The 2014 Philadelphia Eagles are set to return as many as 20 of 22 starters from last season. That’s great news, I suppose, if you feel 10 wins and a first-round playoff exit are a satisfying conclusion. Sure, a handful of tweaks were made to the lineup, but let’s not forget, everybody will be a year older as well.
In a select few cases, that’s probably a good thing. Obviously, the trajectory of 25-year-old quarterback Nick Foles’ career will likely correspond with Philadelphia’s success over the next several years, and he isn’t the only budding star from the 2012 and ’13 drafts on the roster.
The question is: Can the development of the Eagles’ youth counteract the inevitable decline of the eight key contributors who either already are in their 30s or will be by season’s end?
Your level of concern may vary.
|Key Philadelphia Eagles Age 30 and Up (by 2/1/15)|
|OL Allen Barbre*||OLB Trent Cole|
|TE Brent Celek||ILB DeMeco Ryans|
|RG Todd Herremans||CB Cary Williams|
|LG Evan Mathis|
|LT Jason Peters|
|RB Darren Sproles|
For instance, left tackle Jason Peters and left guard Evan Mathis were voted first-team All-Pro in ’13. They’re still the best in the business, even if both are 32. Right guard Todd Herremans, 31, is also worth a mention here—while not elite by any means, he’s perfectly dependable.
Peters and Mathis are the best in the business, Herremans is perfectly dependable—until one day, they’re not. Sixty percent of the Birds’ offensive line is on the wrong side of 30, when decline in health and ability can be sudden and rapid.
Just for good measure, add 30-year-old Allen Barbre’s name to the list as Lane Johnson’s likely replacement at right tackle once a reported four-game suspension, per Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News, is handed down by the NFL.
Even assuming all four manage to perform up to expectations, the fact that the front office did next to nothing to address the depth along the O-line during the offseason is kind of scary.
Sticking with offense, tight end Brent Celek’s 30th birthday is set to go down a week before Super Bowl XLIX.
Now, backup Zach Ertz, 23, is one of the budding stars I spoke of at the top, but Celek’s stellar contributions as a run-blocker cannot go overlooked, which explains why he’s expected to keep his spot in the starting lineup. Metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Celek by far the best tight end in that capacity in ’13.
There’s an awful lot of dependency on an aging front to pave the way for 25-year-old running back LeSean McCoy. You think maybe it could affect the odds of Shady winning a second consecutive rushing title?
Meanwhile, one of the Eagles’ biggest offseason additions is already 31. That would be Darren Sproles, who will not only be counted on to keep McCoy fresh but may well be the leading candidate for the kick- and punt-return jobs, too.
|Darren Sproles Career Averages vs. 2013|
|Yards Per Carry||4.2||5.1|
|Yards Per Reception||8.5||8.9|
|Yards Per Kick Return||21.3||25.3|
|Yards Per Punt Return||6.7||8.2|
Being the dynamic threat he is, Sproles should make for a terrific security blanket for Foles at the very least. That being said, there is ample evidence to suggest the back’s decline is already in progress. Sproles’ rate-productivity was down pretty much across the board with the New Orleans Saints in ’13, plus he battled injuries for a second straight year.
Sproles won’t be counted on like a workhorse back, probably not even in the event of the starter’s absence. He will have a significant role in the offense, though, and perhaps on special teams, so his diminishing skill or availability has the potential to become a relatively serious issue.
Meanwhile, there are aging players at practically every level of the defense. The Eagles’ top pass-rusher, the so-called quarterback of their defense and their No. 1 cornerback are all staring the big 3-0 in the face.
It's too late for Trent Cole, who will be 32 this season, and again, is already exhibiting signs of decline. The two-time Pro Bowler recorded just 3.0 sacks in ’12, then last season he went the first eight weeks without reaching the quarterback. He rebounded with 8.0 sacks in the second half—perhaps an indication the longtime defensive end was settling in to his new position at outside linebacker.
|Trent Cole Sacks by Year|
Regardless, the writing is on the wall for Cole, a likely cap casualty in 2015. That was, after all, why the team used its first-round pick on Marcus Smith (No. 26 overall), was it not? Smith isn’t ready to take over for Cole this year—actually, he’s playing behind Connor Barwin at the moment—but one way or another, the Eagles must prepare for life after one of the longest-tenured players on their roster.
The so-called “heart and soul” of Philly’s defense, as defensive coordinator Bill Davis referred to him last season, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, will join Cole in the 30 club this summer. That would be DeMeco Ryans, who at times looks miscast as an every-down linebacker in a 3-4 defense to begin with.
Ryans has done well to hide his athletic shortcomings with veteran guile, but that will only make him passable for so long. Even Davis has essentially conceded Ryans can’t be on the field as much as he was a year ago, vowing to Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly.com to reduce the number of snaps the interior linebacker is on the field for in ’14.
It’s unclear what the solution is there, seeing as the Eagles lack established depth at linebacker. At least at cornerback, soon-to-be-30-year-old Cary Williams faces some form of competition. Williams, another potential cap casualty in ’15, could have to fend off 27-year-old free-agent addition Nolan Carroll for his starting job over the course of the year.
Williams is a fairly average cornerback on his best day, so the thought that he could cede his role at some point this season is not out the question. Carroll started 22 games over the past two seasons with the Miami Dolphins.
Clearly, Williams dropping down the depth chart might not be the worst thing in the world for the Eagles. Elsewhere, however, is another story.
|Projected Depth Chart for Age 30-Plus Players|
|1.||J. Peters||E. Mathis||T. Herremans||B. Celek||D. Sproles|
|2.||A. Barbre||A. Barbre||A. Barbre||Z. Ertz|
|1.||T. Cole||D. Ryans||C. Williams|
|2.||Brandon Graham||Najee Goode||N. Carroll|
The case with quite a few of these guys is the Birds can’t really afford for their talents to fall off a cliff, not if the club intends to compete beyond the first round of the playoffs. The problem is, who holds up and who breaks down is almost completely unpredictable. Maybe each of their declines will continue to be gradual, and thus, bearable.
There’s a fine line between optimism and realism, though. Chances are at minimum one or two of these guys are going to experience a dramatic drop-off in performance or struggle to overcome injuries. We’re conditioned to think that way about older professional athletes for a reason: It’s the truth.
Who goes downhill could ultimately determine how far the Eagles can go in 2014. The youth and depth of the Eagles’ roster might be able to combat the decline in some areas—key word being might—whereas in others the answers are far less certain.