Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Ultimate Chip Kelly Team

By Jeremy Conlin

So, in case you didn’t hear yesterday, the Philadelphia Eagles hired former Oregon head coach and offensive mad scientist Chip Kelly. The hiring (at this point) does not appear to be a hoax, so we’ll press on under the assumption that he will, in fact, coach the Eagles next season.

As my colleague Joe Parello wrote yesterday, the NFL innovates at a rate much slower than college and high school football. There are a few teams, most notably the Patriots, that have co-opted stylistic elements from Chip Kelly’s offense, such as playing almost exclusively without a huddle in order to prevent the defense from substituting, but for the most part, NFL offenses are still based on principles from 25 years ago.

Kelly will likely bring his offensive system to the NFL, but there are doubts as to the degree that it will be successful. For one, Kelly has never played or coached in the NFL in any capacity. Secondly, there are schematic reasons as to why the offense might not work (most notably increased risk of injury to the quarterback, and pro player’s increased access to video study compared to college players). However, the basic principles of the offense (fast pace, simple reads, getting athletes into space) have been proven to work for teams like New England, Washington, Green Bay, and New Orleans.

One reason why Kelly may be able to have immediate success in the NFL, at least on offense, if not overall team success, is that he’ll be coaching a team that has pieces in place that fit into his model. Every year at Oregon, he’s had a mobile, fleet-footed quarterback, a versatile running back that is equally effective as a ball carrier and receiver, and various other explosive athletes everywhere else on the field. In Philadelphia, he has a mobile, fleet-footed quarterback (Michael Vick), a versatile running back (LeSean McCoy), and speed everywhere else (Desean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Bryce Brown). Their offensive line can be generously described as catastrophic, but it’s easier to fix an offensive line than it is to find dynamic skill players.

With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to assemble an offense that would be tailor-made for a Chip Kelly team. In the interest of fairness, I’ve only selected two first-round draft choices from the last three drafts, and everyone else is either a mid- or late-round draft choice, or a player that has entered open free agency over the last two years (or will likely enter free agency this summer). In other words, I’m not stacking the deck with Calvin and Andre Johnson at wide receiver and a backfield with Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice. This is an offense that could have conceivably been assembled under the salary cap with savvy negotiation and strong foresight on draft day.

The most integral piece of the puzzle is obviously quarterback. While a wizard like Peyton Manning would undoubtedly thrive in any offense, an inability to run zone-read schemes would likely put a ceiling on the productivity of Kelly’s offense. The quarterback needs to be an effective runner (and not just a scrambler, which rules out guys like Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck).This leaves us with really just five choices: Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Michael Vick. Right away we can throw out Vick (he’s too expensive and not even productive enough if he weren’t) and Griffin (his knee injury is an unnecessary risk in this exercise), and I’ll pass over Wilson as well (he isn’t as dynamic as the others in the running game). I’ll go here:

QB: Cam Newton

I go with Newton over Kaepernick mostly because of his superior effectiveness in short yardage. A strong argument could be made that it’s Kaepernick who has the better top-end speed and dynamism in space on the edges, but it’s not by enough to offset the fact that Cam Newton is the size of a Range Rover. That size will come in handy when you see the running backs.

RB: C.J. Spiller
RB: Darren Sproles

I went with Spiller for obvious reasons – when he gets in space, there isn’t another running back in the league that his combination of speed and elusiveness. For all the talk about Adrian Peterson’s historically great year, it was actually Spiller that led the league in DVOA this season.

I went with Sproles opposite him because of his amazing ability as a receiver out of the backfield. Over the last two seasons, he’s put up numbers as a receiver that haven’t been matched by any running back not named Marshall Faulk.

The key with both Spiller and Sproles is that they’re equally effective lined up in the backfield or split out in the slot or even on the outside. That versatility allows the offense to effectively run the same play over and over again, just with the skill players lining up in different spots. It’s the simplicity of the offense that makes it great, and having versatile players is the first item on the checklist.

The one player in Chip Kelly’s repertoire that isn’t required to have great versatility is the outside receiver. The Oregon offense is at its best when they have a big, physical downfield threat that can stretch the defense and create space underneath for the rest of the offense. Let’s go here:

WR: Vincent Jackson

Jackson plays the role that was filled by Jeff Maehl, Lavasier Tuinei, and Josh Huff over the last three seasons for the Ducks. His sole responsibility is to run in straight lines down the field, out-bully defensive backs for deep balls, and prevent safeties from jumping underneath routes and decapitating other receivers. Like these guys:

WR: Randall Cobb
WR: T.Y. Hilton
WR: Cecil Shorts

Cobb is more of a household name by virtue of playing for the Packers, but Hilton and Shorts did a lot of the same things for Indianapolis and Jacksonville, respectively. Cobb is a bit more of a Swiss army knife, lining up at seemingly every skill position, whereas Hilton and Shorts are more downfield threats, but all three are comfortable running a diverse set of routes from the slot, the outside, or even the backfield. The offense is predicated around getting athletes into space, and these are the three best bargain space players in the league.

The one element that Kelly was never able to fully utilize at Oregon was his tight end. It’s unclear, however, whether that was because he lacked talent at the position, or simply the tight end isn’t a priority in his offense. I’ll fix the first potential problem with this:

TE: Aaron Hernandez

He doesn’t get the fanfare that his counterpart, Rob Gronkowski does, but he’s arguably a better fit for the blur offense. He’s more a versatile receiver, albeit a comically inferior blocker, but that’s not a huge priority in this offense. He runs a more diverse package of routes, and he’s equally effective regardless of where he lines up. Guys like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski beat you with sheer size and strength – you know that they’re running in a straight line down the seam and you still can’t stop it. Hernandez, however, beats you with unpredictability. You don’t know where he’s going to line up or what he’s going to do once the ball is snapped. That’s the type of player that fits into Kelly’s offense.

So that’s the team. I indulged myself with Newton, reached in the draft for Spiller, and splurged in free agency for Vincent Jackson, but everyone else is off the bargain rack. Sproles signed a modest contract during the 2011 offseason, Hernandez was a 4th-round pick in 2010, Cobb was a 3rd-round pick in 2011, and Hilton and Shorts were 3rd- and 4th-round picks, respectively, in 2012.

I’m not going to tackle the offensive line, but common sense dictates that it should be made up of smaller, more agile guys, suited for the stretch/screen/zone read offense. Obviously, Kelly won’t be quite this fortunate with his 2013 roster, but assuming Vick stays around, along with McCoy, Jackson, Maclin, and Brown, he has many of the right tools in place to be successful.

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