Ranking the Philadelphia Eagles' Most Irreplaceable Players
For the first time since 2011, the Philadelphia Eagles could be set to enter training camp without any serious injuries.
In spring 2012, All-Pro offensive tackle Jason Peters tore his Achilles tendon (twice). He missed the entire season rehabbing, and the team was forced to shuffle in a slew of underwhelming players like Demetress Bell, King Dunlap and Dennis Kelly. Peters' injury isn't why the Eagles went 4-12, but his impact (or lack thereof) was certainly felt.
The next season, veteran wide receiver Jeremy Maclin tore his ACL and missed all 16 games. Fortunately, Chip Kelly was able to coax a career year out of DeSean Jackson while even turning Riley Cooper into a downfield threat.
Heading into 2014, everyone is healthy. That was the storyline for much of 2013 as well. Aside from Maclin's injury, the Eagles remained remarkably healthy. Kelly won the division in his first year as head coach, and expectations are high that Philadelphia can not only repeat as NFC East champions, but also make a postseason run.
The team isn't built around one player, but everyone knows this is an offense-driven squad. Playmakers on that side of the ball will ultimately determine whether the Eagles emerge as serious contenders or become mired in mediocrity. That’s why four of the top five most irreplaceable players on the current roster are on offense.
The players on this list are extremely talented, but they're also on here for the importance of their position and, in some cases, the gap between the starters and the backups.
5. Mychal Kendricks
Mychal Kendricks is the only defensive player to make the list, which certainly doesn’t mean he’s the best player on the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense. Trent Cole, Fletcher Cox, Connor Barwin and Brandon Boykin are all more talented and played a bigger role a year ago.
But Kendricks is an irreplaceable player because of the lack of depth behind him. Kendricks is an up-and-coming star who really turned it up down the stretch last December. He was a turnover machine, registering three sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions just in the final three games.
Kendricks has already been groomed to replace DeMeco Ryans as the leader of the defense. If Kendricks got hurt, it would push an unproven player like Najee Goode, Jason Phillips or Casey Matthews into a starting role. That would expose this unit, much like when Roc Carmichael had to sub for Cary Williams in last year’s NFC Wild Card loss.
It was also surprising that the Eagles didn’t draft an inside linebacker at all in this year’s NFL draft. That must show the confidence the coaching staff has in both the veteran Ryans and third-year player Kendricks.
4. Jason Peters
The Philadelphia Eagles have enough faith in Jason Peters that they rewarded the 32-year-old with a four-year contract extension worth over $40 million. Per Spotrac, Peters can be released at little cap penalty after 2015, so his tenure with the team will be determined on a yearly basis.
So far, the production has been right up there with the best left tackles in the business. Peters is a six-time Pro Bowler and an ideal fit for Chip Kelly’s offense, especially given his athleticism. Last year, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated Peters as the fourth-best tackle in the NFL.
Peters was especially effective as the season went on, showing no ill effects from his 2012 torn Achilles tendon. After allowing 24 quarterback hurries in the first nine games (stats per PFF), Peters allowed just six in the next seven contests (including playoffs). He’s extremely influential in both the passing of Nick Foles and running of LeSean McCoy.
The Eagles will have to be aware of what to do if Peters gets hurt. Peters missed the entire ’12 season due to injury, but he also missed three games in 2008, one in 2009, three in 2010 and two in 2011. Last year was the first time he suited up for all 16 games since ’06, but expecting that kind of health again may be unreasonable.
If Peters does get hurt, it makes sense for Philadelphia to shift last year’s first-round pick, Lane Johnson, to left tackle. Johnson showed growing pains as a pass-blocker in his debut season but was dynamic as a run-blocker. Eventually, he will need to play on the blind side, and spelling Peters for a game or two (if needed) would be valuable experience.
3. Jason Kelce
Jason Peters is a better player than Jason Kelce, but Kelce rates as more irreplaceable due to the nature of his position. Should Peters get hurt, Lane Johnson could move to left tackle or newly extended backup Allen Barbre would play Peters’ role.
If Kelce got hurt, though, that would force Julian Vandervelde or David Molk into a starting role. Vandervelde has just nine career snaps under his belt. That’s not enough to instill confidence in the fanbase should Kelce get hurt.
And Kelce’s value can’t be understated. Per Pro Football Focus, he was the best center in the NFL last season. He’s a tremendous run-blocker, and he went the final four games last year without allowing a single quarterback hurry. That bodes extremely well for quarterback Nick Foles.
2. LeSean McCoy
A case could be made for either LeSean McCoy or Nick Foles as the most valuable player on the team, but really, the Philadelphia Eagles would endure a devastating loss if either one got hurt.
Foles rates higher because he’s the quarterback. The Eagles’ offensive line also made life substantially easier for McCoy in 2013, rated by Pro Football Focus as three times more efficient than any other team in terms of run blocking.
That doesn’t mean any player could just step in, of course. McCoy did lead the NFL with 1,607 rushing yards and 2,146 scrimmage yards. He put the team on his back in the Snow Bowl game, running for a franchise single-game record 217 yards. The Eagles were 7-0 when he carried the ball over 20 times.
And if McCoy gets hurt, Philly has a bit of a problem in its backfield. Darren Sproles is a dynamic player, but he’s more of a slot receiver. He’s not a workhorse running back by any stretch. That would force third-string back, Chris Polk, into a starting role.
Polk played extremely well last year (8.9 yards per carry, three scores on just 11 carries), and he would probably fare well, especially behind that offensive line. Still, the drop-off from McCoy to Polk is monumental.
1. Nick Foles
The 2014 season will reveal a lot about Nick Foles. He benefited from a slew of factors last year—a tremendous running game, a top-notch offensive line, a genius of a head coach, an easy schedule and a lot of luck.
But the numbers don’t lie. Quarterbacks don’t throw 27 touchdowns to two interceptions every year. Foles showed uncanny pocket presence, which led to virtually no mistakes. He took too many sacks down the stretch, but he took a 3-5 team to a 10-win season and a playoff berth. And he walked off the field against the New Orleans Saints with the lead.
Without Foles, the Philadelphia Eagles would turn to former New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was just signed this offseason. Sanchez never lived up to his potential as a first-round pick, but he has playoff experience and has accumulated 80 touchdowns in just 62 regular-season starts.
If the Eagles had to turn to Sanchez, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Chip Kelly worked wonders with Foles last year. He was coaxing career-best numbers out of Michael Vick. Simply put, every quarterback Kelly has touched has made substantial strides.
That’s not to say the team wouldn’t miss Foles.
They certainly would, and one thing Sanchez has never excelled at is limiting his turnovers. He threw 20 as a rookie and 18 two other times. It would certainly be a change from the near-flawless Foles, and the significance of the quarterback position on the whole makes Foles the most irreplaceable player on the 2014 squad.