Breaking Down the Philadelphia Eagles Roster After the 2014 Draft
With the 2014 NFL draft concluded, we finally have a nearly complete picture of what the Philadelphia Eagles will have to work with in the season ahead. Now it becomes a question of how do the pieces fit?
The Birds have seven new draft picks and signed 15 more unrestricted free agents to compete with 68 veterans over 53 roster spots. While head coach Chip Kelly will undoubtedly preach about “open competitions” through the roster, though, the truth is we have a pretty good idea as to where most of these players stand today.
We’re talking, of course, about the depth chart. Nothing is set in stone, but it’s not all that hard to get a sense of how this year’s draft class can be expected to fill out the lineup.
With Nick Foles firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback, there was no reason to draft Johnny Manziel or any other quarterback at No. 22 overall. Foles set an NFL record with a 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and led the league with a 119.2 passer rating in ‘13—the third-highest single-season mark of all time.
Even if Foles takes a slight step back in ’14, it’s difficult to envision going in a different direction under center at any point in the near future.
The Eagles also signed Mark Sanchez after his release from the New York Jets. The fifth overall pick in ’09, Sanchez never demonstrated much growth as a passer at this level. However, as backup quarterbacks go, the 27-year-old may have a shred of upside remaining.
If nothing else, Sanchez provides competition for second-year quarterback Matt Barkley. Barkley was thrust into some impossible situations as a rookie, so I wouldn’t write him off just yet. That being said, a fourth-round pick in ’13, he probably projects as a backup at best.
Reigning NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy is at the peak of his career and figures to tote the rock around 300 times again in ’14.
Philadelphia traded a fifth-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for Darren Sproles in March. Sproles is more of a receiver than a running back though, and while he can give McCoy an occasional breather, they could be on the field together quite a bit as well.
If something were to happen where McCoy would was out, Chris Polk is the most likely candidate to take over as the every-down back. An undrafted free agent in 2012, Polk began seeing his playing time increase slowly toward the end of last season at the expense of Bryce Brown.
Brown was shipped to the Buffalo Bills for a future fourth-round pick that can become a third. Brown flashed Pro Bowl potential as a rookie but looked lost last season in Chip Kelly’s system, averaging 3.0 yards per carry or less in nine of 14 games.
With Brown out of the way, Polk looks like the clear No. 3. He’ll face competition from undrafted rookies David Fluellen and Henry Josey, but Polk also offers outstanding special teams production, which likely cements his roster spot.
Say goodbye to depth issues. The selections of Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff in the second and third rounds respectively should be more than enough to consider the Eagles’ situation at wide receiver out of crisis mode.
Matthews is expected to act as the primary slot receiver as a rookie. Huff will provide depth and help out on special teams.
Of course, Jeremy Maclin is stepping out of DeSean Jackson’s shadow and into the No. 1 receiver spotlight this season. Jackson posted new personal bests with Maclin out of the lineup in ’13. Assuming he’s recovered from a torn ACL, Maclin should be in store for a career year himself in Kelly’s offense.
Maclin is scheduled to test free agency again next offseason. With two early draft picks going toward wideouts, you have to wonder whether that strategy was also front-office commentary on the likelihood of re-signing the 26-year-old.
Philadelphia should carry at least five wide receivers, which means Arrelious Benn, Brad Smith, Jeff Maehl, Damaris Johnson and undrafted free agent Kadron Boone out of LSU will battle it out for the final spot in training camp.
In a minor upset, the Eagles did not address tight end during the draft. It didn’t jump off the page as a need largely due to the anticipated emergence of Zach Ertz.
There’s a strong feeling that Ertz is headed for a breakout season in ’14. Last year’s second-round pick out of Stanford, he was already beginning to take on a bigger role in the offense last December, hauling in five touchdowns over the Birds’ final six games, including playoffs. With Jackson out of the picture, it opens the door for even more two-tight end sets and thus more opportunity for Ertz.
Brent Celek still projects as the starter, though, due in large part to his fantastic ability as an in-line blocker. However, Celek will be 30 next year, which is why there was a sneaking suspicion Kelly might like another tight end to begin grooming.
After signing a free-agent contract last offseason, James Casey hasn’t really made much of an impact. Casey contributes on special teams and was seeing more playing time as a blocking specialist toward the end of ’13, but he’s certainly replaceable.
A couple of undrafted free agents could carve out a roster spot as a fourth tight end. At 6’2”, 224 pounds, Florida’s Trey Burton seems too small or at the very least more like a wide receiver. Blake Annen is an intriguing prospect though, running a 4.41 40-yard dash at Cincinnati’s pro day at 6’7”, 247 pounds.
Despite the fact that all five starters are slated to return and two of them were named All-Pro in ’13, offensive line may be the weakest position coming out of the draft. The issue is three of the five starters are well into their 30s, yet the front office failed to address the position with a single draft pick.
Left tackle Jason Peters and left guard Evan Mathis may be considered at the top of their game right now, but both are approaching 33. At that age, decline can be sudden.
Todd Herremans’ play already appeared to be falling off last season. How much of his struggles can be linked to the move to right guard, and how much traced back to playing alongside a rookie right tackle is unknown. Herremans rebounded a bit in the second half of the season, but he’ll be 32 in October and is another one to monitor.
With both guards in particular on the wrong side of 30, the Eagles brought in a bunch of developmental prospects after the draft. The team will kick the tires on Oregon State’s Josh Andrews, Morgan State’s Karim Barton and Texas’ Donald Hawkins to see if there’s any hope there.
At least Philadelphia is set for the long haul at two areas. Fourth overall pick Lane Johnson experienced his share of Welcome to the NFL moments last year, but by the end, it was easy to forget there was a rookie right tackle out there. Jason Kelce was signed to a huge contract extension during the offseason and is widely considered one of the best young centers in pro football.
On the other hand, the Eagles did a good job addressing an underrated need with regard to their defensive line depth.
Fletcher Cox was played between 75-85 percent of the defense’s snaps in 10 of Philly’s final 12 games last season according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and it showed. The 2012 12th overall pick seemed to wear down as the year went on.
Cox can count on receiving an occasional breather from Taylor Hart. The fifth-round pick played for Kelly and defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro at Oregon, so there are no mysteries. The club knows exactly what it’s getting, which is a solid backup for now.
The Eagles also used a seventh-round pick on Beau Allen, who will serve as Bennie Logan’s understudy for now. A lot of people felt nose tackle was a major need heading into the draft, but the team is confident in Logan at that spot. It’s also not a position worth going overboard on the investment, as the nose was only on the field roughly 50 percent of the time last season.
At the end opposite Cox, Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry can platoon for another year. Thornton turned out to be one of the best run defenders in the league last season but has no ability when it comes to rushing the passer. That’s where Curry can come in and play with reckless abandon.
The Eagles better hope Marcus Smith wasn’t a “reach” because he’ll likely be pressed into the starting job next season. Trent Cole will be 32, and his salary-cap figure is set to balloon in excess of $11 million in ’15, according to Spotrac.
Cole might be willing to restructure because there’s no way he’s seeing that money. Even still, he’ll be another year older and has already begun to show signs of decline. The two-time Pro Bowler has just 11 sacks over the past two seasons.
At least the team is grooming somebody for that impending vacancy. The Eagles failed to find an eventual replacement for DeMeco Ryans on the interior. Ryans turns 30 this summer and may be miscast as an every-down linebacker in a 3-4 defense. A $6.9 million cap figure, according to Spotrac, doesn’t help, and besides, he only has two years remaining on that deal.
Mychal Kendricks has the other job on the inside locked down and is likely headed for a healthy contract extension next offseason. Behind Kendricks and Ryans, there are a ton of prospects—Emmanuel Acho, Najee Goode, Jake Knott, Jason Phillips—but nobody who is likely to fill a two-time Pro Bowler’s shoes.
Signed last offseason, Connor Barwin wound up being a perfect fit for Philly’s defense opposite Cole. Depth at outside linebacker is a little lacking though. I can still see Brandon Graham getting traded at some point, which would leave Smith and special teams ace Bryan Braman, who was added during free agency.
Jaylen Watkins was one of the most important players the Eagles selected in this year’s draft because he’ll likely be starting by next season.
Cary Williams is about to turn 30 and could be a cap casualty in ’15—the final year of his deal. Bradley Fletcher can become a free agent in March. With one or both of their positions potentially vacant a year from now, Watkins looks like the heir apparent.
Brandon Boykin can play on the outside, but for now, the Eagles love him in the slot. Who can blame them? Boykin’s six interceptions in ’13 were tied for second in the NFL, and he only played on roughly 50 percent of the defense’s snaps. That kind of production is insane.
Philadelphia did sign Nolan Carroll during free agency. The former Miami Dolphin started 22 games over the past two seasons, although his two-year contract suggests he’s mostly here to provide depth.
Watkins has a clear path into the starting lineup and in relatively short order.
Safety was easily the weakest position on the roster heading into the offseason but has since been bolstered by a series of moves.
The Eagles signed exiled New Orleans Saint Malcolm Jenkins to a three-year contract less than an hour after free agency opened. With $8.5 million guaranteed, the Jenkins name can be comfortably penned into one of the two starting jobs this season.
The team also brought back Nate Allen on a one-year deal to compete with 2013 fifth-round pick Earl Wolff. Wolff held his own in 11 games as a rookie but didn’t do enough to make the coaching staff feel comfortable awarding him a starting job. Allen improved gradually as last season went on, and at the very least is a competent option if he beats out Wolff.
Adding Ed Reynolds in this year’s draft further solidifies the position. Reynolds has a slim chance at competing for a starting spot this summer, but more depth is never a bad thing, and he could be a bigger part of the mix within one year.
Chris Maragos was also signed away from the Seattle Seahawks in free agency, though he seems to be in Philadelphia almost exclusively to play special teams.
If Allen loses out to Wolff for the starting job, his roster spot potentially could be up for grabs. Oklahoma State safety Daytawion Lowe was signed as an undrafted free agent and might push for Allen’s job, but it is admittedly a long shot.
For all the talk about pass-rushers, defensive backs and wide receivers leading up to the draft, the Eagles’ greatest and most immediate need was arguably at kicker. Alex Henery stinks. His leg strength has become an issue on kickoffs and field goals, and he isn’t making up for the latter with tremendous accuracy either.
The club signed Carey Spear out of Vanderbilt after the draft to compete with Henery. Spear has garnered a lot of attention, mostly for his nickname—“Murderleg." All that really matters, though, is whether he’s a more dependable option in the kicking game, which he’ll have an opportunity to prove this summer.
After re-signing Donnie Jones to a long-term contract during the offseason, Philadelphia is set at punter. Pro Bowl long snapper Jon Dorenbos returns for his ninth season on the team as well.
As for the return specialist jobs, they both seem to be up in the air as of right now. DeSean Jackson was the primary punt returner, but he’s gone now obviously, and the kickoff man was never really set. Several of this year’s draft picks have some experience in this capacity, so it could be one big open tryout.