5 Philadelphia Eagles Starters Who Could Lose Their Job in 2014
When the Philadelphia Eagles re-signed Nate Allen to a one-year contract this offseason, he was given no assurances of keeping his starting job at safety. Should Allen eventually lose out to 2013 fifth-round pick Earl Wolff, or even rookie Ed Reynolds, it will come as little surprise.
That’s not necessarily the case elsewhere on the Eagles roster, where 21 of 22 starting spots seem all but settled. Or if they're not set in stone, their names are certainly written at the top of the depth chart in ink. So, if anybody else were to lose their starting job, it would be shocking, right?
Not necessarily. The truth is jobs are always up for grabs in the NFL, whether the head coach announces a competition or not. The best players are going to play, and in Philadelphia, the best player may not be a projected starter just yet.
A number of players may walk into Lincoln Financial Field this September thinking their spot in the lineup is assured. Come December, though, that may not be the case. Here are five Eagles who could find themselves on the bench after all—either as a result of their own declining play, at the hands of an ascending talent or both.
He may have signed a five-year, $25 million contract in February, but Riley Cooper might not want to get complacent with regard to his spot in the starting lineup. Not with Jordan Matthews breathing down his neck.
The Eagles traded up 12 spots in the draft to No. 42 overall to select Matthews out of Vanderbilt, and he’s done nothing but turn heads since his arrival. On Tuesday, Jimmy Kempski for Philly.com tweeted that the rookie has been the best receiver at OTAs, and apparently it’s not even close.
Matthews is expected to begin his NFL career operating primarily out of the slot. However, he could certainly play his way into the lineup on two-receiver sets—and it won’t be Jeremy Maclin who comes off the field, so long as he’s healthy.
Let’s not forget, Cooper’s breakout season happened only because Maclin sustained a torn ACL. Cooper was such an unlikely candidate to succeed, many fans calling sports radio were actually suggesting the Birds bring guys like Randy Moss, Chad Johnson or Terrell Owens out of retirement.
And as far as breakout seasons go, Cooper’s wasn’t that spectacular—plus, he’s likely to regress in 2014. Cooper hauled in only 47 passes in ’13, or fewer than three per game. His yardage and touchdown totals were exaggerated by his six catches of 40 or more yards, which was good for sixth in the NFL.
Unless you honestly believe Cooper is about to embark on a career as one of the league’s premier deep threats, his 17.8 yards per reception—and likely all of his production—are going to dip in ’14. Once that regression becomes apparent, it will open the door for Matthews.
While Brent Celek was one of the few players to see his production drop in head coach Chip Kelly’s offense, the tight end carved out a crucial role nonetheless: Celek transformed himself into one of the league’s premier run-blockers at the tight end position.
For that reason, Celek won’t find himself completely out of a job in ’14. However, if Kelly were to decide Zach Ertz’s production in the passing attack is more valuable, Celek could wind up seeing the field a lot less.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Celek was on the field with the offense 76.2 percent of the time last season compared to 40.5 percent for Ertz. However, their production was nearly the same. Celek had 32 receptions for 502 yards and six touchdowns, while Ertz finished with 36 catches, 469 yards and four touchdowns.
Just imagine what Ertz could do if the shoe were on the other foot, and he had Celek’s playing time.
We might not have to imagine for a whole lot longer. The Eagles didn’t use a second-round on Ertz in ’13 to stick him behind a less dynamic player. If the second-year Ertz is ready to emerge as a big-time playmaker, there’s no way Kelly is going to be able to keep him off the field.
Kelly is likely to increase the number of two-tight end sets to help get both players snaps, but it’s unlikely both players would push for somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 percent. If Ertz starts producing at a Pro Bowl level, the 29-year-old Celek, great blocker or no, will likely fade into the background.
To be fair, all of Todd Herremans’ struggles in the first half of 2013 can be explained away. He was coming off of an injury. It was his first season at right guard. Most of all, he had to help cover for a rookie right tackle.
Not surprisingly, as Lane Johnson improved, so too did Herremans. He was perfectly adequate down the stretch, maybe even a bit above average in the run-blocking and blocking on screen passes.
That being said, a slow start again in ’14 could be Herremans undoing. The nine-year veteran turns 32 in October, so at some point you run out of excuses and chalk it up to plain old decline.
One thing Herremans has going for him is there’s not a great deal of depth along the offensive line, so he’s not easy to replace. That being said, the club did just award a three-year extension a little over a week ago to Allen Barbre, the unit’s top reserve.
Barbre is listed as a tackle on the roster, but the soon-to-be 30-year-old journeyman has played all over the line. And while Barbre has been a disappointment virtually everywhere he’s played in the past, he filled in admirably last season on the handful of occasions he played in place of All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters.
The Eagles are currently trying out a number of prospects at guard as well.
Is replacing Herremans with Barbre or an unproven option likely? No, but if the offensive line has a weak link, it’s at right guard. If this is the year Herremans hits the wall, the coaching staff may have to try something.
Cole turns 32 in October, so even though it often appeared he still had a lot left in the tank last season, despite transitioning from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, he's at a point in his career when physical decline can occur swiftly.
Not only that, but the Eagles made it no secret that they are thinking about life beyond Cole at the draft this year. First-round pick Marcus Smith is learning the defense from the opposite side for now, but the thinking is he could still be groomed to take Cole’s place next season, perhaps earlier should Cole struggle.
Even if asking Smith to learn what essentially amounts to two different positions in his rookie year sounds like a bit much, there are ways around that as well. Smith could take over for Connor Barwin on the left side, and in turn Barwin can take over for Cole on the right.
Smith isn’t the only player pushing for Cole’s job. The two-time Pro Bowler was able to hold off Brandon Graham for his job last year, but advanced metrics show Graham was very effective in limited opportunities.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Graham ranked seventh among all 3-4 outside linebackers in pass-rush productivity, a stat that measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rush attempt. There is some sentiment that the 2010 first-round pick can play if he could ever get a shot.
Still, all of this depends on Cole’s theoretical decline. While he’s racked up only 11.0 sacks over the past two seasons, Cole is still a strong run defender, and he surprisingly held his own dropping into coverage in ’13.
Cole isn’t a guy the Eagles are going to remove willingly. Yet at that age, it might become necessary, especially when there are other options available.
When the Eagles signed Cary Williams last offseason, the front office was essentially rebuilding the club’s cornerback depth from the ground up. One short year later, there is actual competition to the free-agent stopgap.
In March, the team added Nolan Carroll, a 27-year-old corner who started 22 games over the past two seasons for the Miami Dolphins. Two months later at the draft, Philadelphia selected Jaylen Watkins out of Florida in the fourth round.
Based on the magnitude of Carroll’s deal—two years at $5.2 million according to Mike Garafolo for Fox Sports—the organization seems to view him primarily as a reserve, while Watkins likely is at least a year away from contributing. That being said, if Williams’ play falls off in ’14, the coaching staff has options.
Williams was serviceable last season, but even he had to admit there was a stretch where his play lacked “aggressiveness” and “nastiness.” Now, with Williams set to turn 30 in December, a decline in physical ability might be right around the corner.
If Williams isn’t cutting it, the Eagles need not show any loyalty. The six-year veteran could be a cap casualty either way in 2015, the final year of his contract.
This is somebody who was never much better than average in the first place.
For now, I suspect Williams is running virtually uncontested with the first-string defense all the way to September, barring a dramatic shift. By the time his 30th birthday rolls around though, it’s certainly plausible Williams will find himself sidelined.