Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp Preview: Depth Chart, Sleepers and Predictions
It would be a surprise if the Philadelphia Eagles did not win the division this season.
That's how amazing of a job Chip Kelly has done since he became head coach last offseason. From a 4-12 record and the league's 29th-ranked scoring offense in 2012 to a 10-6 record and the league's fourth-ranked scoring offense in 2013, Chip Kelly was a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate as a rookie in the NFL.
The big storyline heading into the 2014 season is whether the Eagles' offense can build on, or at least duplicate, its success. Nick Foles in particular will finally have a full season as the starting quarterback, although it's going to be virtually impossible for him to repeat his 27-touchdown, two-interception season from 2013.
But it's not just the offense that will be talked about during training camp. The defense improved dramatically in the second half of the season, finishing 17th in points allowed. There are a number of players looking to take the next step in 2014, including three due for contract extensions after the season.
The following slides will highlight some of the big storylines for the Eagles during training camp.
Can Nick Foles Stay Healthy for 16 Games?
I have confidence that Nick Foles will remain one of the league's top quarterbacks in 2014. After all, any quarterback playing in Chip Kelly's offense is destined for success, and Foles would have to seriously regress to be anything worse than a top-12 or top-14 quarterback in 2014.
But what about Foles' health? Why is nobody talking about that? Foles missed the final game of the 2012 season with a broken hand and missed another game in 2013 with a concussion. That's two games in 16 career starts where Foles missed a game with an injury.
Look at some of the other quarterbacks around the league. Although Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have each missed full seasons with serious injuries, they've never missed a start here or there. Neither has Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson or Michael Vick (That last one was a joke.).
The Eagles haven't had a quarterback play in all 16 games since Donovan McNabb in 2008. They haven't had a quarterback start and finish all 16 games since Donovan McNabb in 2003.
For the Eagles to improve upon last year's 10-6 record and establish themselves as one of the top teams in the NFL, or at least the NFC, they need the single-season record holder for touchdown-to-interception ratio to steer free from injuries.
Which Pass-Catcher Will Be out of the Loop?
The Eagles possess one of the best offenses in the game. They were dominant in both passing and running in 2013, with Nick Foles leading the NFL in passer rating and LeSean McCoy leading the NFL in rushing yards. And they scored 442 points, a ridiculous 162 more than the previous season.
But I think a lot of people need to put into perspective the type of offense the Eagles run when making statistical predictions, particularly for the receiving weapons on the team.
Look around. The Eagles have as many as seven players who could catch 50, 60 or even 70 passes in 2014. You've got Darren Sproles and LeSean McCoy catching passes out of the backfield. You have Jeremy Maclin, Jordan Matthews and Riley Cooper at receiver, and Zach Ertz and Brent Celek at tight end.
Who's going to lead this team in catches? It could be any one of the seven. Don't be surprised if Matthews emerges as the top receiver on the team or if Ertz becomes a top-six or top-seven tight end. And don't be surprised if one or two of the players (Cooper is my guess) finishes the season with way fewer catches than expected.
Good thing I don't play fantasy football—figuring out who will lead the Eagles in catches would be a nightmare.
Who Are the Backup Offensive Linemen?
The Eagles have one of the best offensive lines in the National Football League. The left side of the line, Jason Peters and Evan Mathis, is as dominant as any side of any of the 32 lines in the game. Add Jason Kelce, a future Pro Bowler at center, plus veterans Todd Herremans and emerging former first-round pick Lane Johnson.
Even with Johnson's suspension for the first four games of the season for performance-enhancing drugs, the Eagles should boast one of the best running games in football (just like in 2013).
The issue with the line is its depth. Veteran Allen Barbre will start at right tackle while Johnson is suspended. That leaves no proven player, or anything close to a proven player, as depth in the event of an injury.
The top candidates for backup roles include Matt Tobin, Michael Bamiro and Andrew Gardner. None of the three has proven to be a solid player at this level.
But if one of the three players over 30 on the line suffers an injury, the Eagles are going to need someone to step up. And that player will almost certainly be an unknown.
Can Brandon Boykin Win a Starting Job at Corner?
There are a lot of statistics you could use to judge the Eagles' pass defense in 2013. They ranked 32nd in passing yards allowed, which clearly signifies a defense that needs lots of help.
But they also ranked 32nd in pass attempts allowed, and their passer rating allowed (82.3) ranked above league average. And don't forget slot cornerback Brandon Boykin coming up with the biggest play of the season, an interception in the final two minutes of the season finale to defeat the Dallas Cowboys and clinch the NFC East division title.
Boykin clearly was the best player on the Eagles' defense in 2013. He collected six interceptions, good for second in the NFL, and recorded 44 tackles in 47 attempts, the fourth-best tackling rate in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
But Boykin also played in just 51 percent of snaps (subscription required). Boykin is expected to be the slot corner again in 2014. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are penciled in as the starters, although free-agent signing Nolan Carroll has a chance to win a starting job.
Boykin is scheduled to be a free agent following the 2015 season, but he's eligible for a contract extension after 2014. In my opinion, it would be in the Eagles' best interest to allow Boykin to start on the outside this coming season. He's good enough that he deserves it, even if he doesn't possess the ideal size and length the Eagles want from their corners.
You don't keep your best defensive player, a player with Pro Bowl talent, off the field for almost 50 percent of plays. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher both played better than expected in 2013, and Nolan Carroll could start for a lot of teams, but Boykin should be one of the two starters. No question.
Will the Special Teams Improve?
The special teams might have been the most disappointing (and least talked about) aspect of the 2013 Eagles.
After bringing over coach Dave Fipp, the Eagles were expected to improve in almost all aspects of special teams play. That didn't happen. Not at all. The coverage units were a disaster. The return game was non-existent. Alex Henery was a joke. Only Donnie Jones played well among the special teamers.
The Eagles are clearly working to fix this problem for the future, and the fact that they allowed Colt Anderson, their best special teams player, to walk is a very good sign.
In his place, they signed safety Chris Maragos and linebacker Bryan Braman. They also have Jason Phillips, who was signed last year but suffered a torn ACL during the preseason.
Veteran running back Darren Sproles was brought in for his abilities as a receiver out of the backfield and a complement in the running game to LeSean McCoy, but he is also known for his success (although mostly in the past) as a returner.
The big question for special teams is whether kicker Alex Henery can regain the form he displayed as a rookie in 2011, when he broke the NFL single-season rookie record for field-goal percentage, or in 2012, when he connected on 22 straight field goals.
Regardless, it's hard to see the Eagles not improving their special teams in 2014.