2017 Season Preview: Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles added a lot of offensive talent to their roster this offseason, but are they really a better team than the 2016 version that finished 7-9 with a rookie head coach and a rookie QB? Let's take a look at the team and their prospects for the upcoming season.
Carson Wentz played every game in his rookie season, and while the results were uneven at best, the experience he got on the field was invaluable. I wasn't happy that Wentz threw a franchise rookie record 607 passes, which is almost as many as he threw during his entire college career, but it sure beats the hell out of wasting a year holding a clipboard. Wentz needs to improve on his 16 TDs and 14 INTs from a year ago, but a better supporting cast on offense should help with that. Nick Foles might just be the best backup QB in the entire NFL. Of course, he didn't play a down during the preseason with a sore elbow, but assuming he's healthy, the Eagles could win a few games if Wentz misses any time.
The Eagles seemingly wasted a draft pick on RB Donnell Pumphrey, but he was drafted as the eventual replacement for Darren Sproles, so not much was really expected of him this season. Honestly, he may never dress for a game in his rookie season. Speaking of Sproles, he is probably the best all-around RB on the roster. That's not a good thing, when you consider that he's never had more than 94 carries in a season during his 11-year career. But Sproles is a matchup nightmare for defenses as a receiver out of the backfield. For 1st and 2nd down, the Eagles signed LaGarrette Blount as a free agent. Blount had career highs in rushing attempts (299), rushing yards (1,161) and rushing TDs (18). The fact that Blount has never had even an average season anywhere other than New England should worry you. Luckily, the Eagles really only need Blount for short-yardage situations and for late in games when they need a big back to wear out the opposing defense. Wendell Smallwood showed some promise in his 77 carries as a rookie, but he'll need to improve if he wants to get more than a few carries a game. Corey Clement will most likely join Pumphrey in street clothes on the sideline every game, unless there is an injury to the top three members of this RB-by-committee.
Last season, the Eagles had, by far, the worst receiving corps in the entire NFL. That led the team to draft Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson and sign Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith as free agents. Jeffrey and Smith will start on the outside and give Wentz legitimate threats to throw to this season. Jeffrey is a big-bodied WR who will be a threat at the goal line with his ability to come down with jump balls. Meanwhile, Smith gives the Eagles a downfield threat they simply did not have last season. Hollins will be the 4th WR and play on all the special teams units. Gibson will be inactive for his rookie season, as he learns to run precise routes in the NFL. Meanwhile, Nelson Agholor will take over for the traded Jordan Matthews in the slot. This is Agholor's last chance to shed the draft bust label he's been carrying around throughout his NFL career. I'm not exactly counting on him to make a big impact.
Stop me if you've heard this one before.....Zach Ertz is going to have a breakout season this year. Everyone has been predicting big things from Ertz and he just hasn't taken the next step to become an elite TE. Sure, he's a very good TE, especially late in seasons, but he needs to find more consistency. The thinking here is that with Matthews gone, Ertz will become Wentz's security blanket over the middle. What, you thought it would be Agholor? HA! Brent Celek returns for another year as the blocking TE and Trey Burton will fill the role of backup TE who can catch a few passes from time to time.
What will the Eagles record be this season?
The offensive line remains largely unchanged, except at LG, where Isaac Seumalo takes over for Allen Barbre. Future Hall of Famer Jason Peters continue his quest to stay one step ahead of Father Time, but Time catches even the great ones eventually. The massive increase in false starts from Peters in recent years shows that he's losing a step. Jason Kelce returns as a woefully undersized center in an offense that should have a much bigger body in the middle. Wentz feels secure with Kelce and the veteran center makes all the line calls. This should be his last season before Seumalo slides into the middle. Brandon Brooks returns at RG and as long as he can keep his anxiety issues under control, he's fine. Lane Johnson is just one more failed drug test for PEDs from ending his career. It's obvious that a former QB didn't just get bigger naturally, but Johnson needs to find something that the NFL isn't testing for so he can stay on the field and possibly be one of the best RTs in the game. Of course, he's far less effective whenever he has to slide over to LT to replace Peters. The team is only carrying 8 O-linemen with Halapoulivaati Vaitai backing up both tackle spots, Chance Warmack backing up at guard and Stefen Wisniewski as the swing G-C backup. This group needs to keep Wentz clean and open some holes for the running game or the season will spiral down the drain quickly. It says here that this group has the talent to be one of the better units in the NFL.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Eagles decided that the best way to improve the defense as a whole was to improve the pass rush. They used their first round draft pick (thank you Vikings) to select DE Derek Barnett, who only broke Reggie White's sack record at Tennessee. Barnett won't be starting at the beginning of the season, but it won't take him long to overtake the incredibly overpaid and underperforming Vinnie Curry. Curry spent most of last season on the ground and Barnett looks like he could eventually be a special pass rusher. Brandon Graham has played well enough to shed the first round bust label, but he's more solid than spectacular. Chris Long was brought in to provide rotational depth, nothing more. Fletcher Cox is the highest paid player on the team and he needs to start playing like it. The narrative that he was double teamed on every snap last season, just isn't true and he needs to start dominating in the middle. He has the talent, now he needs to show it every game. Tim Jernigan was acquired in a trade and is an upgrade over Bennie Logan as a pass rusher, but it remains to be seen if he can be the run-stopping anchor that Logan was. I doubt it and that might be a problem with the stupid Wide-9 this team runs. Beau Allen Destiny Vaeao and Elijah Qualls are decent backups to rotate in and out when needed.
The NFL has become a pass-happy league with three WR sets becoming the norm. That means only two LBs are normally needed on most downs. That led to Mychal Kendricks only playing 26% of the snaps last year. When he did play, he looked lost. Maybe this year, they'll let him do what he does best; rush the QB. The main LBs are Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks. Bradham is solid, but Hicks looks like he can be special if he can remain healthy. Hicks led all NFL LBs with 7 interceptions last year, after all. The problem is that Hicks always gets hurt. He even broke his hand on his honeymoon this offseason. That is just not a good omen. The backups are just special teamers and if Hicks goes down, the defense is in trouble.
Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are one of the better safety tandems in the league. Both can cover, which is required in today's NFL. Jenkins even has the ability to move down in the slot as the third CB. When that happens they will bring in Corey Graham, who is a huge upgrade over Jaylen Watkins. And I expect the Eagles to use Jenkins in the slot often because their CBs are still sub-par.
The Eagles only drafted the injured Sidney Jones (which I thought was a great move, by the way), who may or may not get on the field this season and Rasul Douglas, while signing Patrick Robinson as a free agent, after letting Nolan Carroll leave as a free agent. The team quickly realized that Douglas wasn't ready and Robinson can't play on the outside. They traded Matthews for Ronald Darby, who was great as a rookie and not so good in his second season. The Eagles have to pray they got the rookie version of Darby to pair with Jalen "Finger-wagger" Mills on the outside. Mills should not be a starting CB, but on this team, he is. This group is not great, but it's a massive upgrade over last year. Robinson is listed as the slot CB, but like I said, I don't expect that to last.
Caleb Sturgis returns at kicker. Eh. He's a kicker. Donnie Jones returns at punter. *Yawn* (see my previous comments about kickers) And Rick Lovato replaces the magician, Jon Dorenbos at long snapper. Smallwood will return kicks and he did pretty well last year, including returning one for a TD. Sproles returns as possibly the best punt returner in the NFL. The Eagles coverage units both ranked among the best in the NFL last season. That's a combination of good coaching by Dave Fipp and a concerted effort on the part of the front office to have good special teamers on the roster.
Speaking of coaching, I don't see how anybody with any objectivity at all can argue the fact that Doug Pederson is the worst head coach in the entire NFL. He was the fourth choice of the Eagles last season and nothing they say now can change that fact or the fact that he was not even a consideration for any other head coaching job. He made incredibly bad in-game decisions on a nearly weekly basis last season. He would be overly aggressive one week and then too passive the next. Each time it seemed to be the wrong decision. And don't even get me started on that play where he had the franchise QB out as a lead blocker on a running play and then defended the decision after the game. Dougie cost the Eagles a game or two last season and he'll do the same this season. Maybe if he gave up play-calling duties, he would be better at managing the team during the game. After all, Andy Reid didn't even let him call plays for an entire game when he was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City. He just doesn't seem to be able to think on his feet in pressure situations. Speaking of that, I can't wait to see the coaching gaffs that occur in Week 2 when the Eagles visit Reid and the Chiefs. On the defensive side of the ball, Jim Schwartz comes with a big reputation that he didn't exactly back up last season. Maybe with better CBs, Schwartz will be more apt to blitz and get some pressure on the QB. I hate the Wide-9, but it's not going anywhere. That means there will be times when opposing RBs run through huge holes for big gains and nothing will change. My greatest fear is that this season goes bad, Pederson gets fired and Jeffrey Lurie decides to promote Schwartz to head coach and leave the rest of the offensive coaching staff intact. That really is the Doomsday scenario. Just ask the fans in Detroit how the Schwartz era went in the Motor City.
You also need to consider the Eagles schedule this season, which is incredibly hard. They open up with 3 of 4 on the road. That includes a trip to a Washington team that has beat them 5 times in a row, a KC team that is fierce at home, just crushed the defending Super Bowl Champs and will be coming off 10 days rest and then a west coast trip after hosting the Giants, who have the best defense in the NFC East. It gets a little easier after that, but a couple more west coast games, especially at Seattle, are tough and while the Raiders and Broncos are both at home, those are two very good teams. Then there is the little fact that Ezekiel Elliott just blocked the NFL's attempt to suspend him for 6 games.
The Eagles are going to have a tough time winning the NFC East. They can't beat the Redskins. The Giants have issues on offense, but a great defense. And now the Cowboys will have Elliott for 16 games after all. I'm not saying they can't win the division, but I certainly wouldn't bet on it. I think the Eagles are the third best team in the division, behind the Cowboys and Giants.
Sure the Eagles upgraded their receivers this offseason, but it might just take Wentz a bit to get in sync with Jeffrey and Smith. I don't see the running game being more than average. And if Peters goes down, I fear the offensive line will tumble like dominos because they'll move Johnson from RT to LT and weaken two positions. On defense, there is no question they improved on the defensive line and at CB. That should lead to improved play, but they are so thin that a key injury on that side of the ball could be crippling. On that note, the Eagles had the fewest games lost to injury of any team in the NFL last season and they still only finished with a 7-9 record, after a 3-0 start.
Honestly, the whole season comes down to Wentz. If he turns out to be the franchise QB that the Eagles hoped he would be when they mortgaged the future to trade up to draft him, then the playoffs are a possibility. They gave him enough weapons on offense to grow, so now it's up to him. They made some upgrades to the defense, as well. But they also were smart enough to have an eye on the future, while trying to win now. The one-year contract for Jeffrey helps Wentz develop this season, but doesn't strangle the salary cap if Jeffrey continues his maddening trend of getting hurt in recent seasons. They kept young players at RB and WR over a couple of O-linemen that will never play. They drafted a potential shutdown CB, even though he is hurt and might not play a down this season. I'll never heap praise on GM (or whatever stupid title he has) Howie Roseman, but he may just have learned from his many past mistakes. Only time will tell on that one.
For this season, I see progress. I'm not sure I see a playoff team, but they will improve on last year's 7-9 record. Let's just turn that around and say they'll finish 9-7, in third place in the NFC East, but out of the playoffs. And even though that means Doug Pederson will save his job, I'll be happy with that kind of progress for an Eagles team that seems to be on the rise.