What are the Bears Getting in Nick Foles?

| March 19th, 2020

The Bears traded a 4th round pick for Nick Foles, and the Bears officially have their new quarterback.

On the surface it might seem puzzling to trade for a 31 year-old quarterback who hasn’t thrown 200 passes in a season since 2015, but one of the big draws for Foles was his familiarity in Matt Nagy’s offense. He played for Nagy in Kansas City in 2016 and in the same scheme in Philadelphia under Doug Pederson in 2017-18. This could be especially important in this offseason, when team activities might not happen before training camp due to Covid-19.

Let’s take a look at some advanced statistics to see how Foles has performed in this offense. In my view, advanced statistics tell us as much about a quarterback’s approach as they do his efficiency. From them, you can see if he favors holding the ball to make a play or getting it out quickly to avoid taking a sack, pushing it deep or throwing it underneath, and making safe passes or taking chances into coverage.

The table below shows a battery of advanced statistics for Foles from 2016-18. For comparison, I included Mitchell Trubisky’s stats from his time under Nagy, and also Alex Smith’s from his time in this offense in Kansas City (the Next Gen Stats database only goes back to 2016, so I couldn’t make his sample any larger). I’ll note that Foles’ stats include playoff games to make the sample a bit bigger; even with that, it’s barely over 500 passes, and about 1/3 of that comes from the playoffs. I color-coordinated columns into general categories: basic efficienty stats (gray), throwing distance (blue), throwing time (tan), and taking chances (green). All data comes from Next Gen Stats except deep passes, which are from Pro Football Reference.

A few thoughts:

  • Overall, Foles is kind of a poor man’s Alex Smith. He shares a lot of the same safe tendencies, but isn’t as efficient. Given Smith’s success in Kansas City when Nagy was there, I’m guessing that’s what he sees and likes in Foles.
  • Looking at the grey columns, you can see that neither Foles nor Trubisky are as efficient as Smith. Foles has been more efficient than Trubisky, however, which is not surprising considering Trubisky finished at the bottom of the league in yards/attempt in 2019. Trubisky’s 2018 figure (7.4 yards/attempt) is more in line with the other 2 QBs.
  • Looking at the blue columns, you can see that Foles is fairly similar to Smith in throwing short passes and relying on yards after the catch (YAC) to maintain efficiency. YAC is an area where the Bears have struggled mightily the last two years, and Foles appears to represent a significant upgrade there.
  • Looking at the tan columns, neither Foles nor Trubisky get the ball out as quickly as Smith, though Foles is very good at avoiding sacks. Some of that may have been due to the outstanding line he played behind in Philadelphia, but there is growing evidence that sacks are largely a quarterback stat, which would speak well to Foles’ ability to get the ball out in time.
  • Looking at the green columns, you can see that Foles and Trubisky both throw aggressively into coverage a bit more often than Smith does. Trubisky also throws it deep more often than the other two, though that’s mostly a function of 2018 (his 2019 rate was in line with Smith and Foles).

Tale of Two Quarterbacks

Like I mentioned above, I included playoff stats for Foles but not the other two in an attempt to increase his sample size, which was significantly smaller than Trubisky’s and Smith’s. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that the regular season and playoff Foles take quite a different approach to playing quarterback. Look at these same stats as the table above, split into Foles’ performance in the regular season and playoffs.

Some things don’t change: he throws the ball in about the same time and completes about the same amount of passes. But playoff Foles is much more aggressive throwing into tight coverage and pushes the ball down the field more. Regular season Foles plays like an inefficient version of Alex Smith. Playoff Foles plays more like Ryan Fitzpatrick. The stylistic differences there are jarring.

Is that simply due to a small sample size (playoffs is 6 games, about 175 passes)? Foles adjusting to the defenses he’s facing? I have no idea.

Matt Nagy received a lot of credit for coaxing a bit more aggressiveness out of Alex Smith in 2017, which led to the best season of Smith’s career. Foles tends to play with Smith-like tendencies by playing it safe and throwing it underneath, but he’s not as good at it as Smith was. However, Foles has shown in flashes he is willing to take chances. Nagy’s challenge will be coaxing that out of him just like he did with Smith.

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