This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman with contributions from Ian Hartitz and Joe Holka. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
Still recovering from the mess that was Chip Kelly’s roster and salary cap management, head coach Doug Pederson has been rebuilding the team over the past year. Even though a hot start from rookie quarterback Carson Wentz got the team to 3-0, the Eagles finished dead last in the NFC East at 7-9. For the Eagles, 2017 is about getting the team to .500 and fighting for a playoff spot as Wentz continues to develop.
An undrafted quarterback in 1991, Pederson bounced between the NFL and World League of American Football (later renamed “NFL Europe”) for the first several years of his career before eventually catching on with the Packers and winning a Super Bowl there as the third-stringer. In Green Bay for three years (1996-98), Pederson earned the trust of then-quarterbacks coach Andy Reid, and he followed Reid to Philadelphia in 1999 when he was named the Eagles HC. Pederson started the first nine games of the season as the rookie Donovan McNabb learned from the sideline, but eventually he was benched for ineffectiveness.
After a short stint with the Browns and a second stint with the Packers, Pederson retired in 2005 and coached high school football for four years before joining Reid’s Eagles staff, first serving as a quality control coach (2009-10) and then the quarterbacks coach (2011-12). After Reid was fired in Philadelphia, Pederson followed him to Kansas City in 2013 and was named the offensive coordinator, a position he held for three years before the Eagles made their peace with Reid by hiring his protégé.
A former quarterback who played and studied under a quarterback guru, Pederson has knowledge but little experience as a play caller. Even though he was Chiefs OC starting in 2015, it wasn’t until 2015 that Reid “partially ceded” play-calling duties to Pederson during an 11-game winning streak. As for Frank Reich, the Eagles OC, he apparently has some play-calling experience from his time as the Chargers OC (2014-15) — but even then he was more of an offensive advisor to Chargers HC Mike McCoy than an actual coordinator. In other words, Pederson and Reich between them have just one full season of play-calling experience.
Still, a little can be gleaned from their past history. Over the last three years, Pederson has overseen an offense that was bottom-six in neutral pace each year; Reich, bottom-eight in two out of three years (Football Outsiders). In Kansas City, Pederson sought to minimize the impact of quarterback Alex Smith: In his three years as OC, the Chiefs on average ranked 25.7 (of 32 teams) in pass attempts, and in two of those years they were top-10 in run/pass ratio. Last year the Eagles were sixth in pass attempts, but Pederson has said he wants to scale back Wentz’s workload this year. Whether game script will allow him to do that is unsure, but the addition of running back LeGarrette Blount suggests the Eagles hope to run the ball frequently on early downs. At a minimum we should expect Wentz not to finish in the top-six this year in pass attempts. The Eagles will likely play slow and skew more toward the run.
With the additions of Alshon Jeffery and Blount and departures of Jordan Matthews and Ryan Mathews, this offense looks substantially different:
- QB: Carson Wentz
- RB: Ryan Mathews/Darren Sproles –> LeGarrette Blount/Sproles
- WR: Jordan Matthews –> Alshon Jeffery
- WR: Dorial Green-Beckham –> Torrey Smith
- WR: Nelson Agholor
- TE: Zach Ertz/Brent Celek
- LT: Jason Peters
- LG: Allen Barbre/Isaac Seumalo –> Seumalo
- C: Jason Kelce
- RG: Brandon Brooks
- RT: Lane Johnson/Halapoulivaati Vaitai –> Johnson
Finally cleared from his neck injury in mid-August, Mathews was cut by the Eagles. Blount is likely to receive the majority (if not the entirety) of his workload. Wendell Smallwood (2016 fifth-rounder) and Donnel Pumphrey (2017 fourth-rounder) have made some noise as guys who could steal snaps from Blount and Sproles, but neither has done much since entering the NFL to garner sustained enthusiasm.
This year’s trio of starting receivers is radically different than last year’s. Agholor is expected to slide into the slot to replace Matthews, and Jeffery and Smith will play outside. Jeffery will likely play more of a possession role — last year he had an 81.8 percent contested catch rate (Reception Perception) — and Smith will be the team’s deep threat.
With strong players and continuity, the offensive line enters 2017 as Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked unit. Peters and Kelce are Pro-Bowlers and Johnson — slated to play all 16 games after missing 10 last year with a suspension — was PFF’s top right tackle in his last full season. Although the offense has experienced significant turnover at the skill positions, they are stable along the line.
On defense, Jim Schwartz’s unit is also largely intact although there have been some notable changes:
- DE: Brandon Graham
- DT: Bennie Logan/Beau Allen –> Timmy Jernigan
- DT: Fletcher Cox
- DE: Connor Barwin/Vinny Curry –> Curry
- OLB: Nigel Bradham
- MLB: Jordan Hicks
- OLB: Mychal Kendricks
- CB: Nolan Carroll –> Ronald Darby
- CB: Jalen Mills/Leodis McKelvin –> Mills
- SCB: Ron Brooks/Malcolm Jenkins/Mills –> Brooks
- SS: Malcolm Jenkins/Jaylen Watkins –> Jenkins
- FS: Rodney McLeod
The front seven is PFF’s fourth-ranked unit. Cox, Graham, and Hicks are all top-five players at their positions, and Jernigan is a run-stopping upgrade over Logan. In the secondary, Darby is a significant upgrade over Carroll — but Mills and Brooks remain, and their 31.8 and 40.9 PFF grades highlight the extent to which they were liabilities last year. Jenkins and McLeod did a good job at safety of compensating for the inadequacies of their corners — the defense did finish 12th in points allowed and 10th in takeaways — but this secondary still seems to be exploitable. Perhaps the unit will be better as it enters Schwartz’s second year with the team, especially if the defense can finish second again in quarterback hurries.
With a strong line, this offense has the potential to be #notbad if Wentz develops and Jeffery stays healthy. What could go wrong?
Carson Wentz, QB
For the ‘privilege’ of drafting Wentz second overall last year, the Eagles traded to the Browns their 2016 first-, third-, and fourth-rounders in addition to their 2017 first- and 2018 third-rounders. That’s a lot for a quarterback who played in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) and started only 23 games. Still, he did well at North Dakota State, where he started for two seasons and led the Bison to their fourth and fifth consecutive FCS national titles. While Wentz wasn’t highly productive, averaging just 207.0 passing yards, 40.7 rushing yards, and 2.4 total touchdowns per start, he flew up drafts boards because he was a ‘winner’ with impressive intelligence (40 Wonderlic), great size (6’5″ and 237 lbs.), and strong athleticism (4.77-second 40, 6.86-second three-cone).
As a rookie, Wentz wasn’t horrible. He had the fourth-most passing yards (3,782) in league history for a rookie, and no rookie passer with more yards — Andrew Luck (4,374), Cam Newton (4,051), and Jameis Winston (4,042) — came close to his 62.4 percent completion rate and 2.3 percent interception rate. At the same time, he exhibited almost no upside. He averaged only one touchdown passing per game, and he attempted just 4.0 passes per game of 20-plus yards. Under pressure he had a pathetic 32.8 quarterback rating (PFF). In only one game did he score at least 20.0 DraftKings points.
Given that Wentz was merely good in college against weak competition, his lackluster 2016 was predictable. Per PlayerProfiler, he was 31st in air yards per attempt (3.3), 32nd in fantasy points per dropback (0.33), and 33rd in Production Premium (-22.2). If you invest in Wentz at his average draft position (ADP) of 137.1 in DRAFT best ball leagues — and there are better pivot plays in this range — roster him because you think he’ll improve, not because of his volume from last year.
In daily fantasy sports, Wentz was nearly unplayable last year. Although he had a 50.0 percent Consistency Rating, he averaged just 15.19 DraftKings points per game (PPG) with a -0.51 Plus/Minus (per our Trends tool). He had an ownership rate of less than two percent, but even that might’ve been too high.
This year, however, he might warrant some speculative exposure in particular spots, given that his ownership will likely be low. FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across guaranteed prize pools of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views this team on a weekly basis. If Wentz shows improvement and you want to stack him with Jeffery, Smith, Ertz, or even Sproles, do it with our Lineup Builder.
LeGarrette Blount, RB
Blount has a DRAFT ADP of 89.4 — as if he didn’t pile up 18 touchdowns and 1,161 rushing yards last season. While Blount has benefited by playing with the Patriots over the past four years, the fact is he’s still a red-zone beast with more rushing touchdowns (36) since 2013 than any other player except for DeMarco Murray (37), who had 353 more carries. Blount has less red-zone equity with the Eagles than he did with the Pats, but the importance of volume to running backs cannot be overstated, and Blount was brought to Philly to get touches and score touchdowns. Blount offers nothing in the passing game, but even so he should at least be able to match Mathews’ 776 yards and nine touchdowns from scrimmage on 168 touches in 13 games. Over the last four years, Blount has averaged 839 yards and 9.3 touchdowns from scrimmage per season on 191.8 touches in 15 games.
With his size (6’1″ and 241 lbs.) and previous usage (13.3 carries inside the five-yard line per season since 2014), Blount has double-digit touchdown upside even if he doesn’t reach 200 carries.
Darren Sproles, RB
A promising but underused change-of-pace back in San Diego behind LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Mike Tolbert, and Mathews for the first half of his career, Sproles has been a pass-catching force over the last six years (in New Orleans and Philadelphia), turning 86.7 targets (and 70.3 carries and some punt returns) into 889 scrimmage yards, 63.2 receptions, and 6.7 all-purpose touchdowns in 15 games per season. One of the most consistent NFL running backs, Sproles was especially good last year when the Eagles were underdogs: The team needed to use him as a receiver in negative game script. A massive 43.0 percent of Sproles’ opportunities last year came in the receiving game. Barring injury, he’s almost certain to outperform his 139.0 DRAFT ADP.
As Freedman notes in his summer piece on the top 100 NFL players, the only running backs with more receptions (147) and all-purpose touchdowns (18) over the last three years are Le’Veon Bell, Matt Forte, Devonta Freeman, and Murray.
Alshon Jeffery, WR
After an up-and-down five-year run with the Bears, Jeffery is now in Philadelphia. He battled nagging soft-tissue injuries early last season and was slapped with a four-game ban for performance-enhancing drugs before returning for the final three games. While Jeffery has missed 11 games over the last two years, he’s still averaged 1,080 yards and 5.8 touchdowns from scrimmage as well as 16.79 DraftKings PPG over the last four seasons. Over the past two years, Jeffery played in four games heavily impacted by injuries. If we discount those, then he averaged 17.15 DraftKings PPG in 15 games. He’s still a player. It’s possible people are weighting too heavily his injury-tainted performance early last season (12.88 DraftKings PPG through the first five weeks), as his 41.2 DRAFT ADP is a full round lower than his average ADP of the three previous seasons. Still just 27 years old, he could easily bounce back with a top-20 season.
Torrey Smith, WR
The 2016 preseason hype surrounding Smith was strong, and he was frequently drafted in the 10th round alongside productive players like Tevin Coleman, Willie Snead, James White, Spencer Ware, and Michael Thomas. Smith, however, was not productive: With 49 targets, 20 receptions, 267 yards, three touchdowns, 13.4 yards per reception, 22.3 yards per game, and a 40.8 percent catch rate, Smith had by far the worst campaign of his career. Still, Smith is a 95th percentile SPARQ-x athlete (PlayerProfiler), he’s been a good route-runner since college, and in his first five seasons (2011-15) he averaged 99.2 targets per year for a 49.2-850.8-6.8 stat line. He is likely to experience positive regression and is an upside best ball and GPP play this year.
Nelson Agholor, WR
The No. 20 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Agholor entered the NFL fresh off a 104-1,313-12 junior campaign, expected to contribute right away. He didn’t. Through two seasons he’s turned 113 targets into a 59-648-3 receiving line while playing primarily outside the numbers. To save his career, the Eagles have moved Agholor into the slot, where he excelled in college with 2.16 yards per route run (PFF) thanks to his route-running ability and agility (6.83-second three-cone). With Jeffery, Sproles, Ertz, and maybe even Smith slated to earn a significant chunk of targets in an offense that might skew more toward the run, Agholor will likely be nothing more than a contrarian GPP on a weekly basis.
Zach Ertz, TE
When the weather gets colder, Ertz gets hotter. His monthly DraftKings PPG splits over the last three years are unreal:
- September: 8.64
- October: 7.48
- November: 8.19
- December and January: 18.96
Why do these splits exist? He gets targeted more (on a per-game basis) in December and January than in the other months, and he’s also more efficient:
- Sep-Nov (42 games): 4.9 targets, 7.3 yards per target (YPT), 1.93 percent touchdown rate, 63.3 percent catch rate
- Dec-Jan (19): 8.2 targets, 8.5 YPT, 5.73 percent, 73.9 percent
Why has Ertz historically enjoyed more volume and efficiency at the end of the season? I have no idea. What is known is that Ertz is basically a big slot receiver (52.8 percent of his 2016 snaps) who sometimes is forced to play inline and block — but Ertz is a horrible blocker. Last year he had a poor 44.7 PFF run-blocking grade and 56.4 pass-blocking grade. It’s possible that Ertz isn’t all that good of a player — he’s never scored more than four touchdowns in a season even with an average of 10.25 red-zone targets each year, and Jeffery is likely to lower his touchdown and target ceiling — but he’s acceptable at his 98.2 DRAFT ADP. Tight ends with an average of 790.0 yards per season over the last three years are rare.
The Eagles currently have a 2017 win total of 8.0 games with a -150 over and +120 under. They’re also +180 to make the playoffs and -220 not to. Given that the Eagles had a 9.0-win Pythagorean Expectation last year and have made upgrades at the offensive skill positions and in the secondary, it seems reasonable to bet the over. At the same time, there’s little value in that bet. At +180, I’d rather bet that they leverage their eight-plus wins into a playoff appearance.
The Eagles are currently +4,000 to win the Super Bowl, +2,000 to win the NFC, and +250 to win the NFC East. If the Cowboys regress and Eli Manning once again struggles, the Eagles could compete for the division title. That said, the Eagles haven’t been to the Super Bowl since Donovan McNabb led them there in 2008, and the last second-year quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl was Russell Wilson in 2013. Wilson won. In all probability, Wentz is no Wilson.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Eagles Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz and contributed research to this article.