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Analyzing an ESPN Analysts’ Fantasy Projections

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Too high, too low, or spot on?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Looking forward to the 2018 season, the Philadelphia Eagles have so little turnover that predicting their player deployment and success might seem like an easy task. That’s far from the truth, as the realities on the battlefield can swing wildly from week to week. Mike Clay of ESPN, known for the quality of his fantasy football work, took a stab at it anyway, giving a full picture of how he thinks the Eagles will fare on an individual and team level in 2018.

(image via Mike Clay)

Poking around the numbers, I found a lot that I agreed with and some things with which I took issue. Seeing as this is coming from a fantasy football perspective, I mostly kept things on the offensive side of the ball. Credit to Clay for putting this together, as he does for all 32 NFL teams, but the following is where I thought Clay missed the mark by being too high or too low.

TOO HIGH

QB CARSON WENTZ – SACKS

Clay’s projection that the Eagles will allow 36 sacks in the upcoming season would place them at 2.25 sacks allowed per game, which would likely place them in the middle of the pack. This is also the exact total the offensive line gave up last year. On the surface, it’s a decent bet, but when you dig deeper into the evolution of the offense, there are factors that point to this number being overstated.

Carson Wentz was sacked 28 times in 2017. 25 of those 28 came on plays where he held onto the ball for 2.6 seconds or more, which happened on 47% of his drop backs. His average time from snap-to-throw was 2.75 seconds (19th of 29). Nick Foles was sacked 5 times. 3 of those 5 came on plays where he held onto the ball for 2.6 seconds or more, which happened on 48.6% of his drop backs. His average time from snap-to-throw was 2.66 seconds (would have been 12th of 30). The Week 17 Nate Sudfeld 3 sack day surrounded by back-ups also contributed to the numbers getting muddied.

In the playoffs, Foles was sacked 2 times. Both of those sacks came on plays where he held onto the ball for 2.6 seconds or more, which happened on a reduced 43.5% of his drop backs. His average time from snap-to-throw was a significantly reduced 2.53, which was 2nd quickest in the playoffs.

Simply put, the Eagles altered the offense to get rid of the ball faster and their sack rate plummeted from 2.7% to 0.8%. This was crucial to setting up Foles for success, who doesn’t possess the ability to evade pressure like Wentz despite doing an admirable job when it called for it. Coming off ACL surgery, I would expect the coaching staff to design a higher frequency of quicker reads for Wentz, thus limiting his exposure to sacks.

Clay Wentz Projection: 357/577 (61.8%), 4,140 yards (7.18 YPA), 30 TD, 12 INT, 36 Sacks

Kist Wentz Projection: 339/544 (62.3%), 4,025 (7.4 YPA), 35 TD, 10 INT, 28 Sacks

RB JAY AJAYI – RUSHING ATTEMPTS

Unless this is a “ride ‘em ‘til the wheels fall off and take ‘em out back like Ol’ Yeller” scenario to the fullest, I’m not sold on the idea of Jay Ajayi’s extra heavy usage in 2018. While the Miami Dolphins used Ajayi for an average of 46 snaps per game in the first 7 games of the season, the Eagles significantly reduced that usage to 27 snaps per game. Yes, LeGarrette Blount has moved on, but I would expect Corey Clement to take on an expanded role considering his efficiency during his rookie year. Darren Sproles returning to form would further skew these numbers away from Ajayi.

Clay has Ajayi taking 62% of the rushing attempts next year; more than double his 2017 share, with Clement only representing 17%. Clement’s projected market share is identical to last year, but you could use the previous Blount argument to point towards an uptick in his attempts. The fact that Ajayi is on the last year of his contract and could walk has less of an impact than the philosophy of keeping him fresh for do-or-die situations. It’s not until the playoffs that Ajayi experienced a spike in carries relative to the rest of the backs, and I would expect a similar formula this year.

Clay Ajayi Projection: 237 carries, 1,013 yards, 6 touchdowns.

Kist Ajayi Projection: 170 carries, 731 yards, 4 touchdowns.

TOO LOW

WR ALSHON JEFFERY – CATCH RATE

This comes down to a slight adjustment over the simple matter of catch rate percentage. With Clay’s projection of 125 targets, 66 receptions, 971 yards and 8 touchdowns, it saddles Alshon Jeffery with a low 52.8% catch rate. Beyond his shortened rookie campaign, where Jeffery missed some games after breaking his hand while catching a touchdown, Jeffery put together 4 consecutive +55% catch rate seasons.

Considering he gutted out a full season with a torn rotator cuff and there were issues with his consistency lacking in contested catch situations, likely due to the rotator cuff, I’m betting on a positive regression to the mean from Jeffery. Despite having a career low 47.5% catch rate in the 2017 regular season, Jeffery regained his “my ball” mentality in the playoffs (66.7%). Excluding the rookie season where he endured a broken hand and last year’s torn labrum, this puts his career catch rate at 58.2%.

Clay Jeffery Projection: 125 targets, 66 receptions, 971 yards, 8 touchdowns.

Kist Jeffery Projection: 125 targets, 73 receptions, 1,080, 9 touchdowns.

TE “PHILLY” GOEDERT – OPPORTUNITIES

I’ve compared “Philly” Goedert’s situation to that of Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end OJ Howard before. I’m not predicting Goedert to see action on over 50% of the snaps like Howard, but the Bucs have similar personnel deployment in regard to multiple tight end sets. While the Bucs utilized their tight ends in the slot 4% more than the Eagles, from 12/13 personnel, the Eagles threw the ball 49% of the time, with the Bucs averaging 40%. Whether those trends hold up is a different story.

Howard was the top fantasy back-up tight end last year, hauling in 26 receptions on 39 targets for 432 yards (16.6avg) and 6 touchdowns. One note is Howard’s abnormally high 16.6 yards per reception, tops in the leagues for tight ends with double digit receptions. Either way, let’s say OJ Howard is the ceiling. Clay has Goedert coming in well under that with 28 targets, 18 receptions, 198 yards and 2 touchdowns.

The natural ceiling for a TE2, as Clay has pointed out, looks to be a target share of 10%, which no back-up tight end achieved last year. With 566 total targets projected for the Eagles after producing 555 total targets last year, that still gives Goedert a healthy ceiling of 56 potential receptions.

It’s my belief that the Goedert will out-touch Howard’s rookie year, even if he doesn’t have the same splash play impact, due to his skill set being deployed in a different manner. The Eagles will have seen the way the Jackrabbits utilized Goedert’s YAC ability and try to manufacture touches behind and around the line of scrimmage. In 2017, he averaged a sky-high 8.2 yards after the catch and led all draft eligible tight ends with 573 yards once the ball was in his hands.

It makes sense for the Eagles to double down on their strengths by incorporating a variety of screens with Goedert from the slot, harnessing the athleticism of their offensive line and the after the catch abilities of their rookie tight end, something I may write more on later as the summer unbearably drags on.

Clay Goedert Projection: 28 targets, 18 receptions, 198 yards, 2 touchdowns.

Kist Goedert Projection: 42 targets, 30 receptions, 350 yards, 5 touchdowns.

TOO LOW

DE JOSH SWEAT/LB COREY NELSON: SNAPS

With Brandon Graham’s early season availability in serious doubt pending his recovery from ankle surgery, this one is a no-brainer. Josh Sweat dropped due to medical concerns not unlike eventual Cincinnati Bengals edge defender Carl Lawson did in last years’ draft. While Lawson ended up being uber-productive in his role, the depth chart of the Eagles presents a much bigger challenge. Still, to assume that Sweat will see significantly less snaps than Steven Means did last year (53) is too rich for my taste.

Clay Sweat Projection: 10 snaps, 0 sacks.

Kist Sweat Projection: 150 Snaps, 2 sacks.

This is what we know; Corey Nelson turned down more money from the Denver Broncos to come play for the Eagles. That came about because the Eagles offered Nelson more playing time than he received in Denver. He played 44 snaps last year and 297 snaps in 2016 due to injuries at linebacker. I would expect his usage to mirror the latter moreso than the former.

Clay Nelson Projection: 31 snaps.

Kist Nelson Projection: 230 snaps.

Some other interesting takeaways from this outlook include Clement winning the kick returner job, Markus Wheaton beating out Shelton Gibson for the fifth wide receiver spot, what looks like Sidney Jones taking slot reps with Jalen Mills on the outside, Tre Sullivan fending off Jeremy Reaves for the time being, and five running backs not named Donnel Pumphrey getting burn throughout the season.

Overall, Clay’s prediction of 10.4 wins and the second best record in the NFL falls in line with what two others analysts predicted. He has the defending Super Bowl Champions as the underdogs in two games, both on the road, against the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams. Make sure to let him know how you feel about that blatant slap in the face. On the other hand, he DID predict the New York Giants to be picking top 5 in the 2019 NFL Draft, so take that into consideration.