25 Burning Questions for the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles: Offense

Bryn SwartzSenior Writer IIIJuly 29, 2013

25 Burning Questions for the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles: Offense

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    Heading into the 2013 season, the Philadelphia Eagles are expected to be a completely different team from the 2012 disaster that saw the squad lose eight in a row, including 11 of the final 12, to end the Andy Reid era after 14 seasons. 

    In came former Oregon standout coach Chip Kelly, and what a dramatic change this is for the Eagles. 

    Kelly's entire offense is a question mark, especially since he has never coached in the NFL before. In fact, almost every player on the team's offense has a big question mark surrounding his 2013 season.

    The following slides will highlight the key offensive players, as well as their individual storyline for the 2013 season. 

1. Michael Vick: Can He Revive His Career (Again)?

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    The Eagles signed Michael Vick to a two-year deal in 2009 and looked like geniuses when the 30-year-old turned in the best season of his career in 2010.

    Vick's Comeback Player of the Year campaign earned him a six-year contract extension worth $100 million. That's when the trouble started.

    Vick regressed in 2011, throwing 14 interceptions (he had tossed just six the previous year) and missed three starts (and was knocked out of two others) with injuries. He was even worse in 2012, throwing 10 interceptions and fumbling nine times in just 10 starts.

    Speculation arose that Vick was finished in Philly, but new head coach Chip Kelly signed him to a one-year, incentive-laden contract. Vick will now compete for a starting job with Nick Foles and Matt Barkley.

    The favorite to win the starting job by a lot of experts, Vick will once again be looking to revive his career, although at this point, he could be running out of second (or fourth or fifth) chances.

    Nobody knows what to expect from Kelly's offense in 2013. Kelly and Vick (if he wins the starting job) could be the next Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick, or they could be the next Dom Capers and David Carr.

     

2. Nick Foles: Can He Win the Starting Job and Improve from 2012?

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    Nick Foles is in a heated battle for the starting quarterback job in 2013, not just with veteran Vick but with rookie fourth-round draft pick Matt Barkley as well.

    Foles started six games in 2012. He threw six touchdowns and five interceptions, and he led the Eagles to a dramatic walk-off victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    He also played without a significant amount of the starting offense, notably LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans.

    But while Foles clearly played better than Vick, he didn't do enough to distinguish himself in the quarterback competition. In other words, he didn't outright win the job.

    If he can win the job in training camp and the preseason, he'll be looking to take significant strides in his second year. How Foles handles Kelly's new offense, which is based on quick decision-making, remains to be seen.

    There are a couple of options for Foles in 2013. He could be the first, second or third quarterback. And there's still a small possibility that he could be traded before the season, although it's highly unlikely at this point.

3. Matt Barkley: Can He Shock the World and Win the Starting Job?

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    I'm pulling for Matt Barkley to win the starting job. He doesn't have a very good chance, but don't be surprised if the former USC standout comes out of nowhere to take down Vick and Foles in the quarterback competition.

    Regardless, Barkley is the only one of the three quarterbacks who is guaranteed to be on the final roster in 2013, no matter how he performs during the preseason.

    Odds are good that he'll end up making at least one start this year even if he enters the season as low as the third quarterback on the depth chart. After all, the Eagles are not expected to be a playoff team this year, and Vick can't stay healthy. That could open the door for the Barkley era in 2013 (and beyond).

4. LeSean McCoy: Will He Have a Bounceback Season?

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    Following the 2011 season, LeSean McCoy had a legitimate case as a top-three running back in the National Football League. He rushed for 1,080 yards on 5.2 yards per carry in 2010 and scored 20 total touchdowns, while rushing for 1,309 yards, in 2011.

    But he suffered through a disappointing year in 2012, missing six games with a concussion. When he did play, he averaged just 4.2 yards per carry and scored only three touchdowns.

    Running backs are the focal point of Kelly's offense. A career revival certainly seems to be in store for McCoy in 2013. It will also help that Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans will return from various injuries, with rookie first-round draft pick Lane Johnson added to the mix.

    McCoy is expected to share carries with dynamic backup Bryce Brown, but he's still in store for a big year in 2013.

     

5. Bryce Brown: Can He Become a Complete Back?

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    Bryce Brown was the second-biggest breakaway threat in the NFL in 2012. That is, by using Advanced NFL Stats, which charts the percentage of a player's total yardage that comes from 15-plus-yard runs. Only Adrian Peterson finished higher than Brown.

    Brown sure was a fascinating player to watch in 2012. He had the highest highs, such as 347 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a pair of late-season starts filling in for LeSean McCoy. And he had the lowest lows, such as four fumbles in those two starts, or a ridiculous tendency to bounce outside on so many runs. In doing that, he frequently turned two- or three-yard runs into one- or two-yard losses.

    But Brown's problems are curable. After all, he barely played college football. He's had almost no coaching. If he can control the fumbling and start trusting his blockers, he could become one of the top backup running backs in the NFL.

    If he can't, his incredible natural talent will be wasted.

    Personally, I couldn't be more excited for Brown. I think he'll become a borderline star.

6. Felix Jones: Can He Become an Effective Change-of-Pace Back?

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    One of the more under-the-radar signings for the Eagles this offseason was the addition of Felix Jones, a former first-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys.

    In five years in Dallas, Jones flashed enormous potential, such as his 8.9 yards per carry in limited action as a rookie. But he never capitalized on his talent and went unsigned following his initial rookie contract.

    With the Eagles, Jones will look to compete for a spot on the depth chart behind LeSean McCoy (and likely Bryce Brown).

    His speed is his biggest asset and should come in handy in Kelly's new offense. He can also return kicks if needed.

7. DeSean Jackson: Can He Return to Elite Form?

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    It wasn't long ago that DeSean Jackson was considered one of the game's top receivers.

    In 2009, Jackson caught 62 balls for 1,156 yards and nine scores. He rushed 11 times for 137 yards and a score. And he added a punt return touchdown, establishing himself as one of the most explosive playmakers in the game.

    However, while he was still electric in 2010, 2011 and 2012, he failed to build up to the potential he displayed during his second season. He's had issues with injuries, and his attitude hasn't always been the best.

    That needs to change. Jackson is still just 26 years old. He's in the prime of his career. His speed makes him one of the most dangerous weapons in the game. Expect Kelly to find a way to put the ball in his hands a lot more than Andy Reid did. Whether it's catching deep passes, screens, taking end-arounds or returning punts, there's no excuse for Jackson to go full games with just one or two touches.

    A big year for Jackson becomes even more imperative following the season-ending ACL tear to Jeremy Maclin

8. Jeremy Maclin: Can the Eagles Survive His Season-Ending ACL Tear?

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    A week ago, this slide would have talked about whether Jeremy Maclin would be able to take the next step in a contract season and prove to the Eagles that he is worthy of a long-term contract extension.

    Now, Maclin's future in Philadelphia is in serious doubt, given the fact that he will have completed five seasons in the NFL without a 1,000-yard campaign. 

    During Maclin's absence, the team will look for various ways to replace him. General manager Howie Roseman has ruled out the possibility of bringing in a big-name veteran receiver like Brandon Lloyd or Randy Moss. Instead, he says the team will look to replace Maclin's production from within.

     

9. Jason Avant: Can He Still Be Effective with Chip Kelly?

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    Ever since Chip Kelly was named head coach, there had been talk of the Eagles potentially cutting 30-year-old Jason Avant.

    Avant is a solid slot receiver, but Kelly's offense is predicated around speed and versatility. Avant provides neither. He won't outrun anybody, and he only lines up on the inside, limiting his overall effectiveness.

    Even with Maclin's season-ending injury, Avant likely won't move to the outside. Instead, he'll be heavily counted on to produce from his usual role, the slot. 

    Kelly favors two- and three-tight end sets over a slot receiver, but Avant's role (as well as everybody else on the team) should be increased now that Maclin is hurt.

    If Avant can turn in a typical year (50 catches, 550 yards, 1 touchdown), his eighth season in Philadelphia will be considered a success. 

10: Riley Cooper: Is He the Plan to Replace Jeremy Maclin?

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    Following Maclin's season-ending ACL tear, veteran Riley Cooper could be the first option to replace him as the team's second receiver.

    Cooper has spent three seasons in an Eagles uniform and has been inconsistent, to say the least. He's caught 46 passes for 679 yards and five touchdowns throughout his career, which would be less than an average season for Maclin. 

    He's shown potential, especially when he outjumps defensive backs for one-handed touchdown catches. But for the most part, the former fourth-round draft pick has looked like your average fourth receiver.

    That's not to say that he doesn't have the ability to become a solid starter, if given the chance. But it appears to be a long shot as of now. 

11. Arrelious Benn: Can He Revive His Career and Become a Red-Zone Threat?

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    One of the first moves Chip Kelly made was to trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Arrelious Benn.

    The former second-round pick never lived up to his potential in Tampa Bay. He has caught just 59 passes for 862 yards and five touchdowns in his career, including just four receptions in all of 2012. By comparison, Maclin has averaged 64 catches, 864 yards and six scores per season.

    Benn's biggest advantage is his size. He stands 6'2" and weighs 225 pounds. He could potentially be an ideal red-zone threat if utilized properly. 

    In training camp, he will compete for a roster spot with Avant, Cooper and Damaris Johnson. Expect to see him on the team, although he could be anywhere from the second receiver to the fifth. 

12. Damaris Johnson: Is He in Line for a Breakout Season?

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    One of the big names on the Eagles' roster heading into 2012 was speedy receiver Damaris Johnson, who caught 19 passes for 256 yards during the season. He also returned punts, setting the franchise record with a 98-yard touchdown in the final minute of a loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

    Johnson is exactly the type of player who would thrive in Kelly's offense. He is small and speedy. He can line up on the outside or in the slot, and Kelly will probably also find a way to put him in the backfield on a number of plays. 

    Whether he still returns punts remains to be seen. DeSean Jackson says he is the team's top returner right now, but that could change following the season-ending injury to Maclin.

    Personally, I feel like the success of a player like Damaris Johnson in 2013 will go a long way in determining how Kelly's offense works. He's a major breakout candidate

13. Russell Shepard: Can He Make the Team and Contribute?

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    I'm pretty high on Russell Shepard. I predicted him to make the initial 53-man roster a few weeks ago and I'm sticking with that prediction, especially with Maclin out for the season.

    Shepard is everything Kelly desires in a player. A jack-of-all-trades, he's remarkably versatile. He can line up at receiver, in the backfield or even at quarterback. And he says he would be perfectly fine with contributing on special teams

    The former No. 2 overall prospect in the nation coming out of high school, Kelly aggressively recruited Shepard at Oregon (to play quarterback), but that didn't work out.

    A very humbling college career for Shepard (he didn't throw a single pass in college) saw him labeled as a bust. He went undrafted and is now finally getting his chance to play for Kelly. Talk about irony.

    He is my dark-horse sleeper to become a regular member of the offense by the end of the year. 

14. Brent Celek: Can He Keep His Starting Job and Revive His Career?

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    Three years ago, the former fifth-round draft pick had established himself as one of the top young tight ends in the National Football League. Brent Celek caught 76 passes for 971 yards and eight scores during a 2009 season that saw the Eagles set a franchise record for points scored.

    But his numbers have really tailed off over the past three seasons. The drops have increased too, and Celek is now just an average tight end.

    Now Celek is in a battle with rookie second-round draft pick Zach Ertz and free-agent signing James Casey for the starting job. Speculation has arose that Celek could be traded, but that's not likely. The Eagles are expected to run many two- and even three-tight end formations, so all three tight ends will be heavily utilized in the offense.

    Celek becomes even more important with the loss of Maclin. He's my pick to lead the team in receptions this season. A big, physical mauler who never goes down on the first hit, Celek could even be in line for his first 1,000-yard season.

15. Zach Ertz: How Big of an Impact Can He Have as a Rookie?

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    Easily the most surprising pick in Chip Kelly's first draft as a head coach, Stanford tight end Zach Ertz was added to bolster a receiving corps that struggled in 2012, particularly in the red zone.

    Ertz is big and powerful and has drawn comparisons to Jason Witten. He will be a terrific addition in the red zone and should give the Eagles one of the best tight end combinations in the game.

    What will be interesting to see if how much Ertz is involved as a rookie. Historically, even the top tight ends haven't caught many passes in their first season.

    Tony Gonzalez caught 33 passes. Witten hauled in 35. Jimmy Graham had 31. Antonio Gates had just 24. Rob Gronkowski's 42 receptions (which included 10 touchdowns) is about the most you'll see from a rookie tight end.

    Although Maclin's injury will force the Eagles to spread the ball around more, don't expect Ertz to become a big target as a rookie. He will very likely finish third among the tight ends on the team in catches.

16. James Casey: Can He Fulfill the Hype Regarding His Versatility?

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    One of the first moves made by new head coach Chip Kelly was the signing of Houston Texans fullback James Casey.

    Casey was highly sought-after by Kelly because of his tremendous versatility. He can line up at h-back, wide receiver and tight end. He once played seven positions in a college game (and he was a former minor league pitcher for the Chicago White Sox).

    Last year, Casey had a breakout season, recording 34 catches for 330 yards and three touchdowns. For his services, he was named to the USA Today All-Joe team.

    Expect Kelly to have a field day with Casey. I truly wouldn't be surprised to see him line up for multiple snaps this season at quarterback, running back, fullback, wide receiver, slot receiver and tight end, a la Where's Waldo on a football field. He's not going to wow with 75 catches or 1,000 yards, but he should be a matchup nightmare.

17. Clay Harbor: Can He Impress Kelly and Earn a Roster Spot as TE4?

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    It's been an unusual turn of events for Clay Harbor. Following a semi-breakout 2012 season in which he caught 25 passes and scored three touchdowns, Harbor found himself demoted to the role of fourth tight end after the Eagles signed free agent James Casey and drafted Zach Ertz.

    Chip Kelly even started working Harbor at pass-rushing outside linebacker, a pretty clear indicator that his future with the team was bleak, at best.

    But the recent injury to Maclin could open the door for a fourth tight end on the roster (something Kelly may have done anyway).

    Kelly spreads the ball around enough that his fourth tight end should still receive double-digit receptions, but don't expect Harbor to set a new career high in 2013.

18. Jason Peters: Will He Return to Elite Form?

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    You could make a pretty compelling case that the Eagles' season ended before it even started in 2012.

    It ended when veteran left tackle Jason Peters blew out his Achilles tendon (twice) during the spring. He missed the entire year, and the Eagles suffered through a revolving door at left tackle that included free-agent bust Demetress Bell, veteran King Dunlap and rookie Dennis Kelly.

    Peters is expected to return to elite form in 2013. The mammoth left tackle says he is 100 percent healthy. Chip Kelly has been raving about him at practices, and who can blame him?

    In 2011, Peters was arguably the best left tackle in the game. He's a 350-pound tackle who runs like the former tight end he was in college. His speed and strength would be valued in any offense, but especially in Kelly's run-first offense that is built around athletic offensive linemen.

    The Eagles have enough problems to worry about on offense, with the ongoing quarterback competition and the season-ending ACL tear to Maclin.

    A fully healthy Peters is absolutely vital to the success of the 2013 Eagles. 

19. Evan Mathis: Can He Remain Elite and Healthy?

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    Evan Mathis just hasn't received enough credit for how well he's played since he was thrust into a starting role before the 2011 season. The only remaining member of the now infamous Dream Team free-agent signing spree, Mathis has gone from a career journeyman to the single best guard in the National Football League.

    In fact, Pro Football Focus has rated him as the league's top lineman in each of the past two seasons (subscription required). He was the only reason for optimism regarding the team's disastrous revolving door on the line last year, as three starters suffered season-ending injuries.

    Mathis turns 32 in 2013. That's old but not old enough that he can't continue to produce at an elite level.

    The return of Jason Peters to left tackle will help him tremendously (although he was surprisingly fine without Peters in 2012).

    It gets even better, by the way. Mathis' specialty is run blocking, and Chip Kelly plans to utilize LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown much more than Andy Reid ever used his running backs.

    Without question, Mathis is due for his first Pro Bowl season in 2013. He should have made it in each of the past two seasons.

     

20. Jason Kelce: Can He Work His Way to Becoming the League's Best Center?

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    Two years ago, Jason Kelce was a sixth-round draft pick who managed to wrestle away the starting job in training camp from veteran Jamaal Jackson. 

    One year ago, Kelce suffered a torn ACL against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2, an injury that would end his sophomore season.

    Now, Kelce is saying that he is not only fully recovered, but he is planning to become the best center in the league. Wow. Talk about a bold proclamation.

    If anyone can do it, though, it's Kelce. He's an absolute workhorse and is already 100 percent recovered from last fall's injury. 

    The last we saw of Kelce, he was making major improvements with each passing game. The second half of his 2011 season was better than the first half, and the first two games of 2012 were much better than the end of 2011.

    If that pattern continues, Kelce could be in for a breakout year in 2013. He's already shown that he is a tremendous blocker on screens, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He's a solid run blocker, and he made major strides as a pass-blocker since his first month.

     

21. Todd Herremans: Can He Successfully Transition to Right Guard?

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    Veteran offensive lineman Todd Herremans has had an underrated career. The longest-tenured member of the Philadelphia Eagles has never made a Pro Bowl (and probably deservedly so), but he's always been a solid starter, capable of playing four-fifths of the offensive line.

    From 2005 to 2010, Herremans starred at left guard but moved to right tackle in 2011. Now he's on track for another position change, as Herremans will slide inside to right guard following the drafting of Lane Johnson in the first round.

    Herremans has never actually played right guard. But he did pretty well at right tackle and everybody knows that guard isn't as difficult to play as tackle.

    Athletic and versatile, Herremans is an excellent run blocker and should fit in well as he looks to spend most of his snaps opening holes for LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown.

22. Lane Johnson: Will He Struggle as a Rookie?

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    It's become fairly common for offensive tackles drafted in the first round to struggle for their first couple of seasons in the NFL.

    It took Trent Williams, Russell Okung and Anthony Davis until their third year to become stars. Tyron Smith enters his third year and appears to be poised for a breakout season

    If Lane Johnson is anything like those players, the Eagles will need to be patient in 2013 and 2014. After all, he's literally only played the position of offensive tackle for two years in his life. Remember, he was a college quarterback before switching positions before his junior year. 

    He's very likely not going to dominate as a rookie. If he can be a league average tackle in his first season, the Eagles offensive line will be in very good shape. 

23. Danny Watkins: Can He Shed the Bust Label?

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    Two years into his NFL career, Danny Watkins is the definition of a bust. He lost his starting job before the first game of his rookie season and again in the middle of his second season. He had a phantom injury last year that led to the Eagles playing Jake Scott, who was signed off the street, over the former first-round draft pick.

    Watkins turns 29 this season. The clock is ticking on his career. He's already lost his starting job (again) following Herremans' move to right guard and the drafting of Lane Johnson at right tackle. 

    At best, Watkins will be a serviceable backup guard this year, capable of filling in if Mathis or Herremans misses time due to an injury. There's always the chance that Chip Kelly and new offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland can jumpstart Watkins' career, but that's highly unlikely at this point. 

24. Alex Henery: Can He Increase His Range?

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    Alex Henery has certainly lived up to expectations since he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. He's made Eagles fans quickly forget about David Akers, as he has connected on 87.9 percent of his field goals during his first two years in the league.

    That's the second-highest percentage in league history (although just like passer rating, the top of the list is full of active players).

    But Henery hasn't shown any sort of range. He didn't hit a single 50-yard field goal in 2012, on just one attempt. He was the only 16-game kicker without a 50-yarder. The rest of the kickers in the NFL made 92 of 151 attempts (61 percent). 

    This is an era where kickers are connecting on 60-yard field goals. A 55-yard field goal should be doable for any kicker.

    Henery really needs to expand his range to become a more complete kicker. 

25. Chip Kelly: Can His Offense Work in the NFL?

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    This is the million-dollar question. Actually, it's the $32.5 million question. 

    That's the amount of money the Philadelphia Eagles are paying Chip Kelly over the next five years. That's a tremendous amount of money to give to a coach who has absolutely no experience coaching in the National Football League. Kelly has never been a head coach, an offensive coordinator or even a position coach.

    It's not like Kelly is any old coach either. No, he's as unique as they come. 

    By now we all know that Kelly runs an extremely unique offense, one that was very successful at the University of Oregon but is completely an enigma in the NFL

    That's basically what the 2013 season will be about: finding out if Kelly's offense can work in the NFL.

    Can Kelly figure out which of his three quarterbacks should be the starter? Is he going to be able to utilize the run in the NFL as much as he did in college? How creative will he get with the read-option and lining up versatile players at various positions on offense? Can he survive the loss of his second-best receiver? Will his two- and three-tight end formations work? Is the no-huddle going to be mastered by the start of the season? Will the offense be able to avoid three-and-outs that will put immense pressure on the defense? 

    You get the point. There are a million questions with Kelly's offense. Some believe it will work. Some, like former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, think it is destined to fail.

    Only time will tell.