2014 Preview: Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles look like the NFC East team with the fewest concerns heading into 2014 but Mike Alessandrini reviews their strengths and weaknesses right here.
2014 Preview: Philadelphia Eagles
No one knew what to expect from the Philadelphia Eagles heading into the 2013 season. The hiring of Chip Kelly brought with it a number of questions regarding the use of his college concepts in the pros. As it turns out, Kelly adapted well to the NFL game and did not utilize an all-out spread attack, as many anticipated.
After an incredibly successful debut in Washington on Monday Night Football, Philadelphia lost three games in a row, suffering through inconsistent play and an injury to quarterback Michael Vick. Nick Foles took the reigns when Vick was out and never looked back. The second-year quarterback had an MVP-caliber season, leading the Eagles into the playoffs, where they lost to the Saints in the Wildcard round. With their fast-paced offense and improving defense, can the Eagles take the next step in the second year of the Chip Kelly era?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. The Offensive Line
Blessed with the top offensive line in the NFL, the Philadelphia Eagles dominated the trenches in 2013. The unit was solid in pass protection, but it was their work in the running game that made the group special. The Eagles had the league’s top rushing attack due in large part to a +139.1 run-blocking grade, which was more than double the 49ers’ second-place mark.
Left tackle Jason Peters rebounded nicely from the Achilles injury that kept him out for all of 2012, improving significantly as the season wore on, ultimately returning to dominant form and earning a +22.7 overall grade in his final seven games. Philadelphia’s offensive line also features two PFF first-team All-Pros in Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis. Kelce was PFF’s top-rated center in 2013, while Mathis finished high on the list of the league’s top players for the year. Mathis was incredible in 2013 as his +42.4 run-blocking grade was almost twice as high as the second best grade earned by teammate Todd Herremans. Allen Barbre will fill in for second-year right tackle Lane Johnson while he serves his four-game suspension. The former Sooner struggled in the first half of his rookie year, surrendering seven sacks prior to Week 9, but was much better after that as he gave up just three sacks to close out the year.
2. LeSean McCoy and the Running Game
Chip Kelly let it be known immediately that the Philadelphia Eagles would be a strong running team. Boy, was he serious. As previously mentioned the Eagles were the top rushing team in the NFL last season and were led by All-Pro back LeSean McCoy. Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Coach Kelly’s system and a strong offensive line, McCoy took off in 2013 by leading the league with 1,607 rushing yards. A human highlight-real, McCoy constantly made oncoming tacklers look silly while showcasing his elite agility and vision.
Don’t be fooled, though, into believing that McCoy was simply a product of the team’s system. He ranked second in the NFL forcing 75 missed tackles and was tops in the league with 26 rushes of 15+ yards. Philadelphia added Darren Sproles in the offseason to complement McCoy and add another weapon for Chip Kelly to utilize. Opposing defenses are going to have a tough time slowing down the Eagles’ offense with these men on the field.
3. Tight End Depth
Sticking with the offensive side of the ball, the Eagles love their tight end situation. Brent Celek is not only a Chip Kelly favorite, but is tough as nails and a locker room leader. Celek is a complete player and was actually PFF’s top-rated tight end (+14.7 grade) among players logging more than 400 offensive snaps. This includes a strong +13.0 run block rating. Philadelphia also has second-year man Zach Ertz waiting to break out. The big receiving threat caught 64% of his passes after the Eagles’ Week 10 bye and is poised to be a bigger part of the offense in 2014. The team also likes the versatile James Casey, who is a very good third tight end. With the loss of DeSean Jackson (more on that later), Philadelphia will be looking for their tight ends to be more involved in the passing game this upcoming season.
4. The Boy-King of the Slot
On a defense that struggled at times in 2013, there was one constant: Brandon Boykin’s strong play. Boykin doesn’t play the same number of snaps as a true No. 1 corner, but he still had the second-most interceptions in the NFL last season (six) and PFF’s second-highest coverage rating (+15.7). In 2013, Boykin proved that he was a clutch player with the ability to change games and make impact plays. Two of his six interceptions were fourth-quarter game-clinchers. One in the end zone to seal a victory over the Redskins in Week 11, and one on Dallas’ final drive in Week 17 that sent the Eagles into the playoffs as NFC East winners.
Do not undervalue the former fourth-round selection’s value to this Eagles team. The slot cornerback position has become increasingly important in recent years due to frequency in which three-receiver sets are used and Boykin’s ability to shut down opposing slot receivers will be crucial to Philadelphia’s success in 2014.
5. Young Defensive Line
The Eagles have to be excited about their young talent along the defensive line. 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox proved to be a disruptive force at times last season, as he was solid against the run and pass (+8.0 overall rating). Philadelphia’s other end is Cedric Thornton, who seemingly came out of nowhere to have a great season in 2013. The former undrafted free agent had the league’s third-highest run defense rating (+21.2) and ranked second behind only J.J. Watt with a 12.4 Run Stop Percentage.
Last year’s third-round pick Bennie Logan took over as the team’s starting nose tackle midway through the year and performed well compared to former starter Isaac Sopoaga. Philadelphia’s defensive line also features sub-package interior pass rusher Vinnie Curry, who had a great 2013; his 12.6 Pass Rush Productivity ranked him second in the NFL among 3-4 defensive ends. All four of these players are under 27 years of age, so the Eagles brass have reason to believe this will be a strong point of the team for a few years to come.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Question Marks at Wide Receiver
One of the biggest headliners this offseason was the release of Eagles’ wide receiver DeSean Jackson. The escalation of Jackson’s release shocked the football world, but more importantly left a hole in Philadelphia’s receiving corps. The speedy receiver was able to stretch opposing defenses while leading the Eagles with 1,332 receiving yards. The team figures to try and spread out Jackson’s production rather than having one replacement, but one has to wonder if any of these players will thrive under Coach Kelly as DeSean did in 2013.
Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL, will be back in the lineup. It is hard to rely on Maclin, though, as he has been an extremely injury-prone player since he was drafted in 2009. Riley Cooper had a breakout season in 2013, but teams will be paying more attention to him in 2014 and he slowed at the end of last season, earning a -1.0 overall grade in his final four games including a playoff loss. The Eagles also drafted Jordan Matthews in the second round this year. Matthews was a star for Vanderbilt, and will be relied upon to produce from the get-go. The jury is still out on whether or not Jackson has been effectively replaced.
2. Issues at Safety
Perhaps the Eagles’ biggest need entering the 2014 offseason was at safety — they ranked dead last in pass defense last season thanks in part by poor play at the back end of their stop unit. Patrick Chung was a major free agent bust, accumulating a -8.4 coverage grade and allowing five touchdowns while in primary coverage. The Eagles replaced Chung by signing former Saint Malcolm Jenkins in March, but he was not much better in 2013 (earning a -6.2 overall grade). Jenkins will start next to Nate Allen, who improved from 2012 (-13.0) but still wasn’t spectacular (-2.1). Philadelphia also has last year’s fifth round pick Earl Wolff waiting in the wings. Wolff could see plenty of playing time this season if either Allen or Jenkins struggle in the early going, but safety could very well be a weak point on this Eagles team again in 2014.
3. Lacking Pass Rush
Philadelphia struggled to get to the quarterback last season. The defense accumulated only 37 sacks, ranking them 20th in the NFL. That’s a disappointing figure considering the Eagles’ defense spent more time on the field than any other unit in 2013. Trent Cole made a smooth transition to outside linebacker, leading the team in sacks (eight) and pass rushing grade (+13.4). Cole turns 32 in October, so the possibility of an impending decline is there.
Philadelphia had more pass rush production from its interior lineman and inside linebackers (Curry, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans) than their rush linebackers. Connor Barwin had a disappointing -5.3 pass rushing grade and only mustered three sacks. The only upgrade the Eagles made from a pass-rushing standpoint was first round selection Marcus Smith. Smith is more of a project and probably won’t contribute much in 2014, so Philadelphia could once again struggle rushing the passer.
4. Special Teams
The Eagles did not have a strong special teams unit as a whole last season. Punter Donnie Jones had a solid season in terms of net yards (ranking ninth with 41 yards), but his overall grade of +7.9 placed him 21st in the league. The Eagles may also have an issue at the kicker spot as Alex Henery not only ranked 31st in the league with a +10.3 overall grade, but his field goal percentage has dropped in each of his three seasons in Philadelphia. Henery has declined from 88.9% in 2011 to 87.1% in 2012 to 82.1% this past season (23-of-28).
The team recently brought in undrafted free agent Cody Parkey to compete with Henery, but the winner of the competition will be on a short leash. Philadelphia was also outgained on both punt and kickoff yardage, while surrendered three scores to the opposition, so the team signed the likes of Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman to help shore up their coverage units. Whether or not it will be enough remains to be seen. Overall, special teams are still a bit of a question mark for the Eagles heading into the 2014 season.
5. Will Teams Figure out Chip Kelly in Year 2?
As mentioned earlier, Chip Kelly took the league by storm in 2013. The team went from last place to NFC East Division champions behind Kelly’s strong offensive system and coaching tactics. Now that teams have a full year of coaching tape on Kelly’s scheme, will things be different in 2014?
Past coaching hirings such as Mike Smith, Jim Caldwell and John Harbaugh all regressed in their second seasons. This same concern applies for Nick Foles as well. The Eagles’ signal-caller was tops in both NFL QB Rating (119.2) and PFF QB Rating (99.91) last season and those numbers will be difficult to repeat in 2014. Philadelphia’s schedule is tougher this year, given that they have to battle all of the NFC West teams. Adjustments will have to be made by Kelly and his staff to one-up opposing defenses if he wants repeated success next season.