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Still special? A Philadelphia Eagles Season Preview

The Eagles are defending Super Bowl Champions. That’s something I wasn’t sure I’d get to write in my lifetime but it happened. In the ‘Not For Long’ league we’re already moving on and looking at the 2018 season which kick off later today (or Friday morning if you’re in the UK). In this article I examine the changes and prospects for the Eagles.

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Coaching
It’s been an off season when relatively little has changed for the Eagles roster, in fact they may even have got better! However, the same cannot be said for the Eagles coaching staff. The Eagles offense looked unstoppable at times last year and were a huge part of their Super Bowl win. Opposing teams were well aware of this and filled their coaching holes with former Eagles talent. The Colts signed Frank Reich to a five-year deal as their head coach after Josh McDaniels reneged on the deal he had in place.
Perhaps the bigger loss for the Eagles is that of quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to the Minnesota Vikings as their offensive coordinator. Carson Wentz’s development from third-string rookie to MVP candidate was significantly helped by DeFilippo. He also assisted Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles to improve his play to a spectacular level after a rough few games at the end of the season.

So, who replaces them? Mike Groh, previously the Eagles wide receivers coach steps into the role of offensive coordinator. The son of former New York Jets head coach Al Groh, Mike’s role in the emergence of Nelson Agholor was substantial. Meanwhile, Press Taylor moves from Eagles offensive quality control coach/assistant quarterbacks coach to quarterbacks coach. Taylor’s impact on the Eagles Super Bowl win was significant as he found the Philly Special. Former offensive coordinator Frank Reich said “Press has this, what we call this vault of trick plays. It’s an immense vault, so every week we go into Press’s vault looking for plays,”. Promoting from within means that the coaches are already on track with the team’s philosophy. Whilst there may be a drop off in offensive production I don’t expect it to be huge or due to the coaching.

Offense

The Eagles offence may actually be better than it was in the Super Bowl when they out- scored the Patriots 41-33.

Quarterback – As expected Carson Wentz won’t be ready for the season opener against Atlanta but there’s no reason to expect him to be back playing to the level that he was before the injury. Wentz is an elite player and should be in consideration for league MVP again come the end of the season. 30 touchdowns is not an unreasonable expectation when he returns. Until then the Eagles have Nick Foles, Super Bowl MVP. I expect the Eagles to continue where they left of, running a significant number of RPOs (run/pass options). Foles struggled in the pre season. Part of the reason was the lack of RPOs an part the absence of usual playmakers. Foles must take significant blame too, he knows he didn’t play well. Look for Nick to rebound with less emphasis on his skills. The Eagles will be ok with Nick and their supporting cast until Wentz returns.

Offensive Line – The Eagles return All Pro tackle Jason Peters, who is an upgrade on Big V, Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Vaitai, who performed admirably for Philly when Peters went down last year, has looked underwhelming so far in 2018. His footwork is clearly an issue which leaves him vulnerable against pass rushing defenders. Healthy again Peters, as well as returning starters Stefen Wisniewski , Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson. Pro Football Focus grades them as the best based on last year’s play with only Wisniewski receiving a grade below 86 (74.8). Once again, they look like one of the best lines in football!

Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Isaac Seumalo are the key backups and Chance Warmack remains with the team despite trade rumours (Buffalo?). The Eagles also added depth in the draft taking guard Matt Pryor and tackle Jordan Mailata. Pryor has shown he can be an effective backup in 2018 but it is Mailata who has grabbed the NFL’s pre season attention. NFL analyst Brian Baldinger tweeted.

#JordanMailata has improved more than ANY football player I have ever watched in 4 months. He has everything it takes to be a dominant player, except experience. Amazing transformation.

Tight End -Last year’s breakout player Zach Ertz returns. Despite playing only fourteen games Ertz showed that he can be a dominant player as he hauled in 74 balls for 824 and 8 touchdowns. Ertz uses his big body well to shield defenders from the ball and has good speed. Ertz was a questionable blocker and was highlighted by Mychal Kendricks for his play on HBO’s Hard Knocks. Is this the year he fulfils his true potential and breaks the 1,000-yard barrier?

Behind Ertz, Trey Burton has left for the Chicago Bears but the Eagles found his replacement in this year’s draft – Dallas Goedert. The South Dakota State has already shown promise, catching 9 balls for 149 yards and a touchdown in three pre-season games. He’s been compared to Zach Ertz by many and I expect him to see significant game time this season as the Eagles employ more two tight end formations. This might especially be true in the Week One season opener against the Falcons where both Alshon Jeffrey and Mack Hollins are unavailable. Third tight end is a question mark currently occupied by Josh Perkins after the team placed Richard Rodger on IR but the Eagles may upgrade after Week 1.

Wide Receiver – The Eagles moved on from Torrey Smith after one year. They’ll look to replace his 430 yards and 2 touchdowns with new signing Mike Wallace who is a significant upgrade. Wallace is a playmaker with exceptional speed and better hands than Smith, who was disappointing at times last year. I see no reason why he can’t but up similar numbers to last year in Baltimore (52 receptions, 748 yards and 4 touchdowns).
It’s not all good news at receiver though. The Eagles will begin the season without star receiver Alshon Jeffrey as he continues to rehab from off season surgery. Alshon’s presence last year went beyond just stats. He drew coverage too which helped open up the middle of the field for the tight ends. If he misses significant time the Eagles may face questions as he was a huge red zone threat and accounted for 9 of the Eagles touchdowns.

Also returning this year are Mack Hollins and Nelson Agholor. Hollins was a rookie last year who showed promise, but his progression has been hindered by lack of practice. He’s spent the majority of pre-season recovering from injury (reportedly sports hernia surgery) and will be missing for the opener. Agholor, on the other hand, will look to build on a season in which he threw aside the bust label to emerge as a reliable target with great run after the catch skills. If Jeffrey misses considerable time then Agholor may find himself the number one receiver despite spending most of his time in the slot. If the USC product builds on his 2017 play and continues to develop the Eagles offense will be tough to stop when Alshon returns. Keep an eye on last year’s disappointing rookie Sheldon Gibson, who shone in the pre-season both as a receiver and return man.

Running Back – During the off season the Eagles lost my favourite offensive player in 2017, LaGarrerre Blount. I have concerns about how they will replace his aggressive style of running as they did not add a ‘bigger back’ to replace him. Instead Philadelphia will hope that Ajayi can build on his 408 yards for the team last year. Despite cringing every time I’m gleefully informed that Jay Ajayi is ‘British Born’ he was an effective back for the Eagles after joining them from Miami. Ajayi only started one regular season game and there are concerns about his durability. These concerns were not helped when he missed significant practice time during camp. While I expect his numbers to improve, it’s unlikely he finishes 2018 with 5.8 yards per carry. The Eagles will likely continue to use a ‘by committee approach’ to running back (in part due to Ajayi’s lack of receiving ability) but 900 yards isn’t unthinkable.

In addition to Ajayi the Eagles get back one of the most exciting players on the team, Darren Sproles. Sproles continues to be a do everything back despite his advancing years (He’s 35) and has returned for one more year to retire on his terms. and will be used especially in passing downs where he excels. Speaking of one player who exceeded expectations last year’s undrafted rookie Corey Clement comes to mind. Clement progressed steadily through 2018 and produced a memorable 101 yard receiving performance in the Super Bowl. He’s certainly a more complete back than Ajayi and may end the season number 1 on the depth chart if Ajayi stumbles!

Defence

Defensive Line – The Eagles defensive line was key to their success last season, having multiple pass rushers to disrupt the passing game whilst still stopping the run. The lone starter lost here was Vinny Curry who departed for Tampa Bay after the Eagles cut him where he’ll join with Beau Allen who also left. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham are superstars and deserved to be paid at the highest level. I expect them to continue giving offensive co-ordinators nightmares in 2018. Derek Barnett will take over Curry’s role as starter and hope to build on his 5 sack rookie season. Barnett has impressive speed and has reportedly added more rush moves to his repertoire in the off season. With more playing time he should easily reach double figures. Behind him veteran Chris Long (who would start on several teams) returns and the Eagles will develop Josh Sweat in the hope that he can develop the flashes of ability he’s shown. All of these players will see significant time on the field as defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz rotates his line to keep them fresh.

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A huge worry for the Eagles is Timmy Jernigan who will miss significant time as he recovers from off season surgery, so the Eagles will have to wait for him to earn the money that came from his contract extension. I’d expect to see off season signing Michael Bennett line up inside to help minimise the loss of Jernigan. Bennet is a huge addition from Seattle and hasn’t been talked about as much as he should. He offers the ability to play both end and tackle. Whilst he has a reputation for jumping offside I expect his addition to the team, and that of over aging veteran Haloti Ngata, to help the Eagles maintain their reputation as one of the NFL’s best.

Linebackers – Jordan Hicks is a star. When healthy. As disruptive and athletic as they come at middle linebacker Hicks had the making of a Pro Bowl season but was lost for the season in Week 7. His return for the Eagles is essential as they’ve really not added anyone to the linebacking corp. A healthy Hicks improves the defence but is something we’ve only seen once in three pro seasons. Nigel Bradham also returns after reviving a five-year, $40 million deal. Bradham is versatile, having taken over at middle linebacker when Hicks went down but is best outside. He is also suspended for 1 week following off season trouble.

Beyond Hicks and Bradham the Eagles linebackers are underwhelming. Gone is Mychal Kendricks, who had his best year as an Eagle. The Eagles will rely on a mixture of Kamu Grugier-Hill and 2017 fifth-round pick Nathan Gerry (a converted safety). They also traded for Seattle’s D.J. Alexander but I don’t think he’ll contribute more than on special teams coverage. Also on the team is LaRoy Reynolds. This is by far the weakest area of the team even before Bradham’s suspension and could be an area teams look to exploit in the run game or with tight ends.

Defensive Backs – Quietly over the last 2 season the Eagles have amassed some depth at corner. With a whole pre-season under his belt I’m excited to see what Ronald Darby can produce. He’s received rave reviews from the coaching staff and could push for a Pro Bowl place come season’s end. Jalen Mills looks like a steal based on his progression last year and his ‘quick to forget’ memory aids his aggressive play.

As the linebackers are such a weakness beyond Bradham and Hicks I’d expect the Eagles to once again spend significant time in nickel defence (2 linebakers, 5 defensive backs). Here the Eagles are hoping that last year’s second round pick, Sidney Jones, returns to his pre-injury level. Avonte Maddox will also see time in the slot despite his 5’9 stature as will resigned veteran Corey Graham.

At Safety the Eagles have All Pro Malcom Jenkins who is also one of the leaders on the team. His playmaking and versatility stand out and allow the Eagles to be creative with the schemes. Rodney McLeod is a solid cover safety with questionable tackling at times. The Eagles strength on the D-line and corner mean that McLeod isn’t tested too often. If teams fine a way to challenge him physically he can be the weak link.

Special Teams – The Eagles special teams has been one of the best over recent years. They’ve impressed both in coverage and the return game. Getting Sproles back and the emergence of Sheldon Gibson should continue this trend. Kicker Jake Elliott is a star at long range but is prone to strange misses in the 30-40 yard range. Punter Cameron Johnston has a howitzer of a leg and did enough to satisfy coaches but will likely be on a short leash.

Whilst the Eagles have got better on paper they have a significantly tougher schedule. I would still expect the team to finish around 12-4. Disagree? Tweet me @Cumbleton

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Article written by:

Johnny has been an Eagles fan since 1992 when he was in awe of Randall Cunningham. He covers the AFC North for Ninety-Nine Yards. You can follow him on Twitter @Cumbleton.

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