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Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated coaching change this offseason, at least by those with a vested interest in fantasy scoring, is Chip Kelly’s move to Philadelphia. After all, his Oregon Ducks have ranked among the top-three most prolific offenses in college football each of the past three years, averaging 46-plus points and 520-plus yards each of those seasons.
But how will Kelly’s game translate to the NFL? That’s the $30 million question.
Kelly admitted in a lengthy press conference at the NFL annual meetings that “we don’t run some magical offense.” He also noted that despite his extensive use of analytics and science his style shouldn’t be equated to “Moneyball.” And he channeled his inner Chevy Chase when asked what elements of math he leans on, quipping, “I was told there would be no math.”
So what exactly will Kelly do that’s so different, so revolutionary?
In short, what every other coach tries to do: create mismatches and advantages in numbers. And it might surprise you that Kelly has done this most effectively in the ground game; his teams have averaged 300 rushing yards per game over the past three seasons.
Certainly, the crux of this advantage will come from a quarterback who’s a threat to run. This year, that will be Michael Vick, with Dennis Dixon as a backup plan. Going forward, don’t be surprised if E.J. Manuel is wearing an Eagles cap on one of the first two days of the draft.
Shortly after the Kelly hiring Vick said he thought the new-look Philly attack could return him to the 1,000-rushing yard level he reached in 2006. The downside—and the reason Dixon is an important handcuff to Vick, both for Philly and for fantasy owners—is the number of hits Vick’s 123 carries and 45 sacks led to. And that was with a body that was seven years younger with considerably less wear and tear.
Done correctly—like the Redskins with Robert Griffith III and the 49ers with Colin Kaepernick—a running quarterback can be devastatingly effective. And Kelly’s body of work at Oregon suggests he’s capable of doing this correctly. The lanes that a running quarterback creates ripple through the rest of the offense: RG3 capitalized on open passing lanes, making him a more accurate and effective passer, and Albert Morris saw more daylight to run to. So despite the obvious injury risk, the potential for Vick to post productive—perhaps even elite—fantasy numbers is there.
Vick will have a two-headed ground game at his disposal, and early indications are the Eagles won’t be afraid to use both LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown in the same backfield at the same time. If defenses are spread thin defending both Vick and one running back on the ground, adding another talented runner to the mix stretches defenses even further.
Ultimately the Eagles’ rushing numbers should swell—transitioning from pass-happy Andy Reid, that’s all but given. However, the split might not be so McCoy-heavy; if Philly does intend to use Brown, both in the same backfield and as an alternative to McCoy, the resulting reduction in touches will ding his fantasy value. Will the overall uptick in rushing numbers offset the reduced workload and keep McCoy among the fantasy elite? Another $30 million question—or at least a $30 question, if that’s the price point for elite running backs in your $100 fantasy auction.
Wide receiver DeSean Jackson made waves shortly after Kelly’s hiring by proclaiming that his new role in Philadelphia would be similar to that of running back/wideout De’Anthony Thomas at Oregon. The comment was noteworthy first of all because it came during a point in the league year where Kelly should not have had any football-related contact with Jackson—which Kelly was quick to point out. Secondly, as Kelly also noted, while Thomas and Jackson share some skill sets “my understanding is that DeSean has been a receiver his entire life. So they are not similar from that standpoint.”
So in case you had visions of Jackson getting a Percy Harvin-type hybrid workload in Philly, go ahead and put those thoughts to rest. You’ll still get some Jackson end-arounds, but he won’t be seeing 100 rushing attempts.
What Jackson will be doing, however, is taking advantage of Kelly’s ability to create matchup problems in the passing game. One of Kelly’s widely acknowledged strengths at Oregon was his ability to get receivers open against zone coverage, using the wider hash marks and his Ducks’ superior team speed to free up receivers for easy grabs followed by open-field yards after the catch. The narrower hash marks of the NFL negate some of this advantage, but Jackson and Jeremy Maclin had the requisite speed to get open and make plays in Reid’s WCO; they should have similar if not greater success in a system that plays to their strong points.
All the focus on speed and spread formations and creating matchup problems doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the same fantasy success a tight end traditionally enjoys in a West Coast offense, but don’t write off the position under Kelly. The goal of the curious mash-up between Kelly’s run-and-shoot spread elements and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s West Coast foundation is still to create mismatches; at tight end, that may be less about alignment and more about physical traits a la Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in New England. A fast guy who’s bigger than the corner or safety trying to cover him, or a big guy fast enough to elude the linebacker assigned to him—those mismatches create problems for the defense just like speed and spread formations do. Perhaps Brent Celek isn’t the fit Kelly will be looking for… but former Cleveland Brown Evan Moore or one of the athletic tight ends in this year’s draft class could. It’s a position worth keeping an eye on during the Eagles’ preseason.
Finally, the expectation is that Kelly will bring the same expediency to his offense that he had at Oregon. Maybe the Eagles won’t run the same insane number of plays, but there will definitely be no-huddle and hurry-up elements to the Philadelphia attack. That means more plays, and more plays in theory means more yards and more points—music to fantasy owners’ ears.
Kelly also offers innovations—or at least outside-the-box thinking from what we’ve grown accustomed to in the NFL—in everything ranging from nutrition to sleep habits to going for it on fourth down. After so many years of Andy Reid, things will at minimum be different in Philadelphia. And for all signs to point towards upticks in fantasy production after some very fantasy-friendly Reid offenses… it’s no wonder the fantasy world eagerly awaits Chip Kelly’s NFL debut.
Note: Much, much more information has been written about Chip Kelly’s offense; for more in-depth analysis of the new Eagles’ coach I recommend a pair of articles from Chris Brown of Smart Football – here and here; and film study of Kelly’s offense from Greg Cosell – here.