2011 was the season that promised so much but delivered so little for the Eagles. Despite an 8-8 record they were 5-1 in the division, including a win over the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants with their backup QB. Still, a slow start that saw them throw away numerous fourth quarter leads left them in too big of a hole and they eventually missed the playoffs.
They shifted the focus in terms of player management this offseason, as they moved to lock up their own players. Stud DE Trent Cole got an extension that should make him happy, while Todd Herremans got a deal that more reflects that of a starting offensive tackle. Focusing on paying their own players should create a better environment in the locker room and a better performance on the field.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) The Marvelous McCoy
2011 was the year LeSean McCoy finally fulfilled his potential. He’d shown flashes before, but he finally put it all together last year to become one of the league’s best backs. “Shady” was our highest graded pure rusher last year, forcing 49 missed tackles. It wasn’t just his elusiveness that caused various defensive problems either as he added 17 rushing touchdowns, the majority in the red zone. The scary thing is he could be even better, if he can cut out the mistakes in the passing game. Too often he found himself allowing pressure in protection and dropping passes in the receiving game.
2) More Praise for Mathis
Mathis might not be a flashy player but boy is he consistent. He won’t wow you like a Jahri Evans with a dominant pancake block, but doing your job play-in and play-out is more important than the occasional highlight. He allowed just three hits and 15 pressures in 628 drop backs last year, including posting a shutout in three consecutive games from Weeks 15 to 17. Even then his strength is probably in the run game where his final grade of +20.4 was almost three times better than second place. Mathis’ five year $25 million deal was richly deserved and a bargain compared to some other guards.
3) Can Anyone Block the Defensive Line?
The Eagles’ current projected starting four had a combined +100.7 grade last season. That’s just ridiculous. Its strange thinking that Mike Patterson, a very good player in his own right, could be the weak link if he’s able to play after brain surgery. Then you come to the backups, who could start for a number of NFL teams. There’s so much youth and potential in the form of Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Philip Hunt and Cedric Thornton, not to mention veterans Antonio Dixon and Daryl Tapp. One thing’s for sure, the Eagles are going to have a tough time on cut-down day.
4) Improvement by Default at Linebacker
Both Jamar Chaney and Casey Matthews were terrible at LB for Philadelphia in 2012. Both have since been relegated to backup duty. Brian Rolle (+2.1) currently has the upper hand on the weakside and should be better in his sophomore year. He played well considering he was just a rookie, and has to take on offensive lineman regularly. Meanwhile, the middle will be manned by DeMeco Ryans, who looks to have retained his range despite a torn ACL. He should provide a veteran presence and cut down the mental mistakes of the unit as he is a natural leader in a 4-3 scheme. Finally, promising rookie Mychal Kendricks is currently atop the depth chart on the strongside. He understandably had mixed results in his first preseason game but did make a couple of very impressive plays.
5) Appreciating Vick’s Play
Vick is always surrounded by controversy and debate but when you break it down he’s at the very least a top ten QB. If you exclude the Cardinals game, where he reportedly broke his ribs on the second play of the game, he’d rank seventh in the league in terms of pure passing. Add in his impressive rushing ability and there’s no doubt the former Falcon can win you games. He’s the perfect fit for Andy Reid’s vertical West Coast Offense because of his impressive deep accuracy. With a satisfied DeSean Jackson and a healthy Jeremy Maclin to throw to, he should have his best year yet.
Five Reasons for Concern
1) Preventing Pressure Up the Middle
Many compare Eagles C Jason Kelce, a sixth round pick out of Cincinnati, to long-time Colts C Jeff Saturday. The latter has been a dominant player in the NFL for a number of years, while the former has a ways to go. Kelce struggled as a rookie, especially in pass protection, where he allowed a sack, six hits and 26 pressures. No other center allowed more than 23 combined pressures which tells you just how far he still has to go. Next to him at RG Danny Watkins also underperformed as a rookie. Considering his age, many expected Watkins to adjust quickly to the NFL but that didn’t turn out to be the case. He was ok in pass protection but needs a lot of work on his run blocking.
2) The Downgrade at LT
It’s always a shame when good players go down with injury and Jason Peters’ torn ACL will be of particular concern to Eagles’ fans. After such a dominant season, Peters looked primed to be the key cog in Philadelphia’s offensive line that was returning all five starters. Unfortunately, he almost certainly won’t be able to play in 2012 and the position will have to be manned by either Demetress Bell or King Dunlap. Both players have potential but will obviously not reach Peters’ lofty heights. The question remains whether Bell has really turned a corner (+6.7 grade in 400 snaps) or if he’s still the same player he was the previous two years (-36.6 combined in 2009 and 2010). Dunlap meanwhile (+1.8) played well when forced into action against Buffalo and has shown steady improvement since he entered the league.
3) The Backup QB has Never Been More Important
Vick’s greatest weakness as a QB is his inability to stay healthy. He almost always misses a string of games with some sort of injury. Behind him the Eagles have third year draftee Mike Kafka (-0.6) who played well in his debut against the Falcons but then struggled in relief against the Giants and third round rookie Nick Foles. Trent Edwards remains on the roster but that’s unlikely to be the case for long. The Eagles need Kafka, or even Foles, to be good enough to win a few games for them when Vick inevitably goes down. Things became a bit more complicated for the Eagles this year as Kafka broke his non-throwing hand against the Steelers and will miss the rest of the preseason. Vince Young was terrible for the Birds in 2011 posting a 1-2 record as a starter and is now competing for the backup spot on the Bills.
4) Can They Cope at Corner?
For all his deficiencies Asante Samuel was one of the best cover corners in the league last year. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the other hand both struggled. The excuses of scheme and the lack of an offseason are all well and good but Samuel had to deal with the same issues. DRC may well be better on the outside than he was in the slot but he still performed poorly in that position for the Cardinals in 2010. Asomugha continues to struggle in zone coverage and is getting to the age were people start questioning when the decline will come. The lack of depth behind them is also concerning as only unproven Curtis Marsh is suitable for the outside. The Eagles are moving to more of a man-to-man system this year which should help both players out though.
5) Struggles at Safety
Nate Allen really looked like he was coming on at the end of last year. He put together a string of good performances in the last few weeks and should build on that considering he’s healthy this offseason. There are still question marks at the other safety spot however where Kurt Coleman remains a more ideal backup than starter. With Jaiquawn Jarrett playing so terribly, its fortunate the Eagles brought in veteran OJ Atogwe as insurance. If he can play at a similar level as last year, he could find himself the starter, or at least push Coleman to be better.
What to Expect
The Eagles have all the pieces in place to contend. They have a top QB with a variety of weapons to throw to and an offensive line overseen by mastermind Howard Mudd. It seems very unlikely that they’ll throw away as many games as they did in 2011, losing five after leading in the fourth quarter. As ever the divisional games will be the key, an area that Andy Reid specializes in.
If the Eagles can get off to a decent start, a notorious problem under Reid, they should have enough momentum in the easier second half of the schedule to make the playoffs. The defensive line is ferocious and the linebackers should be improved. None of it will matter however if Juan Castillo can’t improve as the defensive coordinator and the pressure will mount if the early games don’t go well. This Eagles team need to let their performances do the talking or it will be all about unfulfilled potential once again.