2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Philadelphia Eagles
July 30, 2015 | Chet
In year two under Chip Kelly, the Philadelphia Eagles matched their 10-6 record from 2013, but this time it wasn’t enough to get them into the postseason. That 10 win season feels disappointing after starting out 6-2 and left a lot of questions still in the air about this franchise’s future. With another season of vast roster turnover, we’ll truly find out if this is an offense in which the components are plug and play.
2015 Eagles Schedule
Proceed with caution when looking ahead at what the schedule may bring when drafting your plans for the season, but the Eagles have a fair outlook to start the season before their week 8 bye. Afterwards, things look sketchy as they draw back to back road games at Detroit and New England and then come home to get Buffalo and Arizona for your regular season stretch run. That is potentially daunting, but this is an offensive system that has shown to be useful for fantasy regardless of the matchup.
So far through two seasons under Kelly’s offensive guidance, the Eagles have been one of the top offenses to latch onto. The Eagles led the NFL in possessions (12.4 per game) and play volume (both up from 2013), and they played with a frenetic tempo, averaging just 2:04 minutes per drive, the lowest in the league while averaging just a 26:40 time of possession per game, also the lowest. Volume means stacking counting stats for offensive players and that volume has also come with efficiency in Philadelphia.
Run Eagles, Run
In a move that surprised some, the Eagles traded their franchise leader in rushing, LeSean McCoy to Buffalo. In turn, they immediately filled that void by signing DeMarco Murray in free agency to be the team’s new lead back. Murray is coming off of a historic season in which he set a Dallas rushing record (they might have had a few good backs throughout their history) with 1,845 yards on the ground. It was massive season for Murray as he was tops among backs in almost rushing category and still a top-1o pass catcher out the backfield in 2014.
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|10+ Yd Runs||45||1|
This is about as good of a transition you could’ve hoped for if Murray was leaving Dallas, even with the Eagles bringing in Ryan Mathews to join Murray in the backfield. It was Murray who got the big deal and Mathews hasn’t proven durable as a RB1 on his own, so this is a move that makes a lot of sense for the Eagles because they can in turn spell a player coming off of 497 touches last season including the postseason (the sixth most ever in a season and he had 25 or more touches in 12 games, the second most ever in a season behind Barry Foster’s 13 in 1992) with a back better than some starting options, while also preserving Mathews in a role for him to be highly effective. It was realistic to naturally expect Murray to lose touches in any event, even if staying in Dallas, but the transition to Philadelphia offers plenty to share for Murray to still be an immense fantasy asset.
The Eagles have run 974 rushing plays the past two seasons; fourth most in the NFL. They were seventh in rushing attempts per game in 2014 (29.8) and fifth in 2013 (30.8). Where Murray will lose natural touches is that Dallas played one dimensional football the entire season. That Dallas brand of football was more fragile in carrying over than most will acknowledge. They are more than good at what they do as an offense, but lack of creativity catches up to you quickly in today’s game. Something his new offense doesn’t struggle with.
Murray led the NFL in carries in each quarter and totaled an enormous 262 carries for 1,289 yards on just first down alone last season. He had 81 more carries than the next closest back on first down (Alfred Morris at 181 attempts) as Dallas ran the football on 69.4 percent of their first down play calls, by far the most in the league (Houston was second at 62.7 percent) and well above the league average of 51.9 percent.
The Eagles are a run heavy offense, but one that is two dimensional. They ran the football 46.6 percent of the time on first down, which was 27th in the league. Believe it or not, but the Eagles also ran 45.2 percent of their plays with the lead last season which was the sixth highest percentage in the league and more than the 42.1 percent that Dallas did. Murray is trading heavy handed volume that had a high probability for decreasing regardless for an offense that has shown it can carry over its approach yearly and still offers viable volume and a lateral, if not better game script.
The Eagles offensive line isn’t filled with as much talent as the Dallas line, especially with the loss of Evan Mathis, but this is still one of the better units in the league with Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson all strong in the run game. Guards Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner have limited exposure, but in small samples have been above average sandwiched between those strong blockers. Its fine to acknowledge the talent along the Dallas front aided Murray’s historic campaign on the ground, but he’s a player that was effective per touch his entire career beforehand and this isn’t a poor situation he’s walking into.
The downside here is that Murray will almost assuredly see a reception decline this season. An underrated component to his fantasy game has been that he’s averaged 3.5 receptions per game over the past three seasons. The Eagles targeted backs 16.7 percent of the time which was 27th in the league and 15.5 percent in 2013, which was 29th. If passing catching Darren Sproles occupies another 60 percent of the backfield targets again, that puts Murray in store for possibly losing 20 -25 receptions over the season.
There are secondary concerns depending on where you side on the “The Curse of 370” in conjunction with Murray missing multiple games in all three seasons prior to 2014, but in the end this is a 1B situation to returning to Dallas. The concern about touches should also be alleviated somewhat by going to Philadelphia since the Eagles have been ahead of the curve regarding player health and sports science and it’s yielded results. All historic seasons lose helium, but Murray’s RB10 pricing is more than adequate and is still a player you can get near the turn or sometimes in the middle of the second round that has been highly efficient even before his gluttonous 2014 season.
Not only did they replace McCoy with a back that is better than him in Murray, they also added Ryan Mathews to join the rotation, another back that was better per carry than McCoy as well in 2014, albeit on a much smaller sample and still have Sproles as a change of pace, matchup mismatch. This is by far the most talented backfield in the league and an upgrade as a whole over what McCoy gave them per carry in 2014.
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Mathews missed 10 games in 2014, the fourth time in five seasons that he’s missed multiple games. His volume per game was at an all-time low as he had 13 or fewer carries in five of his six games played, rushing for 50 or more yards just twice. Despite the reduced touches, Mathews was still just as effective per touch as he’s ever been.
That was in an environment in San Diego that ranked 30th in rushing points per attempt, so perhaps that’s a sign that he can be a highly effective player on limited touches in a better offense. The Eagles also gave Chris Polk eight of the 22 team carries inside of the 5-yard line without shaving any usage off of McCoy, who had 11 of 23 carries from that area in 2013 and another 11 of 22 this past season. Mathews hasn’t had the scoring opportunities over his career that Murray and McCoy have had, but he’s still been effective in that area of the field per attempt in scoring touchdowns.
Not only does Mathews have some standalone value as a flex in deeper leagues because he’s shown to be effective per touch and will have some scoring opportunities, but he also is the heir to great situation if indeed all that voodoo surrounding Murray comes to fruition. I’m a fan of grabbing Mathews at his RB42 pricing and JJ Zachariason highlights why Mathews is a perfect fit for that best ball format, but I can’t forsee myself giving away a roster spot in redrafts that I can use on an a receiver that I plan to use on his own like an Anquan Boldin, Eric Decker, John Brown or Breshad Perriman.
Sproles is coming off of the board right after Mathews at RB45, but again is someone I can’t invest into in a weekly format in which I have to absorb his low points. Many may look at the RB25 finish Sproles had overall in 2014 and see him as a value, but that would be a trap. Sproles had a career high six rushing scores last season, with three coming from 19 yards or longer. Rushing statistics accounted for 47.3 percent of his output after having just one season over 30 percent and over the previous six seasons averaged 23.3 percent. How he scored last year just isn’t a representation of who he really is.
Sproles posted his lowest target total (62) since 2009 and his lowest reception total (40) since 2007 and had zero receiving scores last season. There’s already been word out of Philadelphia that now that Sproles is no longer also the backup runner that he will be seeing more time at wide receiver this season. He’s still going to need to get into that 90 plus target range that he had in New Orleans to even be reliable weekly, something that even with increased usage may be hard to come by.
Fly Eagles, Fly
Not only did the Eagles pawn their leading rusher, they also let their leading receiver walk for the second consecutive season. With Jeremy Maclin gone, that leaves 23.4 percent of the team targets and 28.8 percent of the team receiving yardage on the table. Before diving into where that’s all heading, it’s important to look back and realize this passing game had a tale of two seasons. Leaving week 9 when Nick Foles was injured in the second quarter neutral, here are the Eagle receiver splits last season when they had to turn to Mark Sanchez.
Through eight weeks, Maclin was a dynamo on par with Antonio Brown and Demaryius Thomas, but then after Foles was lost for the season, rookie Jordan Matthews was the best fantasy asset from this group. The other noticeable thing here is that collectively, everyone’s depth of target here dropped except for Matthews.
That extended role and usage for Matthews led to him posting three top-10 scoring games to close the season and put him on a fringe WR1 pace over the course of 16 weeks. Matthews also was the Eagles most targeted player in the red zone (16) and converted six of those (37.5 percent) for scores.
The interesting thing with that is that his overall playing time really never went off the rails as he played 70 percent of the offensive snaps just five times all season. His target share also didn’t see the jump we can expect it take this season as he still served as the team’s third receiver and did almost all of his work exclusively from the interior. Per Pro Football Focus, Matthew’s received 92.4 percent of his targets from the slot, which was the highest percentage in the NFL. His 64 receptions and 835 receiving yards from the inside both ranked second in the league, trailing only Randall Cobb in both areas. 45.6 percent of his yardage came after the catch, which ranked as the 10th highest dependency in the league. Despite working from the slot often, Matthews still was on par with Maclin in yardage rates per receptions sans the truly explosive plays.
There seems to be some fantasy holy war over whether Matthews can be more than a bigger slot option. Matt Harmon does some detailed game charting and while Matthews’ success rate against man coverage is somewhat average, it’s good enough to where he can contribute outside. What is really highlighted in that charting is that he’s stellar in the role he played as a rookie. The real question is, if he’s so damn good on the inside, why would they go away from that being the hallmark of his usage and game? There’s no victory points for scoring outside of the hash marks for fantasy and Matthews is a player that you can funnel targets to as he’s too big and too athletic for the majority of nickel backs in the league. In two wide receiver sets he’ll be outside, so you’ll get plenty of those opportunities, but I still see Matthews doing the majority of his work on the interior and that doesn’t change the ceiling outlook I have for him.
I got a little wide-eyed when I first noticed Matthews’ ceiling outlook in C.D. Carter’s Equity Scores, but after accounting for DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin both just posting career best seasons in this offense, it’s not unfathomable that he is a top-10 receiver for fantasy. Even if he’s not used as a lid lifter like Jackson and Maclin were, I still believe the increased snap count and target share on the way are enough for him to exceed value. At WR18, he’s priced right near where I deem his median projection to be with a ceiling to be more. I love him as my third receiver in drafts in which I’ve gone receiver heavy to open, but I also like him a solid amount as my second receiver in which I’ve already accrued an alpha target because I believe he has high weekly floor and ceiling in this offense with what he does best.
Losing Maclin and replacing him with rookie Nelson Agholor makes too much sense considering Maclin was one of the main prospect comps when I profiled Agholor prior to the draft. Factoring in Agholor’s skill set and the investment made into him, I really like his long-term outlook, but I still see Matthews making a year two stride forward in the offense and being the 2015 lead option for the Eagles passing offense. Agholor is a versatile receiver that can attack every level of the defense and has after the catch and return ability, but I’d still peg him to see a snap share similar to what Matthews had in 2014. That’s why I believe the cart is a little ahead of the horse on Agholor’s WR32 pricing and it shows in his equity outlook from C.D. Carter. In the seventh round, I still prefer some crusty vets with bankable target volume over him like a Vincent Jackson or waiting on an Eric Decker, Steve Smith or Anquan Boldin as I view him as more of bye week fill in option than a weekly starter for 2015 purposes.
The rest of the Eagles receiving corps is a mixed bag and I believe we’ll see both Josh Huff and Riley Cooper garner enough snaps to make neither usable. I believe Huff is more of a potential threat to Agholor’s immediate snaps than infringing on Cooper’s playing time. Cooper was dreadful last season, but still was second on the team in targets in the red zone (15) and is coming off of a 2013 season in which he scored eight touchdowns and earned a decent contract from the organization. I also believe Cooper will still garner reps because he still provides tactical variance over Huff as Huff overlaps a lot of what Matthews and Agholor are already better than him at. Plus, Cooper is an asset in the run game on a team that will run often and is still owed a cool $7.2M guaranteed. At this stage in the offseason, I doubt the Eagles wipe that away.
The final piece of this passing game is tight end Zach Ertz. The above seasonal splits table also serves a purpose because Sam Bradford also relies on intermediate windows to anchor his game. Bradford has thrown more than 10 percent of his passes over 20 yards in just one professional season. Ertz’s depth of target disintegrated in the quarterback change. Ertz opened 2014 off with 77 and 86 receiving yards then failed to reach 50 yards over the next nine weeks. His seasonal splits are slightly skewed by a 15 catch, 115 yard game week 16 as he seen six or fewer targets in all but two games all season. And that’s really the main rub with Ertz. He simply isn’t on the field enough because Brent Celek has been one of the better run blocking tight ends in the league and when Ertz is the game, the Eagles are one dimensional.
Of Ertz’s 89 targets on the season, 40 of them came on third down. That 44.9 percent mark of his targets coming in passing heavy situations was the highest percentage of all tight ends last season. For a team that is run heavy first and running is the strength of their personnel, that’s an issue in aiding the breakout we’ve all been waiting Ertz to have. Even though he’s working on that aspect of his game, there’s no reason to believe that Celek still won’t siphon significant snaps away from him still. Ertz was horrible in the red zone last year, converting one of 13 targets in the red zone for scores, so there’s some positive regression in play for his touchdown totals, but you’re really paying a premium on a ceiling that may not exist simply due to playing time at TE7 overall. When I want to take a shot at a ceiling at a position like tight end, I want to do it cheaply by looking towards a Tyler Eifert, Austin Seferian-Jenkins type in double digit rounds, not in round seven when I can still select actionable receivers. I believe in the talent Ertz has, but nothing adds up for me with his opportunity in relation to the required draft capital to secure him.
Kelly really took a bold stance moving Nick Foles for Sam Bradford and the remaining $13M he’s owed this season. We knew Foles would step back from insanely efficient 2013 season, but this is still the quarterback who got this offense to function at its best and is a team that has gone 14-4 in games started by Foles over the past two years and 6-8 in other games. This is the move that could be the deal breaker in either direction for Kelly as a genius mad scientist or just an erratic meddler.
For fantasy, the trade is just fine because whoever the quarterback has been in Philadelphia has been more than relevant. Foles and Sanchez combined for seven top-12 scoring weeks and eight 300-yard passing games. Those eight 300-yard passing games would’ve tied Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers for the third most in the league last season. If you combine take their 326 combined passing yards week 9, then that puts them only behind Andrew Luck’s 10 300-yard passing games.
I wouldn’t rule out Sanchez getting a shot to open the season as the team’s starting quarterback, but his positive results have a taste of being opponent driven last season and was largely awful overall. If you’re asking who is more likely to produce closely to the high end of what Foles did in 2013, I’m going to side with the former elite prospect in Bradford. Bradford has had a disastrous start to his career after a fairly encouraging rookie season. He missed all of 2014 with a torn ACL after missing the final nine games of 2013 after tearing the other ACL. He’s made progress to be ready by the start of camp August 2nd, but he’s still been limited up until now. Factoring in that Bradford has had those significant injuries, had really no viable weapons to speak of to begin his career and has only been attached to stone age coaching from a head coach and coordinator level, this new opportunity could very well be the blessing he needs.
With all of that negativity, I’m willing to overlook a large portion of the statistical body work that Bradford provided in St. Louis and just focus on the positives. This system has made three previous quarterbacks with less initial passing acumen into fantasy relevant players and one week winning player in Foles’s 2013 run. Bradford’s current price also allows for most of that pessimism to be washed away for the optimism because Bradford is currently the QB15 in drafts. As someone who almost always waits until the double-digit rounds to select a quarterback and then take two or three to rotate, Bradford is the kind of player I always target since he has the weekly ceiling to be a weekly starter and the cost to throw aside if he flames. Turning back to JJ Zachariason, he points out that Bradford is an ideal target for late round quarterback drafters for those reasons and his opening schedule is light enough to know where his floor and ceiling are. If he doesn’t play up to a baseline level against those teams, you can move on, but you also are making a purchase for a lot more at that point.