NFL Offseason Review: Philadelphia Eagles
The previous NFL season is old news nowadays, with many fans having already invested in at least three new sports since the thrilling end to Super Bowl 51 in which the New England Patriots crawled back from a 25-point deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons.
Patriots fans, of course, probably still stare off into space and smile every now and again, daydreaming about the game, or take a few minutes to watch highlights of the season.
But for the fans of the other 31 franchises in the league, looking back on 2016/17 NFL season is not altogether a very fun or enjoyable experience, and something that should probably be avoided. This is true for those teams that saw tragic finishes in the playoffs (i.e. the Falcons), those teams that dramatically underperformed despite high expectations (i.e. the Cardinals), but most of all it’s especially the case for those teams that were going through a rebuilding period in 2016/17, like the Philadelphia Eagles.
After a three-year experiment with former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, now infamous as one of the biggest franchise wrecking balls in the NFL, the Eagles were left with an absolute mess on their hands, and the 2016/17 season was their first attempt to pull themselves out of the hole that Chip Kelly had dug them into.
However, while it undoubtedly must have been a frustrating year for Philly fans, watching their team struggle with unfillable gaps in the roster, it’s important to note that the season also held some promise, and that the emergence of rookie quarterback Carson Wentz was certainly a great encouragement for Eagles fans.
By all accounts, it would seem at first glance that Wentz is the type of quarterback that one can build a franchise around, and for this reason the rest of the league would do well to take note of the progress that the Eagles are making to build themselves back up after the destruction of the Chip Kelly era.
It could be just a short while before the Eagles are right back in the thick of playoff contention.
In this NFL Offseason Review series, we first review the story arc that the team followed in 2016/17, including any major turning points that significantly altered a team’s fortunes. We then take a deep dive into the team’s roster, identifying the major strengths and weaknesses that came to light last season. Next, we review the team’s Super Bowl odds, and the roster moves they are making to improve their chances of competing for a championship next season. And finally, we give our overall prediction, using advanced statistics and scheduling factors in order to forecast how high the team will reach in 2017/18.
In this edition, we cruise on over to the east coast of Pennsylvania, to the City of Brotherly Love, and take on the Philadelphia Eagles.
Last Season: In Review
To provide a little bit of context on the Philadelphia Eagles’ organization, it’s notable that the team is among the oldest in the league, in terms of consecutive seasons played in the same city.
Philly has laid claim to the Eagles since the Great Depression, and even during World War II when the team was briefly forced to form the “Steagles” by combining with Pittsburgh, due to the large number of young men fighting overseas, the city of Philadelphia still enjoyed home professional football games.
The reason we reach this far back into the history books in framing the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2016/17 season is to illustrate just how long the organization has been around. When a city has been rooting for a team for generations, the expectations for that team can be very high, regardless of the level of success, compared to younger or migrant franchises.
Being so old, the franchise has gone through many exciting periods of success in its history, particularly during the Super Bowl era. These included the Ron Jaworski era, in the early 80s, the Randall Cunningham era, in the early 90s, the Donovan Mcnabb era, lasting for the duration of the 2000s, and the comeback Michael Vick era, in which the dual threat quarterback returned from a stint in federal prison for involvement in a dog-fighting ring to play five seasons for the Eagles.
This brief review of the major periods in the last four decades of Eagles’ football brings us up to the present day, as the Chip Kelly era that we mentioned above began around the time of the departure of Vick in 2013. It is important to note, that despite the fact that the team made it to the playoffs in twenty of these 40 seasons, and won a total of 15 playoff games to boot, the Eagles have never won a Super Bowl despite making two appearances.
The Eagles’ thought that their best chance to finally win a championship was by firing long-time incumbent Andy Reid and replacing him with newcomer Chip Kelly, who at the time had enjoyed phenomenal success as the head coach of the Oregon Ducks but had never before coached in the NFL.
While the idea wasn’t so far-fetched at the time, especially considering that the Eagles went from 4 wins to 10 in the span of a season during Kelly’s first year as coach, once Kelly was given full control over personnel decisions in his third season with the team, in 2015/16, he appeared to go off the deep end, trading the team’s All-Pro running back (LeSean McCoy) and Pro Bowl quarterback (Nick Foles) for no apparent reason.
Chip Kelly’s fatal flaw, if we had to assign just one, was relying too much on scheme and not enough on people.
After it became clear that these moves were not going to pan out, and that the Eagles were going to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season, Kelly was fired in Week 16 of the 2015/16 NFL season. This would end up being the first of two times within 367 days that Chip Kelly would be fired from an NFL team.
It was in this context, picking up the pieces after the end of the Chip Kelly era and hoping desperately to reclaim the success that the team had enjoyed during Andy Reid’s tenure, that the Eagles began their 2016/17 campaign under new head coach Doug Pederson.
With a new head coach at the helm, with Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson taken back after four seasons on the Eagles’ coaching staff, and a new quarterback in the backfield, with North Dakota State product Carson Wentz taken with the second pick overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, the fan base had reason to be nervous heading into the season, and the new regime was under a microscope.
For this reason, it was all the more impressive when the Eagles started out the season about as well as any franchise could hope, with the team winning their home opener in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns by 19 points, winning their road opener in Week 2 against the Chicago Bears by 15 points, and returning home to beat their interstate rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3 by 31 points.
Going into their Week 4 bye, the Eagles were undefeated, and had outscored their opponents by an average of more than three touchdowns.
While of course, looking back on the season in hindsight, beating the Cleveland Browns and the Chicago Bears is nothing to write home about, as the two teams combined for 28 losses last year, the battle for the state of Pennsylvania in Week 3 against the eventual AFC Championship contender merited some hype.
While the Steelers were not hardly the team that they ended up being late in the season at this early stage, it was nonetheless Wentz’s first real test, and he passed with flying colors. One of the more memorable monikers coming out of this early period was when fans crowned Wentz the king of “Wentzylvania,” a title that he earned by beating the state’s other NFL team.
Many things went right for Philadelphia to contribute to this early spat of success, despite the fact that Wentz received most of the attention in the national media. The play-calling by Doug Pederson was inspired; new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had energized the Eagles’ front seven; new offseason additions like Stephen Tullock, Rodney McLeod, and Jalen Mills were all seeming to pan out; all in all there was very little that hadn’t swung the Eagles’ way.
And this isn’t at all to say that the opening of Wentz’s career didn’t deserve all of the credit that it got.
In his first three career NFL games, Carson Wentz averaged 22 completions of 34 attempts, a 65.2% completion percentage, and an average of 256 yards per game and a respectable 7.6 yards per pass. He notched 5 touchdowns to go along with 0 interceptions and 0 fumbles lost, giving him an average passer rating of 104.5.
Wentz was lauded for numerous broken records and accolades that arose due to these numbers. He became the only rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl era to win his first three games without throwing an interception. He notched 102 consecutive passes without an interception, the longest streak ever by a rookie. And he was the first player in franchise history to win the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Month in September.
And on this last award, it’s important to note that by winning official honors as the Offensive Rookie of the Month, Wentz also staked his claim as the winner of the unofficial “Rookie Quarterback Olympics,” as the media hype that surrounded Wentz rose to an equal fervor around fellow rookies Dak Prescott, of the Dallas Cowboys, and Trevor Siemian, of the Denver Broncos.
After such an incredible 3-game start to the season, Philly fans went into the bye week over the moon with excitement about their new team, their new coach, and especially their new quarterback. Little did they know that their success was not destined to last for long.
The Eagles lost their first game of the season on the road in Week 5 against the Detroit Lions, coming back from a 14-point deficit before halftime to take the lead 23–21 with only 6 minutes left in the game, only to see the Lions pull off yet another of their patented 4th-quarter comebacks, winning the game on a field goal with one minute left.
After losing their first game of the season, Philly subsequently lost its momentum on the second game in their post-bye week road trip, this time never leading in the game and ending up with a 7-point loss against Kirk Cousins and the division rival Washington Redskins.
It’s important to note that at this point in the season fourth-year offensive tackle Lane Johnson was suspended for the middle 10 games of the season due to violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs. Of the six games that the Eagles played with Johnson in the starting lineup, the team won four, which is especially notable considering the fact that the team won only 6 games altogether.
And the pressure put on Wentz in the middle portion of the season by opposing defenses was certainly one of the most important developing storylines. In the first three games of the season, before the bye week, Wentz was sacked only four times. In the subsequent two games, he was sacked exactly double this, with eight sacks altogether and five alone coming in the first game without Lane Johnson.
The Eagles would follow up the two losses after the bye week with a win at home over the Minnesota Vikings, and then a difficult stretch of divisional games, with back-to-back road games against their two playoff-bound division rivals, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants. The Eagles would score 23 points in both contests (against two excellent defenses), but would end up losing by 6 in overtime to the Cowboys and then losing by 5 to the Giants the following week.
There are several explanations available for why the incredible success of the Eagles’ first three games did not extend into the games after the bye week. First, we note that Carson Wentz became steadily less efficient, with his quarterback rating falling over a four game-span: 125.9, at home against the Steelers in Week 3; 102.8, on the road against the Lions in Week 5; 77.7, on the road against the Redskins in Week 6; and 52.4, at home against the Vikings in Week 7.
This game against the Vikings in Week 7 would end up earning Wentz his lowest passer rating of the entire season. The rookie quarterback went 16 of 28 for 138 yards, good for a 57.1% completion percentage, with one touchdown, two interceptions, three fumbles, and one fumble lost. It’s also important to note that this performance came despite the fact that the Eagles won, and Wentz was not sacked in the game.
Other factors contributing to the midseason slide included the increase in pressure on Carson Wentz, the fact that other teams now had enough film on the Wentz-Pederson offense to game-plan against it more effectively, the Eagles’ receiving corps regressing after a strong start to the season, and the strength of the schedule increasing.
But whatever the reason, the Eagles headed into their Week 10 matchup against the dominant Atlanta Falcons at 4–4, having lost four out of the last five games. The team knew that they would need to beat the best if they hoped to be the best, and they rose to the challenge, winning 24–15.
Holding the Atlanta Falcons – the team that averaged 33.8 points per game over the course of the season, the highest point total in the league – to one touchdown scored and only 15 total points over the course of the game was undeniably an accomplishment for the Eagles’ defensive unit, and built confidence.
Sitting at 5–4 at the end of nine games, the Eagles were still very much alive in the Wild Card race and even still had a fighting chance in the race for the NFC East, despite the phenomenal success of the dominant Dallas Cowboys and the surging New York Giants.
The Eagles entered into the final seven games of the season with a winning record, not knowing that it would be the last time they would be able to say that.
One of the biggest trends emerging from Eagles disappointing ending portion of the season was the play of the receiving corps, a unit that had been in serious flux throughout the entire season.
You could even see the need for new talent in the receiving corps in preseason, with Doug Pederson bringing in veterans Chris Givens and Rueben Randle and subsequently releasing both of them before the beginning of the season. The trades for Dorial Green-Beckham and additions of Bryce Treggs and Paul Turner to the roster also indicated just how much the receiving unit was in flux.
Things came to a head during the two games following the big win over the Atlanta Falcons, in which the team was trying to stack success and go on a run.
One of the biggest plays in the Seattle Seahawks game was a play that didn’t happen. When Zach Ertz scampered for 53 yards to score what would have been the tying touchdown, with the go-ahead extra point to follow, a penalty by wide receiver Nelson Agholor on his alignment at the line of scrimmage had the play called back, and significantly altered the momentum of the game and its ultimate trajectory and outcome.
After a dropped ball later in the game, the second-year receiver was benched in the following game against the Green Bay Packers in order to give him the space to address the mental component of his game, leaving the team with only four dressed receivers. When top receiver Jordan Matthews went down in the game against the Eagles, it become painfully obvious that Carson Wentz simply had no one to throw to.
This lack of a receiving corps was one of the primary reasons why the team that had gone into the final seven games of the season with a record of 5–4 ended up losing the subsequent five games. Significantly, in each of the first three games of this five-game losing streak, the Eagles managed to put up between 13 and 15 points, despite scoring at least 20 in all of their other 13 games.
After losing five in a row, the Eagles managed to win their last two home games of the season, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they were going against their two vaunted division rivals who had both already secured playoff berths, the New York Giants (in Week 16) and the Dallas Cowboys (in Week 17).
While it’s true that the Dallas Cowboys did rest most of their starters in Week 17, with the Eagles seeing the first (and perhaps the last) series from Tony Romo in a Cowboys’ uniform, the Week 15 game against the New York Giants was a hard-fought Thursday Night Football matchup, and the Eagles deserve a lot of credit for putting up 24 points on what was at that point one of the best defenses in the league.
Ultimately, though, despite a promising start to the season, the Eagles fell off the wagon in the second half of the season.
At the point when the team needed to win in order to stay relevant, Philadelphia instead lost 9 out of 11 games, revealing dramatic holes in the young roster.
Philadelphia’s Strengths and Weaknesses
The Philadelphia Eagles started out their 2016/17 campaign in a massive state of transition, picking through the wreckage left from the Chip Kelly era with a new head coach and a new rookie quarterback at the helm, and a whole lot of roster turnover to boot. So from the perspective of the fan base, anything was possible for the team, highs and lows.
As it turned out, the 2016/17 season featured both. And when we looked back at the season that Philly had last year, several features of the team became apparent. The strong play of rookie quarterback Carson Wentz made fans confident in his abilities, but the receiving corps appeared to be at issue for much of the season. The defense, on the other hand, seemed much improved.
However, it’s important that we don’t jump to conclusions about what went on in Philadelphia last year without first consulting the hard numbers. Let’s go through the Eagles’ roster from top to bottom, evaluating the team unit by unit, in order to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Eagles’ squad.
Armed with the knowledge of just what exactly worked and didn’t work last year, we can then look at the roster moves that the Eagles have already made this offseason as well as any additional roster moves that we can expect from the team in the future, in order to maintain their areas of strength and shore up their areas of weakness.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ offense ended the 2016/17 regular season ranked 16th in points scored, with 367 points on the season (22.9 per game). The team’s offensive production in terms of yards lagged slightly behind this, with their 5398 yards on the season (337.4 per game) ranked 22nd in the league.
The team’s production on offense came disproportionately in the running game. Despite throwing the ball the sixth-most in the league, the Eagles were only ranked 24th in passing yards, and 28th in passing touchdowns. This great disparity between the number of passing attempts and the number of passing yards yielded a net yards per passing attempt average of only 5.6, good for 28th in the league.
On the other hand, the team’s efficiency in terms of running the ball tracked well with their number of attempts, as the Eagles ranked 10th in the league in terms of rushing attempts, 11th in terms of rushing yards, and 10th in terms of rushing touchdowns.
Rookie quarterback Carson Wentz wasn’t able to sustain the remarkable efficiency with the football that he demonstrated in the opening three games of the season throughout the duration of the year: Despite setting the NFL record for most consecutive pass attempts thrown by a rookie without an interception, Wentz ended up with 14 interceptions on the year, and an average passer rating of 79.3 on the season.
In evaluating Wentz’s performance on the whole over the course of the season, we feel that Philly fans should undoubtedly be excited: We have little doubt that after putting a full season of snaps on film, Wentz has proven unequivocally that he merited the 2nd-overall pick in the draft, and that he should develop into a quarterback that the franchise can build a team around.
However, that having been sad, it’s still the case that Wentz was a rookie, that he needed and still needs time to develop, and that the franchise does, in fact, need to build a team around him.
And nowhere is this more true than in the receiving corps. With Nelson Agholor going through a sustained period in which his head was not in the right place and Dorial Green-Beckham failing to pan out as the Eagles had hoped, Carson Wentz was left with really only slot options to throw to. And while Jordan Matthews and tight end Zach Ertz both performed well in this role, an offense that is so limited in its play-calling is easy to game-plan against, and defenses shut down the Eagles’ passing game too easily.
One would think that this would allow for significant opportunities to open up in the running game, however this was not the case with Philly. While the holes were there, at 33-years old Darren Sproles can no longer handle a full load of carries, despite his truly astonishing level of production for his age, and Ryan Matthews was simply not adequate as a featured back.
This offensive situation is made all the more perplexing by the fact that the Eagles did have an offensive line that was ranked in the top ten in the league throughout the entire season. While it’s unfortunate that the team’s top run blocker (right tackle Lane Johnson) had to miss 10 games due to a PED suspension, and there were a rash of other injuries that prevented the unit from reaching its full potential, they still held up more than adequately throughout the course of the season.
This is why we say that the team’s offensive situation is perplexing. Usually, offenses are held back by an inability to block and to win the battle in the trenches, leaving talented skill players to labor in vain. However, in this case, the skill players simply failed to capitalize on the quality production from the offensive line.
If the Eagles are going to get better next season, they need some playmakers touching the football.
The Eagles’ defense was ranked 12th in the league in scoring last year, allowing 331 points over the course of the season (20.7 per game). The number of yards that the team allowed tracked well with this overall scoring, as the 5484 yards the Eagles gave up over the course of the year (342.8 per game) ranked out at the 13th-most in the league.
The defense was in the top third of the league in terms of turnovers generated, with their 10 fumbles recovered and 16 interceptions both good for 9th-most in the league, respectively. This combined together to put them at #10 in the league in takeaways, which was one of the reasons why the Eagles’ offense was able to score more points than it gained in yards, proportionally, with the defense giving the ball back to their offense on a short field much of the time.
The Eagles were slightly worse against the pass than against the run last year in terms of overall aggregate numbers. The team was passed on the 15th-most in the league compared to the 10th-most opposing rush attempts, and yet the Eagles gave up comparable yards in both. However, when we look at touchdowns, we see that the Eagles gave up the 15th-most passing TDs to only the 28th-most rush TDs.
One reason why Philly’s defense was so good at keeping opponents from scoring rushing touchdowns was the fact that their front seven was rated the second-best in the league last year. Both defensive end Brandon Graham and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox both finished the year in the top five for pass-rush productivity, and linebacker Jordan Hicks took a major leap in his second year, leading all linebackers with five interceptions.
And the Eagles relied heavily on their front seven, as the secondary unit they put out on the field last year was among the very worst in the league. While safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod played well (and it’s amazing to think where the secondary would have been without picking up McLeod before the season), the cornerbacks for the Eagles were simply atrocious, all year.
Each of Philly’s top three cornerbacks allowed among the highest total receiving yards of any player in the league, despite having received a comparable number of passes thrown their way to other corners. Specifically, Jalen Mills was ranked #3 and Leodis McKelvin was ranked #1 in the entire league in terms of yards allowed per snap in coverage. Ron Brooks would have been at this same exact level had he not received a season-ending injury.
For the Eagles’ defense, it’s really not complicated: the team needs cornerbacks. Full stop.
Next Season: A Preview
After taking a deep dive into the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2016/17 roster and evaluating the performance of every unit of the team, several trends came to light.
On the offensive side of the ball, the team has found their quarterback of the future, and we would expect his career trajectory to follow a similar arc to that of Derek Carr: There’s no reason, at this early stage, why Wentz shouldn’t develop into a top-tier quarterback; he simply needs the time to develop.
More pressing for the Eagles, now, after mortgaging part of last year’s draft in order to reach up and draft Wentz, is to assemble an adequate supporting cast. The Eagles got little help from their running backs last season and even less from their receiving corps, and they would do well to assemble some skill players around their young QB.
Defensively, things are even simpler. The front seven was absolutely rock solid; the safeties played well enough; the cornerbacks were horrendous. Philly needs to acquire some cornerbacks, and quick.
The combination of this utter lack of defensive production in the secondary and the prospect of a sophomore player at quarterback is probably why the odds-makers are incentivizing gamblers with huge payouts to lay money on Philly to win it all next season.
As of the time of this writing, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl odds, listed at the Bovada sportsbook, rest right near the bottom of the pack of fringe contenders. The Patriots are the prohibitive favorite at +400, the rest of the field opens at +1000 with the Cowboys, Packers, and Seahawks, and the last fringe contenders include the Saints and Lions at +6600.
In this context, the Eagles’ Super Bowl odds are currently at +5000, even with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Miami Dolphins, and the Washington Redskins. If the recent history for these three teams indicates anything, then it would seem that the gambling public believes that the 2017/18 Eagles are slated to make it to the first round of the playoffs and then exit them immediately thereafter.
But while this may be the opinion of the odds-makers at Bovada, we’re not so sure that the Eagles deserve this sort of treatment. In fact, we believe it’s possible that the Eagles’ Super Bowl odds could hold good value at this juncture.
Let’s take a look at the roster moves that the team has already made so far this offseason to improve their chances of making it to a Super Bowl next season, and forecast what roster moves we believe the team should make before the season begins.
Subsequently, we’ll use all of the information that we’ve gathered as well as some advanced statistical and scheduling factors in order to make our prediction for just exactly how far Eagles fans can expect to reach in 2017/18.
First, before we dive into the roster moves that the team has made so far this offseason and the upcoming moves that we expect them to make, it’s important to remember the general position the Eagles have been in recently, to provide some context.
What we mean by this specifically is the situation that new head coach Doug Pederson inherited after the departure of Chip Kelly from the organization in Week 16 of the 2015/16 season.
It’s first important to note that despite the fact that the Eagles changed head coaches, the team maintained the same “general manager” throughout the entire process of hiring, working with, and subsequently firing Chip Kelly.
The reason that we put the term “general manager” in quotation marks is because despite the fact that Howie Roseman held that title for both the 2012/13 season, before hiring Chip Kelly as head coach, and also in 2016/17, after he was fired, the actual duties that a general manager performs were done increasingly by Chip Kelly after he was hired in 2013, to the extent that in Kelly’s last season as Eagles head coach, Roseman’s title was changed to “Executive Vice President of Football Operations,” despite the fact that there was no position specifically named “general manager.”
It’s no great mystery – titles aside, Chip Kelly was the one making the [terrible] personnel decisions that a GM would make. The reason we emphasize this point is to demonstrate that the current general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles – Howie Roseman – was there throughout the entire Chip Kelly era, and it’s a little bit strange for him to have been placed back in his old role after having willfully ceded it.
This is particularly true considering the fact that several of Roseman’s first moves after the departure of Chip Kelly were simply to reverse the very moves that Kelly had made the year prior. Before the start of the 2016/17 season, Roseman traded cornerback Byron Maxwell, linebacker Kiko Alonso, running back DeMarco Murray, and several other players, getting the Eagles out from under the weight of these terrible contracts.
While only the members of the Philadelphia front office likely know the extent of the power struggle that had taken place in the 18 months prior to Chip Kelly’s termination, the fact of the matter is that while GM Howie Roseman was able to reverse some of the damage done and simultaneously find, trade up for, and draft the quarterback of the future, he was only able to do so much last year, leaving the Eagles with pretty dramatic holes at cornerback, wide receiver, and running back.
And it was in this position that the Eagles began the offseason following their 7–9 campaign. The team had somehow managed to end up with a full eight draft picks, despite all of their maneuvering in last season’s draft to move up for Wentz, including a first-round pick that was decided by a coin flip.
The Eagles earned this first-round draft pick (despite trading their own) through a separate trade that sent quarterback Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings, who at the time were in desperate need of a quarterback, with star Teddy Bridgewater blowing out his knee so badly it was almost certain he would miss two years.
Beyond draft resources, however, the Eagles had only $6 million in cap space to work with at the beginning of the league year, the second-lowest amount in the entire league. Part of this difficult situation was due to the amount of dead money that was left on the cap from Howie Roseman’s efforts to clean up the mess that Chip Kelly had made, but part of it too was simply the way contracts fell.
As of the time of this writing, despite starting out with so little available cap space the Philadelphia Eagles have made the following roster moves, in addition to the customary practice squad maintenance that all teams undergo soon after the season ends.
First, before free agency began the team released cornerback Leodis McKelvin, in a move that shocked no one, and re-signed safety Jaylen Watkins. On the opening day of free agency, the team cut defensive end Connor Barwin, freeing up some cap space that they then used to go out and sign wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, as well as offensive guard Chance Warmack.
The team also re-signed linebacker Najee Goode on the first day of free agency, and the day after they went back to the well for offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski.
In the ensuing week, the Eagles traded up in the backup quarterback department, signing their former third-round draft pick Nick Foles for a second stint with the team and subsequently allowing Chase Daniel to pursue greener pastures elsewhere.
As of the time of this writing, the only other moves made by the Eagles were signing veteran cornerback Patrick Robinson from the Indianapolis Colts, ostensibly to add some depth and experience to the secondary, and signing defensive end Chris Long from the New England Patriots, ostensibly to fill the void left by the departure of Connor Barwin and maintain the Eagles’ strong pass rush.
In addition to the acquisitions described above, it’s also important to note that the Eagles saw a few departures in the opening few weeks of free agency. As of the time of this writing, Philadelphia has parted ways not only with Barwin, but also with halfback Kenjon Barner, who signed with the Chargers, cornerback Nolan Carroll, who went to the Cowboys, and defensive lineman Bennie Logan, who signed with the Chiefs.
After all of these moves, the Eagles sit in an interesting position. They now have only $3 million remaining in cap space (the third-least in the league), not even enough to draft a full slate of players much less to carry some cap space into the season, and they are among the top third of the league in number of players under contract.
So the Eagles could very well consider themselves all set, and wait for the NFL Draft in late April to try and shore up any additional needs they may have.
GM Howie Roseman certainly acquitted himself well in his first draft post-Chip Kelly last year, as the team not only drafted their quarterback of the future, but also got significant contributions throughout the season from other rookies including cornerback Jalen Mills, offensive linemen Isaac Seumalo and Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who stepped in during the suspension of Lane Johnson, as well as defensive tackle Destiny Vaeao and running back Wendell Smallwood.
With these young players expected to improve in their sophomore season along with Wentz, and with the additions of Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffrey certainly poised to help the team improve on offense, the only real glaring position of need is at cornerback, a situation that was only marginally improved by acquiring Patrick Robinson as he is not an all-star player and the team is also losing Nolan Carrol and Leodis McKelvin.
The horrendous cornerback situation of the 2016/17 season is made all the worse when fans remember that the team traded corner Eric Rowe, their second-round draft pick in 2015, to the New England Patriots, where he earned a spot as their #2/#3 corner and ultimately recorded four tackles and one pass defense in the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory.
The smart money says that the Eagles will use their first-round draft pick to find the next Eric Rowe, and could conceivably even dip back into the well for another corner or two. All in all, though, if Philly learned anything from their division rival the Dallas Cowboys last season, it’s that the best defense can sometimes be a good offense, and the Eagles have certainly improved in that area so far this offseason.
If Philly hopes to make a run at the playoffs next season, though, they’re going to need some cornerbacks.
In the previous section we saw just how much progress the Philadelphia Eagles made over the course of the 2016 offseason to improve their roster and reverse the damage done by Chip Kelly in his disastrous tenure as the team’s head coach/de facto general manager.
In addition, the most important piece of the puzzle that the Eagles solved last year was the drafting of Carson Wentz, who by all rights appears poised to assume the role of franchise quarterback and seems to have the potential to grow into a top-tier player in the league.
If the Eagles are able to improve as much in the current offseason as they did last year and take another step in the right direction, the team’s fortunes could seriously improve next season. By picking up two quality receivers on the first day of free agency, they immediately addressed one of their primary areas of need, making a good case that the team could be poised to do just that.
But it’s not just roster improvement that can change a team’s fortunes year to year. There are also several other pieces of information that we can gather – even before the NFL Draft – that enable us to forecast just how well the Eagles will be able to perform next season.
The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.
Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.
Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.
But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage based purely on points.
The idea behind this is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7–28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.
By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16–12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45–16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7–9.
In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.
In the case of the 2016/17 Eagles, the results that the Pythagorean Expectation formula spit out are quite dramatic: Philadelphia under-performed last season by two whole games.
Specifically, according to the number of points scored and the number of points allowed, the team should have won exactly 9 games, and yet in reality they only won 7 games. And when you look at their schedule, this makes sense: in their 7 wins, the Eagles beat opponents by an average of 14.9 points, but at the same time somehow managed to be on the losing end of five games that were decided by 7 points or less, including two games (against the Lions and Ravens) that were lost by a single point.
This type of statistical abnormality is the kind of thing that is picked up by Pythagorean Expectation.
And when we compare the Eagles’ record according to Pythagorean Expectation to the comparable records for the rest of the league, things become even more dramatic. The Eagles ended up with the 10th-best record in the league last year, making them one of the 12 best teams during the regular season despite the fact that they were not one of the 12 playoff teams.
Specifically, the Eagles graded out higher than the Oakland Raiders, the division rival New York Giants, the Detroit Lions, the Miami Dolphins, and the Houston Texans, all of whom made the playoffs, as well as the Washington Redskins, who missed the playoffs but along with the Giants finished above the Eagles in the division standings.
And it’s crucially important to put this under-performance in the context of the second piece of information that clues us in to how well the Eagles will play next season, and that is the schedule that Philadelphia played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.
According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value, assembled by the stat gurus at Football Outsiders and accounting for every single play of every game individually, the Eagles played the 2ndmost difficult schedule in the entire league in 2016/17, making it even more intriguing that the team “should have” been a 9-win team.
By comparison, the Miami Dolphins finished the season 10–6 – a full three wins higher than the Eagles – and made the playoffs despite the fact that according to Pythagorean Expectation the team should not have even won 8 games, and all the while they were playing the 7th-easiest schedule in the entire league.
However, it does makes sense that the Eagles would have had a difficult schedule last year, given the fact that they play in the most difficult division in the NFC. The NFC East were one game away from sending three teams to the playoffs last year – and that’s not even including the Eagles!
With the NFC East likely to remain tough next season, it would be reasonable to assume that the Eagles will play a difficult schedule next season just like they did last year. But even though the NFL schedule is not set to be released until late April, we can still go beyond mere assumption and actually calculate how difficult the Eagles’ schedule will be next season, even this early in the offseason.
The reason we can do this is that every year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is composed of the following games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division.
For the Eagles, this means the following:
- 3 home games against the Cowboys, the Giants, and the Redskins
- 3 road games against the Cowboys, the Giants, and the Redskins
- 4 games against the NFC West: The 49ers (home), the Cardinals (home), the Seahawks (away), and the Rams (away)
- 4 games against the AFC West: The Raiders (home), the Broncos (home), the Chiefs (away), and the Chargers (away)
- 2 games against other fourth-place finishers in the NFC: the Bears (home), and the Panthers (away)
At first glance, this schedule certainly appears to be very difficult. First off, the AFC West was probably the best division in football last season, being the only other division that could have easily sent three teams to the playoffs if things had worked out a little more evenly.
Furthermore, the Eagles are playing both of the western divisions, which means a lot of west coast trips. And for a team that is situated pretty much as far east as it gets for NFL franchises, travel across four time zones can wreak havoc on the players’ circadian rhythms, and is an important subsidiary factor for gamblers to factor into their bets. When the Eagles go west to Seattle, Kansas City, and Los Angeles (twice), this time shift could make things that much more difficult for them.
But in order to go beyond the eye test and truly determine how difficult this slate of opponents really is, we can consider each team’s performance in 2016/17 in order to get a proxy of how well we think they will do in 2017/18, and how this aggregated performance compares to the opponents of other teams.
When we combine the number of games that the Eagles’ 2017/18 opponents won in 2016/17, we see that the team’s strength of schedule ranks out at the 11th-most difficult in the league. And when we look at point differential, which as we learned above with Pythagorean Expectation is a more accurate measure of success, we find that Philadelphia’s opponents rank out slightly lower, at 13th.
So, in summary, with all of this information gathered we can now combine it all together to give us an accurate prediction for just how well the Eagles will do in 2017/18.
Given the fact that the team performed at the level of a 9-win team despite winning only 7 games, we start them out next season at 9 wins. Further given that the team should have won 9 games against the 2nd-most difficult schedule in the entire league, and next season their schedule ranks out around 12th-most difficult, we’re inclined to tack on another win based on strength of schedule.
Based on the team’s roster, at first we’re inclined to predict improvement, considering the fact that the acquisitions of Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffrey will give the offense the outside receiving presence they so desperately needed last season to complement the slot contributions of Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz. With a very young roster, including a rookie quarterback, it also stands to reason that the Eagles’ young players will simply improve with age.
However, even setting aside the remaining need at running back, as well as the movement in the defensive secondary (or rather the lack of movement) still has us worried that the team will not be able to continue to struggle in stopping opposing offenses from moving the ball through the air. The acquisition of veteran Patrick Robinson from the Colts doesn’t do enough for us to feel comfortable with the back end of the defense.
Ultimately, we expect the team to target the cornerback position in the draft, and if they were able to see improvement from young players and draft a gem with the 14th pick overall, we would feel very optimistic about the Eagles’ chances to reverse the luck they had last year and have a go at a playoff run.
Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 Philadelphia Eagles: 10–6.
Conclusion: The Story of the Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles are one of the oldest and most storied franchises in the league, meaning that the city has high expectations for their team each and every season. These expectations make the team’s three-year flirtation with franchise wrecking ball Chip Kelly all the more embarrassing, a sin that the franchise spent all of the 2016 offseason trying to atone for.
General manager Howie Roseman made a valiant effort to free the franchise from some of the more atrocious contractual decisions that Chip Kelly had made, and somehow also managed to find, move up for, and draft the team’s future franchise quarterback. Not all of the damage was immediately reparable, though, and the team limped through the 2016/17 regular season with serious deficiencies at the cornerback and wide receiver positions, despite a record-breaking first month from Wentz.
One of these two areas of need was immediately addressed at the outset of the 2017 league year, with the team acquiring wide receivers Alshon Jeffry and Torrey Smith in the opening 24 hours of free agency. Even with limited cap space, Roseman managed to improve the Eagles’ roster significantly, and if the cornerback situation is addressed through the draft, the Eagles could be significantly improved.
The team also gets some help from the fact that despite the fact that they ended last season with only a 7–9 record, a closer look at the advanced statistics reveals that Philadelphia actually played more like a 9-win team, despite going against the 2nd-most difficult schedule in the entire league. If the 12 playoff teams were selected based solely on total points scored and total points allowed during the regular season, then the Eagles would have gotten one of these twelve spots over the Texans, Dolphins, Raiders, Lions, and even over the division rival New York Giants, who won a full 11 games last season.
If some of these statistical anomalies reverse themselves, if Howie Roseman continues to improve the roster, if Doug Pederson performs even better in his second year as head coach, if Carson Wentz and the rest of the young players continue to improve, and if the team can find some confounded cornerbacks, the Philadelphia Eagles could very well turn out to be one of the best-kept secrets in the NFL.