Judging Alex Henery's Rookie Season

Alex Henery Eagles Field Goal

The big change in the Eagles kicking game last offseason made headlines, but the story largely fell by the wayside as we took in the 2011 Eagles horror show. Time to bring it back.

When the Eagles let David Akers go last year, I pegged him as an average kicker at this point in his career. While his accuracy under 50 yards was still good, other kickers had overtaken him in the distance department. Before 2011, Akers had gone five years without making more than 40 percent of his attempts over 50 yards.

So, it was with a heavy heart but a rational mind that I accepted the selection of Alex Henery in the fourth round. Akers went off to San Francisco and by the end of the season both players actually had very solid years:

Field Goal Percentage Distance Alex Henery David Akers

Just to remain with Akers for a moment, he really enjoyed playing in the warm air of San Francisco. He made more field goals beyond 50 yards than he had in the previous six seasons combined. Oddly, his accuracy from 40-49 yards dropped instead.

On the other hand, Henery’s numbers are difficult to judge, if only because he kicked so few field goals. He attempted 27, which was tied for third-fewest in the NFL among kickers playing all 16 games. He also had just six attempts all season beyond 40 yards. Henery did well from that distance, but it was such a small sample size.

I’m not completely surprised by his lack of distance attempts. When I attended games in the press box, Henery’s warm-ups suggested his leg needed to get stronger. Practice attempts from 45+ yards were at best a 50-50 shot, and almost always because of distance, not accuracy. Akers became a legend for his 60-yard field goals during practice, and Henery still seems to have a ways to go before Andy Reid can trust him on those longer kicks.

Perhaps an offseason in the weight room can help with that.

Photo from Getty.

Alex Henery's Questionable Leg Strength

Tommy Lawlor, in his always detailed game review:

Speaking of FGs…a few people (me included) wondered why Reid didn’t try for a FG in the late 3rd Qtr when we had the ball at the NYJ 36. We punted. We then stopped the Jets and got the ball back at the 39. 3 plays later we scored a TD. I won’t lie. I wanted to see Henery kick a long FG. We know the guy is good from 30-the low 40s. We have no idea about 45-55. Mystery.

It’s not that much of a mystery, unfortunately. At least at this point in his career, Henery doesn’t have the leg to consistently make field goals from beyond 45 yards.

Remember when David Akers used to crush 60-yarders in warmups? Before every game I’ve attended in the press box this year, I’ve watched Henery stuggled to make the distance from 50 yards out. The transition in the kicking game is an untold story this year.

On Aussies and Adjusted NFL Punting Statistics

Sav Rocca Philadelphia Eagles

One of the less heralded but more puzzling moves the Eagles made this offseason was letting punter Sav Rocca walk in free agency. By almost every conventional metric, Rocca had perhaps his finest season.

At age 37, in his fourth year in the NFL, Rocca had the highest punting average, the fewest touchbacks, and the most  punts landing inside the 20 of his career. Yet, despite his performance, Rocca was allowed to take his talents down to Washington, and the Eagles picked up undrafted rookie Chas Henry out of Florida.

Perhaps the move wasn’t so much about Rocca as it was about Bobby April starting fresh with young specialists who he can coach up. Still, the move was at least a minor head-scratcher, considering the veteran’s career year in 2010.

So, naturally, I began to wonder if Rocca’s season was actually as good as we thought. Basic punting statistics are particularly unreliable because they rely heavily on the situation. When a punter is backed up in his own territory, he gets to stretch his leg as far as he can, achieving distance above everything else. However, if a player has more punts from near midfield, he will have to kick for more accuracy and less power. The net punting average will depend heavily on this distribution of situational punts.

Derek Sarley of Iggles Blog tackled this problem last offseason. He compiled the play by play data and came up with a situational-based “optimal” punting scale. It works like so:

Yline = Line of scrimmage for the punting team.  Number 1-99 (theoretically) from their own goal line.

Punt = Punt distance

Return = Return distance

Result = Yline + Punt - Return

Optimal Result = “IF ( Yline < 40 , Yline + 50 ,  90).”  In English, if the line of scrimmage was between the 1 and 39  yard lines, I made the optimal result a 50-yard net punt.  If it was on  the 40-yard line or beyond, I called the optimal result a change of  possesion on the 10-yard line.  There are opportunities for further  refinement here, but as you’ll see in a minute, it won’t matter that  much once we start comparing apples to apples.

Difference = Actual result - Optimal result.

2010 NFL Adjusted Punting StatisticsObviously, “Optimal” doesn’t necessarily mean perfect. But it works to show about the top 10 percent or so of all punts, accounting for field position. All punters average results below the optimal point, but the better punter they are, the closer they come. You can see the full results of the top 36 punters in the NFL in 2010 (compiled and tabulated painstakingly from play by play data) by clicking on the thumbnail picture at right.

Note that ranking the punters by difference from optimal sometimes confirms preconceived notions of greatness, and sometimes it debunks them. This statistic shows that Dallas’s Matt McBriar, for instance, deserved his Pro Bowl nod. Oakland’s Shane Lechler, on the other hand, seems less impressive when you normalize the punting situations.

Overall, Rocca was ranked 11th in the league last year, good enough for the top third. However, we can dig a little bit deeper by comparing Rocca’s stats to those of the average punter at each point on the field. See the chart below with splits from line 1-20, 21-40, and 41+ (small sample size warnings for Rocca’s numbers apply):

2010 Punting Statistics Sav Rocca vs. Average

As you can see from the “Difference” column, Rocca’s punts had better results than the average at every point on the field. He wasn’t an elite punter, by any means, but there wasn’t much cause to let him go either. In other words, he was in about the same place as David Akers: above average but not substantially so.

This supports my theory that clearing out special teams was as much about setting a new tone and bringing in players April could teach as actually improving the results. Still, I’m interested in any other theories or lessons you can take away from this data.

Photo from Getty.

Which Eagles Free Agents Will Be Back in 2011?

Jerome Harrison Philadelphia Eagles Free Agent 2011

The Eagles have 15 players who just became free agents. Some of them will return, but most will probably move on. Who will still be around when training camp starts later this week? Let’s break down their chances, from least likely to most likely:

0% — Antoine Harris, Bobby McCray, Reggie Wells: Who? I bet there aren’t more than a handful of fans who even remembered these guys were still on the team. I certainly forgot.

5% — Ernie Sims, Ellis Hobbs: Both short term rentals were acquired for middle round draft picks, and neither worked out. No reason to bring them back unless you really can’t find anyone else.

10% — Quintin Mikell, David Akers: Q had a good run here, and he still plays at a high level. But you just don’t draft two safeties in the second round and then give a soon-to-be 31-year-old a new contract. His leadership will be missed. Similar situation for Akers. Can’t last once your successor comes along.

20% — Max Jean-Gilles, Nick Cole, Omar Gaither, Akeem Jordan, Dimitri Patterson: Five young guys who each could return in the right circumstance as a backup and special team contributor, but their spots have already been filled by younger players with more upside. Time to move on.

35% — Jerome Harrison: Coming to the Eagles midway through the season, Harrison provided a spark on offense and was a huge boost over the previous backup running back, Mike Bell. I wouldn’t mind having him back, and neither would the Eagles, but I wonder if there are better fits out there for both parties. Harrison certainly would like a chance to start, if he can find the right opportunity.

60% — Stewart Bradley: With the rest of the linebacker corps young and unproven, the Eagles need at least one veteran presence. Bradley would be the logical choice, even for a one year contract. And yet the Eagles don’t seem all that interested in bringing #55 back. He might command more from another team on the open market, and there are other stopgap solutions (the only type of linebacker Andy Reid has ever seen) all over free agency.

85% — Sav Rocca: 2010 was quite possibly the Aussie’s best year yet as a punter. With no other plan in place, it would be surprising to see the Eagles let him walk.

Let me know if you disagree. And, as updates come flying in on Tuesday, join me in the comment section to sound off on the latest rumors and news.

Photo from Getty.

Could Michael Vick be the Oldest Eagle in 2011?

Michael Vick NFL Philadelphia Eagles Age

It’s easy to forget or to gloss over how young this Eagles team is. But there’s a fair chance that Michael Vick could be the oldest position player, if not oldest player on the whole team.

Vick turned 31 earlier this month. That’s not particularly old for a quarterback. But there aren’t more than a handful of players on the Eagles roster right now who are older. In fact, there are only four.

David Akers, 36, is as good as gone. Drafting Alex Henery in the fourth round of the draft basically assures that.

Juqua Parker, 33, certainly doesn’t have a guaranteed roster spot. He wasn’t looking any younger at the end of the season, and if a few of the rest of the muddle of defensive ends step up, he could easily be gone.

Ditto for Jamaal Jackson, 31, who’s coming off of two consecutive season-ending injuries. With plenty of young blood behind him, I could easily see Jackson being one of the older casualties.

The player who’s most likely to still be around is also the oldest: punter Sav Rocca, 37. The Eagles at least threw a tender at him, but he’s never been much better than average, so they could easily flip both kicking specialists in one offseason. I doubt many fans would complain about that.

The Eagles have always been focused on youth, but they’ve never — as far as I remember — been so close to such a young team. To have the oldest player be only 31 years old would be quite a statement, and it’s not all that unlikely.

Photo from Getty.

Kickoff Rule Update: Expect Touchbacks Galore

David Akers NFL Kickoff Statistics Touchbacks

After the NFL owners approved the new rule moving kickoffs up by five yards, I wrote a post about how the change might affect the number of kickoff returns. Only 16 percent of all kickoffs ended up as touchbacks last year, and I projected that they would more than double. However, my projection was only moderately scientific — I didn’t have all the data for every kickoff. Instead, I was just modeling from the averages of each kicker.

So I thought I’d go back and comb through the actual play-by-play data and see if I could come up with a more definite answer.

First, let’s look at how often kickoffs become touchbacks by distance. Mostly it matters where the ball lands. Obviously, if the kick never makes it to the end zone, the returner has to pick it up and take it out. But when it lands in the endzone…

NFL Kickoff Touchback Percentage

Turns out that the first yard or two don’t make a big difference. More than nine in every ten kickoffs landing less than two yards deep in the end zone get returned. But the ratio goes up sharply from there. By the time we get three yards deeper, the returner is only bringing out less than one in three kicks. And once the ball gets seven, eight, or nine yards in, only desperation would cause a player to attempt a return.

The graph shows how much of a difference five extra yards is going to make. Many more footballs last year fell in the 5 to -5 yard range than in the deep zone. As those push forward they get exponentially more difficult to return.

Therefore, when I added five yards to each kickoff from last year and assumed the same return percentage by distance, there was a huge jump in touchbacks. Unless the kickers in 2011 take a big step back, touchbacks should go from 16 percent to just under 40 percent. I know that was my rough estimate last time, but now I can fully back up such a prediction. Also, as I wrote before, this is actually still a low projection. It assumes that kickoff coverage teams won’t get any better even though they have five less yards to cover, and kickers themselves won’t change their tactics to further maximize touchbacks.

Finally, there’s the question of how much this changes the role of the players. For starters, kickers with the most powerful legs aren’t huge difference makers any more, which should please middle-of-the-road David Akers.

There’s an additional benefit for Eagles fans though. Andy Reid hasn’t been keen on investing in a kickoff returner. Last year’s main man was Jorrick Calvin, who was only slightly better than awful. Plus, kickoff coverage has often been one of the Eagles weakest units. But the rule change takes a lot of the power out of the returner’s hands. Their ability to make big plays has dropped by at least at least 30 percent.

Again, this might seem like a small rule change. But it’s going to have a big impact throughout the NFL.

Photo from Getty. Originally published at NBC Philadelphia.

Beware the Rookie Kicker: Alex Henery's Future

Alex Henery Eagles Kicker 4th Round Pick

I’ve largely supported the Eagles’ decision to draft Nebraska kicker Alex Henery last month. Like everyone else, at first I was surprised. But after about 60 seconds, the reality set in and I started to realize that the writing was already on the wall regarding David Akers’s future.

Plus, unlike many other commentators, I didn’t really mind that the Eagles jumped on Henery in the fourth round. Partially that’s because I get annoyed with baseless pronouncements of value, but also I think that the Eagles front office showed some guts with this move. If you’re Howie Roseman and you’ve come to the conclusion that the Akers era is over, why not go for the best kicker in the draft instead of waiting around to pick up a journeyman or two?

However, after poking around at kicker statistics some more, I’m no longer quite so optimistic. Let me just throw the numbers at you.

Since 2000, NFL teams have drafted 24 different kickers, mostly in the fourth through seventh rounds. (Sebastian Janikowski, Mike Nugent, and Nate Kaeding are the only exceptions.) Of those 24, only half started even 8 games their rookie year. A number of them didn’t make the team out of training camp and a few more lost their jobs after just a few games. Then, just counting the 12 who played the majority of their rookie year, their average field goal and extra point DVOA (which compares field goals to the league average from that distance) was actually negative: -1.78.

It was unrealistic for me to think that rookie kickers could step in and perform as well as veterans right away. Perhaps I was fooled by the idea that field goals remain basically the same from college to the NFL. But the problem is that kicker, unlike most positions, typically requires an all-or-nothing commitment. Most teams can’t afford to keep two kickers on the roster, so you either have to stick with your rookie and expect some problems, or kick him to the curb before he’s even gotten a real chance.

There is a case for hope. Of the 12 kickers who started in their rookie seasons, their average DVOA improved over the next two years to 0.68 and then 1.64. So by their third season — if they make it that far — the kickers have mostly become above average.

But despite that possibility, no one should be under any delusions that Henery will be able to step in without any problems his first year and provide the veteran consistency Akers provided us for the last decade. I’m certainly not operating under that assumption any more.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.