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.)

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.

Let’s Talk Linebacker

Jimmy Kempski noted the depth chart in the first practices of the year, and linebacker sticks out as a place of concern:

  • 1st team: Kendricks (SAM) – Ryans (MIKE) – Rolle (WILL)
  • 2nd team: Jordan (SAM) – Matthews (MIKE) – Chaney (WILL)
  • Nickel: Kendricks – Chaney

Now, this could be nothing. Perhaps this lineup is just the warm-up lap. But I’m definitely surprised that Ryans wasn’t taking snaps in the nickel defense. If the trend holds up, it suggests that maybe the Eagles’ big offseason acquisition is only going to be a two-down player. Not encouraging. It reminds me of this.

* * *

I agree with the overall sentiment in this BGN post by Eliott Shorr-Parks. Mychal Kendricks should be more talented and more prepared than Casey Matthews, but I worry that the Eagles are once again giving too much responsibility too quickly to a rookie.

That said, I have no idea how Shorr-Parks can write this with a straight face:

Going into Lehigh last season, there was little question that the teams best linebacker was Chaney. Chaney played great late in his rookie season, and despite having some bad games, was still arguably the teams best linebacker last year as well.

First of all, I definitely raised questions about Chaney last offseason, when everyone was quoting Brian Baldinger’s idiot comments. Second, I don’t think Chaney was the best linebacker last year—and even if he was, it’s not really an achievement I’d put up on the wall.

Chaney finished the season with 92 tackles, but more importantly 3 interceptions. Some of the picks were easy ones, but given how hard it has been for Eagle linebackers to create turnovers over the past few years, the fact is he made the plays.

"Some of the picks were easy ones"? He only had three.

Expectations should be even higher for Chaney this year, as he will have a year under his belt in Juan Castillo’s system. Chaney was the teams middle linebacker at the end of 2010, and was moved to the strong side during camp last year. While he was eventually moved back to middle linebacker in Week 4 because of the play of Casey Matthews, he still has more experience at the position than Kendricks does. It makes more sense to slide Chaney back in as the strong side linebacker than it does to appoint Kendricks the starter now.

Why would anyone have high expectations for Chaney this year, let along higher than 2011? It makes about as much sense “to slide Chaney back in as the stronge side linebacker” as it does to slide Juan Castillo back in as the defensive coordinator. Because that would be… wait, what’s that again?

Chaney is a hard worker, one of the best athletes on the defense and deserves to be on the field.

I cannot confirm that a single word in that sentence is accurate.

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.

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.

Looking at 2013 and the Eagles Draft Options

Andy Reid Philadelphia Eagles

One if the most common mistakes that fans make is assuming that the Eagles will draft a player because of immediate need. That rarely happens. Most of the time, the team papers over current roster flaws with free agent signings and trades, acquiring DeMeco Ryans being a prime example.

You should never expect even a first round pick to contribute much in their rookie year. If you end up with a quick starter, great. But relying on guys like Danny Watkins right away will disappoint you early and often.

The question of what position is ripe to be drafted early has more to do, in my opinion, with looking a year or two down the road. Where are the aging veterans? Where are the likely holes in the team a year from now? Let’s take a look at the 2013 roster as it looks right now:

QB: Michael Vick, Mike Kafka
RB: Dion Lewis, Stanley Havili
WR: DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Riley Cooper
TE: Brent Celek, Clay Harbor
OT: Jason Peters, Todd Herremans
OG/C: Danny Watkins, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, J. Vandervelde, M. Gibson
DE: Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Brandon Graham, Philip Hunt
DT: Mike Patterson, Cullen Jenkins
LB: DeMeco Ryans, Casey Matthews, Jamar Chaney, Keenan Clayton, Brian Rolle
CB: Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, Curtis Marsh
S: Nate Allen, Jaiquawn Jarrett, Kurt Coleman

With the notable exception of LeSean McCoy, every Eagles offensive starter and most of the backups are signed through the next two seasons. That’s great for the team, since the offensive unit has been much more consistently good than the defense over the last few years. There’s no reason to sit on that and not draft anyone, perhaps more OL and WR depth, but there’s no major need at any of these positions.

Defense is a different story entirely; there you are more likely to need guys than not. Defensive end is probably in the best spot going forward, with two Pro Bowl starters and two players with potential already lined up. The rest is a real crap shoot.

There are only two defensive tackles signed through 2013 (although Tommy’s presumably camped out on Derek Landri’s lawn right now). Both Jenkins and Patterson are starters, but they are getting up in age, too. At linebacker there are five players but it’s tough to trust any of them, with the possible exception of Ryans. Cornerback really only has Asomugha and Marsh, with Samuel packing his bags. And safety brings us three youngsters, none of whom have proven they can be above average starters.

With all that said, I think it would be justifiable to draft any defensive position, outside of DE, in the first round. There are a couple more factors to keep your eye on as we get closer to the draft. First, will Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie get a contract extension? I already discussed this at length, but some movement there could allow the Eagles to delay drafting another corner in the first round. Second, what do the Eagles do at outside linebacker? If they obtain another starter there, they could pass on Luke Kuechly and take a flier on a second or third round LB instead.

If the Eagles take action on both of those counts, odds are that the team will be picking among the deep class of defensive tackles with pick #15.

Photo from Getty.

Buying Low or Selling High?

Rivers McCown:

I guess that really depends on if the Ryans we saw last season is the Ryans we get going forward in terms of his speed. I kinda feel like with this trade, the Eagles thought they were buying low on a player that they thought could rebound a bit, and the Texans were operating under the “give up a player one year too early rather than one year too late” axiom. I think with what Philly has invested in him, they might as well give it a go and see what happens. But I’d make sure I had a good backup plan on the roster if I were them.

Jimmy Kempski has a great Q&A with McCown, a Texans fan and Football Outsiders writer, about his impressions of DeMeco Ryans.

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.

A Real Linebacker? No Way!

DeMeco Ryans

It’s a year too late, but let’s not spoil the fun. The Eagles finally have a real linebacker. It’s a miracle.

The trade yesterday for Texans middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans is everything the Eagles needed and more. In fact, it’s a master stroke by the front office. While the best free agent linebackers have zero Pro Bowls between them, Howie Roseman and company went out and acquired a two-time Pro Bowler for basically the same money and the equivalent of a late third round pick.

There are obvious caveats to the deal, starting with why the Texans would be willing to trade the 27-year-old Ryans. The decision to move him probably amounts to three factors. First, Ryans was going to cost upwards of $6 million a year for the foreseeable future, and the Texans are not in great salary cap shape. Second, the linebacker’s production fell in 2011 playing in Houston’s new 3-4 scheme. Instead of playing virtually every defensive snap, he only was on the field 58 percent of the time last year (according to PFF).

With the Eagles’ salary cap wizardry and 4-3 scheme, neither of those should be a problem here. The only remaining question is whether he’s lost a step following achilles surgery in 2010. Ryans played all 16 games last season, but many observers called it a down year for him. Hopefully the injury won’t be a factor going forward.

Even with that potential drawback, getting Ryans is a big win for the Eagles. He instantly becomes the most talented linebacker in this city, probably since Jeremiah Trotter first left in 2002. And he doesn’t have to return to Pro Bowl strength in order to make a huge impact in the middle of the Eagles defense.

Moreover, Ryans was a team captain and by all accounts a tremendous leader. The Eagles have had problems in that area too, but it seems likely that the team has found it’s vocal defensive signal-caller for the foreseeable future.

Photo from Getty. Video h/t BGN.

phonz3 Called It: Eagles Trade for DeMeco Ryans

Philadelphia Eagles message board:

You heard it here first. We’re trading for DeMeco Ryans
Started by phonz3, Monday, 08:32 PM

I’m in awe. As Jay Glazer would say, MAJOR SCOOPAGE!

(Credit Michael Kivland and the guy for the find.)