Nick Foles or Carson Wentz? Eagles face big offseason decision


Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

-- Frank Reich's emergence as one of the league's best play-callers.

-- Why teams should be aspiring to the Cowboys' team-building blueprint.

-- The big challenge ahead for one of the NFL's newest head coaches.

But first, a look at the Eagles' looming QB controversy ...

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Philadelphia's front office doesn't want to have this debate, but the Eagles must decide this offseason whether they want a winning quarterback or a franchise quarterback going forward. Nick Foles' sizzling fill-in play -- for the second straight season -- has created a bit of a dilemma, as the team must decide what to do with its QB2 when his $20 million 2019 option comes due in the coming months.

Although Philly has a promising young signal-caller in Carson Wentz -- one who was squarely in the MVP mix last season before tearing his ACL -- there's no denying Foles' impact on the offense. With No. 9 under center this season, the Eagles have averaged more points (23.5 per game, compared to 22.0) and total yards (367.3 ypg vs. 358.3) than during their 11 games with Wentz at the controls. They're also more efficient on third down (46.0 percent vs. 38.2) and in the red zone (68.4 percent vs. 53.7) with the veteran quarterback running the show.

Looking at their individual statistics since 2017 (including the playoffs), the two quarterbacks have posted comparable passing production as starters:

Wentz: 64.7 completion percentage, 265.4 ypg, 54:14 TD-to-INT, 102.0 passer rating, 16-8 W-L record.
Foles: 67.9 completion percentage, 257.4 ypg, 20:9 TD-to-INT, 95.4 passer rating, 10-2 W-L record.

I'm not saying Foles is a better player than Wentz, but there's something about the veteran that just works for these Eagles.

"Foles gets the ball out of his hands quicker," an NFC scout told me. "He plays within the system and plays like a distributor. He gets the ball to their playmakers and lets them do the work. ... He's not an A-level talent, but understands his limitations. There's something to that. ... Just play to your strengths and let the system work for you."

To that point, Doug Pederson definitely calls a different game with Foles, using a simplified playlist with a handful of base concepts, including mesh and shallow cross, to get his quarterback into a groove. He will repeat those same concepts from a variety of formations, but the reads and progressions are exactly the same, which is why Foles can string together 25 straight completions, as he did in Week 17 with a playoff berth on the line. Moreover, the repetition has also helped Foles become an assassin in the most high-pressure spots. Since the start of the 2017 playoffs, Foles leads the NFL in completion percentage (79.2), passing yards per game (105.9), touchdown-to-interception ratio (10:1) and passer rating (134.9) on third/fourth down. Think about that: Foles is at his best on the money downs, and the Eagles convert at a ridiculous rate when he is in the game. If that's not enough, how about the 29-year-old's numbers against the blitz this season: 74.5 completion percentage (first in the NFL), 125.7 passer rating (first), 4:0 TD-to-INT ratio (second). That's all big-time production for any quarterback, much less a backup. But Foles has shown that he can do it again and again.

Now, I'll be the first to admit Wentz is a superior raw specimen, based on his physical dimensions, arm talent and athleticism. He is every bit a prospect who deserved to come off the board as the No. 2 overall pick. However, the most important part of the evaluation is how a player fits into a scheme -- and you could make a reasonable argument that Foles is a better fit, based on the way he plays the position. That's not a knock on Wentz and his unquestionable talent, but Pederson seemingly calls a better tactical game with Foles on the field.

"Wentz is by far the more talented player, but the offense operates better with the other guy on the field," a former NFL offensive assistant told me. "Foles plays within the system and the play-caller doesn't ask him to do as much when he is running the offense. ... When you have a more talented player at quarterback, you might ask him to do too much because you can see the potential. With a lesser player, you tend to be a little more balanced and lean on other aspects of the offense. That could be why the Eagles' offense looks different with the backup in."

A quick glance at the stat sheet reveals a more balanced approach with Foles at QB1. In games Foles has started this season, Philadelphia is averaging 26.7 rushes per game, and the offense's run/pass percentage comes in at 39.2/60.8. Compare that to the Eagles' rushing attack with Wentz in the game: 23.7 rushes per game, with a run/pass breakdown of 37.7/62.3. Despite the team lacking an established RB1 -- with Darren Sproles, Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood sharing the load -- Philly has pounded the rock more down the stretch this season. In the passing game, Alshon Jeffery's production has significantly increased with the change at quarterback. In Wentz's games this season, Jeffery has averaged 4.9 receptions for 54.2 yards. With Foles? Those figures jump to 5.5 receptions for 95.8 yards. The big-bodied receiver has shared top billing with Zach Ertz in the passing game without really taking away from the Pro Bowl tight end's targets. Sure, Ertz's receptions (6.5 per game, down from 7.5) and receiving yards (56.8 per game, down from 79.5) have decreased with Foles at QB, but his targets essentially remain the same (9.5 per game with Foles, 9.6 with Wentz).

With defenses unable to key in exclusively on the tight end to stop Philly's passing game, Pederson and Foles have been able to squeeze out more production from an aerial attack that underwhelmed for much of the season. Most importantly, the Eagles were able to win their final three regular-season games to snag a playoff berth and, having just knocked off Chicago over Wild Card Weekend, are playing their best football at just the right time.

If Philadelphia continues to win behind a QB2 who looks unbeatable in the high-pressure moments, the front office and coaching staff have to decide whether to roll with the hot hand or stick with the 26-year-old with extraordinary potential. In a league where Ws and rings are supposed to be the goal, the decision between Foles and Wentz this offseason could challenge the Eagles' priorities and organizational values.

FRANK REICH: Colts coach has arrived as a play-caller

It is hard to earn VIP status as a play-caller in a league full of brilliant offensive minds, but it might be time to let Reich past the velvet ropes, based on his work as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

The longtime NFL backup quarterback-turned-coach has not only transformed the Colts into one of the most explosive offenses in football, but he has also made them a nightmare to defend through his clever scheming and masterful player deployment. Although outsiders have created a narrative that quarterback Andrew Luck "carried" this team into the Divisional Round of the playoffs, a look at the All-22 Coaches Film reveals an offense that's carefully crafted to accentuate the strengths of the unit's top players while masking any glaring deficiencies.

"He gets it," a Colts official told me. "Reich has done a great job of moving the pieces around the chessboard to hide the team's weaknesses while putting players in the position to succeed. He's helped No. 12 (Andrew Luck) get back to playing at an MVP level while also getting (receiver) T.Y (Hilton) going, and he's made (tight end Eric) Ebron a star. ... He also has (running back Marlon) Mack playing like a stud behind a young offensive line that's just coming together. That's hard to do, but he's made it look so easy."

Studying the tape, I've been impressed with how Reich has built the offense around his stars while also using some creative schemes and personnel groupings to keep them protected. For instance, the Colts primarily rely on 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs), with 62.3 percent of their regular-season offensive snaps featuring three-receiver sets. But they've also used a variety of 12 (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs) and 13 (1 RB, 3 TEs and 1 WR) personnel packages, and some unique six-man offensive line combinations. The wide array of formations and personnel groupings keeps defenders guessing while also setting up big-play opportunities for the Colts' top playmakers.

When it comes to No. 12 specifically, the use of heavy sets enables the Colts to use maximum protection with two-man routes. By keeping seven and eight blockers in protection, they're able to snuff out any blitzes while providing Luck with enough time to throw the ball down the field.

Looking at the video clip below, from Indianapolis' win over the Texans on Wild Card Weekend, the Colts are aligned in an Ace-Wing formation out of their 12 personnel package, with receiver Dontrelle Inman positioned on the outside to the left. Hilton motions across the formation prior to the snap. Luck takes the snap and fakes an inside run to Mack before setting up in the pocket and waiting on Inman to come out of his break on a "shake" route. With eight blockers staying in to protect No. 12, the veteran passer doesn't have to worry about the rush, giving him time to make an easy pitch-and-catch completion to his receiver.

The Colts have repeatedly torched opponents with these kinds of two-man route concepts down the stretch, which is why Luck was sacked a league-low 18 times this season. The clever use of maximum protection from run-heavy formations with play-action fakes has prevented defenders from getting to him in the pocket.

The video below is another example of the Colts using maximum protection with two-man routes. Against the Tennessee Titans in Week 11, the Colts align in Ace formation, with Hilton and receiver Ryan Grant positioned out wide. Luck takes the snap and fakes an inside handoff to Mack before wheeling around to take a deep shot to Hilton on a post. The Titans are aligned in quarters coverage, with the safeties positioned at 10 yards attacking the run. The combination of play-action and maximum protection lures defenders to the line and creates a void down the field. Hilton's speed is too much for the defense, resulting in a 68-yard touchdown.

"The use of 12 and 13 personnel to create explosive plays in the passing game has been part of a league-wide trend," said an AFC offensive assistant. "You can create mismatches against a linebacker in base personnel or punish nickel defenders with the running game. More coaches are using those packages with maximum protection to generate big plays. ... It's a real problem for defenses."

Reich's clever utilization of quick-rhythm passes from spread formations and empty sets has also helped Luck counter pressure tactics from opponents. The seventh-year QB will fire the ball out quickly to his pass catchers on the perimeter on screens, quicks and rhythm throws at intermediate range on "catch, rock and fire" drops from the pocket. The Colts have clearly instructed Luck to get the ball out of his hands quickly and let his playmakers do the work when they get the ball in their sweet spots.

With that in mind, the emergence of Ebron as a big-time threat in the passing game is another feather in Reich's hat as a play-caller. He has taken the former first-round pick of the Detroit Lions and made him a dominant red-zone weapon by essentially using him as a "jumbo" wide receiver instead of a traditional tight end. Rather than dismissing Ebron's potential as an impact player due to his blocking deficiencies, the Colts have positioned him in various spots in a number of formations to create mismatches on the perimeter.

"Reich has done a good job of creating things for Ebron," said the Colts' official. "He knows exactly what No. 85 can do well, and he's putting him in prime position to excel. ... Reich has made him a star despite some of his limitations."

In addition to designing plays to help their top playmakers win against a variety of tactics, great play-callers will strive to put their team in the best position to control the game. Reich has increasingly relied on the running game down the stretch to buoy the Colts' chances, and Mack has become a dominant factor as a runner. The second-year pro has found his groove running behind a rugged offensive line that's loaded with big, physical people movers at the point of attack.

"If it's running it for 200 (yards) or throwing it for 400 (yards), I am always going to say the same thing," Reich told reporters this week when asked about the team's game plan against the Kansas City Chiefs in Saturday's Divisional Round showdown. "We are trying to score every time we touch the ball, and we are going to game-plan and call the game in a way to score points. We are really not trying to think so much about, Well, let's hold the ball and keep it from them. We want to run it -- there's no secret about that. That does keep them off the field, that would be great, but at the end of the day, the primary goal is to score points."

With the Colts suddenly showing the NFL world they're capable of lighting up the scoreboard in a variety of ways, it is time to include Reich in the conversation as one of the league's top play-callers.

TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL

1) Clubs should be eyeing Dallas' blueprint: The Cowboys have been painted as a dysfunctional franchise at times, but NFL executives would be wise to follow the team's draft-and-develop philosophy to build a title contender. Led by the triumvirate of owner Jerry Jones, executive VP Stephen Jones and VP of player personnel Will McClay, the Cowboys have committed to building their team through the draft and, when you look back at their recent record, the results have been spectacular.

Since 2013, the Cowboys have selected six players earning All-Pro or Pro Bowl accolades (or both), with five of those selections coming off the board in the first or second rounds. That doesn't include left tackle Tyron Smith (2011, first round), who is still regarded as one of the top players at his position.

That's why executives and scouts should pay close attention to how the Cowboys have quietly constructed a championship-caliber roster through the draft and undrafted free agency. Take a look at some notable picks from their most recent drafts:

2018: Leighton Vander Esch, LB (Round 1); Michael Gallup, WR (Round 3).
2017: Taco Charlton, DE (Round 1); Chidobe Awuzie, CB (Round 2); Jourdan Lewis, CB (Round 3).
2016: Ezekiel Elliott, RB (Round 1); Jaylon Smith, LB (Round 2); Dak Prescott, QB (Round 4); La'el Collins, OG (undrafted free agent).
2015: Byron Jones, CB (Round 1); Randy Gregory, DE (Round 2).
2014: Zack Martin, OG (Round 1); DeMarcus Lawrence, DE (Round 2).
2013: Travis Frederick, C (Round 1).

As a young scout, I learned that it typically takes eight to 12 blue-chip players to field a championship roster. Those blue-chip players are regarded as top-10 players at their respective positions and they are the difference makers on your squad. From a draft perspective, I was also taught first- and second-round selections should form the nucleus of your team and they must play at a high level for your team to have any chance of competing for the title.

When I study the Cowboys, I absolutely believe they have enough blue-chippers to hoist the Lombardi Trophy within the next few years. The team has consensus blue-chip players in Frederick (missed all of this season but has voiced optimism about returning in 2019), Martin, Lawrence, Jones, Elliott, Smith and Vander Esch. Although Prescott isn't necessarily a blue-chip player, he is a high-end starter based on his winning record as a QB1 (32-16 in regular season; 1-1 in playoffs) and intangibles as a Steve McNair-like leader.

With the Cowboys also getting timely contributions from some late-rounders and undrafted playmakers, the team's overall development plan has played a huge role in its emergence as a heavyweight contender in the NFC.

I think it is important to acknowledge the team's gamble to surrender a first-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for Amari Cooper at the trade deadline this season. Critics laughed at the Cowboys for giving up a king's ransom for an underachieving pass catcher, but Cooper has given the team a legitimate WR1 on the perimeter to complement the strong running game on offense.

"You want to draft and develop your own guys," said an AFC executive. "You build it from the ground up and add free agents or trade for guys to fill in the gaps. That's the perfect model."

That said, the Cowboys are reaching a point where they need to figure out a way to re-sign their homegrown stars to keep the movement going. Prescott is due a significant pay raise after outperforming his contract as a former fourth-round pick. While the thought of No. 4 making in excess of $25 million per year will probably make Prescott's detractors cringe, the Cowboys might have an opportunity to sign him to more of a mid-level deal ($21 million-$25 million annually), which could give them the flexibility to retain their other marquee playmakers.

If the team can get the Prescott deal done and lock up some of their core players eligible for extensions this offseason (SEE: Lawrence, Elliott and Cooper), the Cowboys will be well positioned as an NFC power over the next few seasons. Considering how the team has done it primarily by tending to its own garden, the Cowboys are suddenly the model for the kind of roster that every scout should want to build.

2) Can Matt LaFleur rejuvenate Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' attack? It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but team president Mark Murphy and GM Brian Gutekunst are hoping their new head coach can help No. 12 and his teammates on offense rediscover the magic that made the Packers one of the most feared squads in football not long ago.

Remember those high-flying teams that lit up scoreboards around the league with Rodgers playing like a magician from the pocket? We saw shades of it on occasion in 2018, but not nearly with the regularity that we used to, when the two-time MVP would dazzle opponents with his pinpoint passing and improvisational skills as a playmaking threat from inside or outside the pocket. Rodgers tormented defenses with an offense that operated at a frenetic pace with him at the controls.

Considering Rodgers' overall success in a system that was perfectly tailored to his game, the relationship between the QB1 and the young play-caller/head coach is critical to the Packers' success. Although LaFleur has tutored the likes of Jared Goff (2017, Pro Bowl), Matt Ryan (2016, MVP) and Robert Griffin III (2012, Offensive Rookie of the Year) with outstanding success, he will face a huge and different challenge coaching a veteran quarterback with an impeccable resume.

"I don't think it's going to be easy," said my colleague Kurt Warner on Wednesday's Up To The Minute. "I think it is going to be instrumental that early on he proves to Aaron that he's the right guy. He's intelligent. He's got knowledge of the offense. He shows Aaron that he can bring something to Aaron that he hasn't had before. ... When you hire these coaches to go with the quarterback, you've got to earn that respect very quickly. I think that's always a challenge for a young guy because people are a little skeptical, like 'OK, what has this guy really done and what's he going to be able to teach me?' "

To that point, LaFleur not only has to find a way to connect and communicate with Rodgers but he has to impress him with his football knowledge and tactical acumen to earn his trust as a coach. The veteran will respect LaFleur if he feels like the coach can elevate his game despite his limited play-calling experience (one season as an NFL play-caller).

When I played for the Oakland Raiders during the late 1990s, I watched a young Jon Gruden transform Rich Gannon into a perennial Pro Bowl selectee and MVP candidate with his superb teaching and clever scheming. He used a variety of hard-nosed coaching tactics to maximize the veteran's talents and the results were spectacular.

Granted, Rodgers is far more accomplished at this stage of his career than Gannon was, but the Gruden-Gannon relationship highlighted how a young, energetic and creative coach can elevate his quarterback.

From a schematic standpoint, LaFleur is a disciple of the Shanahans (Mike and Kyle) with a playbook that's deeply rooted in a variety of play-action passing concepts, particularly the stretch-bootleg series with a number of misdirection passing plays and vertical shots. In addition, LaFleur will mix in some rhythm concepts and a creative screen game that features a number of WR screens (jailbreak screens) and slow screens designed to put the ball in the hands of explosive playmakers on the perimeter.

Looking back at Rodgers' best years under former head coach Mike McCarthy, he excelled in the play-action passing game with vertical-route concepts (think long touchdowns to Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, and Greg Jennings), particularly when operating from under center. No. 12 is also an exceptional quick-rhythm passer capable of carving up defensive backfields on slants, quick outs (Y-stick) and back-shoulder fades. With Rodgers also viewed as one of the best improvisational playmakers at the position, he has the potential to make up for play-calling mistakes with his dynamic game.

That said, Rodgers has gotten into some bad habits that have led him to hold onto the ball for too long, resulting in sacks and negative plays. LaFleur will need to work with him on being a scheduled thrower to alleviate the burden on the offensive line. In addition, the young quarterback guru will need to convince the 15th-year veteran to trust the plan and scheme even when things go awry.

If LaFleur can crack the code to earn Rodgers' trust, he should be able to revive No. 12 and a Packers offense that's grown stale in recent years.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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