Anticipating the Impact of Todd Bowles

Todd Bowles is 6’2”, 203 lbs. Well, at least he was that big when he played in the NFL as a free safety for eight years.

Normally, the height and weight of a coach wouldn’t matter much. But in the case of Bowles, we can draw a clear line between his frame and his personnel preferences as a secondary coach.

As you can see at right, teams where Bowles has been the secondary coach consistently draft tall defensive backs (the same way Jim Washburn only picked tall defensive ends). In fact, he’s only drafted one defensive back under six feet since 2003, and that was in the seventh round. Clearly, Bowles’s preference is for bigger, more physical players. He probably would not, for example, have endorsed the selections of Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard, two 5’10” corners.

More relevant: Asante Samuel is not the type of cornerback Bowles had in mind as his prototypical starter. As I’ve mentioned before, the Samuel trade was about ego, a broken locker room, and justifying the 2011 personnel decisions — not on-the-field performance or the salary cap. But I doubt Bowles was campaigning for Samuel to stick around.

Instead, he’s probably quite content with his starters at cornerback for 2012. Nnamdi Asomugha is 6’2”, 210 lbs and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is 6’2”, 182 lbs. Hopefully Bowles can help mold a solid defensive backfield around the two of them. Curtis Marsh also stands to gain quite a lot from the Bowles hire, since his athletic 6’1”, 197 lbs frame would be perfect for his new coach’s system.

On the other hand, Kurt Coleman probably shouldn’t get too comfortable as a starter. I’ve discussed his athletic limitations before, but Bowles may be particularly keen to find someone with a higher ceiling. The counter-example of course, is 5’9” Brandon Boykin, whose selection Bowles must have approved. But perhaps he is willing to make an exception for the physical slot corner, regardless of his size, given the value he presented in the fourth round.

Alright, you’re probably saying, this is fun roster speculation and all, but what does it really mean? I’ll admit, not much right now. We already knew who the likely starters were and presumably Bowles will play whomever is the best in practice, not go simply by their official measurements. The more important question remains: is Bowles really a great coach? Every reporter hailed the addition as brilliant, but I’m less impressed by the fossil record:

Photo from Getty.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Cornerback

Nnamdi Asomugha

What the Eagles did: Cornerback was a mess last year. We’ve been over that. You can’t just throw three Pro Bowlers with different styles together and expect things to work out of the box. Thus, the inevitable happened: Asante Samuel was shipped out of town.

What the loss of Samuel means to this defense is tough to gauge. On one hand, he’s still a great cornerback. While his interceptions were down in 2011, other stats showed that Asante was as good as ever. On the other hand, his limited style of play clearly forced running mates Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie into suboptimal positions. Asomugha has historically shined when he locks on one of the opposing wide receivers, and Rodgers-Cromartie’s closing speed makes him a better fit on the outside.

Now they can play the way they want, and it’s up to new secondary coach Todd Bowles to make them comfortable. So far the talk has been that the coverages are simpler, which should be a relief to fans. The numbers (re-posted below) show that Nnamdi and DRC can both be very effective starters — as long as they’re playing in the right spots.

Nnamdi Asomugha Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 2011 Coverage Stats

Another downside to losing Samuel, however, is that the depth behind the Eagles two starters is relatively murky. Who are the backups on the outside if either player gets hurt? Curtis Marsh, second-year player out of Utah State, is athletically gifted, but is a relative newcomer to the cornerback position. He played a grand total of 13 snaps last season, and still needs to shed the “project” label. Brandon Hughes is entering his fourth year, but hasn’t proven he can even be Dimitri Patterson yet. Then you have a wasted 2010 fourth-round pick in Trevard Lindley, as well as undrafted free agent and apparent head case Cliff Harris.

Inside, in the slot, we have an interesting battle shaping up. Joselio Hanson, the designated nickel corner in this defense since 2007, I believe, was cut last year before being re-signed at a lower price. Clearly the Eagles think he’s replaceable. And they brought in his replacement, or at least heir apparant, in Brandon Boykin, the fourth-round pick. Boykin has all the physical skills except height going for him, and he already gained some experience in the slot at Georgia.

What I would have done: The way Howie Roseman handled the Samuel trade situation was appalling. A player of that caliber should have been worth more than a seventh-round pick, but by the time he pulled the trigger the Eagles had no leverage. That said, he had backed himself into a corner (haha). Trading Samuel was the only possible solution to a problem Roseman created in the first place.

Way-too-early prediction: Based on Rodgers-Cromartie’s stats above, I’m optimisic that he will be a solid outside cornerback this year. Actually, it seems prudent to lock up DRC at this point in order to grab a little bit of discount. And I’m only slightly worried about Asomugha losing a step in 2012. He should still have at least another good year or two left in the tank.

The slot battle is Boykin’s to lose, and I doubt he will. After that, it would be nice to see one of the other young corners step up. Bowles coached bigger, athletic corners in Miami. Hopefully he can use that experience to mold Marsh into an NFL player.

Photo from Getty.

5 Eagles Veterans Likely to be Cut for Cap Space

Jamaal Jackson Philadelphia Eagles

Free agency is nearly upon us, and the Eagles have just under $10 million available to spend. Some of that money will hopefully go toward locking up young stars like LeSean McCoy. Other funds will be freed up when they trade Asante Samuel (sooner, rather than later if they want to make any free agent splash).

But there are some veteran players they can cut if they need more room under the salary cap. Here are the most five most likely, with numbers from Eagles Cap:

Jamaal Jackson — Cap Savings: $1.9 million
Jackson really should have been gone last offseason. Jason Kelce may not have been that good, but he’s the future at center.

Winston Justice — Cap Savings: $2.3 million
Justice is only two years removed from signing that long term extension. But then he was inconsistent in 2010, injured in 2011. Presumably the Eagles will retain King Dunlap as swing tackle, making Justice expendable. And with his $4 million price tag, no one is going to be clamoring for him in a trade.

Darryl Tapp — Cap Savings: $1.6 million
Compared to other NFL defensive ends, Tapp played well in a rotational role last year. But compared to other Eagles players, he generated the least pressure. Why keep him around when you can get the same or potentially better production out of Philip Hunt, at one-fifth the cost?

Joselio Hanson — Cap Savings: $1 million
The Eagles already cut Hanson once right before last season, and he’s turning 31 this year. Depending on how the coaches view the progression of young corners like Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes, they may decide it’s time to give them a try instead.

Moise Fokou & Akeem Jordan — Cap Savings: $1.3 million
Alright, so this is two players. But both Fokou and Jordan are expendable, low-upside pieces at a position that the Eagles are likely to add anywhere from two to four new players this offseason.

Photo from Getty.

Time to Cage LeSean McCoy

LeSean McCoy

A month ago I wrote that the Eagles needed to unleash LeSean McCoy. Amazingly, over the two games that followed, Andy Reid did just that.

Reid and Marty Mornhinweg let McCoy carry the ball 58 times in weeks six and eight. He rewarded them with 311 rushing yards, three touchdowns, and — most important — two victories. None of that was meant to last, of course.

In the last two weeks McCoy has only seen the ball 30 times total, a reversion to the subpar. And, surprise, the Eagles lost both games.

The logical answer would be to again exhort Reid to put the game on McCoy’s shoulders. He still provides the Eagles with the best chance to win and, after all, it worked the first time.

But sitting at 3-6 with seven games left, the Eagles don’t need wins any more. There’s nothing left to win. The 2011 season is already over.

Instead of giving the ball to McCoy, I suggest the Eagles coaches continue to do what they do best: protect their running back by absurdly limiting his carries. With a contract extension, McCoy hopefully will be a centerpiece of the Eagles offense for at least the next five years. His talents will be important to reviving the team’s hopes in 2012.

So why risk serious injury over these last few meaningless contests? Let Dion Lewis carry the ball and gain experience. See if he can be an adequate back up going forward. And, while you’re at it, don’t worry about rushing Michael Vick back from his broken ribs. Vick needs to iron out his accuracy issues, but maybe some rest on the bench would do him some good.

There are some other positions where it would be nice to rest a player or give a younger guy a shot during this extended 2012 preseason tryout. Brandon Graham could use more action, and Curtis Marsh should get a chance to prove he was worth a third round pick.

But there’s no one I want bubble-wrapped more than McCoy, and the Eagles coaches have been plenty willing to protect him when the games counted. It would be a shame to change course and wear him out now, to no positive end.

Photo from Getty.

Back to the Draft: Howie Roseman's Strategy

The regular season is bearing down, but why should that stop us from discussing the NFL draft once again? Recently, Eagles GM Howie Roseman gave an interesting answer regarding his personnel strategy in an interview with Reuben Frank:

“I got a note on my desk that says, ‘Big schools, consistent performers,’ and when you look at the league and successful guys in the league, that’s a pretty good formula for success, so we’ll try that and it doesn’t mean we won’t go off that, but it’s something we look at as we go through the process.”

Ever since Roseman took over from Tom Heckert, we’ve attempted to determine the differences in strategy and player personnel decisions that he brought to the job. Certainly we noticed the shift toward players who were leaders at big name schools. We haven’t seen much risk on character issues or small college stars. But we also hadn’t heard such a public declaration either. So I went back and looked at the players Roseman has drafted in the last two years. Here’s what he’s done:

You can easily see the focus Roseman describes, especially in terms of big schools vs. small schools.

During the majority of Heckert’s reign from 2004 to 2008, the Eagles drafted players from non-BCS conferences 36 percent of the time (17 of 47). In fact, almost half the players he selected in his first two seasons were from these schools. Since Roseman moved to Vice President of Player Personnel, however, the trend reversed. Since 2008, they’ve only drafted those players 9 percent of the time (3 of 32).

In the last two years shown above, Roseman took three: Clay Harbor, Curtis Marsh, and Jaiquawn Jarrett. That percentage, just since he became GM, is exactly half the average of the rest of the NFL. In 2010 and 2011, NFL teams took one quarter of their players from non-BCS colleges.

“Consistent performer” also seems to have come through. Over the last two years, the Eagles have selected players with an average starting experience in college of 31.5 games. Until I get an intern to help me out with the number crunching, I won’t be able to compare this to all other teams. Still, it’s high. Somehow I don’t think Jason Pierre-Paul was ever high in the Eagles draft board. The average player the Eagles picked started about two and a half full seasons of college football.

And that figure actually underestimates the focus on consistency. A number of the players on the low end of the spectrum have an excuse for their fewer starts. Greg Lloyd was hurt his senior season, Dion Lewis left school after two years, Curtis Marsh started all 16 games at corner only after he was moved from running back in his junior season, and Danny Watkins started every game after transferring to Baylor.

Overall, the trend is clear. That doesn’t automatically make it a better strategy. It only means that your busts will be of the Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, rather than Bryan Smith, variety. But that in and of itself will be interesting to watch going forward.

Photo from Getty.

What to Do With Joselio Hanson?

Last year during training camp, I talked about how Joselio Hanson could be on the chopping block. That didn’t come to pass and Hanson had a pretty good year overall. He didn’t have gaudy stats, but his solid play was a welcome respite as the rest of the cornerbacks not named Asante Samuel looked like turnstiles on gameday.

Yet here we are again, debating Hanson’s merits because of a bigger lockjam at cornerback than last year. With the additions of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Eagles now have three starting-caliber corners. That pushes Hanson down to dime back, a role that doesn’t put him on the field very often.

According to Football Outsiders, the average NFL team only ran eight percent of its offensive plays with four or more wide receivers. And against the Eagles defense last season, they only ran formations like that a miniscule three percent of the time. Is it worth paying Hanson about $2.2 million for that small bit of playing time and some injury protection?

Plus, if Hanson is going to be active on game day as the fourth corner, he’d have to play great special teams. Last year though, Hanson contributed very little in that area.

Meanwhile, the Eagles have three younger cornerbacks who have all shown promise. Trevard Lindley was last year’s fourth round pick. He may not fit this system any more, but it would be rare to see him go so soon. The Eagles drafted Curtis Marsh this year in the third round, so he’s not going anywhere. Then there’s Brandon Hughes, who has impressed in practice since the Eagles signed him off the Giants practice squad late last year.

I anticipate that the Eagles will try to keep six corners, but even so there’s not enough room for everyone. And with a Samuel trade looking more unlikely by the day, that means the team will either have to cut loose one of its young guys or find a suitor for Hanson.

At this point that last possibility looks relatively likely. I’d give it a 60 percent chance that Hanson is with another team by next week. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t mind trading him within the division, even to the cornerback-needy Giants. Hanson is a solid player, a great nickel back — but he’s not starting caliber. If the Eagles can get a mid-round draft pick in return for a guy who is unlikely to play much this year, that’s a win.

Of course, I also speculated about Hanson last year, and nothing ever happened. So maybe he’ll stick around once more.

Photo from Getty.