They say the NFL is a copycat league. It’s more of a recency bias league, but that doesn’t have the same panache. What ended the season doesn’t begin the next one, and appearances can be deceiving, there’s a Rashomon effect. If you look around the league and then locally, you’ll see different interpretations of the same thing. Those two combine to create false impressions on both parts. I’ve seen four general themes this offseason that are at best incomplete, at worst misleading.
1 - The Eagles are a rebuilding team
You see this written all the time. I’ve written it myself, though mostly in a “stick to the plan” way than a descriptive sense. The reality is that the Eagles really aren’t a rebuilding team. A rebuilding team follows several general rules: they’re young, giving draft picks a significant amount of playing time and purging veterans from the roster as soon as possible in regards to the salary cap; they use free agency to find low cost or low risk seat warmers until they can find internal options; they spin off veterans or high draft picks for an increase in assets.
The Eagles follow some of these guidelines, but not enough of them. The 2016 Eagles were one of the oldest teams in the league, and they will be an above average age team in 2017. They’ll likely get younger at RB, DE and C with the release/trades of Ryan Mathews, Connor Barwin and Jason Kelce, (replacing 26 year old Mychal Kendricks won’t move the age needle) but they’ll also get older at WR if/when they sign at least one veteran.
They played and will play some young players a ton, with Carson Wentz a starter and the expectation that Isaac Semualo will be a starter and plenty of playing time opportunities at corner for rookies and Jalen Mills. But a truly rebuilding team doesn’t sign Nigel Bradham and keep Mychal Kendricks on the bench, sign 31 year old Stephen Tulloch as an insurance policy or trade Eric Rowe. They don’t also sign Rodney McLeod, Brandon Brooks, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks to start, or make the former two among the highest paid players at their position, or sign Chase Daniel to be the most expensive backup QB in the league. Trading players and picks to move up to get Carson Wentz is a move that rebuilding teams make, but moving up in the draft this year--don’t rule it out--is not what a rebuilding team does.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to compete as a team while trying to develop a young quarterback. Just don’t call it a rebuild.
2 - 1st round WR will have instant impact
2014 spoiled everyone. The reality is that while many of the best WRs in the league were 1st round picks, they weren’t impact players in their first year. The 2016 draft is a great example of this, four were taken in the 1st round, including three back-to-back-to-back: Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, and LaQuon Treadwell. Doctson missed virtually the entire season due to injury and yet managed to have a better season than Treadwell. Six receivers drafted after the 1st round had more receiving yards than Coleman. Four had more catches than Fuller. None of this means that they suck, though Treadwell being inactive for 14 games is a pretty good sign that he does.
2015 was more of the same: Five 1st round WRs, none of them impactful. DeVante Parker was the best of them with 26 catches. Phillip Dorsett had just 18. Eagles fans know how bad Nelson Aghlolor was. And Kevin White and Breshad Perriman never played in their rookie years due to injury.
Drafting Mike Williams or Corey Davis in the 1st round makes all kinds of sense. To expect them to have a Odell Beckham Jr. or Mike Evans type of season is unrealistic.
3 - Carson Wentz sucked
Context is king. Football is the biggest intersection between statistical analysis and the good old eye test. It doesn’t take advanced stats to know that the Atlanta Falcons offense seemed otherworldly (until the 2nd half of the Super Bowl), a deep dive into the stats can put into context just how ridiculous it was.
But because of all the moving parts in a game, the lack of objective ways to record individual outcomes such as blocking, the inherently small sample size of a 16 game season played by players who play half a game, and the constant roster turnover in the NFL we never will get to the level of wide precision that we have in baseball and basketball. And that’s okay, the incredible depth which we can use stats both to describe and predict outcomes in those sports takes some of the magic out of it.
That doesn’t stop people from thinking or acting like we have definitively figured out ways to quantify football though. Early in the year, Eagles Twitter waged a war against Air Yards (the Battle of
Britain Wentz?), arguing that Carson Wentz wasn’t throwing deep much because A) the Eagles were winning early in the season, which means you don’t have to throw deep as much as a team coming from behind, B) the Eagles WRs were so bad it was artificially suppressing his totals, and C) the statistic included screen passes, which were out of the QB’s control. They were right. And lo and behold, when the season ended, those assertions were backed up: the Eagles were the only team in the league to target their WRs on less than 50% of passes. No team targeted TEs more, and they were 12th in RB targets.
How each team distributed targets by position in 2016: pic.twitter.com/J9bSe1vaMZ— TJ Hernandez (@TJHernandez) February 17, 2017
Of course the air yards weren’t going to be good. If the Eagles go out and get Carson Wentz a legitimate deep threat and he turns into a check down artist, then the air yards will be a valid complaint. After one season for a QB thought by all to need developing and with the worst WRs in the league, to criticize him for not airing the ball out more often is just ignorant.
It wasn’t just air yards. Wentz’s 2016 season was not efficient, there’s no denying that. But what did anyone expect with a rookie QB, his top two targets missing time and then playing through injury, no true starting running back and constant offensive line changes due to injury and suspension? Wentz’s rookie season was basically an average season for Blake Bortles. Comparisons to Alex Smith or Sam Bradford weren’t unfair. For a rookie, that’s fine. For a rookie, especially one who jumped from the FCS, to look like a below average-to-bad QB isn’t a problem. Derek Carr was simply awful in his rookie season, while Matthew Stafford, Carson Palmer and Drew Brees’ first season as a starter were nearly identical to Wentz’s—and Brees regressed the following season. If the Eagles get Carson Wentz competent targets this offseason as we expect them to and he doesn’t progress, then that will be cause for concern.
For now, he’s a rookie with rookie lumps. That’s how it’s supposed to go.
4 - The Eagles are fine in regards to the salary cap
The Eagles have the 4th least amount of cap space heading into the 2017 (per Over the Cap, who factor in the Rookie Allocation). Of course that’s a bit misleading because they will make moves to free up space such as trading or releasing Connor Barwin, Jason Kelce, Mychal Kendricks and Ryan Mathews. They could find ways to free up more with restructures, but that’s just kicking the can down the road. Those four moves alone would improve the Eagles cap space from $9.8 million to $25.1 million, which if no one else does anything would give them the 23rd most cap space in the league. But that’s the thing: every other team in the league has moves they can and will make to free up even more cap space. (The Dolphins and Giants just released players, saving $19.7M and $10M, respectively). The next team with more space is the Ravens, with nearly twice as much with $15.4M. They can get their cap space up to $28.9M by cutting Elvis Dumerville, Dennis Pitta, Ben Watson and Kyle Arrington, which are all real possibilities. The Eagles are already behind the pack.
But just looking at current year salary cap space is simple and misleading. NFL contracts are backloaded. Brandon Brooks’ cap hit in 2016 was just $3.2M, it jumps to $7.2 in 2017. Rodney McLeod’s was $2.6M in 2016, jumping to $5.6M in 2017. Having only about $25M in cap space to find say, four starters (DT, WR, WR, CB are a logical combination) isn’t a problem in the long run, if you’re in good shape.
Which the Eagles aren’t. They currently have, and it’s not even close, the least amount of scheduled cap space in 2018. Currently they have just $5.1M in projected cap space, the next worst team has $30.9M. Again, that number will go up when expensive players leave the roster, the four cuts/trades mentioned above for 2017 only get them to a scheduled $30.1M for 2018, but it’s another season having a weak starting position. There’s going to have to be some creating accounting done by the front office this offseason, and highlights the need to build through the draft.
And that brings us to clearing up what seems to be a misunderstanding every offseason: the June 1st designation. Let’s use Tony Romo as an example. The Cowboys are currently scheduled to be $13M over the cap for 2017. Romo has a $24.7M cap hit for 2017: $14M in salary, $10.7M in signing bonus. If the Cowboys outright cut Romo today, they would take a dead cap hit in 2017 of $19.6M in accelerated signing bonus ($10.7M for 2017, $5.7M in 2018, $3.2M in 2019), but immediately save $5.1M against the cap. Or they can save $14M in 2017 by cutting Romo with a June 1st designation, giving them a dead cap hit of “just” $10.7M in 2017, and pushing the remaining $8.9M in dead money onto the 2018 cap.
But here’s the thing with a June 1st cut: they won’t see the cap savings until June 2nd. When the new league year begins on March 9th, they’d still be $13M over the cap. The only difference between a June 1st designation before June 1st (last year the deadline was actually May 11th) and actually cutting a player after June 1st is that the player is able to sign with a new team before June 1st. That’s it. For salary cap purposes, it’s like the player is cut on June 2nd, no matter what. It’s there to keep the player from being screwed over by a team’s ineptitude.
Any players worth a big contract will be long signed by June 2nd. The June 1st designation doesn’t help teams in free agency.