The Philadelphia Eagles have taken an interesting approach this offseason. Fresh off a 10-6 record and an NFC East title, general manager Howie Roseman and head coach Chip Kelly rid the franchise of talented yet controversial wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
The organization added Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews and Oregon's Josh Huff in the second and third rounds of the NFL draft. Veteran receiver Jeremy Maclin also returns from a torn ACL, and Riley Cooper (along with Maclin) was re-signed to a new contract.
Those moves ensure the receiver position has plenty of depth, although Jackson's game-breaking speed may be missed. Aside from that, though, there really wasn't a whole lot of turnover on either side of the ball.
Ten of the 11 offensive starters from last year will stay the same, with Jackson being the only absence. On the other side of the ball, a unit that thrived as a bend-but-don't-break defense managed to string together enough quality games in a row to win double-digit games.
The problem is that defensive coordinator Billy Davis will be putting forth pretty much the same group of players he had a year ago. First-round outside linebacker Marcus Smith was added via the draft, but he’s more of a project who won’t likely start in year one anyway. Mid-to-late round picks like Jaylen Watkins and Ed Reynolds add depth, but they won’t contribute right away.
What this really means is that the Philadelphia squad that competes in 2014 will be vastly similar to the team that won 10 games in 2013. The difference is another full offseason under Kelly, one in which Nick Foles is the unquestioned starting quarterback and the 3-4 defense has been practiced already.
In terms of the actual talent of the team, though, there really weren’t that many upgrades. The backup quarterback position saw a switch of Michael Vick for Mark Sanchez. Running back Bryce Brown was traded to Buffalo, but Darren Sproles came in as a free agent from the Saints.
On the offensive line, Lane Johnson’s reported four-game suspension for alleged PED use, as relayed by Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News, will thrust backup Allen Barbre into action at right tackle.
Defensively, the secondary didn’t see much of an overhaul, although there is more competition in the defensive backfield for starting and backup positions. While the 2014 Eagles will look vastly similar to the ’13 club, here are the three key units in which Philadelphia has upgraded its roster.
Last year, Jason Avant fulfilled the slot receiver role, a position he had held since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft. Avant was a 30-year-old player with minimal speed. He caught 38 passes for 447 yards and two touchdowns, posting his lowest receiving numbers since the ’08 campaign.
Avant was a poor fit for Kelly’s offense, considering his lack of speed. He showed almost no ability to pick up yards after the catch; per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he rated 103rd out of 111 qualifying receivers in average yards gained after the catch (2.3).
Avant was released by Philadelphia and then signed with the Carolina Panthers, but his role on the Eagles will be fulfilled by a number of new players. There’s second-round Vanderbilt receiver Matthews, an explosive talent with the ability to come in right away and make a difference.
There’s Oregon receiver Huff, a third-round draft choice who will likely begin as the backup slot receiver while Matthews plays the majority of his snaps in the slot. Should Maclin or Cooper get injured, Matthews will move outside and Huff will assume the majority of snaps in the slot.
Don't forget about Maclin, who was re-signed this past offseason after missing all of 2013 with a knee injury. He will play the majority of his snaps on the outside, but he can move inside if needed.
The sleeper in the mix is Sproles, an extremely talented running back who will play more in the slot than in the backfield. Sproles carried the football just 53 times a year ago but caught 71 passes for 604 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, Sproles has caught at least 70 passes for three straight seasons, which is almost unheard of for a running back.
Against the Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Round, Sproles totaled four receptions. All of those came with him in the slot or out wide. Look at the picture below:
Sproles wasn’t just lined up as a slot receiver; he was flat-out lined up as a wide receiver. The result was a six-yard completion.
Last year, Kelly used his slot receiver extensively. Jackson and Cooper each saw action in over 1,000 snaps, which rated them in the top 12 for their positional group. Avant played 807 snaps, which rated him 39th among all receivers. Still, for a slot receiver, that’s a lot of snaps. That was the most of any team’s third receiver (Denver's Wes Welker was the next highest with 787 snaps).
So regardless of who plays in the slot—Matthews, Huff or Sproles—he will see plenty of action.
On defense, the 2014 Philadelphia Eagles will put forth exactly the same front seven as the 2013 club. That’s Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton in a three-man front. Meanwhile, the linebacking corps will be Trent Cole, DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks and Connor Barwin.
Who is the best player on the front seven?
That is barring a surprise in training camp, which is unlikely. But the ’14 team will feature much more depth than the ’13 squad.
Lousviille outside linebacker Marcus Smith will begin as a backup to Cole and Barwin, and he may play only on passing downs. Still, that pushes Brandon Graham, a former first-round pick himself, down to the fourth outside linebacker role.
The Eagles drafted Oregon’s Taylor Hart in the fifth round, which adds another 5-technique end to the mix. That’s in addition to third-year player Vinny Curry, a pass-rushing specialist who typically spells Thornton during games.
Seventh-round nose tackle Beau Allen will have to fight for a spot on the 53-man roster, but it’s good for Philly that it has two players (Allen and last year’s undrafted rookie, Damion Square) who can line up over center as nose tackles.
It will be an interesting camp to see which players emerge on the official roster. The seven starters are locks, as is Smith. It would be a surprise to see Hart miss the roster, which makes nine players. Graham should be No. 10 and Curry No. 11. Bryan Braman was brought over for his special teams prowess, which makes 12 front-seven players. Either Allen or Square makes 13.
The Eagles have to keep at least one inside linebacker for depth, whether it be Emmanuel Acho, Jake Knott (currently suspended), Najee Goode, Jason Phillips, Josh Kaddu or Casey Matthews. Other candidates in the mix for a final roster spot are linemen Joe Kruger, Brandon Bair and Alejandro Villanueva.
Outside linebacker Travis Long, who has reportedly been impressing in practice, per Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com, will also receive consideration.
However the final roster works itself out, that’s impressive depth on the defense. It makes it easier for Kelly and Davis, especially since the Eagles may be asking for a lot to repeat their unsustainable string of health.
It’s a surprise that the Philadelphia Eagles made such a half-hearted attempt to upgrade their secondary, especially considering the unit rated dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed in 2013.
It’s not fair to judge the Eagles solely on the yardage number; Davis coaxed fine seasons out of a handful of his players. As a result, Philadelphia was in the middle of the pack in Cold Hard Football Facts’ defensive real passer rating allowed (19th at a 79.05 rating) and eighth in the league in interceptions.
Veteran cornerback Cary Williams overachieved, recording three interceptions and a crucial pass knockdown in the division-clinching game against Dallas in Week 17. Nickelback Brandon Boykin emerged as a star, capturing six picks while recording the winner against both Washington and Dallas.
The safety position was beaten relentlessly all season. Free-agent bust Patrick Chung was let go in the offseason, and the team added former first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins from the New Orleans Saints.
How confident are you with the Eagles' secondary heading into 2014?
Next year’s safety corps will feature Jenkins and Nate Allen as starters, with Earl Wolff returning as a backup role. The cornerback depth chart may look exactly the same, with Williams, Fletcher and Boykin filling the top three spots.
But there is more depth, headed by free-agent signee Nolan Carroll from the Miami Dolphins and new fourth-round draft pick Jaylen Watkins, who can play cornerback or safety. Fifth-round safety Ed Reynolds is another name to add to the mix at safety.
That’s much better than last year when dime cornerback Roc Carmichael had to enter the playoff game when Williams got hurt. Saints quarterback Drew Brees immediately targeted Carmichael, and the result was a key third-down completion to keep the chains moving.
This year, Williams, Fletcher, Boykin, Carroll and Watkins will be a fine set of five cornerbacks. There’s no ace in the bunch, although look for Boykin to push for time on the outside and emerge as a playmaker.
The safety position may be the weak spot again, and the Eagles will have to count on Jenkins to overachieve, as Williams did last year. The nature of Jenkins’ three-year, $15.5 million contract suggests Philadelphia doesn’t think he’s the long-term solution, which means either Wolff or Reynolds needs to emerge as a player.
Still, it’s a substantially better defensive backfield than the ’13 club, and hopefully it leads to a deep playoff run for Kelly in year two.