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.

Bungling the Asante Trade From Start to Finish

Depending on which report you believe, the Eagles could have traded Asante Samuel before last season for either a second round pick or two third rounders. Now the Eagles look like they will have to get lucky just to pull out a fourth round pick in this inevitable deal.

What happened?

I don’t agree with some of the reporters who have suggested that the price drop is due to Samuel’s age or contract. He hasn’t gotten significantly older or more expensive in the last few months. His contract does go up, and he’s now 31. That’s true. But neither Samuel’s salary nor his age are prohibitive factors at this point. He hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, and $10 million is reasonable for a top cornerback.

This is the point where people start to bring up Asante’s flaws as a player: he freelances too much, doesn’t know how to tackle, blows coverages more than you would like. For the most part, you wouldn’t be wrong to make that argument. But Samuel has demonstrated those same deficiencies his entire career. Before he ever arrived in Philly, we knew he couldn’t tackle, couldn’t resist gambling for interceptions — and you can bet that Detroit and whichever other teams inquired after him in 2011 knew those things as well.

Moreover, there’s little evidence to suggest that Samuel has fallen off since a year ago. His interception rate did drop, which has a lot to do with luck. His targets increased, but so would yours if you went from playing across from Dimitri Patterson to Nnamdi Asomugha. On a per target basis, Samuel was every bit as good in 2011 as he was in 2010 — and with an utter failure of a defensive coordinator to boot.

What has changed in the last few months is that the Eagles’ leverage in negotiations has evaporated. Having bungled the 2011 trade and alienated Samuel permanently, then installed a defensive coordinator who was completely unprepared to utilize three Pro Bowl cornerbacks, the front office created a buyer’s market for Asante. Everyone knows the team can’t afford, in the books or on the field, to keep Samuel for another year. He’s worth less to the Eagles than anyone else and they have no choice but to get rid of him.

Howie Roseman has largely been hailed as a great deal maker (often as an antidote to poor drafting results), but this whole Samuel situation was terribly handled, and it has and will continue to cost the team.

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.

Where Did the High-Flying Pass Attack Go?

Michael Vick DeSean Jackson

I’m not sure what happened to the Eagles vaunted quick-strike passing attack of 2010. And after combing through some of the stats from last year, I still don’t have a good read on it.

Let’s just take a minute to compare Michael Vick’s passes of 20 yards or more over the last two years, courtesy of Pro Football Focus:

Michael Vick Deep Passing Stats

The numbers show a complicated picture. By some measures, Vick’s deep passes were as good as they were a year prior. Yards per target and per reception were almost identical. The interception rate was similar, and completion percentage actually bumped up to 50 percent.

On the other hand, Vick’s touchdown rate dropped precipitously from 12.3 percent of all deep passes to just 6.3 percent. There were also seemingly fewer opportunities downfield — Vick’s percentage of throws 20 yards or greater fell by more than a third.

What about for DeSean Jackson, Vick’s frequent target on deep passes?

DeSean Jackson Receiving Deep Stats

DeSean received a higher percentage of deep targets (54.2 percent vs. 44.6 percent in 2010), but his reception rate went in the opposite direction. A few drops here, a few bad passes there caused his yards per target figure to drop as well.

The odd thing about Jackson’s numbers is the interceptions column. Notice anything? Yes, all four of Vick’s interceptions throwing deep were targeted at Jackson. I’m not sure what to make of that. Was Jackson not putting in the effort to go get the ball? Was Vick forcing the ball to his top target? Whatever the problem, is it fixable?

It may be time to go back to the tape.

Photo from Getty.

The Mess of Pro Bowl Cornerbacks

Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

It’s quite a feat to turn a strength into a weakness. That’s what Juan Castillo and Johnnie Lynn managed to do to the Eagles’ elite trio of cornerbacks.

Coming into the season, the three Pro Bowlers were supposed to be an asset that covered up the Eagles inexperience at safety and linebacker. Instead, we were frequently left to wonder if the coaches had any plan to use them effectively at all. The biggest problem was that through most of the season no one figured out how to play Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie all in the same lineup.

After they decided not to trade Samuel, the Eagles assumed that Rodgers-Cromartie could man the slot, a position he was uncomfortable with from the start. In yet another example of poor self-scouting, that turned out to be an awful idea.

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus, here are Asomugha’s and Rodgers-Cromartie’s stats at the two positions (Samuel played almost exclusively outside):

Nnamdi Asomugha Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 2011 Coverage Stats

Starting with Asomugha, it’s worth noting that by these metrics he was stellar. Among cornerbacks with at least 25 percent of snaps, Nnamdi ranked first overall in coverage snaps per target, sixth in yards per snap, and second in snaps per reception. Each figure was down from 2010, as he was targeted more often, but they were all still elite.

Regardless, Asomugha provided similar performance no matter where he lined up. He had slightly more targets in the slot, but didn’t allow anything big.

Contrast that with Rodgers-Cromartie, who posted a massive split playing in two different positions. Out of the 44 corners last year with 25 percent or more slot snaps, he ranked 39th in snaps per target, 44th in yards per snap, and 41st in snaps per reception. That is awful. He was arguably the worst slot corner in the NFL.

Put Rodgers-Cromartie outside, and everything changes. In fact, DRC’s numbers on the outside were even better than Asomugha’s. As bad as he was on the inside, Rodgers-Cromartie was one of the best corners in the league when he was playing at his natural position.

Toward the end of the season Rodgers-Cromartie began to get more snaps outside. Partially that was to replace an injured Samuel, but even before that Asomugha would often play the slot in nickel and dime. Clearly, that was a much better defensive formation than what they had going on earlier — and that it took so long to implement is another black mark against Castillo.

Looking forward, I expect Samuel to be traded, freeing up space for DRC to play outside all the time. While Asante is still a great cornerback, playing to everyone’s strengths will be easier next year. The cornerbacks might actually be the fool-proof strength we all expected six months ago.

Photo from Getty.

Maclin vs. Jackson: Who’s More Valuable?

DeSean Jackson Jeremy Maclin Philadelphia Eagles

After the high-flying success of the 2010 Eagles passing attack, this past season represented a large drop off in passing production. Michael Vick regressed from his MVP-caliber season, and his young wide receivers did as well.

Even with fewer sacks, Vick’s net yards per attempt (which includes sacks) went down in 2011, as did his touchdown percentage. Meanwhile, his interception rate doubled. DeSean Jackson caught more passes, but had fewer yards and touchdowns. Jeremy Maclin suffered a similar decline across his numbers.

However, it was an especially trying season for Jackson, who played with the weight of failed contract negotiations on his shoulders. Unfortunately, instead of keeping business and football separate, Jackson admitted after the final game that he let the contract issues distract him.

So, as we enter the offseason, the question remains as to what to do about Jackson and his pending free agent status. Do you let him test the market, or do you franchise tag him? Do you try to work out an extension, or let him walk/trade him?

These outcomes are all on the table. The correct answer lies as much in how you view Jackson as a player, and how he fits into the Eagles offense. Is he a legitimate number one receiver, or do his personal foibles and inconsistent hands make him expendable?

Relatedly, if Maclin is the real number one wideout, maybe you build the offense around him instead. After all, he has more receptions and touchdowns than Jackson the last two seasons, and (for what it’s worth) wide receiver DVOA stats tend to rank Maclin above Jackson.

I thought a good place to start with all of this was with the final piece: an analysis of Maclin and Jackson against each other and, notably, without each other.

Here are the stats for the two receivers in games they both played, over the last three seasons (from Pro Football Focus):

Maclin Jackson With

Looking at this data, you can see that pass distribution has been almost equal; Maclin has a slight edge in targets. However, Maclin’s catch rate is much higher, resulting in more than an extra reception per game. Jackson catches more of the longer passes, however, so the yardage works out almost equal.

Both have been good receivers, but in different ways. Jackson is more explosive, Maclin is more reliable. Two reasonable people might disagree over which is more useful, and I’m not sure it’s worth debating at this time.

But those stats are only when the two play in the same game. If we want to know who is more valuable or, more to the point, what the prospects are without Jackson, we need to look at games they played without their counterpart (highlighted green for improved performance and red for decline against the baseline):

Maclin Jackson Without

Let me just start by stating plainly the small sample size here. In the last three years Jackson has played only 6 games without Maclin, and Maclin only 3 without Jackson. That said, the numbers might still provide insight.

In both cases their pass targets went up by one — but that’s really the only similarity. In almost every other statistic, Jackson’s numbers actually improved without Maclin in the lineup. He had a higher catch rate and higher yards after the catch. Slightly fewer touchdowns, but that’s so hard to project over a limited number of games.

Meanwhile, things haven’t gone well in Maclin’s few tries without Jackson. While his targets went up, his catch rate dropped dramatically to less than 50 percent. He had fewer yards per catch, fewer yards after the catch, and no touchdowns. All in all, surprisingly poor results.

Once again, small sample size, but this is the only evidence we’re going to have before the Eagles make a long-term decision on their mercurial young star. And the evidence certainly suggests that Jackson’s not only a fine receiver himself, but his deep threat makes his running mate look better as well.

Take away Maclin, and Jackson benefits from the increased attention. Take away Jackson, and Maclin suffers despite it.

Some fans might be willing to move on without Jackson, should that come to pass. But this data reads like a warning. In a full season without DeSean, Maclin might look a lot more like Reggie Brown than Mike Quick.

Photo from Getty.

What’s Wrong With Nnamdi Asomugha?

Nnamdi Asomugha Eagles

While re-watching the Eagles win over the Dolphins, it was hard to miss another poor showing by Nnamdi Asomugha. The $60 million cornerback isn’t shutting down many wide receivers these days.

On Sunday, Brandon Marshall got by Asomugha for an early touchdown, and later Brian Hartline (!) beat him for a 24-yard gain. Those two plays were the only ones where Asomugha’s receiver was targeted, but they were both successful.

It’s tough to tell exactly what’s wrong with Asomugha. While adjusting to Juan Castillo’s questionable schemes, he deserved the benefit of the doubt. But at this point it’s clear that something else is going on. He’s 30 years old and may have lost a step or two. But I rarely see Asomugha getting simply outrun or otherwise beaten physically. In fact, he stuck with Larry Fitzgerald as well as anyone during the Cardinals game.

Instead, I have a new theory, one that I arrived at after replaying the Marshall touchdown nearly a dozen times.

On that play, Asomugha actually had solid coverage. Nate Allen provided help over the top, and Asomugha kept pace with Marshall, mirroring his movements underneath as he broke outside in the end zone. Then the ball arrived, and… nothing.

It was a great pass by Matt Moore, but Asomugha was in fair position to break it up. Instead, he seemed surprised that the ball arrived. He gave a half-hearted flail and the ball sailed right into Marshall’s arms.

Asomugha’s cross-field running mate, Asante Samuel, gets beat more often than Eagles fans would like. He stares into the backfield and tries to jump pass routes. But regardless of Samuel’s deficiencies, one gets the sense that he expects the ball to come his way. Not only that, but he welcomes it, he wants it. Sometimes Samuel will make a mistake and allow a needless big play, but he’s confident that if the quarterback looks his way enough, he’ll make him pay.

Watching the Marshall touchdown again, and reflecting on Asomugha’s performance this season, I think Nnamdi’s biggest problem might be that he has the opposite attitude. He doesn’t expect passes to come his way, and he doesn’t really want them.

The most effective tool Asomugha had was his aura of invincibility. Other than the 2006 season, he never had more than one interception in any of his first eight years in the league — not because he was bad, but because quarterbacks never threw at him. In the last three seasons combined Asomugha only allowed one touchdown, while never being targeted more than 30 times a year.

This year, he’s on pace for 43 targets, a 45 percent bump from 2010. This wasn’t unexpected, considering Samuel is better than any of the corners Asomugha played with in Oakland. But Asomguha’s corresponding decline was surprising.

In short, I don’t think Asomugha has suddenly become a bad cornerback. Although his advancing age and new responsibilities don’t help matters, perhaps his biggest obstacle is mental. In the last few years with Oakland, Nnamdi surely realized that as long as he gave reasonably good coverage, his reputation will keep quarterbacks from testing him.

That’s simply no longer the case. And until Asomugha adjusts to the new reality, both expecting and welcoming the challenge of passes thrown his way, he’ll continue to be a coverage liability.

Photo from Getty.

By the Numbers: Why the Eagles Lost

Michael Turner Falcons Eagles

Last night’s loss was cruel. The Eagles showed extended stretches of dominance on both offense and defense, but made vital mistakes, suffered awful injuries, and came up just short in the end. Let’s break it down with some basic statistics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo from Getty.

Asante, Asomugha, and Apocryphal Aces

Asante Samuel Nnamdi Asomugha Philadelphia Eagles

Right before free agency began, I started to write a post about what the Eagles could learn from the Phillies. I noted some of the similarities between two front offices that in recent years have been aggressive as well as value-oriented. But I also pointed out that the Eagles might do well to follow the cross town example of Ruben Amaro, who has no qualms about going for it all without qualification.

At the end of the post, I was going to recommend that the Eagles look seriously into signing Nnamdi Asomugha, despite my previous reservations. Adding him, in tandem with Asante Samuel, was as close a move as I could come up with to the Phillies signing Cliff Lee to assemble the Four Aces. Of course, what I didn’t anticipate was that the Eagles would actually follow through on that unpublished suggestion.

Unfortunately, after Samuel’s press conference yesterday, it has become clear that the Eagles may have learned the wrong lesson from the Phils. To put it bluntly, I don’t expect Asante Samuel to still be in Philly a week from now. As I’ve said in other places, this looks a lot like a “trade for Halladay, trade away Lee” deal.

And that’s a shame. There’s a reason the Phillies reversed course and resigned Lee last offseason. Plus, I’m just not sure what the Eagles can get for Asante at this stage. As far as I can tell, the Eagles valued Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as a second round pick. Samuel is certainly worth more than that. As a consistent Pro Bowler and interception machine, Samuel should command a first round pick in 2012 (only worth a 2011 second rounder) plus something else, like another player or mid round pick. Is any team going to be willing to pay that price?

Hedging bets to be competitive today and in the future has made the Eagles a paragon of consistency. But sometimes you have to break your own rules. Reward requires some risk.

* * *

A couple more notes about the deal.

First, watching Asomugha’s press conference, you can tell he might be the more articulate player to take the microphone in Philly in at least the last decade. Not to slight other geniuses in the locker room, but the man used “apocryphal” in a sentence. He’s raising the bar on and off the field.

Additionally, check out this quote:

I did it the way I like to do it, making the decision early. So that decision was made in March. So once we made that decision, we put all the pieces together, marked off the boxes, saw what we thought was the best fit — when that comes around full circle, you got to go with it.

Was that Nnamdi describing his free agency decision, or Howie Roseman describing the Eagles offseason process? Perfectly in sync.

* * *

Finally, I think if the Eagles do keep Asante, they run the risk of discovering that either he or Nnamdi isn’t quite as good as they thought. When you have one great corner, all the passes can be funneled to the other side. But two great corners means teams will be forced to choose. Whoever they choose would be the weaker link.

Photo from Getty.

Statistics Conflict Over DeSean’s Unique Game

DeSean Jackson Philadelphia Eagles Statistics

A constant trope has emerged among fans and writers, debating the relative merits of DeSean Jackson. On one side are the folks who marvel at Jackson’s speed and explosiveness, who see the way he changes the dynamics of the game with his special ability to score from anywhere on the field. On the other side are the doubters, people who see a diminutive, injury-prone and inconsistent player who’s too unreliable to be a true #1 wide receiver.

Often, statistics can help to settle questions like this. On this topic, however, the stats are split. DeSean’s proponents can sight his ridiculous 22.5 yards per reception figure and rattle off the dozens of big plays he’s been a part of over the last three years. On the other hand, Jackson’s league-leading drops percentage isn’t winning over many skeptics.

Even the “advanced” statistics are split. Check out the following graph comparing two wide receiver stats for 2010: Football Outsiders’s DYAR and Advanced NFL Stats’s EPA.

2010 NFL Wide Receiver Stat Comparison DYAR EPA

As you can see, there’s a strong correlation between the two stats among wide receivers with 50 or more targets last year. That’s encouraging — it means the two numbers often agree on player performance.

But look at DeSean, way off the trendline. Expected Points Added puts Jackson among the top ten wide receivers in the NFL. But Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement says he’s worse than average among the 85 most-targeted receivers. In fact, the difference between DeSean’s rank in EPA and DYAR is the greatest among all these receivers (barring only Terrell Owens, floating down in the bottom center of the graph).

DeSean is involved in a lot of plays that lead to expected point gains, but aren’t counted as highly by Football Outsiders’ statistics. I’m not really sure what causes this difference, and I’m open to suggestions. But, either way, it suggests that this debate probably isn’t going away any time soon. Some people will count one stat and some will look at another, and come to opposite conclusions.

Perhaps Jackson is just a unique type of player. Rather than referring to him as a “true” top wide receiver, we should just accept that he’s a “non-typical” #1. When we look at the whole picture, it’s clear he’s doing something different — even if the stats are split as to what exactly that means.

Photo from Getty. Originally published at NBC Philadelphia.

2011 Eagles Offseason Guide: Tight End

Eagles Tight End Brent Celek 2011 Offseason

This is the fourth in a series of posts breaking down the Eagles position by position in advance of the upcoming draft and (hopefully) free agency. We’ve already looked at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. Today we’ll examine the tight ends.

2010 Recap:  Donovan McNabb always liked his tight ends, and two years ago Brent Celek led the Eagles in receptions with 76. The switch to Kevin Kolb, a quarterback with a weaker arm, was supposed to bolster that relationship even more. That’s why the Eagles gave Celek a six year, $30 million contract extension in 2009. But things didn’t quite go as planned.

Last year, with Michael Vick at the helm, Celek became an afterthought. His role as a blocker increased from 14 percent of pass plays to 22 percent and his targets dropped from 111 in 2009 to only 77 last season. As the wide receivers take over, receptions from the tight end spot have become less important — and Celek’s numbers dropped accordingly.

Clay Harbor, a rookie, picked up the back up role without much problem — although he wasn’t asked to do a lot. It did seem like his blocking was improving by the end of the season though. Garrett Mills, who the Eagles promoted from the practice squad midway through the season, was the only other tight end to catch a pass.

Who’s Leaving:  Mills is gone already, claimed off waivers in December. Not exactly a big loss.

2011 Depth Chart: Celek and Harbor seem set in the first two spots, which will likely be the only ones that matter. Two other players will serve as token competitors to Harbor. The first is a familiar face, Cornelius Ingram, who the Eagles drafted in the 5th round of the 2009 draft. Ingram was cut last offseason after a rookie year lost to a torn ACL, and then brought back on the practice squad at the end of 2010. The other player is John Nalbone, who was selected by the Dolphins just eight picks after Ingram in 2009 but never caught on their either.

Potential Additions: I honestly don’t see any reason the Eagles would add another tight end this summer. They seem to think only two tight ends are necessary for the active roster, and there are already four in camp. Unless the coaches are more in doubt about Harbor than we thought, he should be pretty safe.

Future Outlook:  Celek’s signed until 2016. The biggest thing to look at long term is how Harbor progresses. Will he have to permanently compete for the back up job, or does the team think might he has the talent to stick around after Celek?

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

The Vick Offense & Its Explosive Wide Receivers

image

Before the 2010 season began, I examined the Eagles passing offense and how it had changed over the years, both in regards to pass targets by position and by player. At the time, we were considering the impact the switch from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb would have on the Eagles passing attack. Of course, that didn’t exactly go as planned, and now we look back on season one of the Michael Vick era.

Let’s start by breaking down the pass targets by position (from Advanced NFL Stats):

image

As you can see, for the fourth straight season the wide receivers’ share of the pass targets has increased — to 59 percent of all passes, the highest point in the last decade. That long-term trend corresponds with both an increase in receiving talent (DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant are easily one of the best starting groups in the NFL) as well as the decline of Brian Westbrook from his peak in 2006 and 2007, when he was the focal point of the entire offense.

LeSean McCoy brought up the pass targets to running backs in 2010, but only slightly. Meanwhile, Brent Celek’s role in the offense declined with Vick at the helm, bringing down the tight end position.

The ultimate takeaway here is that with Vick’s powerful arm and a set of explosive wide receivers on the outside, the focus on a down-the-field, receiver-centric passing attack is only likely to increase.

But taking on the wide receivers individually, we can see some other interesting trends:

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This chart may seem visually complicated at first. Each wedge or section indicates the percent of pass targets a player received in a given year. Looking just at 2010, for example, we see that newcomers Riley Cooper and Chad Hall had minimal impact, while Maclin, Jackson, and Avant each carved out a sizable portion of the targets. Over time, the shifts in emphasis as the sections wax and wane become clear as well. Both Maclin and Avant had increased targets, while Jackson fell off a bit from his high in 2009.

Maclin actually was the most-targeted Eagle in 2010, with almost 21 percent of passes going his way. Jackson basically swapped spots with him, posting 17 percent. DeSean did miss one game, but overall he was just less reliable than Maclin last year. While in all but three games Maclin at least four receptions, Jackson had eight games in which he had less than that.

The fact that Maclin is now targeted more than Jackson doesn’t mean that he’s the Eagles new number one receiver, because pass targets aren’t everything. DeSean outpaced him with a huge 11 yards per target (tied for best in the league), compared to Maclin’s 8.5. He remains the more dangerous weapon, and the one opponents will game plan heavily to stop. Still, it’s an interesting fact to keep an eye on.

It also remains to be seen how much a player like Cooper can break into this three-man logjam at the top of the Eagles receiving corps. The rookie showed some promise in 2010, but will likely need injuries ahead of him to get any extensive playing time.

Overall, assuming the team signs DeSean Jackson and Michael Vick to new long term deals, an Eagles passing attack focused on wide receivers should be explosive and exciting for years to come.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

Vick-Jackson Connection Broken in 1st Half

The first half of the Eagles-Vikings Tuesday Night Football showdown was exceedingly sloppy in all areas, but that theme was especially evident in the most explosive connection on the field: Michael Vick to DeSean Jackson.

Up to this point in the season, the Vick-Jackson link has been perhaps the best thing the Eagles have had going for them. Jackson has six receiving touchdowns and has averaged over 22 yards per catch this year, a career high, even for the most explosive wide receiver in the NFL. The long-ball heroics just earned dynamic duo starting nods for the NFC in the Pro Bowl.

But Tuesday night? DeSean was targeted nine times — more than any other Eagles player. But instead of exciting, the results were disastrous in the first half…

Celek's Disappearance Exposes Flaw in Vick's Game

What you have to understand first is where Celek runs most of his routes and catches most of his passes. Last year, when he caught 76 passes, over two thirds of them came in the middle of the field, between 0 and 19 yards downfield. Of those, 31 were passes under ten yards.

That worked great for Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb. In 2009 and 2010, both quarterbacks passed into that short middle area more than 30 percent of the time, by far their busiest target on the field. And it was also one of their most effective. McNabb completed more than 68 percent of his passes into that area (with a 93.0 QB passer rating), while Kolb hit a cool 75 percent (with a 103.4 rating). That is the West Coast Offense, in action.

Vick sees the field differently. He favors the sidelines and the deep ball over short or intermediate middle passes. Under 23 percent of his passes go over the middle and less than 10 yards downfield. That accounts for some of Celek’s drop in production — he has less opportunities to catch the ball.

But what is more interesting is that Vick is also significantly less effective throwing into that space…