Breaking Down Philadelphia Eagles' Likely Opening-Game Starting Lineup
After two preseason games, the Philadelphia Eagles are 0-2. That drops the team to just 1-5 lifetime in August games during the Chip Kelly era, but the more important factor is health.
For the second year in a row, the Eagles have stayed relatively healthy. Cary Williams and Josh Huff did leave the game early due to injuries, but it shouldn’t affect their status for the regular season. Both may even be able to play next week.
The final two preseason contests will give Kelly an opportunity to work out the details of his final 53-man roster. It doesn’t appear his starting lineup will change, barring a huge surprise, so here’s a look at the 22 players that will start for Philly in Week 1 against Jacksonville.
In the first preseason game, Nick Foles looked awful. He threw two interceptions and looked confused in the pocket. He played much better the following week against New England, completing 80 percent of his passes with a touchdown.
Guess what? None of that matters. Foles is entrenched as the Week 1 starter (barring injury) for the first time in his NFL career. There’s even been brief speculation about a trade that would send veteran Mark Sanchez somewhere for a draft pick.
Mark Sanchez trade. Chip was asked specifically about possibility. Said willing to listen to offer on any player. Stressed happy/needs 2 QBs— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) August 17, 2014
Look for a big year from Foles. He lost out on DeSean Jackson, but he has a handful of potent receiving weapons in Riley Cooper, Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. If Foles can stay healthy, he should be poised to post another banner year.
The Philadelphia Eagles will use All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy sparingly during the preseason, but he’s what makes the offense run, even more so than quarterback Nick Foles. McCoy led the NFL in rushing yards (1,607) and total yards from scrimmage (2,146) in 2013, and he has his sights on an even loftier goal in 2014.
NFL rushing champ @CutonDime25 is setting a lofty goal for this season. He's on a quest for 2,000 yards.— Paul Domowitch (@pdomo) August 12, 2014
There are a lot of reasons to think McCoy can come close to that goal in ’14, if he stays healthy.
According to ESPN's Phil Sheridan (via Rotoworld): "Now in his true prime at age 26 years old, McCoy is playing with a top-3 offensive line and in a run-first scheme. He's dropped a few pounds off his '13 playing weight, reportedly gaining even more quickness and agility."
McCoy will probably be backed by multidimensional, all-purpose threat Sproles, third-year runner Chris Polk and Matthew Tucker.
It’s been a rough season for the Philadelphia Eagles wide receivers this preseason. Coming back from a torn ACL, veteran Jeremy Maclin has already suffered what could be a potential setback.
Jeremy Maclin isn't suited up to practice. Wearing a hat. Chip said his hamstring has tightened up. Could have played Fri if necessary.
— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) August 17, 2014
He has a difficult task ahead of him in his quest to be the team’s No. 1 wide receiver.
Cooper is expected to be the No. 2 receiver, although he’s been hobbled by a walking boot. Rookie second-round pick Matthews played much better in Week 2 than Week 1, and he’s the expected starting slot receiver. Third-round Oregon receiver Huff will be the fourth receiver, although he’s dealing with an injury of his own, too.
Those four receivers are significantly ahead of the others on the depth chart, which projects to be a battle between Brad Smith, Arrelious Benn, Damaris Johnson and Jeff Maehl.
The Philadelphia Eagles should use a high percentage of two-tight end sets in 2014. They have one of the game’s finer duos in Celek and second-year breakout candidate, Ertz.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Celek played 864 snaps a year ago. Ertz played 459. Expect the difference to be much closer in ’14. The Eagles have to find ways to exploit Ertz against smaller linebackers and slower safeties.
Zach Ertz, mismatch nightmare.— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) August 16, 2014
With the offseason release of Jackson, the importance of Celek and Ertz is only intensified. Hybrid fullback/tight end James Casey should see more action than he did in ’13.
There shouldn’t be much of a change from the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2013 offensive line, assuming everyone can stay healthy. It’s one of the older units in the league, for sure.
Jason Peters and Evan Mathis are 32. Todd Herremans is 31. Allen Barbre, cast into action at right tackle for suspended former first-round pick Lane Johnson, is 30. Jason Kelce is the only player on the young side of 30, as he’s just 26.
The offensive line will be one of the keys to the season. Barbre has already been elevated to the role of a starter, given Johnson’s suspension. The ’13 Birds thrived due largely to the play of the offensive line. The Eagles rated by Pro Football Focus as far and away the best run-blocking team in the league. That opened up holes for McCoy and Foles in the running game.
For Philly to repeat as NFC East champions and advance deep in the playoffs, the offensive line is key to the season.
The Philadelphia Eagles have themselves an underrated three-man front in their defense. Fletcher Cox is a blossoming star. Last year, he played a new position under a new coordinator in a new scheme, and he still rated as one of the finest 5-technique ends in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Cox’s strength is as a pass-rusher, which is why he complements Cedric Thornton well. Thornton will start opposite Cox, and he will be spelled by third-year pass-rushing specialist, Vinny Curry.
At nose tackle, Bennie Logan will line up above the center. He may be pushed for snaps by rookie seventh-rounder Beau Allen, who has turned in strong showings thus far in preseason.
It doesn’t seem likely that the linebackers corps will fluctuate at all after this preseason; Trent Cole, DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks and Connor Barwin are locked in as the starters for the second season in a row.
Cole is a veteran who had a rough transition to a stand-up 3-4 linebacker role, but he came on strong in the second half of the season. Barwin was perhaps the most valuable linebacker on the team in 2013, and he can rush the passer, stop the run and cover well.
Ryans may have lost a step or two in coverage, but he still racks up a high percentage of tackles. Last year, he turned in a handful of big plays, picking up four sacks and two interceptions. Kendricks was a big-play machine himself, becoming the first player in nearly 20 years to pick up at least four sacks, three interceptions, four fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
First-round pass-rusher Marcus Smith may challenge for Cole's or Barwin’s snaps by the end of the season, but he’s considered a project for now.
This is the one area of the Philadelphia Eagles that could undergo the biggest potential change in preseason. For now, Williams and Bradley Fletcher are the incumbent starters at cornerback.
Williams won’t lose his job in August, but there’s a chance free-agent acquisition Nolan Carroll could supplant Fletcher as a starter on the outside. Brandon Boykin seems to be entrenched as the nickel cornerback, a role in which he excelled last year to the tune of six interceptions. He could be even better in ’14 if the Eagles allow him to move to the outside.
At safety, Malcolm Jenkins was locked up to a three-year, $15 million deal to be a starter. Nate Allen and Earl Wolff are undergoing a camp battle to see which player will start opposite Jenkins. Allen is a five-year veteran who is coming off his best season as a pro. He’s better suited in pass coverage. Wolff is a second-year player who thrives in the box.
The battle between Allen and Wolff should be interesting. Right now, Allen has the clear edge. He’s been running with the first team in camp. He also rates by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the third-best safety in the NFL thus far.
If Alex Henery continues kicking the way he’s been kicking, the Philadelphia Eagles may bring in a veteran for competition. (Carey Spear hasn’t provided much in the way of Henery’s job.)
Henery missed a 47-yard field goal in last Friday’s contest. Thus far in the preseason, he rates dead last, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), in average yards per kickoff (62.3). That was his biggest problem last season, to the point that Kelly ordered Henery to short kick against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15.
Expect Henery to be the kicker for now, but he will be on a short leash, especially considering he’s a free-agent-to-be.
Donnie Jones is locked in as the team’s punter, and he’s one of the better ones in the league. Jon Dorenbos is a Pro Bowl long snapper.
The return duties are up for grabs; Huff may have given himself an edge with a 102-yard kick return for a touchdown, but he’s now injured. That will open the door for others to have an opportunity; Damaris Johnson handled the punt return job when Huff went down, and that may be Johnson’s ticket onto the team.
Fortunately for the Eagles, though, it doesn’t sound as if Huff suffered a serious injury, and he should be ready for sure by the start of the regular season. And that means he will be the favorite to be returning both kicks and punts.