The Philadelphia Eagles are on the verge of becoming a Super Bowl contender once again. They have the players on both sides of the football to be elite. It was the same exact story last season. In 2011, the coaches struggled to put players in a position to succeed. They also had the crazy notion that a very inexperienced linebacking corps would get the job done. Neither will be the case in 2012.
Juan Castillo is now a seasoned defensive coordinator. He has a better idea of what he needs to do to be a successful defensive play-caller. The defense will also play more press man coverage instead of the zone coverage they needed to play last season to better fit Asante Samuel's game. Samuel is now a Falcon and both Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be jamming outside receivers right at the line of scrimmage.
The linebackers will now be a strength rather than a gaping hole in the defense. DeMeco Ryans is one of the best 4-3 middle linebackers in the game. He didn't fit in the 3-4 defense as an inside linebacker and now he gets a chance to reinvent himself in Philly. He will be an every-down linebacker along with the SAM linebacker, who will most likely be the 2011 Pac-12 defensive player of the year, rookie Mychal Kendricks.
The Eagles have two solid three-down linebackers with good coverage skills who should also be stout in run support. They will play the type of defense that better fits the players that will be running it. This is a team that is ready to make another run at the Lombardi Trophy. They just need to make a few scheme adjustments in order to maximize their potential.
We have seen Brent Celek evolve into one of the better receiving tight ends in the league over the past three seasons. In 2011, Celek was second on the team with 62 receptions, third on the team with 811 receiving yards and tied for first with five touchdowns.
The Eagles offense would greatly benefit from another solid receiving tight end to stretch the field. We have seen what the New England Patriots can do in two-tight end packages. A good, athletic tight end is a tough matchup for any defense. They have too much size and speed for any linebacker or safety to be able to cover.
Clay Harbor is the other piece of this puzzle. We have already seen just how good Brent Celek can be in this offense. We haven't seen much from Harbor. He has improved his blocking abilities each season he has been in the league since 2010, but we haven't seen him become a consistent receiver yet.
In 2011, Harbor had just 13 receptions for 163 yards and one touchdown. The Eagles could help him out by just getting him on the field with Celek more often. The middle of the field will open up with DeSean Jackson on the outside. Safeties were lining up 15 yards off the line of scrimmage last season in an effort to prevent the big play.
Two-tight end sets would greatly benefit Michael Vick in 2012. It gives him two physical receivers to go to down the middle of the field. It also give the threat of the run to the defense, which will make the defense think twice about blitzing with such an elusive back like LeSean McCoy.
Run the ball! Eagles fans have been screaming that at Andy Reid since 1999. Now more than ever, Andy Reid needs to listen to the fans. The offensive line is athletic and physical and the threat of the deep ball really takes the pressure off the running backs in this offense. Not to mention the fragility of Michael Vick.
The Eagles need to be running the ball a minimum of 25 times every single game. When LeSean McCoy ran the ball at least 20 times in 2011, the Eagles were 4-1. When McCoy had less than 15 carries, the Eagles were 1-4.
It's not just about running the ball when they are getting five yards a carry, it's about sticking with the run for four quarters. The Giants weren't always the best running team in 2011, but they always stuck with the run. Eli Manning had a career year and the Giants were able to manage games down the stretch.
The Eagles will have more than LeSean McCoy to hand the ball off to. Dion Lewis showed a lot of promise in his rookie season. He has quick feet and a strong lower body. He needs to get more carries in 2011.
Bryce Brown and Chris Polk are both very promising rookie running backs They both have major issues that kept them from becoming early-round draft picks. Brown never committed fully to either Tennessee or Kansas State in college while Polk has some injury concerns.
If Polk is healthy, he will push for playing time right away. He is a big back that moves well and can catch the football with ease. Brown just needs to prove he is fully committed to the Eagles. Brown ran a 4.37 40 at his pro day, which is pretty incredible for a 220-plus pound back. He was the top high school recruit in a class that also included Trent Richardson.
The best part of DeSean Jackson's game is what he does to defenses. The safeties have to play 15 yards back to prevent the big play that Jackson has been so accustomed to making. That keep safeties away from the middle of the field, opening things up for the slot receivers and tight ends over the middle.
Michael Vick should understand this, but he doesn't always take advantage of it. He will need to in 2012 in order to be successful. Brent Celek is a solid receiving option at tight end, Jason Avant is one of the better slot receivers and rookie Marvin McNutt should also make a contribution over the middle this season.
Third-down and red-zone conversions have held the Eagles back in recent seasons. They have speed outside receivers, which they have thrived with, but they haven't gotten the most out of their more physical, possession receivers. Getting them involved in the offense early would be essential to the Eagles success on critical third downs and inside the 20.
The Eagles have to use DeSean Jackson as more than a decoy and an occasional deep threat. He needs to get more touches in 2012. He had just 65 touches on offense and a measly four touchdowns. The Eagles were 3-1 in games when he scored a touchdown. He had just seven touches only once last season in a 20-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 16. The Eagles were also 4-2 when Jackson had at least 75 yards.
The key for the Eagles offense has been Jackson ever since they drafted him back in 2008. He had less than three catches four times in 2011, which resulted in a 1-3 record in those games. The Eagles offense is just too potent when Jackson gets going. He is too dangerous of a player to get the ball once or twice during the course of a 60-minute game.
It doesn't matter if it's a designed run, a reverse, a wide receivers screen, a quick slant or a 50-yard bomb, the Eagles have to get him the ball early and often. I would expect 80 to 90 touches for DeSean this season.
He had just 65 in 2011 and the Eagles suffered because of it.
The Eagles have some serious depth on the offensive line and some serious struggles on short-yardage downs. They need to utilize one to help the other. The Eagles don't have the dominant blocking tight end or lead blocker at fullback. That's okay. They do have a pretty physical but athletic backup offensive tackle who can line up as a tight end on obvious running downs.
King Dunlap might be the best backup offensive tackle in football. He has played well in every opportunity he has gotten to start. He is athletic enough to play left tackle and powerful enough to play right tackle. At 6'9, 320-plus, he has the reach and size to really dominate against defensive ends and outside linebackers in the running game.
The Eagles don't have a power running-type back or offensive line. They are built for the big play, outside runs and the screen pass. Few teams do those things as well as the Eagles. Few teams are as bad in short-yardage situations as the Eagles. They have to get creative on those 3rd-and-less-than-1 downs. Using Dunlap as an extra blocker is a good start.
Jim Washburn is incredibly fortunate to have two very versatile defensive linemen to play around with. Last season, both Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox lined up at defensive end and defensive tackle. Cox did it in college, but he has the athleticism and size to do it at the next level too.
The Eagles can really play around with these guys against the run. They can line up Jenkins and Cox as defensive ends in obvious running downs and keep Mike Patterson and Antonio Dixon as defensive tackles. That line would give the Eagles four linemen over 300 pounds. That forces the offensive line and possibly an extra blocker to handle all four linemen, which would free up the linebackers to make the stop.
Not every team has four defensive tackles that can line up together against the run. The Eagles do and they need to take advantage of it. Sending out 300-pounders as your four-man front is a huge advantage.
The Eagles have one of the better pass coverage linebackers in football with Keenan Clayton. Clayton, a former safety in college, has taken those skills to the next level as an outside linebacker. He is outstanding in pass coverage but hasn't been able to win a starting job as an outside linebacker because he struggles in run support.
The Eagles are almost set with their starting linebackers. DeMeco Ryans won the starting MIKE linebacker position the day the Eagles traded for him. Mychal Kendricks looks like a lock as the starting SAM. He has the athleticism and the instincts you want in the position; Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews will be battling for the WILL spot. One of those guys should win the starting job there.
Clayton can hold up physically against the run. He can be useful to the Eagles this season. Teams that like to utilize two-tight ends sets can be very difficult to match up against. The Eagles appear to have two outside linebackers with good pass coverage skills. Clayton and Kendricks are both very athletic outside linebackers with good coverage skills.
Having two outside linebackers that can man up against some of the more athletic tight ends in the league is a real weapon for a defense.
The Eagles needed to acquire a good red-zone target this offseason. It appears they have passed on Plaxico Burress for now. They also passed on some early red-zone receivers in the 2012 NFL draft like Mohamed Sanu and Alshon Jeffery. They did take a red-zone target eventually in the draft. The Eagles selected Marvin McNutt in the sixth round.
McNutt isn't your typical sixth-round draft pick. He is a very polished received who is exactly the type of long and strong wide receiver the Eagles have been lacking since Terrell Owens. McNutt is 6'3, 215 pounds and has excellent hands.
The Eagles need to utilize his skill set in the red zone. They have tried out Riley Cooper as their red-zone target but it hasn't worked out. He is a very patient receiver. That's not a compliment. He waits on the ball like he is standing in a bank line. McNutt isn't that type of a receiver. He goes out and gets the football. He had to be at Iowa in 2011 when he had little help around him and a very inexperienced quarterback. He responded with over 1,200 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.
McNutt will get plenty of one-on-one matchups in the red zone. The Eagles have other weapons on offense that will get extra attention. Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek will always get the attention of the defense not to mention LeSean McCoy, who had 20 total touchdowns in 2011.
It will be interesting to see how quickly McNutt picks up the offense. He came from a very simple offense at Iowa. If he picks it up quickly, he should be able to make a big contribution in his rookie season.
DeSean Jackson is known throughout the league as a dynamic punt returner mainly because of his "miracle" punt return against the Giants in 2010. Since then, he has yet to take one to the house and is barely averaging more than seven yards a punt.
Jackson has had too many injury problems in the past, including concussions, to risk in the return game. He changes the way defenses play because of his big-play speed. The Eagles offense isn't the same without him. Why risk a serious injury if you have other capable return men?
How the undrafted free agents play in training camp will go a long way in determining whether or not Jackson will be needed in the return game. Fourth-round draft pick and probable nickelback Brandon Boykin will most likely be handling kickoffs.
Undrafted free agents Damaris Johnson, a wide receiver out of Tulsa, and Cliff Harris, a cornerback out of Oregon, both have good shots at making the 53-man roster. Off-the-field issues are the main reason these players went undrafted. Neither played in the 2011 college football season. Both were dynamic punt returners in 2010.
Mardy Gilyard was another free-agent acquisition. He was a great return man and receiver in college at Cincinnati. He was a former fourth-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams but lasted just one season there.
The Eagles will be going into camp with a lot of competition in the return game. They should come out of camp with a couple more capable return men on the roster. I would expect DeSean to be taken out of the full-time punt return role. No need to risk injury to your best weapon when you have plenty of capable return men.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is fast. I mean really fast. He is built like a press corner but he runs like a track star. Anytime you have that much speed you have to maximize it in a lot of different ways.
He can be left on an island against any receiver because of his length and his recovery speed. He can be a force coming on the blitz. If he comes free, the quarterback has about half a second to get rid of the football before he takes a shot.
Rodgers-Cromartie did have a sack last season, one against his former team, the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10. It made more sense to blitz him last season when he was out of place as a slot corner. Now that he is an outside corner in man coverage, the opportunities won't be as high but the ability still is.
I'd like to see the Eagles sneak in some zone coverage this season and send Rodgers-Cromartie on the blitz. They can show man coverage and make the switch to zone to throw off the defense while they send the speedy corner off the edge.