What Would a New Contract For DRC Look Like?

I’ve opined before on giving Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie a contract extension, going as far as to call it an offseason priority. With Nnamdi Asomugha aging and only unproven recent draftees behind him, locking up Rodgers-Cromartie would go a long way to preserve continuity in the defensive backfield. Obviously, whether you want to extend him also stems from your impression of him as a player. If you’ve been following along, you know that I think DRC’s stellar play on the outside at the end of 2011 after he languished in the slot for most of the year suggests big things could be in store for him. (And reports out of training camp are stellar so far.)

But unless Howie Roseman is discussing things behind the scenes during training camp, it doesn’t look like he agrees, with either Rodgers-Cromartie’s value or his skill. Let’s go deeper and see what the difference in money might be based on letting DRC play out this contract year. Here’s a table of recent top cornerback contracts given out for players in his age range. Financial details are on the right and on the field stats are on the left (Pro Bowl appearances, games started, yards per attempt, interceptions):

Looking at the finances first, you can see there are different measures for large contracts. The total millions is a nice overall number, although it tends to overstate the “real” value of the deal (with fake years at the end). The yearly figure and guarantee may give a more accurate accounting of the contract.

It’s interesting to look at how the deals were structured and how they turned out. DeAngelo Hall and Dunta Robinson got massive contracts that turned out to be bad for their teams—although you can see why the Redskins and Falcons, respectively, were willing to dish out that kind of dough. For example, Hall was young, even for this group, and already had two Pro Bowl appearances and 22 interceptions.

The following year, Antonio “Headcase” Cromartie received a smaller contract than his number stats warranted because of his off the field problems. Leon Hall got a slightly larger and slightly longer deal. Johnathan Joseph made out like a bandit, with nearly $10 million a year and $24 million guaranteed.

This offseason, Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan both just bested Joseph’s contract. Eric Wright has had an up-and-down career, most recently in Detroit, and he signed a more modest five-year free agent deal. Meanwhile, Lardarius Webb, who had a stellar 2011 season with the Ravens, got the largest total amount. That figure is inflated by an extra year though; as you can see the guarantee is less than some of his peers.

So, where does Rodgers-Cromartie fit in? At 26 years old, he has fewer games started than anyone other than Webb, although his other stats are better than average. He has a low yards per attempt figure and a high interception rate. Even with his atrocious play in the slot last season, 2011 was much more in line with his first two seasons in the league. DRC’s 2010 letdown that prompted him to be traded might have been an outlier.

The question becomes what Rodgers-Cromartie would command in today’s market. Given his perceived inconsistency, lack of physicality, and a deficit of experience compare to his peers, DRC probably wouldn’t be in line for a Carr or Cortland-sized contract. Wright’s deal this year and Hall’s in 2011 look like better comparables: perhaps 5 years, $40 million, $16 million guaranteed.

Let’s say though, that Rodgers-Cromartie plays out this season, putting up his career averages, and enters the market in 2012. At that point, with 60 games started, 7.2 yards per attempt against, and 16 or so interceptions, he could make the case that he’s better than Carr or Finnegan. DRC would probably received $25 million guaranteed and upwards of $10 million per year on the open market—a substantial upgrade from his current value.

By not re-signing his second cornerback now, Roseman risks the price going up next year. He may be making one of a few calculated bets, though. Perhaps he thinks DRC simply isn’t worth a long term contract. He’s betting that Rodger-Cromartie will show that he’s not worth top money. Or Howie’s looking at the other backups and assuming that someone like Curtis Marsh will be able to slide in a year from now. Or maybe Roseman is willing to use the franchise tag (at enormous one-year cost) as necessary to keep DRC on hand in 2013.

Looking at the state of the defensive backfield and the market for cornerbacks as it stands now, I would buy into DRC long term. The potential rewards, both financially and on the field, are great, and the downside to not paying him could be severe next offseason. Get it done.

Photo from Getty.

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.

DeMeco Ryans, Two-Down Linebacker?

DeMeco Ryans

I was surprised last week to hear that, at least initially, DeMeco Ryans wasn’t playing as a three-down linebacker. In practices, he was coming out in the nickel formation for Jamar Chaney, an inconsistent player at best.

What happened to the versatile Pro Bowler that we were promised when Ryans was brought in from Houston? I wonder if Reid and company were ever being truthful whether said those things. Although Ryans was undervalued in the Texans’ 3-4 scheme, indications were that he was taken off the field on passing downs partially because he had lost a step after his 2010 Achillies injury.

I went back to look at the stats, courtesy of Pro Football Focus, and I didn’t find any smoking gun. Here are the numbers:

You can clearly see the effect of taking Ryans out of the game on passing downs. His total snaps decreased substantially from his last healthy season (2009) and the percentage of pass snaps he was in for, as a portion of his playing time, declined by a rather large 10 percent. But that just tells us what we already know: that Houston didn’t trust Ryans as much in pass coverage.

Was that concern warranted? That’s harder to tell. On one hand, Ryans was targeted more in pass coverage than in any other year from 2008 on. That may suggest that players he was supposed to cover we’re open more often. The total yards per catch average against him was also the highest on recorded, meaning he gave up bigger plays. On the other hand, the completion percentage of players he covered moved in the opposite direction.

It remains to be seen whether Ryans is actually a coverage liability in the Eagles defense. But the ramifications from this move will be large. Obviously, on the field it’s not ideal. Having to sub out the middle linebacker removes flexibility and creates match-up issues that opponents can exploit. It also raises questions about about both the Ryans’ long term future with the Eagles and the team’s overall linebacker strategy.

As a two-down player in an increasingly pass-heavy NFL, Ryans would be much less valuable—especially at his salary. Perhaps his acquisition wasn’t the sea change in linebacker policy that we thought. After all, a fourth round pick for Ryans isn’t as different as we would like from the fifth round pick it took to get Ernie “Shark in the Water” Sims. His salary jumps to $6.6 million in 2013, and continues at basically that level through 2015. It seem unlikely he would make that much in Philly as a two-down player.

Let me stress, finally, that Ryans can still be a major upgrade at linebacker in 2012—even if he does have to come out on passing downs. Just having a reliable veteran leader in the middle to plug some of the gaping run holes would be a big deal. We just may have to temper our expectations for Ryans beyond that role.

Photo from Getty.

Relive Victor Cruz Torching Nnamdi Asomugha

Matt Bowen identifies the offensive concepts and corresponding coverage in Victor Cruz’s 28-yard touchdown reception in the Giants’ week three win over the Eagles. It’s informative, although he oddly doesn’t come to any real conclusions besides that it was a great play by Cruz:

The way I see it, Giants QB Eli Manning puts this ball up for his WR to go make the play. As I said above, this is the right call from a defensive perspective and the Eagles are in the proper position to steal one. However, Cruz attacks the ball and plays the pass at the highest point.

It might be the right defensive call in the abstract. But when you have Nnamdi Asomugha, one of the best man-cover corners in the NFL, and you put him in zone coverage (sharing responsibility with walking liability Jarrad Page), it seems suboptimal. Of course, Asomugha sure didn’t show that he understands the concept of “ball skills” either.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Cornerback

Nnamdi Asomugha

What the Eagles did: Cornerback was a mess last year. We’ve been over that. You can’t just throw three Pro Bowlers with different styles together and expect things to work out of the box. Thus, the inevitable happened: Asante Samuel was shipped out of town.

What the loss of Samuel means to this defense is tough to gauge. On one hand, he’s still a great cornerback. While his interceptions were down in 2011, other stats showed that Asante was as good as ever. On the other hand, his limited style of play clearly forced running mates Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie into suboptimal positions. Asomugha has historically shined when he locks on one of the opposing wide receivers, and Rodgers-Cromartie’s closing speed makes him a better fit on the outside.

Now they can play the way they want, and it’s up to new secondary coach Todd Bowles to make them comfortable. So far the talk has been that the coverages are simpler, which should be a relief to fans. The numbers (re-posted below) show that Nnamdi and DRC can both be very effective starters — as long as they’re playing in the right spots.

Nnamdi Asomugha Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 2011 Coverage Stats

Another downside to losing Samuel, however, is that the depth behind the Eagles two starters is relatively murky. Who are the backups on the outside if either player gets hurt? Curtis Marsh, second-year player out of Utah State, is athletically gifted, but is a relative newcomer to the cornerback position. He played a grand total of 13 snaps last season, and still needs to shed the “project” label. Brandon Hughes is entering his fourth year, but hasn’t proven he can even be Dimitri Patterson yet. Then you have a wasted 2010 fourth-round pick in Trevard Lindley, as well as undrafted free agent and apparent head case Cliff Harris.

Inside, in the slot, we have an interesting battle shaping up. Joselio Hanson, the designated nickel corner in this defense since 2007, I believe, was cut last year before being re-signed at a lower price. Clearly the Eagles think he’s replaceable. And they brought in his replacement, or at least heir apparant, in Brandon Boykin, the fourth-round pick. Boykin has all the physical skills except height going for him, and he already gained some experience in the slot at Georgia.

What I would have done: The way Howie Roseman handled the Samuel trade situation was appalling. A player of that caliber should have been worth more than a seventh-round pick, but by the time he pulled the trigger the Eagles had no leverage. That said, he had backed himself into a corner (haha). Trading Samuel was the only possible solution to a problem Roseman created in the first place.

Way-too-early prediction: Based on Rodgers-Cromartie’s stats above, I’m optimisic that he will be a solid outside cornerback this year. Actually, it seems prudent to lock up DRC at this point in order to grab a little bit of discount. And I’m only slightly worried about Asomugha losing a step in 2012. He should still have at least another good year or two left in the tank.

The slot battle is Boykin’s to lose, and I doubt he will. After that, it would be nice to see one of the other young corners step up. Bowles coached bigger, athletic corners in Miami. Hopefully he can use that experience to mold Marsh into an NFL player.

Photo from Getty.

Will Nate Allen Finally Break Out in 2012?

John Breitenbach, for Pro Football Focus:

Having said that, Allen’s performances late in the season can give Eagles fans hope going into 2012. Following that New England debacle, he graded positively in each of the last five games, amassing a grade of +7.2 in that span. Overall, he finished at +3.8, good enough for 15th in the league last year. He looks ready to break out if he can remain fully healthy in 2012.

Over the last two seasons, Nate Allen has had stretches of games where he’s looked like an above average starter with good coverage and acceptable tackling ability. In his third season, maintaining that level through all 16 games would be a big boost to the Eagles defense.

Also check out Breitenbach’s take on some potential low-cost veteran additions to compete for the other safety spot.

Priority: Lock Up Rodgers-Cromartie Long Term

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

Looking at the Eagles roster as it stands now, cornerback sticks out as a position in flux.

There are eight players signed. Three of those — Nnamdi Asomugha, Joselio Hanson, and Asante Samuel — have crossed the 30-year-old mark, so their football clocks are ticking. Samuel, as discussed yesterday, likely won’t be around in a few months anyway. There’s also a quartet of unproven youngsters who Eagles fans have varying degrees of hope for — Brandon Hughes, Curtis Marsh, Trevard Lindley, and DJ Johnson.

Then there’s DRC. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the soon-to-be 26-year-old cornerback whom the Eagles received as part of the Kevin Kolb trade. A former first round pick and one-time Pro Bowl selection, Rodgers-Cromartie was supposed to pair with Asomugha and Samuel to make a fearsome trio of starting corners. Things didn’t work out as planned, partially because the young newcomer struggled in his new role as nickel corner.

I posted Rodgers-Cromartie’s 2011 outside/slot split before, but it’s worth another look:

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 2011 Coverage Stats

Once again, Rodgers-Cromartie was one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL when playing in the slot, and one of the best when playing his natural position outside. That was part of the problem in 2011, but with Samuel headed out the door, DRC has the potential to be one of the best players on the Eagles defense. That’s only potential, of course, and his inconsistent play was one of the major reasons the Cardinals were willing to part with him a year ago.

More important, however, are two factors: his age and contract status. Rodgers-Cromartie is the only proven cornerback on the Eagles roster who still has at least half a decade of NFL playing time ahead of him. If he can maintain a high level of play as a starter, he could be not only an answer for 2012, but also a long term solution to pick up the slack when Asomugha begins to fade.

The problem is, Rodgers-Cromartie isn’t signed past this upcoming season. If the Eagles let him play out his contract and he does well, they will have to franchise tag him or compete with other teams on the open market. The alternative, of course, is that they could extend him this offseason — and perhaps pick up a discount in the aftermath of DRC’s sub par 2011.

There’s a long list on Howie Roseman’s desk of Eagles players deserving new contracts and Rodgers-Cromartie isn’t at the top. Still, for the sake of the vital cornerback position, extending him this offseason should be a priority.

Photo from Getty.

Looking Backward, Forward for Asante Samuel

Asante Samuel Philadelphia Eagles

Since yesterday was Presidents Day, it seems like a good time to reflect on the Eagles own self-proclaimed president, Asante Samuel.

Samuel has had an up and down relationship with Philly fans since he arrived in 2008. First he was an overpaid slacker, then an interception machine with a fun and outsized personality, and then a few more missed tackles landed him back on the negative side of the ledger. Through it all, though, Samuel has been a one of the best coverage cornerbacks in the NFL.

Take a look at his stats with the Eagles:

Asante Samuel Coverage Stats

While 2011 was a down year for interceptions, Samuel really hasn’t shown any decline year over year. In some ways he was the best cornerback the Eagles had last season.

Did you know that Samuel has more interceptions before age 31 than any other cornerback in the last 20 years? And many of the guys just below him (Champ Bailey, Aeneas Williams, Ty Law, Deion Sanders) managed to play well through at least a few years of their thirties.

All in all, I’m relatively bullish on Samuel’s potential to remain a high value coverage corner in the next few years. If his game were built on speed and physicality, you might project more of a dropoff. But Asante has always been an interception artist, rather than a complete player.

However, it’s a near certainty that Samuel will get to play out the remainder of his career in a different jersey. The Eagles explored trade possibilities for him last year, but never pulled the trigger (even turning down a second round pick from Detroit). After a year of turmoil in the secondary, Howie Roseman has little choice but to ship Samuel out this time, probably for no more than a third round pick.

When that happens, Asante’s play and his personality will both be missed.

Photo from Getty.

How the Cardinals Exploited the Eagles Defense

Larry Fitzgerald Eagles

I didn’t set out to determine what happened in last Sunday’s fourth quarter collapse. Instead, I only wanted to know how the Eagles attempted to cover Larry Fitzgerald during the entire game. The subsequent conclusion only came by accident.

I re-watched every Cardinals offensive play and recorded where Fitzgerald lined up, the Eagles player who matched up across from him, the result of the play, and my best assessment of the coverage scheme. My full notes can be found in this Google spreadsheet.

Let’s start by looking at Fitzgerald and the Eagles through the first three quarters. Here’s what I complied starting with where the receiver lined up, who covered him and how, and the results of passes targeted at him.

1st-3rd Quarters (52 plays)
Slot (6)
(3) DRC press, 1-1, 42 yards
(2) Hanson off, 0-0
(1) Coleman off, 0-0

Flanker/Split End - Right (24)
(19) Samuel off, 1-3, 12 yards, 1 TD, 1 int — Mostly zone, zone blitz
(4) Samuel press, 0-0

Flanker/Split End - Left (24)
(16) Asomugha press, 0-1 — Mostly man to man
(6) Asomugha off, 1-1, 15 yards (called back, off. holding)
(1) DRC press, 0-0

For starters, we see that Fitzgerald lined up wide on both sides of the formation equally, 24 plays each, with 6 slot appearances thrown into the mix. When Fitzgerald was in the slot, he received a mixed bag of coverage and caught one big pass against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (didn’t help that Kurt Coleman missed a tackle). Against Asante Samuel on the right side, Fitzgerald mostly encountered zone coverage between Samuel and Jaiquawn Jarrett. Finally, on the left, Nnamdi Asomugha largely played man-to-man press coverage.

Overall, Juan Castillo’s secondary did well against Fitzgerald through three quarters. They limited his targets to only 6 in 52 plays and only 2 official receptions. The touchdown came when Fitzgerald cut inside against the zone and split two linebackers.

So what happened in the fourth quarter?

4th Quarter (21 plays)
Slot (5)
(2) Asomugha off, 0-0
(1) DRC press, 0-0
(1) Hanson off, 1-1, 11 yards
(1) Coleman off, 0-0

Flanker/Split End - Right (8)
(7) Samuel off, 4-6, 83 yards, 1 TD
(1) Hanson press, 0-0

Flanker/Split End - Left (8)
(7) Asomugha press, 0-1
(1) Asomugha off, 0-0

Fitzgerald took a few extra snaps in the slot, which Castillo partially countered by assigning Asomguha to a couple of those plays. Yet again Fitzgerald split his time equally on both sides. The big difference came in the number of targets and completions against Samuel in zone coverage on the right side.

John Skelton only targeted Fitzgerald 6 times total through the first three quarters. That pattern continued in the fourth quarter in all but one formation. Skelton threw to his big target 6 times just in the final quarter against Samuel.

That wouldn’t be a big deal except that he also completed 4 of those passes for 83 yards and one touchdown, including the biggest play of the game, when Samuel let his man go and Jarrett got beat deep, leading to the game-winning touchdown.

There’s blame enough for all. Samuel certainly didn’t play at a Pro Bowl level and Jarrett looked like a rookie making his first start. But the most damning thing is how predictable the defense looked in each formation. By the time the fourth quarter arrived, the Cardinals knew exactly the type of match up they’d have on Fitzgerald in each position, and they exploited that by attacking the Eagles tandem on the right side for the final 15 minutes.

On that game-changing pass, for example, the Cardinals knew that if they stuck Fitzgerald on the right side, chances were he’d be in zone coverage with Samuel on the outside and Jarrett deep. A crossing route underneath to woo Asante, a double move to fool the rookie, and the Cardinals won the game.

That’s how you lose five fourth quarter leads.

Photo from Getty.

Andy Reid, Trying Something New On Defense

Andy Reid Philadelphia Eagles Coaching Scheme Change

One item picked up around the blogosphere recently is a quotation by soon-to-be-former Eagles safety Quintin Mikell as told to Geoff Mosher:

“I kind of get that vibe,” Mikell said, when asked if the Eagles were shifting from an aggressive, blitz-happy attack to a tempered Cover 2 scheme. “I know Coach Reid has wanted to run the Cover 2 for a long time. It seems like the past couple of years we’ve been slowly progressing toward that. It might be moving toward that. I think he [Castillo] is going to kind of tweak things here and there. It’s gong to be kind of the same 4-3 but I think it’s going to be a little less based on scheme and more based on guys just kicking somebody’s butt.”

The Cover 2 defensive scheme has a number of variations, but overall it is the opposite of the blitz heavy system that the Eagles have employed through the tenures of Jim Johnson and Sean McDermott. Cover 2 typically involves a lot of zone coverage and preventing big plays rather than pressuring the quarterback above all else. And there are a lot of reasons why such a system makes more sense for this Eagles team.

However, what really strikes me is not the formation change, but the notion that Andy Reid may have wanted to try a different scheme out for a long time. NFL coaches typically spend their entire careers emphasizing the same system with the same type of coaches. Especially guys like Reid, long term successes, don’t often change their ways. But that is exactly what Reid has done, both on the offensive line, bringing in Howard Mudd, and on defense, where he seems to be letting Juan Castillo change a system that has largely been the same for the last 12 years.

This offseason was really the first chance Reid had to shake things up on defense. Even when Jim Johnson passed away, it happened too close to the start of the season to let anyone other than McDermott carry on. But with that chapter closed, Reid can start fresh. And he appears to be taking full advantage of that opportunity. We’ll see how it turns out.

Photo from Getty.

Friday Figures: Blitzing Tony Romo (or Not)

Tony Romo Sacked Philadelphia Eagles Defense Sean Jones Trent Cole Juqua Parker

Just a quick stats post here for people to ruminate on over the weekend, before I hit you with some big news on Monday…

Today over at Iggles Blog, Derek has an insightful breakdown of the situational blitzing differences between the late Jim Johnson and rookie defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. His analysis led me to look back over the two sample game charts Football Outsiders released: the first halves of the two 2009 regular season Eagles-Cowboys games.

2009 Philadelphia Eagles Pass Rush Blitzers by DownFirst of all, let me just throw up the numbers for all of last year’s blitzing on the right. Overall, McDermott seems to have brought a few more blitzers on third down than JJ, but other than that the defensive playcalling was fairly consistent from 2008.

But were the game plans for the Cowboys games very different? Absolutely. In fact, the two were completely opposite. Here they are.

Eagles Blitzing against Dallas Cowboys Week 9 17 First Half by DownOn top you can see the differences in percentage from the season average for the first game. In this one the Eagles blitzed constantly, sending five, six, and seven guys after the quarterback way more than average. In fact, only on first down did McDermott blitz less than half the time.

Then a complete reversal for week seventeen. In every area where the defense had blitzed more than average in the first game, they did the opposite for the second meeting. Compared to 16 blitzes in the first half of week nine, come January the Eagles only blitzed four times! Perhaps the Eagles coaching staff thought that they had failed with the blitz in the first matchup, or they believed a coverage-based approach would surprise Dallas. Either way, the about-face is startling.

Eagles Blitz Effectiveness against Dallas Cowboys Week 9 17 First Half by DownOf course, we know that this change didn’t work too well. Which leads us to the final charts of the evening (at right), which shows the  effectiveness of the two game plans. I’m not sure that this can be extrapolated out for more than this particular case, but here the results suggest one thing.

Blitzing when the Cowboys didn’t expect it, i.e. on first and second down, was fairly successful. Outside of one long second down pass, the Eagles stifled Tony Romo with the blitz. But on third down, the roles were reversed. At least in these two halves, dropping players back into coverage was slightly more effective than blitzing.