Eagles Preview: High-Flying, or Crash Landing?
One of the hottest questions in football right now: Can Chip Kelly reignite a proud Eagles franchise, or is he just the next Steve Spurrier?
Many elite college coaches have gone to the NFL only to lose their magic. The advantages they once had in recruiting and fundraising disappear in a league that has a draft and salary cap. The power they once wielded around campus is suddenly checked by a billionaire owner. The 18- to 21-year-olds they reigned over in practice are replaced by full-grown men with full-grown bank accounts.
Kelly has drawn headlines for his unconventionally short but highly intense practices, and for his fairly firm-fisted approach with the players. How all this is ultimately received will hinge on how well Kelly’s system works at this level.
Most of the system’s plays are not extraordinarily novel. A lot of its various spread and finesse concepts have already taken hold in the NFL, as have the read-option, receiver screens, horizontal motion and moving pockets. Really, what makes Kelly’s system unique is that it operates from a variety of different formations and runs like a hurry-up in fast-forward. In college, where players’ prep time is limited and shared with classroom obligations, a high volume of formations and breakneck tempo can easily overwhelm the opponent. That’s not the case in pro football.
There are also several nuanced differences between college and pro rules that impact Kelly’s scheme. The most significant is the NFL’s tighter hashmarks. At Oregon, Kelly built ingenious route combinations and run game angles around the extra wide side of the field. Many of those designs will now have to be altered or eradicated.
Kelly can still theoretically win with his approach. The Patriots have had extraordinary success with a similar system over the past two years. But the Patriots have had the perfect players to run it. Perhaps the more pertinent question is not whether Kelly’s system can work, but whether Kelly has the players to make it work.
When we ask if Kelly has the right players to run his system, what we’re really asking is: Can Michael Vick run Kelly’s system? The Eagles spent all offseason talking about a quarterback competition, but with this scheme’s heavy dose of read-option concepts (including on pass plays) and rolled pockets, the immobile Nick Foles simply can't work.
Vick is the starter heading into the season and has all the necessary physical attributes for this scheme, but does he have the vital intangibles? Though he’s a much more dedicated student now than he was as a Falcon, Vick’s game is still predominantly sandlot. He struggles at diagnosing defenses.
This sounds like a problem. But here’s the thing about Kelly’s scheme (and all up-tempo schemes): it may seem complex because the formations are vast and there’s no huddling, but in reality, it’s much simpler than a traditional scheme. The quicker the tempo, the more basic the plays. The complicated aspects of offense—protection adjustments, option routes either/or play-calls based on presnap reads—get forced out the window. There just isn’t enough time for it all. If you’re in Go! Go! Go! mode, everything must inherently be simplified.
This includes the defense. No matter how well-coached a defense is, it will almost always default to static base looks against the hurry-up. There isn’t enough time for defenders to communicate coverage disguises or blitzes, let alone get themselves in position to execute those things. That’s why so many of Kelly’s play designs work: they’re being executed against a predictable foe.
This largely nullifies Vick’s presnap shortcomings. The question then becomes: Can Vick meet the scheme’s high demands for post-snap discipline? Even with simplified designs, Vick will have to make a lot of quick, timing-based throws. (Kelly says he wants the ball out in 1.5 seconds; for what it’s worth, last year Vick, on average, held the ball 3.07 seconds per dropback, according to Pro Football Focus.)
When it’s not a quick release, Vick will have to make multiple reads on the move.
This is unchartered territory. Vick’s movement has often been improvised and with a natural run-pass option. Now, it’s movement with a pass-pass-pass option, with many of these options being anticipation passes (another weakness of the lively-armed veteran). Even if the system plays into Vick’s instinct to leave the pocket, he’ll face tough demands for keeping his eyes downfield and using sound mechanics. This says nothing of the increased possible hits he’ll have to avoid. Many coaches have tried to get Vick to do all of these things. But at 33, he’s yet to master, or even firmly grasp, any of them.
At least Vick will have the right players around him. LeSean McCoy is the perfect running back for this system. He has tremendous lateral agility and stop/start control. He’s fast enough to blaze the corner and quick enough to cut it back. He’s also an adept pass-catcher. Under Andy Reid, McCoy usually wound up getting 20 or so touches a game, but they often came sporadically. Kelly must feed the fifth-year star more consistently.
Backing up McCoy is second-year pro Bryce Brown, who showed good edge speed in his four starts late last year. Also in the mix is veteran Felix Jones, whose raw downhill explosiveness in space could fit this system well. He is injury prone, though, which is why undrafted second-year man Chris Polk could ultimately get reps.
In Kelly’s system, McCoy’s running lanes will be created more through angles and the front line’s collective lateral movement, as opposed to road-grading blocks. This puts a premium on athleticism up front. To answer this call, 38-year-old general manager Howie Roseman drafted Lane Johnson fourth overall. The 6-6, 303-pounder played quarterback as a freshman at Kilgore (Junior) College, then tight end and defensive end in his first year of action at Oklahoma. Though raw, Johnson will likely start immediately as the most athletic right tackle in the NFL.
Lining up opposite Johnson might be the NFL’s most athletic left tackle, depending on how Jason Peters bounces back from last season’s Achilles injury. In between the bookends are center Jason Kelce and guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans.
Kelce had great mobility before 2012 season-ending knee surgery. He’s reportedly back to 100 percent. Mathis, who had ankle surgery in 2012, is solid but not spectacular. Fortunately, his lack of phone booth strength will not be as troublesome in this scheme. Herremans has decent movement skills for a 6-6, 321-pounder.
Thanks to a rash of injuries up front last year, the Eagles now have fairly experienced depth along the offensive line. While 2011 first-round pick Danny Watkins is the highest profile backup, the most intriguing backup is actually 2012 fifth-rounder Dennis Kelly, thanks to his light feet. Kelly’s technique, however, still needs work, particularly in pass protection.
Critical to the run-blocking designs are the movement-oriented tight ends and H-backs, of which this offense typically features two. To fill these spots, Roseman signed free agent James Casey and spent a second-round pick on Zach Ertz. Casey’s responsibilities as a Texan were similar to what they’ll be here. Ertz also had similar responsibilities in Stanford’s scheme. With two potentially excellent fits for the system, don’t be surprised if Brent Celek gets wedged out of his featured tight end role. The seventh-year pro has grown into an effective intermediate pass-catcher, but his straight-line style is not ideal for this horizontal-centric scheme. But maybe Celek can expand his game.
That’s what wide receiver DeSean Jackson will have to do. It will be tougher with his running mate, Jeremy Maclin, out for the year (ACL). Jackson has scintillating quickness and downfield speed, but he struggles to separate from physical man coverage early in the route. That must change. So must his middling blocking; as a receiver blocking is integral in many of the system's outside run designs. Kelly can help Jackson by putting him in motion, which gives the receiver a clean release off the line. But the vertical speedster will have to muster a newfound willingness to go over the middle, especially for catch-and-run purposes.
With Arrelious Benn also going down (ACL), Philly’s only other truly experienced wideout is respected eighth-year man Jason Avant. The thickly built 210-pounder operates best inside, which is why he may be kept in his usual fulltime slot role, leaving the suddenly infamous Riley Cooper primed to take over as the No. 2 on the outside. All the debate about the team’s decision to keep the athletic Cooper around has created the false notion that the fourth-year pro is something of a rising star. In reality, Cooper has averaged just 226 receiving yards per year in his career. He has the innate physical gifts to be a viable contributor, but there’s a reason he wasn’t considered for more than a No. 5 spot prior to all the injuries. Rounding out the receiving corps will likely be either diminutive Damaris Johnson or undrafted rookie Russell Sheppard.
Drowned out in the Chip Kelly buzz is Philadelphia’s substantial schematic change on defense. The 4-3 (and its highly scrutinized wide-9) is out; the 3-4 is in. Kelly hired former 49ers and Cardinals defensive coordinator Billy Davis to implement the change. The process is ongoing. Most likely, this D will wind up being a 3-4 on paper and a de facto 4-3 on grass, much like the Texans. The signing of ex-49er Isaac Sopoaga gives the Eagles a true two-gap nose tackle, but the rest of the personnel is still built for the one-gap concepts that define most 4-3s.
Sure, defensive ends Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton might have the physical strength to man two gaps. Cox plays with excellent leverage and Thornton has been described as "country strong." But both also have the tremendous get-off and explosive movement in traffic to be truly destructive attackers. Asking them to simply "hold ground" would be wasteful. Ideally, Thornton will learn the strongside end position that J.J. Watt plays, while the quicker Cox will master the underneath three-technique that Antonio Smith plays.
Committing to this as the base approach would benefit not just Philly’s starters but also the second-stringers, as each position has a clear-cut backup who fits the role: 6-8, 325-pound Clifton Geathers at strongside end, quick-jabbing 2012 second-round pick Vinny Curry as weakside three-technique and third-round ex-LSU nose tackle Bennie Logan as—that’s right—the nose tackle.
Philly’s brand of outside linebackers also suggest a Texans’ style 3-4 scheme is on the horizon. Obviously, the signing of Connor Barwin is an easy tip-off. The fifth-year veteran played on the weak side in Houston, but here, given his relative comfort with dropping into the flats, he might make more sense on the strong side, where demands for coverage are slightly more common. That would help prevent converted defensive ends Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, both high-octane run-and-chase pass rushers who thrive on leverage, from having to drop into coverage so often.
People think that because a converted defensive end goes from playing in a three-point stance to a two-point stance, he’s making a significant adjustment. But generally, his assignments at outside linebacker are the same as they were at defensive end, especially in one-gap concepts. The biggest adjustments are made by inside linebackers. No matter the gap concepts, they’re bound to encounter more offensive linemen in combat due to the nature of a 3-4 interior alignment. It’s critical that they learn to shed blocks.
This could be difficult for DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks. The reason Philadelphia was able to acquire Ryans in the first place was because he didn’t flourish in Houston’s 3-4. The heart and awareness is there, but style-wise, Ryans, who plays smaller than his 6-1, 250-pound size, is much more comfortable avoiding blocks than shedding them. Same goes for the finesse-oriented Kendricks, who’s only 6-0, 240. The second-year pro’s fluidity in space can do wonders for Philadelphia’s nickel and dime packages—Kendricks was great covering running backs and tight ends early on as a rookie before he hit a midseason slump—but run defense is a concern. The depth at inside linebacker won’t be of much help. Casey Matthews is just as finesse as the starters; Jamar Chaney lacks great awareness; Jason Phillips went down in training camp with a leg injury.
Ryans and Kendricks will both have to develop a feel for blitzing because the Eagles don’t have a good enough secondary to consistently win with just straight coverage. Cornerback Cary Williams prefers (needs?) a soft cushion, even in man concepts. Opposite him, Bradley Fletcher was often picked on as St. Louis’ outside nickelback. He’s not a better cover artist than second-year pro Brandon Boykin, but Boykin is tailored exclusively for the slot, which makes him the No. 3. The only other options at corner are Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes, who both played fewer than 65 total snaps last season.
The situation at safety is just as bad. Hard-hitting Patrick Chung has never been a mentally sharp pass defender. His running mate, Kenny Phillips, has scintillating talent but chronic knee problems. If one of these downhill thumpers are unavailable, the Eagles will have to call on either former second-round stiff Nate Allen, the perpetually out of control Kurt Coleman or the athletically limited (but at least more reliable) Colt Anderson. In fact, taking the whole group into consideration, Philadelphia may wind up seriously considering fifth-round rookie Earl Wolff in a starting spot.
Kicker Alex Henery has made over 87 percent of his field goal tries each season since entering the league as a fourth-round pick. However, the fact that the previous regime asked him to attempt only three 50-plus-yarders suggests there may be doubts about his power. Former Dolphin Donnie Jones was brought in to finally stabilize the punter situation.
In the return game, DeSean Jackson is a nightmare to punt to, though primary duties may go to Damaris Johnson (who, thanks to a 98-yard touchdown, actually had better numbers than Jackson last season). If Johnson doesn't handle kick returns, Brandon Boykin could get the nod.
Most likely, this team’s quarterback for the next five years is currently playing college ball. Even though Vick’s physical skills fit Kelly’s system, the undisciplined elements of his game will make for a rocky transition. Things will be even rockier on the other side of the ball given the paucity of quality pass defenders.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.