The Importance of Free Agency

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When NFL free agency began yesterday at 4 PM and throughout the last several days, twitter timelines flooded with many of the same comments. I’ve heard several times that a team cannot be built through free agency and that free agency should only serve as a compliment to quality drafting. I’ve also seen a plethora of Eagles fans who are extremely weary of free agency since the debacle of 2011 and the “dream team.”

The above tweet, written by @bountybowl (who writes for Igglesblog.com, also a good follow on twitter), included a touch of sarcasm. Unfortunately, though, this is a common feeling for many Eagles fans entering this free agent signing period. It is obvious, however, that a team cannot be built only through the draft, so how should the Eagles approach free agency? And what is the right balance between acquiring players through free agency versus the draft? These are the questions I hope to answer in the following paragraphs.

Balance of Acquisition
The first thing I wanted to tackle was the balance of acquisition. As I mentioned above, I have heard many times that a team cannot be built through free agency. Rather than simply accepting this as fact as I have for years, my skeptical side pushed me to investigate just how true this was. I began looking at the two deep depth chart for every 2012 playoff team to determine what percentage of those players were added to their 2012 team through the draft. This would give me a rough idea of how successful teams have been built and would also identify the beginnings of any correlation that exists between the balance of free agent/draft acquisitions and success in the NFL. Before I show the results, though, I want to explain my thought process:

  • I used the two deep depth charts for each team as I wanted to include as many players as possible that could have an impact on the game from both sides of the ball.
  •  For consistency purposes, I obtained all depth charts through ESPN.com (their accuracy can be debated but I found them most user friendly).
  • For simplicity, I determined that all players drafted or signed as a Undrafted Free Agent by a certain team were, for all intents and purposes, obtained through the draft.
  • All players who were not drafted by their 2012 team were considered free agent acquisitions. (Note: Players drafted by one team that left the team only to return through free agency in later years were counted as free agent signees).

Finally, below are the results of the research I performed:
Draft
Unfortunately, my research showed almost no pure correlation between success and team balance. The teams are listed above in rough order of how they finished in the playoffs and as you can see there is not an optimal percentage of players drafted that correlates to success. While the 49ers and Ravens rosters are made up of over 70% of drafted players, the Patriots, who have been consistently successful have a much lower percentage of players drafted. The Packers, have an extremely high percentage of players drafted and got manhandled in the playoffs by 49ers and the Colts made the playoffs with an extremely low number of players drafted. In case you are wondering, the Eagles came in at roughly 60% overall.

I was originally going to perform the same analysis on all 32 teams to look for a correlation between playoff and non-playoff teams but I didn’t have to because I had already defined the point I was hoping to make. My point was that, despite the immeasurable importance of the draft, free agency is also extremely important as approximately 30%-40% of players on average for each playoff team were acquired through free agency. The only point I am trying make here is that, although a team cannot be built through free agency, it also cannot be built without it.

Approach
Now that we have established the importance of free agency, we must determine the correct approach. By approach, I am not talking about specific player types or positions of need but an overall philosophy. Each team will have a different approach to free agency. In addition, each team’s approach can change drastically from year to year. Some would argue that the approach depends largely on the performance of the previous year’s team, however, I would argue that it has more to do with the current coach and their plan than anything else.

The Eagles must focus on turning over much of their roster during this offseason. While they must build the future core of their team through the draft, free agency provides the opportunity for some patchwork. I don’t need to go into much detail about the current roster, but after the release of Nnamdi Asomugha, much of the pure dead weight has been cut. Anything left, is either a financial bargain or at least has some mild potential to fit into Chip Kelly’s plans. Although the Eagles now have many holes to fill, they cannot simply go out and just buy the best players on the market.
Eagles Kearse Football
Back in the 2004, when the Eagles acquired Jevon Kearse and Terrell Owens, they had an established core group of players who believed in a system and their coach. This core had the capacity to support big ego’s and slowly mold them into the type of player the Eagles needed them to be. In the book, “War Room”, a novel about Bill Belichick and the Patriots dynasty that he developed (a great read for any football fan that can stomach reading about Belichick), the author, Michael Holley, discusses the arrival of Rodney Harrison to the team. He mentioned how Harrison, a perennial pro bowler with San Diego, initially created a rift in the locker room when he was first acquired. He was used to being the star player and being treated as such in San Diego. Well Harrison was quickly put in his place by other veterans like Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Teddy Bruschi and was taught how to behave in the “Patriot way” as it was called.

The problem with the “dream team” of 2011, was that it lacked that core identity that the Patriots and Eagles had in the early 2000’s. It was still in the midst of transition from the Brian Dawkins and Donovan McNabb era to the Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy era. It was loaded with young talent and void of any leadership. The players respected Andy Reid but had nobody in the locker room to look to when things were going wrong.

Flash forward to the present and we are back to asking ourselves what is the right approach to free agency for the Eagles this year? The Eagles must find a way to build around their core talent with quality character players who believe in Chip Kelly and his system. In addition, they must fit the mold of what Kelly wants to do. The Eagles cannot afford any more high priced ego’s or players that put themselves above the rest of the team. Last year, the Colts hit free agency hard and brought in several players who were either previous backups or players looking for a fresh start and all at a good price. Those players came from all over but had one thing in common, they all believed in Chuck Pagano and they were all willing to lay their heart and body on the line to accomplish the team’s goals. That is what you get out of those “mid-level” type players, desire. A desire to prove that they can take that next step or a desire to prove that they are not too old. Even if they turn out to not be the perfect player for the system, they can serve as a bridge to build on in the future. These are the types of players the Eagles need to rebuild with. Some of these players may even be on the roster already, just waiting for their chance to show it.

The one problem with this approach, though, is that the team will most likely be outmatched by and less talented than many other teams, at least initially. Some players may surprise and provide more than originally hoped for while others will disappoint. But what the team may lack in talent, it can almost make up for with hard work, desire and teamwork. After all, that is what Philadelphia really wants isn’t it? I know we want to win, but deep down don’t we really just want a hard working team? A team with a burning desire to win? A team with an identity? We don’t really need talent, we have had plenty of that, we need an identity. And talent does not create an identity. But, as the Colts proved this year, an identity can create talent. Keep this is mind as we progress through free agency. We all have that hunger for something big but, as we know first hand, the flashiest names may not really satisfy our appetite, especially when those flashy names eat lunch by themselves, in their car.

The Curious Case of Donovan McNabb & the Secret to Success in Philadelphia

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This past weekend in Indianapolis, NFL coaches, GM’s and scouts were poking, prodding and drooling over some of the physical specimens attending the combine that are hoping to achieve their long awaited NFL dream. The performances and physical accomplishments of these young men have already and will continue to impact draft boards across the league. As Chip Kelly and the rest of the Eagles personnel team sat in stands of Lucas Oil Stadium trying to determine how the physical traits of these college football stars translate to success in the NFL, hopefully they realized that, the one trait, that is perhaps, most important, cannot be measured in Indianapolis. That is mental toughness. Mental toughness cannot be measured because it is impossible to define. It can only be evaluated over the course of a career. Thanks to Donovan McNabb and his controversial career, Philadelphia now knows that mental toughness is not just an important trait for its athletes, its a requirement.

As various members of the national media love to point out, Philadelphia is one tough town. Unfortunately for Donovan McNabb, he learned that the hard way when his moment of glory was quickly smothered with a smattering of “Boo’s” from the city of brotherly love. It was no secret, though, that this brotherhood had envisioned #34 with dreadlocks making the Dallas Cowboys his personal doormat for the next 10-12 years. The boo’s were clearly less about McNabb and more about the general void left by the absence of Ricky Williams in Philadelphia. In any case, being booed during the biggest moment of your life cannot be pleasant. McNabb handled it well though, at least initially. In fact, he used it as motivation. In McNabb’s first few years wearing midnight green, he was having fun playing the game he loved and it showed. He didn’t deny that he was upset about the situation that day in Radio City Music Hall in 1999, but he was confident in his abilities and he was letting his play on the field do the talking. In his first full season as starter, he led the Eagles to the playoffs and then to the NFC championship the year after that only to lose to the “Greatest Show on Turf”.

In the 2002 season, McNabb once again led the Eagles through the playoffs, to the NFC Championship only to see the game end with Ronde Barber streaking down the left sideline and into the endzone for the last touchdown to ever be scored in Veteran’s stadium.
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Still though, things were looking up for the Eagles and for McNabb’s career. After a painful offseason, he collected himself and, after tactfully handling some racial criticism from Rush Limbaugh, brought the Eagles back to a third consecutive NFC Championship game against the Carolina Panthers where they, again, came up small. At this point, after losing three consecutive NFC championships and performing poorly in the previous two, a little doubt may have crept up into his mind. McNabb officially had a monkey on his back. The following season, though, brought slightly more success as he was finally able to get the Eagles over the hump and into the big game with the help of the infamous Terrell Owens. Of course, the Eagles lost this game but it was what happened during the last minute of the game that initiated the downward spiral of McNabb’s career. With the game on the line in the final minute, not only was McNabb unable to take his team down the field for a tying field goal, he allegedly threw up in the huddle. In his defense, McNabb is likely not the first player to puke during the Super Bowl and, generally speaking, a Quarterback should not be judged by his ability to control certain bodily functions during a game. For McNabb, though, it was much bigger than simply controlling his bodily functions as the incident ignited the exponential growth of the monkey on his back. He was becoming synonymous with the “choke artist” label and puking on the field in a key moment only gave that label a nice, glossy finish. Unfortunately for McNabb, that label would stick and he would never recover from it.

From that point on, it seemed as if there were new obstacles for Donovan to hurdle every season. In 2005, he dealt with the agonizing drama that the Terrell Owens feud brought. It was this feud that unveiled the first chink in McNabb’s armor. Suddenly, the quiet leader who had become so adept at brushing criticism to the side became immersed in it. He laughed it off during press conferences but it was obvious that it bothered him. He ended the season on injured reserve for a sports hernia while the rest of Philadelphia watched the season melt away in the hands of Mike McMahon. (This picture sums it up quite nicely).
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In 2006, McNabb sent the city into a state of panic by tearing his ACL only to be replaced by “Mr. Do No Wrong” himself, Jeff Garcia, who gave Philadelphia the Christmas gift they will never forget. Then, in the following spring, as if Donovan needed any additional pressure, the Eagles drafted Kevin Kolb. After an uneventful 2007 season marred by constant talk of a QB controversy, McNabb led the Eagles back to the NFC championship in 2008 only to miss a wide open Hank Baskett across the middle of the field in the waning minutes of a another loss, this time to the Cardinals. 2009 was yet another year of moderate success tempered by an annoying acoustic guitar performance by Donovan followed by a pathetic playoff loss to the hated Cowboys. By the following Easter, McNabb was traded to the Redskins ending the 11 year love/hate relationship between McNabb and the city of brotherly love (and hate).

The last five seasons McNabb played in Philadelphia were nothing like the first six. The once cool and collected young leader who shrugged off racially charged criticism from Rush Limbaugh became a sponge for denigration. He soaked it all in and bottled it up inside. He suddenly felt the need to defend himself in the public arena, as opposed to the football field where he previously fought his battles. The criticism from the local media and fans had clearly gotten to him. What detached him further from the fans, though, was not what he said, but what he didn’t say. Being the astute communications major that he was, he never made any bold or brash statements but subtle innuendos intended to shift blame/criticism elsewhere or express his unhappiness with the Eagles organization without ever directly communicating it. He made lukewarm comments about Jeff Garcia and Kevin Kolb. He routinely took “full responsibility” for losses as the QB, then made subtle comments about the youth of the team or about how the offense did “their” part in gaining the lead against the Cardinals in the NFC championship. He repeated the same behavior in Washington. He said all the right things during the season, even after being benched and then opened up the flood gates on Mike Shanahan after being released. And, finally, after a final unsuccessful season in Minnesota, he went on ESPN and named himself the most unfairly criticized QB in the history of the NFL. The man was in desperate need of a vacation.

Donovan McNabb is not the only player in NFL history that has had to endure an enormous amount of criticism, but others had methods to channel it. Donovan did not and in the second half of his career, he began to display it on the field. He tried so hard to look like he wasn’t affected by the big moments and the pressure, but he was only fooling himself. Everyone else in Philadelphia knew that he didn’t have it in him. After his 11 year career, the fans were actually convinced that winning games in the clutch
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only happens in the movies or in New England. If the game ever came down to a two minute drive to tie or win the game, it might as well have been over. When the great QB’s like Brady or Manning find themselves in those situations, they go win the game, McNabb would try not to lose. He grasped the ball just a little bit tighter in those situations which only further burdened him as he was now responsible for the death of millions of worms because of all of ground balls he threw.

The rest of the story is history. Its hard not to think what could have been but the marriage between the city of Philadelphia and Donovan McNabb was not built to last. It’s possible that much of the criticism McNabb endured was unfair. After all, he could be the best QB in the history of the franchise. This was the argument made by many pundits in the national media. That was soon put to rest, though, when those in Washington had their “ah ha” moment about McNabb. Given a few years to reflect, though, the Donovan McNabb story has become a sad one, a story about what might have been. Like any failed relationship, though, there is always a lesson learned.

In the end, it wasn’t his arm strength, 40 time, pocket presence or accuracy that kept McNabb and the Eagles from winning the big one. McNabb could’ve won with his skill set in many different NFL cities, but not in Philadelphia. Philadelphia has an additional requirement for its athletes, mental toughness. Philadelphians require it because they are bred in it. With no Super Bowls to boast about, Philadelphians still show up in masses each Sunday to support their team. And at the completion of each season, they watch another team hoisting that coveted Lombardi trophy, making them a little tougher on the inside. They take some time off and come back louder and stronger the next season. Philadelphians embody the meaning of mental toughness and they expect the same out of their athletes.

Now that the combine is complete and all of the measurables have been recorded, hopefully Chip Kelly and the Eagles find the time to focus on the more abstract side of player evaluation. With the Eagles picking as high as the # 4 overall pick, the fans will be placing a lot of faith and hope in whichever player is selected, to bring them their first ever Lombardi trophy. Whether that player views that as an opportunity or a burden, will go a long way in determining their success in Philadelphia. Donovan McNabb has taught us that.

Draft Profile: Ryan Nassib

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Nassib

Ryan Nassib was a relatively low recruited player coming out of Malvern Prep in Malvern, PA in 2008. After backing up Greg Paulus in his freshman year, Nassib took over as starter in his sophomore season and led Syracuse to two Pinstripe Bowl wins over the course of his college career. According to a report from Tony Pauline of DraftInsider.net, the Eagles think highly of Nassib and may consider spending their second round draft choice or possibly even trading up into the back end of the 1st round to select him. Why would they be interested in Nassib? To find out, I watched film from several of his games. Here are my thoughts:

Scouting Report
Nassib is slightly below the prototypical height for an NFL QB at 6’2 but he plays more like 6’4 with his high release point. His release point was one of the first things I noticed when watching him. When he releases the ball, his hand is up above his head. This is important, as all Philadelphia fans are aware, in minimizing passes being batted down at the line of scrimmage. The other thing I noticed, which might also be one of the main reasons Chip Kelly and the Eagles are interested in him, is his quick decision making and release. Nassib gets the ball out quicker than any QB I have seen in this year’s draft. He does a great job diagnosing the defense, making quick decisions and accurately delivering the ball to the receiver. He doesn’t simply dump the ball off to the outlet receiver either, he makes these quick decisions on throws downfield as well. He showed the ability to consistently throw his receivers open downfield showing his trust in their ability to get open and make the play (a required attribute in the NFL). Nassib has an absolute laser for an arm. Although, he occasionally has some trouble putting the right touch on the ball. He sometimes does not get enough air under his intermediate and long routes which could lead to more interceptions in the NFL. Nassib also has experience operating the read option and while he is not a sprinter by any means, he should be quick enough to pick up 5-6 yards outside the defensive end. There is one unknown though, Nassib worked almost exclusively out of the Shotgun at Syracuse so he will have to prove he is capable of playing under center which requires good footwork and timing.

Conclusion
Overall, I think Ryan Nassib will be a starter in the NFL. I think he would be a great fit for Chip Kelly’s offense. His ability to get the ball out so quickly should appeal to Kelly and his experience running the read option is an added benefit. He does have some weaknesses that need to be addressed but I think they can be overcome with good coaching. With Vick re-signing for another year an Dennis Dixon signing as a free agent, Nassib will have at least year to learn under Kelly. He needs to work on getting more touch on his passes and his footwork playing under center. In today’s NFL, though, a QB who can get the ball out quick and accurately can be really difficult for defenses to stop. Nassib already has the foundation for these qualities and with the right coach he should be able to build on that foundation and have success in the NFL. Taking Nassib with the 4th overall pick would be a huge mistake, but getting him with their second pick would be a great coup as he may have some suitors later in the 1st round. The Eagles may be blowing smoke, which is not uncommon for them, but if Nassib really is their guy, trading back up into the 1st round would be great move. There is no price too high for the acquisition of a franchise QB.

Draft Profile: Matt Barkley

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Barkley

Matt Barkley entered his senior season at USC as a Heisman candidate and with his team ranked number one in the country. With these expectations placed on him before ever stepping onto the field for the 2012 season, anything less than perfection is a failure. Many scouts are down on Barkley, and this entire QB class for that matter which tempered my excitement for his tape. I must admit, though, I was intrigued when I watched him. My goal was to watch three of his games and I ended up watching five. Here are my thoughts:

Scouting Report
I spent the entire time I watched Barkley trying to figure out who he reminded me of. I didn’t realize it until the end but his style reminded me of Eli Manning. Barkley is listed at 6’2 which is slightly below the optimal height, but his style looks the part of an NFL QB. He has great footwork in his drops. He has decent arm strength but really maximizes it with his footwork and technique by planting his back foot and stepping through his throws. He will need to work on his timing at the next level as he tends to hold the ball slightly longer than he should coming out of both the three and five step drop. Overall, he has solid pocket presence and has the ability to sense pressure from most angles. He is not afraid to stand in and take a hit to make a throw and does a good job evading pressure and stepping into space. He is a tough competitor with a playmaking mentality which can sometimes be his Achilles heal. While he is not afraid to take a hit, he sometimes tries to force the play leading to mistakes. He has to learn to accept negative plays and live to fight another day. Barkley puts an excellent touch on the ball and has the ability to make any throw. He is accurate deep and down the seam and throws a beautiful fade to the back corner of the end zone. The one thing that bothered me about Barkley was his screen passing game. USC loved to throw the WR screen to star receivers Marquise Lee and Robert Woods, however, defenses began to sniff this out and got their hands on way too many balls thrown by Barkley. Many of those batted down screens will be a pick six in the NFL.

Conclusion
After watching the tape, I believe Barkley could be a 1st round pick. I don’t think he is a great fit for the Eagles and Chip Kelly’s style of play as I think he would be a better fit in a pro style offense. I do think he will end up as a starter in the league. He had a relatively disappointing year in 2012 after climbing the charts in 2011. I think a lot of the disappointment in Barkley, though, was a result of the unfair expectations put on him at the beginning of the season. I realize that dealing with pressure is part of the business but he didn’t have a terrible year either. He had pressure in his face constantly from the interior which put him outside the pocket and off balance quite often. Overall, I really liked what I saw from Barkley and think he has a chance to surprise some people on draft day and throughout his career.

How to be Optimistic about Michael Vick

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It would be hard to find a more polarizing figure in Philadelphia sports history than Michael Vick. He is either loved or despised by the Philadelphia fan base. One could make an argument for Andy Reid but with all of Vick’s off the field issues, I think he takes the cake. The Vick debate in Philadelphia rivals that of gun control, abortion and the death penalty across the United States. To be clear, I am neither for or against Vick staying in Philadelphia but as I listen to local radio station hosts and fans calling into sports radio, I hear a lot of misconceptions. For most of the fans, it is a foregone conclusion that Vick’s career is over and he is not capable of playing at a high level in any system. I hear the same generalizations made over and over about why Vick cannot be the QB here in Philadelphia. He is too small, he is injury prone, he can’t help but turn the ball over and he is a terrible decision maker. I would be wasting your time if I were to sit here and say that all of these things are not true, but I do think that many of these generalizations are over the top. To be completely honest, I am really not sure if Vick can turn his career around in this new system but I think I can make a case for some positivity.

In the following paragraphs, I will discuss some of the key arguments against Vick and introduce a different perspective on Vick’s situation in Philly. My goal here is not to convince the world that Vick will be a star, but to try to quell some of the negativity about him as the QB and build a case for hope. To do this, though, I will need your help. I would ask that you, as the reader, forget for a minute about Michael Vick the man and your personal opinions of him and focus on Michael Vick the football player. Enjoy.

Injuries
The number one argument I hear on a daily basis is that Vick cannot hold up in the NFL because of his style of play and knack for running the ball which leads to injuries. Next is that Vick would never survive in the read option offense because of the hits he would take. Looking merely at his statistics and games played over the course of his career, it would be hard to argue that point. Looking at it more closely, though, I would have to disagree. A few weeks ago, I went back and looked at all of Vick’s prior injuries with the Eagles that kept him out of games for a piece that I wrote about the QB position under Kelly. There were a total of six. Of the six injuries, five of them occurred while he was standing in the pocket like a typical pocket passer. So the notion that Vick’s reckless scrambling led to his injuries is simply not true.
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Also, in the last two years, Vick has gotten much better at getting down before he is hit. In addition, he has the ability to at least brace himself when he can see the hit coming. I actually tend to think it is much more dangerous playing in the pocket with several 300 lb men trying to take someone’s head off on every play. Another factor that tends to be left out is Andy Reid’s lack of offensive balance. Defenses blitzed Vick consistently without fear as there was no element of surprise in Reid’s offense. Even when Vick is standing in the pocket, Kelly’s offense should give Vick some extra time because the defense should be off balance with the threat of either Vick or McCoy running the ball. (More on this below) So, not only do I disagree with the notion that Vick cannot survive in the read option, I actually think he would be better off.

Decision Making
In the last two years, Vick’s decision making has led to plenty of issues. In decision making, I am not just referring to turnovers. Vick was incapable of deciphering a defense and was too slow to make decisions in the pocket. In all fairness, maybe Reid’s offense wasn’t the best offense for Michael Vick. Although, Reid’s offense evolved over the years away from the classic West Coast offense, it was still based in the West Coast system and used many of the West Coast route trees. It is no secret that the West Coast Offense is one of the most complex and difficult offenses to pick up. Below is a quote from Bill Walsh on the West Coast Offense:

“The offense is a quarterback-oriented attack based on a progression-type passing game with mostly, but not exclusively, short and intermediate routes. It is dependent on the quarterback’s ability to read coverages quickly, identify the progression of receivers and throw in rhythm so he hits the receivers in stride, enabling them to gain yards after the catch.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like a Michael Vick type of offense. I think part of his struggles were a result of him thinking too much during each play which, coincidentally, is the exact opposite of what Chip Kelly wants his players to do. Kelly likes to keep things simple for his players so they can just play. Without a doubt, Kelly’s offense will be far more complex in Philadelphia than it was at Oregon but it would be hard to argue that his belief in simplicity would change.

Without even focusing on simplicity though, the read option offense in itself is simple. The QB has one read to make. If the backside defensive end crashes down to play the run, the QB keeps it and takes it upfield. If not, the QB hands the ball off. So Vick would have one defender to read. If you watched the playoffs and the Super Bowl, you could see how teams were defending this. Instead of crashing down, the backside DE always stayed put to not allow the QB to run. Unfortunately for the defense, though, this is exactly what the offense wants. They then just hand the ball to the RB while the backside DE just completely took himself out of the play. The following pictures taken from NFL Game Rewind show what the read option offense did to the Raven’s defense during the Super Bowl:
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In this picture, the Ravens line up with six men in the box (a scenario in which Kelly would almost always run). The 49ers, meanwhile have eight players in the box not including Kaepernick.
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You can see as the play develops that the backside DE (Upshaw) has taken himself completely out of the play to stop Kaepernick from taking off down the right sideline. Now the 49ers outnumber the Ravens eight to five at the point of attack. Kaepernick read Upshaw on this play and because Upshaw stayed home, he simply handed it off to Gore for five yards. This is exactly what the coaches want. If Vick can just make this one read correctly, he can be successful in the read option.
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On the very next play, you can see that the Ravens now put eight men in the box to even out the numbers at the point of attack. How do the 49ers respond?
Wide Open
They chuck it down the field off of a play action fake. They took advantage of the defense playing the run which left Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker wide open down the field. This is an example of how this offense can open things up for the QB. I recognize that this is only one play but this is indicative of the constant cat and mouse game that the read option offense creates. Vick still has the arm to make these throws and with the threat of the run, he should have more room for error as he will get more one on one matchups and find bigger holes in the zone defense. Again, I am not saying Vick will be perfect, only that this offense should help mask some of his deficiencies.

The Chip Kelly Factor
After being cut from the New York Jets in the 2010 training camp, Danny Woodhead was picked up by Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Belichick found a way to exploit his strengths and turn him into a weapon for the Patriots offense. Bill Belichick and Chip Kelly are very similar in this way. As I mentioned in another one of my pieces a few weeks ago about what Chip Kelly can bring to Philadelphia, one of Kelly’s greatest strengths is his ability to find and exploit his player’s strengths. He can also find ways to mask or work around a players weaknesses. He can limit Vick’s decision tree to cut down on turnovers, he can roll him out on misdirections to help him see over the line and he can create mismatches in the defense for him to take advantage of in the passing game. While I cannot pull out any statistics or game film to illustrate this, I am confident that Kelly will put Vick in the best possible position to succeed.

The purpose of this post was not for me to make a case for Michael Vick to play in the 2013 Pro Bowl. I am not even advocating for him to be the starter. My goal was just to bring a positive perspective to what has generally been a negative reaction by the Philadelphia fan base. While Vick may not be the fresh start the fan base was looking for, I think there is at least some reason for optimism. What do you think?

Draft Profile: Geno Smith

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Smith is almost universally considered the #1 QB prospect in this years draft. Almost every mock draft out there has Smith as the first QB taken off of the board. The only question that remains is, when will he actually come off of the board? Several mocks have him landing in Philadelphia with the fourth overall pick. Some fans and analysts think that the fourth pick is way too early to select Smith, others argue that because of the value that a QB can bring to a franchise, it is worth the risk to take a chance on him early. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it so I decided to sit down and watch some tape. Here are my thoughts:

Scouting Report
Smith had a remarkable career at West Virginia that skyrocketed when Dana Holgorson was hired as head coach in 2011 and brought in his version of the classic “Air Raid” offense to Morgantown. This offense had Smith throwing the ball over 500 times a year. Smith is almost strictly a pocket passer. He does have the ability to get outside the pocket and make defenses pay but rarely does it. He does a good job sensing pressure and stepping up into or outside of the pocket all while keeping his eyes downfield but is also not afraid to stand in there and take a hit to deliver the throw (One of my personal favorite qualities in a QB). Smith also does a good job of throwing the ball away or holding on for a sack rather than making an ill advised throw under pressure. Smith has an above average arm and can make any throw on the field. Although, he does have room to increase his ball speed with some improved footwork and mechanics which he can definitely get with NFL coaching. He has a beautiful touch on deep passes downfield and does an excellent job hitting his receivers down the seam and in the slot. He tends to struggle a bit, though, on timing routes as he is a little slow in his decision making and holds onto the ball too long. On several occasions, the defender had the opportunity to get themselves back in time to make a play on the ball after initially being caught out of position because of Smith’s indecisiveness on those timing routes. In addition to being somewhat indecisive, Smith also has a tendency to stare down his primary target and sometimes puts his receivers in a tough spot and relies on them to make a difficult catch. This can also be a quality in the NFL, though, as receivers will not be as open in the NFL and QB’s sometimes have to rely on their receivers to win those one on one battles.

Conclusion
One of my favorite qualities about Geno Smith is his competitiveness. I purposely made it a point to watch some of his tougher games over the last two years because, in my opinion, that is where you learn the most about a prospect. It’s no secret that West Virginia’s defense has been a nightmare over the last several years but especially in 2012. That put Smith in tough situations almost every week. Game after game, Smith fought back to keep his team in it. There were a few games such as the Kansas St. game this year where despite not having his best game, Smith battled until the end. Down 52-7 at one point, he was fighting for every last yard. He also remains composed and stayed within the confines of the offense when things are not going well. Many QB’s tend to get a little too aggressive when they are down which leads to additional mistakes. I would agree that Smith is the best QB in this year’s draft. He has the arm strength, the touch and the pocket presence to become an effective pocket QB in the NFL. And although he didn’t run the ball that often at WVU and he is not, technically, a running QB, I do think he is capable of running the read option whether it be with the Eagles or another team. Overall, though, I think his flaws are damaging enough to keep me away with the fourth overall pick. The Eagles MUST hit on this pick. The opportunity to pick fourth in the draft only comes around every so often and Kelly & Roseman have to ensure that they take advantage of this opportunity. They need this player to represent Philadelphia in multiple Pro Bowls down the line. Anything less would be a disappointment. I do think that Smith has first round talent, possibly in the 10-15 range talent wise. Although that doesn’t mean some QB needy team won’t jump on him earlier. I just think the Eagles have too many other holes to fill to be that team. What do you think?

The Quarterback Position Under Kelly (Part II)

In Part I of this series, I discussed how the Eagles current Quarterbacks fit into Chip Kelly’s new offensive attack. In Part II, I looked into each possible FA prospect or trade target and evaluated each. Below are my thoughts and analysis on what they could bring to Philadelphia. Enjoy.

Free Agency
Free Agency officially starts on March 12 at 4 PM. This means that by 4 PM on March 12th, teams must decide whether or not to exercise any options on current players, submit qualifiers for their own restricted free agents and make sure their top 51 player contracts are under the salary cap (Only 51 contracts count towards the offseason salary cap under the new CBA). I identified total of 32 potential free agent QB’s. The one caveat is that these are only potential free agents. Some of them may be resigned or franchise tagged prior to March 12. For now, though, I am assuming that these players will be available to the Eagles. Note: Many of these players will not be included in my analysis because they are either never making it to free agency (Joe Flacco) or they are just plain bad (J.P. Losman). As a testament to how bad this group is, out of 32 QB’s, I only identified three true free agents that are even worth your time (and even that is a stretch).

Matt Moore:
I have to admit that I was not particularly excited about the prospects of Matt Moore, but after looking over his career and watching the film of the one game he played in this year against the Jets, I walked away slightly intrigued. Moore has never been on a winning team in the NFL which could have a lot to do with his below average career thus far. With the one, legitimate opportunity to be a starter in Miami in 2011 (not counting 2010 in Carolina where he started six games for a terrible 2-14 team), Moore had a respectable year completing over 60% of his passes for 2500 yards, 16 TD’s and only 9 INT’s and led a below average team to six wins in 13 games.
Matt-Moore
Moore has an adequate arm and does a decent job getting the ball out quickly, something that I think will be important to Chip Kelly. He also does a good job of throwing his receivers open, meaning he is not waiting for them to get separation from the defender before he makes his decision to throw. While I am pointing out positives, I would hesitate to go any further. Moore’s ceiling is probably just slightly above average. He tends to struggle with his decision making when under pressure and is absolutely no threat to run, something Kelly might want.

One of the other intriguing things about Moore, though, is that he has experience in the type of up-tempo offense that Kelly likes to run. He practiced all season and started one game in Joe Philbin’s up-tempo offense for the Dolphins this past year. Is Moore a realistic option for the Eagles? I think it really depends on what he wants. At this point in his career, he has not quite been relegated to a backup only role but he will most likely not be handed any job either. If he insists on starting, he will not be here. While I was intrigued by what I saw on tape, Nick Foles would still go into camp as my starter based on his potential. I would, however, let Moore compete for the job. He is a team player who could bring leadership and perspective coming from another up-tempo offense (which may be a rude awakening for some players). If he is okay with what would most likely be a backup job, he could be a good insurance policy for Foles or any Eagles starter.

Tarvaris Jackson
Jackson was a project draft pick coming out of Alabama State in 2006. The Vikings fell in love with him mainly because of his legs and arm strength. He had the highest ball speed and 40 yard dash of any QB at the combine that year. After a few disappointing seasons early in his career, Jackson seemed to be finally finding consistency in his game in 2008 but then ran into a little bit of bad luck, named Brett Favre. Jackson played sparingly over the next two years before becoming the starting QB in Seattle for a year in 2011. The year in Seattle was the best season of his career, although, it was still nothing more than mediocre. Jackson spent the 2012 season as the third string QB for Buffalo and did not see the field once. Through six years in the league, he has more turnovers than touchdowns and couldn’t even get himself activated at any point during the 2012 season.

Jackson does have above average speed for a QB, though, and would certainly allow Kelly to run the read option. Unfortunately though, at this point in his career, he is nothing more than a younger, cheaper version of Michael Vick. I mentioned before in Part I of this series that the read option offense creates an excellent play action game, which is part of the reason both Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick have had so much success in San Francisco. So isn’t it possible that Kelly’s offense could help Jackson in the same way? Well, Jackson spent four years in Minnesota with Adrian Peterson. If he couldn’t find success with play action there, I think that about sums it up. Jackson may not be a bad option as a backup QB in the right system, but if the Dennis Dixon rumors are true, I think he provides just as much if not more than Jackson.

Jason Campbell
Throughout his journeyman career, Campbell has been unspectacular but reliable. Although his starting days appear to be over, he can still provide solid depth at QB for almost any team. Through all of the years watching him in Washington to the film I watched of him in Oakland and more recently in Chicago, one thing has consistently stood out to me about Campbell. He will never completely put you out of your misery with bad plays or turnovers but he will kill you slowly by simply not making enough plays when needed. What stood out to me on film was that Campbell struggles to make quick decisions and trust his judgment. Many of his throws are just a little too late because of a slight hesitation. Maybe this has to do with a lack of trust in his receivers? Going all the way back to Washington, his receivers have probably changed more often than his shoulder pads so I suppose that could be a valid excuse. Campbell also appears to have a bit of a long wind-up and slow delivery. Although he makes up for these traits slightly by being less of a risk taker, he is probably not a good fit for Kelly’s scheme which I think will require that type of quick decision making.

Dennis Dixon
If the rumors are true, Dixon will be reunited with his college coach in Philadelphia sometime very soon as his Ravens recently defeated the 49ers in Super Bowl 47. Dixon was the starting QB at Oregon in 2007 when Kelly was named the new O. Coordinator. Together, they jump started the Oregon offense as Dixon delivered a Heisman worthy season before injuring his knee and missing the remainder of the year.

Bringing Dixon in to compete cannot do any harm as he does have experience in running the read option under Kelly. Asking him to be the starter, however, even for a short period of time is pushing the envelope. Keep in mind that Dixon is currently a practice squad player on the Ravens who has started only three career games for Pittsburgh and only because Big Ben was either injured or suspended. Unless Kelly simply cuts and pastes his Oregon offense in Philadelphia, Dixon could be a major liability. In his three career starts, he threw for 402 yards with one touchdown, two INT’s and a completion percentage over 59%. Although his completion percentage is above average, it should be noted that Pittsburgh developed a game plan to build his confidence. This is done by throwing many short passes which, of course, helps raise the completion percentage. This is not necessarily bad,  but it does not give any real insight into his ability to punish NFL defenses for cheating up to stop the run like Kaepernick and RGIII have been able to do this year.
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Among the positives, Dixon has a very live arm and can make all the necessary throws down the field. After watching one of his starts in Pittsburgh, however, he appeared to have trouble putting the right touch on the ball. He threw some crisp balls on intermediate or deep passes, but looked awkward trying to put the right touch on the ball in the short passing game. He also has the ability to run or at least make the defense account for him as he ran for over 500 yards in his senior year at Oregon. Although, his legs look like #2 pencils that would snap in half if hit by an NFL linebacker so he may not want to do too much of that. Overall, Dixon can bring some value as a backup and possibly contribute in various sub packages but that is probably the extent of what he can bring to the table.

Trade Targets
It’s obvious that the future leader of the Philadelphia Eagles is not in this year’s free agent class. So where should they go from here? Is there anybody on the market that the Eagles could explore trading for? To answer this question, I scoured through the roster of all 32 teams looking for someone who could possibly be more valuable to the Eagles than their current team. I came up with three players who intrigued me enough to look into further. Two of the players are obvious, but the other is someone whose name I have not heard mentioned in relation to the Eagles.

Alex Smith
Smith is the big name this year and seems to be the fan favorite at this point to become the next Eagles QB. All signs point to the 49ers attempting to trade him this offseason since they have obviously found a pretty decent QB in Colin Kaepernick. There is also a decent chance he could end up as a free agent as well, as other teams may be reluctant to trade for him if the 49ers plan to release him. He is owed $8.5 million in 2013, a nice chunk of change, but as the top player in a weak FA market for a QB hungry league, Smith could still end up with a hefty price tag even if he is released.
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Smith has done a lot to help himself in the last two years. After a completely underwhelming start to his career, Jim Harbaugh & company have done wonders for Smith. In the past two years, Smith has thrown for almost 5000 yards, 30 touchdowns with only 10 INT’s. In addition, before being benched this year for Kapernick, Smith had a completion percentage over 70% which was the league’s best this year. These stats have been mentioned time after time by every different analyst, but I have a stat that has not been mentioned. Of Smith’s 153 completions this year, 80% of them were within ten yards of the line of scrimmage which greatly enhanced his completion percentage. Of passes over ten yards, Smith has completed only 53% which is below average, although, still a career high for him. To dig a little deeper, I went back and looked at prior years’ statistics. In doing so, I noticed that Smith’s completion percentage, as well as almost every other statistic, has risen to career highs in the last two years since Harbaugh became head coach. Why? Harbaugh developed a system predicated on running the football and creating mismatches and advantages at the point of attack by outnumbering the defense with blockers. This offensive attack also happens to create a significant advantage in the play action passing game. The success of play action in that offense took the pressure off of Smith and put it on defenses. I think Smith’s success is more a product of the system then him coming into his own.

While his success cannot be debated, his raw talents can be. Smith has average arm strength. He can make the necessary throws down the field but relies heavily on getting the man to man matchups in the defense. On the other hand, with only 10 total INT’s in two years, it is obvious that Smith is very careful with the football, something we are not used to here in Philadelphia. Another positive is that Smith ran the read option spread offense very successfully in Utah under Urban Meyer and has slightly above average speed to at least make defenses account for him in the option game. Smith is a quality QB worth looking into but only buying at the right price. What will he bring to Philadelphia? Overall, I don’t think he is much more than an above average game manager and don’t think he is the long term answer in Philadelphia. And if he isn’t the long term answer, is it worth bringing him in to manage a season or two until we find the real answer at QB? Unfortunately, Smith can be almost perfect but if the defense is as bad as they are right now, the Eagles may be wasting $8.5 million. Also, is it worth holding back Foles’ development for a game managing QB? These are questions the Eagles will have to answer this offseason.

Matt Flynn
Just last year, Flynn was the big free agent acquisition of the Seattle Seahawks. One year later, he is on the trading block after being beaten out for the starting job by a rookie. Flynn made a name for himself in 2011 by putting up huge numbers (6 TD’s) in a Week 17 shootout with the Detroit Lions. I went back and watched the tape because I was curious and wanted to see Matt Flynn in his glory. I came away somewhat disappointed. I didn’t expect to be blown away by his physical tools but even with my low expectations I was still disappointed. Flynn looked pretty decent on short to intermediate passes to the boundary side (short side) of the field. On long throws or throws to the far side of the field, however, his arm was just not good enough. I realized that part of the reason for his success in that game was the game plan put together by the O. Coordinator at the time, Joe Philbin. Philbin made sure that Flynn didn’t have to make too many difficult throws and he generally kept the play to the boundary side of the field with the exception of a few quick WR bubble screens. In addition, Flynn brings nothing to the table athletically, but one of the bigger factors is his contract. Flynn is expected to make $7.25 million this year for Seattle. To sum it up, he is a slow QB with a weak arm who is scheduled to make a lot of money. I think I’ll take my chances with Nick Foles.

Dominique Davis
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Dominique Davis is a little known QB who just spent his rookie season sitting on the bench behind Matt Ryan in Atlanta. While Davis probably isn’t an option to come to Philadelphia and start right away, he does possess some intriguing talents. In two years as the starter at East Carolina University (ECU), Davis threw for over 7000 yards and 62 touchdowns to go along with 14 rushing touchdowns. He did throw a high amount of INT’s but he averaged 44 passing attempts per game. We, in Philadelphia, know first hand how too many passing attempts can negatively affect a QB and an offense. In Kelly’s attack which places an emphasis on running the football, Davis could excel working off of play action. He ran the spread offense in college with some read option concepts mixed in so he already has a familiarity with Kelly’s system.

Physically, he has an above average arm. He is capable of making all the throws, something he proved in an impressive preseason this year with the Falcons. He does not have world class speed but is definitely capable of making a defense pay for guessing wrong in the read option. While preseason performance cannot make a career, it can break it and it says a lot about Davis that the Falcons made room for him on their roster last year after he went undrafted last April. The best part about Davis, though, is his $480K contract. Overall, Davis is a very low risk, high reward player who could be a nice developmental prospect for Chip Kelly. If the Eagles could land him for a fourth or fifth round pick in this year’s draft, he would be well worth it.

Up Next
In Part III of this series, I will delve into possible draft day targets at the QB position. I also hope to explore other key positions throughout the offseason and highlight any options to improve them. I hope you are enjoying my analysis so far. Stay tuned, there is a lot more to come. Remember to follow me on twitter @phllyphootball as I will be posting my thoughts and piecemeal observations on potential Eagles players. I hope you enjoyed Part II of the QB series. What do you think about the players I mentioned above? How do you think they would fit in Philadelphia? Let me know how you feel below in the comments section or on twitter.