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.

Eagles O-Line: Not That Young

Jimmy Kemspki provides us with a great master list of offensive line ages around the NFL:

Philly has the 13th oldest OL in the league, but their situation is a little odd, in that 4/5 of their line has very low mileage.  Todd Herremans has 92 career regular season starts.  The next highest total?  Evan Mathis, with 37, or a little more than two full seasons worth of games.

This is one of those moments when you remember that even though the Eagles will start two sophomores in the interior line, Danny Watkins is only six months younger than 28-year-old tackle Demetress Bell.

Eagles Draft More Linemen Than Anyone Else

Great numbers by Jimmy Kempski over at Blogging the bEast. Turns out, the Eagles have drafted more total offensive and defensive lineman in the last five years than any other team. Alright, so they’re not actually first by percent of total picks, but still, Andy Reid values numbers in the trenches.

Note that the Eagles have taken 18 linemen in the last five drafts. That’s the same as the Redskins and Cowboys combined.

Ask Us Anything

Jimmy Kempski (Blogging the bEast), Derek Sarley (IgglesBlog), and myself will be on Reddit at noon eastern to answer any questions you might have about the Almanac, or anything else Eagles-related. You can leave questions in advance or enter the fray during the free-for-all at noon.

Join us!

Introducing The Eagles Almanac 2012

Eagles Almanac 2012Today I’m proud to introduce Eagles Almanac 2012.

This is a project that that has been in the works secretly for months, a collaboration between 10 of your favorite writers, bloggers, and reporters to create the single best, most comprehensive guide to the 2012 Philadelpha Eagles season. The book, which you can download now as a PDF, is more than 80 ad-free pages of absolutely wall-to-wall Eagles content. There’s statistics, analysis, opinion, predictions, and even a dash of personal reflection thrown in for good measure.

The Eagles Almanac features long articles and in-depth essays on all the biggest offseason questions, and provides insight into a whole host of topics. And it does it all in a beautiful, magazine-quality layout:

imageimageimageimage

I’ve personally taken on the task of editing and publishing the Eagles Almanac, but all together it was a collaborative effort between myself and a bunch of fabulous authors:

Mike Tanier (Football Outsiders and The New York Times), broke down the failings of Juan Castillo’s defensive play calling.

Tommy Lawlor (Iggles Blitz) penned a comprehensive draft review, as well as a personal recollection of the 1992 Eagles season.

Sheil Kapadia (Moving the Chains) analyzed what exactly happened to Michael Vick last year.

Jason Brewer (Bleeding Green Nation) looked at how 2012 is shaping up to be make-or-break season for Andy Reid, after 13 years on the job.

Jimmy Kempski (Blogging the bEast) put together the only NFC East preview you will ever need to read.

Tom McAllister (Bury Me In My Jersey) discussed the fragility of rabid Eagles fandom at age 30.

Derek Sarley (IgglesBlog) asked if Nnamdi Asomugha is on his last legs, and wondered what’s going on with Evan Mathis.

Sam Lynch (IgglesBlitz) looked ahead to the team’s problems and potential in 2013 and beyond.

Gabe Bevilacqua (IgglesBlog) gives advice for living in a (cruel) world where the Giants have won two of the last five Super Bowls.

And your truly examined LeSean McCoy’s breakout 2011 season and how he can actually improve from here.

Plus so much more! Given the hard work that’s gone into this book from all of us, I think it’s a steal at our price of $4.99, and I hope you think so too. At the end of the day, it’s a chance to get more top-notch Eagles content and support your favorite writers at the same time.

Buy the Eagles Almanac 2012 today!

(And while you’re at it, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.)

How to Get DeSean Jackson Wide Open

Jimmy Kempski has a great breakdown of a cool formation the Eagles put together last year that worked at least a few times with big results. It’s also a testament to how quickly these innovations can be figured out by the defense.

Assuming you’ve all gone and read his piece (I’ll wait), it’s worth noting that this is the type of play that works really well for the Eagles when they have plenty of space to execute. Defenders have to respect the speed of the Eagles receivers up the field, opening up space in the middle. Unfortunately, that advantage breaks down in the red zone.

On LeSean McCoy's Workload

Jimmy Kempski has a post up that shows LeSean McCoy’s total snap count in 2011 — 894, which is the most of any running back, 50 more than Ray Rice and 100 more than Maurice Jones-Drew.

The data is interesting, but ultimately incomplete. After all, just because he was on the field more than other backs doesn’t mean he took a pounding on every one of those snaps. In fact, if you dig a little bit deeper, you see that despite McCoy’s vast lead in total plays, he was only seventh in total carries and fourth in total touches (rushing attempts plus receptions). Shady was on the field a lot, but his usage rate (percent of touches per total snaps) placed him 21st among the top 25 most used backs. He saw the ball 36 percent of all plays he was in, compared to 54.5 percent for Marshawn Lynch and 53.2 percent for Michael Turner.

Certainly every snap carries some amount of wear and tear, especially pass blocking. One could disagree with me on this, but I don’t think those other snaps hold a candle to the repeated and unforeseen hits a player takes with the ball in his hands. That said, I agree with Jimmy’s (and Andy Reid’s) overall point: they need to find a reliable backup who can spell Shady from time to time. This makes it puzzling that the Eagles would trust three inexperienced players to compete for the number two spot.

Arguing for, um, Jerry Jones

Jimmy Kempski:

They’re a team with no shortage of star power (or at least perceived star power) at the top: Ware, Romo, Witten, Austin, Ratliff, Smith, Lee and if you want to throw in Bryant and Carr too, then OK, I suppose I’ll allow it.

Beyond the stars, there’s mediocrity up and down the starting lineup and typically no depth to speak of whatsoever. This has not been a winning formula, and probably never will be.

The Cowboys’ decision to trade up and utilize their top 2 picks on one player (albeit potentially a great one), especially at a position that didn’t need as much help as other areas, reflects that same pattern.

Jimmy’s point about the Cowboys is well taken, and I can’t find fault with his encyclopedic knowledge of Dallas’s woes up and down their lineup. Still, I actually think trading up for Morris Claiborne is a justifiable, and in fact, possibly great move for Jerry Jones.

My main disagreement is that the Cowboys’ greater need at multiple positions shouldn’t disqualify them from grabbing a player at the top of their draft board. I like the Eagles decision to move up for Fletcher Cox, but they undoubtedly have positions in worse straits as well (e.g. safety and linebacker). Drafting a player that you feel strongly can become a Pro Bowler should come ahead of almost all considerations of need. Sure, more picks are better, but taking one of the consensus top six players in the draft this year probably balances out whomever you could have gotten at pick 45.

Building a roster is a long term game. You can’t solve (or ignore) all your problems in one draft or offseason. Dallas may fail at that in the long term, but in itself, picking Claiborne isn’t a poor decision.

The Eagles Depth Chart, Colorized

Jimmy Kempski has a great visual breakdown of the Eagles depth chart going into the draft. Read the full post for analysis, but here are the two handy charts:

offensedefense

Hey Asante! You're the Best Ever Of All Time

Jimmy Kempski:

So Asante Samuel found an article I wrote about him. And apparently, he liked it. Thanks, Asante. I love you too.

What about me, Pres? This wasn’t good enough for ya? Then again, there was this and this.

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.

On the Inaccuracy of SackSEER

Jimmy Kempski:

I think just about any knowledgeable football fan that is familiar with Football Outsiders is generally very complimentary of the work they do (as they should be), but SackSEER has its fans and detractors. The model was formed from data collected prior to the 2010 season and was first introduced in 2010. Therefore, the the model pre-2010 is understandably extremely successful. Its fans point to the pre-2010 success. Its detractors feel that predicting a player’s future in the NFL based on a couple jumps and a few passes through some cones at the Combine is a little ridiculous. It also is a pure data model that ignores things like watching game tape.

Jimmy rightly points out the utter failure this model has been in the last two years, although I’d make two additional points. First, in defense of SackSEER, don’t read the projections as predictions, but rather the most likely general range based on past precedent. For example, to knock the model for projecting “only” 36.4 sacks in his first five years for Von Miller is silly. It argued that he would be good and he is. Jerry Hughes, on the other hand…

That said, any model that leans too heavily on something as luck-dominated as sack totals is going to have trouble. I wonder if a better SackSEER could be constructed based on total pressure (sacks, hits, hurries).

RG3 to Philly? It’s Pretty Crazy

Robert Griffin III Eagles

Heisman-winning quarterback and draft analyst man-crush Robert Griffin III met with the Eagles at the NFL Combine late last week, sparking a mini-resurgence of speculation (read: hope) that by some twist of fate RG3 could be coming to Philadelphia.

Jimmy Kempsi wrote, “it wouldn’t be a complete shock to see the Eagles make some sort of blockbuster trade to move up to 2 to get him.” He goes on to make some good points: Michael Vick will turn 32 before the season starts, his contract isn’t really for the full six years, and the cost of paying a first round quarterback isn’t prohibitive any more. Despite those reasons, there are still major barriers to bringing Griffin to the Eagles.

Let’s start with the fact that the Eagles are completely outgunned in trade negotiations. All indications are that the Rams are looking to sell out of the second overall selection. Do you know what it would take for the Eagles to even get into the conversation for that pick? According to the draft value chart, giving up the Eagles 2012 1st, two 2nd, 3rd, and 2013 1st round picks still leaves the team coming up slightly short.

For comparison, let’s take two of the teams cited most often in trade rumors: the Browns and the Redskins. Cleveland has the 4th and 22nd overall picks. Just those two selections are already worth more than the massive Eagles bounty described above. Former Eagles GM Tom Heckert definitely has the inside track on Griffin. Washington, meanwhile, could match Philly’s offer with just their 1st and 2nd round picks this year and 1st rounder next year.

You can draw comparisons with Vick today and Donovan McNabb in 2007, the year the Eagles drafted Kevin Kolb, but the cost is so much more prohibitive for Griffin. Using an early second round pick when you already have a starting quarterback is questionable, forfeiting almost your entire draft is prohibitive.

And that brings up the second major reason to shoot down any Griffin ideas: the opportunity cost is far too high. Giving up that many high picks would mean ignoring needs at a bunch of positions, including linebacker, defensive line, cornerback, and wide receiver. Given the general lack of young talent, especially on defense, the Eagles cannot afford to waste the opportunity to finally get a good, full draft.

Drafting Griffin, despite these concerns, would be writing the next year or two off. The Eagles front office would be admitting to the fans and — more importantly — a veteran group of players that they can’t win in 2012. They would be telling Michael Vick, who everyone hopes will work to improve himself this offseason, that he’s not really their franchise player. That could be a disaster.

What it comes down to is that the timing is off. Tommy Lawlor called the situation “awkward,” but it’s more than that. 2012 is shaping up to be a make-or-break year for more than just Andy Reid. Vick needs to get back to his 2010 form. DeSean Jackson, if he even accepts the franchise tag, could be gone after 2012. Veterans like Cullen Jenkins, Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, and Trent Cole may only have a year or two of high-level play left, and poor drafting has left the cupboard bare behind them.

Next year should answer a lot of questions about this team and the way it’s constructed. The Eagles could rebound and make a playoff run, in which case you will want a strong crop of young players in place to fill in the holes and keep up the momentum. Alternatively, if the Eagles flop there will be a NovaCare house cleaning like we haven’t seen since 1999. In that case, the team will be in a natural position to draft a new franchise quarterback and rebuild around him going forward.

Watching RG3 highlights is intoxicating, and I would love it if he ended up with the Eagles. But it’s not going to happen. Let’s just make that clear.

Photo from Getty.