You don’t go from four wins over a 16-game season one year, to six victories and counting the next as the Philadelphia Eagles have without a surprise effort or two. In the Birds’ case, try six.
The Eagles are exceeding many fans’ expectations in Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach, and that’s because he’s getting the most out of his players. Chalk it up to simple X’s and O’s, the innovative sports science program or whatever you want, but a number of guys are outperforming what people thought was possible.
Who qualifies as a surprise? Players you never heard of executing at a Pro Bowl level. Players who were once believed to be busts, are suddenly getting the job done. Even quality players who are simply doing better than anybody could have anticipated.
One needn’t look very far to find some shocking developments on this roster. We compiled the best and the brightest of the bunch to show how these players have elevated their game—which we promise can be quite extreme in some cases.
Chosen in the second round of the 2010 draft with the infamous “Donovan McNabb pick,” Nate Allen’s reputation was that of a bust coming into this season. Even during the first month or so, there was little faith in the safety’s abilities.
The light must’ve come on for Allen though, because he’s actually performed to an acceptable level of late. Dare we say he’s even been… good?
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis has done a remarkable job turning the Eagles’ defense around in no time at all, but making Allen look respectable, might be his best work to date. Maybe Allen was never terrible to begin with, he simply wasn’t be utilized correctly.
Not long after Davis arrived in Philadelphia, he conceded the responsibilities placed on the safeties under the previous regime were harsh, to say the least.
"It's a completely different scheme with some of the same players," Davis said. "We're trying to maximize the part of what they do best. In the secondary, any time you ask the secondary to be primary B or A-gap run defenders, you're asking for trouble on play-action and deep balls.
"I'm not saying the safeties won't be called to make plays in the run. I'm just saying we're not going to be the first guys onto the scene. It's going to be a big change for us, which is kind of good. It allows us to sit back and read the QB some more, be more patient."
Clearly, the change has been good for Allen—so much so that one has to wonder whether he still has a future here.
A few short days into training camp, the Eagles lost Jeremy Maclin to a torn ACL, seemingly crippling their wide receiver corps. Rather than go out and pick up a big-name veteran off of the free-agent scrap heap, the front office stood by fourth-year reserve Riley Cooper.
Cooper has rewarded the team’s faith, becoming one of Nick Foles’ favorite targets. After catching eight passes for 93 yards and one touchdown over the first five games, Coop has since exploded for 23 receptions, 469 yards, and six scores in the past six contests.
A fifth-round pick in 2010, Cooper is not the most athletically-gifted player on the field, and never saw the field much at all on offense prior to this season. Yet, the 26-year-old has transformed into a serious deep threat all of a sudden, with three of his touchdowns coming on passes of 40 yards or more.
Cooper has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, and like Nate Allen in our previous slide, it will be curious to see if the organization keeps the upcoming free agent in the nest.
It’s easy to overlook Cedric Thornton. He doesn’t put up gaudy numbers—just one sack on the season. His name might not get called much at all during the course of a game.
But that’s only because Thornton is doing the dirty work. When the opposing team’s running back gets bottled up every time he carries to the right, that’s Thornton penetrating into the backfield or disrupting the play at the point of attack. The linebackers get all the glory, but successful defense always starts up front.
Thornton is a bit of an unknown for two reasons. First, he’s an undrafted free agent who only got on to the field as a reserve prior to this season. The 25-year-old made the transition from defensive tackle in a 4-3 to end in a 3-4, playing himself into a starting job in the process.
At first, it seemed as though Thornton became the starter out of necessity, but he’s proven that’s not the case. That brings us to the second reason folks outside of Philly might not know he is—there aren’t many traditional measures to chart his impact on the game.
We’re conditioned to think tackles aren’t necessarily a meaningful statistic, but it can shed some light on which linemen are the most active, only seven of whom have more than Thornton with 45. Per advanced stats from Pro Football Focus (subscription only), Thornton is one of the premier run defenders in the NFL among 3-4 ends, second only to reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
So if you didn’t know, now you know.
This free-agent cornerback was so unassuming when he signed with the Eagles back in March, multiple reporters mistook his name for Fletcher Bradley. They’re not making that error anymore, not the way Bradley Fletcher has performed this season.
Fletcher didn’t come in with the hype of fellow free-agent cornerback Cary Williams. Williams had just won a Super Bowl with Baltimore. Fletcher had recently been pushed out of a starting job in St. Louis after battling injuries the past few seasons.
Fletcher has been by far the better of the two, though. Speaking purely anecdotally, the 27-year-old rarely gets beat by his man, and even when he surrenders a reception, he’s usually draped all over the receiver.
A third-round pick in 2009, the fifth-year veteran only has two interceptions, but has racked up 13 pass deflections. The breakups are tied for the 10th-highest in the NFL, and Fletcher has missed three games due to injury.
Perhaps the only knock on Fletcher this season is that he’s been a little dinged up along the way. When he’s on the field however, you can usually assume at least one of the opposing wideouts will be facing some pretty tight coverage for the ensuing 60 minutes.
Well, duh. Even the most enthusiastic Nick Foles supporters couldn’t have seen this season coming. Leading the NFL in passer rating? Throwing seven touchdowns in a game? Not tossing a single interception in 162 pass attempts?
Foles impressed as a rookie last year considering he was playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league and went without injured stars LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson for much of his time in the lineup. He again looked sharp this summer in an open competition for the starting job, which he lost narrowly to Michael Vick.
When Vick suffered his own inevitable injury, Foles came on in relief and led the Birds to a victory in New York, and has been playing great with one notable exception. For some reason, the second-year signal-caller could barely complete a pass against the Dallas Cowboys.
Perhaps that lowly game is another reason the typically accurate Foles belongs on the surprise list.
Foles responded well since the Dallas debacle, which led to him being named starting quarterback for the remainder of the season and NFC Offensive Player of the Month for November. Eagles fans are anxiously waiting to find out if this kid has any more magic tricks up his sleeve.
Coming off the worst season of his career with just three sacks in 16 games, there was a feeling that 31-year-old Trent Cole was deep into his decline. Add in the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, and most pundits felt he no longer fit in Philadelphia’s plans, either.
Cole kept a positive attitude about the position change though, and now he’s thriving at linebacker. The two-time Pro Bowler is still a force against the run, and for a guy who played with his hand in the dirt the past eight years, it’s impressive how effective he’s managed to look in coverage.
For a guy who had at least eight sacks every year from 2006 to 2011, Cole may not seem like a dominant pass rusher anymore. He’s battled double teams for much of the season while learning to rush from a new position. Plus, the hard work appears to be paying off, as Cole has three sacks in the Eagles’ past three games.
It’s clear that outside linebacker will be high on the front office’s list of priorities going forward, perhaps in the upcoming draft. That doesn’t necessarily mean Cole is on his way out though. He’s a solid hand and would make a fantastic mentor for a young player.