Chip Kelly displays unconventional intelligence in frenetic free agency
If there's one thing Chip Kelly has proven since he became the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, it's this: he will assemble the team he wants, and there's the damned door if you don't like it. Take a cheesesteak on your way out.
Kelly first proved this when he cut DeSean Jackson in March of last year, allowing the receiver to join the divisional rival Redskins without a second thought. Jackson's unwillingness to re-structure his contract, along with Kelly's preference for receivers who can contest press coverage, made that move inevitable. Kelly relied on Jeremy Maclin to replace Jackson, and Maclin responded with a career year in 2014, catching 85 passes for 1.318 yards and 10 touchdowns—despite the fact that he was coming off a torn ACL that robbed him of the entire 2013 campaign.
The 2014 power struggle was resolved early in the new year, with general manager Howie Roseman relegated to Executive Vice President of Football Operations, and Kelly firmly in control of personnel, which he insisted on from his first press conference in Philadelphia. Free of any constraints, Kelly went to work as quickly as possible to redefine the Eagles in his image. He traded running back LeSean McCoy to the Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso and released pass-rusher Trent Cole in a span of hours in the first week of March, and deemed Maclin to be an expendable free agent.
[daily_cut.nfl]And then, on March 10, Kelly got free agency off to a big bang by trading quarterback Nick Foles to the Rams for quarterback Sam Bradford. As that was happening, the Eagles were talking with different veteran running backs, engaging in talks with Frank Gore and Ryan Mathews before landing ex-Cowboys back DeMarco Murray with a five-year, $42 million contract with $21 million guaranteed. Oh, yeah—he also gave former Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell a six-year, $63 million deal with $25 million guaranteed, placing the first-year full-time starter and former reserve among the NFL's highest-paid at his position.
It's been a whirlwind time period, reminiscent of Jimmy Johnson's early days with the Cowboys, Bill Belichick's early tenure with the Patriots and the roster churn-and-burn Pete Carroll engineered through his first three years in Seattle. Skeptics of Kelly's approach would say that it also mirrors the dumpster fire that became Josh McDaniels' time in Denver, but when you look at all the moves one-by-one, it's clear that not only does Chip Kelly have a plan... he may be right about every single move he's made.
Replacing McCoy with Murray
In truth, the Eagles traded McCoy for Alonso and Murray from a cap perspective—Alonso is on a rookie deal that will represent cap hits of less than $1 million in both 2015 and '16. McCoy's deal with the Eagles stuck the team with a cap hit of nearly $12 million in '15, and by all accounts he wasn't interested in re-negotiating. Murray's annual salary is $8.4 million, which doesn't represent his '15 cap charge, but I'd be very surprised if Murray's hit doesn't come quite a bit under McCoy's. Kelly understands that going back to his days as the head coach and offensive mastermind at Oregon, he has a system that creates career years for running backs.
McCoy had his two best years under Kelly, especially a 2013 season in which he led the NFL in carries (314), rushing yards (1,607) and total yards (2,146). Murray led the NFL in all those categories for the Cowboys in 2014 (392 carries for 1,845 yards and 2,261 total yards). Murray's workload, and the fact that he ran behind perhaps the NFL's best run-blocking line in 2014, may have some worrying about regression in his new offense.
"In this offense, we keep you guessing," McCoy told me about Kelly's system last July. "There are times when the defense says, 'We've seen this—it's a pass.' Or they think it's a run, and it's totally the opposite. And I think that when you give a defense so many different looks that all look the same—the formations all look the same—it's hard to really study them.
"Our offense is a big-play offense. We're not that kind of typical, boring three-yard offense; we keep the chains moving. That's big here, because I feel that I get the most out of myself as far as quickness and explosion."
Murray will have to adapt to more zone-blocking than Dallas's power/counter/trap-gap blocking scheme, and he won't be running behind a fullback too often. But the general feeling is that Murray can adapt. Factor in Darren Sproles, and Ryan Mathews (who the Eagles are also signing), and Kelly has as gifted a running backs roster as has been seen in recent NFL history.
Alonso missed the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL, so it may be hard for some to remember how great he was in his rookie season for the Bills. Buffalo's second-round pick in '13, Alonso had an amazing season with 76 solo tackles, four interceptions, two sacks, 13 quarterback hurries and 56 run stops. He turned very quickly into a rare three-down linebacker, as comfortable dropping into coverage as he was bashing away at running backs at the line of scrimmage. He'll be a major upgrade alongside Mychal Kendricks in a Billy Davis defense that needed all the help it could get in the back seven last year.
"Very instinctive football player, runs extremely well, he's tall, he's long, he's what we're looking for, he's all about football," Kelly said of Alonso, who of course played for him at Oregon, at his Wednesday press conference. "He's just a smart, intelligent football player that's working very, very hard to get himself back in position to play."
Releasing Trent Cole
Cole amassed 14.5 sacks over the last two seasons in his transition from 4–3 defensive end to 3–4 outside linebacker, and he came to his contract re-negotiations with some leverage. That said, the Eagles saved $8.425 million in cap space by cutting him, and Cole will be 33 in October.
With rare exceptions, speed rushers in their early thirties fall off precipitously, and while we're not absolutely predicting that for Cole in his NFL future (he signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the Colts that gives him $8 million guaranteed), but it's pretty easy to bet the under, and that's exactly what Kelly did.
Letting Maclin walk
Maclin came close to the 1,000-yard mark every season from 2010 through '12, but it wasn't until Jackson was jettisoned that he proved his worth as a number-one receiver. And while he did that with his breakout season, Kelly could just as easily point to the fact that Maclin had that career year in his offense as Exhibit A that he was fungible. On the other hand, the Chiefs, who gave Maclin a five-year, $55 million contract with $22.5 million guaranteed. That's more than Kelly was willing to shell out, and based on Maclin's career productivity curve, he's probably not wrong.
Now, he'll have to decide whether second-year man Jordan Matthews is ready to wrestle his way out of the slot, if Riley Cooper can bounce back in 2015 and which members of a very loaded draft class he'll want to acquire. The Chiefs were in an opportunity-cost sinkhole because they didn't have a single receiver catch a touchdown pass in 2014. Kelly could afford to take the Moneyball route here.
Trading Foles for Bradford
Kelly has long been a Bradford advocate, and it's easy to see why—when you go back to his Oklahoma tape, you see a quarterback who was entirely familiar and comfortable with a spread-style offense that had hurry-up elements and some route complexity, requiring functional mobility from the quarterback. It's just as easy for Kelly to go back to Bradford's rookie season with the Rams, when Pat Shurmur was his offensive coordinator and Bradford won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, as evidence that a Bradford-Kelly match could be a perfect fit.
Not only does Kelly's offense create designed openings for a quarterback and automatically keep the first read opening, but Shurmur is Kelly's offensive coordinator, and thus will be Bradford's offensive coordinator again. And if you've seen St. Louis' offense under Brian Schottenheimer in recent years, it's tough to imagine anyone succeeding in that reductive system over time. So, in the abstract, Bradford should see a major uptick in production and efficiency under Kelly and Shurmur.
Of course, Bradford's red flag is a horrible injury history that's seen him play in just 49 of a possible 80 regular-season games, and miss the entire 2014 season.
Kelly has isolated Bradford as a player, and he clearly believes in what he sees—and he sees Bradford as a product of his environment.
"When you're assessing individual players, I'm watching skill set," Kelly said Wednesday. "How does he throw the ball, can he make this throw, can he make that throw, have you seen him throw the out, have you seen him throw a comeback, have you seen him throw a dig, have you seen him throw a deep ball?
"Sometimes when the quarterback throws the ball directly where it needs to be and the receiver drops it, is that the receiver's fault or is that the quarterback's fault? So what does it go down as for the quarterback? That's 0-for-1, and he doesn't gain any yards on it. How are his drops? How does he work? There's a lot of different things into it. And again, the part about him being a worker and those things, I think we had some great information because Pat had the opportunity to coach the kid for a year."
Bradford will have to re-negotiate his contract to make this experiment worthwhile, of course—he's got a $12,985,000 cap hit for 2015 as it currently stands, and the Eagles would incur no financial penalty if they cut him outright. So, let's assume Bradford will agree to a friendlier number, and play under a one-year test pattern for his NFL future.
As for Foles? Kelly inherited Foles, and while there are elements of Foles' game that matches up with Kelly's ideal at the position, Foles was never a great mobile quarterback in college, and that didn't change in the NFL. It wasn't a problem in 2013, when Philly's offensive line was a bastion of stability, and a relatively unhurried Foles threw for 27 touchdowns and two interceptions in 10 starts. However, when injuries scuttled that same line in '14, Foles was obviously and profoundly negatively affected by that increased pressure, throwing 13 touchdowns and 10 picks in eight starts. By no means is Foles a sure thing—he may turn out to be a legitimate sub-franchise quarterback over time, or he could be a hothouse one-year wonder in an ideal circumstance. At worst, Bradford for Foles is a wash.
Signing Maxwell to a top-tier contract
If we're defending all of Kelly's moves, this is the toughest to support. The Eagles signed Maxwell to a six-year, $63 million with $25 million fully guaranteed. That's top-tier cornerback money, and while Maxwell has played well at times through his two NFL seasons as a starter, that's a lot of cheese for a guy who hasn't yet fully proven himself in that realm at the position.
"We've seen Byron firsthand," Kelly said. "We got a chance to see him when we played Seattle and obviously we felt he was the best corner that was available in terms of how we could fit it, what fits with us money wise. He's what we're looking for, again, in corners: tall, long, physical, athletic, smart. He's an intelligent football player, so I think he's a good fit."
In Philadelphia's Week 14 loss to Seattle, Maxwell gave up four receptions on seven targets for 31 yards and a 68.2 quarterback rating, which is about in line with his career numbers—in 2014 overall, he allowed 55 catches on 85 targets for 67 yards, one touchdown, three picks and a 78.5 opposing quarterback rating. Maxwell is a big (6'0", 207), physical press cornerback in the Seattle style, and he fits what the Eagles do in many ways. The real question here is how well and how quickly he adapts to being the primary target of every opposing offense.
The health issue
Kelly is taking risks on many players with injury histories, but he also has reasons to believe in injury luck. Football Outsiders has a metric called Adjusted Games Lost, which details how teams are truly affected by injuries, especially to key starters. Through Kelly's first two seasons with the Eagles, the team has ranked first and fifth in AGL, and Kelly did his best to discount the injury factor mid-week.
"We don't want to bring in injured players, but I think the players that are available, there has to be a reason," he said. "Some guys are available because it's a money reason and you don't have the cap room or you're not willing to go that high for that individual player, and some players are available because there was an injury."
Kelly spoke Thursday about his well-documented Sports Science methods and beliefs, and whether that could help mitigate those risks.
"That's what we try to do here. If a guy breaks a lag, he breaks a leg. I don't know if there's anybody from a Sports Science standpoint who can heal a broken bone very quickly. Sometimes you have to look at the specific injuries, and instead of making a blanket statement, 'Oh, we're not gonna do this, we're not gonna do that,' I think the key point is to look at the injuries and really spend some time relying on our trainers and our medical staff in terms of what they think from a recovery standpoint."
And in the end, that's the key to this deluge of transactions—Kelly is trying as best he can to manage his team's salary cap with calculated risks and undervalued assets. It's a derivation of the Moneyball approach that has worked with varying results for multiple teams, but he's all in.
As the coach said when asked of the benefit to buying low on players, "We all have the same amount of money, so if you buy high on everybody, you're going to be over the cap."
That's Chip Kelly's motto, now and in the future. The wisdom of these moves will be debated strongly, but this is clear—Kelly will succeed or fail entirely on his own terms.