10 Philadelphia Eagles Who Need to Step Up This Season
Every team has a select number of veteran players whose performance will make or break their season. Last year's Super Bowl champion New York Giants were a perfect example of that. They had a rash of injuries before the season started and needed several veterans to play bigger roles in 2012. Corey Webster, Chris Canty, Jason Pierre-Paul and Victor Cruz all had career years.
The Eagles haven't had a flurry of injuries just yet, but they will still rely on some key veteran players to play even better in 2012. This Eagles team is right on the cusp of being a Super Bowl contender.
Here are the 10 players who will make or break this team and what kind of impact they need to have this season.
1. Michael Vick
Thirty teams need their quarterback to step up their performance this season if they want to hoist the Lombardi Trophy next February. The lone expectations are Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning, for obvious reasons.
Anytime you talk about which veteran players need to step up for their teams, it always starts with the quarterback.
Vick had a rough 2011. He was injured in three separate games, missed three starts and was knocked out of two more. He had 19 total touchdowns and 18 turnovers. The lower number of touchdowns isn't a big deal, especially in a year when his running back scored 17 on the ground. However, the 18 turnovers are a big deal.
Turnovers are a killer for any player, especially the quarterback. Turnovers end drives quicker than they should end, and they give up field position to the opposition. Vick threw interceptions in 10 of his 13 starts last season. The Eagles went 3-0 in those games and 4-6 when he threw a pick.
Vick has looked really sharp this summer. He appears to be focused on staying healthy and limiting his turnovers. If he does that, he will be a Pro Bowl quarterback again.
2. Mike Kafka
It is very likely that Michael Vick will miss some time this season, making backup quarterback Mike Kafka a very valuable player. Andy Reid wants a backup quarterback he can rely on at any given time should Vick miss a start or be unable to finish a game.
Five times the Eagles relied on their backup quarterbacks for relief. There were two times Vick couldn't finish a game; once in Week 2 against the Falcons and again in Week 3 against the Giants. Vick also missed three starts between Weeks 11 and 13. In those five games, the Eagles went 1-4.
They can ill afford to have that big of an issue when Vick goes down. You don't want a quarterback controversy, but you do want someone who can run the offense efficiently. This isn't a roster that needs its quarterback to be special every single week. The Eagles can get by for a game or two with just an efficient quarterback who takes care of the ball.
3. Stanley Havili
Fullback isn't a position you think about too much on the Eagles roster, until it's time to convert short yardage plays. A true lead blocker isn't vital to every type of offense, but a true lead blocker is vital on every short yardage play. This is especially true near the goal line.
Stanley Havili is the Eagles' No. 1 fullback at this moment. He doesn't have any veteran competition and has never played a down in the NFL. He spent the entire 2011 season on the practice squad. We don't know what kind of lead blocker he can be just yet.
There will come a time when the Eagles will be down inside the 1-yard line or in a 4th-and-less-than-1 situation where they need a fullback to pave the way for LeSean McCoy.
Havili will be a key part of the Eagles offense in 2012, even if he doesn't put up big numbers.
4. Jeremy Maclin
Jeremy Maclin was poised for a breakout season in 2011. He showed signs of it in his second season in 2010 when he had 10 touchdowns. Maclin had a cancer scare in 2011 during the offseason. It was pretty amazing that he was ready for the start of the season, even if he was relatively limited in the first week.
Maclin recovered quickly and racked up over 600 yards through the first eight games. He was on pace for over 1,200 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Shoulder and hamstring injuries derailed the second half of 2011. He finished with just 859 yards for the entire season.
Maclin is 100 percent healthy heading into training camp and is poised for a big 2012 season. He is a great fit in the Eagles version of the West Coast offense. He has decent hands, really good route-running ability, is a threat to beat his man deep and has exceptional run-after-the-catch ability.
The Eagles will need a big year out of Maclin. They need that consistent go-to receiver in order to convert critical third down red-zone opportunities. DeSean Jackson doesn't have the size or hands to be that kind of receiver, but Maclin does, and he needs to become that player.
5. Brent Celek
Just like Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek is right on the brink of breaking out and becoming an elite player. Neither player has ever reached the 1,000-yard plateau in a season, but Celek has been really close. In 2009 he was just 29 yards short of 1,000 yards.
A decrease in Celek's production in the passing game has been seen over the last two seasons. A greater need for Celek in pass protection has kept him from racking up more receptions and yards. 2012 should be a different story. Even with the loss of Jason Peters at left tackle, the offensive line is as stable as it has been since 2009.
It's important for Celek to take on a big role in the passing game. The Eagles need a go-to receiver in the red zone, which is their biggest concern right now. Too many times last season the Eagles failed to convert inside the 20.
Celek should be able to contribute more in the red zone this season.
6. Jason Kelce
Jason Kelce had a monster rookie season in 2011. He went from being an undersized interior lineman prospect to a sixth-round draft pick that was lucky to be drafted at all. By the end of the season, he was one of the better starting centers in the league.
Kelce's journey in 2011 was pretty amazing. He came in as a late-round draft pick who was just trying to make the team, but ended up winning the starting center job very early in training camp. Kelce didn't get the benefit of OTAs or a mini-camp during the lockout-shortened offseason, but it didn't matter. He picked up Howard Mudd's blocking scheme very quickly and started all 16 games in 2011.
He took on a lot in a very short time during his rookie season. He did great in his first year, but he still has a lot of room to grow. He will take on all the line calls this season, which is the next step for him becoming an elite center in this league.
He also needs to add more bulk. He weighed in at about 280 pounds last season, which is small for an interior lineman. It showed whenever the Eagles tried to run a quarterback sneak behind Kelce. They were unsuccessful until they started to run them behind left guard Evan Mathis.
Expect Kelce to step up his game in a big way. He should become a top-five center in 2012.
7. Antonio Dixon
Antonio Dixon was given a golden opportunity this summer at Lehigh when it was announced that fellow defensive tackle Mike Patterson wouldn't be cleared to participate in training camp. Patterson is still recovering from offseason brain surgery, and doctors aren't ready to clear him for physical contact just yet.
That leaves the nose tackle position wide open for the Eagles. Dixon is the most likely option available now, as both Fletcher Cox and Cullen Jenkins are better served for the other defensive tackle role in the wide-9, the under tackle.
Dixon never had a chance to fit into the Wide 9 scheme last season, as he was lost for the season after just the fourth game. Now he is healthy with a chance to earn a starting role in 2012 as the Eagles' best run defender.
It will be crucial for Dixon to play big in 2012. His job as the nose tackle will be to draw double teams, but still penetrate through and clog the middle. Albert Haynesworth was great at this in the Wide 9.
Dixon doesn't have to play on that level, but he has to be a force against the run.
8. DeMeco Ryans
DeMeco Ryans is facing some big-time expectations in 2012. He may not be replacing a legend at middle linebacker, but he is trying to get back to the player he once was in 2009. Ryans was once a dominant middle linebacker before an Achilles injury and a defensive scheme change made him very expendable in Houston.
Now Ryans is a Philadelphia Eagle who is healthy and back in the 4-3 defense. He will be expected to play every down this season and be at least close to the same Pro Bowl player he was in 2009. The Eagles need better play out of their linebackers in 2012.
The Eagles struggled to be a physical defense despite racking up 50 sacks last season. Linebacker is where they were most vulnerable. Their open-field tackling was really bad at times, as the finished 16th against the run.
Ryans should change all that and help the Eagles become a top-five defense. Linebacker is the one position that is keeping the Eagles defense from being great. Ryans will be expected to be the one player who keeps everyone on the same page while also shutting down the run. The Eagles defense needs him to be the DeMeco Ryans of 2009.
9. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is capable of being a really good cornerback in this league. He has been in the past, but struggled in 2011 when he was forced to play in the slot. He is back on the outside in 2012 after Asante Samuel was shipped off to Atlanta.
Rodgers-Cromartie is a long and fast corner, capable of matching up one-on-one against any receiver. The most difficult part of his job isn't who he will get matched up against, it's who he plays opposite with at corner. Nnamdi Asomugha is a tough corner to play with because, at times, he shuts down his side of the field, forcing quarterbacks to throw to the other side.
At times last season, Rodgers-Cromartie was a really soft corner. He can't afford to be that type of player again this season. Defense would be able to run at his side and attack him through the air all day. He has to get back to his Pro Bowl form.
He is back where he belongs on the outside, playing in a press man coverage. There will be no excuses for him this season. He has to get back to his Pro Bowl form of a couple seasons ago.
10. Nate Allen
Nate Allen had a great start to his career and a nice finish to the 2011 season, but everywhere in between his play has been mediocre at times. Allen tore a patella tendon in his knee late in his rookie season in 2010. He wasn't fully recovered from the injury until later in the 2011 season.
During Allen's first two games and his last four, he had three interceptions. He had just two other interceptions in his other 22 games played. Allen appeared to be back to his early 2010 form late last season. He was tackling well in the open field and playing like a true center-field free safety.
The Eagles will need that player in 2012. The pass rush looks fierce and the linebackers look much improved. We already know the corners will be spectacular. This puts a lot of pressure on the safeties, namely Nate Allen, to not be a weak link in the defense.