Highlighting Philadelphia Eagles' Deepest, Thinnest Positions Ahead of 2014
There's less than three months remaining until the start of the 2014 NFL season for the Philadelphia Eagles, a year in which the Eagles will look to defend the NFC East title they won last year, their first season under head coach Chip Kelly.
The Eagles basically return the same team as the 2013 campaign, minus DeSean Jackson on offense and plus Malcolm Jenkins on defense. And, of course, the Eagles added a slew of draft picks, including linebacker Marcus Smith and wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff.
The big key to the team is staying healthy for the 2014 season, just like they did in 2013. That's because the Eagles don't have the depth they need at a number of positions, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
The following slides will highlight the strongest and the weakest positions on the Eagles, in positional order.
Wide Receiver: Strength
Two months ago, the Eagles were in big trouble at the wide receiver position, having released Pro Bowler DeSean Jackson. Now, wide receiver is arguably the most stacked position group on the offensive side of the ball.
Jeremy Maclin will be counted on as the number one receiver. Despite suffering a torn ACL in minicamp last season, Maclin should be good to go at the start of the 2014 campaign. He's never proven himself as a number one receiver in the past, and he may not need to this season.
That's because rookie Jordan Matthews has been the talk of training camp. The team's second-round pick has been the best receiver at OTAs, per Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com. Matthews is expected to start the season as the slot receiver, but he's talented and versatile enough to play outside as much as the Eagles need.
Riley Cooper turned in a breakout season in 2013, catching eight touchdowns and averaging more than 17 yards per catch on his 47 receptions. He's a fringe number two starter, but he's well suited to be a number three receiver. The combination of Maclin, Matthews and Cooper gives the Eagles a top-ten receiver corps in the league.
Rookie Josh Huff is the number four receiver. Huff played more than 90 percent of his snaps in the slot under Chip Kelly at Oregon, but he also recorded at least one 20-yard catch in every game he played. He's not going to see much playing time as a rookie, but Huff knows Kelly's offense enough to succeed if an injury opens up more playing time for him.
It's unclear whether the Eagles will keep five or six receivers, but candidates for the next spot(s) include Damaris Johnson, Brad Smith, Arrelious Benn and Jeff Maehl, all leftovers from 2013, plus rookies Quron Pratt and Kadron Boone.
Offensive Tackle: Weakness
The Philadelphia Eagles will have a top five, maybe even top three, duo at offensive tackle in 2014. Veteran Jason Peters is a future Hall of Famer who successfully rebounded from a torn Achilles in 2012 to turn in a career year in 2013, while Lane Johnson played well enough to be named the offensive rookie of the year by NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger.
Although Peters is 32 years old, don't expect him to start declining. He still has two or three more years remaining in a very underrated career. That means Johnson will continue to play on the right side of the line until Peters retires. Johnson had his ups and downs as a rookie, but he's dominant as a run-blocker and should only improve over the next few seasons.
The weakness for the Eagles is their depth at tackle. Veteran Allen Barbre is the top backup at tackle. The Eagles really like him, enough to sign him to a three-year deal during the offseason. But Barbre is still a complete unknown. He's barely had the chance to show what he can do on the field. After all, Peters and Johnson both played in all 16 games last year.
The rest of the depth at tackle is shaky, with Matt Tobin, Michael Bamiro, Dennis Kelly and Andrew Gardner. Only Kelly has seen significant action, but that was under Andy Reid in 2012. With Chip Kelly's Eagles in 2013, he fell behind Barbre on the depth chart.
Basically, the Eagles really don't know what they have at tackle if one of their studs goes down. The 2012 season began derailing when Peters went down. The 2013 season likely wouldn't have ended in a division title if either Peters or Johnson had missed significant time.
You could make a legitimate case that Jason Kelce is the most important member of the Eagles' offensive line. He's not the best. He's not even the second best. There's no denying that Jason Peters and Evan Mathis are both better. Maybe Lane Johnson will even be better by the end of the 2014 season.
But Jason Kelce is no scrub. He's a star in the making, possibly a star already. Just ask Pro Football Focus, who rated Kelce as their top center for the 2013 season, just a year after Kelce suffered a torn ACL that sidelined him for the final 14 games of the 2012 season (subscription required).
A sixth-round pick in 2011, Kelce signed a lucrative extension this offseason, keeping him in an Eagles uniform through the 2020 season. He's just 26 years old, and he's a virtual guarantee to earn a Pro Bowl selection in the near future, probably in 2014.
And if Kelce goes down, who plays? That's the big question. Talk about having no depth at the position.
It would be either Julian Vandervelde, who was drafted one round ahead of Kelce in the 2011 draft, or David Molk playing in place of Kelce. Vandervelde has played in 10 snaps during his career. Molk has played in 15. Neither has played a snap since 2012. If Kelce goes down, there's a big problem in the middle of the offensive line.
It happened in 2010 when Jamaal Jackson suffered a torn triceps in the season opener. Mike McGlynn struggled through the next 15 games. And it happened in 2012 when Kelce tore his ACL in Week 2. Dallas Reynolds struggled through the next 14 games.
Let's hope it doesn't happen again in 2014.
Inside Linebacker: Weakness
The Eagles may regret passing on an inside linebacker during free agency and the draft. Because if either DeMeco Ryans or Mychal Kendricks go down, there's going to be a problem.
It's pretty clear that Ryans is entering his last season with the Eagles. He's scheduled to earn $6.8 million during the 2015 season and he's going to be 31 years old. He played more snaps than any other defensive player in the National Football League in 2013. He's likely going to play just as many snaps again in 2014, even though he's probably on the decline at this point in his career.
Mychal Kendricks is due for a breakout season in 2014. He was okay during the first one and a half years of his career but turned into a playmaker down the stretch in 2013. He collected four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in the final seven games.
Bigger things are expected for Kendricks this season. He's in line for a contract extension after the year too.
If either Ryans or Kendricks goes down, the Eagles have one decent backup in Najee Goode and a bunch of unprovens in Emmanuel Acho, Jake Knott, Casey Matthews and Jason Phillips. That would be a disaster.
The Eagles have more depth at the cornerback position than at any other position on the team—and it's really not even close. There are four players who could start if needed, three of whom I would feel very comfortable with starting.
Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are the two starters, at least as of now. I expect nickel corner Brandon Boykin to take Fletcher's starting job before the beginning of the season. He collected six interceptions despite playing just 51 percent of snaps last year. Pro Football Focus rated Boykin the best cover corner in the NFL and is a future Pro Bowler (subscription required).
The fourth corner is Nolan Carroll, easily the least talked about signing in free agency. Carroll could start if needed. He allowed just a 47.8 completion percentage and passer rating of 65.0 last season. Only Trumaine McBride of the New York Giants bested both figures.
The fifth corner will be rookie Jaylen Watkins, the first pick of the fourth round. The Eagles love him because of his ability to play any of the four defensive backfield positions. You wouldn't want him starting as a rookie, but I'd be okay with him seeing playing time in the area of 10 to 15 snaps per game.
The great aspect of corner is that a player like Bradley Fletcher or Nolan Carroll could go down and I think the Eagles wouldn't miss a beat. You'd just bump each player on the depth chart up one spot.