The 5 Biggest Issues Facing the Philadelphia Eagles with OTAs Wrapping Up
The Philadelphia Eagles are putting a wrap on OTAs this week. Then the team will hold one final mandatory minicamp next week before breaking until training camp in July.
At this point, the Birds are putting the finishing touches on preparations for camp. However, most of the real work is already completed. There is no more help coming in the form of free agency or the draft.
What you see right now is pretty much what you’re going to get next month and come September.
With that in mind, every team still has potential holes, problem areas and other issues heading into the season. Try as the Eagles did, they just couldn’t address everything this offseason. Some stuff was out of their control.
Nonetheless, we’re dissecting the five biggest issues for the team as OTAs are about to conclude. These are the stories that will be following the Eagles all summer, into the regular season and even the playoffs, should they make it that far.
Perhaps some of these will prevent a run this January?
Is Nick Foles a Franchise Quarterback?
The term “franchise quarterback” may be one of the most overused in football, if not all of professional sports. That being said, at its root, the phrase is meant to imply a team has stability under center, somebody who might be able to win a championship.
Can the Eagles say that? Have they found that in Nick Foles?
The truth is that we don’t know yet.
His progression may be the story of the year in Philadelphia. Right now, he couldn’t be riding higher. He led the NFL in passer rating in 2013 with the third-highest mark in league history. He set a record with 27 touchdowns and two interceptions, by far the best ratio ever. He was named Most Valuable Player at the Pro Bowl.
But is a sample size of 16 career starts enough to declare what he is? Is he a product of the system and talent around him in Philly? Can he win when it matters in the postseason? Is he worth a new contract that potentially pays him between $15 and $20 million per year?
These questions can only be answered on the field this season. If Foles doesn’t have a great follow-up campaign, the Eagles might be hesitant to award him a huge contract and may go looking for his successor in the draft.
The reality is that Foles’ numbers and winning percentage would likely have to fall off dramatically for the organization to start looking in a different direction. It’s just hard to believe last year was a total aberration, and quality signal-callers are hard to find. He doesn’t have to rewrite the history books again to be a better option than half the league.
Until the Eagles bring home the hardware though, questions will always persist whether a field general is “elite” or “franchise quarterback” material. If all the questions about his status with the team are any indication, Foles might face that scrutiny earlier than most.
Age of the Offensive Line
The Eagles are fortunate to return all five starters from 2013’s offensive line, especially considering it’s a fantastic group. This same unit paved the way for LeSean McCoy’s rushing title and helped keep Nick Foles clean as he set an NFL record with 27 touchdown passes to two interceptions.
Left tackle Jason Peters and left guard Evan Mathis were both named first-team All-Pro last season. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) awarded Jason Kelce its highest cumulative score among centers. Last year’s fourth overall draft pick, Lane Johnson, visibly improved each and every week at right tackle.
That’s all well and good, but you have to be at least a little concerned how long this group can keep up this level of play. In particular, Peters, Mathis and right guard Todd Herremans are all getting up there in years.
Peters and Mathis will be 33 by the end of the season. Herremans turns 32 this year.
Offensive line is a position where players can perform at an above-average or high level well into their 30s. In Peters and Mathis’ case, there is little-to-no evidence that a drop-off is coming, as both were just recognized for their stellar play. Herremans struggled a bit last season but was certainly adequate.
However, at these ages, decline can be swift and sudden. Just because linemen can remain effective and haven’t shown obvious signs of slipping doesn’t mean it won’t happen—and if it does, things could get ugly fast.
At this point, there’s nothing the Eagles can do. Offensive line depth is another issue, so it’s not like the team can easily replace one of them should they begin to falter. Philadelphia just has to bank on getting at least one more season of high-level play from Peters and Mathis and one more season sneaking by with Herremans.
Depth at Wide Receiver
The Eagles used second- and third-round picks on wide receivers in May’s draft, which seemed a little like overkill at the time. Yet when Jeremy Maclin suffered a health scare during practice last week, it became apparent that depth at wideout is a big issue.
Don’t worry; Maclin is fine and practicing without limitations. The concern over what turned out to be a minor ding just served to illustrate how important he is to the club’s success this year.
With DeSean Jackson released during the offseason, Maclin steps into the role of No. 1 receiver. That is a little scary to some fans, as the former first-round pick has never produced a 1,000-yard receiving season—and probably more to the point, he missed all of last season with a torn ACL.
If he isn’t completely recovered or goes down with an injury again, who is the No. 1 then?
Riley Cooper? As nice as his breakout season was in ’13, he only caught 47 passes. This is not indicative of a high-volume receiver.
Jordan Matthews? As impressive as the second-round pick out of Vanderbilt is, that’s a big spot for a rookie at a position where first-year players often struggle to get on the field.
He is currently slated to operate out of the slot, so if he was promoted up the depth chart, that would also create a trickle-down effect.
Who takes his spot? Third-round pick Josh Huff? Brad Smith? Arrelious Benn?
The Eagles seem to be one injury away from facing a potential catastrophe at wide receiver. Granted, having running back Darren Sproles and tight end Zach Ertz helps, as they line up at wideouts with some frequency. There’s no substitute for a quality No. 1 receiver though, so every time Maclin is slow to get up, fans will be holding their breath.
The Eagles lost two of their last four games last season when issues in the kicking game reared their ugly head.
Against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15, the team employed a strategy of kicking away from Cordarrelle Patterson on kickoffs, mostly because Alex Henery couldn’t boom the ball out of the end zone for touchbacks.
And versus the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs, Henery missed a 48-yard field goal badly in a 26-24 loss. In the words of Andy Reid, per ESPN's Rick Reilly: "We can all count. Those points would've helped."
At this stage, it’s hard to view Henery as an NFL kicker, and apparently the front office agreed. The Birds added competition in the form of Carey Spear, an undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt.
Spear has gained some notoriety for the nickname “Murderleg,” which actually has more to do with his willingness to make a tackle than his leg strength. He can kick the heck out of the ball too, which would seemingly make him more useful than Henery right off the bat.
Early reports out of practice aren’t all promising, though. Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer notes one of Spear’s botched field-goal attempts was pretty horrific:
I’d hate to kill “Murderleg” after just one bad kick, but his pull hook of a chip shot field goal during 11 on 11s makes me wonder if he has any legit shot to push Alex Henery. It was always going to be a long shot for the undrafted rookie to unseat a three-year veteran, but he hasn’t done anything during the two practices I’ve witnessed that has made me go, ‘Wow.’ Last spring, when punter Donnie Jones starting booting sky-high punts, it was evident that undrafted rookie Brad Wing had no chance to win that job. Carey Spear deserves more time and the Eagles will surely give it to him, but the whole kicker competition seems like a façade right know. Spear’s field goal was from about 30 yards out. He hooked it at least ten yards wide left, missed the building that’s behind that field goal and sailed the ball into the parking lot.
In all honesty, it’s far too early to panic over one bad kick in practice. That being said, the fact of the matter is that it’s June and the Eagles are unsure of who their kicker is going to be this season. That doesn’t exactly instill confidence.
This is one of the few issues the Birds have that’s likely to be cleared up by the end of training camp, but there is no guarantee. Whether Henery or Spear wins the job, it won’t necessarily equate to the situation being resolved.
Starting Lineup Is Largely the Same as Last Year
It’s fair to ask how much better the Eagles are than they were a year ago.
Yes, they have another year in head coach Chip Kelly’s program. Yes, the roster depth appears to be improved at most positions. Yes, special teams was a real point of emphasis during the offseason.
But in terms of the starting lineup, the Birds are going to war with almost the exact same squad from a year ago. Ten of 11 starters on both sides of the ball are projected the same as they were in 2013.
On one hand, that’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Philadelphia did win 10 games and an NFC East championship with this crew.
On the other hand, 10 wins didn't elevate the Eagles into the class of the league. Ultimately, the result was a first-round playoff exit.
Why is this team suddenly going to be good enough now? The only major change to the NFL’s 29th-ranked defense is an upgrade at safety with exiled New Orleans Saint Malcolm Jenkins joining the cast. On offense, the Eagles must figure out how to replace 27-year-old three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who is coming off a career year.
Not only that, everybody is a year older. That’s typically a bad thing for aging veterans, like the eight players in key roles who are in their 30s or are turning 30 by Super Bowl XLIX. Decline can hit hard and suddenly at that age.
The Eagles did a good job in the draft of addressing many of the areas where they currently rely on aging veterans, but there is no guarantee that rookies will contribute significantly or pan out at all, for that matter.
So if largely the same squad wasn’t good enough to win it all in 2013, why would the chances be any better this year?