10 Biggest Issues Facing the Philadelphia Eagles This Offseason
The Philadelphia Eagles are coming off of an incredibly surprising turnaround 2013-14 campaign, finishing 10-6 in Chip Kelly's first season as a head coach in the NFL, winning their division before being ousted by the New Orleans Saints in a game that exposed many of their team's flaws. Those issues, and more, make my list of the 10 biggest issues facing the Eagles this offseason.
Honorable Mention: 2012 Draft Contract Extensions
Before we get to the main list, it is necessary to note a key cloud that is hovering on the horizon for the Eagles in future years as a kind of honorable mention.
The 2012 draft was full of hits for the Birds, from defensive end Fletcher Cox to nickel corner Brandon Boykin to linebacker Mychal Kendricks, not to mention potential franchise quarterback Nick Foles.
All of these players are already key contributors for the team, and they will be asking for big-money contract extensions on the backs of their cheap rookie deals. To whom the Eagles decide to give these extensions, and for how much money, will be one of the most important developments in the next mini-era of Eagles history.
10. Linebacker Depth
It was somewhat of a surprise that the Eagles did not take an inside linebacker at some point in the 2014 NFL draft, instead opting to let LB duo Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans continue without all that much behind them should injury or poor play arise.
Kendricks is young and talented, with speed and instincts that allow him to cover pass-catchers and blitz the QB, but he can be occasionally erratic and overzealous in his pursuits with poor tackling form.
Ryans has been the leader of the defense since he arrived from the Houston Texans in a trade, but his extended age has sapped some of his athleticism, and the Eagles' front office has failed to provide a potential future starter should Ryans wear down or simply become too expensive for such little output in the next couple of seasons.
9. QB Coach Bill Lazor Leaves
One of the unheralded reasons for the Eagles' sharp turnaround from a dismal 4-12 season that led to Andy Reid's firing to a playoff showing with Chip Kelly at the reins was new quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor. After Michael Vick was lost to injury and concluded his brief stint at QB, Lazor then focused his full attention on instructing and developing Nick Foles into a playoff-caliber quarterback.
It worked, and Foles tossed 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions.
Lazor was snatched by the Miami Dolphins and will be attempting to give the Fins offense a little bit of that Chip Kelly flavor, leaving a potential gap in Philly where his advising Foles undoubtedly will be sorely missed.
8. LeSean McCoy's Durability
LeSean McCoy is the Philadelphia Eagles' best player.
He actually has been the team's most talented, productive and consistent player for a few years now, which is part of the problem. So much of Kelly's system is centered on the hard work of running backs gashing the opposing team's defense that, at this point, the heaps of carries thrown onto McCoy's back have potentially set him up to wear down faster than usually expected.
Is it possible for Kelly to lighten the load on McCoy and keep his legs from breaking down before he hits the 30-year-old mark that usually spells a steep decline for NFL running backs?
The Eagles do not have many players capable of stealing carries away from Shady's All-Pro jukes and NBA-style ankle-breakers (he has literally injured a number of players who've whiffed while trying to make unlikely tackles).
It is not only up to the coaches to dial back some of his touches, but it's also up to McCoy to maintain his conditioning and strength for durability purposes.
7. Offensive Line Health and Depth
The Eagles' offensive line situation is quite similar to the previously mentioned McCoy situation. The O-line is one of the best in football, a cohesive unit of Pro Bowl talent.
Jason Peters is its athletically dominant left tackle, Evan Mathis its unheralded left guard, Jason Kelce its agile and thick-bearded center, Todd Herremans its veteran right guard and Lane Johnson its dancing bear right tackle taken with the fourth overall pick a year ago.
Outside of Kelce and Johnson, however, the line is on the wrong side of 30, and it is quite possible that its abilities may wane in future years. Health issues would leave the Eagles empty-handed, as the depth behind the line is just as sparse as that behind McCoy at running back, and the team did not select an offensive lineman with a single pick in the draft.
While their starters have been brilliant, how the Eagles plan to deal with the line's age and the slipping productivity and brittleness that come with it may determine how successful the team is in the near future.
6. DeSean Jackson Released
Perhaps the most publicized move of the Eagles' offseason failed to reach the top five of my list of issues facing the team.
Whether Philly released DeSean Jackson because of his exorbitant salary, his projected fit in Kelly's offense, his relationships with players and coaches in the locker room, his relationships off the field or some combination of the reasons listed, Jackson leaves a gaping hole of production at the wide receiver position in the Birds offense.
How have the Eagles tried to fill it?
First, they've brought back former first-round pick Jeremy Maclin, who missed out on a potentially successful 2013-14 campaign after tearing his ACL in training camp. Then, they traded a fifth-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for the small and shifty running back Darren Sproles, who will be a fearsome route runner and pass catcher in the slot position of Kelly's offense.
The Birds also drafted two receivers in their first three picks of the draft, taking Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews and Oregon's Josh Huff, who will both be asked to contribute immediately to the offense with their diverse skill sets. Finally, the team expects that now-second-year tight end Zach Ertz builds on the production from the second half of last season as a tall and athletic weapon and matchup nightmare.
How much of the void left by Jackson's departure gets filled by Maclin, Sproles, Matthews, Huff and Ertz will be a huge determinant for the Eagles in the coming season.
5. NFC East Improves
It is often forgotten how close the Eagles came to missing out on the playoffs altogether, as Dallas Cowboys backup QB Kyle Orton almost led Dallas to the division title and a postseason appearance were it not for a heroic and game-clinching interception by nickel corner Brandon Boykin aka The Boy King.
That game is a lens through which we can see how the Eagles will in no way be a lock to win their division again this coming season.
The Cowboys will have questions surrounding Tony Romo's back, but he is an elite, even if erratic, talent when healthy, and their offensive line has picked up some talented players, via the draft, who should dominate the NFC East for years to come.
The New York Giants are led by two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning, who can still carve up a defense even if he had a miserable 2013, and they've brought in a large handful of veteran talent, via free agency, that may take them out of last year's malaise.
While the East is nowhere near as beefed-up as the NFC West, it will in no way be a cakewalk for the Eagles to claim a second straight division title and postseason appearance.
4. Pass Coverage from the Secondary
The only projected change in the starting defense this coming season is the newly acquired safety Malcolm Jenkins, known for his generally uninspiring, but consistent play, covering tight ends and receivers, playing the run in the box and patrolling center field as a playmaker on the back end.
Other moves improved the quality of the depth in the secondary, with draft pick Jaylen Watkins potentially providing a significant contribution with his versatility should one of the starters go down with an injury.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, their pass defense was one of the worst in the entire NFL in terms of yardage, and their coverage and tackling certainly left something to be desired.
Some of their coverage flaws may have been exasperated by the number of plays they had to be on the field for, given Kelly's warp-speed offense, as well as a lukewarm pass rush, but it seems like next season's defense will be the same old misery for Philly fans, highlighted by the fans' least favorite safety, Nate Allen.
3. Pressuring the QB Via Pass Rush
The biggest defensive issue facing the Eagles in 2014 is their resounding lack of a pass rush.
Adjusting to defensive coordinator Bill Davis' 3-4 scheme forced a few square pegs into round holes, headlined by veteran defensive end Trent Cole (now an aging and limited-in-coverage outside linebacker) and backup sack artist Brandon Graham, who can't seem to fully grasp the athletic requirements of being an all-around linebacker in Davis' system.
Connor Barwin has been a well-documented success at ROLB, but he does not consistently get to the quarterback. The Eagles will need to see more transition from Cole, a standout season on the interior defensive line from Fletcher Cox, a former first-round pick, and potentially some pressure from this year's surprising first-round pick, Marcus Smith out of Louisville.
If these solutions sound relatively unreliable, that's because they are. Not being able to touch Drew Brees in the second half of their postseason loss to the Saints demonstrated how necessary the pass rush is in making the secondary's job that much easier, but it feels unlikely that Philly will be able to get more in the coming season than they did in 2013, a dangerously dire sign.
2. NFL Adjusts to Chip Kelly
More important than the Eagles' average defense will be the NFL's transition to Kelly's offense in a league that expected Kelly to transition to it.
Yes, the Birds were able to pick up the pace and impose a "Formula One" offense on a league that often seems to be riding horses, using the running game, options at every level, and a deadly screen attack to pick apart NFL defenses.
Unfortunately, the entire league has tasked their defensive coordinators with scouting and breaking down Kelly's system. Instead of three days of film work in preparation for playing the Eagles, teams have spent three months doing the same.
Will the defensive coordinators who have spent the entire offseason planning their own ways of stifling Kelly's offense, be it more press-man coverage or an emphasis on athleticism and heady play, win out? Or will Kelly's scheme trump all comers or perhaps evolve itself even further past opposing defenses and into the postseason once again?
I could not put an issue that is not strictly played out on the field on the top of my list, which leads me to my No. 1 biggest offseason issue facing the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014...
1. Can Nick Foles Take the Next Step?
Nick Foles holds the keys not only to Kelly's offense but also the Philadelphia Eagles' chances in the 2014 season and beyond, a monumental part of the Eagles' future and an issue of incredible importance.
Foles tossed 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions in 13 games as the Eagles' starting quarterback this past season, leading the team to a turnaround 10-6 record, an NFC East division title and a playoff appearance.
How much of that performance is real skill and bankable success? How much is a mirage on the back of star running back LeSean McCoy and head coach wizard Chip Kelly?
The biggest determinant of success this coming season will be how much Foles regresses.
If he becomes simply a game manager with little of the defensive game plan centered on stopping him, the Eagles are maxed out at brief postseason appearances like last year and are given the difficult challenge of determining whether Foles is worth a franchise QB-level extension.
If he maintains his 2013 form, or perhaps improves upon last season's production and leadership, he will justify a future contract and potentially lead Philly to their first ever Super Bowl title.
Foles' status among the league's quarterbacks is, simply, the most critical aspect facing the Eagles this offseason and beyond.