Ranking the 7 Biggest Upgrades the Philadelphia Eagles Made This Offseason
As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to open training camp on Friday, July 25, all eyes turn to Chip Kelly heading into his second season on the sidelines. But as Kelly has admitted on numerous occasions himself, the NFL is a players’ league, and a head coach is only going to do as well as his roster is good.
So as the Birds look to improve upon a 10-6 season and first-round playoff exit, Kelly went about trying to upgrade his squad during the offseason. The question is, were his improvements enough?
One way to reach that conclusion is to look at the Eagles’ top additions, so we did just that, while also attempting to figure which upgrades were best. As far as how these rankings will work, to begin with, any position that was not upgraded over the offseason is excluded. The remaining positions are listed in descending order, from least to greatest impact of the upgrades.
Of course, Howie Roseman is still the general manager, but you can see coach and front office are working hand in hand because Kelly’s fingerprints are all over the roster. “Bigger people beat up little people” and the value of special teams aren’t just mantras in Philly—they guide personnel decisions.
Are they guiding the Eagles in the right direction?
7. Outside Linebacker
Under ordinary circumstances, you would hope a first-round pick is higher than seventh on a list of any NFL team’s biggest offseason upgrades. In the Eagles’ case, outside linebacker Marcus Smith isn’t being counted on to come in and start as a rookie.
Smith will begin his career behind Connor Barwin on the depth chart, which right away signifies he’s unlikely to have a huge impact. Barwin played on 94 percent of the defensive snaps in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and he was on the field for every possible play in eight of the final 11 games, including playoffs.
Barwin didn’t post a huge line or anything (59 TKL, 5.0 SK, 10 PD, 1 INT, 1 FF) but is useful in a variety of roles—namely run defense and coverage. He might cede some reps to Smith, perhaps as a situational pass-rusher, but Barwin is the clear-cut starter.
With the news that Smith is lining up on the left side, Trent Cole’s job appears to be safe for now as well. Cole turns 32 in October but was the clubhouse leader with eight sacks last season, all of them coming over the final eight games of the regular season.
While the Eagles don’t have anybody more established than Cole, a two-time Pro Bowler, this is setting up as quite possibly his last season in Philadelphia. According to Spotrac, the two-time Pro Bowler’s cap hit is scheduled to balloon from $6.6 million this year to $11.6 million in 2015, which, combined with his age and the selection of Smith, suggests he’s not long for this team.
So putting outside linebacker seventh on this list is not a slight against Smith, as clearly the hope is he’s ready to take over as a starter next season. For now, though, it appears he’ll mostly provide depth and serve as a third-down and/or nickel specialist.
6. Defensive Line
Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan and Fletcher Cox all return as starters, but the depth along the defensive line should be improved. The Eagles used fifth- and seventh-round picks on defensive end Taylor Hart from Oregon and nose tackle Beau Allen out of Wisconsin.
Hart theoretically replaces Clifton Geathers, whose contract expired. Geathers played 256 snaps in 2013, according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus—though you wouldn’t know it. For being 6’8”, 325 pounds, he sure manages to make himself scarce on a football field, largely playing the role of “guy too big to push out of the way.”
Allen appears to be battling incumbent Damion Square for the backup nose tackle job. As an undrafted rookie, Square saw his playing time rise after Week 8 last season when Isaac Sopoaga was traded to the New England Patriots and Logan was elevated to starter. However, like Geathers, Square might as well have been invisible when he was out there.
The apparent upgrades should shore up the back end of the unit, perhaps with one added benefit.
The improved depth could allow the Eagles to spare Cox a few more breathers this year. Cox led the team in quarterback hurries with 21 last season, but he seemed to wear down toward the end, perhaps as a result of overuse. Via PFF, Cox was on the field for a minimum of 74 percent of the defensive reps in 10 of the Birds’ final 12 games, including playoffs.
Technically, Cox isn’t an upgrade, but don’t be surprised when he looks like a whole different player come December, either.
When a team has a last-place pass defense, the front office better do something to upgrade the secondary, am I right?
In all honesty, Philadelphia’s No. 32 ranking in 2013 was partly a result of the fact that the defense also faced the most passes. In reality, the unit had nowhere near the worst defensive backfield in the league.
That being said, the Eagles weren’t especially good at cornerback, either, so adding a little competition can’t hurt. The team went out and signed Nolan Carroll away from the Miami Dolphins during free agency, then used the top pick in the fourth round of the draft to snatch Jaylen Watkins out of Florida.
Carroll started 22 games for the Dolphins over the past two seasons and could wind up helping immediately. At least, he’ll push starters Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher for a job, anyway.
In my opinion, Fletcher was the better of the two last season. He finished the year tied for 17th in the NFL with 15 pass breakups in 14 games, and anecdotally speaking, generally had tight coverage on receivers even when they caught the ball. Fletcher is scheduled to become a free agent himself next year, though, so there’s no loyalty there.
Williams wasn’t a huge step down from Fletcher. He’s a bit more limited athletically, but the defense played to Williams’ strengths, which allowed him to be physical with receivers and not have to worry about getting burned over the top. Williams turns 30 this year and is a potential cap casualty in 2015, so again, no harm done if he loses his job.
Whether Carroll is actually an upgrade over Williams or Fletcher remains to be seen, while Watkins is more of a developmental prospect. Regardless, more options are a good thing.
Plus, we all saw what happened when the Eagles had to go into their bench in the playoffs last year. Williams came off the field for one play, and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees went right after replacement Roc Carmichael to convert a crucial 3rd-and-12. One way or the other, Carroll and maybe even Watkins will make an impact.
4. Running Back
While trading a fifth-round pick to the New Orleans Saints to acquire Darren Sproles might’ve been the splashiest move of the offseason, it will have to settle for the fourth-most impactful. While he represents a potentially huge addition to the offense, Sproles is still only a secondary running back.
It just so happens that one of the few dimensions that was lacking from the league’s No. 2 offense last season was a proper spell for LeSean McCoy.
Bryce Brown had loads of potential but struggled in Chip Kelly’s zone-read rushing attack, averaging less than three yards per attempt in nine of 14 games in which he registered an attempt. Brown only added eight receptions all year for good measure and wound up shipped off to the Buffalo Bills over draft weekend.
Sproles is expected to kill two birds with one stone. First and foremost, he’s a legitimate threat to catch the ball out of the backfield—in fact, he sort of built his career off that ability. Sproles has finished with more receptions than carries in three of the last four years, and the only time he didn’t was by a margin of one.
Second, there is a feeling in Philadelphia that Sproles is a perfect fit for the type of zone-read plays Brown had so much trouble with. Linebackers coach Rick Minter explained to Les Bowen for the Philadelphia Daily News why, from a defense’s perspective, Sproles’ diminutive 5’6” frame could give defenses problems:
As a runner, you start running those plays Chip runs and you start looking back there behind that 300-pound offensive line, you don’t even see the guy. Then, all of a sudden, boom, he’s squirting out the back door with the ball. And his receiving skills are off the charts. It’s very challenging for a linebacking corps to try and defend him.
Of course, when you have the NFL’s reigning rushing champion in McCoy, how much do you even want or need Sproles on the field? Not to mention, at his size and the ripe age of 31, Sproles isn’t suited to take Shady’s place as a workhorse back in the event the starter is out with an injury, either.
Expect Sproles to see somewhere along the lines of 25-35 percent of the offensive snaps this season. And believe me when I say that is plenty for him to leave his footprint in the Eagles offense.
3. Special Teams
Chip Kelly has talked at length about the importance of special teams since his arrival in Philadelphia. This offseason, the Eagles showed once again just how committed they are to improving in that phase of the game.
This time, the biggest upgrades came in the form of a pair of free-agent signings: outside linebacker Bryan Braman from the Houston Texans and Chris Maragos from the Seattle Seahawks. Between the two of them, they account for approximately zero starts across seven NFL seasons, yet they are expected to provide a huge boost nonetheless.
Braman was named an alternate to the Pro Bowl in 2012 based on his relentless effort on special teams. Maragos hasn’t been the recipient of any individual accolades, although his services did aid the Seahawks on their recent Super Bowl run.
That’s just the coverage units. Running back Darren Sproles could help out in the return game, where the Eagles haven’t had a legitimate kickoff specialist since Brian Mitchell in 2002, and released wide receiver DeSean Jackson seemed to grow disinterested with fielding punts.
A number of 2014 draft picks—most notably wide receiver Josh Huff and cornerback Jaylen Watkins—as well as a handful of the undrafted free agents competing for roster spots, have special teams backgrounds as well.
Finally, speaking of undrafted rookies, Carey Spear out of Vanderbilt is competing against incumbent Alex Henery for the kicking duties this summer. Should he manage to win the job, obviously, Spear would have a huge impact on the outcome of 16 games this season.
One way or another, Kelly is going to get his special teams turned around. Given upgrades the Eagles targeted and a fresh class of rookies, the head coach should have plenty of pieces to choose from in 2014.
2. Slot Receiver
In 2013, Jason Avant was on the field a whopping 72 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus, as Philadelphia’s offense went with three wide receivers more than all but two teams. To show for it, Avant posted his lowest receiving totals in five years.
Avant can gripe about his usage all he wants since he was released over the offseason. The fact of the matter is, he was never a supreme athlete to begin with, and now he’s 31. It was time to move on.
Meet the Eagles’ new slot receiver, the polar opposite of the last one. At 6’3”, 212 pounds, Jordan Matthews is bigger than the 6’0” Avant. Based on his time in the 40-yard dash, Matthews is faster. And with 206 receptions, 2,800 yards and 15 touchdowns over his final two seasons alone, Matthews’ collegiate career at Vanderbilt was far more productive than Avant’s was at Michigan.
Granted, you can’t tell with 100 percent certainty just by looking at a guy, his measurables and college stats that he can cut it in the NFL. Say what you want about Avant’s decline; he has eight years in the league, while this kid hasn’t even stepped foot on the gridiron.
That being said, some street free agents probably could’ve posted the 38 receptions, 447 yards and two touchdowns Avant finished with in 2013. Even if Matthews is a second-round bust five years from now, those numbers are far from unattainable, especially in Chip Kelly’s offense.
And while it’s in the best interest of sportswriters to tread lightly and add disclaimers when forecasting rookies, especially during their rookie years, all indications are Matthews is going to be a beast at the next level. If he’s not, it certainly won’t be for lack of effort. The 22-year-old vows he cannot be outworked.
Given the young man’s sheer size, athleticism and pedigree compared to Avant’s age and declining skill, it seems unlikely in my mind that Matthews wouldn’t make for an immediate and rather large upgrade in the slot. He could even be sapping snaps from Riley Cooper outside by midway into the season.
Safety is the only position on the field where the Eagles definitively upgraded over a starter from 2013. That’s partly because the team is projected to return as many as 20 of 22 starters, but most of all because Patrick Chung’s reign of terror in the defensive backfield is over.
Philadelphia wasted little time replacing Chung, who was released one year into his three-year contract, signing Malcolm Jenkins less than an hour after free agency opened. Jenkins, 26, was a five-year starter for the New Orleans Saints, helping anchor the NFL’s No. 2 pass defense in 2013. He also did his part to help the franchise win a Super Bowl in ’09.
That’s a lot more than can be said for Chung, who spent a good portion of last season blowing assignments and barreling into his own teammates when he was healthy.
Jenkins doesn’t bring many individual accolades to the table, but he’s a perfect fit in Philly’s defense, which requires versatility from its safeties. A converted cornerback, Jenkins will be comfortable when he’s used in man-to-man coverage against wide receivers. A big hitter, he’ll also show no qualms about mixing it up at the point of attack, either.
Furthermore, Jenkins is a great addition in the huddle and locker room. Zach Berman for The Philadelphia Inquirer writes Jenkins will assume the role of a sort of quarterback in the secondary, while the veteran safety is already setting an example in the film room, according to Derrick Gunn for CSNPhilly.com.
Yes, Jenkins has his flaws, which is why he was available in the first place. Based on the statistics, he’s not a big playmaker (4.5 SK, 6 INT, 6 FF over five NFL seasons), and if there’s one area of his game you’d like to see Jenkins clean up, it’s his tackling.
However, it’s pretty clear to even the most pessimistic observer that Jenkins is a massive upgrade over Chung. Given he’s a great fit for the scheme as well, it’s entirely possible Jenkins could even come into his own as a star as a member of the Eagles.