Philadelphia Eagles: 10 Ways the Eagles Have Improved Going into the 2012 Season

Randy JobstSenior Analyst IJune 17, 2012

Philadelphia Eagles: 10 Ways the Eagles Have Improved Going into the 2012 Season

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    The 2011 season was a disaster on so many levels for the Philadelphia Eagles. For some teams, an 8-8 season would be a good thing. For Eagles fans, it was crushing. After all the big free-agent signings and all the hype, it was embarrassing to see this team fall to 4-8 after Week 13.

    The Eagles lost to bad teams and they blew several fourth-quarter leads. They couldn't tackle, they couldn't protect the football and they kept finding new ways to lose. All the free-agent acquisitions couldn't save this team now.

    The 2011 season is in the past. The 2012 team just has a completely different feel. Five veteran Eagles players were given long-term extensions this summer. DeSean Jackson was one of those players to get a new deal. He was not the same player last season. He was grossly underpaid and was very unhappy that he wasn't taken care of before the season started. Now he is and now he can return to burning defenses.

    The Eagles front office has been able to acknowledge their failures from the 2011 season and use that to help themselves heading into the 2012 season. They have taken care of their own players while also being able to add a couple of key players to the roster. They also had themselves an outstanding draft. Here are 10 ways the Eagles have improved themselves heading into the regular season.

1. Quarterbacks

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    The quarterback position makes or breaks a team always. The Baltimore Ravens and Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowls without elite quarterbacks, but their quarterbacks still played on a high level during those championship runs.

    All three quarterback spots look much better this season than they did in 2011. Between Michael Vick, Vince Young and Mike Kafka the Eagles quarterbacks threw 25 interceptions last season. Vick tried to do too much, Young was sporadic at best while Mike Kafka struggled on his deep throws which lead to his two interceptions.

    The OTAs don't give you a real good feel for most positions. There isn't any hitting which makes it difficult to judge players in a contact sport. It's mostly a passing camp, which does give you a decent feel for how the quarterbacks look. All three of the Eagles quarterbacks looked special at times during OTAs.

    Michael Vick has looked more accurate this summer than he ever has. Getting his first full offseason with the Eagles as the starting quarterback is huge for Vick. His timing with his receivers should be better than ever.

    Mike Kafka has looked like a legitimate backup quarterback this summer. He has always been a very accurate quarterback with a quick release and a great feel for the blitz. That all means nothing if you can't drive the ball deep. Defenses can play right up on the line to take away the run and the short passes. A quarterback that can't throw a good deep ball won't be an NFL quarterback very long.

    This summer Kafka has been able to drive the ball deeper than he ever has. He has improved on both his footwork and his upper body strength to improve his deep ball. We won't know for sure if he can hit his receivers on the deep ball until we see him throw in a live game during preseason, but he looks very promising so far.

    Ideally, you would want three quarterbacks on your roster. You want your franchise quarterback as your starter, which Vick is. You want a reliable backup who can have success in a couple of spot starts but also not be proven enough to create a quarterback controversy. The third quarterback should be a good project player. The Eagles have that with Nick Foles.

    Foles has been impressive at the OTAs. When he has time to set his feet, he can make any throw. When he doesn't, it isn't always pretty. A quicker release and better footwork should improve that. He doesn't look like an NFL starter just yet, but he has already shown the potential to be one somewhere down the road.

2. Running Backs

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    The Eagles didn't improve their situation at starting running back. It's hard to improve upon a running back who racks up over 1,300 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns. LeSean McCoy became a top three back in the NFL in 2011.

    What the Eagles needed to improve on is providing McCoy a reliable complimentary back. They drafted Bryce Brown in the seventh round of this year's draft, signed undrafted free-agent Chris Polk and have continued to develop Dion Lewis.

    So far in camp this summer, Brown has shown a lot of promise and Lewis is becoming a more confident runner every single day. Both players could become really good compliments to McCoy. Both should make the team regardless of who wins the backup role.

    The key to becoming McCoy's backup will be who is a more effective receiver and who is better in pass protection. It's very possible that the Eagles could keep just two running backs active on game day to make room for an extra receiver or defensive back to be active as strictly a return man.

    Regardless of who wins the job, it's a better situation than Ronnie Brown and an inexperienced Dion Lewis. The Eagles get a more confident Lewis backing McCoy or a very promising rookie in Bryce Brown.

3. The Morale of DeSean Jackson and the Health of Jeremy Maclin

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    The Eagles should have gotten more out of Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson last season. Maclin had a great start to the season but was slowed down by shoulder and hamstring injuries. Jackson had a contract dispute that affected him all season long. He also missed a team meeting that cost him a game this season.

    2012 could be a very different story for both receivers. Jackson got his big long-term contract. He can be rest assured that he will be taken care of financially for a long time. Maclin starts his summer healthy. Last summer he had a cancer scare in his lymph nodes. This season he is up seven pounds to 205 and is looking better than ever.

    Both players are capable of racking up over 1,000 yards receiving in the same year. The offense, the quarterback and their individual talents should allow for it to happen. Last season neither receiver got to the 1,000-yard plateau and neither had more than five touchdowns. I don't see that happening to both players in 2012. Maclin's health and Jackson's financial security will be a big reason for a increase in their numbers this season.

4. Brent Celek

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    Brent Celek is poised for a career year in 2012. He is healthy, in his prime and will be relied on as an extra pass-blocker the least amount in his career. The less Celek has to stay in to block, the more catches he will haul in this season.

    Celek had just 20 catches through the first seven games as the offensive line slowly came together. He had 42 over the final nine games. The offensive line should be better this season even with the loss of Jason Peters at left tackle. They won't have one dominating player like Peters, but they don't have a weak link on the line either.

    The Eagles didn't improve at the tight end position by adding anybody, but they did help themselves by getting Celek healthy and reducing his role as a pass-blocker.

5. The Offensive Line

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    The Eagles offensive line was in a major transition last summer. They had a very short offseason to adjust to a different blocking scheme under offensive line coach Howard Mudd. They adjusted well, but we all know that they should be even better in year two under Mudd.

    Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis are on the cusp of becoming Pro Bowl players. Danny Watkins and Jason Kelce had solid rookie campaigns that should be followed up with very good second-year efforts. Demetress Bell is the new kid on the block, but Mudd has said only great things about him.

    This group should really excel in pass protection. There isn't one player you should really worry about in pass protection. Most offensive lines will have at least one player that would need extra help against some of the better pass-rushers in the game. Not this group. You can trust that any of these guys will hold their own against anybody in the league.

6. A New Attitude for Brandon Graham

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    Brandon Graham is the key to the Eagles having the best pass rush in football. We already know about Trent Cole and Jason Babin who combined for 29 sacks last season. What we don't know is who is going to finish third in sacks and how many they could rack up this season.

    The Giants have three really good pass-rushers on their line. They have Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora. Brandon Graham would be the Eagles Umenyiora. He was a first-round selection from the 2010 NFL draft. He was drafted to be a special pass-rusher.

    He had a decent rookie season in 2010. He had three sacks and was starting to play his best football before tearing his ACL late in the season. His rehab didn't go well during the offseason before the 2011 season. He showed up to training camp at 286 pounds, about 20 pounds heavier than he should be at. He played in just seven games in 2011 and recorded zero sacks.

    Now Graham is in shape and stronger than ever. He is about 268 pounds right now and just has the mentality of a player that wants to prove he isn't a first-round bust.

    He won't have to be elite in 2012 to prove his worth. He should see about 40 percent of the snaps on defense and could have anywhere from eight to 12 sacks if he plays up to his potential.

7. Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox Add More Depth to the Eagles Pass Rush

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    The Eagles employ the wide-9 scheme under defensive line coach Jim Washburn. They key to this scheme is a heavy pass rush and the key to a heavy pass rush in the Wide 9 is depth. The Eagles drafted the two best fits in the Wide 9 scheme when they selected Fletcher Cox in the first round and Vinny Curry in the second round.

    Both players have the skill sets that you want in a pass-rusher. They have a quick first step and a motor that doesn't stop running. Washburn will see the full potential of his Wide 9 scheme this season. The depth on this line with the two early-round draft picks is scary good.

    Curry was a perfect fit because he is a great pass-rusher already but isn't ready to be an every-down lineman just yet. He will struggle against the run early in his career. He can learn from one of the best in that area from Trent Cole, but for now he will get to just focus on getting to the quarterback in year one.

    Fletcher Cox is a freak of nature. The guy played all four line positions. He clogs the middle and penetrates into the backfield.

    The Eagles had 50 sacks last season, 46 of those sacks came from the defensive line. There is no reason why those numbers won't increase with much more talent and depth in 2012. Sixty sacks doesn't seem like a pipe dream. It seems like a reality at this point.

8. From Worst to First: The Eagles Linebackers

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    The Eagles have had a rich history of linebackers. Eagles fans have had the privilege of watching great linebackers like Chuck Bednarik, Bill Bergey, William Thomas, Seth Joyner, Jeremiah Trotter and Carlos Emmons. Last year the Eagles linebacking corps hit rock bottom. It wasn't a case of lack of talent but more a case of inexperience and bad coaching.

    Andy Reid and Howie Roseman took this to heart and made two serious linebacker upgrades with DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks. Starters like Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews and Akeem Jordan go from being mediocre starters to quality backups.

    Ryans was one of the best middle linebackers before injuring his Achilles tendon in 2010. A switch to the 3-4 defense in 2011 made matters worse. Now in 2012 he is back to his 2009 form and is back in the 4-3 defense. He is the clear leader of the defense and is primed for a big comeback season in 2012. The NFL might want to start engraving his name on the NFL Comeback Player of the Year trophy.

    Mychal Kendricks was a steal for the Eagles in the second round of this year's draft. If he was at least 6'2", he might have been a top-10 pick. He has every skill set you want out of a linebacker except height. When you have a vertical leap of 39.5 inches, being just one inch short of six feet doesn't seem like such an issue.

    Kendricks is outstanding in pass coverage and solid against the run. He is expected to play about 99 percent of the snaps on defense next to Ryans. Brian Rolle will be the weak-side linebacker when the Eagles send out three linebackers in their base defense.

    The Eagles now have three quality starting linebackers with a lot of depth behind them. In terms of 4-3 linebacking corps, the Eagles have gone from worst to first in 2012.

9. Brandon Boykin Improves the Eagles at Two Spots

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    It's rare to draft a player that can improve your teams at two spots. Brandon Boykin will do just that this season. He was primarily a slot corner this past season at Georgia and will stay in the slot with the Eagles as their nickelback. He was also one of the best kick returners in SEC history, another area the Eagles need improvement at this season.

    As a slot corner, Boykin will thrive thanks to his ball skills, speed and his ability to press receivers right at the line. It will be tough for slot receivers to consistently get open against Boykin. He has the speed to recover when he is slightly beat on a route and the ball skills to make a play in the air when the ball is in his vicinity.

    The Eagles kickoff return game was dull at best. On 31 kickoff returns in 2011, the Eagles averaged less than 21 yards per return and had a season-long of 33 yards. Opponents could have sent just nine players out on kickoffs and still been able to contain the return.

    Boykin will be a huge upgrade on kickoff returns. He finished second all time in kickoff return yardage in SEC history. He should be good for at lest a couple long returns this season. He is too great of an athlete not to. Keep in mind that the Eagles have one of the best special teams coaches in Bobby April. Between him and dangerous return man like Boykin, the Eagles special teams unit will put the offense in better field position consistently in 2012.

    I can't think of a player from the 2012 NFL draft who will have a bigger impact in two different roles.

10. Great Safety Chemistry

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    The Eagles started the year with Kurt Coleman at free safety and Jarrad Page at strong safety last season. Coleman wasn't at his more natural strong safety spot while Jarrad Page shouldn't be allowed to play defense altogether. This had disaster written all over it. The issues at safety didn't get resolved until Nate Allen was healthy enough to start at free safety and Coleman was moved back to strong safety.

    Both players will be the two starting safeties in 2012. They played well together last season and should have a better feel for each other after a full offseason program. That is key for any secondary. When you know where the other safety is going to be, you can properly space the field and take away both the deep ball and the middle of the field.

    Allen is one of those players that will always be underrated. He doesn't do anything great and isn't a highlight-type of player. What he does do is everything well and he doesn't miss many tackles. He doesn't have to be a hero on a secondary that already has Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

    Coleman is a similarly underrated player. He isn't very big and he isn't very fast, but he is always around the ball and also doesn't miss many tackles.

    Neither player will probably make the Pro Bowl this season, but together they could form one of the best safety duos in football.