5 Biggest Areas of Concern for Philadelphia Eagles Heading into Training Camp
The Philadelphia Eagles should be able to win the division in 2014. The explosive offense that won 10 games a year ago is nearly intact. Despite the loss of playmaking receiver DeSean Jackson (released) and right tackle Lane Johnson (four-game suspension), this unit could be even better.
It’s the second year of Chip Kelly’s offense, and the hurry-up offense should be even more effective. Nick Foles has a year of highly successful production under his belt. LeSean McCoy is still just 26 years old. The offensive line is still one of the game’s best, even with Johnson out for the first month.
That’s not to say it will be a cakewalk for the team. There’s still that defense. Coordinator Billy Davis did a fine job implementing a new 3-4 scheme, coaxing successful seasons out of veterans like Trent Cole, DeMeco Ryans, Connor Barwin and Cary Williams. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Boykin are up-and-coming players, and there’s reason to be optimistic about Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff.
Still, if there’s a downside to the ’14 club, it’s the defense. The NFC East is loaded with talented quarterbacks, and Davis doesn’t have an elite player on his side of the ball who can cause mismatch problems for the offense. The offense is top-notch, so long as everyone is healthy.
Expect the Eagles to win the division and even improve upon the 10 wins the team captured in 2013. But if there are any areas of concern for fans, it’s the following five aspects.
What If Nick Foles Gets Hurt?
In his first season as head coach, Chip Kelly helped turn Nick Foles into a potential franchise quarterback. Foles threw a ridiculous 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions, finishing with the third-highest passer rating in league history while earning a Pro Bowl berth.
Whether or not Foles can repeat his 2013 success will be the key to the Philadelphia Eagles’ upcoming season. But a bigger concern may not be if Foles drops off in play; it’s if he gets hurt. Last year, Foles missed time due to a concussion.
Should that scenario happen this year, the team will have to thrust Mark Sanchez into action. Sanchez is a solid backup who has plenty of starting experience, including postseason contests. The problem is that he’s always been an erratic and inaccurate passer, which doesn’t mesh well with Kelly’s offensive game plan.
Kelly prides his offense on precise passing, which Foles did tremendously a year ago. Foles nearly played a turnover-free season, tossing just two interceptions in 317 attempts. That’s a ridiculous 0.6 interception percentage. Even as a rookie, Foles threw interceptions on just 1.9 percent of his throws.
Sanchez is at 3.7 percent for his career, nearly twice what Foles put up in his debut campaign. Sanchez has thrown at least 18 interceptions in three of his four NFL seasons as a starter. He’s never completed higher than 56.7 percent of his passes. And a report out of training camp, per Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com, indicates Sanchez has been struggling already.
As long as those problems don’t carry over into the season, the Eagles are fine. But if Foles gets hurt and Sanchez can’t perform adequately as a backup, this team is in big trouble.
What If LeSean McCoy Gets Hurt?
The Philadelphia Eagles know what they have in LeSean McCoy, an All-Pro running back who is coming off arguably the finest season of his five-year NFL career. McCoy can run the ball, catch passes and he’s stayed relatively healthy over the years.
But should McCoy get hurt, this running game is in trouble. Veteran running back Darren Sproles was brought over via a trade with the New Orleans Saints. The problem is that Sproles is 30 years old and essentially more of a slot receiver at this point in his career than a running back.
Sproles is just 5’6” and likely wouldn’t be able to handle a full workload if called upon. He carried the football 53 times in 2013, which comes out to just over three carries per game. That means if McCoy got hurt, third-year back Chris Polk would be the go-to back.
Polk played well in limited action last season, scoring three times on his 11 carries. But he’s barely played at this level, and it would be an enormous difference for the offense to go from McCoy to Polk. And Bryce Brown is now in Buffalo, so he's out of the picture.
Fortunately, the offensive line is top-notch and the best in the business in the running game. Still though, McCoy’s health may be the key to the season. If he goes down, it puts an excruciating amount of pressure on Nick Foles.
Is There Enough Depth on the Offensive Line?
Several weeks ago, it looked like the Philadelphia Eagles had the makings of a phenomenal offensive line for 2014. Then a performance-enhancing drug suspension was announced for right tackle Lane Johnson, and that thrusts top backup Allen Barbre into a starting spot.
Barbre should be able to hold his own as a starter. He’s not quite Johnson as a run-blocker, but he’s extremely athletic (4.84 second 40-yard dash back in 2007) and didn’t allow a single quarterback pressure in 89 offensive snaps a year ago, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The problem is that with Barbre now scheduled to start the first four weeks, the depth on the line is bare. The only other non-starting lineman to see action for Philly last year was Julian Vandervelde, who played nine snaps at center. Vandervelde will have a camp battle with David Molk to be the backup center.
The tackle spots will likely be filled by one of Matt Tobin, Dennis Kelly, Michael Bamiro or Andrew Gardner. Tobin is the projected backup. Kelly is a former fifth-round draft pick of the Eagles who isn’t guaranteed a roster spot. Bamiro is a long-term project. And Gardner is a former backup of the Houston Texans who has seen action in just 11 career snaps.
Gardner may win the job because he’s versatile enough to play tackle and guard. Kelly has never kept many offensive linemen on his roster, dressing just seven for most games last season. When Johnson returns, the depth is much better with Barbre able to fill in at tackle or guard if needed. Until then, the Eagles better hope their offensive line—one of the older units in the league—can stay healthy.
Will the Secondary Be Exposed?
Is the Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary really good enough to get the team deep in the 2014 playoffs? A quick glance at the depth chart suggests the unit will really need to overachieve.
Last year’s starters Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher held their own, as the Eagles finished near the middle of the pack in defensive passer rating allowed. Nickelback Brandon Boykin was the surprise player, recording six interceptions, including two against NFC East opponents that preserved one-score wins.
And it seemed every time the Eagles needed a big play, it happened. Boykin's plays were well-documented. But Williams had the knockdown to hold off the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17. And safety Nate Allen played surprisingly well in pass coverage.
Still, there’s no star in the group. The safeties are still a subpar unit, even with Malcolm Jenkins in for Patrick Chung. The collection of Jenkins, Allen, Earl Wolff and Ed Reynolds will not keep any defensive coordinators up at night.
What coordinator Billy Davis will need to do is be extremely creative with his schemes. Jenkins is a versatile player who can contribute at both outside cornerback, safety and nickel cornerback. Wolff is an up-and-coming safety and Boykin is a future star. If Williams can turn in another solid performance, this unit could be good enough.
Regression Across the Board
The 2013 Philadelphia Eagles were very good. They were also very lucky.
Regardless of how effective Nick Foles was, quarterbacks don’t put up those kind of numbers without getting a lucky bounce or two. Can Foles come close to duplicating those numbers in ’14 or will he see a major regression in his statistics? A 30-touchdown, 10-interception performance would still be considered successful. Those are Pro Bowl numbers.
But Foles needs to continue tossing touchdowns at a high rate while limiting his turnovers. LeSean McCoy needs to stay healthy. The offensive line can afford one injury once Lane Johnson is back and Allen Barbre is the top backup, but if it is up to Jason Peters, Evan Mathis or Jason Kelce, that’s a serious drop-off.
Repeating the historic health of the team is highly unlikely. That means depth becomes even more important. Kelly will also need to keep his offense fresh, so he doesn’t become mundane and predictable in his second season. If he can help Foles and McCoy continue producing, this team will go far. But if the offense drops off and the defense is just average, Philly could miss the playoffs.