NFL Predictions 2011: Eagles Get the Pub, but Will the Packers Get Another Ring?
2011 has been a year of surprises for the NFL. Michael Vick and Tom Brady had two of the most memorable seasons in NFL history. The Packers shocked the football world and won another Lombardi Trophy. The League had its first work stoppage in more than two decades. And when the smoke settled and the lockout ended, it was the Philadelphia Eagles that emerged as offseason champions, signing a ridiculous six—count them, six—Pro Bowlers in free agency.
After their string of offseason signings, there is no question the Eagles are media darlings and the trendy pick to win it all in 2011-2012. Their toughest competition for the ultimate prize will likely come from within their own conference: the defending Super Bowl Champion Packers.
So it begs the question: Are the new look Eagles good enough to de-throne the World Champion Packers? Let's break it down, position by position and see.
As always, comments are welcome and appreciated.
Packers: Aaron Rodgers (Starter), Matt Flynn (Backup)
Eagles: Mike Vick (Starter), Vince Young (Backup)
In just three short seasons as a starting QB, Aaron Rodgers has established himself as one of the NFL's best at the position. As he showed in the 2011 playoffs, he has it all: he has a gun for an arm, tremendous pocket presence and football IQ, strong leadership ability, and a knack for coming up big in the clutch. If Rodgers continues to play at this level for a few more seasons, he just might de-throne Tom Brady as the best QB in the league, bar none.
On the other side of the equation is the rejuvenated Michael Vick, the runner up for NFL MVP in 2010, and possibly the most electrifying player...ever. In terms of raw ability, if Rodgers has a gun for an arm, Vick has a cannon (just ask the Redskins); Vick has the speed and elusiveness of Reggie Bush and a Spiderman-like awareness of impending danger. He just might be the NFL's ultimate weapon. And if you believe Andy Reid, the best is yet to come. Scary.
Despite Vick's otherworldly abilities, the nod here has to go to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in terms of starting QBs. Rodgers is simply the better QB; Vick is the better playmaker. However, with both Vick's and Rodgers' injury history, it is also necessary to consider the strengths of the teams' respective back-up QBs: Matt Flynn for the Packers and Vince Young for the Eagles. This one goes handily to the Eagles, who have a Pro Bowl caliber player in VY. Flynn is a solid, serviceable backup. But he's not Vince Young.
Overall Verdict: Draw
While the Packers have the advantage in starting QBs with Rodgers rated high than Vick, the Eagles have a much better backup QB in Vince Young. Given the injury histories of both starters, the backup position simply can not be ignored.
The Running Backs
Packers: Ryan Grant (Starter), James Starks (Backup), John Kuhn (FB)
Eagles: LeSean McCoy (Starter), Ronnie Brown (Backup), Owen Schmidt (FB)
One of the scariest aspects of the Packers' Super Bowl run is that the team did it without No. 1 RB Ryan Grant, who had been a 1,200+ yard rusher during each of the past two seasons. With Grant healthy and fan-favorite FB John Kuhn set to return, the Packers should be able to add another dimension to an already-intimidating offensive attack.
The Eagles also bolstered their already-dangerous running attack by adding former Pro Bowler Ronnie Brown to a backfield that includes one of the best young all-around backs in the NFL in LeSean McCoy as well as dependable FB Owen Schmidt. Brown and McCoy should give the Eagles one of the most explosive 1-2 punches in the NFL both running and catching the ball.
Overall Verdict: Eagles
McCoy and Grant are both excellent backs, but McCoy is the better all-around offensive weapon. The Eagles also boast impressive depth at the position with the acquisition of Brown and the surprising development of youngster Dion Lewis.
The Tight Ends
Packers: Jermichael Finley (Starter), Andrew Quarless (Backup)
Eagles: Brent Celek (Starter), Donald Lee (Backup), Clay Harbor (Backup)
In yet another sickening display of depth, the Packers managed to win it all without one of Aaron Rodgers' most dependable targets in TE Jermichael Finley. The Packers' TE is one of the best in the NFL and was on his way to another exceptional season before he was felled by a torn meniscus in Week 5. In terms of talent, Finley is a solid route runner with very good speed and athletic ability. He has honed his blocking skills in both run and pass protection and increased his football IQ. He has a pair of sure hands and the strength and speed to cause mismatches down the middle. Youngster Andrew Quarless is a very capable back-up to Finley and has the talent to cause some match-up problems for opponents.
The Eagles have a excellent trio of tight ends in Brent Celek, Clay Harbor, and former Packer Donald Lee. Prior to 2010, Celek seemed prime to take his game to the next level and establish himself as one of the NFL's best and most reliable targets over the middle. A tear of Jamaal Jackson's triceps and a concussion to Kevin Kolb later, Celek was largely relegated to blocking duty.
His offensive numbers ended up down significantly, but the lone weakness in his all-around game, blocking, was dramatically improved. Celek figures to be the beneficiary of far more looks in 2011, thanks in large part to the offseason work of QB Michael Vick and Andy Reid, both of whom have pledged to get Celek more involved in the offense. Harbor is a tremendous athlete who can cause mismatches but struggles to block anything; Lee is one of the best blockers at the TE position and is a very capable receiver.
Overall Verdict: Draw
Finley is easily the most talented and best all-around TE on either team. Celek is a solid target and has improved his blocking tremendously, but he does not have the athletic or big-play ability of Finley. Lee and Harbor are a better backup tandem than Quarless, but not by enough to give the Eagles an advantage.
The Wide Recievers
Packers: Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb
Eagles: DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Steve Smith, Riley Cooper
Last season, the Packers had the deepest group of wideouts in the NFL. They frequently caused match-up nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators by spreading the field with five-wide sets and picking on an out-classed reserve DB. But depth isn't this group's only virtue. In Greg Jennings, the Packers have a consensus top 10 WR in the NFL.
The ever-reliable veteran Donald Driver continues to prove why he's one of the most dependable targets in the business. James Jones and Jordy Nelson both have the talent to be starting WRs for many NFL teams. And Randall Cobb would not be a No. 5 receiver on many NFL teams—he'd be a No. 3.
The Eagles have a decent stockpile of receivers in their own right after adding former Pro Bowler Steve Smith to a group that includes one of the most explosive players in the NFL in DeSean Jackson, a sure-handed speedster in Jeremy Maclin, a consensus top 10 slot WR in Jason Avant, and talented but inconsistent Riley Cooper. To be clear: Jackson is not the same caliber WR that Jennings is; Jackson is the premiere big-play WR threat in the NFL and not much else. Jennings is the complete package.
Maclin and Driver are relatively similar, with Driver getting the nod in experience and reliability and Maclin the edge in speed and explosiveness. Avant and Jones are more or less the same player and a wash for accounting's sake. Smith is a much better WR than Nelson. Cooper and Cobb are more or less a wash. Both have talent and could be No. 3 WRs on some teams, but for the purposes of comparison there isn't a compelling reason to prefer one over the other at this time.
Overall Verdict: Packers
In a perfect world with everyone healthy, this would be a Draw or swing in favor of Philadelphia. However, with Jeremy Maclin's unknown illness still preventing him from taking reps at training camp and Steve Smith on the road to recovery from micro-fracture knee surgery, the edge right now must go to the healthy Packers. If the Eagles are all healthy once again, this can be revised. But right now, the nod must go to the team that can actually put all five of its top WRs on the field: the Packers.
The Offensive Line
Packers: Chad Clifton (LT), Derek Sherrod (LG), Scott Wells (C), Josh Sitton (RG), Bryan Bulaga (RT)
Eagles: Jason Peters (LT), Todd Herremans (LG), Jamaal Jackson (C), Danny Watkins (RG), Ryan Harris (RT)
The Packers offensive line was solid, if not spectacular during the team's Super Bowl run. The group allowed 38 sacks and 67 hits on Aaron Rodgers/Matt Flynn during the season while providing solid, if not spectacular blocking for the grab-bag of RBs that received carries following Ryan Grant's season-ending injury. All in all, the group has remained virtually unchanged from last season and will likely turn in a similar performance—solid, not spectacular.
The Eagles' offensive line was absolutely atrocious last season, allowing 49 sacks and 101 hits on QBs Mike Vick and Kevin Kolb. Had it not been for Vick's super-human ability to evade the rush and extend the play, that total could very well have been 75 sacks. The team addressed the problem this offseason first and foremost by luring the best offensive line coach in the business in Howard Mudd away from the golf course and back to the gridiron. The team used its first round pick on NFL-ready guard Danny Watkins and signed veteran OG Evan Mathis and OT Ryan Harris to provide stability and depth. Two of those three will join no longer injured C Jamaal Jackson to provide the team with a solid, veteran line.
Overall Verdict: Packers
Despite all of their off-season additions, the Eagles' offensive line is still riddled with question marks. Howard Mudd is an O-Line genius, to be sure. But he is not a wizard or a miracle worker—this group is not going to go from one of the worst in the NFL to one of the best overnight. Its certainly possible for this group to gel together and dominate, but that is a process that takes time. Right now, the Packers' unit is solid and has another year of experience under their rather large belts. Until proven otherwise, the nod goes to the defending Champions.
The Defensive Line
Packers: Ryan Pickett (LDE), B.J. Raji (NT), Mike Neal (RDE)
Eagles: Trent Cole (DE), Cullen Jenkins (DT), Antonio Dixon (DT), Jason Babin (DE)
This comparison will certainly get a bit tricky, as the Packers run a base 3-4 and the Eagles a base 4-3. However, I will try to take the differences in expected roles and performance into account when comparing the two units.
The Packers' front three is massive and solid, to say the least. All three members of the line have been listed at over 300 pounds, and all three can move despite their enormous size. Last season, the starting three accounted for 8.5 Sacks and played a major role in the rest of the Packers' 47.0 total sacks (good enough for second in the NFL). In terms of depth, the Packers have three solid backups in C.J. Wilson, Howard Green, and Jarius Wynn who are more than capable of generating pressure, eating up blocks, and causing mayhem. Top to bottom, this is a solid unit.
The Eagles defensive line, apart from Antonio Dixon and Trent Cole, was underwhelming in 2010. The team responded by firing most of the defensive staff and hiring (surprise) the best defensive line coach in the NFL in Jim Washburn away from Tennessee. The team then proceeded to sign pass-rushing monsters Jason Babin and former Packer Cullen Jenkins to bolster the unit. Under Washburn, expect this group to be extremely aggressive and effective in 2011. They have a tremendous amount of depth, with Juqua Parker, Darryl Tapp, Mike Patterson, and Trevor Laws all expected to receive starter-level minutes and talented reserves Phillip Hunt and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim projected to play situational minutes. The team also expects to get 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham back at some point during the season to add another pass-rushing specialist to the mix.
Overall Verdict: Eagles
The Eagles' defensive line has improved tremendously during this offseason. Their front four should be impressive and their depth is absolutely unbelievable. The addition of Jim Washburn should pay significant dividends and allow the group to be one of the best units in all of football during the 2011-2012 season. This isn't to say the Packers' unit is bad—the Eagles unit is just that good.
Packers: Clay Matthews (LOLB), AJ Hawk (LILB), Desmond Bishop (RILB), Erik Walden (ROLB)
Eagles: Moise Fokou (WILL), Casey Matthews (MIKE), Jamar Chaney (SAM)
Again with this slide, I will try to be very conscious of the differences in roles and expectations between the 3-4 system of the Packers and the 4-3 system of the Eagles.
The Packers will certainly miss departed LB Nick Barnett's leadership and skill, but this group has already overcome his loss during the team's run to the Super Bowl last season. The unit is led by All-Pro and freak-of-nature LOLB Clay Matthews and veteran LILB AJ Hawk. The unit might actually get better during the 2011-2012 season, as Matthews will finally be fully recovered from a fractured shin, an injury that hampered him for much of the 2010 season. In terms of depth, the Packers have an impressive collection of young talent with Brad Jones, DJ Smith, Robert Francois, and Frank Zombo.
The Eagles, in contrast to the Packers, have a young and unproven group of LBs headlined by Clay Matthews' younger brother, Casey. The younger Matthews will be expected to lead the Eagles defense and provide all-around playmaking as a rookie—no small task in Juan Castillo's complex and aggressive system. Jamar Chaney and Moise Fokou will flank Matthews and will be expected to provide excellent all-around play as well. Backing up the Eagles' young starters are more young players, with Keenan Clayton, Greg Lloyd, and Akeem Jordan all expected to contribute.
Overall Verdict: Packers.
Right now, this isn't close. The Packers have one of the best defensive playmakers at the LB position in Clay Matthews and three solid, veteran starters alongside him. The Eagles have a lot of talent, but there is a huge lack of experience that is impossible to ignore. One day, this Eagles' unit might be something special. But right now, they have less than a full season's worth of NFL starts combined.
Packers: Charles Woodson (LCB), Tramon Williams (RCB), Sam Shields (NCB), Pat Lee (DCB)
Eagles: Asante Samuel (LCB), Nnamdi Asomugha (RCB), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (NCB), Joselio Hanson (DCB).
The Packers boast a very solid corps of CBs, lead by former defensive player of the year Charles Woodson and emerging star Tramon Williams. In the 35-year-old Woodson, the Packers have one of the best all-around CBs in the NFL today—he defends the pass, stops the run, blitzes, and leads the secondary. The young Williams posted a very solid season across from Woodson and will likely only improve with time. Sam Shields is a very solid Nickel corner and would likely start for most teams.
Last season, CB was an area of relative weakness for the Eagles. Asante Samuel was, statistically speaking, the best cover-cornerback in the NFL at LCB, but the revolving door at RCB resulted in far too many passing yards and passing touchdowns for opponents. Like many of the team's other problems, this was fixed through new acquisitions. The team traded for the uber-talented young Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and signed arguably the best CB in the NFL in Nnamdi Asomugha. Those three should give the Eagles the best trio in the entire NFL at the position. The team's former nickel corner, Joselio Hanson, will see playing time at the dime if he's not released. Behind him, the Eagles have talented youngsters Curtis Marsh and Travard Lindley.
Overall Verdict: Eagles
While Packer fans may contend that this is relatively close, it isn't. Asomugha is one of the best in the NFL and (if its possible) seems to still be improving whereas Woodson is 35 and on the decline. Samuel was the leagues' best cover corner in 2010 and remains the best ball-hawk in the business. Rodgers-Cromartie is as physically talented as any corner in the league not named Darrelle Revis and is already a Pro Bowler. The Eagles win this one hands-down.
Packers: Morgan Burnett (SS), Nick Collins (FS), Charlie Peprah (B-SS), Anthony Levine (B-FS).
Eagles: Jaiquawn Jarrett (SS), Nate Allen (FS), Kurt Coleman (B-SS), and Colt Anderson (B-FS).
The Packers have a pair of talented starters at Safety in Collins and Burnett. Collins is a seven-year veteran and a rock-solid defensive player; Burnett has two years of NFL experience and the talent to be an explosive playmaker at the safety position. Neither is incredibly flashy, but both are solid and capable of making a big play. Peprah is a solid veteran who understands his role and provide dependable, if not spectacular, play. Levine is a rookie with a lot of promise who will likely see quite a bit of time on special teams.
The Eagles are one of the youngest teams in the NFL at safety, with second-year player Nate Allen, rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett, and second-year player Kurt Coleman likely to take the vast majority of the snaps. In terms of talent, Allen is an exceptionally good playmaker and center-fielder. Jarrett is a prototypical Cover-2 SS and probably the best natural tackler in the secondary. Coleman, although young, has shown quite a bit of promise at both safety positions and will likely receive considerable playing time. Anderson is an exceptionally good special teams player and will likely be kept around for that purpose.
Overall Verdict: Packers
The Eagles have the advantage here in potential, but the Packers have the proven talent. Nate Allen will be a star in the NFL one day, and don't be surprised to see Jarrett on quite a few editions of "Top Plays". Despite the talent, the Eagles unit is very young, with no player having more than two years of experience. The Pack have one of the better FS in the NFL in Collins and a talented young playmaker in Burnett. Until proven otherwise, they get the nod.
The Special Teams
Packers: Mason Crosby (K), Tim Masthay (P), Randall Cobb (PR), Alex Green (KR).
Eagles: Alex Henery (K), Chas Henry (P), DeSean Jackson (PR), Johnnie-Lee Higgins (KR)
The Packers have one of the most reliable Special Teams units int he NFL. They're not always flashy, but they get the job done right. Crosby is generally a solid kicker, having made 78.6 percent of his attempts in 2010 despite playing his home games at Lambeau Field. Masthay averaged a very respectable 43.9 yards per punt with 25 of his 71 kicks landing inside opponents' 20. Cobb and Green are both rookies with quite a bit of potential.
The Eagles said good-bye to the franchise's longest-tenured player in K David Akers, who did not sign the team's one-year, $3 million offer. The team also cut ties with punter Sav Rocca, who is now a Washington Redskin. In their place, the team added rookies Alex Henery and Chas Henry, both of whom have impressive college resumes. The ever-dangerous DeSean Jackson (just ask the Giants) will see some time as the Eagles' punt returner, and the team signed Higgins to handle the returning duties the rest of the time.
Overall Verdict: Draw
The Packers have the advantage at Kicker and Punter with veterans Crosby and Masthay, but the Eagles have the best returner in DeSean Jackson. Henery and Henry are both likely to develop into solid professionals, as are Cobb and Green. But right now, there is no clear winner here.
First, a quick summary:
Running Backs: Eagles
Tight Ends: Draw
Wide Receivers: Packers
Offensive Line: Packers
Defensive Line: Eagles
Special Teams: Draw
And the winner is....the Packers.
The Packers edge out the Eagles, but only by a hair. This is a matchup that could go either way depending on injuries, player development, and team chemistry. But right now, the edge goes to the Defending Super Bowl Champion Packers.