One of the major storylines heading into the 2019 season is the connection between Alshon Jeffery and Carson Wentz. After last season ended one of the main talking points was how once Nick Foles came in, Alshon started to play better.
With that thought in mind, I wanted to dive into the numbers to see if this was true and see what Wentz can do moving forward to better utilize his number one receiver.
Total stats, per ESPN.com:
Looking at the stats in a holistic view favors Wentz over Foles. Jeffery has almost triple the amount of touchdowns, while also averaging more catches and targets per game with Wentz. The only advantage with Foles is that Jeffery averages roughly 12 more yards per game.
Digging into the numbers in more detail, however, tells a different story. Recency bias is a real thing, and Jeffery had a more successful 2018 with Foles at the helm.
Jeffery missed the first three games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, so his first game was Week 4 against Tennessee. His first four games of the season (all with Wentz) are among the best stretches of his Eagles career. In this span, he had his first 100+ yard game with the Eagles, four total touchdowns, and averaged 6.25 catches for over 75 yards per game. He slowed down after that, though, only scoring one touchdown in the next six games (all still with Wentz) and never had more than 6 catches or 50 yards receiving in a game.
When Foles stepped in, Jeffery’s numbers started to rise. In Foles’ first start after Wentz’s injury, Jeffery had 8 catches on 8 targets for 160 yards, his career high in an Eagles uniform. In five games total with Foles, he never had less than 50 yards in a game (lowest was 59), and averaged 5.4 receptions for almost 90 yards per game. The one stat in Wentz’s favor is the 5 total touchdowns to only one with Foles.
Now that we have detailed Jeffery’s struggles with Wentz, what are the solutions going forward? One common complaint was that Wentz did not do a good enough job with contested throws. The numbers back this up as well. Using the NFL’s Next Gen Stats aggressiveness tool, defined as “The amount of passing attempts a quarterback makes that are into tight coverage, where there is a defender within 1 yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion,” Wentz was the 18th most aggressive quarterback in the NFL. While this is not a perfect statistic, it can be telling with a receiver such as Jeffery who does not win with separation but instead thrives on contested catches. This makes even more sense when you look back on the 2017 season where Wentz was ranked as the most aggressive QB in the NFL. It’s no coincidence that the more aggressive Wentz was the more success Jeffery had.
Willingness to throw to a contested receiver will become even more important for Wentz considering the Eagles drafted WR J.J Arcega-Whiteside in the 2nd round. The receiver out of Stanford drew comparisons to Jeffery for his ability to box-out defenders and win on contested catches. The Eagles drafted Arcega-Whiteside with the belief that Wentz will revert back to his 2017 form as one of the most aggressive QBs in the NFL.
Another complaint that was levied on Wentz was that he targeted Zach Ertz too much. This complaint was sent to ESPN insider Josina Anderson by an anonymous Eagles player and some suspected that Jeffery was the source. This theory would end up being debunked though, as Ertz had similar stats with both Wentz and Foles as the QB. Some NFL analysts, such as ESPN’s Joe Banner, called the complaint “really, really stupid.” This quote per The Athletic.
Even with the lack of aggression and the criticism of targeting Ertz too much, the negativity between Wentz and Jeffery is still overblown. The numbers suggest a successful season overall for these two. During the weeks Wentz played, Jeffery was the Eagles most successful receiver when adjusted for the number of targets, according to Sharp Football Stats. He had the highest rating overall and also situationally as he had the most success on 3rd downs and in the red zone. Targets to Jeffery had a success rate of 58% and a passer rating of 104.5. All 5 of his touchdowns occurred when the Eagles were in the red zone, with 3 of them being on third down. Pro Football Focus actually rated Jeffery higher in 2018 with a 79 rating compared to a 77 rating in 2017.
Looking forward to the 2019 season, all signs point to even more success between Wentz and Jeffery. Wentz will be another year removed from his knee injury suffered in December of 2017 and he will be able to participate in the majority of the off-season activities. While Wentz has not yet participated in anything recovering from a stress fracture in his back, both he and the Eagles have stated they expect him to join the team for minicamp in June.
Not only will Wentz be able to work with the team this summer, but he also benefits from a greatly improved offensive unit. The addition of DeSean Jackson should be a boost to both Wentz and Jeffery. The majority of Jeffery’s success with Wentz comes in the short passing game. Looking at Sharp Football Stats again, targets to Jeffery had the highest success rate on throws to the short middle (80%) and short right of the field (69%). The Eagles offense struggled with spacing without having a proven deep threat, so adding DeSean changes that dynamic completely. Defenses will now have to respect DeSean’s ability to take the top off the defense, which opens up the short passing game for Jeffery.
The Eagles should also be better on the ground in 2019, which only helps the passing game. They had the 27th ranked rushing unit in 2018 (per Football Outsiders) but that number should improve as Jordan Howard and rookie Miles Sanders replace Wendell Smallwood and Josh Adams. Defenses did not have to worry about play-action so they could afford to sell out to stop the pass but presumably won’t have that same luxury this next season.
All this being said, it would be a surprise if Jeffery is not able to improve upon his 2018 numbers as long as he and Wentz can stay healthy.
Featured Photo: DAVID MAIALETTI | PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER | TN