2020 has been a long and crazy year so far but September is finally here and that means football is right around the corner! We’re only 12 days away from the Philadelphia Eagles’ Week 1 game against Washington Football Team.
In order to best get ready for the season ahead, allow me to recommend purchasing the Football Outsiders Almanac 2020. There’s a lot of really good info in there and not just on the Eagles but also their division rivals and upcoming opponents. It also includes the KUBIAK Preseason Projections which are industry-leading and a must for fantasy football fans. Football Outsiders has partnered with United Way to donate 10% of the proceeds from every copy of Football Outsiders Almanac to benefit United Way Worldwide’s COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund.
Bleeding Green Nation had the opportunity to interview Scott Spratt, who authored the Eagles’ chapter in the Football Outsiders Almanac.
1 - Based on your Chiefs/Eagles comparison in the preview, to what extent would you say the Eagles are merely some good luck away from being a legitimate Super Bowl favorite? And with luck being out of their control, what can they actively do to improve?
Scott Spratt: Favorite may be a slight stretch because the Chiefs, Saints, and Ravens enjoy pretty noticeable talent advantages over the rest of the league entering the season. We project each member of that trio for between a 10% and 16% chance to win the Super Bowl this year, and we don’t project another team with better than a 5% chance. That said, the Eagles are on my shortlist of teams that could crash the party. With a good quarterback, offensive line continuity, a top-five run defense (-18.5% DVOA), a dramatically improved secondary, and intelligent play-calling, they have all the critical pieces. I think the Eagles could even survive some significant injuries—like the Brandon Brooks one they already suffered—if they can avoid them at quarterback and can avoid clusters of them at individual positions like wide receiver and cornerback.
2 - What’s the reasonable expectation for Carson Wentz this season after he finished 20th in DVOA last year?
Scott Spratt: I’m not bothered by Wentz’s declining trajectory of passing DVOA because I believe it says more about his surrounding talent than his abilities. Wide receiver injuries have forced the Eagles to go more conservative with NFL-leading 43% and 57% rates of two-TE sets the last two seasons. That made a lot of sense with the relative excellence of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert compared to second-string receivers like Jordan Matthews and Greg Ward, but it isn’t the ticket to an explosive passing offense. Wentz averaged more than two more air yards per attempt in his near-MVP 2017 season in an offense with a middling 31% rate of two-TE sets, and he translated that into an extra yard per pass play. If receivers like DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor can rise to the challenge, then expect Wentz to throw downfield and return to the top 10 in passing efficiency.
3 - Jim Schwartz draws ire from fans despite the fact the Eagles finished 15th and 12th in DVOA the past two seasons with the second and fourth most injured defenses in terms of AGL. Is it fair to say he’s underrated? And can you see the Eagles’ 2020 defense taking a step forward with the addition of Darius Slay, which indicates a shift to more man coverage?
Scott Spratt: Schwartz is definitely underrated. The Eagles front office may deserve the most credit for drafting stars like Fletcher Cox and anticipating future needs in mid-round draft picks like Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox. But Schwartz has responded to clustered injuries with creative, non-traditional deployments of edge rushers in the interior of the line and dime packages with six defensive backs. If he can enjoy a rare healthy season of the Eagles’ defense, I expect Schwartz to live up to the team’s top-six defensive DVOA projection.
4 - How much concern should there be about Andre Dillard? You mentioned his 15 snaps per blown block was the second-worst rate among tackles with 300 or more snaps in 2019. How much of those struggles can be attributed to when he was forced to play right tackle? And is there historical precedent for young players to rebound from such poor numbers?
[BLG Note: This question was submitted and answered prior to Dillard’s season-ending injury. Still worth reading through.]
Scott Spratt: I’m much less concerned about Dillard’s poor blown block rate over his 307 rookie pass-blocking snaps than I would be if he’d blown blocks at that rate over 1,000 snaps. Smaller sample sizes create bigger divergences from true-talent levels. That said, most of the premium left tackle picks from recent seasons have quickly delivered on their initial promise. Jack Conklin and Ronnie Stanley blew less than 2.0% of their rookie blocks and have All-Pro honors in their short careers to date. Mike McGlinchey was worse as a rookie (3.2%) than as a sophomore (2.2%), but his “bad” former rate was less than half of Dillard’s 7.8% rookie blown block rate, albeit over a full complement of games. Ereck Flowers may be the best example for Dillard to try to follow. His switch to guard led to a career-best 1.6% blown block rate in 2019 that earned him a big new contract with the Dolphins this offseason. It’s excessively premature to be thinking along those lines for the inexperienced Dillard, but the Eagles also shouldn’t assume that he can seamlessly replace Jason Peters just because he has a first-round pedigree.
5 - The Eagles finished 29th out of 32 in teams your under-25 talent rankings. To what extent should that be alarming? Does it really matter?
Scott Spratt: The under-25 rankings may do a better job of predicting how easily teams can improve themselves than predicting how successful they will be in the next few seasons. Plus contributors on inexpensive rookie contracts are the most valuable assets in football, and several teams with capable young quarterbacks have used their cost savings to load up on other talent and reached the Super Bowl in recent seasons. The 2019 Chiefs are the most obvious example of that, but the 2017 Eagles did the same thing with Wentz in his second year, even if Wentz himself couldn’t reach the finish line. With draft picks like Jalen Hurts, the Eagles seem to be getting creative with their roster construction to deal with the expense of their core veterans. The Patriots have made that formula work for them while finishing near the bottom of the under-25 rankings regularly in recent seasons. The Eagles could do the same. But if they can’t find some blue-chip players at the top of their drafts in the next couple of seasons, it will be difficult for them to reach the highest heights. Wentz will raise their floor, but the Eagles could find themselves on a similar path as the post-Super Bowl Seahawks, routinely good enough to make the playoffs with Russell Wilson but never advancing past the divisional round.