The Philadelphia Eagles are coming into the 2012 season as a Super Bowl contender. They aren't the favorite in the NFC yet, but they are in the conversation.
It's hard to write off a team like the Eagles that have this much talent. They have playmakers and Pro Bowlers everywhere, and they have a terrific coaching staff to put all the talent in the right position to succeed.
They still have to go out and execute. Last season, we saw a very poor, fundamentally sound team fall to 4-8 after Week 13. Turnovers, poor tackling and lousy execution led to the start, and better coaching and fundamentals led to a 4-0 finish to the season.
The Eagles beat themselves in the majority of their eight losses last season. They are too explosive on offense, have too much talent in the secondary and have too dominant of a pass rush to be out-matched by anybody.
Ten players will hold the key to the Eagles' success more than the rest. Here is a list of those players and why they are so important to the Eagles' Super Bowl title hopes in 2012.
It's not exactly much of a bold statement to claim that the quarterback is important to a team's success, but Michael Vick is vital to the Eagles' championship run this season.
When Vick started and finished a game healthy, the Eagles were 7-3. He missed three games, was knocked out of two more and should have been taken out of another due to injury (Week 10 loss to Arizona). His ability to extend plays with his freakish athleticism and cannon for an arm are unmatched in the NFL.
Vick has to stay healthy, and he has to take care of the football. He made 18 turnovers in 13 starts. Teams that lose the turnover battle, lose football games a majority of the time. The Eagles can't expect to compete this season if they turn the ball over consistently like they did in 2011.
Look for Vick to make more of an effort to take care of the football and protect his body. Instead of trying to fight for every extra yard he can on runs, I see Vick making one move and then going down or out of bounds.
He's the key to the Lombardi Trophy making it's first tip to Philadelphia next February.
LeSean McCoy had quite the breakout season in 2011. He went from being an up-and-coming back going into 2011 to an elite player coming out of the season. There are bigger backs, faster backs and more accomplished backs, but there isn't a more complete back in the NFL.
McCoy can add yet another dimension to this ever-explosive offense, as he is a threat to take it to the house on every single play he touches the ball. He is just as dangerous as a receiver as he is a runner, and he is one of the best in pass protection.
He doesn't have to step his game up this season. It's hard to improve following a season where you rack up over 1,600 total yards and 20 total touchdowns with only one fumble on 321 touches.
The drop-off from LeSean McCoy to whoever his No. 2 will be is the biggest reason as to why he will be so important to the Eagles' success. Unless they add another back in free agency, McCoy's backup will have less than 150 career rushing yards.
Jeremy Maclin had an offseason to forget in 2011.
He had to deal with a cancer scare all summer long and wasn't 100 percent to start the season. This summer he's been healthy and has even added seven pounds to his frame to put his weight at 205 pounds.
After hauling in 70 catches for just under 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010, Maclin had a bit of a down year in 2011. His numbers went down to the tune of 63 catches for 859 yards and five touchdowns. He also missed three games last season.
Maclin is on the verge of breaking out in a big way. He is already thought of as a good No. 2 receiver, but he has the ability to put up Pro Bowl caliber numbers. A better season from DeSean Jackson would help out immensely. His lack of big plays in 2011 contributed to a decrease in numbers for Maclin. A happy DeSean will lead to a breakout for Maclin.
The Eagles need the best out of Maclin. Right now, he is the best red-zone receiver they have. He hauled in 10 touchdowns in 2010. That's the type of Maclin the Eagles will need to help solve some of their red-zone woes in 2012.
The center of the offensive line is the quarterback of the offensive line. They are making pre-snap reads and adjusting the protection schemes. You can't make a list of the 10 most important players to a team's success without including the center.
Jason Kelce is no exception. He entered the 2011 NFL draft as an undersized interior lineman who appeared to be heading for the undrafted route, until the Eagles selected him in the sixth round. Most teams wouldn't touch an undersized center, but Howard Mudd saw an athletic lineman who fit into his blocking scheme.
He easily won the starting job of veteran Jamaal Jackson in training camp and had a pretty solid rookie season. He gets upfield very quickly on screens and draws, almost like an athletic tight end. He appears to be the Eagles' starting center for the next seven to 10 years.
He still has his flaws though.
He needs to add more bulk to his frame, as he struggled to push back blockers on inside runs and especially on quarterback sneaks. Early in the season, Vick tried running behind Kelce on sneaks, and he struggled to convert them. The Eagles coaching staff saw this, and Vick started running his sneaks behind left guard Evan Mathis.
The Eagles will become a much better short yardage team if Kelce becomes a much more physical run blocker. He had a full offseason to add bulk to his 282-pound frame.
Jason Peters will not play in 2012. Experts can try to speculate that he could come back late in the season, but a ruptured Achilles tendon is not something you just come back from a few months later—especially as a left tackle.
Demetress Bell and King Dunlap are the leading candidates to take over at left tackle. Dunlap isn't the athlete Bell is at left tackle, and he has less starting experience than Bell has. He also is a much better reserve lineman, as he can be plugged in at four different line positions.
Bell has a very similar situation that Jason Babin had when he came to Tennessee in 2010. He was a poor fit everywhere else he played, but he became a Pro Bowl player in the right system. Bell could have a similar fate under coach Mudd.
Bell is a great athlete at left tackle. He isn't as big as most left tackles, but that isn't as big of an issue for Mudd's blocking scheme. He won't be sitting back and waiting for the contact to come to him as an Eagle. He will be using his athleticism to initiate contract for coach Mudd.
Left tackle will be a concern for the Eagles this season. Vick is too fragile to survive a major weakness on the offensive line. We saw what happened in 2010 when the right side of the line was horrendous. Vick's body was worn down at the end of the season, and we saw that in a Week 16 upset to the lowly Vikings at home and the first-round exit two weeks later in the playoffs.
Usually, when your talking about a rookie being a vital part of your team's success in a given season, it doesn't say much about the rest of the team. That isn't the case with the Eagles; it's more of a compliment to Fletcher Cox's game.
Cox has that rare ability to both clog the middle and penetrate right through it. He can make the Eagles' front line truly elite. They won't be debated as the best 4-3 line in the game right now, but they will be in that debate in the future.
Keep in mind they had 46 sacks last season in a new defensive line scheme they had just a few weeks to learn.
Cox also has a great deal of versatility on the line as well. He can line up anywhere on the line, which really give the Eagles some different looks they can play with during the course of the season. They can go big with Cox and have Cullen Jenkins line up as defensive end if they want to.
Cox has the potential to rack up anywhere from five to 10 sacks in his rookie season. He won't see many double-teams right away with Trent Cole, Mike Patterson, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin also on the line.
He also has a rare body type for a defensive tackle. He is listed at just under 300 pounds, but you would swear he is at least 320. He doesn't look like he has an ounce of fat on him. He's just as strong as any other defensive tackle but might be one of the most athletic already.
It will be exciting to see just what kind of an impact he has in 2012. The better rookie campaign he has, the closer the Eagles defense will come to becoming great under Juan Castillo.
The Eagles are expected to play more press-man coverage in 2012—and rightfully so. They traded Asante Samuel for a bag of peanuts because he can't jam receivers at the line. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are better players when they play press coverage.
Nnamdi Asomugha played this style as an Oakland Raider and was rarely thrown at more than 35 or 40 times in an entire season. This puts all the pressure on Rodgers-Cromartie. He will get thrown at a lot because quarterbacks won't have much of a choice.
I love his potential for 2012.
He isn't as strong as Nnamdi, but he is just as long with a lot more speed. I mean a lot more. He is listed at 6'2" and 182 pounds. What he lacks in bulk, he more than makes up for in recovery speed. A quarterback can see that his receiver has a step on Rodgers-Cromartie when he throws the ball, but he usually recovers in time to make a play on the football.
He struggled in 2011 as a slot corner. It was a bad fit for his skill set. He isn't physical enough to play inside, and his length and speed are best suited for the outside. He will certainly get tested this season and won't have a whole lot of experience behind him to challenge him if he struggles.
Casey Matthews apparently has bulked up a bit in preparing for the 2012 season.
He says he is up to 250 pounds which is great news. We have to see him run in training camp and in some game situations in preseason, before Eagles fans can get too excited. It also tells me that he is being moved to middle linebacker permanently to be DeMeco Ryans' backup and possibly his eventual successor.
He was overwhelmed when the Eagles inserted him as the starting middle linebacker in the beginning of training camp. At just over 230 pounds, he was over-matched and beat down before he was moved to weak side linebacker in Week 3 and benched to start Week 4.
Matthews is important to the Eagles' success because DeMeco Ryans hasn't played at a high level since early in the 2010 season, before he tore his Achilles that year. Everyone expects him to be back to that level of player; but it's not a guarantee, and it isn't so crazy to think that he could re-injure it at some point.
It's important for the Eagles to have a quality backup middle linebacker.
Matthews has the instincts, and now he has the experience of a full season and 15 extra pounds of muscle to help him out as well. I think he will be a very good starting middle linebacker down the road. As for now, he is a very important backup with a chance to be a very good special teams player as well.
DeMeco Ryans will be a Michael Vick like importance to the Eagles' success in 2012. The wide-9 scheme can't be fully utilized if it doesn't have a quality linebacker to protect it. The Eagles got torched by the running game at times in 2012.
The Eagles are loaded with talent on defense, but offenses still abused them at times because they could burn them on inside runs and screens. Ryans can take that away and give the Eagles' defense a chance to be dominant.
He will be the emotional and physical leader of the defense. Everyone will become better around him because of his abilities as an every down linebacker and as a leader.
He is also two years removed from tearing his Achilles tendon. That has to leave at least a little worry in the minds of both Eagles fans and coaches. He could re-injure his Achilles or he could be slower than expected. Not everyone can fully recover from a major injury like he had.
If he returns to his All-Pro level of play, the Eagles defense will be one of the best in the league. Remember, with all the issues they had on defense last season, they were still eighth in total defense. Imagine what they can do with an outstanding middle linebacker.
Strong safety is going to be a major question in 2012. Kurt Coleman is the starter right now, but a lot of people, including myself, believe that Jaiquawn Jarrett will win a starting job in his second season.
Jarrett is a good leader and a sure tackler, but he lacks experience to be a full-time starter right now. Coleman is a good player, but he is undersized and lacks the speed you want a defensive back to have.
Whoever will gets the job at strong safety won't make or break the Eagles. Free safety Nate Allen might though. His knee didn't appear to be at 100 percent until late in the 2011 season when the Eagles won their final four games.
Allen will get targeted a lot this season. The Eagles have too much talent with the rest of the secondary not to. He looked great as a rookie in 2010 before he went down, and he regained that form late last season. It will be interesting to see if he can take the next step now in his third season.