Breaking Down All the New Faces on the 2014 Philadelphia Eagles
Looking to defend their 2013 NFC East division title, the Philadelphia Eagles will return basically the exact same team for the second straight year.
They have one fewer starter on the offensive side of the ball (DeSean Jackson) and one extra starter on the defensive side of the ball (Malcolm Jenkins). But what the Eagles have added is a bunch of role players on both sides of the ball, plus a slew of draft picks.
That's what you want on a winning team: the ability to pick and choose the role players you want to add in the offseason, instead of having to add four or five new starters. That's when overpaying in free agency happens.
The following slides will highlight the 11 biggest new names on the Eagles heading into the 2014 season. They are in order by position.
Mark Sanchez, Quarterback
The Philadelphia Eagles headed into the 2013 season with no long-term plan at the quarterback position. Veteran Michael Vick battled it out with second-year player Nick Foles for the chance to run Chip Kelly's offense. Vick won the job but injuries opened the door for Foles, who responded with the third-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history.
In 2014 the big question isn't who will be the starting quarterback—it's which player will back up Foles, either free-agent acquisition Mark Sanchez or second-year player Matt Barkley.
Sanchez, 27, struggled during four seasons as the starting quarterback for the New York Jets, throwing 68 touchdowns against 69 interceptions. He also missed the entire 2013 season after shoulder surgery. It's safe to say that Sanchez was not in high demand during free agency.
The Eagles were able to sign Sanchez on a cheap one-year deal. The sixth-year veteran hopefully won't see the field at all during the 2014 season, but as far as backup quarterbacks go, there are far worse options than Sanchez. After all, he has had some success in the NFL, and learning from Chip Kelly is about a hundred times better than learning from Rex Ryan.
Darren Sproles, Running Back
How much speed can one offense have? Add Darren Sproles to the Eagles and it's easy to argue that Chip Kelly's squad will be the fastest offense in the NFL in 2014.
Sproles, who will turn 31 on June 20, will be the backup running back to LeSean McCoy. Although, it's actually Chris Polk who would handle the majority of the workload if McCoy were to suffer an injury. Sproles was brought in almost solely for his abilities as a receiver out of the backfield.
In 2013, Sproles turned in his worst year since 2007. Although he carried 53 times for 4.2 yards per carry and caught 71 passes for 604 yards, he scored just four total touchdowns. He also averaged just 21.3 yards per kick return and 6.7 yards per punt return.
Sproles' decline, his relatively steep contract (for a part-time running back) and the emergence of young running back Khiry Robinson led the Saints to trade Sproles to the Eagles for a fifth-round draft pick.
The big question is whether Kelly will be able to successfully revive the career of a player who is already likely a few years past his peak. The good thing is that Sproles isn't your typical 31-year-old running back. After all, he's carried the ball just 437 times in his entire career. By comparison, Marshawn Lynch carried the ball 366 times in 2013, including the postseason.
Sproles is more of an offensive weapon than a running back. He's a player who can carry four or five times per game while also catching four or five passes per game. He also has five career return touchdowns, three by punt returns and two by kick returns.
The Eagles' offense in 2013 was all about finding mismatches and creating opportunities for players in space. Think back to how many times Riley Cooper or Brent Celek caught passes with no defender within five yards of them. Now imagine a player with Sproles' speed catching those passes with room to run.
At the very least, even if his skills are declining, the threat of Sproles will have to keep defenders accountable.
Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver
Jordan Matthews may be the most talked-about new face on the Philadelphia Eagles since Terrell Owens in 2004. That's hardly an exaggeration, either. Matthews, a second-round draft pick, has dominated at OTAs, leading beat writer Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com to call Matthews the best receiver on the team.
Matthews, who has even drawn comparisons to Owens, is big, strong, fast and intelligent. He's also an extremely hard worker. In Chip Kelly's offense, I'd go as far as to say that Matthews has almost no bust rate.
He may not lead the team in catches or receiving yards this season, but I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes the number one option for Nick Foles by the end of the season. He has future Pro Bowler written all over him.
Matthews has a tremendous amount of pressure on him this season, especially with the loss of DeSean Jackson to the Washington Redskins. But despite the massive pressure, I actually expect Matthews to exceed expectations as a rookie.
Josh Huff, Wide Receiver
Everybody is talking about Jordan Matthews. Nobody is talking about Josh Huff. It's hard to believe that one was drafted in the second round and the other was selected just a round later.
And it's Huff who is already familiar with Chip Kelly's offense, having played under him at the University or Oregon.
Yet Matthews is the talk of camp, while Huff is being brought along slowly. And that's okay. No player made the Hall of Fame three months before his first game. Huff isn't going to be a star as a rookie. He'll be the fourth receiver, behind Jeremy Maclin, Jordan Matthews and Riley Cooper.
But an injury could open the door for increased playing time for Huff, who speculates that he played more than 90 percent of snaps at slot receiver in college. Huff has some speed too. He caught at least one 20-yard pass in every game he played during his final year of college.
I'd be surprised if Huff caught more than 35 or 40 catches as a rookie but don't be surprised if he emerges as the team's punt returner in 2014.
Beau Allen, Nose Tackle
A seventh-round draft pick making his team's 53-man roster isn't rare, but it's certainly not a given. I expect Beau Allen to make the team though, because he plays the all-important position in a 3-4 defense: nose tackle.
Last year's rookie, Bennie Logan, bulked up during the offseason and will be the starting nose tackle in 2014. But Allen is the odds-on favorite to earn the backup role. His only competition is Damion Square, an undrafted free agent who made the roster in 2013 but failed to impress during limited playing time.
Expect Allen to make the team, even if he only sees a few snaps per game as a rookie.
Taylor Hart, Defensive End
Chip Kelly has big plans for Taylor Hart. After all, he planned to draft his former player in the third round before general manager Howie Roseman talked him into selecting Hart two rounds later.
Hart will likely play defensive end, although he has the ability to also line up inside at defensive tackle if needed.
Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton are the two starters at defensive end for the second straight season, but Hart will compete with others like Vinny Curry and Damion Square for snaps at end. Another player who is expected to make an impact as a starter in a year or two, Hart will probably average between 15 and 25 snaps per game as a rookie.
Marcus Smith, Outside Linebacker
How many mock drafts in the world had Marcus Smith getting drafted by the Eagles in the first round? I'll go with zero. I had the Eagles selecting Smith, but in the third round.
But, who am I to tell Howie Roseman and Chip Kelly where they should draft a player? One of my theories involving the draft is that a team should be allowed to reach for a player at a position of need, as the Eagles did for Smith, if they're a winning team. Best player available wouldn't have helped the Eagles at about six or eight positions in the first round of the draft.
Anyway, Smith isn't going to enter the season as a starter, barring an injury or some unforseen circumstance. He's being groomed to take over as a starter for veteran Trent Cole, who will almost certainly be cut after the 2014 season (he's scheduled to make $11.625 million in 2015, when he'll turn 33 years old).
Smith was drafted for his versatility, as he can cover tight ends, stop the run and rush the passer. Like many other early-round linebackers, he'll be eased onto the field slowly, but his playing time should increase dramatically in the second half of the season.
By 2015, Smith will almost certainly be a starting outside linebacker for the Eagles.
Jaylen Watkins, Cornerback/Safety
Chip Kelly loves versatility among his players, and he demonstrated that when he selected defensive back Jaylen Watkins with the first pick in the fourth round of the draft.
Watkins, the half-brother of fourth overall draft pick Sammy Watkins, excelled at both cornerback and safety while at the University of Florida. He has almost no chance of earning a starting job on the Eagles as a rookie at any of the four defensive back positions, but the second a player goes down with an injury, Watkins' versatility will be invaluable.
As has become customary for the Eagles, Watkins is not just a solid cover corner (or safety, whatever you call him). He's also a willing and sound tackler.
Nolan Carroll, Cornerback
Nolan Carroll allowed a 47.8 completion percentage and just a 65.0 passer rating during the 2013 season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only one player in the National Football League bettered both marks (subscription required) in 2013 (Trumaine McBride of the New York Giants).
Yet for some reason, the Eagles were able to sign Carroll in free agency for a relatively low price. The 27-year-old is the fourth corner on the roster right now, but he'll be given every opportunity to beat out Bradley Fletcher for the No. 2 starting job. This is assuming the Eagles keep Brandon Boykin as their nickel corner for another season.
Along with excellent coverage skills, Carroll is an efficient tackler. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he recorded 44 tackles in just 47 attempts in 2013. If he doesn't win the starting job in camp, he'll be one of the best fourth corners in the league.
Depth is always important for a football team, and Carroll is going to be a major upgrade over Roc Carmichael, last year's fourth corner.
Malcolm Jenkins, Safety
The Eagles wanted Malcolm , more than they wanted Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward. So they went out and signed the former first-round pick to a three-year contract. He'll undoubtedly be one of the two starting safeties in 2014.
If you believe the numbers at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Jenkins is one of the bottom starting safeties in the National Football League: a poor tackler who struggles in coverage and doesn't do anything particularly well.
If you believe the Eagles, Jenkins is a very talented player whose skills will be maximized in Billy Davis' defense, where his abilities in coverage (he was originally drafted as a cornerback) will allow the Eagles to keep him on the field in three- or four-wide receiver sets.
Still only 26 years old despite entering his sixth season, Jenkins might be the most important player on the Eagles' defense in 2014.
Ed Reynolds, Safety
Fifth-round safeties don't usually become starters, especially as a rookie. Thankfully for Ed Reynolds, he was drafted by a team that has one of its two starting spots at safety wide open.
Reynolds will have to earn a spot over Nate Allen and Earl Wolff, but he'll be given every opportunity. He missed OTAs while he was finishing classes at Stanford and he's currently running with the third team at safety.
But Nate Allen's play over the last four seasons has been shaky. He's far from a guaranteed starter. Earl Wolff played well as a rookie but he missed about half the season with a knee injury that took forever to heal.
If Reynolds shines in camp, he'll undoubtedly open the season as the other starter alongside Malcolm Jenkins.