Why The Eagles Must Upgrade From Riley Cooper, In One Photo

There's no shortage of opinion when it comes to Riley Cooper, the Eagles' soon-to-be free agent wide receiver best known for his racial outburst at a Kenny Chesney concert last year. That off-the-field incident was itself sufficient reason for many fans to want to see Cooper gone. I'm not going to wade into that moral morass, but rather address the sizable room for debate about his on the field performance.

Cooper had what was obviously a breakout season in 2013. After posting a total of just 46 receptions for 679 yards and 5 TDs in his first three years, he took over the starting lineup for an injured Jeremy Maclin and finished the regular season with 47 receptions, 835 yards, and 8 TDs. Plus, he scored another productive 6/68/1 line in the Eagles' wild card game.

Cooper also put positive tape out there. He's the type of big-bodied blocking wide receiver that Chip Kelly values to augment his running game down the field. And there's a good reason Cooper's stats went way up once Nick Foles took over. He became especially effective on deep throws and in the red zone, where he was adept at adjusting to Foles' occasional errant jump balls. 

Despite all of that good news, I wouldn't sign Riley Cooper to a long term starter's contract. And the biggest reason may sound counter-intuitive: despite the clear QB-WR connection, the more you build an Eagles offense around Foles, the more you need an upgrade from Cooper at wide receiver. Here's the proof, summed up in one All-22 shot (from the very first play of the Saints game):

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Kelly talks about his offense in terms of simple math. He wants to run the football and he wants to have a numbers advantage up front when he does so. That means more blockers than defenders in the box, not the other way around -- and there are two ways to achieve this.

The first is to have a dangerous read-option constraint play built into the basic runs. By reading a defender instead of blocking him, the quarterback can freeze that unblocked man and enable better numbers on the play side. The second is to have dangerous wide receiver threats on the outside (ideally spread way outside) that force the defense to respect the passing game down the field. Defensive coordinators can't stack the box and provide help to both corners on the outside at the same time.

As you can see in the above photo, the Saints do not respect Cooper as a passing threat. While both Eagles receivers face man coverage, DeSean Jackson's corner has safety help over the top. The Saints, rightfully, fear Jackson's speed. They don't have that same concern about Cooper, who they're perfectly willing to leave matched up in single coverage at the bottom of the image. The safety whose job could be to protect against the deep ball to that side has entered the box instead. The Saints would much rather add an extra defender down by the line of scrimmage to combat LeSean McCoy and the rushing attack.

Thus, on this play the Saints have a numbers advantage up front: seven defenders in the box against six Eagles blockers. If Michael Vick were in the backfield, that wouldn't be so bad. The zone read can be a powerful weapon if defenders respect it. Foles is never going to inspire that respect. Yes, he can still make it work on occasion, pulling out a few surprise yards here or there, and freezing a confused defender now and then. But the read constraint will not work consistently without a run threat at QB, and therefore the run game will not work consistently against a numbers disadvantage up front.

If Foles is the Eagles' quarterback going forward -- and he has certainly earned that right -- then the offense needs other constraints. The obvious secondary options are wide receivers that the defense needs to respect.** Jackson is half of that puzzle. Cooper is not. The Saints treated him on this play as most defenses did this season, reveling in the opportunity to gain an advantage in the box and daring Cooper to beat them. 

Cooper certainly had a breakout season, with career highs in all categories. But if he were a wide receiver worth spending starter-level money on, he would have consistently beat the single-coverage insult he face on a weekly basis and forced defenses to start respecting him. He did no such thing, and the numbers show it.

Pro Football Focus tracks a stat called yards per route run, focusing on receiver production on all snaps they ran a passing route. Some of the consensus best receivers in the game score highly on this list: the top ten is Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon, Justin Blackmon, Anquan Boldin, DeSean Jackson, Antonio Brown, Alshon Jeffrey, Andre Johnson, and AJ Green. These are players who combine two important attributes of a top receiver: production when targeted, and a high number of targets.

As I just mentioned, Jackson placed sixth on this list. That was thanks, first of all, to the second-highest yards per target of any receiver in the league: 11.2, only behind deep threat Kenny Stills and a step above all-around beasts Gordon and Jordy Nelson. You may be surprised to know that Riley Cooper also placed in the top ten on yards per target, netting 10.3 yards per pass thrown his way.

But the difference between Jackson and Cooper comes in the number of times they're targeted. Jackson, despite a spread-the-wealth offense and defenses putting heavy emphasis on stopping him, was in the top third most-targeted per route run. But out of 94 receivers with at least 25% of their team's targets, Cooper was a lowly 79th (right next to underperforming slot buddy Jason Avant). Cooper was targeted only 15% of his routes, compared to Jackson's 22% -- even though Cooper faced the single coverage shown above nearly all year.

The split between Cooper's rank in target percentage and his rank in yards per target is extreme, and may make it easier to understand the type of receiver he is. For example, there are certain receivers who were targeted a lot but have low yardage production on those targets. Some are slot receivers, like Cole Beasley for Dallas and Julian Edelman for New England. The others are underperforming #1 wide receivers on bad offenses: Buffalo's Stevie Johnson, Jacksonville's Cecil Shorts, Washington's Pierre Garson, and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson. 

Cooper had the opposite problem. He was targeted few times despite solid performance on those targets. What receivers put up that same split last year? Secondary receivers who aren't particularly good, but get single coverage because the defense doesn't consider them threats: the aforementioned Stills in New Orleans, Tampa Bay's Tiquan Underwood, Dallas' rookie Terrance Williams, San Diego's Eddie Royal, Seattle's Doug Baldwin, Green Bay's James Jones, Kansas City's Donnie Avery. As far as the stats are concerned, these are Cooper's most direct comparables, and none of them (with the possible exception of Williams' upside) are players you would be excited to have as a starting wide receiver on your offense.

That's the type of player Riley Cooper is: a replacement-level starter that defenses are more than happy to leave alone to gameplan against actual receiving threats like Jimmy Graham, Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, and DeSean Jackson -- and actual running threats like DeMarco Murray, Jamaal Charles, and LeSean McCoy. If the Eagles let Maclin walk in free agency and re-up with Cooper as their #2 wide receiver, you'll hear the champagne popping in defensive coordinator meetings across the NFC. With Foles neutering the read-option attack, Chip Kelly needs wide receivers on the outside who can stretch out the defense and give McCoy room to run. Cooper, for all his other strengths, isn't that guy. And that means you not only don't pay to keep him, but you also actively look for an upgrade.

**One caveat: the offense needs at least one more receiving threat from somewhere. While wide receiver is the obvious play, it's not the only one. In his rookie season, Zach Ertz did finish sixth among tight ends on yards per pass route run. Just saying.

The Eagles Still Aren't Great, But That's OK

Before the season started, I set my expectations for 2013 at a reasonable level: an improvement from last year's disaster squad and a foundation built for future growth. As I said then, most teams as bad as the Eagles improved, on DVOA terms, by an average of about 12%. I anticipated something along those lines, with a slight record improvement but certainly no mention of playoffs.

Obviously, I was wrong. Before Sunday's loss, the Eagles had improved by nearly 33% in DVOA, one of the best turnarounds ever. That will cool slightly this week, but the team still has the inside track on a playoff spot, something most people (including Jeffrey Lurie) never expected to happen so soon.

But Sunday's game reminded us that this squad -- or at least half of it -- is still a work in progress. Chip Kelly's offense is gangbusters, even if it can sputter out for stretches. On a "bad day," Nick Foles threw for 428 yards on 30 for 48 attempts, 3 TDs and 1 INT. Plus he ran the ball 5 times for 41 yards to boot. LeSean McCoy only got 8 carries, but still finished with over 100 yards from scrimmage. DeSean Jackson had nearly 200 receiving yards plus an end-around touchdown called back due to penalty. Oh, and rookie tight end Zach Ertz ended the day with 57 yards on 6 receptions, including a one-handed TD grab. No big problems here.

The defense is still messy, though. As I've said before, you don't have to be an elite quarterback to find the holes in Billy Davis' scheme (Hint: look for the safeties). A smart, patient, accurate player will pick this secondary apart. That's what happened when the Eagles D was skinned alive during the three-game stretch against Philip Rivers, Alex Smith, and Peyton Manning. Since then, during the team's 7-2 run, opponents never scored more than 21 points. 

The great nine-game run leading up to Sunday seemed to be the defense gelling, but most of it was the horrendous, mistake-prone quarterbacks the Eagles faced. Only two of the QBs the Eagles faced in that span have positive DVOA on the year, and they played one of those in a blizzard. Matt Cassel could easily have been another one of those lightweights, but he did his best 2008 impression, throwing for the 4th-most yards of his career. That came despite the Eagles front seven holding the Adrian Peterson-less Vikings to just 2.4 yards per carry.

Worth noting: Football Outsiders never bought into the Eagles defensive turnaround. While they were bend-but-not-breaking their way to sub-22 point totals, the defense allowed over 350 yards in all but two of the last 9 games. Coming into Sunday, the team ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency, versus 3rd on offense. Even with Denver and Kansas City as past opponents, the Eagles faced the 27th-weakest schedule and registered the highest level of inconsistency in the league prior to this week. Including week 15, the Eagles have the lowest point differential of any division leader.

So again, the Eagles aren't great. If their schedule weren't so easy, including six games against the criminally ugly NFC East, I imagine the team would have finished closer to my "return to 1999" prediction than their current possible outcome of 8-10 wins. If the Eagles win the division, which I now expect them to do either against Chicago with the Cowboys losing again, or in Dallas the week after, they will have vastly overperformed -- despite being only a mediocre overall team.

But that's OK. Even if the Eagles get rolled over by a better wild card team like San Francisco, Carolina, or New Orleans, the season will have been a smashing success, and one to build on in 2014. Kelly's offense still has room to grow next year, and the defensive reconstruction will continue. Until then, enjoy this #housemoney season.

Why Nick Foles Is Better Than Ever (But Can't Stay This Good)

I call him SuperNick. The man who threw seven touchdown passes in little more than three quarters of play deserves such a cartoon moniker. But how did "one of the better backups in the NFL" become in one afternoon the guy who plays what "might have been the best three-quarters of a game we've ever witnessed"?

The simple answer is, he didn't. With the notable exception of four horrendous quarters against Dallas where he looked like he sustained a concussion before he ever got to the stadium, Foles has looked good all year. Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg may have the quarterback guru reputation, but Chip Kelly's offense has been much friendlier to QBs than he gets credit for. Why? Because his spread-option, up tempo, zone read running attack forces opponents to pick their poison. Kelly has repeated versions of this quote for years:

"They can't defend it all. I'm really happy with how we threw the ball. If you're going to devote nine guys and try to stop the run, God bless you, and we'll throw it."

Since early in the season, defenses have made their choice: plug the box with seven or eight players and keep just one safety back deep. That often leaves man-to-man coverage on the outside against DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper. Those are golden matchups for a quarterback, but the Eagles haven't executed. As Sheil Kapadia wrote after the Cowboys game, "An average QB performance likely would have yielded 300+ yards and a score in the 20s." Unfortunately, Foles couldn't make that happen. Neither could Matt Barkley, as Derek Sarley showed last week.

Jump ahead to the Raiders game, and Foles finally started taking advantage of those one-on-one matchups, just as he did against the Buccaneers. Fran Duffy diagrammed all 7 TDs, and over and over you saw Cooper and Jackson beating man coverage -- and passes actually finding them. The gains were comical. Check out how Foles' numbers on long passes differ from last year (stats courtesy Pro Football Focus):

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To start with, Foles is attempting about 50% more long passes than he did with Andy Reid at the helm. That's a big jump. His current rate of 16.1% is near the top of the league, after placing in the bottom half last season. This change is entirely about the offense; Michael Vick has also seen a spike in his deep balls, bringing him back to 2010 levels after declines the last two years.

But where things start to get crazy is the long ball effectiveness. Foles completed only 36% of passes 20 yards or longer in 2012. That's up to nearly 53% so far this year. Long ball completion percentage is a huge indicator of success. Look at the list of QBs who posted 48% or above last year: Kaepernick, Rodgers, P. Manning, Newton, Griffin, Brees, Wilson. That's elite territory.

Can Foles keep that completion rate up? Unclear. While there may be some regression to the mean, I'm actually bullish on this front. Kelly's offense seems to be giving his QBs a boost. Vick has also seen a double-digit jump in 20+ yard completion rate, so Foles' numbers may not be an aberration.

Touchdown and interception rates are another matter. Foles is averaging an insane four TDs for every ten long passes he throws. Eight out of his ten completions at that distance have gone for six points. He also has no interceptions at any distance all year -- the only quarterback with more than 75 passes who can say that. (No fumbles either.)

Even if the completion percentage stands, those most certainly won't. Last year, RGIII led the league in touchdown rate on passes of 20 yards or more -- at only 19.4%. Even if defenses don't significantly adjust their coverage schemes (although I expect they'll have to back out of the box more now), Foles simply can't count on the type of luck he's had so far with defenders falling down, receivers wide open, and more. He also eventually will start throwing interceptions. Last year he threw them on just 1.9% on all throws, but Football Outsiders' adjusted interception rate showed a more pedestrian 4.2% after accounting for defenders dropping would-be picks.

The first takeaway here is that SuperNick's current outsized numbers will almost certainly come back to Earth. He may be good the rest of the year, but he won't be that good. The second takeaway is more important, though. Foles' improvement is only over a small sample, but it may not be an anomaly. Kelly is putting his quarterbacks in a great position to succeed, and when defenses change to prevent that, it will only give McCoy more room to run. If the Chip's scheme looks this good with competent QB play from a limited upside guy like Foles, think about what it might do with a true top-tier talent at the position.

Game Rewind: 15 Screenshots From the First 15 Minutes of the Chip Kelly Era

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:

Eagles-Patriots Preseason Thoughts: This Offense Is Going To Be Fun

  • I'm not fretting about Fletcher Cox. As Derek Sarley laid out quite plainly, the problem on those first few run plays was much more about spacing in the new 3-4 defensive lineup. The bigger problem was Trent Cole, who looked totally out of place as a stand-up linebacker. Maybe he'll get better, but I wouldn't count on it. The sample size wasn't large, but I thought Brandon Graham looked a lot more comfortable out there. 
  • In nickel packages the Eagles tended to switch to a four-down linemen look, and Cole looked like his normal self there. Back in April I suggested that the coaches keep Cole as a down rusher -- even consider starting him at 3-4 defensive end. That latter option is probably off the table now that Cole has slimmed down for his OLB role, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him has a dedicated pass rush specialist in exclusive four-linemen looks before long.
  • As a broader point, the 3-4 defensive transition is going to be rough. Not only do some of the players not fit into their defined roles, but the spacing issues will probably continue. Good offensive coaches will exploit this inexperienced front, and Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans are going to get mauled at the second level.

  • On the touchdown pass, Sheil Kapadia says:  "Vick said [DeSean] went deep because the Patriots had a single high safety." Jackson's ability to stretch coverage is even more necessary now that Jeremy Maclin is out for the year. If can't keep safeties honest, the run game and short passes become difficult.
  • Zach Ertz looks like he needs some serious work. He's not a speedy receiver (only 4.68 second 40 yard dash) and he looks totally lost blocking. Here Ertz is at the top of the formation letting Jerod Mayo (admittedly a good linebacker) get by him without so much as slowing him down. While the offensive line is getting a good push up the middle, Mayo comes in off the edge unblocked and makes the tackle:

  • Here's a cool play: a zone-read design where the quarterback is looking at the defensive tackle instead of the end. It's the Eagles' fourth play from scrimmage, with Vick deciding whether to hand off to Chris Polk or keep it himself. The typical zone-read we've seen in the NFL so far (and we also saw from the Eagles on Friday night) involves letting the defensive end come upfield unblocked. If he goes for the QB, you hand it off. If he goes for the RB, the QB keeps it. Same idea here, but Vick is reading Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle. If he had sprinted to his left to get Polk, Vick would have had a huge hole up the middle. Because he stayed in his lane, Polk gets the hand off and has two double teams to run behind on the right (click to embiggen):
  • Just as I was drawing this play up, Chris Brown posted an extensive review of Chip's play calling, including this one (with a gif). You should definitely check that out.
  • Brown talks about "packaged plays" as well, and Sheil has a glorious medley of screen caps on those run-pass options.
  • However, my favorite play of the night was the one below. What looked like a zone-read play to the left was really a play-action rollout to the backside. Vick has a clear run-pass option on this play and it's killer for the defense. This is something Foles doesn't present -- a dangerous running threat out of the backfield. The Patriots defenders who weren't sucked in by the play action aren't sure whether to converge on Vick or cover their receivers, so neither happens. Easy 19-yard completion to Riley Cooper:
  • Lane Johnson looked athletic and powerful. Sheil had good shots of him pancaking defenders and getting to the second level: here and here
  • Fellow Eagles Almanac scribe Dan Klausner is trying to convince me that Chris Polk is ready for the big time. I'm open to the idea, but haven't seen it yet. Certainly he is the better pass blocker (see Sheil's screencaps here), but Bryce Brown is a much more dangerous weapon. Watching him explode through holes or grab passes out of the backfield, it's obvious that Brown's someone you want to have the ball. Perhaps it's a silly hypothetical, but I can't shake the feeling that Brown would have exploded through that hole for a first down on the Wilfork zone-read.
  • Nick Foles moved the ball very efficiently in the Eagles' first real up tempo test. See more from Jimmy Kempski.

For much much more on everything Chip Kelly and the Birds, buy the Eagles Almanac!