The Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles’ 2017 campaign was one of over performing while being underrated. It took key performances along all of the positional groups to keep the engine running, or the dark barking, or however you choose to phrase it. You can find examples of above average play those groups wherever you look, whether it’s on the game film, in the box score, or in the analytics.
This time we’ll take a look at the analytics, but we’re going to go beyond the surface, past the neatly wrapped Pro Football Focus grades. We’re going to mine their “signature stats” and look for gold by accessing more nuanced data.
QB – CARSON WENTZ: Has a Pair on ‘Em
Carson Wentz took a giant leap in hip development after a hotly debated rookie campaign. Part of the MVP conversation, Wentz played a massive role in the Eagles clinching the No. 1 seed despite exiting the season in Week 14 with an ACL tear. Before the injury, he had thrown for 33 touchdowns, which remained tops in the league until Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson surpassed him in Week 17.
I've seen this throw by Wentz 100 times and it still wows me every single time. pic.twitter.com/Dp6S847YAr— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) March 11, 2018
You could point to several parts of Wentz’s game that contributed to his stellar year. He converted on 3rd down at a higher rate than any other starter, he had zero turnover-worthy throws in the red zone, his QB Rating in the intermediate area (10-19 yards) was 2nd in the league (131.4), and his intermediate accuracy led the league (61%).
What truly put Wentz over the top were his “big-time throws”. Here’s how Pro Football Focus defines their metric:
“A big-time throw is on the highest end of both difficulty and value… best described as a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window.”
Simply put, if you let your nuts hang and deliver on a difficult throw, it qualifies. Wentz ranked 2nd in the big-time throw category, showing unflinching trust in his weapons while delivering downfield shots. The Eagles coaching staff often refers to “faith throws” when breaking down film, and Wentz was good enough on those and in “covered-uncovered” situations to earn a huge rating from PFF in the letting his nuts hang department.
RB – LEGARRETTE BLOUNT: Chunk Plays
The Eagles ranked 2nd in the league in runs of 15+ yards with 29 total, and while only 10 of those came from LeGarrette Blount, he did more than his part in the committee approach the Eagles utilized. Pro Football Focus defines their “elusive rating” by a “runner’s success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers.” Blount thrived in this area, ranking 3rd in that metric and 1st in yards after contact (3.56 average). Additionally, he served as the Eagles 1st down hammer, averaging a robust 5.06 yards per carry with fresh sticks, good for 4th best in the league among backs with over 50 of those situational carries.
WR – NELSON AGHOLOR: Efficiency, Hands, & Mental Toughness
With two consecutive years of bottom of the team efficiency, Nelson Agholor turned his fortunes around last year and became one of the best slot receivers in the league, which of course we all predicted. Key to Agholor’s breakthrough was his usage in the slot, despite not playing well there in limited reps in 2016. In 2017 Agholor ranked 6th among receivers in yards per route run in the slot (1.82), bolstering his overall YPPR to 1.60, a team high.
The other factor in his newfound success came from finding a new pair of hands. From 2015-2016, he posted a combined drop rate on catchable passes of 15.7. Last year, Agholor cut that number by more than half (7.46), 2nd best among the Eagles wide receivers. While that number still only ranks him in the middle of the pack among more sure-handed receivers, Agholor’s mental toughness to bounce back from drops and not compound mistakes allowed him to flourish when his numbered was called.
TE – ZACH ERTZ: Yards Per Route Run
I already wrote about Zach Ertz’s dynamite performance in the red zone in 2017, so instead I’ll highlight his tremendous efficiency. Ertz ranked 4th in the league for yards per route run (2.00) among tight ends, his best number and finish in his four year career. He followed this by improving in the playoffs, with a 2.37 yards per route run average, best among tight ends with at least 50 snaps in a route (looking at you, Gronk). Joining Ertz in the tight end room is rookie “Philly” Goedert, who posted a 3.17 YPPR last year in college which would have been tops in the FBS.
OL – LANE JOHNSON: Pass Blocking Efficiency
While offensive guard Brandon Brooks has allowed a sack since Week 1 of 2016 and took home the team’s best PBE rating (97.9), the numbers are inherently more forgiving towards the interior. This isn’t taking away from the Pro Bowler, if anything; it’s to highlight just how good the offensive line is as a whole.
Lined up against some of the premier edge rushers in the league, Lane Johnson dominated week after week to amass the 3rd best PBE of all tackles (97.2).One of the highlights of his Pro Bowl season was locking up recent acquisition Michael Bennett in Week 13, stonewalling Bennett on his way to his worst pass rush grade from PFF in his career. He allowed zero pressures in Week 3 (NYG), Week 5 (ARZ), Week 6 (CAR), Week 9 (DEN), Week 12 (CHI), Week 17 (DAL), and in the Super Bowl, which the Eagles won.
On the negative side of the offensive line’s performance was Halapoulivaati Vaitai, ranking 47th out of 55 for PBE in the regular season and 11th out of 12 in the postseason. But he won a Super Bowl so all bad play is really good play because results and it doesn’t matter that Nick Foles had the 2nd quickest snap-to-throw time in the playoffs AND DO YOU EVEN WATCH FOOTBALL BRO?! Sorry, sorry.
DL – LITERALLY EVERYBODY: Pinned Ears
Both Brandon Graham and Chris Long finished in the top 10 for pass rush productivity (PRP) among 4-3 defensive ends. The addition of Derek Barnett paid dividends as he finished 2nd in PRP behind 1st overall pick Myles Garrett among rookie 4-3 ends that played 50% of passing play snaps. Combined, the Eagles edge rushers tallied 23.5 sacks and 199 pressures. This dominance continued into the playoffs, where Vinny Curry and Long finished 1st and 2nd respectively for defensive ends.
Fletcher Cox came in as the 2nd most productive pass rusher from the interior (behind Geno Atkins) with 5.5 sacks and 51 pressures on the season. He also ranked 2nd in interior PRP during the playoffs by consistently pushing pockets into the quarterbacks’ lap. Combined, the Eagles defensive tackles added another 9.5 sacks and 108 pressures.
To wrap up the discussion about the defensive line, all told, the Eagles forced a pressure on 41% of snaps, best in the league.
LB – NIGEL BRADHAM: Modern Day Linebacker
The recently re-signed Nigel Bradham was aces in coverage in 2017, coming in 2nd for all linebackers for yards per coverage snap (.62). On the season, Bradham played 529 snaps in coverage and only allowed 327 yards while allowing a reception on a 2nd best once in every 13.6 snaps. With so many teams focusing more on slot production and attacking the middle of the field, the Eagles were lucky to ink Bradham to a long-term deal when many thought (including myself) that his play would price him out of Philadelphia.
Honorable mention goes to embattled linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who ranked 1st in the league among 4-3 outside linebackers in pass rush productivity and 6th in Run Stop %. Obligatory mention of trade rumors.
DB – MALCOLM JENKINS: Swiss Army Knife
Asked to wear many hats on a defense that struggled with injury-related linebacker depth issues, Malcolm Jenkins not only contributed as a safety and linebacker, but also was statistically the teams’ best nickel corner. In his 221 snaps from a nickel alignment, Jenkins ranked 7th in the league for least yards allowed per coverage snap (.82). In those snaps, he was targeted 33 times, allowed 24 receptions for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns while hauling in 2 interceptions. He also ranked 1st among nickel corners at eliminated yards after the catch, only allowing 86 yards once a reception was conceded.
Unfortunately this article focused on gems has to end on a dud, with Rodney McLeod finishing dead last (72nd) among all safeties in combined tackle efficiency. We don’t talk about that enough.
Overall, the difficulty I came across while trying to isolate one player per position group to highlight as an “analytics gem” for this article goes to show how productive and effective the reigning Super Bowl Champions were at all positions. That high level of play is represented everywhere you look, if you’re willing to look and not a Dallas Cowboys fan. The Eagles will need similar across the board performances to repeat as champions in 2018, a feat only accomplished eight times in NFL history.
In closing, who really needs analytics anyway? Definitely not Dave Gettleman.