Heading into 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles had a lot of talent. There was an All-Pro running back, the potential for a great offensive line (particularly the left side) and a handful of talented receiving weapons. The trick was for Chip Kelly to find himself a franchise quarterback, implement his new system with a new staff of coaches and coax at least a passable season out of the defense.
No one thought Kelly would pull it off as well as he did.
Fresh off a nail-biting 24-22 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, the Eagles even hosted their first playoff game in three seasons. The offense set the franchise record in points scored and yards gained, and the defense really clicked. Kelly’s ability to get strong results from unexpected players made this season possible, and the following 10 players exceeded expectations the most.
You won’t find LeSean McCoy’s name on this list; after all, McCoy has showcased his talents before (20 total touchdowns in 2011), and Eagles fans shouldn’t be stunned at the kind of season he put up. He’s always been capable of this, and he will continue to do great things in Kelly’s offense. You won’t find Evan Mathis, because he was expected to be the best guard in the league (as he is). And we all expected Fletcher Cox to continue to play well as a 3-4 pass-rushing end.
But who could have expected a backup quarterback to run the team so efficiently? A handful of defensive players came out of nowhere to blossom in Billy Davis’ 3-4 scheme. And a particular wide receiver went from being arguably the worst starter in the league to a downfield threat in a span of a month.
Without these players, there’s no way the Eagles would have won the NFC East crown.
DeSean Jackson entered 2013 coming off consecutive subpar seasons, having averaged just a 52-reception, 830-yard, three-touchdown stat line from 2011 to 2012.
Jackson really took off in Chip Kelly’s offense, though. He set career bests in receptions (82), yards (1,332) and tied his personal high in touchdowns (nine). Jackson became more of a complete receiver than ever, even making an impact when he didn’t catch a deep touchdown.
He improved his blocking and did all this without the presence of No. 2 receiver Jeremy Maclin opposite him. That’s not enough reason for the Philadelphia Eagles to re-work an already-pretty solid contract, but it will get him back in 2014 to make $10.25 million.
It’s not as if Nate Allen developed into a Pro Bowl player in 2013. But in the final year of his rookie contract, Allen developed into a competent starting safety.
Allen hadn’t been the same player since intercepting three passes as a rookie in September 2010. He suffered a serious injury and struggled to regain his form.
This year, Allen made a huge interception off of Carson Palmer, which was Allen’s first interception since ’11. Allen finished with a personal best 59 tackles, and he started all 16 games for the first time in his career. That’s enough that the team may bring him back on a new deal in ’14.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ longest-tenured defensive player faced a huge challenge entering 2013. Coordinator Billy Davis’ switch to a 3-4 defense meant Trent Cole would go from eight years as a 4-3 end to a standing outside linebacker position.
This was a big adjustment for Cole, and he started slowly, failing to record a sack for his first nine games. Then Cole exploded for eight sacks in the final seven games. He finished as the seventh-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Brandon Boykin showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie. He played primarily in nickel coverage formations and was used almost the same way in year two.
The difference was Boykin’s remarkable tendency to make big plays. In fact, it seemed every time an interception was made, it was Boykin who did so.
Boykin entered this season with zero career interceptions. Without even starting, he recorded six. The only cornerback in the league to record more interceptions was Richard Sherman.
Boykin began with a big interception of Robert Griffin III in the Eagles’ 33-27 opening-day win. His interception of RGIII in a midseason game preserved a narrow 24-16 Eagles victory. And his pick-six of Jay Cutler in the 54-11 rout on Sunday Night Football was a thing of beauty, as Boykin just jumped the route to ice off a Philadelphia win.
But it was his season-saving interception in Week 17 that secured a two-point, division-clinching victory against the Dallas Cowboys. For the year, the Eagles were 6-0 in games in which Boykin recorded an interception.
Boykin also rated as the fourth-most efficient tackler of any cornerback in the league, per Pro Football Focus’s advanced statistics (subscription required). No. 22 for the Eagles is a star in the making, and he’s going to make a handful of Pro Bowls when it’s all said and done.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ second-year linebacker really broke out in 2013. Down the stretch, it seemed as if Mychal Kendricks had a big play in every single game.
Kendricks finished with four sacks, four forced fumbles, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He’s the first linebacker to put up that stat line since Takeo Spikes in 1998.
Kendricks still struggled in pass coverage and missed too many tackles, but his propensity to make big plays helped the Eagles win seven of their final eight regular-season games. He's going to be a Pro Bowler before he's done.
I was extremely skeptical of the Cary Williams signing. He was a former seventh-round pick who only cracked the starting lineup for the Baltimore Ravens last year because of injuries.
Williams allowed the fourth-most passing yards of any corner in the NFL last year, and he was beat for six touchdown passes. This season, Williams had to accept the responsibilities of being the No. 1 corner.
He allowed just an 80.6 passer rating, 18 points down from the mark he surrendered in 2012. Williams recorded three interceptions and a huge pass knockdown of a two-point conversion attempt against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ five-time Pro Bowl left tackle faced a serious challenge: coming back from not one, but two offseason Achilles tendon tears.
Jason Peters began the season slow, as he struggled to regain his form. Peters allowed 24 quarterback pressures in his first nine games; in the next seven contests, he allowed just six hurries. He was a dominant force in the running game, getting to the second level with ease to open holes for McCoy.
As a result, Peters was awarded his sixth Pro Bowl invitation and a spot on the AP First-Team All-Pro squad.
Entering the season, Cedric Thornton was a career 4-3 defensive tackle backup who projected as a stretch to start as a 5-technique end.
Thornton surprised everyone, though, by blossoming into a phenomenal run stuffer. He gave way to second-year end Vinny Curry on passing downs, but Thornton was every bit as good as Fletcher Cox. The Philadelphia Eagles now sport one of the NFL’s top duos of 3-4 ends and a good young core on their defensive line.
In between, Cooper established himself as a downfield threat, caught 47 passes for 835 yards and eight touchdowns, and played well enough that he’s going to get a three- or four-year deal in free agency.
His tremendous rapport with Nick Foles was evident in the games they played together; Cooper posted a 141.7 passer rating in the games Foles started. Cooper finally developed into that big, physical receiver the Philadelphia Eagles thought they were getting when they drafted him, and it makes sense to bring him back for 2014 and beyond.
Who else but Foles could possibly be first on this list?
What the Philadelphia Eagles’ second-year quarterback did was simply phenomenal. Don’t forget, this is a player who lost the quarterback competition to Michael Vick in the offseason and was seen as miscast for Kelly’s system. After all, Foles went just 1-5 as a starter a year ago, although he was playing behind a second-rate offensive line.
So what Foles accomplished in 2013 goes down as one of the most impressive seasons by any quarterback in NFL history.
Don’t forget that Foles was a backup as late as Week 8, losing his starting job following an inept performance against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7.
What Foles accomplished down the stretch was nothing short of miraculous. He played turnover-free football game after game, finishing with 27 touchdown passes to just two interceptions. Factor in his three rushing scores, and that’s 30 total touchdowns to just two picks. Foles’ 119.2 passer rating rates as the third-best single-season total in NFL history.
The Eagles were 9-2 this year in games in which Foles saw significant action, as opposed to 1-4 when Vick played the majority of snaps. Foles consistently threw the best deep ball in the game. He led the NFL in yards per passing attempt. He turned Cooper into a legitimate playmaker. And he managed the hurry-up offense like a 10-year veteran, doing so in his first season under Kelly.
Kelly has to be thrilled with what he’s found in Foles. The sky is the limit for Foles, and he should only get better as he learns the intracacies of the offense more and more.