Every year, the great outlet known as Football Outsiders releases a yearly almanac (Football Outsiders Almanac) that is a must-buy for any NFL fan. It's sort of like the Eagles Almanac, which you should also buy, but it's even more detailed because it has great content on all 32 NFL teams and more. Here's how to get your copy.
In promotion of the FO Almanac, Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar was kind enough to answer some questions for Bleeding Green Nation about the Philadelphia Eagles. Take a look.
1. Nick Foles was extremely impressive in 2013, but his numbers didn’t always seem to align with his performances on tape. In what areas does Nick Foles need to improve in order to sustain a high level of success?
I would like to see Foles develop more of an intermediate passing game (passes thrown in the range of 15-25 yards). The Eagles were unique in utilizing a lot of screen passes and deep shots, but not as much experimenting in between. With the changes in the supporting cast, this offense may be better prepared for that dimension. His protection wasn't always great, but he could be more decisive in getting rid of the ball. Foles has only started 17 games (including playoffs), so I expect a lot of natural improvements in his game that come with more playing experience.
2. The Eagles defense is likely to have 10 of the same starters it ended 2013 with, and the same coaching staff. Does that make it more or less likely they will noticeably improve in 2014?
Last year the Eagles ranked 23rd in DVOA on defense. We have them projected to finish 21st this year, so more of the same. Injuries and the schedule can always have a big impact, but in theory if a defense keeps most of the same players with the same scheme and coordinator, not much should change.
We can't really point to a second-half improvement for the Eagles last year, because they were all over the map defensively. Some of their worst games were early, but that was opponent-based too (Chargers and Broncos were excellent offenses). They played great against Dallas and the Giants in the middle of the season. They played backup quarterbacks later in the year instead of guys like Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo. The Minnesota game was a complete disaster, but the Chicago game was a real triumph over a great offense. They didn't look good against the Saints in the playoffs, but few would. It's hard to expect vast improvement when the Eagles didn't add any real difference makers. Marcus Smith isn't ready to be one this season, and we're lukewarm about Malcolm Jenkins.
So we expect another offensive-driven team with an up-and-down defense, but at least Patrick Chung won't be covering Dez Bryant on fourth-down slants this time.
3. If we assume for a second that summing player DYARs are indicative of a particular unit's level of success, can we expect the Eagles 2014 WR/TE unit to have the same success as the 2013 unit that included DeSean Jackson?
For starters, they are going to run the ball a lot, so this isn't a pass-happy system. I think they can manage without him, because upon further review Jackson's season was very dependent on Kelly's scheme (I broke down his catch radius here). About half of his catches were screens and drag routes, which I think can be filled by the likes of Jeremy Maclin, Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff. Where they might miss Jackson's speed most is on the deep ball, but by being a great running team and using the play-action pass, they can manufacture deep shots for the other receivers. Riley Cooper is a guy I'm concerned about regressing, because he had a lot of circus catches last year and his scoring production was largely contained to a few games.
When we were doing fantasy projections for the 2014 Eagles, the conclusion was that they have too many weapons, which is a good thing. There will be no problem in replacing Jackson's production with those rookie receivers, the return of Maclin and the expected development of Zach Ertz at tight end. Oh, not to mention LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles could both easily catch 50 passes. Like I said, too many weapons.
4. The Eagles were fortunate in a number of areas in 2013 (low turnover rate, few major injuries, etc.) that seem likely to regress in 2014. To what extent will the Eagles take a step back, if at all?
The offense was very careful with the ball when Foles was at quarterback compared to Michael Vick and Matt Barkley:
· Foles - six turnovers on 761 snaps (0.8%)
· Vick - eight turnovers on 325 snaps (2.5%)
· Barkley - five turnovers on 76 snaps (6.6%)
Obviously Foles will throw more than two interceptions this year, and that might happen before October. His 0.63 interception percentage was the third lowest in NFL history. Quarterbacks who have an interception rate under 1.25 percent have seen an average increase of 2.03 percentage points in their interceptions the following season. Even if Foles is at 2.6 percent this year, that's still a fine number that won't hamper the offense unless they're all happening in crucial moments.
Turnovers and injuries are both about timing and impact. You want to avoid the big ones. A team can lose their starting right guard and slot receiver for the year, but you can't afford to lose your quarterback. No one wants to see Mark Sanchez or Barkley this year. Maclin was the only huge loss last year when the Eagles led the league in Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) -- that's Football Outsiders' metric for injuries. Teams who lead the league in AGL rank 15.0 on average the next season since 2002, so the Eagles may fall to the middle of the pack.
5. What, if anything, separates the Eagles from being one of the NFL’s elite teams and how can that issue be fixed?
I think it's all about the reliability of the defense. I fully buy into Kelly and believe the offense will be balanced with the run and pass again, but can they stop the better offenses? The NFC is led by Seattle and San Francisco right now, and those teams can slow down the Eagles and score on them. We didn't see the Eagles play either one last year, but fortunately the schedule has them both this year, so we'll get a great litmus test of where the Eagles stand in 2014.
Frankly, I don't think the defensive pieces are there for a deep playoff run, but that's the area where they will focus on improving to get to that top level. Look how long it took the 49ers and Seahawks to build their talented rosters. The quarterback was the final part for them. I think the Eagles have their quarterback and coach, but now they need a great defense.