All of the stars appear to be aligned for the Philadelphia Eagles to become the first team in a decade to successfully defend its NFC East title. They're young, they're healthy, they're well-coached and they only appear to be getting better while the rest of the division continues to struggle.
But Eagles fans, most of whom are too young to remember the last time their team won a championship (it was 1960), will need to see it to believe it. With that in mind, we've got 10 predictions related to Chip Kelly's squad...
1. LeSean McCoy will once again lead the NFL in rushing
Kelly likes to run, and he's got the game's best running back smack dab in the middle of his prime, so you'd be reaching to predict that anyone other than McCoy would lead the league in rushing this season.
He only just turned 26 and is coming off a year in which he had a ridiculous 26 runs of 15 yards or more. That's almost as many as Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch combined (29), per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
|Elite running backs: Big plays, 2013|
|Source: Pro Football Focus/NFL.com|
The Eagles were one of only four teams with 500-plus rushing attempts last season, and they led the league by a wide margin with 2,566 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry. With DeSean Jackson gone and Darren Sproles likely to hog some attention when they're both on the field, there's little reason to believe McCoy won't be even more lethal in 2014.
His stated goal of 2,000 yards might be a bit of a stretch simply because there are so many weapons within that offense, but McCoy has a better chance than anyone to make a run at that mark.
2. Nick Foles' numbers will decline, but he'll still have a Pro Bowl-caliber season
Foles himself has admitted that a 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a passer rating in the 120 range probably isn't sustainable for yet another season. Few will dispute that. The 25-year-old was working against unprepared defenses with limited tape on him, and he did get a few breaks on negated turnovers.
This time, defenses have had an entire offseason to prepare for the third-year quarterback who'll be starting in Week 1 for the first time in his career. It's also far from ideal that he'll have to work without departed Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson, but we're still fully expecting him to improve overall this year while shredding apart defenses with a deep group of weapons.
So fantasy owners might be the only folks disappointed to see Foles' numbers slide a touch while he actually becomes more effective under center. Watch for him to be right there with guys like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in 2014.
3. Zach Ertz will make the Pro Bowl
The second-year tight end has seen his stock skyrocket of late, thanks to a stretch in which he had four touchdowns in six weeks to cap the 2013 season as well as some kick-ass performances this summer.
Pro Football Focus graded Ertz as the eighth-best tight end in the entire league last year, which is quite impressive considering the 2013 second-round pick had only 14 catches and zero touchdowns midway through the year (he picked it up with 22 receptions and four scores in the second half).
|Zach Ertz: rookie production|
|First half of season||36.2||14||201||0|
|Second half of season||45.3||22||268||4|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
It's apparent that he's become one of Foles' most trusted targets, especially with Jackson gone. So expect Ertz to be a force throughout the year. He might not be in Jimmy Graham's range just yet, but guys like Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Jordan Cameron should watch their backs.
4. The offense will finish the year ranked No. 1 in terms of points and yardage
In 2013, the offense averaged 417.3 yards per game, which was second to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos but was also the 11th-highest total in NFL history. It also averaged 27.6 points per game, ranking fourth.
But consider that Philly's offense was actually much closer to the top while being run by Foles, as opposed to Michael Vick or Matt Barkley:
|Offensive comparison, 2013|
|Broncos, with Manning||38.1||457.3||1.7|
|Eagles, with Foles only||33.0||436.0||0.7|
|Packers, with Rodgers||30.6||443.1||2.2|
|Patriots, with Brady||27.8||384.5||1.3|
|Eagles, any quarterback||27.6||417.3||1.2|
|Saints, with Brees||25.4||323.8||1.1|
|Chargers, with Rivers||24.8||393.3||1.3|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
And consider that it appeared to be getting even better during the second half of the year, which could lead to more improvement in 2014.
|Eagles offense, 2013|
|Metric||First 10 games||Final 6 games|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
The Broncos have taken some hits with Wes Welker's suspension and the loss of Knowshon Moreno and Eric Decker, and Manning has to eventually come back to earth at the age of 38. So don't be surprised if in 2014, the Eagles leapfrog the Broncos for that top spot.
5. But the offensive line will run into more issues than expected
For years, this line has been one of the best in football. And that's probably still the case. Left tackle Jason Peters, left guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce are all Pro Bowl-caliber players, and right tackle Lane Johnson has a bright future coming off a solid rookie season. Todd Herremans is also steady at right guard, and the Eagles have got themselves a solid swing tackle in Allen Barbre.
Still, Peters is now 32 and probably on the verge of declining, Mathis will turn 33 this season, Herremans will turn 32 and is coming off a terrible season in pass protection and Johnson is suspended for the first four games of the season.
All we're saying is we can see this line having more hiccups than usual going forward.
6. Brandon Graham and Mychal Kendricks will emerge ahead of Trent Cole and DeMeco Ryans at linebacker
Cole will turn 32 this year and has only 11 sacks the last two seasons, while Ryans is now 30 and could use some extra breathers considering that he's taken more snaps than anyone else on that D in each of the last two seasons.
Graham and Kendricks are the next guys in line, and they've both shown signs of promise under defensive coordinator Bill Davis.
PFF graded Graham as the Eagles' best defensive player this preseason and by a wide margin. The former first-round pick didn't get enough love from the coaching staff last year but has sent a message with a pair of sacks and eight quarterback pressures this summer.
Kendricks still makes too many mistakes but really showed signs of improvement during the second half of his sophomore season. We're expecting him to pick up where he left off in 2014.
7. Backup cornerbacks Nolan Carroll and Brandon Boykin will frequently outplay starters Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher
What we're saying is they're surprisingly deep on defense. Williams and Fletcher are good, not great. And both are vulnerable. Meanwhile, Carroll might be one of the most underrated signings of the 2014 free-agency period, and Boykin is coming off a year in which PFF graded him as the 11th-best corner in all of football.
Carroll probably outplayed Fletcher this month and flew under the radar as an advanced-stats star in Miami. At 27, he should be smack dab in the middle of his prime. He quietly started 22 games the last two seasons with the Miami Dolphins and is coming off a career year with three picks, two sacks and an opposing passer rating of just 47.8, per PFF.
|Lowest opposing completion percentages vs. CBs, 2013|
|Player||Team||Opp. comp. %|
|1. Trumaine McBride||Giants||43.8|
|2. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie||Broncos||44.1|
|3. Leodis McKelvin||Bills||46.1|
|4. Nolan Carroll||Dolphins||47.8|
|5. Johnathan Joseph||Texans||48.3|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
This is a good problem to have, especially for a defense that gave up the highest passing-yardage total in football last season. It's 2014, and the NFL is as pass-oriented as ever. Usually, you'll see at least three of these guys on the field, and we all know Boykin is a stud in the slot.
Plus, injuries happen. We wouldn't be surprised if all four of these guys made plenty of starts and earned plenty of important snaps this year.
8. This year, they'll actually lose a valuable player to a season-ending injury
Feels weird predicting injuries, and I know Kelly's sports-science system is certainly helping, but the reality is the odds greatly favor Philadelphia losing at least a key player or two for the year this time. That's something that, amazingly, didn't happen during the 2013 regular season, with only wide receiver Jeremy Maclin tearing his ACL early in training camp.
Based on numbers tallied here and here by Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News, teams have lost an average of 3.1 starters per year to season-ending injuries the last two seasons. The Eagles are technically above that average because of all the guys they lost in 2012, but the law of averages indicates they'll lose some guys this year.
Can they handle that? Because they've been so healthy throughout the Kelly era, it's impossible to say for sure.
9. Darren Sproles will finish second on the team in catches
Sproles is a wheel-route superstar who is tailor-made for Kelly's offense. Since 2011, he has more catches, yards and receiving touchdowns than any other back in football by wide margins. In fact, only 14 wide receivers have more grabs than he does during that stretch. And only 27 receivers have more touchdowns despite the fact he's only a part-time player.
|Most prolific pass-catching running backs since 2011|
|1. Darren Sproles||Saints||232||1981||16|
|2. Ray Rice||Ravens||195||1503||4|
|3. Matt Forte||Bears||170||1424||4|
|4. Pierre Thomas||Saints||166||1292||5|
|5. LeSean McCoy||Eagles||154||1227||8|
|6. Chris Johnson||Titans||135||995||4|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
In 2013, Sproles averaged 2.28 yards per pass-route run, according to PFF, which led all NFL running backs. He had seven catches of 20-plus yards, which ranked fourth among running backs, yet 38 backs were on the field for more snaps than he was. Overall since 2011, he's broken 31 plays for 20 or more yards—and that's not including his big plays as a returner.
You know that with Jackson gone they're going to spread it everywhere, so expect McCoy's new backfield mate to get a healthy dose of looks as a receiver, finishing behind only Maclin in that category.
10. The Eagles won't just repeat as division champs; they'll earn a first-round bye and win at least one playoff game
Yeah, we think at the very least, they're going to the NFC Championship Game. Seems like the logical next step as Kelly and Foles continue to build toward that first crack at bringing Super Bowl No. 1 to the city of Philadelphia.
|Brad Gagnon's NFC East prediction, 2014|
|1. Philadelphia Eagles||11-5||+100|
|2. Washington Redskins||9-7||+25|
|3. New York Giants||6-10||-70|
|4. Dallas Cowboys||5-11||-110|
Look for them to be right there with the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks and 49ers" target="_blank">San Francisco 49ers throughout the year. But the difference is that New Orleans, Green Bay and Seattle will have their hands full in their respective divisions. Philly might have a chance to steal the top seed, but a first-round bye should be a realistic goal regardless.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.
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