In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the NFC East, beginning with the Philadelphia Eagles today.
Recap of 2015: A recap of the Eagles 2015 season could (and probably will) be an entire book. After back to back 10 win seasons, which included a division title and an offense that finished 3rd in DVOA in 2013 and 13th in 2014, head coach Chip Kelly had a standoff with then GM Howie Roseman and won. Kelly went from having say on the final 53 man roster as most head coaches throughout the league do, to having full control of the player personnel department, authority most head coaches could only dream of obtaining. It wasn’t long after this announcement that all hell broke loose in The City of Brotherly Love. Despite having no power in the personnel department, Roseman was retained by owner Jeffrey Lurie and had his office moved to the other side of the NovaCare complex (possibly into a broom closet per Chip’s request) and a string of high risk transactions soon followed. Kelly traded the franchise’s all time leading rusher LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for talented, but frequently injured, linebacker Kiko Alonso. 2014 leading receiver Jeremy Maclin left for Kansas City (the Chiefs were later charged with tampering in the Maclin deal). Huge contracts were handed out in free agency to corner Byron Maxwell and running back Demarco Murray and to top it all off Kelly traded starting quarterback Nick Foles to the Rams for another talented, but frequently injured player, quarterback Sam Bradford. For the most part, these moves did not work out the way Kelly and Eagles fans such as myself had hoped for. Alonso got hurt and missed five games. Murray was not a fit at all in Kelly’s offense as fellow running backs Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles and Kenjon Barner all averaged more yards per carry than Murray in 2015 and all three at times just flat out looked better than Murray did. After getting torched by Julio Jones in Week 1 on Monday Night Football, Maxwell was actually solid for the majority of the season, but still did not perform anywhere close to the level the Eagles were expecting. The most scrutinized move that Kelly made may have actually been the only one he got right. Sam Bradford wasn’t great by any means in 2015, but he showed flashes over the course of the season that once made scouts fall in love with him. Bradford completed 65 percent of his passes and his last 7 games (a very hot topic among Eagles fans this offseason) were actually pretty good as he looked much more comfortable than he did over the first half the season. The offense as a whole was pretty bad for most of the season however, it was obvious that the lack of talent along with stubbornness from Kelly and his play calling were the main contributors that lead to finishing 26th in offensive DVOA. Meanwhile, Foles was really bad in St. Louis. He threw just 7 touchdown passes in all of 2015 (you may remember Foles tied the NFL record for touchdown passes in a game with 7 when he was an Eagle in 2013) and was recently released by the Rams. Even with picking the better of the two quarterbacks, it wasn’t enough to save Kelly. He was fired after the Eagles were eliminated from the playoffs in Week 16 against Washington and another rollercoaster offseason was on the horizon for Eagles fans.
Significant Additions: S Rodney McLeod, CB Leodis McKelvin, G Brandon Brooks, CB Ron Brooks, LB Nigel Bradham, WR Rueben Randle, C/OG Stefan Wisniewski, WR Dorial Green-Beckham, QB Chase Daniel, LB Stephen Tulloch
Significant Subtractions: RB Demarco Murray, S Walter Thurmond (retired), CB Byron Maxwell, LB Kiko Alonso, LB Demeco Ryans, DE Cedric Thornton, QB Mark Sanchez, WR Riley Cooper, OG/OT Dennis Kelly
Potential Impact Rookies: QB Carson Wentz, OG Isaac Seumalo, RB Wendell Smallwood, OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, CB Jalen Mills
Team Strengths: Over the last three seasons, Dave Fipp’s special teams have been among the best in the league and have scored 11 touchdowns over that time. Although a touchdown rate that high is probably not sustainable, the unit’s overall success should continue. While return touchdowns and blocked punts are fun to watch, the real strength of this team is the front 7, especially the defensive line. In 2015, the Eagles finished 17th in defensive DVOA despite being on the field the most of any defense as a result of Chip Kelly’s fast paced no huddle offense. The defense was also made up of a lot of players who were much better suited for a 4-3 defense rather than the 3-4, 2 gap defense that former defensive coordinator Bill Davis ran. Among those players better suited for a 4-3 defense are defensive ends Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry. Graham and Curry are both very talented pass rushers who combined for 31.5 sacks over the last three seasons in relatively limited playing time (Curry never started a game under Kelly and Graham wasn’t a full time player until 2014) in the Eagles 3-4 defense. Fifth year outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks has battled injuries and shifted between inside and outside linebacker throughout his career. Kendricks is someone that has always left Eagles fans wanting a little more as his on field production never seems to quite match his perceived talent and playmaking ability (12 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 3 interceptions in his four year career). Despite his flaws, Kendricks is still a very solid player. Second year middle linebacker Jordan Hicks fell to the third round of the draft because of his injury issues at the University of Texas and a torn pectoral muscle limited Hicks to just eight games in his rookie season. Hicks limited rookie campaign was impressive none the less as he recorded two interceptions (one of which was a pick six), three fumble recoveries, one sack and one forced fumble. Hicks also handled the on field defensive play calling duties after veteran Demeco Ryans was injured and delivered the Week 2 hit on Tony Romo that essentially ruined the Cowboys season. If Hicks can stay healthy (this could end up being a big if), he has the makings of a big time difference maker. Last but certainly not least is star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. The Eagles rewarded Cox with a huge six year, $102 million dollar deal with $63 million guaranteed this offseason after a 9.5 sack season. With Cox moving back inside to his natural 4-3 defensive tackle spot, a huge season should be on tap for the 25 year old. Whenever I’m having a bad day I like to watch this highlight video of Cox throwing opposing offensive players around like ragdolls, I suggest everyone else does the same thing.
Team Weakness: Well this is depressing. Long gone are the days of the high flying Philly offenses of the last decade plus. There is no LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin or Brian Westbrook on this roster anywhere. This current version of the Eagles offense is the worst since the first few seasons of the Andy Reid era. The receiving corp leaves a lot to be desired with third year receiver Jordan Matthews being the only real threat to opposing defenses and even Matthews has limitations when it comes to stretching the field vertically. Second year receiver Nelson Agholor was hurt for a solid portion of last year and when he did play he looked lost. I am not ready to give up on Agholor, but I have my doubts about him going forward. Josh Huff might actually be better suited to play running back than he would be playing receiver. Huff struggles to get open consistently and has had drop issues. However, when when he is able secure a catch, he’s a handful to bring down. Realistically, Huff will probably never be anything more than a kick returner (26.1 yards a return and one touchdown in his career) and a gadget player on offense. Rueben Randle and Chris Givens were both brought in on one year deals hoping one of the two would cash in on the promise they’ve both showed at different points in their careers, but so far both have left a lot to be desired throughout camp and preseason; I would not be surprised if one of them ends up getting cut. Tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek make up one of the better duos in the league, add in the previously mentioned Jordan Matthews who does most of his damage out of the slot and there’s a scenario where attacking the middle of opposing defenses brings the Eagles offense up to league average, but without a real threat on the outside a bottom 10 offense is a much more likely scenario. The recent addition of Dorial Green-Beckham from Tennessee was definitely a low risk/high reward move (traded straight up for backup lineman Dennis Kelly). DGB has all the physical tools you could ask for in a receiver and he’ll be an immediate asset in the red zone with his 6’5” frame, but the reason he was even available at such a discount was that there are already questions about his work ethic and ability to stay out of trouble off the field. Penciling in DGB as a starter for the next decade would be a major leap of faith.
Fantasy Players to Watch: Even if the Eagles offense is a bottom of the league unit there will still be some value for fantasy players to look for. Jordan Matthews is very good after the catch and should get a ton of targets this season. Go after Matthews especially in PPR leagues, it is rare to find a team’s number one wide receiver available at Matthews current draft price (32nd overall WR at ESPN). Despite the upside and draft pedigree of Agholor and Green-Beckham there may not be a consistent option to emerge from the receiving core outside of Matthews, but both are worth a flyer in deeper leagues just in case. There’s never been any doubt of running back Ryan Mathews talent, the issue with Mathews is his inability to stay healthy. Look to acquire the running back as a flex option or even as a bench player this season as you cannot count on him to be there for you week to week, but you should enjoy solid production from Mathews when he does step on the field. Zach Ertz looks poised for a breakout this season and I expect him to finish the year as a top 10 scoring tight end. If you miss out on the elite’s at the position (Gronk, Reed, Olsen), Ertz has just as good of a chance as anyone to join that elite group by the end of the season. Sam Bradford is no more than a backup in two quarterback league. The defense should be a solid streaming option all season especially against teams with weaker offensive lines. If you’re looking for a sleeper in Philly, keep an eye on whoever emerges as the number two back behind Mathews for if/when the veteran gets hurt. Kenjon Barner is currently battling rookies Wendell Smallwood and Byron Marshall for that top backup job, although this would be much more of a volume play than a talent play if any of these guys were to become the starter.
2016 Outlook: After another episode of “Extreme Offseason Makeover: Philadelphia Eagles” that began with former general manager Howie Roseman becoming the general manager once again, the direction that the Eagles are headed in is open to interpretation to many outside the organization. Roseman quickly traded away Murray, Maxwell and Alonso in an obvious attempt to undo what Chip Kelly had done the previous offseason. Chip’s quarterback Sam Bradford was given what is essentially a one year “prove it” deal and contract extensions were handed out to younger core players Zach Ertz, Lane Johnson, Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox, as well as veteran leaders Malcolm Jenkins and Darren Sproles. Roseman then proceeded to bring in free agent acquisitions Brandon Brooks and Rodney McLeod, good players who were both given long term deals. Throw on smaller deals to veterans Leodis McKelvin, Stefan Wisniewski and Stephen Tulloch and all of these moves would point to a team that thinks it can win now. This is where things get complicated, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson, a disciple of long time former Eagles head coach Andy Reid was hired as head coach (his first NFL head coaching position) and the Eagles traded lots of draft capital to move up to the second overall pick to select North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz. This string of moves looked as if the Eagles were trying to rebuild and recreate the glory days when in 1999 Andy Reid a first time head coach selected quarterback Donovan McNabb second overall. So which is it? Are the Eagles rebuilding or do they think they can win right now, the answer probably lies somewhere in between. After the McNabb era ended, Roseman saw first hand that you can win games with a different array of quarterbacks (Kolb, Vick, Foles, Bradford), but that you need a true franchise guy if you hope to achieve any type of consistent long term success like the Eagles had with #5 under center. This is why the Eagles front office felt that it was essential that they go up and get their next franchise guy. Everything else that has been done this offseason with the extensions handed out and all the free agent movement that has happened is an attempt to bring Wentz into a successful environment and build a team that is ready to win as soon as Wentz is ready to play. The other part of the perceived “win now” moves are simple, this is a bad division. No one (including his own organization) is sold on Kirk Cousins for last seasons division champion Washington. The Giants have a miserable offensive line and their defense last year was one of the worst in NFL history. The Cowboys have a defense that could rival the Giants in terms of ineptitude, oh and their season basically comes down to whether or not Tony Romo’s tissue soft collarbone can stay intact. In other words, the Eagles don’t have to be the ‘72 Dolphins to win this division and their front office knows it.
Record Prediction: The Eagles have the makings of what could be a top 10 defense. Their previously mentioned front 7 is backed up by one of the best safety duos (Jenkins, McLeod) in the league and projected starting corners Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll should be just good enough to help the defense reach its potential. As of this posting, starting right tackle Lane Johnson is appealing a 10 game PED suspension. If Johnson loses his appeal, the offensive line goes from what would’ve been a strength to potentially a weakness if they are to run into any injury trouble. In a perfect world, the Eagles defense reaches its potential, Johnson wins his appeal, and the Eagles beat up opposing teams in the trenches on their way to a division title. However as an Eagles fan, I know this is not a perfect world and on tap for the Eagles this season is a schedule that includes seven games against playoff teams from last season (Washington twice, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Green Bay). If the Eagles aren’t up to the task of some of the league’s elite teams, they could be in for a rough season. I think their defense keeps them in games while the offense struggles to find consistency in route to a 7-9 season. The brightside for Eagles fans is there is a lot to like about this roster and if Carson Wentz is the real deal they could be ready to compete with upper level teams as soon as next season. There is also nothing about the state of the other three division teams that would make you think they cannot regain the success (7 division titles, 10 playoff appearances since 2000) Eagles fans have been accustomed to over the last 15 plus years.
Photo Credit: CSN Philly