Akeem Jordan, the Forgotten Man?

John Breitenbach wrote a post on BGN about the underrated abilities of Akeem Jordan. He goes through all the phases of the game with Pro Football Focus stats and includes nice game shots. Here’s his final analysis:

I’m not trying to make Jordan out to be some sort of superstar but it’s a shame he receives such little respect from Eagle fans. He was undrafted (and went to a tiny school) but he’s worked his way to become at the very least a serviceable NFL starter. At just 26, who’s to say he won’t get better? If you’re looking for someone to challenge Kendricks for the strongside spot, pay less attention to Jamar Chaney, and more to #56.

I’m not going to make Breitenbach’s argument into a straw man; it’s a reasonable and measured conclusion. Maybe Jordan is better than we think. However, I think there are three main rebuttal points:

  1. Jordan isn’t as good in coverage as those numbers illustrate. Breitenbach places Jordan’s coverage stats (09-11) side-by-side with Lance Briggs, and Jordan looks good. Certainly his completion percentage is lower (and therefore better). But, for one thing, Breitenbach doesn’t mention that the sample sizes are quite different. Jordan had only 372 coverage snaps during those three seasons, compared to 607 for Briggs just last year. When you look at targets per coverage snap (i.e. how often he was picked on), Jordan suddenly looks subpar.
  2. I don’t think there’s much evidence, based on Breitenbach’s numbers, that tackling is one of Jordan’s “greatest strengths.” He missed 9.2% of his tackles from 09-11, which would have been good enough for 20th last year among 4-3 outside linebackers with at least 25% of their team’s snaps. That actually does make him one of the better tacklers on the Eagles LB corps, but that’s not a whole lot to brag about.
  3. Finally, the most damning evidence against Jordan is simply that he hasn’t been able to hold a starting job—even when his competition has been so bad. Breitenbach mentions the atrocious Ernie Sims. Moise Fokou, Casey Matthews, Jamar Chaney… the list goes on and on of the guys coaches played before Jordan. He got more snaps after Fokou was benched, then placed on injured reserve in the last month of 2011, but that wasn’t a vote of confidence as much as Plan Z.

Jordan is a great special teams player and he’s fine as a backup. But I doubt any good defense considers Akeem for a starting role.

Disturbing Tackling Numbers for the Eagles LBs

Brian Rolle Tackling

In my recent linebacker review, I evaluated all the youngsters with a fairly skeptical eye. However, in discerning some difference between their various deficiencies, I noted what now seems to be patently false.

I said, “Brian Rolle is the opposite of Chaney, smaller but smarter and a better tackler to boot.” Well, the last part just isn’t true, according to the statistics provided by Pro Football Focus. Derek Sarley alerted me to this article by PFF from a year ago.

The stat they come up with is Total Attempts (sacks, tackles, assists, and missed tackles) per Missed Tackle. From 2008 to 2010, the top 15 linebackers in the NFL had more 20 or more attempts for every miss. Meanwhile, the bottom 15 qualifying linebackers registered fewer than 8.8 attempts per miss. Here are the numbers for returning Eagles:

Eagles Linebackers tackling stats

The thing that should stick out to you is Rolle’s atrocious number. According to PFF’s charters, he had a missed tackle once every five times he had the chance. None of the linebackers really have good results here, but Rolle’s is by far the worst. If he had qualified for PFF’s study last year, he would have been the single worst LB tackler in the league.

I was never that high on Rolle, given his limited upside. But apparently my eyes deceived me about his tackling. If he’s both small and a poor tackler, that makes him a real liability, and an underdog to retain his starting weakside role.

Chaney, Casey Matthews, and Moise Fokou were all pretty poor tacklers last year as well, and in truth their numbers above may actually underestimate the problem. At the risk of relying on my memory of last season again, Chaney’s problem was often that he failed to even get to the ball. That poor diagnosis and reaction wouldn’t factor in to this statistic, which just counts actual tackling attempts.

Still, we might be able to count on at least one of the youngsters to improve in 2012. Want a scarier statistic? Over the last three seasons, DeMeco “Savior” Ryans has a 9.3 attempts/missed tackle ratio. That’s no better than Chaney or Matthews.

Photo from Getty.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Linebacker

Linebackers Eagles

What the Eagles did: I’m not sure I’ve seen a worse group of NFL linebackers than the ones the Eagles employed last year. The position was an incompetent game of musical chairs. If the defense has any hope of rebounding from that, they’ll have to get a major upgrade from their two newcomers.

DeMeco Ryans comes to the middle of the defense with lots of hype. He was a two-time Pro Bowler in a 4-3 defense in Houston, and will certainly be a huge upgrade. Simply having an experienced veteran leader and sure tackler in the middle will boost the Eagles defense significantly. The question of whether he can return to his elite pre-injury self does remain, though.

The second newcomer upon whom much relies is second round pick Mychal Kendricks. The former Cal star has already been slotted in at the strongside linebacker spot, and so far in minicamps the reports have been nothing but positive. There’s a definite danger in projecting Kendricks to start as a rookie, as Eagles fans know all too well. Still, his pedigree is significantly higher than Casey Matthews — and any other current linebacker on the squad not named Ryans.

After that, all we have is a host of unreliable youngsters — the same players who played so poorly last season. As long as the two newcomers work out, this won’t be too much of a problem. Surely one of the bunch can be adequate enough in the weakside job.

The frontrunner for that spot seems to be Jamar Chaney, a player the Eagles coaches must love, because he’s shown next to nothing on the field. Chaney has the athleticism to be a great linebacker, but he’s a poor tackler and worse at finding the ball-carrier in the first place. A strong coach might be able to get something out of him, but Mike Caldwell and Juan Castillo probably aren’t the men for that job.

Brian Rolle is the opposite of Chaney, smaller but smarter and a better tackler to boot. He held the weakside job last year and was the most consistent of any of the young players. Still, I don’t know that many people would hold Rolle’s overall performance in particularly high esteem. He didn’t embarrass himself, as some of the others did, but judging from his frame and rookie play, Rolle’s ceiling is not particularly high. In the long run, he would be best suited for a backup and special teams role.

Next comes Casey Matthews, who was unfairly thrown into the fire at middle linebacker last year. To my eyes, though, his play improved when he returned later in the season, and reports this year say he put on significant weight, from 230 lb. up to the 250 lb. range. That raises questions about whether he has become too big to compete on the weakside, although getting the best three linebackers on the field should always be the priority. Matthews, despite his disastrous rookie season, seems to have the most upside between him, Rolle, and Chaney.

Finally, there’s Keenan Clayton, Moise Fokou, and Akeem Jordan. Clayton, the LB-safety tweener, has shown nothing in two years that justifies keeping him around (plus he just had sports hernia surgery). Fokou played so poorly last year that he took only seven defensive snaps after week nine and none after week twelve. Jordan filled in at strongside linebacker in his place, proving that he could at least be an adequate stopgap. His best play comes out on special teams, though, as the latest Football Outsiders report details.

What I would have done: On paper, if everything goes right, this linebacker corps can be solid. The problem is, everything doesn’t always go as planned. With some luck, Kendricks will grab hold of the strongside job and prove his worth. But it’s just as likely the rookie will need time to adjust to the faster professional game. And while Ryans has all the talent, he’ll need to prove he can rebound from last season’s down year with the Texans. If anything goes wrong with either or both of the Eagles newcomers, you’re immediately back to where you were in 2011.

With that in mind, I would have been more aggressive in trying to add one or two more potential veterans and backups. Someone like Dan Connor would have made a nice Plan B, or even a lesser free agent. Chaney, Matthews, and Rolle should have to fight to make ther roster, let alone the starting 11.

Way-too-early prediction: I think Clayton gets cut, barring some miraculous display of talent we have so far missed. The fact that he barely found the field last year was not a good sign. Fokou’s fall from grace doesn’t bode well for him either. Greg Lloyd, the middle linebacker prospect drafted in the seventh round last year, and the other camp bodies are at best practice squad fodder. Unless one of the other guys can show their worth there, Jordan could retain his roster spot based solely on his special team play.

As to the rest, I’m optimistic but realistic about both newcomers. I don’t expect either to set the world on fire, just hopefully be above average. The trio of Rolle, Chaney, and Matthews will be where the competition lies during training camp. I’m anxious to see which, if any, can prove their worth.

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.

Eagles-Falcons Rewind: Grading the Run Defense

Michael Turner Eagles Run Defense

Over the last few weeks, I’ve talked a lot about linebacker and my concerns about the position that appears to be the Eagles biggest Super Bowl hurdle. So last night I went back and re-watched the Falcons loss, focusing only on the run defense to try to see what was going on there.

I counted 23 Atlanta rushes. 15 of those came against the base Eagles defense, with Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews, and Moise Fokou at linebacker. 7 came against the nickel, with only Chaney and Matthews playing, including the final 6 runs of the game. 1 play, at the goal line, involved 6 defensive linemen and four linebackers with the addition of Keenan Clayton.

Of those plays, 7 involved a defensive line stop or, often, tackle for a loss. Trent Cole, as everyone noticed live, absolutely manhandled Falcons left tackle Sam Baker. But the defensive line certainly didn’t bottle up everything. There were big holes at times and Atlanta utilized trap blocks and counters heavily to exploit them.

Of the 16 plays that got to the linebacker level, I gave the group a generous 8 stops. On this half, most were solid plays by Matthews or Chaney. They refused to get sucked in on movement and worked their way out of traffic or blocks from the Falcons offensive linemen. Don’t think I charted one good play of run defense from Fokou.

And the other half? Those were very poor showings by the linebackers. Sometimes they were too anxious to rush up the field or engage with blockers instead of staying in their lanes. Other times they were on their heels, thinking too much and not reacting. 

I don’t have the stats to compare this (if anyone does please let me know), but having one third or more of all runs make it to the third level doesn’t look pretty for the defense. Now, the secondary could certainly do a better job on run defense as well. Turner’s 61-yard run was particularly damning for Kurt Coleman (awful angle), Jarrad Page (hesitation & stumble), and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Asante-itis).

Still, it’s hard for me to speak positively about the linebacker corps. They did show promise, in that they did well sometimes. But inconsistent would be an understatement. The only change I’d make to my aforementioned suggestion would be to replace Fokou before Matthews, since the third-year player looks even more hopeless than his rookie counterpart. Perhaps another 7th-round pick, Brian Rolle, would be better, although that’s far from a sure thing.

Otherwise it’s time for a Will Witherspoon-esque pick-up or for Juan Castillo to change up the scheme. Something’s gotta give.

Photo from Getty.

A Reason for Optimism on the Young Linebackers

Since the Football Outsiders Almanac was released, I haven’t had a chance to really delve into some of its more interesting conclusions.  The first of these gives me, the down-on-our-linebackers poster boy, a reason for optimism.

That reason: the Eagles linebackers were much worse in 2010 than I realized. 

First of all, the linebackers took a huge step back in coverage. In 2009, when stalwarts Chris Gocong, Akeem Jordan, and a resurrected Jeremiah Trotter all received extensive playing time, the Eagles were ninth in the league covering tight ends and a middling 16th covering running backs out of the backfield. Last year, those dropped to 19th and 31st, respectively. 

If you remember, coverage was supposed to be a strength of the 2010 group. Stewart Bradley and Ernie Sims were expected to be every down backers. Yet Bradley was still a step slow from injury and Sims from general bone-headedness.

Their run-stuffing skills also suffered. In 2009, the Eagles ranked sixth in the NFL in defensive second level rushing yards, those five to ten yards after the line of scrimmage that the linebackers should generally be responsible for. Last season, that rank dropped to 23rd.

So the linebackers were bad. Why does this give me hope? Because I went into this offseason thinking that the linebackers weren’t a big problem. The Eagles coaches, supported by Football Outsiders, realized that wasn’t true. The linebackers were bad and needed to be majorly shaken up. While I wanted the team to bring back Bradley, it seems clear now that he probably wasn’t worth the money. And, obviously, good riddance to Sims.

Maybe optimism is the wrong word. We still don’t know if this group of youngsters will be any better than last year’s stiffs. But at least now I at least understand and support the Eagles rationale for making a change.

Photo from Getty.

Wishing for a Plan B at Middle Linebacker

One of the most frustrating aspects of playing sports video games is process of allocating a certain arbitrary number of “skill points” to the entire team. 10 points to the offensive line. 10 to the wide receivers. 15 to the quarterbacks. 5 to the kicker?

The process is about as harrowing as fake team management can get. There are always just too few points to make the choices easy. Do I go short at wide receiver or running back? Safety or linebacker?

Of course, the truth is that this process is consistent, on a much simpler scale, with what real front offices have to deal with. No matter how much room under the salary cap you have to sign All Stars, you’ll never sign one to every position. You’ll always have to make compromises.

With that said, I still think there’s ample room to criticize Eagles management for their consistent neglect of one rotating position on the roster. Last year it was either right guard or right cornerback. In years prior we had punt returner, back up tight end, fullback. Where generally you would allot at least a modicum of points to a position, there’s always one spot it seems that the Eagles leave barren.

But let’s stop a moment here and go over all the ways you can fill a potential hole in your roster. Signing a Pro Bowler long term is probably the most consistent and most expensive path, and the Eagles have done plenty of that over the years. You could also grab a veteran starter on a short term deal or through a trade, a tactic the team has consistently employed with linebackers. The Nate Allen/Danny Watkins route means drafting a talented rookie and giving him every chance to win the job over the veteran insurance policy (Marlin Jackson/Evan Mathis). Perhaps you give the same chance to a lower round rookie like Jason Kelce, but having an alternate veteran starter in place already is more important.

The Eagles chose none of these normal options last season with regard to right guard and right cornerback. Who was surprised when injured Stacy Andrews and perennial back ups Nick Cole and Max Jean-Gilles couldn’t get the job done? Or when Ellis Hobbs, mediocre on his own, went down for the year and Dimitri Patterson proved woefully unprepared to take over?

And yet I look at the linebackers for this coming season and I see a unit that could blow up faster than either of last year’s problem spots. Even if you trust the supposed soon-to-be Pro Bowler Jamar Chaney and the consistently underwhelming Moise Fokou, how can you justify slotting in undersized, unprepared fourth round pick Casey Matthews at starting middle linebacker? Given how unlikely it is that he’ll succeed immediately, I’m surprised that there seems to be no back up plan. Akeem Jordan is a lesser version of Ike Reese. Maybe Jamar Chaney could slide over, but that just opens up another hole where similarly unproven players like Keenan Clayton would have to contribute.

I could at least see some logic in 2010 at guard. Throwing some veterans against the wall and hoping one sticks is a plan, albeit a weak one. But now at middle linebacker you have one mid-round rookie and basically nothing else.

The Eagles are a remarkably smart organization and I’m sympathetic to the herculean task of assembling a team that’s good at every position. But there’s a difference between having a couple of question marks (like the injury problems at right tackle) and announcing that you’ll be completely ignoring one of the holes in Whac-A-Mole. Problems are almost guaranteed to pop up. Why are there no contingencies in place?

Photo from Getty.

Time to Worry About the Eagles Linebackers?

For Eagles fans that I’ve talked to, the position of worry seems to have seamlessly migrated from cornerback to right tackle since free agency began. Even with promising training camp play by new addition Ryan Harris, there still appears to be more concern directed at that spot than anywhere else.

Yet I hear very little worry about another every-down position that seems even more tenuous: linebacker.

Perhaps people are dissatisfied with the position but have resigned themselves to mediocrity, given the  lack of resources that the Eagles have put into it in the Andy Reid era. But I get the sense that there is actually a lot of positive thinking about linebacker, where the Eagles are set to start a 4th round rookie, a sophomore 7th round pick who started less than a handful of games in 2010, and a third year 7th rounder who has done little of note during his time in Philly.

Casey Matthews, Jamar Chaney, and Moise Fokou are young and promising, and I understand the optimism. But then you look at the stats and you have to wonder.

64 linebackers were drafted between the 3rd and 5th rounds over the last five NFL drafts. Exactly zero of them started a full season their rookie year. Only three players even managed to start more than six games, and the player who started the most was former Eagle Chris Gocong, with 12 games. That doesn’t inspire confidence in Matthews.

Here’s a depressing stat for you: out of all the rookie to third-year linebackers drafted in the 3rd through 7th rounds playing in the NFL during the last five years, their combined Pro Bowl appearances is one. How about another? The Eagles are set to start two former 7th round picks. No linebacker drafted in the final round in the last ten years has ever made a Pro Bowl - in any year of his career.

None of this proves anything about the three guys the Eagles have lined up to start. Maybe they can buck the trend. Maybe the scouts have found three diamonds  in the rough. But all the linebackers who came before them say that the ceiling is pretty low. No one should realistically hope for Pro Bowl seasons from these guys, nor should anyone even count on Casey Matthews to start the whole season - and who is his backup?

At best, temper your expectations. They could be average or above average linebackers, although that seems like an optimistic result right now, not a statistical likelihood. At worst, be prepared (yet again?) for linebacker to be the weakest link on the Eagles defense.