed here.
- Pass Rusher: The Eagles need to generate more of a pass rush. Some of that could come from improvement along the defensive line. But a dynamic pass rushing outside linebacker might make the biggest difference of anyone on the team.
- Wide Receiver: At the very least you bring back Riley Cooper, but ideally you're looking at someone more dynamic across from DeSean. Plus, a new slot receiver to replace Avant would be nice.
- Kicker: Forget field goals for a second. You need a kicker who can consistently reach the end zone on kickoffs.
- Nose Tackle: Logan may be the guy, but my lasting memory of him from 2013 will be the Saints blowing him off the line of scrimmage.
- Guard: If you jettison Herremans.
6. Plan For The Future
While you're logging the problems the team faces right now, it's also time to take stock of the future. Where will the team have holes a year or two from now?
- Cedric Thornton is an exclusive-rights free agent (meaning he can't negotiate with anyone else). One of the few eligible players on the roster probably worth a long term extension.
- Can't count on 30-something offensive linemen to stay healthy in the short term or sustain performance long term. Grab more depth on the offensive line.
- Draft a quarterback. Always draft a quarterback.
- Kendricks looks like a keeper, but Ryans may not have more than a year left. Time to get another young middle linebacker.
- Boykin is probably a long term answer at cornerback, given his stellar performance in the slot. But tied to the Williams & Fletcher questions above, drafting more corners should be high on the list.
7. Find Difference-Makers In Free Agency
Building through the draft is great, but being active at the top of the free agent market is also important. I'm not talking about bringing in another Nnamdi Asomugha, but the Eagles will have plenty of cap space and few in-house players to spend it on. Howie Roseman and company must identify a few key players who can come in and not only fix problem spots in the short term, but are also good long term bets. Some candidates...
- Jairus Byrd: If the Bills safety makes it to free agency, he'll command top dollar. You'd rather he wasn't going into his age-28 season, but he's an All-Pro caliber player still in his prime who would immediately lock down one of the Eagles' safety spots.
- TJ Ward: Fellow second-team All-Pro safety may be slightly less expensive than Byrd. He's also nearly a year younger. Would be a great get.
- Eric Decker: Again, I'd rather just bring Maclin back. But Decker is a much better version of Riley Cooper (albeit at a significant markup). There's also the underachieving Hakeem Nicks out there
- Julian Edelman: Probably can go cheaper in the Avant-replacement department, but there aren't many better slot guys when healthy. Maybe Chip wants more upgrade here.
- Brian Orakpo: Who knows what's going on in D.C. these days? Elite pass rushers don't come cheap, but Orakpo would fit right into a key role on the Eagles defense.
- Donald Butler: If he makes to the open market, you could grab San Diego's young stud middle linebacker and jettison Ryans earlier than planned.
8. Refine The Scheme
To be fair, this is more than one-eighth of the offseason agenda, but it's the one that's least conditional on specific player debates. No matter who the Eagles bring back and who they add, the coaches have to adjust and prepare for a new season.
Chip's offense lit up the league, and ended up second only to Peyton Manning's Broncos on the DVOA chart. He'll be on every defensive coordinator's To-Do list this offseason. I have confidence in the head coach, since he's shown the ability to adjust his offense to two quarterbacks with opposite skill sets. But Kelly needs to stay a step ahead. Defenses stymied some of his schemes, and in some areas he became too predictable by the end of the season (see Cowboys and Saints defenders reading nearly every screen). New weapons will help on that front, but so will new wrinkles. I'm looking forward to seeing what he draws up in 2014.
When you switch to defense and special teams, it's worth noting that the team finished in nearly the same place as 2012 according to DVOA. The defense improved slightly, but there's still a long way to go. Patient, accurate quarterbacks (a species the Eagles were lucky to avoid for long stretches of the season) tore this defense apart with its weakness in coverage down the middle, complete lack of pass rush, and horrible missed tackles. Again, personnel was often at fault there, and this was only year one of a defensive scheme shift. But the scheme can't be as predictable going forward either. Time for Billy Davis to prove he can lead the unit to a renaissance.
On Monday, before the Eagles' opener, I downplayed the notion that the Eagles would be able to put many wins together this season, noting that what we're really looking for is a season like Andy Reid's foundation-building 1999. I WAS WRONG.
Well, at least I was wrong about the team's potential to win games this season. Looks like the offense Kelly brings may be good enough to be more competitive more quickly than I expected. Not to mention exciting. I'm riding high off that win, especially the first quarter that became one glorious offensive wet dream.
Still, I'd caution against reading too much into Monday's game. Not only was the offense new, the defense was also unexpectedly shifty. That's a positive development from their listless preseason performance, but as the game wore on Washington adapted to Billy Davis' schemes (and he backed off some). Some flaws were exposed and others soon will be by opposing coordinators now getting a fresh look at Eagles tape. Without the Redskins' early turnovers, the Eagles might not have gone home as happy.
Because the game turned out to be so long, and the coaches' tape isn't up yet, I only managed to re-watch the first 15 minutes of the game. Here are 15 screenshots from that giddy first quarter... (Click to embiggen)
Most of what I want to highlight are variations on the zone read play Kelly loves to call. Below is one where Vick appears to be reading the slot corner. When he stays home to guard against the bubble screen, McCoy gets the handoff up the middle. Also note, the blue block is Lane Johnson, firing up to the second level after lining up on the right next to Jason Peters. Freezing one defender and then running Shady behind two tackles like Johnson and Peters is frightening:
Similar play below. Again, Vick is reading the slot corner (#26). Washington had that corner come on the blitz a few times, including this one. Reading him is a perfect counter. Vick fakes the hand off and throws a quick bubble screen to DeSean:
Then the Eagles take the above concept and add another option for Vick -- a pop pass to the tight end over the middle. Now he's reading the middle linebacker London Fletcher (#59) in addition to freezing the rest of the right side of the defense via the bubble screen threat (which he may change to given pre-snap read). When Fletcher turns to pick up Brent Celek, Vick hands it off to McCoy:
Like any other running play, success is contingent on the men up front maintaining their blocks. But because of the passing options, by the time McCoy gets to the second level, there's no one there to meet him. London Fletcher, with four Pro Bowls, 15 years of experience, and over 1300 career tackles, has taken himself out of the play:
Later we see essentially the same play run to the right. This time, Fletcher takes a step forward, looking at McCoy. Vick throws to a wide-open Ertz instead, picking up an easy first down:
Below is another zone read where Vick is either reading the LB or the DT. I highlighted the former, but it depends who you think Celek is trying to block. Either way the threat of the QB keeper makes it devastating when he actually hands off to McCoy -- who follows a pulling Jason Kelce into a hole manned by the unbalanced line of Peters and Johnson on the right:
The Eagles didn't play much defense in the first quarter, but here's one play we can take a quick break for. The Redskins execute a great screen. They manage to get Alfred Morris the ball with three linemen poised to crush Mychal Kendricks and anyone else. But Kendricks, showing this may be a breakout season, dodges two of them and makes a textbook open field tackle:
One problem I kept noticing was Vick being indecisive on what should be quick reads. Here the pre-snap read is clearly going to indicate throwing the bubble screen right away. Only one of the three DBs to the bottom is within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage:
Vick should throw this ball immediately in the screenshot below. DeSean is open and Avant is just beginning to engage the first DB:
Instead, Vick holds on to the ball and sprints out. This brings pressure on himself and allows the safety to come down. But worst of all, he's letting Avant block downfield for a couple of seconds before the pass is thrown. The referees called an easy offensive pass interference on this one:
Vick also needs to make quicker decisions under pressure. Below he has a free rusher in his face and instead of dumping the ball off to an outlet receiver (or just throwing it at their feet), he freezes and takes a dumb sack:
Alright, now check out the play below. It's another zone read sweep where Vick is reading the defensive tackle. He sees the DT crash down, so he pulls the ball and runs upfield. Todd Herremans springs to the next level to block the linebacker, while Brent Celek (obscured) tries to cut block his man:
Some people speculated during the live game that Vick ran head first into the scrape-exchange. But really this is just a simple execution problem. Celek's cut block is awful but slows down his man. It's Herremans who totally whiffs on the linebacker, leaving Vick exposed. Note, Vick probably would have had better luck running to the sideline instead of cutting back inside:
One of Vick's sacks came when Herremans and Johnson had some kind of blocking miscommunication. Herremans blocked down on the defensive tackle while Johnson eyed the blitzing linebacker. Neither of them picked up Ryan Kerrigan:
Before even helping Vick up, the rookie turned to Herremans to hash things out:
I've rehashed this Chip Kelly statement a couple of times now, but it remains one of the most interesting quotes so far this offseason:
"We are going to go three tight ends in a game. Now, if they go three linebackers, we spread them out and if they go DB's, we smash you. So, pick your poison. Simple game, isn't it? You guys thought coaching was hard. They bring little guys in, you run the ball. They bring big guys in, you throw the ball."
There's a lot to unpack in this short passage, including possible insight into Kelly's overall offensive philosophy: hit 'em where they ain't. It also confirms (as if the Zach Ertz pick didn't say this already) that Kelly wants to emphasize versatility with multiple tight end sets. However, at its most literal level, I think it's a lie: I don't believe the Eagles will base any sort of offense around having three tight ends in the game at once.
It's an easy fib to tell at this point in the offseason, especially when you need to explain away a crowded tight end position. Brent Celek has been an above-average starter for the last few years, a consistent threat in the passing game who isn't afraid of the dirty work. Kelly doesn't want to say that he's looking to replace the veteran leader. Meanwhile, the team signed James Casey to play an expanded H-back role and drafted Ertz just three picks into the second round. One might say there aren't enough snaps to go around if Kelly hadn't used some expert hand-waving.
Alright, so you say, what evidence is there that the team can't or won't use three tight ends at the same time? Plenty. Let's start with current stats. The New England Patriots are considered one of the most tight end-friendly teams in the NFL. Some, like Chris Brown, have even suggested that Kelly's pro offense will look more similar to the Patriots' than his own college spread. Like the Eagles this year, last year's Patriots squad ditched the fullback in favor of more tight ends/H-backs. However, they rarely used three such players at the same time. Looking at snap counts from Pro Football Focus, we can see exactly how often each Patriots tight end was on the field game-by-game. The players themselves aren't consistent due to injury, but in only 9 of 18 games of their games was the second-most active Patriots tight end on the field for even half of all offensive snaps. The third-most active tight end averaged only 15% playing time.
However, even individual play counts don't properly convey how rare it was for the Patriots to line up with all three tight ends. According to the NFL's own game stats service, New England used three or more tight ends on the field together in only 6.4% of all snaps. That doesn't mean that Kelly couldn't play that combination more. It's the most cliched statement of the offseason that we don't really know what his offense will look like. But the Patriots' unwillingness to go to three tight end sets with any regularity underscores the difficulty with such a formation.
Kelly suggests that he can do anything out of it, but that's not really true. Keeping Celek, Casey, and Ertz in the game together means you only get two other skill players. One of them is obviously a running back like LeSean McCoy. Then you get one wide receiver -- presumably DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin. Between the 20s this lineup lacks any ability to stretch the field. The three tight ends are valuable, flexible pieces. They can pose match up problems against linebackers and safeties in the pass game and cornerbacks in the run game. But Ertz is the fastest, and he only runs a 4.67 forty. With only one wide receiver to deal with, the defense can bring an extra man down into the box to thwart both the short passing game and the run. It's not an ideal match up for the offense -- compared to a two tight end set that keeps the defense honest with down-the-field threats on the outside while adding flexibility in the slot that a player like Jason Avant can't provide.
The three tight end lineup is fantastic for one thing: the red zone. Bring a dangerous rushing threat together with a bunch of big targets and the Eagles might actually be efficient down by the goal line. But I remain skeptical that any offense will use the formation much beyond that. Two tight ends should quickly become a bread-and-butter package for this team, and with injuries and substitutions, having three "starters" on the roster isn't a bad thing at all. But let's not get carried away beyond that. If Ertz progresses quickly, the Eagles likely will be looking for a suitor for Celek 11 months from now.
PS: There's an unwanted player out in free agency who has a similar athletic profile as Casey, and might become an even more versatile weapon with some innovative coaching. It's too bad the Eagles have already denied interest.
Photo from Getty.
As Friday night ended, the Eagles welcomed two more players to Philly, each giving us a another glimpse into the future under Chip Kelly. First was Stanford tight end Zach Ertz, a versatile and athletic weapon for the new offense. A Stanford alum friend sent me a text right after the selection that just said, "Zach Ertz is a beastttttt." He lined up all over the formation last year and caught 68 passes, including 11 for 106 yards and a touchdown against Oregon. Kelly is clearly moving in the direction of a multi-tight end offense and this pick fits perfectly into that mold. In his press conference, Kelly talked about the match-up problems versatile tight ends can create:
"We are going to go three tight ends in a game. Now, if they go three linebackers, we spread them out and if they go DB's, we smash you. So, pick your poison. Simple game, isn't it? You guys thought coaching was hard. They bring little guys in, you run the ball. They bring big guys in, you throw the ball."
If they really are going to play a lot with three tight ends, I can see a lot of logic behind the pick. However, I wonder what this means long term for Brent Celek. James Casey was also brought in this offseason, but he's a smaller H-Back-type. Ertz, on the other hand, is basically a taller, faster version of Celek (many comparisons have been made to Jason Witten). The Eagles' incumbent starter only just turned 28, although Celek has taken a lot of big hits over the last six years and his salary from 2014-2016 becomes completely pay-as-you-go. He has no more guaranteed money after this year and can be cut or traded without cap penalty. If Ertz progresses quickly, I expect Celek will be playing for someone else before long.
With their third round pick, the Eagles selected 6'2", 309 lb LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan. After the pick, Kelly and Howie Roseman talked about how important it is that Logan has the versatility to collapse the pocket from the middle, as opposed to just being a run stopper. However, the NFL comparison CBS Sports makes for Logan may be instructive:
Compares to: Brodrick Bunkley, DT, New Orleans Saints -- Just as it was for Bunkley when leaving Florida State seven years ago, the talent is in Logan to develop into a legitimate NFL starter and perhaps even turn into a standout. To do so, however, he'll need to develop a greater array of pass rush moves. Otherwise, his strength and effort should be enough to help him carve out a niche as a solid run-stuffing presence in the middle.
Bunkley was a massive man and unmovable force in the run game. However, he never did develop into that pass rush threat that the Eagles hoped for. Still, even if Logan remains limited, he seems like a great candidate to play the 5-technique defensive end and -- if he can add a few more pounds -- move inside to replace Isaac Sopoaga at nose tackle.
As for Saturday's final rounds, my main desire is for the team to load up on defense. Sure, I'd like a speedy running back/returner and more offensive line depth is never a bad thing. But overall the offense seems fairly set. The Eagles collapsed in the last few years largely because they didn't have talent on defense. They're not likely to find any stars in the later rounds, but competition is desperately needed at cornerback and safety. Outside linebackers who can help with the 3-4 transition are important too, as are more big bodies if the right one falls.
Photo from Getty.
I hope we're all on board with the fact that there's going to be regime change in 2013. To that end, I'm pretty disinterested in the results this year — excepting what we can learn that will help the Eagles move forward into the next era. A large part of that is discerning which players are expendable and which are the cornerstones for a new foundation.
When Andy Reid arrived in Philadelphia in 1999, he made those hard choices. He picked the players who would make the transition. That included stalwarts like Tra Thomas, Duce Staley, Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, Troy Vincent, and Bobby Taylor. They helped form the backbone of a team that would reach four straight NFC championship games. Most of the rest of the roster, however, was gutted and rebuilt through the draft and a few key free agent signings.
As of the middle of the 2012 season, this is how I analyze the roster for the future:
Building Blocks: Players who the next coach should build the new era around. Use a scheme that plays to their strengths.
- LeSean McCoy. Shady should be the crutch for the Eagles' new quarterback.
- DeSean Jackson. New contract has re-energized him. Hasn't dropped a pass all year.
- Brent Celek. Turns 28 in January. Has taken a lot of hits, but keeps on getting up.
- Fletcher Cox. Still adjusting to the NFL, but early results look great.
- Mychal Kendricks. See above.
- DeMeco Ryans. Glad to be wrong about him. Has provided leadership and consistent play in the middle of the defense. Only turns 29 in July.
Keepers, With A Caveat: Players who could be building blocks, but we need to see a little bit more. In other words, hold that contract extension for the moment.
- Jason Kelce. Potential as rookie starter, but need to see recovery from injury. Also, may only fit certain schemes.
- Brandon Boykin. Upside less than other defensive rookies, but has held his own so far.
- Nate Allen. May have reached ceiling of "solid player." Worth something in NFL, but how much?
- Jeremy Maclin. Lots of talent, but Reggie Brown-esque career arc so far. Lackadaisical effort, annoying complainer. Might want more money than he's worth.
- Alex Henery. Still haven't seen that huge leg we were promised. But young and accurate from short distances.
- Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Top talent and style, but questionable dedication. Can be shut-down guy outside when he wants to be.
Tryout Candidates: May have shown some flashes, but nothing special yet. Have to play their way onto the roster in 2013.
- Nick Foles. Keep your expectations low. Up to him to show he deserves a shot at starting job.
- Bryce Brown. Has all the athleticism to be a NFL back. Needs sophomore jump.
- Stanley Havili. Better than anticipated this year in limited action.
- Riley Cooper. Special teams performer, but rarely shows up on offense.
- Damaris Johnson. Exciting jitterbug who needs to play with more smarts.
- Clay Harbor. Looks like a fine backup tight end. That's not worth much.
- Brandon Graham. Great pass rush in limited snaps this year. Hasn't lived up to 1st round pick status.
- Philip Hunt. Great preseason, disappeared when the lights came on.
- Cedric Thornton. Clearly some potential. Can he perform in a different scheme?
- Vinny Curry. Rookie hasn't gotten on to the field.
- Akeem Jordan. Backup linebacker, special teams starter.
- Brandon Hughes. Played OK for a backup. That's probably his ceiling.
- Kurt Coleman: Perfect third safety. Limitations (athletic and otherwise) make him a below average starter.
- Colt Anderson: Kick coverage star looks lost on defense.
The Oldies. These players are riding close to the expiration date. May be starter-quality now, but will they be when the rest of the team is ready to compete again?
- Michael Vick. Will be 33 before next season. We've seen the limits of his game. Time to find a new franchise QB.
- Jason Avant. Turns 30 in April. Numbers are down this year.
- Jason Peters. Turns 31 in January and recovering from major injury. Elite athlete could shore up LT for a few years, or he could be done.
- Todd Herremans. Will also be returning from injury. At 30, his play dipped this year.
- Evan Mathis. Best remaining lineman for the Eagles doesn't mean much. 31 years old.
- Jason Babin. Production fell off a cliff. Will be 33 in May.
- Trent Cole. After contract extension, only has 1.5 sacks so far in his age 30 season.
- Mike Patterson. It's amazing he's even playing after brain surgery.
- Cullen Jenkins. Salary cut last offseason. Little reason to keep him this time.
- Nnamdi Asomugha. Can't cover deep. Period.
- Jon Dorenbos. He is only the long snapper, so I guess this isn't such a problem. Free agent in 2013, though.
Get Out Of Town: I actively don't want to see these players next year.
- Demetress Bell. No words necessary.
- King Dunlap. Allergic to finishing blocks.
- Danny Watkins. Maybe I should have put him in the "Oldies" category.
- Dallas Reynolds. Not good enough to be a backup center.
- Derek Landri. Very inconsistent player, never performed at all outside the Wide Nine.
- Jamar Chaney. My feelings on this subject are well documented.
- Mat McBriar. How hard is it to find a real punter?
Don't Care: I feel nothing toward or against these players. At most they get a tryout.
- Trent Edwards. Third QB at best.
- Dion Lewis. Hasn't shown much of anything worth hanging on to.
- Chris Polk. I don't know why he's on the roster.
- Dennis Kelly. Looks about as bad as Watkins.
- Nathan Menkin. Who?
- Matt Tennant. See above.
- David Sims. Yeah.
- Darryl Tapp. Middling veteran backup. Nothing more.
- Casey Matthews. No redeemable qualities.
- Curtis Marsh. 29 defensive snaps in one and a half seasons.
Photo from Getty.
A Step Deeper On Deep Passing
Last year, Michael Vick threw the ball 20 yards or more downfield 13.7% of the time. He had a 52% completion percentage on those throws, registering 3 TDs and 4 INTs.
This year, so far, Vick's attempts are down slightly to 11% and his completion percentage has also dropped to 41%. However, he's already thrown 3 TDs and has 0 INTs.
Jason Avant: Going Downhill?
It seems to me that the Eagles have a problem at wide receiver. Not necessarily with their starters, but with their depth. Jason Avant has been a reliable slot receiver for a few years, providing good hands in traffic across the middle. But he has never proven himself capable of playing on the outside in a pinch, and his stats through four weeks suggest that he may not be getting open in the middle anymore either.
Anything through only four weeks is going to be a small sample size, so take this with the appropriate grain of salt. But given Michael Vick's trouble connecting with receivers down the field, and Jeremy Maclin's injury trouble, one might expect Avant to become a bigger part of the offense. Instead, he's disappeared. While his catch rate has been great and his yards per attempt and catch are within his career norms, Avant's targets are way down in 2012.
Either Vick is having trouble finding his slot receiver, or he's simply not getting open.
Ode To The Blockers
Demetress Bell needs help, and he's getting it from Brent Celek. The Eagles starting tight end is tied for the lead in the NFL in pass blocking snaps. He has pass blocked 47 times and run routes 121 times.
In other news, Stanley Havili played more snaps (28) against the Giants than Owen Schmitt played in any game last year.
Brandon Graham: The Eagles Best Pass Rusher?
One player under tremendous pressure in the preseason was Brandon Graham, the Eagles' former first round pick. And so far this season (other than Vinny Curry), Graham has gotten the fewest total snaps of any defensive lineman. But (small sample size aside), he's actually the only Eagles pass rusher doing better than last year.
Below is a table of Pass Rush Productivity, Pro Football Focus's combined stat that adds sacks plus hits * .75 plus hurries * .75 and divides the total by the number of pass rushes the player has attempted.
Graham's PRP is huge: in fact, he leads the league on a percentage basis. Obviously, the small number of snaps still makes it a very preliminary result, but at least you can say that he has been tremendously productive in his limited reps. Note that Trent Cole and Jason Babin led the NFL in PRP last year among defensive ends with at least 25% of their team's snaps. They scored 14.9% and 13.7%, respectively. Both are down so far this year.
DeSean On Pace For A Career Year
80 receptions, 1332 yards would smash Jackson's previous career highs. Paying the man was a good idea.
Playoffs? Don't Talk About Playoffs
Football Outsiders has the Eagles with a 55% chance to reach the playoffs and a 1.7% chance of winning the Super Bowl. You taking those odds right now?
Photo from Getty.