Philadelphia Eagles' Top 5 Breakout Candidates for 2014
- The player must have displayed significant ability and potential during either the 2013 season or this offseason.
- The player cannot already be a well-known name outside of Philadelphia—this means no Foles or LeSean McCoy.
- The player must have high upside that wasn’t reached for whatever reason in 2013—be it adjusting to the new scheme on offense or defense, being buried on the depth chart, or being hindered by injury.
Zach Ertz, Cedric Thornton and Mychal Kendricks are just a few of the candidates who have a shot at reaching NFL stardom with another offseason under their belts.
Of course, not every Eagles player can be listed—only those who satisfy the criteria below most effectively will grab a spot in these rankings.
Becoming an NFL household name isn’t easy, but these candidates have the ability and opportunity to break out in 2014.
Bennie Logan, Nose Tackle
Many thought Logan, a 2013 draftee, would be best served as a gap-obliterating defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense. The Eagles took him anyway despite running a 3-4 defense, and the unit got a boost once he replaced the ineffective Isaac Sopoaga at nose tackle.
Logan is bulking up this offseason to better withstand the wear and tear of the position, and he's up to 315 pounds, per Andy Jasner of ESPN.com. If he retains his athletic ability and ferociousness in destroying gaps while getting bigger and becoming a more complete pass-rusher, then Logan is primed for an excellent 2014 season.
However, it will be tough for Logan to break out when another defensive lineman, coming up later on this list, steals his thunder—just look at the lack of attention New York Jets nose tackle Damon Harrison received when Sheldon Richardson had his dominant rookie campaign.
Lane Johnson, Right Tackle
Johnson, the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, has more immediate talent than any other player on this list.
After struggling in pass protection early in his rookie season, Johnson became more acclimated to the speed of the NFL. He gave up just four sacks in his last nine games after allowing seven in his first eight, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
That’s not even mentioning how dominant he already is in the running game. Johnson is an athletic freak and the perfect type of offensive lineman to thrive in Kelly’s uptempo scheme.
The only problem is that Johnson will likely be suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season for performance-enhancing drug use, per Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News. Since highlights are few and far between for offensive linemen, longevity and consistency are favored above all else. That will prevent Johnson from having a true breakout campaign in 2014.
Joe Kruger, Defensive End
Kruger came from the other side of the 2013 draft as a seventh-round pick. An injury in the preseason forced him to spend the entire season on injured reserve, but Kruger apparently used that time wisely.
He bulked up to 290 pounds, per Alex Smith of the team's official website—a much more appropriate weight for a 3-4 defensive end—and familiarized himself with the Eagles’ defensive scheme.
Joe isn’t anywhere near the finished product that his brother Paul is. However, he has plenty of potential as a rotational pass-rusher who can get to the backfield in a hurry.
Kruger is still a big question mark due to his lack of any real NFL game action, but he could be a rare example of a late-round project who works out in a big way.
5. Chris Polk, Running Back
As featured running backs continue to fall out of favor, undrafted runners with great college success are becoming more and more commonplace. That is the case with former Washington standout Chris Polk, who has the inside track to become the No. 2 back behind LeSean McCoy.
Polk’s excellent balance, smooth receiving ability and requisite bulk to be a goal-line threat make him a prime candidate to impress in Kelly’s run-heavy offense.
The trade for Darren Sproles complicates things, as Sproles is a very good running back in his own right. Fortunately, Sproles is more of a mismatch-focused receiving back on the perimeter. There will be no I formations or goal-line carries for him, so Polk shouldn’t have many precious carries taken away.
But Polk might not have many carries to begin with. McCoy is one of the league’s premier runners in the prime of his career. Barring injury, McCoy will be receiving the bulk of the carries in 2014.
Polk will be an excellent change-of-pace back, but becoming a breakout star behind McCoy is a reach. That keeps him from climbing higher on this list.
4. Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver
Putting a rookie in the breakout category might be stretching the rules a bit. However, Matthews has a chance to make an immediate impact and become a featured weapon in the Eagles wide receiver corps, which is shaky after the departure of DeSean Jackson.
Matthews has everything a team could want in a receiver, including size (6'3", 212 lbs), speed, sharpness running routes and large hands. The only thing holding him back is his issue with dropping the ball.
Luckily, that doesn’t seem to be a problem this offseason, as he has easily been the best receiver during OTAs, according to Philly.com writer Jimmy Kempski.
In his rookie season, Matthews will likely start out as the featured slot receiver, using his size to box out smaller defensive backs.
Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin are the two starters on the outside, but they are by no means flawless—it’s still unclear as to whether or not Cooper was a one-year wonder, and Maclin is on a one-year deal and recovering from ACL surgery. Matthews could take one of their spots with a strong start to the regular season.
That sounds like the perfect situation for Matthews to be in, and it is. But he’s still a rookie. Keenan Allen and Anquan Boldin’s rookie seasons don’t happen every year. Plus, an offense that heavily focuses on the running game is never good for a receiver’s stats.
Matthews is having a promising start to his NFL career, but the guys ahead of him have actual experience in the big leagues.
3. Zach Ertz, Tight End, 2nd Year
Tight ends are often late-bloomers, especially in an age where college basketball players are prioritized over experienced football players at the position.
That wasn’t the case for Ertz in his rookie season. Stats including 36 receptions for 469 yards—and one ridiculous touchdown grab at Minnesota—are unusual for a first-year tight end. And he can be even better in his second season.
A statistical jump for Ertz is not a revolutionary idea—NFL.com’s Marc Sessler wrote that Ertz would make the leap in 2014, noting the former Stanford Cardinal’s ability to find an opening in coverage and use his 6’5” frame to his advantage.
Ertz’s stats should also increase with Philadelphia reducing its focus on its wide receivers. The Eagles have been using more formations with two tight ends throughout the offseason, per Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com. This means a bigger role is in store for Ertz, as he and Brent Celek won’t have to fight for snaps as the primary receiving tight end.
Ertz already has loads of experience in real game action, unlike Polk and Matthews. However, Ertz producing Jimmy Graham-like numbers is unlikely this year. He’ll have to gain the trust of Kelly by becoming a better blocker than Celek and James Casey.
Until then, Ertz is not the clear-cut starter like Nos. 1 and 2 are at their positions.
2. Mychal Kendricks, Linebacker
Kendricks certainly had quite the season on the stat sheet in 2013, making 106 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and three interceptions.
The inside linebacker out of California has speed in spades, knifing through the backfield to make plays or capitalizing on inaccurate throws. He is certainly the type of defender who can thrive in today’s NFL.
Kendricks has a penchant for big plays, but that desire to turn the game around can hurt his team at the worst possible moments. He missed 21 tackles last season, per Pro Football Focus, which was tied for first among inside linebackers. He also had an overall grade of minus-16.5 through the first four games of the season.
On a defense that featured few high-quality players, Kendricks was taken advantage of the most.
What Kendricks has going for him is his obvious playmaking ability and the major improvement he showed deeper into the 2013 season. He has another year to learn a position (inside linebacker) and a scheme (Bill Davis’ 3-4) that was entirely new to him last season.
Kendricks doesn’t have anyone to fight for snaps with, so he has a much better chance of breaking out than the previous candidates.
The abundance of playing time, plus becoming familiar with his current role, should help Kendricks show more of what made him so promising in the second half of 2013. However, he won’t have a chance to make plays if the guy in front of him keeps swallowing up the run.
1. Cedric Thornton, Defensive Lineman
Undrafted out of Central Arkansas in 2011, Thornton is now ready to break out as a run-stuffing force for Philadelphia.
Thornton is just as destructive of a player as the more well-known Fletcher Cox. Although 60 tackles may not seem like much, he is a much better player on film than he is on the stat sheet. Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com noted that Thornton is much quicker than fellow linemen Cox and Bennie Logan, as he consistently gets behind the line of scrimmage and disrupts plays.
Although those types of highlights are few and far between, Thornton’s primary job in the defense is to clog running lanes and redirect runners to other players. In that role, he is excellent and should only get better with another year in defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ system.
Thornton can stuff the run with the best of them, but he only managed to get one sack in 2013. Part of this is just bad luck, yet Thornton also knows that he could improve upon his pass-rushing repertoire. That’s why he took up boxing classes this offseason to increase his chances of sacking the quarterback, per ESPN’s Jasner.
Boxing classes won’t turn Thornton into J.J. Watt. However, they will improve his hand usage and make his consistent penetration worthwhile. More sacks, along with his usual greatness against the run, makes Thornton the Eagles’ most likely breakout candidate for 2014.