32 Teams in 32 Days: Philadelphia Eagles
After a second straight very disappointing season that began with Super Bowl aspirations and ended without a playoff berth, the Eagles decided it was time to end the successful, but not “Super”, 14-year tenure of head coach Andy Reid. The search for a new head coach orchestrated by general manager, Howie Roseman and owner, Jeffrey Lurie was very thorough, but all along seemed to center around one candidate. After a period of doubt, that candidate decided to accept the Eagles job and the Chip Kelly era had officially begun in Philadelphia.
It was a very active and exciting offseason, in which Philadelphia signed a bunch of mid-level free agents and drafted fourth overall, their highest selection since quarterback Donovan McNabb was selected second overall at the very start of Reid’s stint as head coach. All together the Eagles are expected to start about seven players in 2013 that weren’t on the team in 2012. That could be good for a team that went 4-12, but how quickly will it all mesh together?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Athletic Freaks at Offensive Tackle
It is no secret that the Eagles suffered through many injuries last season, but none was more crippling than when left tackle Jason Peters was lost for the season. They tried to replace him with Demetress Bell but that plan failed miserably. Bell struggled all season, finishing with a -24.5 grade, third-worst among offensive tackles. That was a drastic drop from what Philadelphia has at left tackle when Peters is healthy. In 2011, Peters was the highest graded offensive tackle (+36.9), more than 12 points higher than the next closest player. Just having Peters back is a major upgrade, but he figures to be even more of an asset in the offensive system that Chip Kelly plans to install. Peters’ biggest asset is his ridiculous athleticism for a big man, and much of Kelly’s offense is predicated on the linemen getting downfield and making blocks in the open field. Combined with his athletic ability, Peters is also a very accomplished pass blocker — in 2011 he allowed only three sacks and one QB hit in 570 pass blocking opportunities.
Opposite Peters on the line will be rookie first-round pick, Lane Johnson. Johnson was taken fourth overall and instantly anointed the starting right tackle. Like Peters, Johnson converted from a different offensive position, proving his exceptional athletic ability. Johnson was once a college quarterback and his athletic feet are his biggest asset. All indications from training camp are that he picked up the offense exceptionally fast and is thriving in Kelly’s scheme. With Peters assisting in mentoring the young tackle, he should ascend quickly. Peters and Johnson give the Eagles the most athletic duo of tackles in the league and will allow Kelly to be very creative with the offense.
2. Return of the Shady Bounce
As was the case with almost the entire team in 2012, it was a down year for running back, LeSean McCoy. In 2011 McCoy emerged as one of the most dynamic multi-purpose backs in the league, but in 2012 he suffered from a banged up offensive line, and some injuries of his own cost him four games. McCoy’s rushing touchdown total went from 17 in 2011 down to two last season. Despite the decrease in touchdowns, McCoy is still an elite back. His Elusive Rating, which measures a runner’s success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers, increased from 45.3 in 2011, to 45.6 in 2012. His PFF grade increased from (+7.4) to (+9.7), proving he still has the elusiveness to break a big run at any moment. Entering 2013, McCoy will be a featured player in Chip Kelly’s offense. He will be asked to carry the ball and make plays in the screen game, which is good news for Eagles fans. At 25, McCoy is just entering the prime of his career and should regain his status of an elite back.
3. Plenty of Pass Rushers
With the conversion to a 3-4 defense there are a lot of questions about how the Eagles’ defense will fare in 2013. One thing that can be counted on is that they can still rush the passer. In obvious passing situations their best pass rusher, defensive end Trent Cole (+7.1) will be able to put his hand on the ground and get after the quarterback. Cole took a step back last year from his 2011 campaign when he had the highest Pass Rushing Productivity grade in the entire league, but he was still productive, tallying 46 total pressures in 401 pass rushing opportunities. The Eagles are hopeful that his dip in production isn’t the beginning of age catching up to Cole, but even a season comparable to last year makes him a major asset.
Similar to Cole, Brandon Graham (+31.6) will be asked to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme for the first time in his NFL career. Graham burst onto the scene last year as a situational pass rusher and eventually took over as a starter because of his production. Graham had the highest Pass Rushing Productivity grade in the NFL, generating seven sacks and 45 total pressures on just 205 rushing opportunities. As long as the Eagles let Graham do his thing on passing downs, and the position change doesn’t mess him up too much, he should continue his breakout in 2013.
Along with Cole and Graham, Philadelphia has others who can get after the quarterback. Second-year pro Fletcher Cox figures to improve on a rookie season that graded him as the 12th-most productive pass rushing defensive tackle. Fellow second-year pros, Vinny Curry and Cedric Thornton, along with rookie Bennie Logan, will all be relied on to generate an interior pass rush to help condense the pocket.
4. Interior of Offensive Line
Hard to believe after watching the 2012 Eagles that the offensive line could be their strongest position group in 2013, but that certainly appears to be the case. Combined with the previously mentioned strong offensive tackles, the Eagles boast a very talented interior line too. Left guard Evan Mathis has staked his claim not only as the best guard in Philadelphia, but one of the best linemen in the game. For the second straight season Mathis was the highest graded guard, and last year it wasn’t even close. Mathis grade of +51.3 was so impressive that it landed him sixth on the PFF Top 101 list for 2012. He allowed just one sack in 709 pass blocking opportunities and had an overall run blocking grade of +31.8, once again the highest grade of any guard — by a lot. He is another supremely athletic lineman that can display his ability in Kelly’s offense.
Next to Mathis on the line is center Jason Kelce, who, before his season ending injury in Week 2 last year, was well on his way to becoming one of the top centers in the NFL. Kelce had an up and down rookie year in 2011, but really improved last season before the injury. He’s not the biggest guy, but his strength is once again his athleticism and ability to get downfield, traits that will fit perfectly in this offense.
The final piece of the interior line is veteran right guard, Todd Herremans. Herremans was the starting right tackle last season and was having a very good year, until he was lost for the season due to injury in Week 9. He will kick back inside to play guard this year, a spot where he has thrived in the past. In 2010, Herremans was the starting left guard all season and finished with a +9.6 grade, and his best year was back in 2008 when he started every game at guard and compiled a +25.0 grade. His biggest assets are his versatility and leadership, two qualities that the Eagles will need in 2013.
The announcement of Chip Kelly as the 21st head coach in team history brought a lot of excitement to a fan base that had been utterly frustrated and disappointed with the “dream team” of recent years. However, it appears that the fans aren’t the only ones sharing in the excitement. Many Eagles players have come out and openly stated how excited they are to play in Kelly’s offense, including wide receiver DeSean Jackson and quarterback Michael Vick. Jackson is encouraged by his expanded role in the offense that has him lining up all over the formation and doing things he’s never done before. Vick has said that Kelly brought back his love for the game.
Along with the excitement and energy of the players, Kelly comes to the NFL with a mysterious playbook and element of the unknown that will make game planning against the Eagles very difficult for the first few weeks. Exactly how unique and unprecedented his concepts will be isn’t fully known just yet, but defenses must be ready for a fast-break style offense that can have as many as four tight ends on the field at once and many other skill position player groupings. How long the excited phase lasts in Philadelphia will be dictated by how well Chip can adjust when teams adjust to him.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Quarterback Production
There is an old adage in football that if you have two quarterbacks, then you have no quarterback. Well, the Eagles are halfway through their preseason schedule and no starter has been named at the most important position on the field. All indications are that Michael Vick will return to the helm and get another chance to resurrect his career. Vick had his moments of brilliance last year, but his inability to protect the football and stay healthy quickly derailed the Eagles’ season. Vick finished the once promising season with just three positively graded games and was the 27th-ranked quarterback. The biggest issue with Vick is decision making and ball security. He averaged 2.77 seconds from the time the ball is snapped until he attempted a pass, the fourth-longest in the league behind only Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton, three quarterbacks who use the read option frequently to skew their averages. In the Chip Kelly offense, quick, smart decisions and accurate passes will be paramount to success. He also will not tolerate turnovers, more bad news for Vick who in the Past two seasons has thrown 24 interceptions and fumbled 21 times.
If Vick falters, the next man up would be Nick Foles. As a rookie last year Foles showed glimpses of promise, but certainly not enough to anoint him the starter. In his six starts he had just one game that he graded out above 1.0 and that was his only win.
2. Conversion to 3-4 Defense
Philadelphia’s defense has some very talented players on it, the problem may be that the best ones are suited to play in a 4-3. When Kelly took the job he said the Eagles will use multiple defensive fronts, but they spent the entire offseason building a 3-4. Despite the previously mentioned undeniable pass rushing ability of Trent Cole and Brandon Graham it is a major unknown how well they will adjust to playing 3-4 outside linebacker and drop into coverage. Combined with the fact that the outside linebacker who was brought in to shore up the position, Connor Barwin (-14.8), was the 30th-ranked player at the position last year, and it’s safe to say that there are concerns with the position.
Another talented player who has struggled in the 3-4 previously was the team’s leading tackler last season, inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans. After all, the reason Ryans got traded to the Eagles from Houston was mainly because he didn’t fit the scheme after they switched to a 3-4. In his last season in Houston, Ryans had a -2.7 grade and played about half the snaps. Both the Eagles and Ryans claim that he can play in this defense, but there is plenty of concern.
3. Revamped Secondary
It is extremely possible that on opening night Philadelphia will be starting four players in the secondary that weren’t on the team last year. Some would say that is a positive, after all the secondary was awful last year, but it is never an easy task rebuilding and entire secondary in one offseason. The one hold over from last year who may start is safety Nate Allen. Like most of the secondary, Allen struggled immensely last year, failing to tally any green graded games (higher than +1.0). He was the 46th-most efficient tackling safety; missing a tackle every 6.5 times he had an opportunity to bring a ball carrier to the ground. Brought in to compete with Allen were free agents Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung. Chung appears to have secured one of the starting jobs, with Allen, Phillips and rookie Earl Wolff in the mix for the other. None of them are safe bets — Phillips is the most talented but can’t stay healthy, and Wolff is a rookie that was drafted in the fifth round.
The turnover at cornerback was just as drastic. Gone are high priced, underachieving corners Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, both of whom never reached anywhere near expectations. Replacing them will be two corners brought in via free agency, Cary Williams from the Ravens and Bradley Fletcher from the Rams. Williams is better known, but Fletcher has a chance to be a great signing, if he can stay healthy. Fletcher was limited to just 264 coverage snaps last year, but was second in the NFL in Cover Snaps Per Reception, allowing just 16 receptions. Williams however, finished 89th on that same list, not exactly stellar for your supposed No. 1 corner.
4. Can they Stop the Run?
Another issue stemming from the 3-4 conversion is the lack of a true nose tackle to help plug the run. Philadelphia tried to fix that hole in free agency when they signed Isaac Sopoaga from the NFC Champion 49ers. Sopoaga may have been the best available nose tackle, but that doesn’t mean he’s any good. Last year he ranked 45th in Run Stop Percentage among defensive tackles, making 12 stops on 187 plays against the run. Compounding the issue is that one of the lineman penciled in to start next to Sopoaga is Cedric Thornton, who finished 41st on that same list.
If you aren’t going to stop the run with your defensive line, you better have a great set of linebackers. On top of the concern with DeMeco Ryans moving back to the 3-4, there are major concerns with the other three linebackers against the run too. Mychal Kendricks will be moving to the inside after spending his rookie season playing outside linebacker. Kendricks showed some spark as a rookie, but at the end of the year was the 37th-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker against the run. He will need to be drastically improved this year to help stop the run. On the outside, there is the obvious unknown of how Trent Cole will adapt to a new defense and Connor Barwin was the sixth-worst 3-4 outside linebacker against the run last year. Someone in this group will need to step up, or the Eagles will get run on all day.
5. Wide Receiver Depth
When Chip Kelly was hired as head coach the only thing the experts would talk about is how much fun he was going to have with the offensive weapons in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, early in training camp one of those weapons was lost for the season when wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was tore an ACL. Maclin was the Eagles’ leading receiver last year and was poised to have a big season in the final year of his contract. When he went down, he left a major void at the wide receiver spot opposite DeSean Jackson. The attempt to replace Maclin in the starting lineup took an immediate turn for the worse when his replacement, Riley Cooper, was forced to leave training camp after a controversial video of him at a Kenny Chesney concert surfaced. Cooper ‘Never Wanted Nothing More’, than to move on from the video and after many apologies has since re-joined the team. Even without the video there are major questions about Cooper’s ability to replace Maclin. In three seasons, Cooper has never had a positive grade for the year and never fully emerged.
Other wide receiver options include secret superstar Damaris Johnson, who has a lot of big-play ability and can certainly be a threat in an offense built around running after the catch. However, he is slight of build, similar to Jackson, and wouldn’t be a complement to Jackson’s skills. Johnson should contribute plenty to the offense, just not as an every-down player.
Philadelphia could also ask Jason Avant to take on a larger role. Avant, who specializes in working from the slot, has been an extremely reliable receiver in recent years. He was the only wide receiver in the league last year who caught 20 or more passes and didn’t record a single drop. He is also an accomplished blocker which is a major asset in this offense. The negative with Avant is that while he is steady, he lacks speed and big-play ability. He has also played almost exclusively in the slot in his career and his talent might not translate to being a starting receiver. Whoever the Eagles decide to go with, it will be a downgrade from Maclin.
What to Expect?
If nothing else, the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles will be a ton of fun to watch. Expect the offense to score a lot of points and move the ball with ease at times. If the offense, mainly the quarterback, can avoid turnovers they can be very good. Conversely, the defense might be very bad and give up just as many points. Best-case scenario is that the offense stays healthy and Kelly keeps defenses guessing enough to outscore opponents. Expect the Eagles to hover around .500 all season and miss the playoffs by a game or two — but a 10-6 season isn’t out of the realm of possibility and 10 wins just might win the NFC East.
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