Eagles Finding Value in Injured Players

ESPN’s Phil Sheridan had a great article yesterday about the Eagles going after injured players this offseason. He discusses that a lot of Eagles players have had positive experiences with Chip Kelly’s sports science program and that “the focus on work and recovery has many veteran players saying they feel better during the season than they ever have in the past.”

What got me so excited about this article is that this kind of value seeking in unique ways is at the crux of so much of what I’m researching while I write Caponomics: Understanding NFL Roster Building through Super Bowl Champion Salary Cap Analysis.

The Patriots have been one of my favorite case studies throughout the process of writing this bookbecause they have a system in place that allows them to continue to find players at a low-cost that end up being very valuable for them as their production exceeds their cost. I keep citing my article titled, The Patriots Way, but I think it’s a good example of why they’ve been great for so long.

Looking through the Patriots teams of 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2014 the last few weeks, I continue to see examples of them finding value where others didn’t. In 2001, their offense ranked sixth in total points, while their offensive starters took up a shocking 11.16% of the cap, which is only 1.01% per player. By comparison, the offensive starters for the 2013 Seahawks took up 36.54% of the cap or 3.32% per player. Running back Antowain Smith had 1349 total yards and took up 0.74% of the cap. Of course, Tom Brady took up only 0.47% in that breakout season, while Drew Bledsoe was the highest cap charge on the team at 10.29%.

Throughout the Belichick reign, the Patriots have had a cheap, but dynamic backfield with a running back by committee that has had four running backs contributing in 2001 and 2014. Just like the Eagles are taking advantage of their sports science program, the Patriots took advantage of offensive line coach legend, Dante Scarnecchia, being able to put together one of the best lines in football year-after-year no matter what you gave him.

In 2004, according to the Super Bowl averages I’ve compiled of the 21 champs of the salary cap era, the Patriots under spent at running back and spent about half of what Super Bowl champs spend on the offensive line and they had the seventh best rushing attack in the league. Corey Dillon had 1635 yards on the ground with a 4.7 yards per carry average and 12 touchdowns, while Kevin Faulk had 503 total yards.

In 2004, their four leading receivers, David Givens, David Patten, Deion Branch and Daniel Graham took up 4.84% of the cap and provided the team with 165 catches for 2492 yards (15.1 ypc) and 21 touchdowns. That kind of production at such a low cost allowed them to spend money on their defense that ended up being the second best scoring defense in the NFL.

To bring it to the present, sure, Danny Amendola ended up being a bad contract and took up 3.53% of the cap, while only catching 27 balls for 200 yards and one touchdown, but they got great value out of Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, Amendola did earn his money during their run to the Super Bowl. For 3.57% of the cap, Edelman and LaFell caught 166 passes for 1925 yards (11.6 ypc) and 11 touchdowns. They do a tremendous job of finding guys like Brandon LaFell to fill roles because they can picture them in the role because Belichick has had the same kind of players in these same exact roles for 15 years now. They use measurables, analytics, and old school scouting to envision how potential players will fit into what the team needs.

Jamie Collins is going to be the player that they hoped Adalius Thomas would be for them in the mid-2000s. They got Akeem Ayers in the middle of the season because their analytics told them he would fit into their scheme.

They’ve always had a big-money number one cornerback before everyone realized the importance of shutting down half of the field with a great cornerback. In 2001, Ty Law was their second highest cap hit and in 2003 and 2004, he was their highest cap hit. Of course, last year, Darrelle Revis was their fifth highest cap hit. Of the 12 playoff teams in 2014, everyone but the Lions, Panthers and Seahawks had a cornerback in their top five cap charges. Richard Sherman will be the Seahawks highest cap charge in 2015 at $12.2 million after signing his extension in May 2014.

It’s pretty simple why the Patriots are so good every season, their advantage is that they know themselves better than the rest of the NFL knows themselves. They’re able to find players who don’t have much worth on the market, but are very valuable to the role the Patriots then put them in.Due to this, they know what they need to succeed more than anyone.

The Eagles seem to have their own X-factor now with Chip Kelly’s sports science program and his name is Shaun Huls.

This fantastic MMQB article by Jenny Vrentas about the Eagles sports science program tells the story of Robbie Stock, a retired Navy SEAL:

“Stock was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 when a grenade exploded inches from the left side of his body. After nearly a dozen surgeries he had no motor function in his left arm or hand, and surgeons recommended amputation. But Stock had other ideas and sought out Huls back on the Virginia Beach base. For several months Huls worked with Stock, using the Omegawave to determine when his battered body could handle exercise and inventing ways for Stock to train while his arm was mostly lifeless … and then when he regained movement in his biceps … and then when some function returned to his hand. Within a year of the explosion, Stock says, he could bench press 275 pounds, as much weight as he could before his injury; today he says he has 70% function in his arm and hand.

“Shaun was one of the very few people—and when I say few, I mean few—who actually believed I would not be a one-armed man for the rest of my life,” says Stock, whose new business, The Human Performance Initiative in Virginia Beach, uses many of the lessons he learned from Huls. “There are very few people out there who really want to help, and he is definitely one of them.””

The advantage that they have is in having a master at rehabilitating players and a sports science program that is cutting edge, so it puts them ahead of the rest of the NFL in a critical area for team performance. That MMQB article cites four different pieces of technology that the Eagles use to understand how their players’ bodies are affected by their training, which gives them data that allows them to ensure they’re not overtraining and they’re replenishing their players with exactly what they need to recover. Players get personalized protein shakes, in 2013 when the MMQB article came out, Jason Kelce’s shake contained blueberries, avocado, 2% milk and vanilla protein powder, that’s not your Average Joe’s protein shake.

For one of the products they use, Polar, the national sales manager for team sports, Mike Valentino, said that a Big East women’s soccer team saw a 75% decrease in soft-tissue injuries during the first season they used the heart rate monitors. That’s just the most basic of the gadgets, Catapult Sports’ OptimEye sensors have a GPS, magnetometer, accelerometer and gyroscope that records players every movement on the practice field. The Omegawave system measures an athlete’s readiness for training and competition. EliteForm is a company that has a weight-lifting technology that has 3-D cameras that record how quickly a player is lifting weights.

Anyone who’s in any kind of business knows that data is so critical to success in today’s world. You need to understand what works or what doesn’t work, so that you can repeat what works. This technology and Shaun Huls guidance allows the Eagles to prepare for the season and each game in a much more intelligent way than other teams because they have the data to understand what their bodies need to do to be prepared.

So this offseason, the Eagles went out and got two players coming off ACL tears in Sam Bradford and Kiko Alonso. The signed two running backs who have had leg issues during their careers in Ryan Mathews and DeMarco Murray. They signed cornerback Walter Thurmond who tore his pec with the Giants last year and Miles Austin who missed the last four games after injuring a kidney, but whose career was derailed in 2011 by hamstring issues that kept coming back.

That ESPN article by Phil Sheridan made me realize that the Eagles really must believe in their sports science program because every one of those players except Kiko Alonso has been hit with the “injury prone” label at some point during their careers. If this works for the Eagles where they not only keep their guys healthy, but are confident enough to take calculated risks on very talented players whose value is deflated due to injury, then they’ve got themselves a huge advantage.

The marketplace for NFL players is a lot like the stock market or any other market. There are certain players who will be given less of a value than others because of the risks associated with them, whether that’s injuries or off the field concerns, risks equal a devaluation of the stock or player. The Eagles gave themselves the tools to defy market forces now and it’s going to pay off in a huge way.

Tweet me: @ZackMooreNFL

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  • McGeorge

    Zack,
    Good links, thanks for sharing.

    When will the rest of the NFL wake up and start emulating the successful teams?
    It almost reminds me of baseball in the early 80’s.
    “That Bill James SABR stuff is BS, just get in there and swing”.

    I think that as foot ball teams become more expensive to buy, smarter people will own and run them. You will see hedge fund guys own teams, and value analytics. Rather than these dumb asses who inherited money.

    • What’s killed the Cowboys over the years is that Jerry Jones thinks he knows everything. If you’re going to be a great owner, you have to put people in charge of things you don’t know and “know what you don’t know.”

      The thing that’s been a really interesting thought for me the last few weeks is that simple fact that everyone has the same amount of money, which obviously makes the competition all the more fierce, but carrying it over to the salary cap, that makes it all the more important to figure out the best way to spend these dollars, so you get the most value out of it.

      To the question about the rest of the NFL emulating successful teams, I think we see that, but they do it very poorly. Like the league overspending on average quarterbacks the last few years because they think you need a big money QB, so they give Jay Cutler a deal where he’s taking up 13.91% of the cap last year. I think they see that a team spent a lot of money on QB, so they think they just throw money at the problem and it goes away.

      Ray Lewis said something early in the season about how average QBs make a lot more than the best players at certain defensive positions and how the NFL needs to rectify that. I think the market will do this over time. If I’m seeing potential ways to create a value stat for ‘yards per percent of cap that a player takes up,’ something like that has to be going on in NFL offices.

      What teams need is people in charge who understand the economics of a market and you’re right, hedge fund and analytics guys are decent candidates for something like that and hopefully they’re avid readers of Over The Cap!

      • McGeorge

        >>Ray Lewis said something early in the season about how average QBs make a lot more than the best players at certain defensive positions and how the NFL needs to rectify that. I think the market will do this over time.

        Zack, I have to disagree with you on this, and on your belief that QBs shouldn’t take up too much of the cap. I have two points:

        1 – unlike every other position, QBs are very hard to find. You can cut a good defensive and and get a marginal one for the Vets minimum. But you can’t say “Matt Ryan makes too much, cut him and sign a QB like Chad Pennington for half as much”. The ‘replacement level’ QBs are really bad.

        2 – the NFL has become a passing league and there is a serious shortage of ‘average’ QBs. How many teams would love to have a QB as good as Andy Dalton? Maybe 6-8? If Cutler didn’t have that awful contract and was instead making 12MM, plus incentives, with no guarantees, how many teams would want him? Maybe 4-6?

        If the Ravens balked at Flacco’s demands and never signed him, and instead had Ryan Fitzpatrick, plus 16MM more to spend per year, would they be a better team?

        Brian Burke at advancednflanalytics has a measure for players (that he borrowed from others) called Winning Probability Added (WPA). Studs like Brady or Rodgers add 4 wins a year. Someone like Geno Smith or Mark Sanchez (when with the Jets) costs his team 3-4 wins a year.
        Going from Joe Flacco (+ wins a year) to Geno Smith (-3 wins a year) is a 4 game swing.
        16MM wont make up for that.

        I would be more likely to agree with you about QB pay if there were a plethora of slightly below average QBs. But there isn’t. Thats the big problem teams are faced with. And they fail to address it.
        teams should be yanking their starters in the 4th quarter and giving the backup playing time. That may help later on if they have to start and have several quarters of NFL experience. Or maybe they have one amazing game (Matt Flynn) and you can trade them.
        Eli Manning shouldn’t get all the playing time. Give some to Ryan Nassib.
        Same for Tom Brady and Garropolo. Same for Peyton Manning and Osweiler. (provided the backup is a legitimate prospect and not some scrub signed in desperation)

        • I don’t think they’ll cut a good QB and replace with a cheaper alternative, what I mean is that they’ll correct these contracts and stop paying mid-level quarterbacks the kind of money Jay Cutler just got. I think that Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick’s deals are more along the lines of what we’ll be seeing in the future. Incentive laden deals that can make a lot of money if they perform. I’m not saying anything about cutting ties with very good quarterbacks or replacing them with cheaper alternatives, I’m saying the market will correct itself over time where teams won’t give up 13% of their cap for a mid-level guy. I keep going back to it, but Steve Young was the highest cap charge on a SB champ ever at 13.08%, at no point should a guy like Cutler make more than that or even Eli Manning making 15.34% of the cap last year, he almost can’t provide that kind of value, no matter how well he plays.

    • And to that point about emulating successful teams, John Schneider said something really intelligent when he was talking about the Russell Wilson deal: “I think Russell Wilson wants to win championships. We talk about being a consistent championship-caliber football team, and that means thinking outside the box a lot of times….”You do not just do exactly what everyone else has done around the league, I think that we’ve proven that we do things (differently).”

      What an organization has to do, so that they aren’t fighting over the same players, thus driving the price up, is create their own identity, understand what kind of athletes you need in certain roles, then go get those kinds of players.

      By finding athletes who fit certain roles in your unique system, you do a few things. First, you find guys who aren’t going to cost as much money because they don’t fit every team’s structure and . Second, you have the perfect guys for what you need if you’ve done your homework and find the right guys for your roles. Third, they will outplay their contract because a) they’re getting paid less due to not being a fit for much of the NFL and b) they fit the role you’ve given them perfectly.

      Thanks for always giving us good comments McGeorge, you just inspired my next article I’ll write in between writing Caponomics.

  • Steve Long

    this is an article about the patriots, i dont know how you can say drinking smoothies makes the eagles just like the patriots

    • Very nuanced perspective, thanks for sharing!

    • theowl

      Well if smoothies work, the Patriots will be among the first to adapt.

  • Tim

    Very nice article. Just a heads up, Pats legendary O-Line coach was Dante Scarnecchia…Dave DeGuglielmo is the current OLine coach now that Scar retired. Although Scar still helps the Pats with scouting…he’s been at several college pro days.

    • RIGHT. I keep getting them mixed up. Thanks

  • theowl

    Great article Zack. The most overlooked development in football has been in medicine, and particularly in the area of the knee. No longer are we seeing Joe Namath situations where most of his career was spent with a terribly injured knee. Now players lose a year and they can come back. The 49ers have been drafting injured players for a couple years. Although Marcus Lattimore wasn’t able to recover and Tank Carradine has yet to see much action (positional change), they drafted three more last year at positions they needed depth… guard, corner, and fullback. With no room on a deep roster last year, all three will compete for jobs this year.