DeVonta Smith and the Eagles Draft Curse
I was on the field for Philadelphia Eagles training camp on Monday, but DeVonta Smith was not.
Smith, the Slim Reaper, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, the Eagles' first-round pick and one of the central figures in the team's "transition," is week-to-week with a knee sprain. I took the long, arduous journey to the NovaCare Complex for my first glimpse of the Jalen Hurts-to-DeVonta Smith connection, the present and future of the Eagles offense. Instead, the early-week practices were highlighted by players such as Quez Watkins and Tyree Jackson on offense and a rookie sensation cornerback named Zech McPhearson on defense.
Hurts did not appear too concerned about Smith's absence. "Smitty's a pretty smart guy," he said on Monday. "It's always valuable to have somebody in practice and on the grass to get those reps in. But, in due time, we'll be back."
Maybe. Or maybe Smith is the latest victim of the Eagles' draft curse.
Eagles training camp is different under Nick Sirianni. Practices are very short but tight and well structured. Sirianni is an energetic, hands-on presence on the field. Some of the older members of the press pool claim to see shades of Dick Vermeil in Sirianni's style. I don't go back quite that far as a camp observer, but the pace is definitely less deliberate than it was when I last visited training camp two years ago.
For his part, Hurts looks and sounds sharp, decisive, and confident, despite the deficiencies of a Smith-less receiving corps. Hurts delivered a gorgeous deep ball to Watkins in seven-on-sevens on Monday. He also looked comfortable checking down to backs and tight ends, particularly on Tuesday. On the down side, he took off for daylight more often than he probably should have during 11-on-11s and sailed some passes well over the heads of his targets. There's likely to be a lot of boom and bust to his game.
"Everybody wants to hit the money ball, the money shot, the ooh-ahh play," Hurts said. "I think that's very important in an offense, to stretch the defense, especially with the deep threats that we have. But you have to be patient with it. You gotta take what they give you. And then when your shots come, hit it."
Yeah, about those deep threats…
With Smith sidelined, Jalen Reagor is the Eagles No. 1 receiver on paper. But Reagor, last year's 21st overall pick and a moderate disappointment as a rookie, started camp coping with both "lower body tightness" and the recent murder of a childhood friend. ("He was like a little brother to me," Reagor said, opening up briefly to reporters on Tuesday). Reagor hasn't been much of a factor in the early going. Neither has John Hightower, last year's fifth-round pick. JJ Arcega-Whiteside, a second-round pick in 2019, is still clinging to his roster spot, mostly because no one else has claimed it. Travis Fulgham is the closest thing Hurts has to a steady go-to wide receiver right now.
At tight end, Zach Ertz is being a model employee with his new Rutger Hauer Blade Runner hairstyle but is clearly just waiting for a contender to come calling. Dallas Goedert, the Eagles' top pick (a second-rounder) in 2018, flunked his conditioning test at the start of camp. Goedert inherits the No. 1 job if Zach Ertz is traded; during my two-day visit, he has looked like someone hoping to inherit a better job. Jackson, the converted University of Buffalo quarterback who is built like a small forward, is making the most of opportunities he probably shouldn't be getting on a six-deep depth chart.
There are more recent draft busts, near-busts, or injury cases at other position groups. At left tackle, 2019 first-round pick Andre Dillard is in the process of losing his job to Australian behemoth Jordan Mailata. Center Landon Dickerson, this year's second-round pick, is still on the mend (not unexpectedly) from the ACL tear he suffered at the end of last season. Linebacker Davion Taylor, last year's third-round pick, left the field on Tuesday with a quad injury. Throw in the guys who aren't even around anymore (Sidney Jones, You Know Who) and the Eagles have very little to show on the field right now for the top three rounds of their drafts dating all the way back to 2014. There's Hurts, of course, running back Miles Sanders, sturdy guard Isaac Seumalo, defensive end Derek Barnett (having a strong camp), some prospects such as Dillard who are maxing out as just another guy, plus the 2020/2021 receivers. That's it. There's no young core, just a dusting of hopefuls atop a thick permafrost of aging veterans.
(Ed. Note: In an upcoming ESPN+ article, Football Outsiders will rank the Eagles 25th out of the 32 teams in talent under the age of 25.)
It's fashionable in Philly to blame Howie Roseman for the last half-decade of unproductive drafts. It's also fashionable to assume that Joe Douglas was a scouting wizard even though he had a heavy hand in all the drafts up to 2018. And to forget that Roseman ran the 2013 draft that brought Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz, and the 2012 draft that brought Fletcher Cox and others. Also, the Hurts selection looks rather shrewd at this precise moment in history. Roseman has made a variety of roster mistakes in recent years, but the Eagles have also suffered some miserable injury luck among their early draft picks. Successful as it was in 2017, the previous regime also didn't do a very good job developing young talent, either. At least some later-round picks from recent years have been impressive so far: Mailata, Watkins, defensive end Josh Sweat, and McPhearson, a rookie fourth-round pick from Texas Tech who gets an incredible break on the football and broke up multiple passes during my visit.
It's way, way, WAY too early to push any panic buttons on Smith, of course. Smith briefly took the field on Tuesday for JUGS work, light stretching and a photo op with Hurts for some Pop Warner lads:
He watched most of Tuesday's practice with the coaches. "He's really into the meetings, really into the practice of watching it while he's not able to participate," Sirianni assured reporters on Tuesday.
Offensive coordinator Shane Steichen reminded us on Monday what makes Smith so special. "His releases off the line of scrimmage for a young player are super impressive," Steichen said. "Like, it's rare to see the way he gets off the line of scrimmage: his first step and his jab to create that separation."
Can't wait to see it. Until we do, I will keep getting Marquise Brown vibes from Smith. Brown, like Smith, left college as a pint-sized playmaker, then suffered an injury early in his first summer with the Ravens. Brown was limited to a screens-and-bombs role for Baltimore as a rookie. He was better last year, but not good enough to keep the Ravens from adding Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins. And Brown is currently dealing with a hamstring injury.
The Eagles may be a rebuilding team, but Hurts needs a steady source of ooh-ahh balls, not another multi-year project on a receiving corps full of them. Hurts must convince the Eagles to spend next year's draft bounty on weapons and defensive reinforcements, not his replacement. Otherwise, Hurts himself will become another victim of the draft curse. And no one wants that.
Lamb of Props
There is no reason to doubt that Lamb is having a phenomenal camp or that he is poised for a stellar season, even if his 2021 numbers get nerfed due to a lack of footballs to go around. But it's easy to be the league's training camp MVP when the local media is allowed to shoot video during practice and permitted to stand someplace with a good viewing/filming angle. Most local press corps are forbidden from shooting anything except warmups, and some are strategically placed so they are watching practice from the parking lot of a nearby Costco. I have never been to Oxnard, but it appears that Cowboys reporters are allowed to fly drones over the field during full-team drills. I'm jealous, and I think all camps should operate that way. But until I become NFL commissioner, the fact remains that the more cameras trained on each red zone drill, the more likely it becomes that a strong-but-not-atypical camp becomes the Story of the Summer.
That said, Lamb looks phenomenal, so I surrendered to the GIFs, combed my favorite legal sportsbook for Lamb-related props, and found this gem:
Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup & CeeDee Lamb to combine for at least 3,500 Regular-Season Receiving Yards +400
Cooper, Gallup and Lamb combined for 2,982 yards with Andy Dalton, Garrett Gilbert, and Ben DiNucci fluttering passes at them for most of last season. Their combined yardage for Dak Prescott's five starts (1,205 yards) projects to 4,097 yards over a 17-game season. Our combined KUBIAK projection for the trio is 2,953; our projections tend to be conservative, and a +400 moneyline is worth stretching an extra 550 yards. And wagering on all three of them means not worrying about which one of them siphons targets from the other two.
The only reason I haven't already played that Cooper-Gallup-Lamb prop is that I still have a Philly Guy aversion to doing anything that will encourage me to root for the Cowboys.
No other Lamb props are really enticing right now. Lamb is +2500 to lead the NFL in receiving yards, but of course Cooper and Gallup will have some say in that. Lamb also appears to be creeping up the ADP rankings, but he's likely to hit an asymptote somewhere early in the third round because of Cooper, Gallup, and being a wide receiver.
If Lamb is poised for a breakout season, the "breakout" may be more visible in the Cowboys' win-loss record than in his individual stats. Lamb could lift the Cowboys receiving corps up to the Chiefs' "there's no way to cover everyone" level. Prescott must stay healthy for it to happen, and Mike McCarthy must return to early 2010s form by staying out of success' way. But it's very possible.
Around the League
News and notes from training camp…
Trey Lance versus Jimmy Garoppolo: Every dispatch from 49ers camp reads something like this: "Trey Lance threw 11 touchdown passes in 10 red zone seven-on-seven reps this afternoon. Jimmy Garoppolo tripped over his own feet twice during warmups and accidentally led the first-team offense into oncoming freeway traffic during a two-minute drill. But Kyle Shanahan said after practice that Garoppolo would have no trouble holding onto the starting job as long as he returned to the form he displayed for about three hours on October 31, 2019, and Lance kept occasionally failing to identify his fifth read."
The moneyline for Lance starting opening day was +220 and dropping like liquid mercury through seawater last I checked. For hunters of mightier game: he's +800 to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, and it's not hard to concoct a scenario where: A) Lance starts the opener and most of the season; B) has a C-plus or better rookie year as a starter; C) rides the 49ers defense and lots of YAC into a surprise playoff run; and D) wins an award.
It's also not hard to concoct a scenario in which Lance is being completely oversold after about a half-dozen practices, most of them without pads.
The Colts Situation: The Colts are unlikely to sign another veteran quarterback in the wake of Carson Wentz's foot surgery, lest the newcomer leach soil nutrients and sunlight away from the precious orchid. With guard Quenton Nelson now on a similar five- to 12-week timetable as Wentz, the Colts must batten down the hatches until the storm blows over. This longtime Eagles observer has a feeling the storm will last all season.
While it won't happen, I love the idea of Garoppolo joining Wentz in Indy. Their combined insecurities would become so toxic that the Colts would have to erect a Chernobyl sarcophagus around the quarterback room to prevent ordinary citizens 50 miles away from doubting themselves.
A slow Colts start should help the Titans win the AFC South the way they do best: by default. Unfortunately, the Titans were house favorites entering the season, so there the moneylines on futures bets aren't very interesting.
Titans Kicker Battle Update!!! Is it over before it began? Not quite. The Titans claimed Sam Ficken off waivers and waived Blake Haubell early in the week. It's now Ficken versus Tucker McCann, and ESPN's incomparable Turron Davenport reported early in the week that both kickers were perfect during one practice session.
Ficken is a four-year veteran in his seventh NFL camp. He was the Jets' on-and-off kicker through injuries and slumps over the last two seasons. He's a classic Kicker 33 type: just good enough to be one of the first kickers off the waiver wire in an emergency. McCann is in his second Titans training camp; the fact that he cannot quite find the inside track toward the job is telling. Stephen Gostkowski is probably still in shape with a fully charged cellphone.
Rabbit Season: New Titans cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins doesn't want to be called "Janoris Jenkins" anymore. He is even now listed as "Jackrabbit" on the team's website. "I don't like Janoris," he said last week. "It's not my name."
Late-career nickname changes rarely catch on: Dwight Gooden never really became "Doc" in the minds of baseball fans. But we should endeavor to call people what they want to be called. "Jackrabbit" is catchy, and it fits the play style of a defender who mixes huge plays with huge mistakes.
Jenkins is the active all-time leader with eight interception return touchdowns; one more pick-six will tie him with Deion Sanders, Aeneas Williams, and Ken Houston for fifth on the all-time list. That's a remarkable feat for a defender who has had a not-very-distinguished career. Ben Arthur of The Tennessean reports that Jenkins is embracing a leader/mentor role, something that seemed unthinkable when he left North Alabama with a host of off-field issues. New name, new attitude!
Or perhaps Jackrabbit has just assumed an alias so no one would ever again associate him with this.
Brawls and Laps at Giants Camp: Reports of Tuesday's massive Giants camp brawl—and of Joe Judge's post-fight tirade and disciplinary action, plus his penchant for making players run punishment laps in full view of the press pool—remind me of a novice teacher attempting the "tough guy" approach with a bunch of freshmen, completely losing control of the class, and erupting into a red-faced punishment spree.
In case you have forgotten what happens after such classroom meltdowns: the class is briefly obedient, because even the troublemakers are afraid the teacher might just lose his sh*t and deck someone. Then everyone grows grudgingly compliant in the following weeks. The bright, attentive students grit their teeth through the misery of a classroom where every dropped pencil results in a detention. The less motivated learners check completely out. Morale and test scores plummet while the teacher congratulates himself or herself on having instilled "discipline" but wonders when children became so listless and unmotivated.
Giants players are highly paid professionals, not teenagers. So they're likely to check out from any tinpot drill sergeant shenanigans in other ways.
Hall of Fame Game Preview (Sort Of): Dwayne Haskins is the player to watch in Thursday's Hall of Fame Game between the Steelers and Cowboys. Haskins has been getting glowing training camp reviews, and Mike Tomlin says that Haskins will "finish the first half," which probably means that Mason Rudolph will play the first few series, then give way to Haskins. That gives me a reason to stay awake until halftime!
There's one more reason to stay awake until halftime, and it's not boilerplate sideline interviews with the 83 players being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend. There was no preseason football last year, and frankly, I missed it. It's OK to admit that you missed it too: the homer telecasts, the position battles, the undrafted rookie who gains 55 fourth-quarter yards and suddenly gets drafted in 20,000 fantasy leagues. It's part of the rhythm of the seasons and a much-needed warmup period for folks in my profession.
If the preseason goes the way of two-a-days in the name of player health and safety: excellent. Until then, I don't want it ripped away by a pandemic or anything else. And if players have to go through with it, the least I can do is savor it.
Eagles coach Nick Sirianni spoke at some length on Tuesday about how he and his staff approach analytics. Jeff McLane of the Inquirer asked the initial question. Here is Sirianni's response:
You gameplan a team. There's a lot of thought process that goes into that. You're watching that first- and second-down cut-up. You're watching that third-down cut-up. You're watching what's hit on that defensive coordinator throughout the past four years.
You study the tape first, then you get this analytic piece of it and you're like, "What do the numbers say? Oh, that's exactly what I was seeing." And sometimes it's, "Hey, I didn't see exactly that. Let me go back and rewatch that and see if those numbers are telling the truth." So, when you're gameplanning an opponent, it helps you out tremendously. But again, it's just a piece of the puzzle.
I think a wise man avoids all extremes. You don't want to be like, "I'm just putting all my eggs in this basket or just putting all my eggs in this basket." You use all the pieces available to you to help put your team in the best position.
I think you asked about game day. Again, that's the same thing. We use that. That's great information to help us be able to call the game. We have a plan for third down. "Hey, we want to run this and this and this and this, in this order." But that can change based off what the defense is doing, and the same thing with analytics. "Hey, this is what the charts are saying, to do this and this and this." But there's a human feel to it, as well.
You want to avoid the extremes but use the information that's given to you because it's valuable information that can help you win and lose football games.
Sirianni also made some insightful remarks about the dangers of basing a decision on a small sample size or results that might be skewed by facing particular opponents.
My takeaways: a) Sirianni's approach to analytics is utterly reasonable and gibes with how Football Outsiders approaches our own work; and b) His thoughts also reinforce the long-held Football Outsiders notion that analytical models/methods/results must be situation-based and fluid: it's all about third down, the red zone, or a response to a heavy box, not some macro trend or VORP-like "final verdict" grade. I'd be happy to hear 32 variations on Sirianni's response whenever an NFL decision-maker is asked about analytics. It's a sign that we're on the right track and are building tools that not only help fans appreciate the game on a deeper level but can also really help build winning teams.