Miles Austin Might Actually Provide Some Value for the Philadelphia Eagles

Despite what most think, the oft-injured receiver could turn out to be a useful piece in the Eagles offense.

Miles Austin is apparently still a thing. According to the Philadelphia Eagles, he’s also a thing that’s worth $2.3 million this season.

That’s how much the Eagles will be giving the 31-year-old wide receiver to play for them in 2015. Of all the moves Chip Kelly has made this offseason, this might be the Chip Kelly-est of them all.

If previous moves made by the Eagles this offseason have puzzled you, this signing isn’t likely to clear up the picture any more. What exactly are the Eagles thinking?

A Long Time Ago…

There was a time when Miles Austin was one of the better wide receivers in the league, playing for the Cowboys. That time, though, was five years ago.

By our Net Expected Points metric, Austin was a top wide receiver in the league on a per target basis back then. Net Expected Points (NEP), for those of you who are unaware, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. You can read more about it in our glossary.

Austin’s two peak seasons came in 2009 and 2010. In 2009, he was ninth among NFL wide receivers with at least 30 targets in Reception NEP per target (0.93), while ranking 17th overall in targets. Typically, it's harder for receivers to stay efficient on a per target basis while also seeing a high volume of passes thrown their way. In 2009, only Sidney Rice and Vincent Jackson finished above Austin in Reception NEP per target while also seeing at least 100 targets.

Austin saw his production dip slightly in 2010, but still stayed in the top 20 of Reception NEP per target (17th at 0.80) and targets (20th with 119). He was last seen playing 16 games in 2012, when he fell to 37th among receivers in Reception NEP per target (0.72).

Lost in Cleveland

Kelly must have seen a glimmer of hope while Austin was on the field last season -- it’s ok if you missed it, he was playing in Cleveland -- but the problem with Austin has always been his ability to stay on the field. He stayed relatively healthy last season until suffering a kidney injury in Week 13 that sent him to injured reserve. Austin tends to be hampered by nagging things like hamstring injuries, so it’s tough to fault him for missing time with a freak injury to his kidney than it would be for a pulled muscle. Sprained ankles and pulled hamstrings can be considered injury prone, while failing to withstand a shot to the kidney is not.

Seeing signs of life from Austin might not be too much of a stretch considering how he fared in an unfavorable passing environment last season. As a team, the Browns ranked 26th in Adjusted Passing NEP and, to be honest, anyone who watched Cleveland’s passing attack for more than five minutes last season might come out thinking that ranking is a little high.

As noted, Austin played in 12 games before being placed on injured reserve, starting 11 of them. In that time, Austin was easily Cleveland’s most efficient receiver. Sure, that’s like being the catchiest Nickelback song or the best actor in the Twilight saga, but Austin’s metrics weren’t terrible.

In those 12 games, Austin had a Reception NEP per target of 0.72, which ranked 40th among wide receivers with at least 30 targets. The next most efficient wide receiver for Cleveland was Travis Benjamin, who has a Reception NEP per target of 0.61. Taylor Gabriel was close behind at 0.60, and Andrew Hawkins finished at 0.58. In Cleveland, most inaccurate targets are created equally, and Austin made the most of his.

NameRecRec NEPTargetsTarget NEPRec NEP/TargetCatch RateRec Success Rate
Miles Austin4751.947228.710.7265.28%93.62%
Travis Benjamin1827.99465.450.6139.13%88.89%
Taylor Gabriel3844.07747.190.6051.35%84.21%
Andrew Hawkins6365.0511221.150.5856.25%82.54%
Josh Gordon2420.5447-4.410.4451.06%83.33%

Austin blows all the other receivers away, except for Hawkins in overall Reception NEP, a cumulative statistic. But Hawkins also saw 40 more targets than Austin, accounting for that difference. After a season in which Austin missed five games with hamstring issues, recouping some value in a bad passing offense could be a good sign.

The Philly Plan

Austin isn't going to enter Chip Kelly’s system and suddenly become a high volume receiver again. He shouldn't be viewed as a guy to replace the production vacated by Jeremy Maclin leaving for the Kansas City Chiefs -- that’s not what he’s getting paid to do and that shouldn’t be the expectation.

What Austin could be is a reliable outside pass-catcher for Sam Bradford to compliment Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz, Riley Cooper and possibly a rookie receiver. Austin could also take some targets away from Cooper, after he was inefficient during the first year of his five-year, $22.5 million contract. Cooper had an efficiency rank in the hundreds last season, at just 0.48 Reception NEP per target. He was one of the worst receivers in football last year.

Realistically, this could be the best test subject for Kelly’s foray into sports science. The training regimen in Philadelphia has been well documented since Kelly took over the team. The unorthodox style is an attempt to help better insure player health throughout the long season. If Kelly can keep Austin healthy through a full season, that could be the biggest win to date for the system.

In a vacuum, there are probably a few ways the Eagles could have spent $2.3 million, but this signing shouldn’t be considered the swing and miss it may appear to be at first glance. If healthy, Austin has shown us that he can remain a productive complimentary piece in an offense. Chip Kelly probably has more reason to believe he can help keep Austin healthy more than the 31 other coaches in the league, too. It may not work, but this signing does indicate Kelly has a plan in place that could see a decent return on a minimal investment.