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.

On Mike Caldwell's Culpability

Sorry, Les, but this just isn’t true:

From Caldwell’s perspective, obviously, you’re a position coach, you don’t pick the players. You didn’t tell anybody the Eagles would be just fine with fourth-round rookie Casey Matthews opening last season in the middle. Your job is to do the best you can with what they give you.

Of course the buck stops up the line with Juan Castillo, Andy Reid, and Howie Roseman. But you don’t go into the season with just a fourth-round pick as your starting middle linebacker unless the position coach either thinks it can work or shuts his mouth and nods whenever a higher-up tells him what’s what. In either case he is at least partially responsible for the resulting disaster.

After all the time spent discussing the sway that guys like Jim Washburn, Howard Mudd, and Ted Williams have on evaluating and teaching players, how can we wipe away any culpability that Caldwell has when his unit fails so miserably?

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.

Bye McNabb and Kolb, Hello Defense

Sheil Kapadia has the breakdown of the complete haul the Eagles received for our revered blog namesakes:

McNabb and Kolb = Nate Allen, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Casey Matthews, Vinny Curry, Brandon Boykin, and DeMeco Ryans

Remains to be seen how all of these players will turn out but on the surface: not too shabby.

Tackling: Eagles Linebackers vs. DeMeco Ryans

DeMeco Ryans Tackle

If you’re like me, you haven’t seen many Texans games and you don’t know much about DeMeco Ryans other than by his reputation. Some folks study by watching game film, and I highly recommend you read up for that perspective. My habit is to reach for the stats.

The stats, of course, are incomplete. This is especially true when trying to quantifying the production of a middle linebacker. With defensive linemen you can look at sacks. With corners you can look at interceptions and yards per attempt against. But middle linebackers are tough.

Largely we look at tackles to tell us about our linebackers, but that’s by far from a perfect statistic. Tackles are influenced by the broader scheme, the intricacies that make even 4-3 defenses different, and the performance of players in front and behind the defense’s middle management.

Still, it’s all we have, so we might as well use it up. Jimmy Kempski, that mustachoed maven of the NFC East, wrote a post yesterday in which he pulled “Snaps Per Tackle” from 25 inside linebackers last season.

To take what he’s done one step further, and give it a more Eagles-bent, I used similar data from Pro Football Focus. However, I only looked at snaps and tackles in the run game. Below you can find the middle linebacker performance of both Eagles linebackers and Ryans since 2008:

Eagles Linebackers DeMeco Ryans Tackling Stats

Because of all the factors involved (as well as inevitable inconsistencies in the original data), I wouldn’t blow any one of these numbers out of proportion. Tackles, missed tackles, and stops all together can give us a interesting look at production.

Examining the Eagles stats first though, it looks like stop percentage may be the most relevant stat of the bunch. Tackle percentages are all over the map, and missed tackles can depend so much on just a few plays. But stops — not tackles for a loss, but prevention of a “positive” play — seem to correspond to what our eyes tell us is a good linebacker play. For example, both Jamar Chaney and Casey Matthews scored very poorly in 2011 by this measure, while Chaney’s moments of glory at the end of 2010 account for his high marks then.

Looking just at Ryans’s stats, it’s obvious that he had a down year in 2011. Not only did the new 3-4 scheme limit his playing time, but he was less productive across the board on a per snap basis. Ryans’s stop percentage dropped dramatically last year, and is the lowest figure on among all players listed above. Prior to his 2010 achilles injury though, he posted solid, if not spectacular numbers. Missed tackles were really his only run defense problem in 2008-2009.

At the end of the day, the numbers suggest some cause for worry, especially about his most recent performance. However, if Ryans can return to his pre-injury performance in a 4-3 scheme, the Eagles have found a very solid middle linebacker going forward.

Photo from Getty.

Video: From the Eagles Locker Room

Pieced together some of the best quotes and strangest responses from the Eagles locker room after yesterday’s 34-10 victory over the Redskins. Enjoy responsibly.

Rewind: Notes on the Eagles-Cowboys Game

Michael Vick Eagles Cowboys Shotgun

One of the unheralded stories of 2011 is the regression of Michael Vick. After borrowing Superman’s cape last season, Vick returned to mere mortal status once again. Just as a simple measurement, in 2010 he had quarterback passer rating above 90 in 10 out of his 12 games. This year, he’s only had 5 out of 12.

However, things seem to be picking back up for Vick as he and the coaches are potentially finding some answers for him. He’s had back-to-back 100+ QB rating games for the first time this season over the last two weeks.

I charted all of Vick’s passes this week and noticed that he’s hardly ever doing three step drops from under center anymore. In fact, I counted only two of those, and both went for incompletions.

The majority of pass calls (20 of 36) involved Vick in shotgun, and half of those added five step drops on top of the pre-snap depth. Whether his height factors in to this I can’t say, but he’s clearly more comfortable and effective in shotgun, and generally as far back from the line of scrimmage as possible. The added depth gives him more time to find deep receivers and also more space to scramble if necessary.

* * *

Danny Watkins is awful. I want to really emphasize this point. After watching him fairly closely the whole game, it’s clear that he didn’t deserve to be on the field.

At least half a dozen times, Watkins single-handedly let his defender get by him (often instantaneously) to get pressure on Vick or a backfield tackle on LeSean McCoy. It was Kyle DeVan, Stacey Andrews, Winston Justice-against-the-Giants bad.

Tommy Lawlor wrote of Watkins, “Solid game. Got driven back in pass pro a time or two, but did stick with the blocks.”

I wish that were the case. In reality, Watkins needs to make a big leap in the offseason to be even an average NFL starter.

* * *

Speaking of below replacement level starters, Jamar Chaney was almost as bad.

If you run straight up the middle and fail to block the middle linebacker against 31 teams in the NFL, it must be a tackle for a loss more often than not. Against the Eagles, it’s a nine yard gain. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the run defense frequently looks like it only has 10 players out there.

Chaney demonstrates no ability to get off blocks. But more importantly, even when unblocked he’s indecisive and slow. You can tell that he’s athletic enough to run with most tight ends, but in run defense he never charges the line. At best he’s a speed bump 3 yards into the run, but most of the time he doesn’t even provide that.

* * *

  • Just to prove I’m not always negative, let me say some good things about Casey Matthews. He looked, frankly, great this week. Speedy, instinctive, good in space, and quick to take on tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. I’d actually like to see him get some of Chaney’s snaps in the base defense next week.

  • Clay Harbor was instrumental as a blocker on the back-to-back end-arounds to DeSean Jackson. Set the edge with a hard block on Sean Lee the first time, then faked a block on Ware, shouldered Lee, and got up to the third level on Jackson’s second try. That said, there’s no reason Harbor should be one-on-one with DeMarcus Ware in pass protection. That led to a sack.

  • Brent Celek, on the other hand, continues to show me nothing but poor run blocking. But every week they add another brilliant tight end screen to the playbook, and he’s great at that.

  • Brandon Hughes got some significant looks as the dime corner, especially when Nnamdi Asomugha came inside to cover Jason Witten. Hughes was beaten once each by Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, two good receivers, both times he was targeted.

Photo from Getty.

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.

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.

By the Numbers: Why the Eagles Lost

Michael Turner Falcons Eagles

Last night’s loss was cruel. 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. Let’s break it down with some basic statistics:

14 = The number of targets by Matt Ryan to his wide receivers, for a meager 71 yards.

14 = The number of targets by Ryan to his tight ends and running backs, for a much-less-meager 123 yards. The Eagles defense stifled the wide receivers once again, keeping them to only 5 yards per target. But the linebackers (and Jarrad Page) proved they can’t be trusted to cover at all. They let an aging Tony Gonzalez and “No Afterburner” Michael Turner rack up a ridiculous 9 yards per target, a completion percentage of 71 percent, and 3 touchdowns.

4 = Tackles for a loss by Trent Cole. It’s a testament to the Eagles ineptitude at linebacker that Cole could have such a beast of a day and the defense could still struggle to stop the run. I couldn’t see them on every play, but Casey Matthews especially took horrendous routes to away from the ballcarrier.

222 to 98 = Number of first half yards gained by the Eagles compared to the Falcons. If you’re ever asked how it’s possible to out-gain an opponent by more than twice the yards and still be down going into the half, there’s only one answer: turnovers. Take away one of those fumbles by Michael Vick, the Eagles run away with the game.

1 = Helmet-to-helmet roughing the passer personal foul on Todd Herremans. If Vick doesn’t come out of the game with a concussion at the end of the third quarter, there’s no question in my mind that the Eagles win. On that drive, the Eagles extended their come-from-behind lead to 10 points, having scored 3 touchdowns in the last 4 possessions. Meanwhile, Atlanta was foundering. On their three possessions prior to Vick’s injury, the Falcons ran 7 plays for 0 yards, an interception, and 2 punts. After, they had 2 drives with 19 plays, 170 yards, and 2 touchdowns to retake the lead. That’s called “new life.”

And yet, despite everything, if Jeremy Maclin catches that 4th and 4 pass from AJ Feeley Mike Kafka, the Eagles still might have won this game. What does that tell us? That the Falcons were lucky to sneak out with a win. If Vick comes back healthy and Andy Reid benches his in-over-his-head rookie middle linebacker, I’d make them a two touchdown favorite in a playoff rematch.

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.