Cornerbacks Worth More than Asante, Since 2008

Antonio Cromartie, 2011 2nd round pick
Josh Wilson, 2011 5th
Chris Houston, 2010 6th, 2011 7th
Sheldon Brown, 2010 4th
Lito Sheppard, 2010 4th
Bryant McFadden, 2010 6th
Ellis Hobbs, 2009 5th, 5th
DeAngelo Hall, 2008 2nd, 2009 5th
Pacman Jones, 2008 4th

According to the team stenographer. Some rounds approximate.

Lessons From the First Day of Free Agency

Todd Herremans

Day one of free agency is in the books, and it was an interesting, if not groundbreaking day for Eagles fans. Let’s break down what we’ve learned so far.

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A rebirth of the old Eagles way? The team took the first day to negotiate extensions for two of its longest-tenured players, Todd Herremans and Trent Cole. It was a nice return to the days pre-2009 when the Eagles built mostly from within. It’s also an important precedent to set with the players. Basically since Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown were unceremoniously dumped, the front office and the players have had a relationship built on animosity and mistrust. Young players like DeSean Jackson have battled with the organization rather than sign mutually-beneficial long-term deals.

Jonathan Tamari has the money quote from Todd Herremans: “The Eagles have been known for a while as a team that doesn’t take care of their draft picks and pays everyone else’s as picks and players. I think they’re trying to change that stigma that they have.”

By showing that you can get more money by playing the good soldier and dealing with your contract issues behind the scenes, the Eagles made a big step toward repairing that relationship and establishing veteran role models for the less experienced players to look up to.

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Wide receivers are getting paid. Three of the best wide receivers on the market signed yesterday. Vincent Jackson went to Tampa Bay, getting 5 years, $55.55 million, with $26 million guaranteed. Marques Colston stayed with the Saints at the last minute, for 5 years, $40 million and $19 million guaranteed. Finally, Pierre Garçon stole 5 years, $42.5 million and $21.5 million guaranteed from the Redskins.

Seem of these numbers are artificially inflated in the final years, but DeSean Jackson and Drew Rosenhaus have to be looking at those guarantees and salivating.

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Free agency for the Eagles is 85% about linebacker. And nothing happened on that front yet. Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, and David Hawthorne are all still available, and until those dominos start falling we won’t be able to judge the Eagles front office one way or another.

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If I ever became an NFL general manager, I would have to remember one thing: don’t sign second-tier free agents on the first day. If you need to move fast on the biggest name out there, that’s fine. But don’t throw big money at guys who aren’t major difference-makers. That’s known as the Redskins’ strategy.

Photo from Getty.

Is Asante Samuel Overrated?

Asante Samuel had a rough preseason game last Thursday, giving up one of the worst touchdown receptions in recent memory. If you missed the game, just picture a Steelers receiver jogging into the end zone for an uncontested throw-and-catch from Ben Rothlisberger.

If everyone else hadn’t also looked so bad, and if the game had actually counted for anything, you can bet Eagles fans and commentators would be livid at Samuel for giving up such a weak touchdown. We’ve come to accept Asante’s gambles because he gets more interceptions than any other cornerback in the NFL. Plus, last year Samuel finally gained the respect he lacked when he was first signed as a free agent. Opposing quarterbacks rarely targeted him, and when the ball did come his way the average gain was minuscule.

Samuel is widely regarded as one of the top five corners in the NFL. Yet, a few weeks back, when the Eagles dipped into their pocket books to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, I suggested that having two of the best corners on the field at the same time might expose flaws in their games previously uncovered. That’s because a great cornerback, if he is substantially better than his partner on the other side of the field, will mostly push quarterbacks to avoid him.

Last year’s Eagles were a great example. Ellis Hobbs and Dimitri Patterson were awful at right cornerback. Some of Asante’s success in 2010 was the result of quarterbacks picking on the easier targets. When he knew the ball wouldn’t come to him except in certain situations or with the quarterback under pressure, Samuel could read and react to the pass, take gambles, and jump routes.

With Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie replacing Hobbs and Patterson, quarterbacks will probably look back to Samuel’s side more often and exploit weaknesses he never had to hide. That was my qualitative judgment, anyway. What about quantitative?

I went back through the pass coverage statistics helpfully compiled by Pro Football Focus for the last three seasons. As you might recall, Asante had a rather poor season in 2008, especially considering he had just received a $57 million contract. Samuel only had four interceptions and was largely outplayed by Sheldon Brown. In 2009 Samuel stepped up his game, grabbing a league-leading nine picks as Sheldon Brown showed signs of age. Last season, with a bunch of junior varsity players at right cornerback, Asante had his best season yet.

Seeing a trend? You will if you look at the graph at right. I’ve plotted Samuel’s targets per coverage snap on the left axis, designated in blue. In red and on the right axis is the yards given up per target by Samuel’s counterparts at cornerback.

As you can see, in 2008 Brown and Joselio Hanson allowed a meager five and a half yards per attempt. That corresponded to Samuel being targeted on 16 percent of his coverage snaps, and his worst season in Midnight Green. Over the following two years, receptions and yardage against the other Eagles corners spiked. At the same time, Asante saw the ball a lot less. During his great 2010 campaign, Samuel was targeted more than a full third less than he was in 2008.

Now these are only correlations and may not tell the full story. Perhaps 2008 was an off year because Samuel was still learning the Eagles defense. Maybe his improved play caused both the decline in targets and contributed to his compatriots having a worse time. It’s very possible that having better corner opposite Asante will actually allow him to gamble more and produce better results.

But this data at least raises questions. Once the season begins, we can closely watch Samuel’s play to see what, if anything, changes.

Photo from Getty.

Hot Read: Contracts, Corners, and Cornhuskers

Yesterday’s post questioned why the Eagles have gone after highly-ranked safeties, while sticking with mid-round projects at cornerback. Friend of the blog Sam Lynch laid out his view in the comments, that it’s the result of the Eagles failing to address defensive back in any substantial way through the draft since 2003:

“For example, in the five drafts between 2003 and 2007, the Eagles took 1 CB and 2 Ss in the first four rounds, and the second safety (Considine) was only taken after JR Reid had his accident”

I agree, although the next question is why. Why would a team that drafted Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown prior to the departures of Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor fail to plan ahead this time? Even after they snagged Asante Samuel in free agency, they didn’t bother to even invest in one long term solution to play on the opposite side. Not sure I have a good answer for this one.

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Perhaps the strangest story I’ve read in the last week was the yesterday’s revelation that David Akers had pre-draft dreams that foretold the Eagles picking another kicker.

That piece reminded me about the reports that surfaced at the end of the season that Akers had turned down a three-year contract extension with the team. I wonder if that offer really was as good as McLane reports: “a deal that would have made him one of the top five kickers in the league.” Seems like lunacy that Akers would turn that down, unless he already wanted to move on.

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Non-Eagles note: the University of Nebraska was kicked out of the American Association of Universities last week. Many of you college football/Big Ten/Penn State fans may remember that Nebraska’s membership in the AAU was supposed to be a vital reason for their inclusion in the new 12-member Big Ten.

Of course, as I wrote a year ago, sticking to academic standards was never high on the Big Ten’s agenda.

Do the Eagles Value Safeties Over Corners Now?

Nate Allen, Joselio Hanson, Quintin Mikell Eagles Defensive Backs

Over the last couple of years we’ve seen an exodus in the Eagles defensive backfield. Brian Dawkins, Lito Sheppard, Sheldon Brown, and now (presumably) Quintin Mikell. There’s a completely new starting unit now — but the way the Eagles have gone about replacing all the departing All-Stars has been interesting. While there have been long-term holes at both cornerback and safety, the team has invested high draft picks only in safety.

Cornerback has long been considered a key position for the Eagles and other defenses. Today’s pass happy NFL regularly exposes mediocre corners (see Patterson, Dimitri). So one would think that in addition to signing Asante Samuel, the Eagles front office would be committed to finding more starters who can lock down opposing wide receivers for years to come. But they haven’t. Instead we’ve seen a string of low round picks, projects with upside rather than instant contributors: Jack Ikegwuonu (4th round), Trevard Lindley (4th), Curtis Marsh (3rd). They also drafted another fourth round corner, Macho Harris, only to convert him to safety and cut him after a year. Veterans Patterson, Ellis Hobbs, and Joselio Hanson haven’t been the answer.

Meanwhile, the team has now invested in two second round safeties who were considered NFL-ready by many scouts. Nate Allen started most of the 2010 at free safety, and Jaiquawn Jarrett, this year’s draft pick, should compete with Kurt Coleman for the starting strong safety spot right away. You can see the difference between a top second round pick like Allen and a fourth round player like Lindley, who barely saw the field last season and isn’t seriously being considered to start next year either.

So why the split? Why not draft a top cornerback to try to replicate the success of Allen and immediately upgrade the position, rather than roll the dice on another project? The opportunities, both this year and last year, were there. And no one can argue that cornerback is less of a need.

There’s no easy answer. Perhaps the Eagles thought that safety was where the value was, especially if they’re planning to pick up a cornerback in free agency, although that doesn’t necessarily answer the long-term question for a team that likes to draft for the future. Maybe the increase in importance of the safety position requires a renewed commitment. Or perhaps there’s more optimism about the team’s current corners than we thought.

Whatever the reason, the Eagles clearly put safety ahead of cornerback in the last two drafts. Free agency will tell us whether that preference is conditional and temporary, or if it’s part of a larger trend.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

Should the Eagles Pursue Nnamdi Asomugha?

Nnamadi Asomugha Eagles Free Agency

Perhaps the biggest hole in the Eagles defense right now is at right cornerback, opposite Asante Samuel. Ellis Hobbs, Dimitri Patterson, and Joselio Hanson all got the chance to start in 2010 but none could even consistently play at an average level. So going into 2011, fans have been clamoring for the team to add perhaps the biggest star on the free agent market — Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Asomugha is often touted as one of the best, if not the best cover corner in the league. The three-time consecutive Pro Bowler doesn’t come up with a lot of interceptions, but quarterbacks notoriously avoid his side of the field. Last year, according to Pro Football Focus, receivers Asomugha covered were targeted only 29 times for 3.7 percent of his snaps, by far the least in the NFL (Samuel was second with 41 targets and 6.1 percent).

Asomugha would fit perfectly at right cornerback with the Eagles, where his size (6’ 2” 210 lbs.) and athleticism could balance Samuel’s ball-hawking skills. And it doesn’t appear that Asomugha is losing any of his game. One of the best wide receivers in the NFL, Larry Fitzgerald praised him last year: “The thing you see on tape for a man of his size, he has incredible hips and amazingly quick feet, and that’s just God given ability to be that tall and be able to move and cut and drive on balls the way he’s able to.”

Certainly on talent alone, the Eagles have to be interested. They’re used to making big splashy free agency moves and have the cash to do so. Plus, considering the cornerback spot is a pressing current concern, the team likely won’t try to look to the draft for a remedy.

Major Eagles Acquisitions

But the main question mark with Asomugha is his age. The All-Pro will turn 30 on July 6th, and giving a long-term contract to a cornerback (or any player) at that age is risky business. As you can see from the table at right, Asomugha would be the second-oldest big-time acquisition the team has ever made.

Additionally, consider recent Eagles history with cornerbacks. Troy Vincent stayed with the team through age 33, then switched to safety to prolong his career. Bobby Taylor had injury problems that preceded being let go at age 30, after which he only played one more year. Sheldon Brown lasted until just after his 31st birthday before he was traded last offseason to Cleveland. And while we might lament that decision now, keep in mind that quarterbacks throwing Brown’s way in 2010 had a 114 passer rating, third worst in the NFL among starting cornerbacks.

The broader trend among 30-plus year old cornerbacks isn’t particularly golden either. A free agent deal for Asomugha would have to include at least four years, if not more. But can he produce at a high rate for that long?

Cornerbacks After Age 30

My analysis shows that among cornerbacks from the last 15 years who started at least one game after turning 30, less than 40 percent of them started the equivalent of two full seasons in their thirties. Only 21 percent managed to start three full seasons. Unfortunately, the vast majority of players are not Eric Allen, Ronde Barber, or Charles Woodson. They slow down, they get hurt, and they drop out of the starting lineup before you know it.

What does that mean for Asomugha’s chances of coming to Philly? It depends on how risk-averse the Eagles front office is right now. Giving Asomugha a rich contract with heavy guarantees — which is what it will take to get any deal done — is no safe move. Maybe he’ll buck the odds and perform at a high level for years to come, making any contract worthwhile. More likely, if the Eagles do pursue him, it would be for a contract that puts big money up front but few guarantees down the road.

At the end of the day, Asomugha is the type of player that could instantly lift the Eagles defense and conceal a number of other weaknesses. It’s worth getting excited about any potential addition of that caliber, even if some caution is also warranted.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

Friday Figures: Eagles 2009 Pass Rush Numbers

Philadelphia Eagles Pass Rush 2008 2009 Sack Ben Rothlisberger Dan Klecko Juqua Parker Omar Gaither

One of the biggest stories of the offseason (second only to the reason I started this blog) has been the complete retooling of the Eagles’ defensive line.

While the Eagles still blitzed a lot with new Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott, the coaches clearly wanted better production from the front four:

“It would be nice if we’re able to get pressure from just rushing four and not [have to] rely on the blitz as we had to last year to some extent,” McDermott said. “When you can get pressure from your front four, that alleviates a lot of your problems.”

But was the front four really the problem? Looking at PFF’s defensive stats from the last two years, we can see how effective various parts of the pass rush were from the late Jim Johnson in 2008 to McDermott in 2009. The chart below shows the change in percent of total rushes and negatve plays (Sacks, Hits, Pressues, Batted Passes) made by each unit.

Eagles Pass Rush Efficiency by Position

In case the chart isn’t completely intuitive, “DE % Rush” is the percent of total “Pass Rushes” by defensive ends (including the DEs that move inside on passing downs). “DE % Eff” is just the negative plays caused by this group, divided by their number of rushes. Then there’s the year-over-year difference.

As we’ve talked about on multiple occasions, the pass rush from defensive tackles is basically non-existant. Although guys like Bunkley, Patterson, Laws, and Dixon were in the game on more than one quarter of pass plays, they caused negative plays for the offense less than five percent of the time. That’s the most obvious sign yet that the Eagles are getting no pressure from those big fellas.

The linebackers, despite the drastic injuries, seem to have come out pretty much even on blitz pressure. The defensive backs definitely were less effective — but they account for only seven percent of all pass rushes. Still, perhaps because their blitzing was so infrequent, it was more effective than anything else.

So that brings us back to the defensive ends, the guys who are being paid pretty much exclusively to get after the quarterback. How’d they do? Pretty much the same overall from 2008. There was a drop by a little more than a percentage point. This is a much bigger portion of the total rushes, so one percent means a lot more, but it still doesn’t tell me that the Eagles got significantly worse all of sudden along the front line.

What if we compare by player? Here’s 2008 and 2009, for every player who rushed the passer at least 20 times (“Per Game” stats are based on ~62 offensive plays, all passes).

2008 Eagles Pass Rush by Player

2009 Eagles Pass Rush by Player

All of the defensive ends outside of Trent Cole and Victor Abiamiri declined from 2008 to 2009. And considering none are really up-and-coming youngsters, it probably was a good idea to bring in some fresh blood.

Other interesting things: Sheldon Brown went from 35 blitzes under Jim Johnson to a mere five with McDermott. A healthy Joselio Hanson looks like his still and effective blitzer from the slot. Surprising no one, Asante Samuel has only blitzed six times in in the last two seasons.

Omar Gaither is a really effective blitzer. Too bad his days in Philly seem numbered. And here’s yet more evidence that Chris Gocong probably should not have been stuck at SAM linebacker.

I really kind of like this “Negative Plays Per Rush” stat. It might be interesting to compare various players, such as Trent Cole, to others around the NFL at their positions…