As OTAs are getting underway and training camp quickly approaches, hope springs eternal for the Philadelphia Eagles. The franchise and its fanbase are riding high coming off of a 10-6 season that included an NFC East championship and playoff berth.
Expectations are on the rise. The focus has shifted from rebuilding to the Super Bowl.
Yet how much better is the 2014 roster than the group that lost to the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs? How high is the Eagles’ ceiling really after an offseason that saw minimal improvement at the top of the depth chart?
There are many who would outright disagree with the premise that the Eagles did not improve significantly in the offseason. Assuming the draft and free agency work out according to plan, the roster is deeper—that much is true.
However, there simply were not many definitive upgrades along the starting lineup.
Of the 22 offensive and defensive starters from last year's postseason exit, 20 are expected to be the same in Week 1 of ’14. And other than at wide receiver—maybe—this rookie class is not expected to make a huge contribution.
|RB Darren Sproles||OLB Marcus Smith (R)|
|WR Jordan Matthews (R)||CB Nolan Carroll|
|WR Josh Huff (R)||S Malcolm Jenkins|
The biggest difference on defense is at safety, where Malcolm Jenkins should bring some stability to the back end of the secondary. The exiled New Orleans Saint isn’t an All-Pro player or anything, but he should be a marked improvement over Patrick Chung.
However, the offense is dealing with the loss of three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who posted a career year in ’13.
Sure, Jeremy Maclin returns from injury to take Jackson’s place, and the club traded for running back Darren Sproles to help minimize the damage. Still, it’s hard to claim the unit improved after releasing a player of Jackson's caliber.
I’m not one that is hung up on Jackson, either. The offense is going to be just fine.
Chip Kelly proved his system works as a first-year NFL head coach. With a full offseason to prepare as the starter, Nick Foles should only get more comfortable as the signal-caller. I expect big things from second-year tight end Zach Ertz as well, and even rookie wideout Jordan Matthews to an extent.
For every young player who is in a position to step up though, there is an aging veteran in a key role.
|Player||Age on 2/1/15|
|RB Darren Sproles||31|
|TE Brent Celek||30|
|LT Jason Peters||33|
|LG Evan Mathis||33|
|RG Todd Herremans||32|
|OLB Trent Cole||32|
|ILB DeMeco Ryans||30|
|CB Cary Williams||30|
Three of the five members of the offensive line are well into their 30s, as is Sproles. Same with Trent Cole on defense, and first-round pick Marcus Smith seemingly has a ways to go until he’s ready to replace him. Cornerback Cary Williams, interior linebacker DeMeco Ryans and tight end Brent Celek will all turn 30 before the Super Bowl.
These are all starters or players who are expected to see significant playing time in ’14. Now, if they play like they did last season, that won’t be a problem at all.
They’re all at ages where decline can be sudden, however. How many of them would need to have a disappointing year before the Eagles get dragged down with them?
Furthermore, we typically assume older players are more susceptible to injuries.
Even if that’s a misconception, the Birds’ luck with regard to staying healthy isn’t likely to carry over from the previous year. A few players went down in training camp, but once the regular season started, nobody vital to the team’s success missed more than a couple of games.
It’s a good thing the depth is improved, because the Eagles will need it, whether as a result of injury or to replace declining veterans. Depth is depth for a reason though, and there’s no promise the guys coming off the bench are as good as the starters.
The point here isn’t to be unnecessarily down on the Eagles, who still look like a playoff team, particularly in a very weak division. We’re not going to mention a tougher first-place schedule, or the room for regression from Foles after a historic campaign—oops, guess I let those things slip.
Objectively speaking, this team simply is not significantly improved or even very different at all from the 2013 iteration, unless several of its draft picks manage to exceed expectations. Granted, last year’s squad turned out to be a dark horse Super Bowl contender, which, by default, means this group is a threat, too.
Everything would have to go just right for that to happen. Given the age of the team and the reliance on rookies to alleviate that, there are a lot of variables in the equation.
The Eagles’ ceiling is as high as anybody’s. Their floor is higher than most. But they’re likely to fall somewhere in between, and that’s not quite good enough yet.