Philadelphia Eagles Rookie, Free Agent Midseason Progress Report
When Andy Reid was finally fired as head coach and Vice President of Player Personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles after a 4-12 season, he left behind a weakened infrastructure. Regardless of scheme, there was no way the next guy could come in and go to war with just the leftovers.
Enter Chip Kelly, who not only replaced Reid on the sideline but also promised to bring his revolutionary offense from the University of Oregon to the NFL while overhauling the Birds’ defensive scheme to a 3-4—so basically, the exact opposite of everything that had gone on over the previous 14 seasons. How was he going to do it?
Obviously the Eagles were saddled with some prime draft position after such an abysmal season, which would certainly go a long way toward the rebuilding process. That alone wasn’t going to get the job done though, so the front office had to go out and not necessarily spend big bucks, but rather, grab as much free-agent talent as they could in an effort to buy time.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of the 2013 Eagles, as they are just buying time for Chip to implement his program.
The organization had a productive draft, with all of their first five selections making contributions already this season. Free agency was fruitful as well, producing a number of players that have made an impact.
Yet, as always, no team has a 100 percent success rate. The Eagles managed to overhaul their roster in one offseason, but not every choice has worked out according to plan. With that, let’s examine the high-profile moves the Birds made this offseason and how they’re producing at the 2013 season’s midway point.
Rookie: OT Lane Johnson
With the No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Eagles selected Lane Johnson, making the offensive tackle out of Oklahoma an instant starter—but not an instant star.
The 23-year-old has endured his share of struggles during his rookie season, but that was to be expected. Johnson was a very raw prospect coming into the draft, as he played quarterback and tight end at junior college prior to being discovered by the Sooners. Even upon his arrival in Normandy, the team couldn’t figure out what to do with Johnson right away, trying him at defensive end before finally moving him to the offensive line as a junior.
Johnson flourished thanks to a rare combination of size (6’6”, 303 lbs.) and athleticism (4.72 40-yard dash time). Those tools seemed to be a perfect fit for Chip Kelly’s uptempo offense, and sure enough, he has shown flashes of being a formidable run-blocker for the Eagles at right tackle.
Where Johnson has had some significant issues, however, is in pass protection. He can be overpowered at times or just plain beaten due to poor technique.
Johnson has surely dealt with a learning curve, but overall, he is holding his own. He may only make a moderate improvement over the final eight games of this season, but expect a big jump in Year 2 from this promising building block.
Rookie: TE Zach Ertz
The most positive thing you could say about Zach Ertz eight games into his rookie season is that at least he’s carved out a role in the offense. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the second-round pick has lined up for 36 percent of the Eagles’ snaps in 2013.
Unfortunately, Ertz has not been incredibly productive, despite some solid playing time. In eight games, the Stanford product has just 14 receptions for 201 yards (14.4 AVG) and has yet to score his first NFL touchdown.
It’s not entirely a surprise. There is a lot to learn about playing tight end in the NFL, and few rookies burst onto the scene with big numbers. Ertz was also setback during spring workouts by league rules that prohibited the Stanford grad from participating before graduation.
That said, his lack of separation from defenders has been troubling. Ertz ran a smooth 4.68 40-yard dash at the combine, and with his 6’5”, 249-pound frame, one would think that he could get open more often.
However, defenders seem to be draped all over the 35th pick in the draft right now, and as a result, he’s caught only 56 percent of the 25 passes thrown his way.
Rookie: DT Bennie Logan
Ever since an active preseason that was headlined by 1.5 sacks and two pass deflections, Bennie Logan has been relatively quiet for the Eagles. He’s not playing more than a handful of snaps per game, and even those have been frequently inconsequential.
Surprisingly, the third-round pick does have two sacks on the stat sheet this season, despite limited playing time. More often than not though, it seems like Logan is getting pushed around by offensive lines when he’s in the game.
Logan was not an incredibly disruptive player at LSU, so it’s not too demoralizing that he’s not had an instant impact at the next level. If nothing else, he’s managed to carve out a role on the defense in his rookie season, which is already more than you can say for some third-round picks.
The jury is still out on this one, to say the least.
Rookie: QB Matt Barkley
When the Eagles moved up to acquire the first pick in the fourth round and selected Matt Barkley, there were actually people already anointing the four-year starter from USC as Philadelphia’s quarterback of the future. Seriously!
The hype has cooled considerably since this time though. Barkley was not made a legitimate part of the open quarterback competition during training camp, and until recently, it appeared unlikely that he would even see the field in a meaningful capacity anytime soon.
Fate stepped in, however, and thanks to injuries to Michael Vick and Nick Foles, we’ve got a glimpse of that future. Barkley has come on in relief of the starting signal-caller for two-straight games. He threw three interceptions on three possessions in his first professional action against Dallas, but he was able to move the offense somewhat against the Giants in the following week.
One positive sign is that Barkley seems to have a lot more zip on his passes than he did over the summer. The 23-year-old admitted that a broken collarbone which ended his senior season early had been affecting hsi arm strength, but it has since improved.
As for whether or not Barkley has a long-term future as an NFL quarterback, we contacted the ultimate prognosticator: the Magic 8-Ball. Its response: “Ask again later.”
Rookie: S Earl Wolff
Is it too early to name somebody the steal of this year’s draft? The answer is yes, but eight games into the season, Earl Wolff is in the process of becoming the most pleasant surprise of the Eagles’ 2013 rookie class.
Wolff has been pushing for playing time since training camp and found himself cracking the rotation at safety from the season’s outset. Since free-agent addition Patrick Chung went down with a severe shoulder contusion in Week 3, the fifth-round pick has been pressed into a starting role without becoming a total liability.
The N.C. State product isn’t putting up gaudy numbers (3 PD, 1 INT) or taking over games, but he is gaining important experience at a position the Eagles have struggled to fill ever since Brian Dawkins walked away in 2010.
It is far too early to say whether or not Wolff is a long-term solution, but Philly’s secondary has been surprisingly stable over the past month with a rookie as the last line of defense.
Free Agent: DT Isaac Sopoaga
One of the all-time great disappearing acts, Isaac Sopoaga was practically invisible on the football field this season until the day he vanished from Philadelphia entirely. The Eagles traded the interior lineman and a sixth-round pick to the New England on Tuesday in exchange for a fifth-round pick.
That deal should tell you just about all you need to know about his impact.
Sopoaga was brought in during the offseason to help with the switch from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4. The Birds didn’t have a single player on their roster with experience playing nose tackle in the NFL, and while there weren’t any difference-makers on the free-agent market, the 10-year veteran Sopoaga was available on the cheap (three years, $11 million)—for obvious reasons.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Sopoaga played around 35 percent of the defense’s total snaps over the first eight games. The ex-49er offered nothing of substance in terms of production though, and he was quickly moved as a result.
Free Agents: CBs Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher
No free agents have made more progress for the Eagles this seasonthan their cornerbacks.
Looking to bring stability back to the position after Pro Bowlers Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromarite washed out, the front office went out and added Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher this offseason—moves that led to some head-scratching among the fan base.
Since then, however, all Williams and Fletcher have done is help to turn the position from one of the club’s greatest weaknesses into arguably its biggest strength.
Williams arrived in Philly coming off a Super Bowl championship with Baltimore, but he did not endear himself to the city when he missed “voluntary” offseason programs for dental appointments and dance recitals. Since the season got underway though, he’s been physical with opposing receivers without giving up big plays.
Fletcher was the more unheralded of the two. He battled injuries in St. Louis and was eventually replaced, but the 27-year-old found renewed confidence with the Birds. He’s been the team’s best cover corner, with 12 pass breakups and an interception, and he’s not afraid to make a tackle either.
With Brandon Boykin also in the fold, it suddenly seems as though the Eagles are once again set at the position, at least for the next couple years. Williams signed for three years, and Fletcher signed for two. Fletcher, in particular, could be headed for a contract extension sooner rather than later.
Free Agent: FB/TE James Casey
Easily the most disappointing signing of this year’s free-agent class, James Casey is barely utilized in Chip Kelly’s offense. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the former Houston Texan has lined up for only 29 snaps this season.
The 29-year-old has to be wondering what he came to Philadelphia for—besides the three-year, $12 million contract, of course.
Casey’s lack of playing time is somewhat baffling. He was touted as extremely versatile, able to run routes, catch passes and serve as a blocker in both the running and passing game. None of that has been on display though, even despite fellow tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz producing rather modest numbers this season.
The fifth-year veteran does contribute on special teams, but that hardly seems to be on par with the investment the Eagles made in him this offseason. Casey has never been a high-output player in the NFL, but considering the way the organization trumpeted his signing, his tour has been disappointing nonetheless.
Free Agent: LB Connor Barwin
The prize of the Eagles’ 2013 free-agent class, Connor Barwin has been about what we expected him to be. Like Isaac Sopoaga, Barwin was signed to fill a void (outside linebacker) in the team's new 3-4 scheme.
Unlike Sopoaga, Barwin has effectively bridged the gap on the football field. The other Houston Texan ex-pat has been an every-down player who can rush the passer (3.0 SCK), drop into coverage (6 PD) and help out in run support.
The 27-year-old Barwin signed a six-year, $36-million deal in the offseason, yet only the 2013 and 2014 salaries are guaranteed. That means that even if the organization were unhappy with what it was getting from Barwin, it could cut ties with him just two years into his deal.
As it stands now though, there is no way that would be the case. Barwin isn’t putting up Pro Bowl numbers or anything, but he’s been beyond solid during the Birds’ transition to the 3-4 and can undoubtedly hold down one spot on the outside for years to come.
This has been a great signing that is paying dividends for an improving defense.