5 Philadelphia Eagles Poised for a Breakout Year in 2014
The writing is on the wall for these Philadelphia Eagles. That’s because these five, as long as they can stay healthy, are almost certainly headed for breakout success in 2014.
While it’s still too soon to say for sure what they have exactly in many cases, the Eagles do have several players who appear to be on the cusp of making the jump from “solid starter” to “star.” In a handful of cases, this is the year where they are expected make the leap.
We’re not talking about guys like quarterback Nick Foles, who led the NFL in passer rating in ’13, or cornerback Brandon Boykin, who was tied for second in interceptions. We’re talking about genuine breakthrough campaigns that should gain these individuals new recognition.
Not only that, but it’s probably now or never for quite a few of the names on this list. We’re looking at players who in most cases have a minimum of a couple of years in the league. Most will likely reveal their ceiling over the next season, or two if we’re being generous.
Where appropriate, we’ll also touch on how their performances at Eagles training camp could reveal even more reason why these players are poised to break out.
Some might say Jeremy Maclin already had his breakout season in 2010, when the wide receiver set career highs with 70 receptions, 964 yards and 10 touchdowns. If the trends started by his Eagles teammates in 2013 hold up, Maclin is destined to eclipse his personal best.
Almost every skill player in Philadelphia’s offense enjoyed a career year of sorts in Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach. The lone notable exception was Jason Avant, who just turned 31 in April.
Maclin is only 26. Plus, the former first-round pick finds himself in the feature receiver role now that DeSean Jackson has been exiled to Washington. That means Nick Foles will be looking to No. 18 to supplant a huge chunk of Jackson’s 82 receptions, 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns from a season ago.
The one major concern is whether Maclin can recover from the torn ACL that erased his 2013 campaign. If his training camp serves as any indication, that’s nothing to worry yourself over. Maclin looks strong. He’s not limited at all. If he’s lost so much as a step, you wouldn’t know it simply from watching him practice.
Maclin is doing everything out there—including defeat man coverage. Assuming he can stay healthy, a career year is inevitable for Maclin in Philly’s offense.
The light bulb already appeared to turn on for Zach Ertz late last season. During the months of December and January, the second-round pick out of Stanford accumulated 18 receptions for 217 yards and four touchdowns. That equates to roughly half of his production for the entire year.
The question is whether that was merely the precursor to an even bigger boost in production?
It’s not at all uncommon for tight ends to take a year or two to begin to show their potential. In fact, Ertz’s final regular-season numbers in 2013 (36 REC, 439 YDS, 4 TDs) were better than the likes of Pro Bowlers such as Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Jason Witten in their rookie campaigns.
That being said, Ertz has had something of a quiet camp. Brent Celek still takes the bulk of the first-team snaps, although some two-tight end sets are mixed in. Running backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles have been featured a lot in the passing game overall.
Last I checked, though, Ertz is still 6’5” and 250 pounds with 4.7 speed, according to NFL.com. The more he’s on the field, the more the quarterback is naturally going to look for whatever mismatch Ertz has created.
While he may not have always stood out to the naked eye, Fletcher Cox enjoyed an excellent 2013 campaign. That’s before adding the caveat that Cox made the difficult transition from defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment to defensive end in Philadelphia’s new 3-4.
Cox is entering his third season in the NFL, but more importantly, his second in Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ system. It’s time for the 23-year-old to take his play to the next level.
Despite his lack of familiarity with the scheme, Cox was one of the top pass-rushers at his position. The 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft, Cox finished last season with just three sacks, yet he was a bigger menace than that total lets on. Only Cameron Jordan for the New Orleans Saints and Calais Campbell for the Arizona Cardinals finished with more quarterback hurries, according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Expect Cox to convert a few more of those 39 hurries into sacks in Year 2—especially now that he has a little extra help. The big knock on Cox is he seemed to wear down late in the year, perhaps from overuse. The Eagles attempted to remedy that, spending two more draft picks on the defensive line.
The hope is Cox is like a whole new player this December and January. Because there’s relatively little contact during Chip Kelly’s training camp, it’s difficult to measure a lineman’s growth right now. Given the added experience and his continuing development, though, it’s not hard to project some big things on the horizon for Cox.
Mychal Kendricks is a work in progress. While he improved in both categories in his second NFL season, Kendricks missed too many tackles and was unreliable in coverage.
Last year wasn’t all bad, though. In fact, mostly it was pretty good—particularly over the final three weeks of the season.
Kendricks flashed the elite playmaking ability that led the Eagles to draft the linebacker in the second round of the 2012 draft. Over the span of Weeks 15 through 17, the 23-year-old racked up three sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Huge negative plays such as those swing the momentum of entire games. You can overlook a few flaws in other departments when it comes with that kind of production.
The truth is, Kendricks’ tackling did improve as the season went along. He still struggles in man-to-man coverage with bigger tight ends, but seeing as he’s only 6’0”, that will likely always be the case to a certain extent. Then again, it might not be entirely due to his size—McCoy and Sproles have been eating him up out of the backfield so far this summer.
Regardless, Kendricks’ amazing speed allows him to cover tons of ground, and while he may have some physical limitations, he’s shown a knack for reading the play correctly and making things happen. With another year on the interior of the Birds’ 3-4, who knows what his ceiling is as far as creating those impact plays.
We can’t tell Vinny Curry’s story without mentioning the fact that he spent 12 games over his first two NFL seasons on the inactive list. That might be a typical story for an undrafted free agent or even a late-round pick, but Curry was taken by the Eagles during Round 2 of the 2012 draft.
Curry is heading into Year 3, and he’s still scrapping for playing time along the defensive line. That being said, things are starting to look up.
For starters, Curry has been getting some first-team reps at practice this summer. Chris McPherson and Bo Wulf for PhiladelphiaEagles.com noted he replaced Cedric Thornton in the defense’s nickel package. Geoff Mosher for CSNPhilly.com added that Curry is under the impression there is a competition with Thornton at left defensive end.
Curry also happens to be coming off a strong season where he saw an increase in playing time as the year went on. According to metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he was second only to J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans in pass-rush productivity among 3-4 defensive ends in ’13.
Again, it’s difficult to judge linemen during camp without at least an exhibition game or two. That being said, Curry is as big as ever at 6’3”, 279 pounds, and he has a tremendous first step.
Whether it’s as a situational pass-rusher or he can climb the ladder all the way to starting job, Curry is on track to surpass last season’s sack total of four, which was good for second on the Birds. If he can play closer to half of the defensive snaps in 2014, doubling up on quarterback takedowns is a distinct possibility.
All observations from Eagles training camp were witnessed firsthand by the author, except where otherwise attributed.
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