How far would the Philadelphia Eagles have gone in 2013 were it not for Nick Foles’ unexpected historic season? Could they have made it to the playoffs without the second-year quarterback’s breakthroughs under center?
Unlikely. Foles’ breakout campaign was one of several that propelled the Birds from a 4-12 record in 2012 to division champions in Chip Kelly’s first season on the sidelines. Center Jason Kelce also took his game to a new level in year three. Defensive end Cedric Thornton and cornerback Brandon Boykin played huge roles in the sudden reversal as well.
Even running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson, a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber players already, enjoyed breakout years to a lesser extent.
Needless to say, the development at these positions had a huge role in elevating the Eagles back into the postseason. It stands to reason if the franchise is going to take the next step toward becoming a legitimate contender in 2014, it’ll need more young players to come into their own in year two under Kelly.
It just so happens Philadelphia is well-stocked with candidates to reach that next level. If the following five players continue to improve in 2014, the Eagles should continue their ascension in a crowded NFC.
Arguing Zach Ertz is in line for a breakthrough season in 2014 isn’t exactly going out on a limb. The Eagles invested the 35th overall pick in last year’s draft on the Stanford tight end, so naturally he’s expected to take on a bigger role in the offense in year two.
There are also the obvious signs from Ertz’s performances as a rookie, particularly down the stretch. The 23-year-old reeled in four of his five touchdowns over the club’s final six games, including playoffs.
Ertz finished with 36 receptions for 469 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season. Those numbers might seem modest, but for only playing on roughly 40 percent of Philadelphia’s offensive snaps, that’s a relatively huge impact.
According to metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only five tight ends with a minimum of 30 targets posted a higher “yards per route run.” Two of those players were named to the Pro Bowl—New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis.
Ertz is an obvious candidate for a breakout season because he’s got the talent to be the next prolific tight end in the mold of a Graham or Davis. He’s 6’5”, 250 pounds and runs better than his 4.68-second 40-time suggests—well enough to line up in the slot or split out wide at least.
With a year under his belt in the NFL and more opportunities certain to come his way in 2014, Ertz could easily finish among the elite tight ends in receptions, yards and touchdowns next season.
If the best compliment you can pay an offensive lineman is not mentioning his name, then Lane Johnson’s first year was an overwhelming success. The 2013 fourth overall pick experienced his share of welcome-to-the-NFL moments his first few weeks on the job, but by the end of the year, it was easy to forget the Eagles were starting a rookie right tackle.
It might seem odd to think of an on offensive lineman as somebody who has a breakout season without any official statistics to measure growth from one year to the next. Although, determining what qualifies as a breakthrough might be easier than you think.
Johnson simply has to make the jump from pretty good for a rookie to dominant at his position.
He certainly has the tools to be that type of force, which is why the Birds were willing to invest a premium in last year's draft. Johnson possesses the size and athleticism to ward off any pass-rusher or win at the point of attack and get to the second level in the running game—a rare combination.
Eventually, the plan is for Johnson to replace the aging Jason Peters over at left tackle and anchor Philadelphia’s offensive line. That may not happen for a few more years, but Johnson can start getting folks comfortable with the idea in 2014 by elevating his game to the next level and becoming a premier player on the right side awhile.
In some respects, 2013 was a bit of a disappointment for Fletcher Cox. He simply did not impact games like you would hope a 12th overall draft pick would in his second season in the NFL.
The silver lining is the lack of growth in year two was not without a built-in explanation. Cox’s position and role changed along with the shift from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 alignment, going from a one-gap defensive tackle to a two-gap defensive end—two completely different jobs.
Playing end in a 3-4 is often one of the least glamorous positions because the responsibilities go beyond just getting after the quarterback, which just happens to be Cox’s strength. His sack total dipped from 5.5 as a rookie to 3.0 last season despite significantly more playing time.
That was to be expected, unfortunately, and there is some question as to whether or not the Eagles will get the most out of him this way. On the other hand, Cox is a good enough athlete that he should be able to adapt to and excel in any system.
Cox did show flashes in 2013. He was stout against the run and got good push at the point of attack. He seemed to tire at the end of the season, though, and was held without a sack for the entire second half.
Still, maybe it’s blind confidence, but Cox has the ability to be a quiet force in the Birds defense. He needs to be more consistent in the year ahead, and the impact plays should follow.
To this point, Vinny Curry’s NFL career has been defined by a struggle to get on the field. He was buried on the depth chart for most of his rookie season, while the new coaching staff seemed reluctant to put Curry in the lineup early in 2013, possibly over concerns he didn’t fit the new 3-4 scheme.
Curry’s playing time eventually increased last season, as did his production. His 4.0 sacks may not seem like very many, but given Curry was still only playing on roughly one third of the defensive snaps, he made the most of his opportunities.
In fact, if it felt like Curry was in the backfield anytime he entered the game, well, that’s not too far off. Metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has a signature stat known as “pass rushing productivity” that uses a formula combining total pressures from sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rush attempt.
Curry was second only to Houston’s J.J. Watt among 3-4 defensive ends when it came to getting after opposing quarterbacks in 2013.
Now that this coaching staff knows how disruptive Curry can be, and he’s had a year to learn the scheme, the 2012 second-round pick should continue to see his playing time rise. He’s too explosive to keep off the field, even if he might be better suited for a 4-3.
Technically, Jeremy Maclin might not be an Eagle in 2014. The 25-year-old is set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 11.
However, the Birds should do what they can to retain Maclin. Assuming the two sides eventually come to terms, just imagine what the 19th overall pick of the 2009 draft could achieve in head coach Chip Kelly’s offense.
Look no further than what Kelly did for established superstars LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson. Both had previously posted All-Pro seasons at their respective positions, but in 2013, they achieved new career highs. McCoy led the NFL in rushing. Jackson set personal bests in receptions and receiving yards.
Detractors will point to the fact that Maclin is coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL and has never produced a 1,000-yard season. That being said, his line from 2010 is nothing to sneeze at (70 REC, 964 YDS, 10 TD), while Maclin’s failure to take the proverbial next step can be attributed to factors outside his control—an illness that caused him to miss training camp in 2011 and the offense’s decline in 2012.
If Riley Cooper could become a viable No. 2 receiver and fan favorite in Kelly’s offense, the sky is the limit for Maclin, the more skilled and polished of the two.
Maclin is every bit the deep threat Cooper is—Coop finished with 13 receptions of 20 yards or more in 2013 compared to 12, 15 and 13 the previous three seasons for Mac.
Where Maclin sets himself apart, however, is in the short passing game. On throws that travel 1-10 yards from the line of scrimmage, Cooper came up with just 16 receptions compared to 30, 28 and 40 for Maclin the previous three seasons.
Maclin is able to win against one-on-one coverage in any area of the field. In Kelly's offense, Maclin would have an opportunity to take his game to the next level—if he sticks around, of course.