Linebacker Shuffle: Bye-Bye Rolle Edition

The Eagles cut Brian Rolle this morning and replaced him with linebacker Adrian Moten. Tim McManus talked to Rolle, and got some interesting quotes:

“I felt like I didn’t get the chance. People saw how productive I was last year. Why I am I not in there this year?” he said.

Um, I hate to break it to you, but the Eagles gave you the starting job and you couldn't hold on to it. Also interesting what Rolle said about "there’s been tension the last couple weeks." Tough to say what that's about, but this move is almost certainly about the atrocious special teams play. Rolle was not doing a good enough impression of Akeem Jordan. Eagles linebackers should keep in mind that there are only two roster-worthy types at their position: potential starters and special teams standouts. Be neither at your own peril (looking at you, Casey).

Also, for what it's worth, Jamar Chaney got a big "Way to go" from Howie Roseman in the locker room after Sunday's game.

Eagles Sign OJ Atogwe; Whither Jaiquawn Jarrett?

According to reports, the Eagles have signed safety OJ Atogwe to what is likely a one-year, veteran minimum deal. Having some veteran insurance is something I’ve advocated this offseason, so I’m glad the Eagles are willing to make a low risk deal in that direction.

However, this again brings up questions about Jaiquawn Jarrett. It was just last week that I wondered if Jarrett might actually be in danger of being cut this year, and adding Atogwe doesn’t help him. Again, I don’t mean to write off a player based only on his rookie season, but I’ve been surprised at how little the Eagles have talked him up as a potential starter or even contributor. Other players like Danny Watkins and Curtis Marsh have gotten much more press as to a potential sophomore bump.

Jarrett needs to either win the third safety job — a true backup role — or find a way to contribute on special teams. Otherwise you’re just keeping him around to save face.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Wide Receiver

What the Eagles did: The Eagles love to load up on wide receivers in the offseason, mainly (I assume) to take up all the tiring practice repetitions running up and down the field, working on routes with the quarterbacks. Right now they have 14 wideouts on the roster, most of whom we probably don’t need to worry about learning their names.

There are really only six receivers who, barring injury, are competing for regular season jobs, and the top three are already set. Dave Spadaro reports that DeSean Jackson is acting Iike a totally different man at the NovaCare complex now that he has a new contract. Prorated over the three games he missed due to injury, Jeremy Maclin would have had 78 receptions for 1,057 yards and 6 TDs last year. Hopefully a healthy offseason will allow him to top those numbers. Meanwhile, Jason Avant posted his best numbers at age 28 last season, so you can pencil him in the slot once more.

However, this great core group of wide receivers still has a major weakness: red zone production. All three are at their worst in that area of the field — which is why, not for the first time, we’re looking to some bigger wideouts to step up in that area.

First up is the holdover Riley Cooper. Due to injuries, the Eagles actually gave Cooper a lot of snaps last year, 330 according to Pro Football Focus. Yet ‘Sunshine’ did little to justify those extra looks. So in the draft this year, Howie Roseman added some competition for that big receiver job we’ll affectionately call the honorary Hank Baskett role. Marvin McNutt, the Eagles sixth round pick out of Iowa, has a similar build and athleticism as Cooper. It will be interesting to see if he can displace the other big man.

What I would have done: Bringing on another big wide receiver was necessary, considering Michael Vick’s strengths and Cooper’s lack of production. But I would have also liked to see the Eagles draft a multidimensional threat to supplant the bland Chad Hall. Hall has value on this team as a trick play threat and backup kick returner, but the team could have found someone with more speed and explosiveness to fill that role. Brandon Boykin will have a lot on his plate at cornerback in his rookie year, but I wonder if he could fill in on offense as well, like he did in college.

Way-too-early prediction: The Eagles might be able to stretch their roster to accommodate six receivers, as they did last year due to injury. If not, I’m unsure which of the three backups could see the door. McNutt would certainly have trouble being worse than Cooper as a wide receiver, but he’ll have to replace him on special teams as well, which might be harder to do. Then there’s Chad Hall, whom Andy Reid just can’t seem to cut loose. My prediction would be that Cooper is let go, but that’s not one made with very much confidence.

Get Well Soon, Colt

Jonathan Tamari:

“To be at the highest of highs, with your family all around, to being at the lowest of lows when I’m walking off the field,” Anderson said. “I’m a pretty emotional guy, and I didn’t feel anything [in the knee]. It wasn’t hurt. It was just weak, and I was just crying because I knew my season was over. I wasn’t crying because I hurt.”

Anderson had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. It was the first major injury of his career.

With apologies to Ike Reese, Colt Anderson might be the best special teams ace the Eagles have ever employed. Here’s hoping he can heal to the point where the PUP list is a real possibility. Still, I wonder if he’ll ever regain the reckless abandon needed to blow up so many kickoff returns.

Dion Lewis and the Eagles Kickoff Return Futility

Dion Lewis Eagles Kickoff Return

When you looked at the 2011 Eagles roster as a whole, it was plain that the team had enough overall talent to win more than eight games. But over and over again they demonstrated that they were less than the sum of their parts, failing at all the little parts of the game, like tackling and holding on to the ball.

Another one of these factors was kickoff returns. Dion Lewis, the rookie running back who didn’t return kicks in college, took nearly all of the Eagles returns. And he was (predictably) dreadful at it.

2011 Average Kickoff Returns

As you can see above, out of 47 players who returned at least 10 kickoffs, Lewis ranked 43rd. His 21.7 yards per return was 3.3 yards from the median, which cost the Eagles an extra 100 yards (over 30 returns) they surely could have used.

2011 Longest Kickoff Returns

Lewis’s longest kickoff return was a mere 33 yards, again 43rd in the NFL. Whatever vision or explosiveness or speed that an kick returner needs to break through for a big gain, he didn’t show it last year.

Note: Long returns do skew the average kick return results, obviously. In some ways that’s good — achieving that is part of what makes a good returner. However, a returner could be overall below average but have one big return that skews everything upward. For the record, taking out the top return does little to improve Lewis’s numbers relative to everyone else.

Eagles Kickoff ReturnersIt’s worth pointing out that this isn’t a problem solely related to the rookie from Pitt. Lewis is only the latest in a string of poor kick returners, who you can see at right. He was actually better than Jorrick Calvin. Quintin Demps, back in 2008, was the last above-average returner the Eagles employed. It would be nice to see the Eagles try to correct that in 2012, although I won’t be holding my breath.

Photo from Getty.

Touchbacks: Returning More With Less

Alex Henery Kickoffs

Last year, I projected that the new kickoff rules — mainly the new default kick spot at the 35, rather than 30 yardline — would result in a huge increase in touchbacks. The math from 2010 showed that touchbacks would likely go from 16 percent to almost 40 percent of all kicks.

Turns out I was close, but not high enough. According to what I compiled directly from play-by-play data, 44.5 percent of all kicks were touchbacks in 2011. But let’s go a little bit deeper.

Just how much did those extra five yards help the kickers? Check out the graphs at right.

In 2010, only 38 percent of all kickoffs made it to the end zone. With an extra five yards of distance, NFL kickers took advantage. They kicked 81 percent of all kicks into the end zone in 2011.

But that’s not all. With that kind of increase, we would expect even higher levels of touchbacks than just 44 percent. So what kept it down? Apparently, the returners.

Kickoffs Touchback Percentage

The chart above plots the percentage of kickoffs that became touchbacks by where they landed in the end zone. Obviously, as the kicks got deeper, returns became more rare.

The odd thing is that the end zone kicks were returned much more frequently in 2011 than in 2010. The first two yards are still almost always returned. But under the old rules, returners frequently didn’t bring out kicks that were just 3 or 4 yards deep. By 5 yards into the end zone, 72 percent were touchbacks.

This past year, that changed. Returners actually brought out more than half of all kicks as deep as 7 yards into the end zone. There were still more touchbacks overall, and a higher percentage of kicks into the end zone became touchbacks with the added distance. But returners took more risk than before, even knowing that the coverage teams also had five yards less to make up.

Perhaps kick returners felt the need to justify their continued presence on the roster. Kneeling down over and over would drive many a fierce competitor to take unnecessary risks. It will be interesting to see how that changes in year two after the kickoff changes.

Photo from Getty.

Examining Punter Chas Henry's Rookie Start

Chas Henry Eagles Punter

It’s common knowledge that the transition from David Akers to Alex Henery hasn’t gone smoothly. After all, Henery’s two missed field goals against San Francisco were a big reason for that loss.

But much less ink has been shed over the change at punter, where Chas Henry replaced veteran Sav Rocca. Back in August I crunched the numbers on Rocca and the rest of the punters in the NFL in 2011, going beyond simple net punting averages to factor in situational field position.

That study showed that Rocca wasn’t elite, but he placed above average among his peers in almost every category. Using the same parameters as last time (please read that one for an explanation), I scored Henry’s punts through his first six games.

Chas Henry 2011 Punting Stats Weeks 1 to 6 At right you can see all of Henry’s punts, with punt distance, return yardage (including touch backs), and the difference between the actual and optimal results. It’s a small sample, but we can start to draw conclusions.

For starters, although this isn’t shown in the table, 16 punts is an exceptionally low number. The Eagles offense has actually punted fewer times than any other team in the league. Leading the NFL in turnovers helps with that.

Second, Henry’s punts have not had the distance of a league average punter. Among players with at least 10 punts, Henery is 27th with a 41.8 yard raw average. That has been his biggest problem so far. Despite allowing fewer big returns, Henry’s average difference from optimal is almost exactly the same as a rookie punter from last season: the Giants’ infamous Matt Dodge, who ranked 33rd among punters.

There is some cause for optimism, however, if you are inclined to grant Henry the benefit of the doubt on his very first NFL start. Of his five worst punts this year, three came in that first game. Since then, Henry hasn’t been good (or even average), but his -8.8 yard difference from optimal would put him closer to 20th in the league.

Hopefully Henry can continue to improve, before he becomes a liability like his fellow rookie specialist.

Photo from Getty