LAST year…Philadelphia won the Super Bowl after winning the NFC East with a 5 – 1 record, and going 13 – 3 overall. The 457 points they scored were first in the division and second in the NFL. The 295 points they allowed were the second lowest in the conference. This was all despite an injury bug that only seemed to take away key players. Part of that was an excellent job of adjusting by Head Coach Doug Pederson
and his staff. The other part of that was the excellent roster assembled by General Manager Howie Roseman.
That was last year. Keeping in mind that the Draft will change some of this, the following is a report on how the team looks today, prior to the NFL Draft….
Nick Foles was the Super Bowl MVP, has been a Pro Bowl MVP, and has set an NFL record for throwing 7 touchdowns in a single game. He’s all set to open this season, if MVP caliber starter Carson Wentz isn’t quite where he should with the rehab of the ACL and LCL that he tore last season. Third stringer Nate Sudfeld, owns the all-time NFL record for highest completion percentage (82.6) by a QB making his debut. This team has no concerns at this position. (+)
Starter Jay Ajayi plays fast and aggressively, but he has yet to display the catching ability of an elite back. Corey Clement
has better hands, but he doesn’t offer quite the size/speed combo that Ajayi does. Otherwise, this team has two backs who could carry the load in the case of injury. Donnel Pumphrey missed 2017 with a torn hamstring, but prior to that, hadn’t shown much in the way of potential. Wendell Smallwood (for the moment) is still on the roster, but last year, after the Eagles realized what they had in Clement, Smallwood was mothballed until he was activated for the garbage time game against the Cowboys. The Eagles have a new Offensive Coordinator this year. To their credit he was promoted from within, not hired off the street. So continuity of overall concept should be unaffected. Whether or not the Eagles still hand the ball off 29.6 times a game in 2018, remains to be seen. (+)
Nelson Agholor made me eat crow over what I said about him last year. And it was delicious! In 2017 Agholor found his stroke, his stride, and his strength while playing in the slot, instead of on the outside. However, the real story here is Alshon Jeffery. While he didn’t reach 800 yards during the season, he scored 9 times in the regular season, and followed it up with a monster playoff run. All while battling a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, which wasn’t revealed until after the Super Bowl.
Mike Wallace (Ravens) proved at 30, that he could still take the top off of defenses, so the Eagles added him to keep Safeties out of the box. The 6’4” Mack Hollins should see increased playing time, after making a solid contribution as a rookie. Like last year, no one jumps out as a mega-star, but the position as a whole is a nightmare factory to defend. (+)
The luxury of three starting caliber players is gone, but Zach Ertz remains. He’s been good for at least 74 catches and 816 yards, per year, since 2015. Ertz isn’t a dominant blocker or big down-field threat. What he is, is clockwork, and that’s a trait that an offense needs at this position. Richard Rodgers (Packers) was added, and on the surface that looks like a total shrug. A closer look reveals that his former team had been getting away from utilizing the position, since 2015. By the way, in 2015 he was second on the team in receptions, and tied for the team lead in TD’s. So the Eagles have two guys who can catch the ball, be a red zone threat, and block competently if not dominantly. It would be a reach to call Rodgers a clone of Ertz, but he fits the scheme equally as well, and based on how Philadelphia uses Ertz, Rodgers wouldn’t be huge downgrade if he had to fill-in. The Eagles lack a player who is more of a goal-line and short yardage blocker. There are other players at the position, but they’re also more receivers or projects. (+)
In 2017 LT Jason Peters went down, and the Eagles filled his spot with Halapoulivaati Vaitai. While surface reports will tell you that Vaitai did a great job, in all truth the Eagles compensated by adding extra protection to the left side, when they weren’t rolling plays to the right, that they had been rolling them to the left. Then again simple adjustments are the easiest to make and easiest to maintain. Peters is set to return, but at 36 you have to wonder how much more he can take. That being said, until he shows he can’t play, he’s still one of the best. Stefen Wisniewski is the Eagles best player at LG. Isaac Seumalo opened the season there, but he was a bad fit from the word “Go”, and after 2 starts he was benched. C Jason Kelce anchors the pivot, and RG Brandon Brooks and RT Lane Johnson are as solid a side as there can be in football. Both earned their first Pro Bowl nods in 2017. Vaitai, and G Chance Warmack boast more high level experience than some NFL starters. So depth is no issue at all for Philadelphia. (+)
In a nutshell:
The Eagles don’t have the fastest, biggest, or strongest of anything on their offense. What they DO have, are back-ups who mimic many traits exhibited by the starters. That ensures snug scheme fits, and creates a level of depth that’s virtually impossible to copy, especially by teams who chase (and pay for) the top this or that. The Eagles don’t have the most talented offense, they have the most efficient offense. And it’s built that way from top to bottom, at every position. The team brought in no free agents to bolster the starting line-up on this side of the ball. That’s an indication of extreme comfort and confidence. Should make for an interesting and far-looking Draft. (+)
While losing Vinny Curry was a blow, the Eagles recovered nicely with the signing Michael Bennett (Seahawks). Some would even call it an upgrade, since Bennett is a better pass rusher, and more flat out disruptive to a blocking scheme. Whether or not he can set and hold a hard edge vs the run, remains to be seen. Teams not being able to run is what helped us set up so many clear pass rush downs. Brandon Graham
and Chris Long form a relentless 1-2 rotation on the left side. Whether or not Derek Barnett or Bennett will start on the right side, has yet to be discussed publicly. As an added pinch of salt in the wound of the other 31 franchises, the Eagles also have Steven Means on the roster. This position is the envy of the NFL. (+)
Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan did great job of anchoring the middle and moving the line of scrimmage in 2017. They became somewhat less disruptive after injuries forced the coaching staff to adjust the scheme, but they should be back to wreaking havoc at full tilt in 2018. Adding to the deepest defensive line in football, is Haloti Ngata. A torn bicep ended his 2017 season in week 5, and he’s likely to miss only voluntary camp while he continues to rehab it. He’s a disturbingly quick man to say he’s 340 pounds, and now that he’s part of a rotation, he doesn’t have to worry about pacing himself, so he can go full blast whenever he’s out there. With Beau Allen’s departure, Destiny Vaeao may be in line for a larger role in 2018. (+)
Nigel Bradham re-signed this offseason, so the Eagles have their best LB of 2017 locked in for the long ride.
SMART MOVE! The version of the Wide Nine run by the Eagles wouldn’t work without the role the LB’s play, and Bradham was the best of all of them in 2017. The only knock on him is the three or four interceptions that bounced off his hands. Mychal Kendricks is solid, but he doesn’t come close to playing up to his contract. Scuttlebutt has it that the Draft will determine if he’s an Eagle in 2018. Beyond these two there is no depth. Some of this has to have made it’s way to Kendricks himself, so it begs the question of what effect it will have on his play if he stays. Right now it looks like there’s a player and half at a two man spot. (-)
Jordan Hicks is great. When he plays. In three seasons he’s played 16 games, just once. The difference between this year and other years, is the Eagles went out and got a solid back-up to play behind Hicks, in Paul Worrilow (Lions). Worrilow isn’t a splash play LB. He’s an in-the-box, shallow zone guy. If pressed into starting, he has plenty of experience doing so. Interestingly enough the Eagles actually signed Corey Nelson (Broncos) before they added Worrilow. This indicates that instead of just anointing a back-up, the Eagles are going to make players fight over it. Can’t go wrong with that approach. (+)
When you hear conversations about the best players at this position, if Malcolm Jenkins doesn’t get a mention then you can stop listening. While he may not be the best, he damned sure belongs in the conversation. He fills roles ranging from Nickel LB to SS to FS to Nickel CB, and he does them all well. (That’s Charles Woodson territory.) 2017 was his first year as an Eagle without scoring a TD. Rodney McLeod quietly does a great job as the last line of defense. He seemed to get more media fanfare when he was a Ram, but he’s been a much better player as an Eagle. Tre Sullivan made repeated “impacts” last preseason.
Unfortunately, he lost out to Corey Graham, who moved on after the season. Depth might be a question, but the top two guys are bonafide. (+)
Sidney Jones might turn out to be great. On the other hand, Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, and Rasul Douglas aren’t great. They’re just all just very good. It remains to be seen how good Daryl Worley (Panthers) is in this system. On paper he plays his best football once the weather turns cold. So that’s a plus. To see Douglas or Mills converted to Safeties shouldn’t surprise, since they’re already tweeners and the Eagles need depth there, plus they already know the ins and outs of the system. Unless Jones emerges as one, there isn’t a single shutdown corner on the entire roster, but the worst player in this group is as good or better, than many starters in the NFL. (+)
In a nutshell:
Fast-break offense in basketball is a familiar term to most sports fans. Fast-break defense in football, not so much. That however, is exactly what the Eagles play. If a team can run the ball enough to balance the game, the Eagles have to fight. If they can stop a team from running early, the game turns into quicksand. The harder a team struggles, the faster they sink. To address that Philadelphia went out and added pieces like Ngata, Worrilow, Sullivan and Worely as players who are more thumpers types and less NASCAR. The Eagles are now building to play physical as well as fast. Keep an eye on this defense in 2018. It will be better than it was in 2017. (+)
Cameron Johnston was on the roster last year during the preseason. He punted extremely well, with a net average of 43.0 yards. Granted, that’s just preseason, but that’s a preseason playing under Special Teams Coach Dave Fipp’s system. Johnston knows the core concept and many of the players. So he can hit the ground running during mini-camp, and just build from there. All of this is promising, but he’s still not verified by regular season play, so this grade technically can’t be a good one… Technically. (-)
Jake Elliott came in with the superhero landing.
In just his second game, he kicked a 61 yard back-breaker for a walk-off win against a division rival. That set the distance record for both the Eagles franchise and NFL rookies. Nailing 17 of 19 from 40+ (including 5 of 6 form 50+) during the season, he only got better in the playoffs hitting 7 of 7 (including 3 o f 3 from 40 or better). Even his kick-offs got better, as during the season 40 of his 84 kick-offs (47.6%) were returned, for an average of 21.4 yards. In the playoffs that only 5 of his 19 kick-offs (26.3%) were returned, for an average of just 15.0 yards. Elliott could stand to improve his extra point kicking (39 of 42) and field goals of 30 to 39 yards (4 of 7, 57%). Other than that, this kid looks like he’s only going to get scarier. (+)
No one who returned a punt for the Eagles in 2017 is currently on the roster. As far as kick returners, Wendell Smallwood has actually brought one back for a score in 2016, and Corey Clement has a few returns under his belt. That having been said, none of these Eagles returners will scare anybody this year. Either they need to sign someone, or hope they stumble upon a gem. (-)
In a nutshell:
This is a very young unit, with a number of unproven players on it. While unproven doesn’t mean untalented, it does mean inexperienced and thus prone to mistakes at key points. Until these players can prove that they are above that, it’s less than fair to give them the benefit of the doubt. (-)
Defense wins championships, but the current media focus is offense first, second and third. That allowed the 2017 Eagles to perform a kind of sleight of hand. Scoring, then forcing mistakes in teams trying to catch-up, then repeating the process. All most saw were the scores, not how the Eagles got the ball back, or quietly won the hidden yardage battles. This edition (especially the defense) looks like it’s being honed to do an even more efficient job in 2018. And it’s all been done in fairly low-key fashion.