Philadelphia Eagles Offseason State of the Union
This is probably the worst time of the offseason. Free agency and the draft are long finished. Training camp is about a month away. And the season doesn't start for ten more weeks.
For football fans, now is all about thinking ahead to the future. For the Philadelphia Eagles, the 2014 season is all about defending the team's surprising division title. In 2013, the Eagles won 10 games, including seven of the final eight, to win the NFC East in their first year under Chip Kelly.
Following a dramatic offseason, they'll look to at least win a playoff game in Kelly's second season or, better yet, the franchise's first Super Bowl title.
20 of 22 Starters Return
Terrible teams add seven, eight or nine new starters through the free agency and the draft. That's what the Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins did, and they'll likely both finish with losing seasons again in 2014.
But really good teams, like the Eagles, return almost all of the same starters. On the offensive side of the ball, the Eagles lost just one starter: wide receiver DeSean Jackson. On the defensive side of the ball, the Eagles added just one starter: safety Malcolm Jenkins.
The offseason was about adding role players. Veteran running back Darren Sproles will hopefully play a big part in Chip Kelly's offense. Rookie wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff will likely see significant action in 2014, especially Matthews.
On defense, outside linebacker Marcus Smith is the future replacement for veteran Trent Cole. Defensive back Jaylen Watkins can play either cornerback or safety and safety Ed Reynolds, defensive end Taylor Hart and nose tackle Beau Allen will all play 10 to 15 snaps per game during their first season.
But the rest of the starters? They're all the same.
...Including Nick Foles
One offseason ago, the Eagles entered into a quarterback competition between veteran Michael Vick and second-year player Nick Foles (and rookie Matt Barkley). Although Vick won the starting job, he predictably suffered an injury and lost his job after just lost four games.
That's when Nick Foles took over, and the third-round draft pick from 2012 produced one of the most memorable seasons by a quarterback in NFL history. He threw for 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions and his 119.2 passer rating was the third-best mark in a season ever.
Although Foles made just 10 starts, he led the Eagles to eight victories and the division title. Expectations are virtually through the roof for the 25-year-old as he enters his first full season as a starter in Kelly's offense.
If Foles plays anywhere close to the level he did in 2013, he'll earn a lucrative contract extension after the season. And with a full offseason to study Kelly's brilliant playbook, don't expect the third-year player to take a step backwards.
Jordan Matthews + Josh Huff > DeSean Jackson?
1,549 catches, 22,895 yards, 197 touchdowns. Those are the numbers Jordan Matthews will put up over the next 20 years.
Okay, those are the exact statistics produced by Matthews' cousin, Hall of Fame legend Jerry Rice. But if you listen to the hype this offseason, you'll hear some pretty wild predictions for Matthews.
Let's hope Matthews plays in pads the same way he's looked in shorts, because he has the extremely difficult task of replacing veteran DeSean Jackson, the team's best deep threat, who was released following the best year of his career.
Jackson is now on the Washington Redskins, and Matthews is his future replacement. Oh, and don't forget about Josh Huff, the Eagles' third-round pick, a former Oregon receiver.
Huff, who played more than 90 percent of his snaps in the slot at college, is expected to enter the season as the team's fourth receiver, significantly below Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and Matthews on the team's depth chart.
Will it be hard for the Eagles to move on from Jackson? Absolutely. Can they do it with Matthews and Huff? Well, maybe not this year (although don't rule it out). But by 2015, I expect Matthews and Huff to be more effective than Jackson will be in the nation's capital.
Nick Foles threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions in 2013. That was in ten starts, one of which I remain convinced that he played injured.
LeSean McCoy collected the rushing title and finished second in NFL Offensive Player of the Year voting. He'll be joined in the backfield by versatile playmaker Darren Sproles.
Jeremy Maclin looks fully healthy from his torn ACL a year ago. He's motivated too. Riley Cooper may have had a fluke breakout season, but rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff will be there in case he falters. Matthews, if you believe the breathlessness of some reports coming out of OTAs, is already the next Jerry Rice.
Tight end Zach Ertz is the breakout candidate of the year, according to a number of experts. Brent Celek can still get it done, and the Eagles like James Casey enough to keep the versatile player around.
Oh, and the offensive line returns all five starters. Jason Peters and Evan Mathis are among the best in the game. Jason Kelce is on the verge of becoming the best center in the league. Lane Johnson should improve in year two. Only Todd Herremans is the weak link, and he's still at least an average starter.
So how in the world are NFL defensive coordinators supposed to react to the news that the team's offense is going to be faster—and not just faster, but significantly faster—in 2014?
Yeah. Good luck.
Defense Key to Season
The Eagles are going to have one of the best offenses in the National Football League in 2014. There's almost no doubt in my mind. The Eagles scored the fourth-most points in the sport in 2013 and that was in Chip Kelly's first year with Nick Foles starting just 10 games.
They're going to be almost unstoppable in 2014. The key to winning the Super Bowl (highly unlikely, I admit) is not the offense but the defense.
That's because it could be anywhere from a borderline top-10 unit to a borderline bottom-10 unit...and that's a big difference.
10 of the 11 starters on the defense are returners, with veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins joining the defensive backfield. He's possibly the key to the defense, as the Eagles chose the former first-round pick for his versatility and ability to fit in the team's scheme. Let's hope they made the right decision by passing on veterans Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward, both Pro Bowl talents.
The rest of the defense comes down to whether a trio of third-year players make another leap forward, as Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin are all pushing for new contracts. Veteran Trent Cole looks to turn in at least one more great season before the end of his career.
And of course, whether defensive coordinator Billy Davis can maximize the team's somewhat limited talent on the defensive side of the ball could easily make or break the season for the 2014 Eagles.