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.

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: Safety

Eagles Safeties

What the Eagles did: Did you notice that safety was the only defensive position the Eagles left alone this offseason? They didn’t sign any free agents. They drafted no one to compete, not even a late round pick. The front office clearly trusts the young players already there. Whether that trust is warranted is a whole different matter.

At linebacker, which was probably the bigger disaster last year, the Eagles elected to try to replace two-thirds of its starters. That plan may or may not work, but the team certainly wasn’t content to wait and see if Jamar Chaney, Brian Rolle, Casey Matthews, and others could improve. The team took the opposite approach at safety though. The plan appears to be giving third-year players Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman every chance to improve from last season.

This decision seems at least partially justified. Unlike the linebackers, both Allen and Coleman have had multi-game stretches of solid play. After falling out of the starting lineup completely in training camp while suffering lingering effects of his 2010 torn patellar tendon injury, Allen bounced back at the end of the year. While not a dominant athlete, Allen has all of the physical and mental tools necessary to be an above-average safety. Hopefully a healthy offseason will finally be the springboard to be that consistent in 2012.

Coleman has much more meager physical skills. He’s smaller and slower than Allen, which is why he was only a seventh-round pick in the same year. Overall, Coleman’s ceiling just isn’t very high. That said, he can be an average, or even good safety at times. He had eight or more tackles in four games last year (although that may speak more to LB quality) and, of course, his three interception game against the Redskins. Unfortunately, as Tommy Lawlor detailed a few weeks back, Coleman frequently screws up in the mental part of the game.

Jaiquawn Jarrett’s name should probably come up here. The former Temple product has his backers, although there’s little evidence the coaches are enamored with him at all. Despite being a second-round pick in 2011, Jarrett hasn’t even been in the conversation to start in 2012.

After that it’s unclear who will make the Eagles roster. Colt Anderson was a Pro Bowl-caliber special teams player last year but tore his ACL in December. Tom Nelson took his place and didn’t show much in the last few games. Philip Thomas, two-year starter at Syracuse, is an undrafted free agent the Eagles took a flier on. Nothing to count on.

What I would have done: Was there no veteran capable of competing with these players? Yeremiah Bell? Anyone?

Right now the Eagles have two players who have never demonstrated they can consistently start and three more who haven’t proven they even belong in the NFL (plus one injured special teams maven). That doesn’t inspire confidence.

Way-too-early prediction: Despite the fact that the Eagles have completely ignored the position, I still feel relatively optimistic. The assembled group is probably the weakest unit on the team (not counting fullback?), and I’m not expecting either Allen or Coleman to be world-beaters. In fact, I’m resigned to them both being below average. So how is that optimistic? Only because I think improved units in front of them and (hopefully) less convoluted coverage schemes will make their coverage screw-ups and poor tackling less noticeable.

As to Jarrett, I’m starting to wonder if he might not be around in a year’s time. The coaches have demonstrated absolutely zero faith in his abilities, and reports are that he has failed to bulk up like the team wished. Even more disturbing is that Jarrett couldn’t play special teams last year. He has time to turn things around and there’s quite a low bar of competition in training camp, but the signs thus far have been disconcerting.

Photo from Getty.

You Gotta Believe

Everyone lapped up the “I’d take a bullet for Andy” quote, but to me, this one from Juan Castillo is more ridiculous. Per Jeff McLane:

Asked what he thought was the biggest thing he learned last season, Castillo answered in true form, “That when you work hard, and you believe in something, and you don’t change no matter, that good things do happen.”

Do you believe? Oh please, please believe. If you believe, wherever you are, clap your hands and she’ll hear you…

Stroke of Genius

Don Banks:

Every coach’s intelligence level is tied to his team’s win-loss record to some degree, but the wisdom of moving Castillo from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator last year in Philadelphia was thought one of the all-time dumb moves — at least during the Eagles’ dismal 4-8 start to its “dream” season. Funny, but the risky manuever got a little smarter looking when Philly finished the year with four consecutive victories to even things out at 8-8.

Castillo will be accorded even smarter status this year, and if the revamped Eagles defense starts quickly, don’t be surprised if the words “stroke of genius” are employed at some point to describe his 2011 promotion.

I try hard to keep the words “Castillo” and “genius” at least three paragraphs apart, lest anyone get the wrong idea.

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.

Notes on the Rest of the 2012 Eagles Draft

Vinny Curry Marshall Philadelphia Eagles

The NFL draft is now in the books, and by almost all accounts the Eagles did little to complain about. Here are my miscellaneous thoughts on what happened on days two and three:

  • Watch the Vinny Curry interviews, then watch them again and again. His Eagles fandom is clearly as raw as yours and mine, and it’s awesome to see the excitement one of us would undoubtedly have, had we the talent to end up playing for our hometown team.

  • Nick Foles, the big reach. There has been serious quarterback inflation in the last two drafts, something which will be the focus of my post tomorrow. Until then, just consider that Nick Foles was the seventh quarterback selected, at pick 88 overall. Mike Kafka was the fifth off the board in 2010, at pick 122. A round and a half earlier, for a worse quarterback? Maybe. (Also, I’m 95 percent convinced that Russell Wilson was the real target.)

  • The Eagles have drafted defensive players with 9 of their last 11 first, second, and third round picks. So far, the results have been atrocious. Let’s hope this last batch can turn things around.

  • After complaining in recent years that the Eagles had become too safe in the late rounds and undrafted free agency, I certainly can’t complain about the wave of longshot, troubled players the Eagles snagged this time around. I actually like the strategy, especially at running back, where the team took a major athlete with limited production and questionable work ethic (Bryce Brown) and a productive talent who was taken off seemingly everyone’s draft board due to injuries (Chris Polk). Especially at running back, which other than pass protection is relatively easy to pick up, one of these longshots could pay off. A veteran back up would still be nice, though.

  • There are some other interesting names on the UDFA list. Kentucky punter Ryan Tydlacka should give Chas Henry some much needed competition. Another long snapper is a shot across reliable Jon Dorenbos’s bow. And not one but two fullbacks means we’ll have a healthy fight for one of the most marginalized positions on the team.

  • Please direct all your “steal” or “reach” designations here.

  • Two things granted: Brandon Boykin had great college production and the slot corner role is becoming more and more important. That said, I’m a little hesitant about drafting a guy whose size has made every draft expert who has looked at him say, “what a great nickel back.” In some ways, this pick was the opposite of the Curtis Marsh selection last year, when the Eagles went for physicality over refined performance. It will be interesting to watch which pick turns out better for the Birds going forward.

  • There’s a lot riding on Mychal Kendricks being Andy Reid’s first successful second round linebacker — and the results need to show right away. Under no circumstance should more than one of last year’s linebackers start in 2012. Right now Brian Rolle has the inside track on keeping his weakside job, but Casey Matthews could push him there, after ending last season on a relative high note.

  • My draft predictions weren’t half bad, if I do say so myself.

Photo from Getty.

Admitting Mistakes, Moving Forward

Jaiquawn Jarrett

Howie Roseman talked with reporters on Thursday, and reiterated his pledge that the Eagles will draft the best player available, rather than the best player at a position of need. Here’s what Roseman said a month ago on the same topic, as reported by Paul Domowitch:

“At some point, you get entrenched into what your team needs,” he said. “And because we’re so determined to win a championship as quickly as possible, we wanted to address those [needs] as quickly as possible.

“When you look back at the moves, particularly in the draft, that we’ve made successfully, it was situations where we took the best players [rather than the best player at the position of greatest need]. It’s something I believe in.”

I think it’s great that Roseman can look at his track record without sugarcoating it and is open and honest about changes that need to be made. The Danny Watkins/Jaiquawn Jarrett 1-2 combination is not one the Eagles front office will be looking to replicate.

But other than not reaching for the one-eyed prospects among blind ones (Mark Barron?), I’m not sure how much we can really read into Roseman’s comments, especially in the first round. In later rounds, teams should never reach for anybody, since no late-round draft pick is likely to contribute right away — or ever, realistically.

In the first round, though, it’s not enough to hide behind “best player available.” Best player available isn’t a suitable rationale for selecting a running back, for example, or in my opinion, a quarterback. Offense in general just isn’t a good value proposition for the Eagles this year, especially compared to the long-term holes on defense. The first round pick needs to be on defense, and there multiple good options should be available either at pick 15 or within striking distance of it.

Still, it will be interesting to see if we can detect any substantial shift in the Eagles drafting philosophy this year, given Roseman’s continued assertions that the same mistakes won’t be made.

Photo from Getty.

Defensive Draft Prospects in 140 Characters or Less

Sheil Kapadia:

Greg Cosell of NFL Films has been Tweeting out notes on draft prospects while watching film the past few weeks. Here’s a roundup of his thoughts on defensive players, along with my Eagles slant on each position.

Great draft resource for those wanting short takes on all the defenders the Eagles might be interested in the early rounds.

Is Trading Asante Samuel the Right Move?

Asante Samuel

Everyone knows an Asante Samuel trade will happen some time in the next few weeks, if not days. Andy Reid and Howie Roseman barely even provide us real denials any more. But let’s not kid ourselves here. The Samuel trade was inevitable as soon as the Eagles signed Nnamdi Asomugha last August.

With two massive salaries at the cornerback position, and another starting-caliber player in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, this was never fated to last. In fact, it’s amazing the three players lasted this long. If not for some stubbornness on Howie Roseman’s behalf regarding compensation for Samuel, the live-wire cornerback could easily have watched the Eagles founder in 2011 from a safe distance.

That said, there has been a significant undercurrent of opinion since last summer that argues that the Eagles shouldn’t trade Samuel. That cause got a boost yesterday, when Aaron Schatz at Football Outsiders released their 2011 cornerback charting stats, including the numbers for the Eagles top four corners:

Football Outsiders Eagles Cornerback Data

If you read the entire post, you can see that Asante not only ranks at the top of Eagles corners, but one of the best in the NFL last season. Passes that go his way just don’t end up with a lot of yardage, something that was also true last year.

But statistics are never that simple; the matter of targets complicated things. The Football Outsiders data also shows that Samuel was targeted nearly twice as much as Asomugha. As Sheil Kapdia wrote today, Pro Football Focus has similar findings. Clearly, opponents would rather pick on Samuel than his counterpart.

At this point, you’re looking at statistics that come to opposite conclusions: do you want the guy who is rarely targeted but gives up more yardage, or the guy who’s targeted often but doesn’t give up big plays?

Regardless, keeping both certainly didn’t work. It made everyone worse, because Roseman and company didn’t see realize how different each of the three players are, and how much Juan Castillo was incapable of finding any arrangement that made them all happy. It was a mess.

The right move was probably to not sign Asomugha in the first place, but that’s over with now. At this point, trading Samuel isn’t necessary the right move, but it is the only move. It’s unclear which corner — Nnamdi or Asante — is the better player, but they can’t coexist (at least with Castillo as coordinator). Time to get what you can for Samuel and hope that Asomugha can stave off his decline, and DRC can live up to his potential playing on the outside.

We’ll miss the self-proclaimed Pres, but there’s really no other choice.

Photo from Getty.

Beyond 'I Goofed'

The full transcript of Andy Reid’s interview with McLane and Domo is up, and it has some juicier quotes than just the “goofed” line.

"From a coaching standpoint, we probably gave [Michael Vick] a little too much too soon protection-responsibility wise. You can’t take quite as much as we did early and do that with a guy. Even though he’s been in the league as long as he has, it’s a different (protection) scheme. If I had to go back on it, I would have backed up and just gradually fed him the stuff. You’re talking about a very intelligent guy. Very intelligent. But you can’t dump years and years of things on the table and expect him to go and perform."

That’s the first time, to my knowledge, that Reid has admitted that a lot of the protection/decision issues were on Vick.

"The first thing that happens in this league is, if the coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about, the players are going to let you know. They’re gonna be very verbal about that. But everybody stayed on board with Juan Castillo. I thought that was a tribute to him, his coaching ability and his staff."

In trying to tell us, “Hey, at least the players like him better than that McDermott guy,” Reid actually places Castillo in a category of coach that “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Stunning.

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.

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.