6 September 2019 Opinion
The 2017 season was a story Philadelphia will never forget. The future prototype QB of the NFL was marching towards an MVP season before succumbing to a season-ending injury. The team rallied around the backup QB and brought the city its first-ever Super Bowl.
The follow-up season never seemed right. Whether it was a super bowl hangover or a couple of key injuries. The Eagles season was uneven. Wentz went 5-6 as a starter battling through a back injury before shutting himself down. Tight end Zach Ertz posted a historic season with 116 receptions. Overall, the offense didn’t seem as diverse or as effective. Howie Roseman was tasked to figure out how to recreate the offense that dropped 41 against a Bill Belichick defense on the biggest stage. The national media focused on the quarterback. Roseman focused on his quarterback. He paved the way for Carson Wentz by letting Nick Foles walk to Jacksonville.
The Eagles are all in on Carson Wentz for 2019 and beyond. Roseman extended the former second overall pick with a deal that included 107 million dollars guaranteed. It was clear Carson Wentz was the face of the Philadelphia Eagles going forward.
The best way to support the development of a young quarterback is by surrounding him with talent. It started in March with the acquisition of one of the most dangerous deep threats in NFL history. The homecoming of DeSean Jackson. The Eagles significantly upgraded a rushing attack that averaged only 3.9 and 3.6 yards per carry on first and second downs in 2018. They shrewdly traded for ex-Bears RB Jordan Howard and pounced on Miles Sanders in the 2nd round of the 2019 Draft. Roseman left no stone unturned in surrounding Wentz with the best talent possible. They traded up to select OT Andre Dillard this past April. Continuing to add depth in front of Wentz and bolster the protection of their prized investment.
Carson Wentz has a plethora of weapons coming into 2019. The offense projects to be much more deep and explosive than the 2017 version that he led to an 11-2 record prior to their Super Bowl run. Jackson & Jeffrey provides the Eagles with an elite combination of size and speed on the outside. The Eagles have two of the most athletic tight ends in the NFL, one of which is coming off breaking the all-time single-season record for receptions. Nelson Agholor has been good for 60+ receptions and over 700 yards in each of the last two seasons. Agholor functions best in the slot and in space, which he will have plenty of with such an elite group around him. Jordan Howard, Miles Sanders, and Darren Sproles spearhead a running game that brings an impressive blend of power, speed and receiving ability. PFF graded the offensive line as the best in football. First-round pick Andre Dillard won’t even crack the starting lineup, anchored by Hall of Famer Jason Peters and 2x Pro Bowler Lane Johnson.
The Eagles offense is loaded at every position. NFL offenses are moving towards a philosophy of becoming more multiple and diverse to create mismatches and give their quarterback more definitive reads earlier in the play. Doug Pederson has been one of the best in the NFL at designing plays to take advantage of the Eagles versatility on offense. There will be people open on Sunday.
Having too much talent is a problem many quarterbacks would sign up for every single Sunday. The challenge lies in the answer to the following questions. How do you consistently involve all these weapons each Sunday? Is consistently involving all the weapons necessary? Carson Wentz’ decision-making process each play, each Sunday will be more important than ever. There are plenty of mouths to feed. Its critical Wentz can keep his teammates both hungry and happy.
The Eagles’ offense will be exciting. Let’s look at what to expect in terms of individual opportunity and production season.
The Influx of 12 personnel
I discussed the expectation of the Eagles incorporating more 12 personnel last month with Gayle Saunders in our Eagles Tight End Breakdown (see link at the bottom of the page). Pederson has been at the forefront of a league-wide trend of using multiple tight end sets. Having two elite athletes at the position only enhances the matchup advantages the Eagles present. According to SharpFootball, the Eagles used 12 personnel 36% of the time in 2018. With Dallas Goedert’s development, that number should increase this season.
As Pederson looks to get Goedert on the field more often, the conventional line of thinking is that the player most impacted will be Nelson Agholor. 12 personnel leaves only two wide receivers on the field. Jeffrey and Jackson are Eagles number 1 and number 2 wideouts. However, the beauty of having all these weapons is the ability to attack in multiple ways. The Eagles can present different mixtures of personnel with each grouping. Jackson and Agholor present a different set of challenges because of their ability to win in space than Jeffrey and Jackson would. Defenses may not revert to a subpackage if Jeffrey and Arcega-Whiteside are on the outside because of the size advantage.
The 12 personnel o/u will be interesting. Eagles were 6-3 last season when D. Goedert played at least 50% of offensive snaps, including 5-1 in the last six games when they emphasized it. They shouldn’t take Z. Ertz off field, so should be more 12 personnel. Likely to rotate WRs. https://t.co/WkuPFBMHBN
— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) August 28, 2019
There was no statistical correlation that led me to believe that Agholor’s role would decrease with the emergence of Goedert. In fact, in the two games last season, where Goedert logged over 40 snaps, Agholor received more snaps and targets than Jeffrey. Goedert’s targets also remained flat in those games he was on the field more, receiving his highest amount of targets in Week 14 when he received the lowest amount of snaps. Last year’s numbers won’t tell the whole story, as Goedert’s level of comfort in the offense will naturally increase, along with his rapport with Wentz. However, it has me wondering if the benefit from Goedert’s presence will show more through the production of his teammates.
Positional Target Share
Using the 2017 and 2018 seasons as the sample, I saw the target distribution through the Eagles’ offense under Doug Pederson. I wanted to include 2017 to ensure that we had a significant representation of how the offense functioned under Carson Wentz and also when it functioned at its peak.
2017 – RB (19%) TE (30%) WR (51%)
2018 – RB (17%) TE (33%) WR (50%)
There were no major shifts in distribution between the two years. This gives us a base structure of how the Eagles’ offense will look. As I factored in Zach Ertz league-leading 156 targets, plus the increase in multiple tight end sets, the 3% increase made sense. The wide receiver targets remained in line from 2017 to 2018, and considering the initial chemistry between Jackson and Wentz, I expect that to continue this season.
The running backs showed the biggest decrease, although it was only 2%. That could become more of a trend heading into 2019. Running backs are most successful in the passing game when used on early downs. They are typically low-risk passes that can get the backs in space against the opponents base defense. The Eagles apply the same philosophy but use their tight ends instead of the running backs. They did so with huge success.
Carson Wentz racked up a 105.3 passer rating and a 55% success rate on early downs in 2018. The success rate was 2nd in the entire NFL. On 1st & 2nd and long, Ertz led the team in targets. There is no reason to move away from a strategy that yields that level of success. Expect more tight ends, less running backs in the 2019 passing game.
The vertical threat or lack thereof was one of the key differences between the Wentz 2017 MVP-like campaign and 2018’s uneven performance. DeSean Jackson solves that problem in a big way. It will force defenses to play the Eagles more honest with #10, constantly pushing the defense vertically. Jackson could be in a situation like Goedert to where his value reflects more in the stats of his teammates. The days of safeties cheating up to key on Ertz are over. Much has been made of Wentz deep-ball passing ability and he is out to prove regression in this area was a byproduct of injury. Jackson’s presence and the Eagles overall athleticism will stretch defenses vertically and horizontally, creating big pockets in the deep/intermediate part of the field.
This is an area where Wentz has always thrived. In 2017, he posted a 143.6 passer rating on routes 10-20 yards deep in the middle of the field. That 10-20 yard range is his sweet spot. He consistently performed above the league average on all routes in that range for both seasons. Doug Pederson is great at leveraging his quarterback’s strengths with his scheme. The main beneficiaries of this could be Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor. As safeties give more cushion, it creates more room for Ertz or the slot receiver to run the seam or settle down in much larger zones between the linebacker and safety. Wentz accuracy in this area will put defenses in conflict daring them to come up and roll the dice with Jackson blazing down the field.
The Eagles regressed to 17th after having the 2nd best red-zone scoring percentage in 2017. Roseman drafted jump-ball specialist, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, in the 2nd round. Immediately, fans salivated over the prospect of a 12 personnel grouping that included Ertz, Goedert, Jeffrey, and Arcega-Whiteside. The options are unlimited for Pederson, who must recognize the need to spread the ball around to be more efficient. Ertz led the team with 25 red-zone targets, one shy of Jeffrey and Agholor’s combined total. This is definitely an area where you could see some Ertz targets getting spread elsewhere.
Another option is those targets evaporating completely. The Eagles project to be a much better rushing team with Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders. The value in running multiple tight-end sets reveals itself in the defensive response. If defenses do not match the Eagles physically with their base defense, Pederson would have no problem unleashing Goedert on a smaller safety and running right at the defense.
It all starts with the franchise quarterback. Pro Football Focus projects Carson Wentz to throw for 4,162 yards. I believe Wentz has a legitimate shot at the NFL MVP award that got away from him in 2017. Considering the last 3 MVP’s averaged 4,872 yards per season, I realized Wentz throwing for 4,500 yards in this offense isn’t unrealistic. At his average yards per completion over the last two seasons (11.7), I backed into 385 completions for 2019.
Fantasy QB strength of schedule! Director of PFF Fantasy Jeff Ratcliffe breaks down the most and least favorable strengths of schedule among the fantasy quarterbacks! https://t.co/GGFdOgqVaG pic.twitter.com/dfym5cy8Se
— PFF DEN Broncos (@PFF_Broncos) July 22, 2019
2017 – RB (19%) TE (30%) WR (51%)
2018 – RB (17%) TE (33%) WR (50%)
2019 – RB (13%) TE (38%) WR (49%)
I expect the tight end group to continue to grow its presence in the offense. Ertz will undoubtedly lose some targets, particularly in the red zone. However, the emergence of Dallas Goedert will be significant. The Eagles without a TE3 will see its dynamic duo haul in 140 completions in 2019. Ertz averaged 5.2 receptions a game before shattering the single-season record last year. Even with some regression, he should hit 90 receptions.
Zach Ertz – 90 receptions
Dallas Goedert – 50 receptions
The running back role in the passing game will continue to decrease to 13% because of the overall talent and effectiveness of the wideouts and tight ends. How those 50 receptions get distributed is anyone’s guess, but Darren Sproles health is probably a determining factor.
The #Eagles have the NFL's No. 1 WR corps
— PFF (@PFF) August 14, 2019
The wide receivers will continue to get the lion’s share of the completions as Pederson’s offense will maintain the basic structure of the past. Major sportsbooks have the over/under on Jeffrey’s completions at 58.5. I will slot him slightly under at 55. The physical wideout with an excellent catch radius will continue to make big plays for the Birds, especially in the red zone. More TD’s, but fewer receptions for Jeffrey.
DeSean Jackson will be the difference-maker in this new-look offense. He should see plenty of opportunities down the field. What often gets overlooked is how complete of a receiver Jackson has become in the later stages of his career. The 5’11” burner excels when the play breaks down. The veteran has the poise and instincts to know when to break off his route and come back to his quarterback. According to Matt Harmon’s reception perception, he posted a 78.6% success rate on comeback routes.
Wentz is a magician in the pocket who uses his athleticism to make highlight-reel plays seem like second nature. That innate talent is a double-edged sword that can lead to Wentz refusing to give up on plays that he should throw away. DeSean gives Wentz more opportunity to turn these types of plays into positive gains. Having a veteran with the field vision and awareness of Jackson will only build on the already budding chemistry between the two. I expect the Eagles to unleash D-Jax to his full potential, as he leads all Eagles receivers with 67 receptions.
Nelson Agholor is a forgotten man in the Eagles’ offense. The under-appreciated slot receiver racked up 60+ receptions and over 700 yards for the second consecutive season. As I previously highlighted, more Dallas Goedert doesn’t always result in less Agholor. Agholor is a problem for defenses when in space. With Jackson and Agholor on the field, the Eagles could run concurrent jet sweeps out of 12 personnel. It could be a fun year for Agholor, who I expect to still capture his typical piece of the pie.
DeSean Jackson – 67 receptions
Nelson Agholor – 63 receptions
Alshon Jeffrey – 55 receptions
The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. – Sun Tzu “The Art of War”
The bridge to becoming an elite quarterback is built by trust. Trust of the surrounding players. Trust of the play being called and trust of your own mental processing and recognition skills. Carson Wentz has an incredible opportunity to catapult his career to the next level. He has all the physical tools. In order to this season to be his most successful, he has to show the maturity and patience to capitalize on what the defense gives him. Doug Pederson will develop game plans to feature the matchups that give the Eagles the best advantage on a week to week to basis.
This could be the best offense we have ever seen in midnight green. Carson Wentz has the leadership qualities to manage the wide array of talent packed on this roster. It’s not about whose number gets called. It’s about moving the chains. It’s about winning. Not a game. A goal an entire city shares. I went into this offseason hoping Roseman would try to recreate 2017. Now, I realize I don’t want to go back. It is 2019. It’s Carson’s time. Time to make history. #FlyEaglesFly
Photo credits: clutchpoints.com
Stats: SharpFootball, RotoWire.com, PFF.com, Profootballreference.com, fantasyfootballers.com, teamrankings.com