Where They Stop, Nobody Knows

Sheil Kapadia describes the latest movement in Linebacker Musical Chairs™. At least Ryans is back as a three-down player again:

When Juan Castillo asked for the first-team nickel defense, Chaney was the man called on to go in alongside DeMeco Ryans. Up until today, Brian Rolle had been occupying that spot at Lehigh. And in the spring, it was rookie Mychal Kendricks.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Chaney said, when I asked him if he expected to be part of that package for the next few days. “I just do what they tell me to do. Whether I’m out there with the twos or the ones, I just go out there and do my best. My job is just to make the decision hard on them.”

(Note that I resisted excerpting just the first part of Chaney’s quote.)

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.

Small Fish in a Big Pond

Tommy Lawlor on UDFA Damaris Johnson:

Damaris is very quick and he has a good burst. He is able to gain initial separation. He just lacks the long speed you would ideally prefer. One thing I really like about him is that he plays fast. There is very little dancing and hesitation when Johnson gets the ball. That’s partly why he’s such a good KOR. He gets it and goes. That style of play actually makes him look faster than he is. One other thing about that…Johnson is able to make cuts at close to full speed. This is where his size is a benefit. He’s got good body control and is able to stop/start quickly and change directions on the move.

Damaris does look much faster on tape than his 40 time indicates — and he better be, considering his tiny stature. On a broader note, when was the last time the Eagles had so many potential contributors who were small in stature? I’m not sure anyone other than Barry Sanders did as much as Brian Westbrook at 5’8”, but this team has DeSean Jackson, Dion Lewis, and whoever emerges from the Johnson-Chad Hall roster battle. And that’s just on offense. Brian Rolle is one of the smallest linebackers in the NFL, and the slot corner competition is between two 5’9” players.

No, Seriously, Howie's Doing a Great Job

Chris McPherson, for the Eagles website:

The Eagles’ prolific run in free agency last offseason overshadowed the fact that the foundation for the team’s long-term success has been built in the past two NFL drafts.

Through aggressive maneuvering and clever moves, the Eagles have acquired eight starters in the past two drafts. None of the 2011 playoff teams in the NFC and only one playoff team in the entire league, the Denver Broncos, has drafted more starters in that timeframe…

Among the playoff teams this year, seven of them have first-round picks from the past two seasons that have yet to crack the starting lineup. The Eagles, overall, have drafted two starters on offense, five on defense and another on special teams in the past two years.

Those eight “starters” would be:

  • Brandon Graham — Not a starter, not healthy, not Jason Pierre-Paul.
  • Danny Watkins — Below average 27-year-old starter at right guard.
  • Jamar Chaney — Chaney is closer to the CFL than the Pro Bowl.
  • Brian Rolle — Better than Chaney, but shouldn’t be more than a 4th LB right now.
  • Kurt Coleman — Good backup, bad starter.
  • Jason Kelce — Promising young player, best rookie season of the bunch.
  • Nate Allen — Inconsistent, needs improvement to really own starting spot.
  • Alex Henery — He’s fine, but he’s also a kicker.

And yet, surprisingly, the Eagles are not in the playoffs. There’s a disconnect somewhere, I just can’t find it.

Rewind: Notes on the Eagles-Jets Game

Brent Celek Eagles Reception

I rewatched the Eagles-Jets game last night and came away with several short nuggets for your enjoyment. Here you go:

  • The Trent Cole and Jason Babin delayed blitz routine is fun to watch. Jimmy at Blogging the Beast has a nice breakdown of it. Though they’ve run this for a few weeks, it was especially effective against the Jets. I expect that the Cowboys tackles will be more prepared to pass their rushers off to the inside, which is when the Eagles should go double A-gap blitz instead.

  • On the other side of the blitzing coin, there’s no need to pull zone blitzes that drop Cole into coverage. It’s just counter-productive. Mark Sanchez completed his long pass to tight end Dustin Keller against Cole. Of course, it helped that he could use a pump fake to move Kurt Coleman out of position.

  • Casey Matthews definitely has potential as a nickel linebacker. He’s at least playing at game speed now and recognizing backs out of the backfield quickly, which is a massive improvement from before. He wasn’t a horrible pick in the fourth round, but I have no idea what Juan Castillo and company were thinking starting him, especially as a rookie.

  • Meanwhile, Brian Rolle seems to be hitting a bit of a rookie wall. Where Matthews was flying around the field, Rolle looked slower than usual.

  • Asante Samuel shifted over into the slot on the right side once or twice when he didn’t have a receiver to match up with on his side. That said, he was immediately called for pass interference on a slant route.

  • Pro Football Focus charted the Eagles defense with 9 blitzes out of 31 plays. In general, blitzing (even sending 6+) is very positive for this team, since most of the coverage problems originate with linebacker or safety play.

  • I loved the little play action screen pass in the third quarter, when the Eagles brought Brent Celek across the formation as if he was going to trap block, then he let the defensive end go, turned, and was open for the quick pass. Almost converted for the first down.

  • The Jamar Chaney interception was all Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. DRC jumped the slant route and knocked the ball into the air. It really shouldn’t be as hard for him to adjust to the slot as he makes it out to be, but he’s clearly more comfortable on the outside.

  • LeSean McCoy’s 33 yard TD run was a classic example of his skills. He dodged the first free rusher and then bounced to the opposite side of the field, dancing around another defender. Then he turned on the burners. Touchdown.

Photo from Getty.

'Not an Old Football Team'

LeSean McCoy Jeremy Maclin

On Monday, Andy Reid pushed back against the gloom patrol, reminding everyone that the Eagles window is still wide open:

"People perceive us to be an old football team, but we’re really not an old football team." he said on his radio show. “We’re one of the youngest teams in the [NFL]. That takes time.”

Unfortunately, that’s just not as true as it sounds. The Eagles are young, but the core of the team is actually reaching the end of their prime, with few replacements on the way.

The Eagles have 14 players on the roster who are currently 29 or older. Some of them may still have two or three more years left in them, but there are no guarantees in the NFL. Tell me how comfortable you are losing these guys in the near future:

  • Brown, Ronnie (29)
  • Cole, Trent (29)
  • Herremans, Todd (29)
  • Peters, Jason (29)
  • Asomugha, Nnamdi (30)
  • Hanson, Joselio (30)
  • Jenkins, Cullen (30)
  • Mathis, Evan (30)
  • Samuel, Asante (30)
  • Babin, Jason (31)
  • Dorenbos, Jon (31)
  • Jackson, Jamaal (31)
  • Vick, Michael (31)
  • Parker, Juqua (33)

Let’s see… That’s three starting offensive linemen, including both tackles. Three starting defensive linemen. Three of the top four cornerbacks. Oh, and a $100 million quarterback.

Even scarier, can you pick out any of these players and tell me who his replacement is going to be? The Eagles have no quarterback of the future. With Brandon Graham’s return from injury still an open question, they don’t have a single promising young linemen on the team ready to take over at offensive tackle or defensive end. Do you trust Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback? What about Brandon Hughes or Curtis Marsh?

And it’s not like many other positions are bursting with young talent. With the possible exception of Brian Rolle, not a single linebacker looks like more than a backup. There are three young safeties, but none have them have shown they can play at higher than replacement level. Jason Kelce looks like a keeper, but his fellow rookie Danny Watkins isn’t exactly a spring chicken.

The only place where the Eagles have proven youngsters is at the offensive skill positions. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how long that group will stay together. The DeSean Jackson departure appears imminent and Jeremy Maclin has never proven he can be a top wide receiver. Why the Eagles haven’t already thrown gobs of money at LeSean McCoy is beyond me.

It’s discouraging to glance up and down the Eagles roster. The short term outlook is bleak, with this season likely to go down as the worst in Reid’s tenure. And as to the future… there just isn’t much to look forward to.

Almost two seasons have passed since I wrote about Reid’s third 5-year plan. So far, that plan has failed.

Photo from Getty.

Eagles-Giants Rewind: Observations All Around

DeSean Jackson Eagles Giants

I rewatched the Eagles-Giants game last night. Here are a few more brief observations.

  • Other than the interception, which he lucked into, Jamar Chaney did not have a good game. First of all he’s (become?) a very poor tackler. There were at least three or four completely missed tackles on his part. But his bigger problem is play recognition and reaction. Both Brian Rolle and Akeem Jordan are relatively quick to diagnose and attack run plays. Chaney tends to move slowly in both run and pass defense. The long pass to Victor Cruz on the Giants final drive was his fault.

  • Another player who needs to step up his game is Clay Harbor. He didn’t get beaten as a run blocker, but rather failed to sustain the blocks. His man eventually tackled LeSean McCoy on multiple occasions. Not good enough effort. Also, Vince Young’s first interception came when the ball hit Harbor in the helmet (although pass interference should also have been called).

  • Danny Watkins could also work on sustaining blocks and looking for guys at the next level, but overall he’s holding his own at this point. He’s a legitimate starter. So far Watkins has only improved, and we can hope that continues.

  • I liked referee Mike Carey yelling at the Eagles and Giants players, getting in their faces after an early skirmish. You don’t see that often.

  • One of the things that worked really well was switching Cullen Jenkins out to defensive end. Juqua Parker often slid inside on those plays, and they each got a lot of pressure.

  • Both Parker and Darryl Tapp played really well as the second-string defensive ends. Jim Washburn’s revival of the second defensive line unit (even with street free agents like Derek Landri) might be a more impressive feat than turning Jason Babin into a Pro Bowler.

  • The Giants deployed a 3-4 base or 3-3 nickel look more than a handful of times. I’m not sure it was the best decision, given the state of their linebacker corps and the way the Eagles have played against 3-4 teams thus far in the season.

  • The biggest way the Giants kept McCoy under control was by maintaining containment. He wasn’t able to bounce inside runs outside nearly as often as he had through the first 10 weeks.

  • The Eagles tried Ronnie Brown as a fullback a few times and it predictably failed. They must see Owen Schmitt as a big liability. However, it did help to set up an inside trap run to Brown that converted a 3rd and 3 in the fourth quarter.

  • Not sure the goal on QB sneaks should be to run behind Kelce/Watkins. They both have a tendency to lose leverage and get pushed, if not backwards, at least not forward. If you watch Jason Peters and Evan Mathis on the same play, they start slowly but end up pushing their linemen back two yards or so. Might be time to try that side.

Photo from Getty.

By the Numbers: A Miserable Disaster

Michael Vick Bench

Let me revise my opening statement from a week ago: Last night’s Yesterday’s loss was cruel a disaster. The Eagles showed extended stretches of dominance on both offense and defense, but made vital mistakes, suffered awful injuries, and came up just short in the end ended up losing by two touchdowns to a depleted Giants team. Oh, and the coaching stunk.

Let’s break it down with some statistics:

13:42 = Time of possession advantage to the Eagles. They had the ball over 50 percent more than the Giants, ran 21 more offensive plays, and reached 11 more first downs. Yet the Eagles only scored 16 points. How is that possible? One word: coaching. Those numbers are indicative of the talent disparity in the Eagles favor. Only horrible play calling (see: Schmitt, Owen and shovel pass, predictable) could cause the Eagles to settle for three field goals in the red zone.

4 = Times the Eagles were stopped in short yardage situations, including three plays from the one-yard-line and a fourth down attempt. We will have to see if this becomes a theme. Howard Mudd’s offensive line philosophy requires smaller, athletic linemen. That hasn’t been a benefit on short yardage. During his time in Indianapolis, Mudd’s lines averaged only 19th in Power Success.

6th = Most rushing yards in game for an Eagles player in the post-Duce Staley era. Pretty much the only positive you can take away from this game is the play of LeSean McCoy, who has quietly made his case for being the best offensive player on the team, if not the whole league. McCoy’s play warranted the almost even split of run to pass calls Andy Reid doled out yesterday.

4 = Big plays allowed of 25 yards or more, including three touchdowns. Sometimes it’s easy to assign blame, like on the Brandon Jacobs touchdown wheel route when Casey Matthews (AKA white Ernie Sims) failed to pick him up. Sometimes it’s more difficult, like on the patented Eli Manning interception gift that Victor Cruz somehow beat out Nnamdi Asomugha and Jarrad Page for the go-ahead TD. It doesn’t matter, though. Other than experimenting with Brian Rolle at weakside linebacker, hardly a sure thing, the cupboard’s empty. With big personnel holes and a coordinator who seems completely incapable of making schematic adjustments, the Eagles defense is lost.

8 = First week of the NFL season that the Eagles have any hope of seeing Michael Vick return to the field after his broken hand. The team faces teams that are a combined 7-1 over the next three weeks. Unless Vince Young or Mike Kafka can summon some heretofore unseen magic and the defense improves rapidly, this team could rapidly dig a hole for themselves that’s too deep for even Vick to get them out of.

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.

Final Eagles 53-Man Roster Prediction

image

Final roster cuts happen this weekend and there are still a few question marks. Here’s my final prediction for the 53 man roster.

Quarterback: (3) Vick, Young, Kafka. Easiest spot on the team. 

Running Back: (4) McCoy, Brown, Lewis, Schmitt. I suppose Eldra Buckley had a shot, but the new rookie from Pitt has had a tremendous preseason.

Tight End: (2) Celek, Harbor. Donald Lee put some good tape on for some team last night, but it wasn’t the Eagles.

Wide Receiver: (6) Jackson, Maclin, Avant, Smith, Cooper, Hall. Chad Hall gets the final offensive skill spot because of his versatility. His place is in jeopardy once Steve Smith is healthy enough to contribute, though.

Offensive Line: (9) Peters, Herremans, Kelce, Mathis, Watkins, Jackson, Dunlap,  Howard, Vandervelde. I don’t buy Reggie Wells as anything more than a camp body and Ryan Harris’s back makes him expendable. Mike McGlynn has fallen even further out of favor than Jackson. Winston Justice to PUP.

Defensive End: (6) Cole, Babin, Tapp, Parker, Te’o-Nesheim, Hunt. They could try to sneak Hunt onto the practice squad or cut Parker to save money. But I anticipate them going heavy at DE. Brandon Graham to PUP.

Defensive Tackle: (4) Jenkins, Patterson, Dixon, Laws. Trevor Laws played well last night to solidify his spot. Anthony Hargrove and Derek Landri have been camp favorites, but I don’t see the upside. Plus, the Eagles have always been willing to move guys inside from end for that extra rush presence.

Linebacker: (6) Matthews, Fokou, Chaney, Jordan, Rolle, Clayton. Greg Lloyd has injury redshirt written all over him. Brian Rolle looked much more impressive than Keenan Clayton in recent days. I hope the Eagles snag another veteran back up and put Clayton on the practice squad.

Cornerback: (6) Asomugha, Samuel, Rodgers-Cromartie, Marsh, Lindley, Hughes. Right now I’m leaning toward a Joselio Hanson trade. 

Safety: (4) Coleman, Allen, Jarrett, Page. I’m sure Bobby April really wants to keep Colt Anderson. but at this point I’m worried enough about Nate Allen that Jarrad Page has to stay.

Specialist: (3) Dorenbos, Henry, Henery.

If I did my math right, that’s 53. Sound off in the comments if you disagree.

Photo from Getty.

How Many Roster Battles Remain for the Birds?

image

With the Eagles breaking camp on Tuesday, the countdown begins in earnest to the start of the season. I was going to take this opportunity to take stock of the latest depth chart battles. However, glancing over the Eagles roster today, I don’t see many competitions left, and those that remain are for the final few spots.

Let’s run through the positions.

Quarterback: The namesakes have departed, leaving Vick, Young, And Kafka. No drama here.

Running Back: Owen Schmitt has gotten no real competition for the lone fullback spot. Supposedly there’s a competition underway for the 3rd RB, but I’d be surprised if fifth round pick Dion Lewis didn’t win that job.

Tight End: Anyone who tells you Green Bay castoff Donald Lee is going to make the team, barring unforeseen injury, is crazy.

Wide Receiver: If Steve Smith really comes off the PUP list before the season starts, Chad Hall is the only guy the team might stretch to keep.

Offensive Line: Lots of dead weight here I wouldn’t mind showing the door. McGlynn and either Austin Howard or King Dunlap will be gone, along with the rest of the camp bodies.

Defensive Line: The tackles are a mess due to injuries, but at the end of the day it comes down to Laws or Hargrove. Defensive end is just a matter of keeping CFL star Philip Hunt or not.

Linebackers: I actually still think a veteran backup middle linebacker makes sense here. Both Greg Lloyd and Brian Rolle can probably be stashed on the practice squad.

Cornerback: If the Eagles still have high hopes for both Hughes and Lindley, they will find a suitor for Hanson.

Safety: Allen, Coleman, Jarrett compete for starting jobs. Colt Anderson makes the team as special teams maven.

Special Teams: Hope you like rookies.

The Eagles free agent binge has filled in a lot of spots we thought might have been contested. There will probably be a good deal of talk about the final roster, but about 90% of it already looks complete.

The 5 Eagles Most Likely to Lose Their Jobs

Jamaal Jackson Philadelphia Eagles 2011 Veterans

With the influx of yet another large class of incoming rookies from the NFL draft, current Eagles have to be worried. Each year more veterans lose their jobs as the team turns to younger and cheaper replacements. Here are the five veterans hurt most by the 2011 class of rookies:

David Akers — Might as well start with the obvious. Akers’s time with the Eagles is at an end. Truthfully, we all should have seen the writing on the wall. Akers’s kickoffs were only average, and his field goal kicking has actually declined relative to the rest of the league. His refusal to sign the transition tag was only the final straw, and the Eagles will have to hope that rookie Alex Henery can give them better results.

Quintin Mikell — About a month ago I made the case for re-signing Quintin Mikell. I still think it would be beneficial for the Eagles to do so, but the draft only made it more clear how remote that possibility is for the team. Even after the promising play of two rookies in 2010 (Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman), the front office added another young safety to the mix — second round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett. Presumably the plan is to let those players compete for the starting job in 2011 and beyond, with no more room for aging veterans.

Jamaal Jackson — What was the biggest lesson from the 2011 draft? That new offensive line coach Howard Mudd is ready to blow up the interior of the Eagles o-line and institute a whole new philosophy. Under his guidance the team drafted three interior linemen: guards Danny Watkins and Julian Vandervelde, and center Jason Kelce. All three are smaller than the massive converted tackles the Eagles consistently brought in under Juan Castillo. This new focus on agility rather than bulk makes Jackson (as well as Max Jean-Gilles) the odd man out. In returning from two season-ending injuries and soon-to-be 31 years old, Jackson was already facing an uphill battle. Having to fend off challenges from Kelce, McGlynn, and A.Q. Shipley while learning Mudd’s new technique may be too much for Jackson to overcome.

Leonard Weaver — Many experts already questioned whether Weaver would be able to return from the severe ACL tear he suffered in game one of the 2010 season. Now that the Eagles have drafted another fullback, USC’s Stanley Havili, to compete with last year’s replacement Owen Schmitt, it seems obvious that they don’t expect Weaver to come back. Factor in that Weaver is owed $2.6 million next year — five times as much as Schmitt — and you see the problem.

Stewart Bradley — An emerging star in 2008, Bradley was next in line for a big contract extension before he blew out his knee in the 2009 Eagles Flight Night practice. He hasn’t showed that same talent since, and missed the final three games of last season due to injury. I think the Eagles want Bradley back in 2011, but there’s a lot of younger competition now. Moise Fokou, Jamar Chaney, Keenan Clayton from the last two drafts. Casey Matthews, Brian Rolle, and Greg Lloyd this year. That’s an entire linebacker corps in three drafts. Even if the team resigns Bradley for 2011, are they willing to commit to him long term at the expense of the growth of other players? I’m starting to think not.

Care to disagree? Or just think I’m always right? All responses welcome in the comments.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.