Harmony at Eagles Training Camp

All rookies and veterans reported to training camp at Lehigh this year. That makes it only the third time in the last decade that the Eagles have had everyone show up.

A brief rundown of your holdouts and no-shows:

2012:
2011: DeSean Jackson
2010: Brandon Graham
2009: Jeremy Maclin
2008: Shawn Andrews
2007:
2006: Broderick Bunkley
2005: Brian Westbrook*
2004:
2003: Jerome McDougle

*Terrell Owens actually reported on time. But it was worse than if he hadn’t.

Is LeSean McCoy Better Than Brian Westbrook?

Thank you everyone who has already bought the Eagles Almanac 2012! I’m really proud of the work we’ve done on this book, and I hope you all enjoy it.

This week, I’m going to share a series of smaller graphics and other posts based on the work in the Eagles Almanac. For those of you who bought it, hopefully this will provide an opportunity to discuss some of the findings (since that’s difficult on an ebook). And for those who haven’t, you’ll see what you’re missing.

Below is a simple chart from my article, which was a detailed examination of LeSean McCoy’s running style and the areas he can still improve. The question this chart poses, as the title suggests, is whether Shady is a better back than Westbrook, using Football Outsiders’ year-by-year rushing plus receiving DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement). Your answer probably varies from “so far” to “not yet.”

Westbrook McCoy DYAR

Westy Talks Shady

Eagletarian:

Westbrook took to Twitter today to gauge the fans’ views on McCoy’s contract situation, and add his own.

"So basically everyone feels that he should get paid??," he tweeted…

"Like Arian Foster? I think he is definitely if not the best, at least the second best back in the league right now and deserves it #payMccoy"

"The only leverage players have in this situation is to hold out! Unfortunately its still not a lot of leverage!! #payMccoy"

"Players dont want to have to worry about their contracts during the season which is why the off season is the time to get it done"

This probably isn’t true, but I like the idea that McCoy is speaking through Westbrook here. Arian Foster money, here we come.

Room to Improve for LeSean McCoy as a Receiver

LeSean McCoy

LeSean McCoy had an All-World rushing season last year, racking up 1300 yards and 17 touchdowns, good enough for best in the NFL in DYAR, by far. McCoy is also a more complete player than most other backs. His pass blocking has, by all accounts, improved significantly since he entered the league. And out of the backfield, McCoy has caught 166 balls over the last three seasons — third-most among all running backs.

Despite all those catches, however, there still seems to be room for improvement in the receiving department. While McCoy has already met or surpassed his mentor’s rushing ability, Brian Westbrook was a much more natural receiver. In fact, he was probably the best wideout the Eagles had for a number of years there.

At a basic level, Westbrook averaged 8.9 yards per catch over his entire career. McCoy has only managed 7.3 yards. That’s a large difference, although it’s hard to tell exactly why McCoy is deficient in that area.

One way to get a second-level look at McCoy’s receiving stats is to look at his receptions by distance. Pro Football Focus tracks passes thrown by direction, including whether those passes were thrown behind or in front of the line of scrimmage. Here is McCoy’s receiving production by year, delineated by passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage and past it:

LeSean McCoy Receiving Statistics

For starters, McCoy has always been targeted more in the backfield. Most of those are swing passes, screen passes, and shovels. However, at least until this year, he was also turning those passes into bigger gains. There’s an interesting trend, which may or may not be significant, where McCoy’s screens have become less effective each season while his receptions on pass routes past the line of scrimmage resulted in bigger gains.

(Note that YAC, yards after catch, include yards gained behind the line of scrimmage.)

So that’s interesting. But in order to get any context for those numbers, we have to compare them to other running backs. I averaged the 2011 reception figures for five comparable backs: Darren Sproles, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, Arian Foster, and Matt Forte.

Other Running Backs Receiving Statistics

In many ways, these backs had the opposite production of McCoy. Most of their receptions came from routes past the line of scrimmage, not screens and swing passes. They were also more effective running those real pass routes than McCoy, with an average of 10.8 yards per catch beyond the line of scrimmage.

Granted, the reason McCoy runs few wide receiver-type routes is because he’s so valuable in the backfield — even as a decoy. But that’s true about these other running backs as well.

One way McCoy can take his game to the next level would be to apply himself this offseason to becoming a better route-runner and receiver when put in motion out of the backfield. That extra element made Brian Westbrook a multidimensional threat, and McCoy would be wise to follow in his footsteps.

Photo from Getty.

Mini-Video Rewind: Eagles Offensive Highlights

Video rewinds are always fun, and a kind soul has posted a few of the Eagles vs. Rams highlights on YouTube already. Let’s break them down a little bit, shall we?

Here’s Brian Westbrook in a 2006 shovel-pass touchdown… er, I mean LeSean McCoy in an updated version of the same play. The key to this working is the offensive line. Jason Peters and Evan Mathis let their guys come up the field, while Todd Herremans, Kyle DeVan, and Jason Kelce engage forward immediately like on a run.

DeVan (the newest CamelCased addition) knocks his defensive tackle to the ground and proceeds to lie down on top of him. That Rams defender should be glad Howard Mudd likes relatively skinny linemen. Also notice the speedy Kelce run a circle around Herremans, trying to catch the middle linebacker. No way Jamaal Jackson comes close to making that play.

Above is the Quintin Mikell strip-sack. The offensive line actually does a good job here, and so does LeSean McCoy in blitz pickup. But Brent Celek had to choose between a linebacker and Mikell. Ultimately this mistake is probably on Michael Vick, who needs to see the safety blitz and anticipate DeSean Jackson getting open in the end zone. If he let the ball go instead of waiting for Jackson to get open, that would have been a touchdown instead of a fumble.

Here again DeSean lines up in the slot. I don’t remember much of this from last season, but it’s smart down in the red zone, where his quickness can still be deadly without the threat of the deep ball. And here it works again to get Jackson free. He ends up paired off with Mikell, who simply can’t keep up once he’s beat.

Rolling Vick out gives him four options: run himself, dump off to McCoy, pass to Jackson, or try to sneak one in to Celek. The Rams linebacker Poppinga reads it well and closes on Vick, almost breaking up the play.

On this one you’ll notice the Rams brought seven defenders, but the Eagles only had six blockers. Celek slips out of the backfield and is wide open underneath. But such is the downside to having a quarterback who’s only six feet tall: there’s no way Vick could see Celek in that spot.

So this is destined to be a sack. Herremans gives a weak push to the blitzing safety and McCoy struggles to pick up the linebacker coming up the middle. Meanwhile the rest of the Rams defenders are keeping pretty solid containment around the pocket. Then again, I guess no one can really account for Vick, who proved that you can trip, slip, and stumble your way to the first down if you want it badly enough.

Bring Back the Brian Westbrook Offense

I have always chided fans and commentators for calling on Andy Reid to run ball more. First of all, such pleas fall on deaf ears within the Eagles organization; Reid has his offense and it doesn’t change much. Second, Reid is right - statistics show that passing is now a much more effective way to win football games.

However, at the risk of reading too much into Thursday night’s third preseason game, it might be time to shift the scales back more to the Brian Westbrook-centered offense we saw from 2006 through 2008. It’s not that the Eagles ran so much more during that span, but their entire offense largely went through Westbrook with runs, screen passes, dump offs.

That wasn’t, I think, by choice. Reid realized that the Eagles had few other offensive weapons. Of course, that certainly isn’t the case now. But that doesn’t mean the strategy won’t still work. Here are three reasons it makes sense:

  1. After last season’s coming out party for Vick, it seems clear to me that defenses are going to load up in the secondary to prevent the deep ball from beating them. Unless I missed one, Vick hasn’t completed a single one of his signature downfield bombs this preseason. Right now, opponents would rather let Vick complete dink and dunk passes underneath than beat them with one quick, demoralizing touchdown. And especially as Jeremy Maclin may not be 100 percent, the Eagles offense doesn’t have a full complement of downfield weapons.

  2. The offensive line is still in a state of flux. With King Dunlap at right tackle and two rookies starting in the interior against the Browns, pass blocking was a nightmare. Unless that line improves rapidly, Vick is not going to have time to sit back and let deep routes develop. The quick passes, the dump offs underneath, and the run game will likely continue to be more consistent options.

  3. LeSean McCoy, the new Westbrook, is making a quietly persuasive case to be the number one offensive threat. He never got the headlines last year, even though his production was very impressive for a second year running back. Recliner GM found that in 2010 McCoy became only the ninth RB to post more than 1,670 yards before his 23rd birthday. And if the preseason can be trusted for anything, it has shown that McCoy might be ready for even more now. For a player who came into the league in Westbrook’s shadow, he’s already close to surpassing his mentor.

The offense from the third preseason game wasn’t pretty, but it hinted that a McCoy-centric system could win football games. With defenses gearing up to stop the deep passing game and a leaky offensive line, why not use DeSean Jackson more as a decoy in the early going? Do the unexpected and run the football right at these over-aggressive defensive tackles. Take what they give you and ram it back at them. If you’re successful, defenses will have to respect McCoy, and the long balls for DeSean and company will surely open up.

Photo from Getty.

Is Albert Haynesworth the Next Terrell Owens?

Albert Haynesworth 2011 Philadelphia Eagles Terrell Owens

The Eagles have spent the last three years stocking the ranks with lots of young, respectable team players. They’ve drafted captains and All-Americans, guys who can represent the team proudly. They’ve also jettisoned a number of me-first malcontents and with questionable work ethics, like Chris Clemons, Quentin Demps, and Shawn Andrews.

Yet, after praising this change, now fans everywhere are clamoring for the Eagles to grab one of the most notoriously selfish players in the NFL: Albert Haynesworth. Here’s a guy who signed one of the richest contracts ever, and then refused to go earn it on the field. He’s undeniably one of the most talented defensive linemen in the game, but has spent most of the last two years loafing it with the Redskins. Not to mention that even when he was productive in Tennessee, Big Al was still causing trouble.

I can see the allure of a player like Haynesworth. His disruptive abilities from the defensive tackle spot are perhaps unparalleled in today’s NFL. And in theory DL Coach Jim Washburn knows how to get the most out of him. But doesn’t he represent exactly the qualities that the Eagles have purposely avoided recently? If the team trades for or signs Haynesworth, they effectively wipe away the high standards they’ve set on personnel decisions.

In many ways, getting Haynesworth would remind me a lot of 2004, when the Eagles acquired Terrell Owens. TO was another player who was unhappy with his current team and wanted out. The Eagles scooped him up and his talent propelled the team to a Super Bowl appearance. He was the quintessential difference-maker, and I’d expect the same from Haynesworth. Pairing Big Al with Trent Cole might be the defensive equivalent of Owens and Brian Westbrook.

But at what cost? TO was happy for a year, then the sit-ups began and he helped torpedo the Super Bowl hopes of a team that he cared nothing about. I wonder how long Haynesworth would remain a happy Philly citizen, especially if they sign him relatively cheaply. I wonder how long he could stay out of trouble with the law and with the league office, given his long history.

In hindsight, TO wasn’t a gamble. He was a sure thing — sure to be ticking time bomb. Is Big Al any different?

Photo by Getty.

2011 Eagles Offseason Guide: Running Back

LeSean McCoy Eagles Running Backs 2011 Offseason

This is the second in a series of posts breaking down the Eagles position by position in advance of the upcoming draft and (hopefully) free agency. Yesterday we looked at quarterback. Today we’ll examine the running back spot.

2010 Recap: Last season was all about LeSean McCoy. The Eagles young starter ran the ball even more efficiently than Brian Westbrook at the same age. But other than McCoy, the running back position was a revolving door. Mike Bell was signed before the season but showed nothing. He was then traded midseason to the Cleveland Browns for Jerome Harrison. Harrison didn’t play a lot, but he performed when he was called on, including 100-yard rushing days against the Redskins and Cowboys. Eldra Buckley was the third back and saw very limited action. Although he did perform well on special teams.

At fullback, fan favorite Leonard Weaver severely tore his ACL on his very first carry of the season in week one. The team signed Owen Schmitt to take his place for the rest of the year and the former West Virgina grad performed adequately, if not particularly noteworthy.

Who’s Leaving: Much depends on the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement (assuming there is one). Harrison, a restricted free agent, was tendered at a second-round level under the current rules — meaning that any team who wanted to sign him would have to give up a high pick to the Eagles. Buckley was only tendered at the lowest level that allows the Eagles to match any offer, so he’s more likely on his way out. Finally, the team is only going to keep one fullback, so Weaver will have to fight to show he’s fully recovered to keep his job.

2011 Depth Chart: McCoy is the starter, backed up by a veteran (likely Harrison) and probably a rookie. Unless the team adds another fullback to make the battle more interesting, only Weaver or Schmitt will return.

Potential Additions: There are a few interesting free agent names. Darren Sproles of the Chargers is a lightning-quick back who would fit nicely into the Eagles’ speed offense — although he may be too expensive. Brian Leonard or Kevin Faulk also could be options.

If the Eagles miss out on Sproles, Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter may be the runner-returner that the team turns to in the draft instead. Hunter visited the Eagles for a workout last month.

Future Outlook: With McCoy in place for the long term, now would be a good time to get a secondary back who could grow into the back up spot. This would be the Correll Buckhalter to McCoy’s Westbrook, taking 5-10 carries a game and keeping McCoy from shouldering the entire load. It remains to be seen if the Eagles consider that high on their priority list.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

Can LeSean McCoy Carry the Eagles in 2011?

LeSean McCoy Yards Per Carry Workload 2010 2011

Fans have always wanted Andy Reid to run the ball more, but those calls were especially loud last season when LeSean McCoy was tearing up field in his first season as the starter. On Monday I examined the striking similarities and subtle differences between McCoy and former Eagle Brian Westbrook. Those statistics showed that McCoy may be an even better runner than Westbrook was at the same point in his career.

Yet even if McCoy is a better runner than Westbrook, he still may not be able to handle the bigger workload that many fans want him to take on. Last year he only averaged 13.7 carries per game, surpassing the 20 carry mark only once — in a week six win over Atlanta.

That’s not surprising. Westbrook himself only rushed more than 20 times twice in his first four and a half years in the NFL. And, to be fair, there just aren’t many running backs left in the NFL who can handle the ball all the time. In fact, only six players had over 20 carries per game in 2010, and none averaged higher than 22 carries.

But could McCoy handle a bigger workload than the one he was given last season? Let’s look at his number of carries and yards per carry in 2010 on a game by game basis:

LeSean McCoy 2010 Rushing per Game Workload

So the blue is carries, corresponding to the left axis, and red is yards per carry, measured on the right axis. Over the season, McCoy’s workload and effectiveness varied substantially.

In the first half of the season, McCoy was being used a lot; he had 16 or more carries six times in the first eight games. Yet his production was actually down. McCoy had only three games during that stretch in which he averaged above five yards per carry and also had his two least effective games, in weeks six and seven.

Then things changed. McCoy only carried the ball an average of 12 times a game after week nine, but posted some of his best performances. While his yards per carry was a respectable 4.8 in the first half, it rose to 5.5 over the last eight games.

We can also separate McCoy’s performance by carry:

Eagles LeSean McCoy 2010 Situational Yards per Carry

Through the first 15 carries, McCoy was consistently great, averaging over five yards per carry. And while it’s a small sample size beyond that, McCoy experienced a significant drop off when the Eagles kept feeding him the ball last season.

Eagles fans will never stop calling for the team to run the ball more, and McCoy’s talent only makes that prospect even more tantalizing. But the truth is that McCoy might look much less special if he had to take on a huge workload. The Eagles may be better off limiting his touches, at least for now, and keeping McCoy as a fabulous second or third option — rather than the focus on offense.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

Who’s the Better Back: McCoy or Westbrook?

LeSean McCoy Brian Westbrook Comparison 2010 2004 Philadelphia Eagles

Recently, free agent and former Eagle Brian Westbrook said that he would like to return to Philadelphia. While such a move might make sense if Andy Reid wanted a veteran back-up, the truth is that Westbrook is a forgotten man in Philadelphia, where LeSean McCoy’s stellar 2010 campaign wiped away any doubts that he could fill his mentor’s big shoes.

When the Eagles let Westbrook walk last offseason, many people wondered if McCoy was ready for the starting job. His rookie season showed promise, but McCoy was still raw. He danced too much before hitting the hole, hadn’t mastered blocking assignments, and couldn’t be counted on in the passing game. But after changing his uniform number and physique in the offseason, McCoy was stellar in 2010. In fact, McCoy was one of the most consistent offensive leaders, racking up big numbers despite injuries at quarterback and holes along the offensive line.

However, one question remains. Is he better than Westbrook? That’s an easy answer regarding the 2010 versions of each, but we have to compare apples to apples. As I did early last season, I’m going to look at Westbrook’s 2004 season and McCoy’s 2010 — both seasons being the running back’s first as the unquestioned starter. Here are the stats:

LeSean McCoy Brian Westbrook Statistics Comparison

I broke down the numbers by rushing and receiving, so let’s examine them in that order.

Westbrook and McCoy had a shockingly similar number of carries in the same 16 games, including playoffs. Yet see who was the more efficient runner? Looks like Shady has a leg up on his predecessor at this point in his career. McCoy averaged half a yard more per carry and scored four more touchdowns. He also scored big DVOA points compared to Westbrook and had a higher Success Rate, another Football Outsiders stat that measures consistency. McCoy did benefit from a slightly better run-blocking offensive line, according to FO’s Adjusted Line Yards, but the difference was marginal at best. McCoy, in his first season as the feature back, was clearly the better runner.

Then, when you look at the receiving numbers, the paradigm shifts. Westbrook had a significantly higher Yards per Reception figure and scored eight huge touchdowns. Plus, while McCoy’s DVOA is solid, Westbrook’s is incredible. Number 36 was simply a better receiving threat.

What does this mean? Putting it simply: McCoy is a better rusher, but a worse receiver than Westbrook was at the same time in his career. That redistribution of talent fits perfectly with the rest of the Eagles current roster, which is already bursting at the seams with explosive outside threats. There’s less of a need to design pass plays for the running back when DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are on the outside (not that Terrell Owens was a slacker).

Even with these differences, it’s fascinating to watch McCoy follow in Westbrook’s footsteps, performing the same dual-threat running back role. Already, McCoy lived up to Westbrook’s example and has surpassed the 31 year-old in some areas. Only thing to see now is if McCoy can sustain it into the future.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

The Vick Offense & Its Explosive Wide Receivers

Before the 2010 season began, I examined the Eagles passing offense and how it had changed over the years, both in regards to pass targets by position and by player. At the time, we were considering the impact the switch from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb would have on the Eagles passing attack. Of course, that didn’t exactly go as planned, and now we look back on season one of the Michael Vick era.

Let’s start by breaking down the pass targets by position (from Advanced NFL Stats):

As you can see, for the fourth straight season the wide receivers’ share of the pass targets has increased — to 59 percent of all passes, the highest point in the last decade. That long-term trend corresponds with both an increase in receiving talent (DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant are easily one of the best starting groups in the NFL) as well as the decline of Brian Westbrook from his peak in 2006 and 2007, when he was the focal point of the entire offense.

LeSean McCoy brought up the pass targets to running backs in 2010, but only slightly. Meanwhile, Brent Celek’s role in the offense declined with Vick at the helm, bringing down the tight end position.

The ultimate takeaway here is that with Vick’s powerful arm and a set of explosive wide receivers on the outside, the focus on a down-the-field, receiver-centric passing attack is only likely to increase.

But taking on the wide receivers individually, we can see some other interesting trends:

This chart may seem visually complicated at first. Each wedge or section indicates the percent of pass targets a player received in a given year. Looking just at 2010, for example, we see that newcomers Riley Cooper and Chad Hall had minimal impact, while Maclin, Jackson, and Avant each carved out a sizable portion of the targets. Over time, the shifts in emphasis as the sections wax and wane become clear as well. Both Maclin and Avant had increased targets, while Jackson fell off a bit from his high in 2009.

Maclin actually was the most-targeted Eagle in 2010, with almost 21 percent of passes going his way. Jackson basically swapped spots with him, posting 17 percent. DeSean did miss one game, but overall he was just less reliable than Maclin last year. While in all but three games Maclin at least four receptions, Jackson had eight games in which he had less than that.

The fact that Maclin is now targeted more than Jackson doesn’t mean that he’s the Eagles new number one receiver, because pass targets aren’t everything. DeSean outpaced him with a huge 11 yards per target (tied for best in the league), compared to Maclin’s 8.5. He remains the more dangerous weapon, and the one opponents will game plan heavily to stop. Still, it’s an interesting fact to keep an eye on.

It also remains to be seen how much a player like Cooper can break into this three-man logjam at the top of the Eagles receiving corps. The rookie showed some promise in 2010, but will likely need injuries ahead of him to get any extensive playing time.

Overall, assuming the team signs DeSean Jackson and Michael Vick to new long term deals, an Eagles passing attack focused on wide receivers should be explosive and exciting for years to come.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

Westbrook Flies Again on Monday Night Football

Lost in the offseason drama at the quarterback position was the departure of another all-time Eagles great: running back Brian Westbrook.

As the season has gone on it has been easy to forget about Westbrook’s absence. LeSean McCoy has been better than pretty much anyone expected, gaining 779 yards on the ground and another 448 in the air to go with 7 touchdowns through just 11 games.

Plus, Westbrook has been practically invisible since signing with San Francisco. At least, until last night, when the former #36 (now #20) rushed 23 times for 136 yards, including a shifty 8-yard touchdown run, in relief of an injured Frank Gore to help the 49ers beat the Cardinals in Monday Night Football…

Can Vick Inject Life Back Into the Eagles Rushing Attack?

Last week, we examined LeSean McCoy’s rapid rise and comparable numbers to Brian Westbrook through the first five games of 2010. However, while most of the focus over this bye week is on the quarterback controversy, McCoy has followed up his brilliant opening with two straight lackluster rushing performances.

As always, the question is why? Is he wearing down from all the carries? Are defenses keying in on him?

Looking first at McCoy’s workload, week by week, we can see that he’s catching more passes and getting more rushing opportunties over the last 4 weeks: …

Is LeSean McCoy Progressing Faster Than Brian Westbrook?

Does that mean McCoy has progressed a year faster than his predecessor? Not necessarily. First of all, McCoy was coming from the advantage of a big time college football at the University of Pittsburgh. Westbrook, on the other hand, was making the leap to the NFL from D1-AA at Villanova. He was fighting an uphill battle to even make it in this league.

Second, we don’t know that Westbrook couldn’t have taken on a bigger load earlier like McCoy did. #36 entered the league when the Eagles already had two capable backs in Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter. Andy Reid didn’t need to rush him along like he did with McCoy.

So, all that aside, what if we do want to compare the early Westbrook years with what we’re seeing from McCoy? Ultimately I think you have to compare Westbrook’s 2004 season, his first as “the man,” to McCoy’s 2010. And looking at the actual numbers, you can see a pretty obvious trend…