Ranking Strength of Every Philadelphia Eagles Positional Unit
Philadelphia Eagles fans have every reason to be extremely excited for the 2014 campaign. Not only was the offense efficient in year one of Chip Kelly's hurry-up offense, it was record setting.
The Birds set all-time franchise records in points scored and total yards gained. Quarterback Nick Foles showed the pocket presence and awareness of a 10-year veteran, finishing with video game totals (27 touchdowns to two interceptions). Running back LeSean McCoy topped the league in rushing and all-purpose yards, and the offensive line was as effective as any unit in the league.
Defensively, the Birds aren't nearly as formidable, although coordinator Billy Davis did a phenomenal job of maximizing the production of his players a year ago. Veteran Trent Cole transitioned well to a 3-4 defense, finishing the season on a sack tear. Secondary is still the team's biggest weakness, and Philadelphia will need top performances from a number of its defensive backs to compete with the best talent in the game.
With the season still three-plus months from starting, here's a glimpse at the top positional units on the team, ranked from worst to best.
This ranking takes into strong consideration both the 2013 player performances and what can be expected this coming season. Special teams are a unique unit, so this will focus exclusively on the offense (broken down into quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line) and defense (defensive line, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties).
The safety position has been the team’s weakest since Brian Dawkins and then Quintin Mikell left via free agency; numerous half-hearted attempts to fill the holes have come up short. Veteran Malcolm Jenkins is the latest signing, as he inked a three-year deal in free agency.
The former New Orleans Saints first-round pick certainly doesn’t bring over a promising resume, having surrendered a 103.3 passer rating while missing 16 tackles in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Jenkins does have the versatility to play corner and safety, and Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis will enjoy utilizing him at both positions.
Competing for the other starting spot will be fifth-year player Nate Allen and second-year safety, Earl Wolff. Allen had his best season by far in ’13, and he does know the system. Wolff played well for a fifth-round rookie, missing just four tackles in 40 attempts.
Stanford fifth-rounder Ed Reynolds will be the primary backup, while Chris Maragos is mainly a special teams player.
There have been mixed opinions on the performances of veterans Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher in 2013. I’ve been a strong supporter of Williams, citing his shutdown performances against Pierre Garcon (twice), Dwayne Bowe and Calvin Johnson. Fletcher rated as an average corner who committed too many pass-interference penalties.
Both will enter camp as starters this coming season, although last year’s breakout corner, nickelback Brandon Boykin, will undoubtedly push for extensive playing time.
While seeing action in barely half the snaps a year ago, Boykin registered six interceptions, including the season-clinching pick against the Dallas Cowboys. Boykin doesn’t have the traditional size to play on the outside, and the coaching staff has been reluctant to move him because of the level of play he’s displayed over the slot.
Free-agent signee Nolan Carroll of the Miami Dolphins posted excellent coverage numbers a year ago (47.8 completion percentage allowed, three interceptions), and could give Fletcher or Williams a run to be the starter. Fourth-round rookie Jaylen Watkins can play both cornerback and safety, and the plan is that he contributes in a similar way (on fewer snaps) to Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu, a rookie standout from a year ago.
The linebacker quartet is an interesting positional group on the Philadelphia Eagles; a case could be made for any of the four starters as the best linebacker on the squad.
Trent Cole went his first eight games without registering a sack, before picking up eight in the second half of the season. Pro Football Focus rated him as the seventh-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the game, as Cole also accumulating 28 quarterback hurries.
Cole’s window with the team is closing, especially looking at his $6.6 million base salary in 2014 and $11.6 million cap hit in ’15.
Jack-of-all-trades linebacker Connor Barwin made his mark as a run-stopper, but also contributed in pass coverage and as a pass-rusher. Both Barwin and Cole will have to compete with last year’s first-round rookie, Marcus Smith, for snaps, although Smith is raw enough that he won’t likely see much action early on.
Inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks is a future star if he can improve his tackle percentage; Kendricks seemingly made a game-changing play or two every week down the stretch but tied for last per PFF at his position with 21 missed tackles. Veteran DeMeco Ryans is a liability in pass coverage, but he’s the defensive captain and a tackling machine.
The depth is weak, especially in the interior part of the linebacking corps. Should Ryans or Kendricks get hurt, they would have to be replaced by a fringe player like Najee Goode, Jake Knott or Jason Phillips.
6. Defensive Line
Switching to a 3-4 defense last year shuffled around the defensive line. Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton moved from 4-3 tackles to 3-4 ends, Trent Cole shifted from end to outside linebacker and newly drafted Bennie Logan played the traditional nose tackle position.
Cox is two years removed from being a first-round pick; he’s been unspectacular but quietly a very solid player who puts pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. Thornton is the complete opposite in that he’s there to stop the run, but he typically gets replaced on third downs by pass-rushing specialist, Vinny Curry.
Logan is a young, developing nose tackle who saw a little over 300 snaps of action a year ago and 38th among 69 qualifying interior linemen, per the metrics of Pro Football Focus.
Rookie seventh-round pick Beau Allen will compete to be the backup to Logan, while the end position is rounded out by Curry, fifth-round rookie Taylor Hart and last year’s undrafted rookie, Damion Square.
5. Wide Receiver
Releasing DeSean Jackson outright was the most shocking move of the offseason, and Chip Kelly will be heavily scrutinized if he is unable to replace Jackson’s production in 2014.
Jackson brought an entirely new dimension to the offense, forcing safeties to play deep, which in turn opened up underneath routes for erstwhile backup Riley Cooper.
Former first-rounder Jeremy Maclin will have the task of supplanting Jackson as the No. 1 receiver, which won’t be easy to do. Since entering the NFL in 2009, Maclin has managed to be productive (averaging 855 receiving yards for his first four seasons) without breaking out (no 1,000-yard campaigns). He is coming off a torn ACL, although reports say he has rehabbed extremely well.
Cooper signed a fresh five-year contract worth $25 million; realistically, he’s here for two more years and maybe a third. Cooper’s surprise season was largely the result of a five-touchdown stint over two games in the middle of the year; outside of that burst, he recorded just 47 catches.
Cooper will be pushed by second-round rookie Jordan Matthews, an explosive playmaking wide receiver with the physical tools to be a huge success in Kelly’s offense. The 6'3" Matthews is big, runs a 4.46 40-yard dash, and has the strength (23 repetitions on the bench press) to separate from opposing defensive backs.
Third-round rookie Josh Huff will serve mainly in the slot, while Arrelious Benn, Jeff Maehl, and Damaris Johnson provide depth.
4. Tight End
With the NFL switching to a high percentage of two-tight end sets, the Philadelphia Eagles are in excellent position to be one of the more formidable teams to use this approach. Brent Celek is an eight-year veteran who can catch passes and block, while Zach Ertz can create mismatches when lined up as a slot receiver.
Celek still hauled in 32 receptions for 502 yards and six touchdowns a year ago, and he led all tight ends (minimum 30 catches) in average yards gained after the catch.
Ertz finished with 36 catches for 469 yards and four scores of his own, giving the Eagles nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns from their tight end duo.
Free-agent acquisition James Casey played very sparingly last year, but he does have the potential to line up at numerous spots. And he’s a very reliable backup.
Regardless of what you think about Nick Foles, this positional group is stacked. In his first season operating Chip Kelly’s hurry-up offense, Foles tossed 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions, posting a 119.2 passer rating. That’s the third-best mark in the history of the league, and it earned Foles a much-deserved Pro Bowl selection.
Backup Mark Sanchez was a disappointment as a first-round pick, but he does come with 62 career starts, 80 total touchdowns to 69 interceptions and four road playoff wins. Sanchez has said he’s still in the prime of his career and believes he should be more than able to fill in should Foles get hurt.
Former college standout Matt Barkley suffered a disastrous rookie campaign, turning the ball over nearly every time he played. Still, there’s reason for optimism, beginning with the fact that every quarterback Kelly has touched has turned to gold.
The reason quarterback doesn’t top the list is still the unknown regarding Foles; was he a fluke or can he duplicate his production? This season will answer that question.
2. Running Back
Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles led the National Football League with 2,566 rushing yards and a 5.1 yards-per-carry average. All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy is as talented of a runner as it gets in this game, and he’s still just 25 years old. As a runner and a receiver, McCoy draws comparisons to Barry Sanders for his ability to make defenders miss.
Multidimensional back Darren Sproles was acquired via a trade with the New Orleans Saints. He’s 30 years old, but he plays a unique style of football that should enable him to be effective for several more seasons. Sproles will be used sparingly as a running back but will see a multitude of targets in the passing game, where he is essentially a slot receiver.
Third-year back Chris Polk scored three touchdowns on just 11 runs in 2013, all but beating out Bryce Brown for the lead backup job. (Brown was traded to the Buffalo Bills this offseason.) Polk is much better suited as the No. 3 running back, but he has high upside and, if he gets the opportunity, will play behind a strong offensive line.
The only possible problem with the running game would be if McCoy went down; Sproles isn’t a workhorse back, and Polk may be overmatched as a regular player. Then again, the Eagles certainly wouldn’t be the only franchise that would suffer a setback with the loss of their lead back.
1. Offensive Line
The offensive line may have been the most underrated unit of the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles.
Left to right, Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans and Lane Johnson rated by Pro Football Focus as far and away the most-effective run-blocking line in the league.
Peters is a six-time Pro Bowler who is athletically the most gifted offensive lineman in the business. PFF has rated Mathis as the top guard three years running, and the site rated Kelce as the top center in 2014.
Herremans played much better as he recovered from his 2012 injury, and Johnson projects to be a star if he can shore up his pass-blocking skills. Allen Barbre is the top backup who can fill in at both guard and tackle, but he barely played a year ago given the health and durability of the five starters.
This unit did wonders for Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy and the receiving corps and thus projects to again be the finest positional group on the Eagles.