What we can learn from the 2017 Eagles

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Every year, the Super Bowl winner is copied in some way. After the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in February of 2014, teams looked to improve their secondaries and the success of Richard Sherman had them looking for bigger cornerbacks than they had before; in the 2014 draft, there were nine defensive backs taken in the first round and 53 overall, the most of an position group; Stanley Jean-Baptiste went 58th overall and was seen as a Sherman “clone” but proved that size isn’t everything. (To this day, Jean-Baptiste has yet to record an NFL stat.)

Jean-Baptiste was also drafted by the New Orleans Saints, a team that is a great example of how others were copying the Seahawks, as they also signed Jairus Byrd to a $56-million contract and tried to pair him with safety Kenny Vaccaro, their first rounder in 2013. The defense ranked 31st in DVOA and 27th against the pass — and the secondary also included current Super Bowl champion Patrick Robinson at cornerback — proving that “copying” is difficult and taking a big swing at said copying is costly.

But it can also lead to championships.

The team that Seattle beat in the Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos, saw the 43-8 final score and realized that the best offense would not usually be enough to beat the best defense, so they revamped their secondary as well. In 2014, the Broncos drafted Bradley Roby in the first round, signed Aqib Talib to a $57-million deal, and a $22.5-million deal to T.J. Ward. By that year they finished first in net yards per pass attempt allowed, that quickly surpassing the Seahawks, who ranked third. By DVOA, Denver jumped from 21st against the pass to fifth. In 2015, they signed Darian Stewart to play free safety and finished first in pass defense DVOA — at -28% DVOA, the Broncos had the best pass defense since Seattle’s -34.2% DVOA in 2013.

Despite a terrible passing offense, Denver won the Super Bowl having beaten Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and 2015 “MVP” Cam Newton along the way.

By winning that Super Bowl, the Broncos only further clarified that an elite passing defense is better than an elite passing offense. (With Brady’s loss on Sunday, the league’s leading passer is now 0-52 in terms of winning the Super Bowl — it has never happened.) The Patriots know this too, as they acquired Darrelle Revis at a high cost in 2014 (once again, after the Seahawks’ notable victory) to help them beat Seattle in the Super Bowl that year, then stockpiled a secondary that included Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Eric Rowe, Justin Coleman, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon in 2016. Most of those players were still around for this run, but Bill Belichick also felt the need to spend big on Stephon Gilmore, the second-highest paid player on the team after Brady in 2018 (and 3 of the top-6 highest paid players on New England’s roster for 2017 were in the secondary), rather than on the defensive players they purged like Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins.

All of which leads us to their game against the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, the newest Super Bowl champions. Every champion is the new model to copy, so what can we expect to learn from the Eagles and how will teams look to copycat their success?

To be honest, I think it might be best to glance at what they did, admire their fortune, and move on. There’s perhaps not much to be learned from this.

Philly built their secondary with castoffs from other teams, like Malcolm Jenkins (Saints), Robinson (Saints, Chargers, Colts), Ronald Darby (Bills), Corey Graham (Bears, Ravens, Bills), plus Jalen Mills, a seventh round pick in 2016, and Rasul Douglas, a third round rookie. They finished seventh against the pass, which is good but not aspirational. The Eagles did not win because of their secondary necessarily, and even Philly has to wonder if they can replicate that success with these same players — many of whom are over 30 — in 2018.

Attempts to copy their model for building this secondary could be a disaster. But it’s their defensive line that gets more of the credit.

The Eagles drafted Fletcher Cox in the first round in 2012 (trading up with Seattle to make the pick) and signed him to a $102.6-million deal in 2016, making him their highest-paid player. This could convince the LA Rams to just give Aaron Donald a $120-million deal, but not many teams are in a position to secure an elite defensive tackle. They also have Brandon Graham, the 13th overall pick in 2010 (again, linked to the Seahawks heavily that year) and they have kept him under contract with big money despite not always having big numbers. The same goes for Vinny Curry, who signed a $47-million deal in 2016.

The amount of money they’ve committed to Cox, Graham, and Curry has worked out for Philly — in some part because of what they were saving by having Carson Wentz on a rookie deal — but I think would be a terrible decision for most franchises. Especially ones who don’t responsibly evaluate players who aren’t clearly elite. Someone like Graham, who doesn’t have huge sack totals, but does have elite pressure stats, for example. So, teams overpaying defensive ends could become a trend, if it isn’t already.

That huge commitment to the defensive line did not stop the Eagles from acquiring Timmy Jernigan and then signing him to a $48-million deal in November. They also drafted Derek Barnett in the first round and signed Chris Long to a two-year, $4.5-million contract. Teams don’t need to copy these moves, as they’re already doing them. Teams have a longstanding history of valuing pass rushers at a high level, adding more defensive linemen than you think you need, and taking them in the first round to replace the guys who may be on the way out.

If you think you’ll find the next “Chris Long” on the market, a veteran player who has no interest in making money (Long donated his entire salary) and can still put up 35 pass pressures as a rotational lineman (per FO, tied with Geno Atkins for 24th-most), then good luck.

And in the middle of the defense are Nigel Bradham (another castoff from the Bills) and Mychal Kendricks, another player who was heavily linked to the Seahawks and went one pick after Bobby Wagner.

Overall, Philadelphia’s defense is both difficult to try to mimic and also not really worth trying to mimic; the Eagles have a good defense but it is still “only” fifth in DVOA and they gave up over 600 yards in the Super Bowl.

Minor elements are worth taking into consideration (don’t overlook veterans who will play for nothing, trust that some secondary players may have been in the wrong systems elsewhere) but Philly wouldn’t be a team you’d expect to see copied as much as the Jacksonville Jaguars or Minnesota Vikings, even if they fell short of the Super Bowl.

So maybe teams are meant to copy the offense, right? I don’t see why they’d do that either.

Wentz may become the quintessential example of why it is sometimes okay to make a drastic trade up, as the Eagles did in 2016 by first moving up five spots in the Byron Maxwell trade, then again when they jumped from eighth to second in a del with the Tennessee Titans. But there are still way more examples of those types of moves not paying off in the long run — even here, Philly ended up winning their final five games (of importance) without Wentz. Not that they could have done it all without Wentz (I don’t think they get this far if they don’t get the number one seed) but Nick Foles ended up doing a lot of heavy lifting.

The lesson here can’t be: teams need to find an inconsistent backup to maybe thrust into a starting role in December and January and then have him play out of his mind for three playoff games. Even Philadelphia can only reasonably move on from Foles — they are strapped for cash and would save over $5 million by trading their backup QB for what could be a first round pick.

Foles was awful as recently as his brief Week 17 appearance and little outside of his 2013 season under Chip Kelly has been encouraging, but now will be the time for the Eagles to cash in on his Super Bowl MVP award with a cost-efficient player for the next 4-5 years.

The idea of teams copying Philly’s running game would be kinda ridiculous, but sure to happen after the spotlighting of LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, and Corey Clement. Blount, now a winner of three Super Bowls in the last four years, scored more touchdowns in the playoffs (3) than he did in the regular season (2).

Ajayi is being championed as a “genius move” for GM Howie Roseman, but he actually finished the season ranked 28th in both DYAR and DVOA. He scored two touchdowns on 128 touches, including the playoffs; I’m not saying that the Ajayi acquisition was bad (it was quite good! And emphasizes how ridiculous it is to draft a running back early when you can trade midround picks for one) but he’s not as impactful as the broadcast crew would often have you believe. Clement was undrafted out of Wisconsin — in case you missed one of the multiple mentions of this by NBC — so there you go: just sign a UDFA running back and have him get 100 receiving yards in the Super Bowl as a rookie.

The lesson at running back is: don’t overvalue running backs. Which is the same lesson I know a lot of people, myself included, have been touting for years. If teams see the Eagles stable at running backs and think “We gotta use our resources to replicate that” (and should you be trying to replicate the 17th-ranked rushing attack?) then they’ve missed the point; don’t use significant resources at the running back position. Grab a bunch of ‘em and see who takes the ball when you need them to take the ball.

The Eagles offensive line is also a focal point when it comes to “how” they got here. Despite losing Jason Peters for the season, Philadelphia had one of the highest-rated offensive lines, led by Jason Kelce at center, Lane Johnson at right tackle, and Brandon Brooks at right guard, all of whom were named to the Pro Bowl. All of whom are also signed to big contracts, same as Peters.

But teams are already scratching their fingernails off trying to find good offensive linemen. They’re already using high draft picks and $10 million+ in cap space in efforts to find just one game-changing lineman. There aren’t very many worthwhile offensive linemen going around and the Eagles have all four of those guys under contract for 2018, as well as left guard Stefen Wisniewski and backup left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. (Though they may choose this as the best time to part with the 36-year-old Peters.)

The lesson here is: have an offensive line that doesn’t bury you to start every drive. Check. Noted. Got it. I don’t think the Philly line is repeatable but I think Kelce’s season will stand out the most and coupled with John Sullivan’s impact in LA (and Alex Mack’s in Atlanta) may lead to a bigger emphasis on reliable, veteran centers who can “stabilize” lines that go through expected offseason and midseason changes.

Finally, we come to Alshon Jeffery.

Ranked as the #1 available free agent in 2017 by NFL.com, Jeffery signed a one-year deal worth up to $14 million, then agreed to a four-year extension in November worth $52 million. Teams may see this as an opening to start bidding on the best free agents and that making the most notable offseason headlines is the key to immediate success — but historically this has not been the case. The New York Giants were the “winners” of free agency in 2016 and then made the playoffs that season, but their follow-up was a 3-13 finish in 2017 with nothing to show for their free-spending ways other than a lot of dead money in their future.

The Eagles took a lot less risk with Jeffery — it was only a one-year “prove it” deal — but then also gave him the huge contract he originally wanted even though he finished with 49.3 yards per game, his lowest total since his rookie season in 2012. Again, like with Ajayi, I am not saying this was the wrong move — Philadelphia are world champions and Jeffery made plays in the Super Bowl that made it possible — but trying to copy that move seems shortsighted to me.

The top free agent targets for targets include Sammy Watkins, Marqise Lee, Paul Richardson, Jarvis Landry, and Mike Wallace. More will be available in trade and after some cuts are made, but Watkins comps favorably to Jeffery in some respects. Signing Watkins to a large contract and then hoping he averages 50 yards per game with one or two huge plays when needed, does not seem like success that is repeatable for long. Philly also signed Torrey Smith to a three-year deal (NFL.com’s #41 free agent) and featured Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor, with a lot of coaching cred to Doug Pederson, Frank Reich, and John DeFilippo.

So rather than finding a lone player who you think will elevate your offense, the key is going to be finding a system that elevates all of its players and having the talent necessary to execute the system around said player; the Seahawks may actually have had more talent at receiver and tight end than the Eagles did (Jimmy Graham, Doug Baldwin, Richardson, Tyler Lockett is a fair rival to Ertz, Jeffery, Agholor, Smith) but the results were worse in large part due to Seattle’s immense failure at running back and arguably lesser job of coaching.

A single acquisition at receiver may not change much for the Seahawks, but the fact that Graham and Richardson are free agents means that some change is probably coming anyway.

As far as how those changes will reflect the recent win by the Philadelphia Eagles, I don’t think there’s a bigger takeaway from their season than this: they had a hell of an opportunity to take advantage of a weaker-than-normal NFL slate.

In the NFC East, the Giants and Cowboys collapsed under the weight of expectations, while Dallas had little to offer on defense and even less when they didn’t have Ezekiel Elliott on offense. The Packers posed no threat after the injury to Aaron Rodgers. The NFC South supplied three playoff teams, but at few points did the Falcons or Panthers seem all that dangerous; Atlanta went 7-6 in their final three games and still nearly beat the Eagles in Philadelphia in the playoffs.

The Rams went 11-5 but can’t boast a serious threat at quarterback yet with Jared Goff. The Seahawks imploded due to weaknesses you already know about at offensive line and running backs with significant injuries to the defense that they were unable to overcome without suitable depth. Instead, the NFC’s biggest threats were the Saints — a team the Eagles never had to face — and the Vikings, who needed Case Keenum to be a hero more often than Case Keenum is capable of being a hero.

The Eagles went 2-1 against playoff teams in the regular season, facing an average strength of schedule, then defeated Matt Ryan and Keenum at home in the postseason. Their final battle was against a five-time Super Bowl champion, but the Patriots also suffered from having the 31st-ranked defense by DVOA.

New England, first on offense, did not look much different than the 2013 Broncos that lost to the Seahawks, but with perhaps a worse offense and a worse defense than that Denver team. Don’t let anyone fool you into believing that the Eagles just slayed a giant; Philly just took down the sixth-ranked team by DVOA, which means that by FootballOutsiders’ standards, the Eagles would have been the favorite if not for the absence of Wentz. But even with Wentz it may not have mattered given the state of a Pats defense that can make Foles into a Super Bowl MVP.

The lesson here is: hope to get lucky. Hope that your schedule is soft. Hope that many of the game’s best players get injured and that by the time you add your franchise QB to that list, you’ve basically secured the number one seed.

Congratulate the Eagles … but don’t copy them. The results could be more average than you think.

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