Losing Jordan Matthews Was a Win for the Philadelphia Eagles
On August 21st, a good portion of the United States will get to witness a rare phenomenon, a total solar eclipse. While solar eclipses happen every 18 or so months around the globe, the US has waited over 25 years to experience one on its own soil.
Another rarity we seldom see: an NFL trade.
Just this past week, we got not one, but two swaps. We already broke down the impact of the Buffalo Bills sending Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams. Now we need to examine the ramifications of the second deal: Jordan Matthews being shipped -- along with a 2018 third-round pick -- from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Bills in exchange for cornerback Ronald Darby.
Who Is Jordan Matthews?
To fully conceptualize how this move will affect the Eagles in 2017, we first need to look at what they traded away, some of which can be quantified by Matthews' traditional stats over the past three seasons, as well as our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP describes the contribution a player makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more on NEP, visit our glossary.
Matthews' regression between his second and third seasons wasn't tragic, at least in terms of receptions -- those 73 catches in 2016 tied him with Allen Robinson for 31st in the league -- but those mere 3 touchdowns were a large part of why the Eagles only managed 16 end zone catches, a significant drop from the 23 they tallied in 2015.
Matthews, despite being Carson Wentz's favorite target in 2016 (we're talking a 19.4% market share) actually finished second on the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns last season, behind tight end Zach Ertz. This is in large part due to his disturbing inefficiency -- among the 41 wide receivers with 100 or more targets last season, Matthews was 38th in overall Reception NEP, or the number of points added on catches only. Couple that with routine appearances on the injury report, and it doesn't take long to see why the Eagles were ready to cut bait on the upcoming free agent.
The other reason Matthews became expendable were the new faces in the Eagles' receiving corps.
This past offseason, the Eagles took a big swing in the free agent market, landing two of the top available wideouts. They inked former Chicago Bears star Alshon Jeffery to an incentive-driven, one-year deal, then signed Torrey Smith to a modest three-year contract.
The acquisition of Jeffery provides the Eagles with the big weapon they hoped Matthews would become. Despite missing four games due to suspension -- not to mention having to deal with subpar quarterbacking in Chicago last season -- Jeffery was still able to collect 52 catches for 821 yards and post an above-average efficiency with 0.75 Reception NEP per target. The 27-year-old is also just two years removed from an 85-catch, 1,100-yard, 10-touchdown season in 2014. His presence gives Wentz a legit weapon on the outside that the young quarterback sorely lacked last year.
After a couple of disappointing seasons in San Francisco 49ers, Smith is the Eagles' projected starter alongside Jeffery on the outside. Still only 28, there's time for Smith to recapture the glory of his days with the Baltimore Ravens, when he was one of the league's most dangerous deep ball threats, averaging 16.9 yards per catch and 7.5 touchdowns per year from 2011 through 2014.
These two wideouts give the Eagles the talent boost they have been looking for. With two new starters in the fold, Philly finally has some depth at the receiver spot, thanks to a couple of their kids.
Nelson Agholor, a 2015 first-round pick, will get first crack to start in three-wideout sets as the Eagles' slot receiver. The former USC Trojan may have struggled in his first two seasons, hauling in 59 of his 113 targets -- just 52.2% of them -- but despite his inefficiency, the second-year wideout was one Wentz's favorite targets in the red zone last season, tying Darren Sproles for the team-high with 18 red zone targets.
Agholor's main competition for playing time in the slot is rookie Mack Hollins from North Carolina. The 6'4" wideout has been turning heads since OTAs, and without Matthews burying him on the depth chart, he'll now get a chance to show what he can do in game action. In the preseason opener, Hollins caught 4-of-5 targets for 64 yards, including a 38-yard score.
As for Ertz, the big tight end was the second-most targeted pass catcher in just 12 games started. It should be noted that his top two games of the 2016 season -- Weeks 12 and 17, when the tight end racked up 31 targets, 23 receptions, 218 yards, and 3 touchdowns -- came when Matthews was on the sidelines.
With Jeffrey, Smith, Agohlor, Hollins, and Ertz, the Eagles now have an abundance of talented pass-catchers, which made Matthews redundant. Their secondary, on the other hand, was in desperate need of an upgrade.
Enter Ronald Darby.
Stability in the Secondary
For years, the Eagles have been trying to upgrade their secondary. They have traded for and signed multiple big name corners (Nnamdi Asomugha, Byron Maxwell, and Nolan Carroll to name a few) in an attempt to address the problem, but to no avail -- they've started six different cornerback duos in the last seven years.
With that in mind, the team made defensive back a priority in the 2017 draft, spending two of their top three draft picks on cornerbacks. By selecting Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, the hope is the cornerback problem has found a long-term solution.
Even with the influx of youth in the defensive backfield, the Eagles were still in need of a cornerback that not only kept the unit young and talented, but also carried some NFL experience. With Darby falling out of favor in Buffalo, a swap seemed like a perfect solution.
At 23, Darby -- a former second-round pick out of Florida State -- already has two NFL seasons under his belt, including an impressive rookie campaign in 2015 where he was named Pro Football Focus' Defensive Rookie of the Year after recording 68 tackles and 21 passes defended. He immediately becomes the Eagles' top cornerback and pairs with second-year back Jalen Mills, creating one of the youngest, most talented cornerback tandems in the NFL.
Addition by Subtraction
Even without their top pass target from last season, the Eagles' receiving corps won't miss a beat in 2017. By executing a rare trade, Philly cleared up a muddled wideout group while adding a much-needed piece to a depleted secondary, one that we see as the second-best pass defense unit in the NFL for 2017.
In our eyes, the Eagles are a top-10 team in 2017. And the Matthews trade has made them even more dangerous.