The NFC East is the most unpredictable division in the NFL. Between 2012 and 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins completely swapped spots from first to last in the four-team division and we've now gone almost a decade since a team has been able to defend its NFC East title.
The Eagles have won the division six times in 12 years since realignment in 2002, but only two of those titles have come in the last seven years. If history is any indication, they'll fall from the top again in 2014, as you can see in this chart:
So how does Philadelphia avoid a letdown in Chip Kelly's second season? We've got plenty of ideas.
1. Add Something New to the Offense
I wish we could be more specific here, but it doesn't necessarily matter what it is. The point is that defensive coordinators league-wide are going to spend a large amount of time this offseason trying to figure out how to stop Kelly's unprecedentedly high-paced offense, just as they did after option-oriented offensive attacks became chic in 2012.
We know Kelly doesn't care for labels and likes to mix things up, but it's imperative that he introduces some completely new tenets to his game plans in order to stay ahead of the game and keep opposing defenses guessing in 2014.
Maybe that means more tight ends in unique formations, since the Eagles have several good players at that position and didn't get much out of the handsomely paid James Casey in his first season with the team.
Maybe it means power or jumbo looks. Maybe it means finding new ways to utilize DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy, both of whom are weapons with limitless potential.
Just do something or you'll take a step backward.
2. Coach up Nick Foles
Again, the surprise element is gone here. Everyone will be fully prepared for a quarterback who wasn't a starter in September, but is now entering 2014 as the reigning leader in passer rating.
It's probably not realistic to expect Foles to post a sub-1.0 interception rate again. He could begin to come back to earth. In fact, that began to happen to a small degree in post-November games against the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints in 2013.
As good as he was, he'll need to keep getting better now that defenses are ready and there's plenty of tape to be used against him.
For example, he needs to learn to give up on plays earlier rather than taking costly sacks. His sack rate of 8.1 was too high and Pro Football Focus (subscription required) indicates that he spent more time in the pocket than any other qualifying quarterback.
|Average time to pass attempt, 2013|
|Time to attempt||Sack %|
|1. Nick Foles||2.88||8.1|
|2. Russell Wilson||2.82||9.8|
|3. Mike Glennon||2.81||8.8|
|4. Geno Smith||2.79||8.8|
|Pro Football Focus|
Musgrave is a quarterback guru of sorts and has 17 years' worth of experience as an offensive coach in this league, so his fresh set of eyes on Foles could be extremely helpful.
3. Work on Game Management—We're Talking to You, Chip
Kelly won only three of his seven challenges and missed a few opportunities for potential overturns. He made several strange decisions to punt inside the other team's territory and was penalized for throwing a flag on a play that was automatically being reviewed against Chicago.
He also could have cost the Eagles dearly with poor usage of timeouts, particularly in the fourth quarter of their Wild Card Game against New Orleans.
The point is that while Kelly's scheme was sound and his first season was an overall success, he sometimes looked like a coach who had never held an NFL coaching role before. He has to work on his game management skills this offseason.
The Eagles survived in 2013 without Maclin, but this isn't about survival. To keep winning and take the next step forward, they have to keep getting better. As good as Jackson is, keeping both Cooper and Maclin is necessary.
According to EaglesCap.com, they can expect to enter the offseason with approximately $20 million of cap space, which is easily enough to bring both receivers back—especially when you consider that a year off due to knee surgery should lower Maclin's price tag.
|Eagles: Who's the No. 2 receiver?|
|Age||Last full season|
|Riley Cooper||26||47 REC, 835 YDS, 8 TD|
|Jeremy Maclin||25||69 REC, 857 YDS, 7 TD|
|Pro Football Reference|
Cooper is probably the key, though, because although Maclin has more potential and is only 25, he has now torn his right ACL on two separate occasions.
Letting Cooper walk despite his obvious rapport without Foles would be dangerous, and if they did that and Maclin got hurt, they'd be in big trouble.
5. Re-Sign Cedric Thornton
He's the only other pertinent player that Philadelphia should go out of its way to keep around. Thornton broke out in a big way playing alongside Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan in his third season, recording 60 tackles in 16 starts.
His 17.6 PFF grade in run defense was the third-highest in the league among 3-4 defensive ends who played at least 25 percent of their teams' snaps and his overall grade made him the second-highest-rated defensive player on the roster.
Thornton might not be a big name, but he gets his job done and rarely makes mistakes. Although Vinny Curry is a great young defensive end, Thornton and Cox make up one of the best end duos in the game.
6. Get Safety Help
The Patrick Chung gamble didn't pay off. The veteran free safety was burnt in coverage time and again in 2013, but because rookie Earl Wolff was dealing with injuries, they didn't have the depth to replace him in the starting lineup.
Nate Allen played a ton of snaps at strong safety and did a decent enough job, but he's still the kind of guy you'd rather have as a backup than a full-time starter.
Considering that the jury is still out on Wolff, the Eagles have a complete lack of certainty at both safety spots entering 2014.
That's nothing new. They haven't had good safeties on this team since the Brian Dawkins era, and Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson aren't the answers either, so they'll likely have to jump back into the free-agent pool this offseason.
Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward, Donte Whitner, Chris Clemons, James Ihedigbo and Bernard Pollard are all slated to become unrestricted free agents. Each could be costly, especially Byrd and Ward, but if the Eagles are going to invest in one outside free agent this spring, it should be on one of those six players.
Hell, maybe even two. Remember: This was the worst pass defense in the NFL last year in terms of passing yards allowed. In fact, Pro Football Reference reveals that it surrendered the fifth-highest passing yardage total in NFL history.
7. Give Brandon Boykin a Bigger Role
I'm cool with the Eagles sticking with Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher. Those were the corners they invested big bucks in last offseason, and they brought a lot of passion and physicality to a defense that some considered to be rather soft in preceding seasons.
However, the best overall cover corner on the team was drafted one year prior and spent the 2013 season in a nickel role—mainly because he wasn't a blue-chip free-agent signing, but also because Boykin is only 5'10".
Despite the fact that Boykin played only 635 snaps and started only two games, he managed to finish second in the league with six interceptions. The majority of those interceptions were clutch plays from a true playmaker:
The Georgia product finished the season with the highest PFF coverage grade in the NFL, surrendering a passer rating of just 64.6 to opposing quarterbacks.
Yes, he spent the majority of his time in the slot, but four of his six picks came in outside coverage while he still held opposing QBs to only eight completions on 14 targets away from the slot.
Time to mix it up and give him more opportunities elsewhere on defense. It's not as though the Eagles weren't doing that well already—hell, we saw Boykin take snaps at linebacker in 2013—but he has to play more than 635 snaps next year. He's too much of a weapon to be on the sideline 45 percent of the time.
8. Beat Green Bay at Lambeau
The Eagles were lucky enough to play a fourth-place schedule in 2013, which means they got to beat up on 2012 last-place teams Tampa Bay and Arizona while the rest of the NFC East played tougher teams from those divisions.
This year, it'll be the opposite situation. They'll have to host NFC South winner Carolina and travel to Green Bay to face the NFC North-winning Packers. This time, there's quite a good chance the Packers will have their all-world quarterback under center.
In a division that has come down to the wire three years in a row, that could be the difference.
If the Eagles can find a way to go into Lambeau and beat the Packers in a game they aren't supposed to win while the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Redskins get to play Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota, that could be the kind of unexpected victory that puts them over the top.
9. Get Pass-Rushing Help
They're set in most spots on defense, especially where pass-rushers live. Trent Cole had a huge second half of the year, Connor Barwin is their most versatile defensive player and Cox and Thornton are young studs.
Heck, they even have Curry and Brandon Graham waiting in the wings if need be.
But Pro Football Reference indicates that this is a defense that still had the lowest sack percentage in all of football last season.
Cole had a great year and was a force in run defense as well as a solid second-half pass-rusher, but he'll be 32 early next season. Barwin, meanwhile, has just eight sacks in his last two full seasons.
|Lowest sack percentages, 2013|
|New York Giants||5.4||7-9|
|Pro Football Reference|
The Eagles probably can't afford a pure situational pass-rusher based on where current priorities should lie, but they might want to consider using an early draft pick on an NFL-ready rusher who can step in and relieve either Cole or Barwin on third downs.
And we're not alone here, because Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the team has been eyeing that position at the Senior Bowl.
The Eagles have to cover their asses in case age and/or injuries finally begin to catch up with them. Speaking of injuries...
10. Get Lucky
I know, Kelly is apparently a wizard of sports science. However, nobody is going to argue that regardless of Kelly's magic, the Eagles had fantastic luck when it came to health in 2014. They didn't lose a single player to injured reserve during the season and lost only one starter (Maclin) all year.
Ultimately, according to a study conducted by the Dallas Morning News, Philly starters missed only 29 games in total, which was the fourth-lowest total in the NFL.
Throw in that Maclin, who was replaced quite seamlessly by Cooper, counted for 16 of those games and it might actually be safe to conclude that this roster was less affected by injuries than every other team in football.
It'll be hard to keep that good fortune in 2014.