I had a fun little back and forth with esteemed graphic artist and football scribe Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com the other night.
It started with this tweet:
Continued with this tweet:
Continued with this tweet:
And continued from there.
First, a disclaimer: this post originates partially out of boredom, partially out of a requirement that I write something to earn a paycheck for today, and partially out of a debilitating self-doubt that has plagued me since reading Kempski's unbounded confidence in this year's Eagles D (relative to his confidence in the rest of the division).
The Eagles easily have the most talent on defense? These Eagles? Even more so, are defensive end and linebacker not only not the liability I imagined, but a strength? Why am I talking to myself?
First, let's establish that this is, indeed, an extraordinary claim set forth by Mr. Kempski. As bad as the division has been over the last several seasons, the Eagles' defense has been among the baddest, including last season, when they allowed 26.9 points per game, fifth-most in the NFL and second-most in the division (behind the Giants at 27.6 ppg). Obviously, the division is what is in question here, so you can at least envision a scenario in which the Eagles are clearly the best of a bad bunch. But they certainly aren't starting with much in the way of breathing room: The only major defensive statistics I could find that they led the division in were QB rating and yards per attempt. The rest of the big picture metrics — yards per play, scoring percentage, turnover percentage, sack percentage, yards per carry — they finished behind one of the other three teams in the division.
Defensive end/edge rusher: Giants
A lot of this depends on the health/mindset of Jason Pierre-Paul. Even before he blew off his finger with a firework, he was in an enigmatic stretch of his career, clearly not the same dominant player he was his first few seasons in the league. That said, he did finish 2014 with 12.5 sacks. Regardless, I don't think you can rank the Eagles higher than third here. The Cowboys are pretty clearly fourth with Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory both suspended (and of questionable impact even when active).
If sacks are your thing, here are your three-year averages for the projected starting tandems:
Eagles: Barwin 9/Graham 5
Redskins: Kerrigan 10/Smith 8
Giants: Vernon 8/Pierre-Paul 5
Again, the eye test says I'd take the Giants and the Redskins at this position over the Eagles. If Vinny Curry turns into Reggie White under Jim Schwartz, as is apparently inevitable, then maybe we'll reconsider. But I'm not ready to say that is easily going to happen.
I'm not a big fan of using Pro Football Focus' player grades for anything but the most supplementary of contexts, for reasons that nobody really cares about but I'd be happy to discuss in another forum. Regardless, in this particular circumstance, we're simply looking to extend the argument and extend any kind of benefit of the doubt, so it is worth mentioning that we won't find such benefit in PFF's grades. Last year they gave Vernon a higher grade than any other DE in the division at 92.5. Graham was second at 86.3, but his current partner Barwin (70.9) ranked behind Washington's two edge rushers (Kerrigan at 79 and Trent Murphy at 78.8), as well as behind Pierre-Paul (81.1), putting the Eagles' current pair at No. 3 in aggregate grade. Again, this is very, very, very unscientific stuff, but the whole point of this exercise is to attempt to show that the Eagles don't "easily" have the best talent in the division. If a third party's appraisal agreed with said statement, there'd at least be some reason to step back and say, hmmm, maybe the notion wasn't as ridiculous as it seemed. Alas, PFF does not agree at linebacker, and, in fact, agrees with the order in which I would've ranked them, with the Giants clearly having the most talent on the edge and the Redskins probably having the advantage over the other two teams. Again, we're talking talent here. Jason Babin racked up a lot of sacks in the Wide 9. Would it be a suprise if Barwin checks in with a huge sack season? Not at all. But if you were doing an edge rusher draft for this season, I don't think it is much of a stretch to say that Vernon, Pierre-Paul and Kerrigan would all go before him.
This is the position that most made me question everything I thought I knew about reality, because every time I've looked at the Eagles' depth chart this season I've seen a glaring question mark in the middle of the field. I figured, hey, maybe I'm missing the YouTube highlight video in which Nigel Bradham drinks protein shakes infused with Chuck Bednarik's ashes. Because every time I look, the Eagles still haven't added anybody to their linebacking corps except Bradham, and that unit was among the worst in the league last season. I'm guessing Kempski's still operating on the belief that Mychal Kendricks is who Cris Collinsworth said he was on Thursday Night Football several years ago (some hybrid of Dick Butkus and the Bubonic Plague), but Kendricks never was that guy in those years, and last year was so obviously not that guy that everybody kind of conceded the point. Even if last year was just a down year, it was still a down year, and I'm not sure it's rational to assume that this year he will be back to whatever he was supposed to be in the first place. And, frankly, even if he was that guy and is him again, I'm still not sure that puts the Eagles at the top of the division in linebacker talent, let alone easily at the top.
Like defensive end, I thought the linebacker thing was kind of self-evident, since everyone seemed to agree the Eagles were awful there last year and the only talent they added was Bradham. They allowed 4.5 yards per carry and 135 yards per game on the ground last year, which ranked 28th and 32nd in the NFL and third and fourth in the division. They also finished well behind the Cowboys in their ability to defend tight ends, per Football Outsiders, for what that's worth.
As for the Pro Football Focus grades, the Eagles enter the season with the second (Hicks at 72.4), eighth (Kendricks at 57.3) and 11th (Bradham at 40.0) linebackers in the division. The Cowboys have the first- (Lee at 92.3), third- (Rolando McClain at 71.1) and ninth- (Anthony Hitchens at 48.3) ranked LBs.
You can make an argument for either Washington (Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland) or the Giants (Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie). I don't think you can make an argument for the Eagles being higher than third. Pretty much any reference you can think of supports this, so I'm not going to waste too much time with it. The addition of first-rounder Eli Apple and the presence of Trevin Wade in the slot pushes me toward the Giants.
This is the one position where the Eagles easily have more talent than the rest of the division. Jim Schwartz said this offseason he'd be surprised if Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod aren't regarded as one of the top safety tandems in the league by the end of the season. I agree.
Defensive tackle: Eagles
Again, I don't think many people will argue this, although don't sleep on the Giants. Don't forget, they signed Damon Harrison as well as Vernon, and Johnathan Hankins continues to improve. I wouldn't try to argue that they are on the same level as Fletcher Cox and Curry. But they are a stout pair of interior linemen.
One can make an argument that the Eagles have the most talent; it's just that any argument you make for the Eagles requires leaps of faith that must then be considered for each of the other teams. Maybe Kendricks finally lives up to his potential. But, then, maybe McClain finally does. Maybe Curry becomes something he really hasn't ever been except on a part-time basis (nine sacks in 2014). Is that really less of a stretch than projecting that Smith does it for Washington after finishing his rookie year with eight sacks? Or that Pierre-Paul returns to a form he's already shown?
The Eagles have a decided advantage at safety but the Giants and Redskins have a decided advantage at cornerback. Cox is a tremendous talent, but so is Vernon, whatever you think about the price the Giants paid to sign him this offseason. Is it a given that the Eagles have the best front four in the division? I'd probably take them first for Cox alone, but the Giants aren't that far behind when you consider the upside of Vernon/Harrison/Hankins/Pierre-Paul. The Eagles aren't head and shoulders above anybody at linebacker. Keep in mind, Hicks has made five NFL starts and is coming off a season-ending injury, and Bradham has been just a guy for most of his career.