Since the day he entered the NFL, Eagles QB Mikel Vick has been known as one of the most explosive players to ever play the position. He's a top-flight quarterback with a cannon for an arm and an uncanny ability to see every play develop in slow motion.
However, it wasn't until last season, when the Eagles' then-QB of the future Kevin Kolb was knocked out in Week One, that Vick was able to bring all of his natural gifts together on the field. And boy was the result something to see.
Vick posted a career-high passer rating of 100.2, along with an exceptional 62.6 percent completion percentage and sterling 21/6 touchdown to interception ratio. For good measure, he added 100 carries for 676 yards and nine rushing touchdowns.
In 2011, all eyes will once again be on Vick. And like last season, expect him to lead the re-vamped Eagles to an NFC East Championship, for the reasons outlined in this slideshow.
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One of the biggest reasons the Mike Vick-led Philadelphia Eagles will capture another NFC East title is simply a lack of bona-fide competition. During the past month, the Eagles have dramatically improved their roster on both sides of the ball. They've added depth, shored up holes on their offensive line, and added playmakers across the board.
The Giants have had a solid, if not spectacular offseason. They lost two key members of their offensive line in OT Rich Seubert and OG Shaun O'Hara, along with DT Rocky Bernard and DT Barry Cofield. The team is also dealing with the potential loss of DE Osi Umeniyora, who is holding out for a new contract or a trade. If all of that wasn't bad enough, one of Eli Manning's favorite check-down targets in TE Kevin Boss left for Oakland in Free Agency and the team's first-round draft pick, CB Prince Amukamara went down with a serious lower-body injury and will be sidelined at least two months. All in all, the G-Men are likely to take at least a small step back in 2011.
The Cowboys also lost a few key pieces in RB Marion Barber, OG Marc Colombo, WR Roy Williams, and DT Stephen Bowen. However, the team was able to retain most of their defensive stalwarts, especially 3-4 super-DE Marcus Spears. Again, in terms of stopping Vick and the high-flying Eagles offense, the Cowboys haven't taken a step back; they just haven't taken a step forward.
The Redskins—the NFL's very own New York Mets—have been nothing if not predictable. The team lost a few solid defensive pieces in DE/LB Andre Carter, DE Phillip Daniels, DE Vonnie Holiday and DT Maake Kemoeatu, but added veterans DE Stephen Bowen, DT Barry Cofield and CB Josh Wilson as well as rookies Ryan Kerrigan (DE), Jarvis Jenkins (DT) and DeJon Gomes (SS). Again, they did not take a major step back. They just did not take a step forward either.
The main takeaway to all of this is simple: in five games against NFC East opponents, Vick had a passer rating of 104.4, a completion percentage of 64.2 percent and a combined 14 touchdowns (nine passing, five rushing). Generally speaking, he imposed his will on Divisional foes. And not one of those teams took significant positive steps to prevent that from happening again in 2011.
Going into the 2010 season, Mike Vick was not expected to be more than a backup and situational player for the Philadelphia Eagles. Kevin Kolb was the team's QB of the future, drafted, developed and anointed by Andy Reid himself. Then the Green Bay Packers knocked Kolb out (and Vick in), and the rest is history.
This time around, Vick has a year of starting experience in the Eagles system under his belt, a new-found mastery of Reid's massive playbook and a full offseason of specialized preparation in order to better handle life as a starting QB in the NFL.
From watching Vick at Eagles training camp in Lehigh, I can honestly say that he looks to be in much better shape than he was a year ago. He looks more comfortable with the Eagles playbook, is checking his wrist guide less and making the smart read more often.
From an outsiders' point of view, this year's Vick looks better than he did at training camp in 2010. And that is something that should scare a lot of defensive coordinators, especially those who have the misfortune of playing in the NFC East.
One of the most glaring weaknesses of the 2010 Philadelphia Eagles was on their offensive line. QB Mike Vick was sacked a ridiculous 34 times and pressured/hurried often as well. If the team hopes to keep Vick healthy over the course of a full NFL season, the offensive line must improve. And improve it did.
The Eagles went out and hired arguably the best offensive line coach in the business, Howard Mudd, to completely overhaul the group. During his 11 year tenure with the Indianapolis Colts, no team in the NFL allowed fewer sacks, due in large part to Mudd's coaching and scheming.
In the personnel department, the Eagles acquired OG Evan Mathis (who hasn't allowed a sack in 25 consecutive starts) and OT Ryan Harris, along with drafting OG Danny Watkins and re-activating C Jamaal Jackson from IR after a torn triceps sidelined him for most of 2010.
Three of those four will likely join line stalwarts OT Jason Peters and OG Todd Herremans to give the Eagles one of the better O-Lines the team has had in recent memory. With Mudd in charge, expect the number of sacks, hits and hurries to decrease dramatically, and Vick's offensive production to increase accordingly.
During the 2010 Eagles season, it often seemed that the offense felt it needed to score on every possession in order to keep the team in the game. The Eagles defense would hemorrhage yards and points far too often.
Mike Vick, ever the competitor, would try and single-handedly will the Eagles offense down the field, taking unnecessary hits in valiant, but ill-advised attempts to keep the offense on the field (and the defense off the field). All of that resulted in Vick injuring his ribs, bruising his leg and piling up an assortment of bumps and bruises.
This offseason, the franchise took a number of steps on the defensive side of the ball to take some of the pressure off of its Superstar QB. The team added one of the best (if not the best) cover CB in the business in Nnamdi Asomugha. They added DT Cullen Jenkins and DE Jason Babin. They added LB Casey Mathews, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and SS Jaiqwan Jarrett. And they added the best defensive line coach in the NFL in Jim Washburn.
The end result should be that the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles are a much-improved defensive team, one capable of consistently getting stops and helping the offense to win the field position battle that is often instrumental in winning the actual game. This Eagles team should be able to force more turnovers, register more sacks and surrender fewer big plays. In short, this Eagles defense (on paper) is capable of taking the load off of Vick's shoulders and carrying it if necessary.
The Eagles boast one of the NFL's most explosive offensive units. In 2010, the team racked up an average of 389.4 yards and 27.4 points per game. In 2011, expect that number to increase. The team added two more potential Pro Bowlers on the offensive side of the ball in QB Vince Young and RB Ronnie Brown, both of whom will be expected to contribute in limited roles.
The team returns star WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, along with RB LeSean McCoy and TE Brent Celek. Jason Avant will continue to serve as the team's slot receiver, and highly regarded WR prospect Riley Cooper will likely serve as the No. 4 receiver and as a red zone specialist.
In the blocking and red-zone department, expect the team's additions of TE Donald Lee and RB Ronnie Brown to pay tremendous dividends, providing a much-needed boost to an Eagle offense that was too often anemic inside opponents' 20-yard lines.
Once again, the Eagles have taken steps to remove some pressure from Vick's shoulders. He is not the team's only offensive weapon—just one of many. He finally has a back capable of consistently pounding the ball between the tackles. At long last, he has a tall receiver in Cooper capable of going up and getting a corner pass in the end zone. He need not rely exclusively on his "big three" of Jackson, Maclin and McCoy—he has other weapons in Celek, Avant, R. Brown, Cooper and Young that can be used situationally.
There is no question that despite all of this talent, Vick is the unquestioned leader of the Philadelphia Eagles offense. He is the straw the stirs the drink. And this season, both the straw and the drink have gotten more potent. Look out NFC East.
Mike Vick is back.