2011 NFL Predictions: Why Philadelphia Eagles Will Earn NFC's Top Seed
There is no precedent for what the Philadelphia Eagles did this offseason, and it's unlikely we'll ever see anything like it again in our lifetime. Signing six Pro Bowlers to a team already stocked with talent is simply unheard of. And doing it all while remaining under the cap, while teams like the Dallas Cowboys struggled to shed undeservedly large contracts for only decent players, just to resign their own players? Words fail to properly express the incredulity football fans across the nation feel.
The Eagles are clearly setting their sights on a deep playoff run, and anything less than a Super Bowl will probably be perceived as a disappointment. They have the personnel and the drive to accomplish their goal, and will probably still be in contention in late January.
In the wake of Philadelphia's meteoric offseason rise to prominence, the national media has been divided into two camps: those who believe the Eagles to be legitimate title contenders, and those who consider them to be over-hyped and still riddled with holes.
Personally, I think the Eagles will suffer growing pains in the early going of the season, but they have the potential to become as complete a team as there is in the NFL today. And, as the article's title conveys, I believe that they can finish the regular season with the best record in the NFC.
They Have a Deep, Talented Roster
Seven cornerbacks in five slots. Seven defensive ends for five spots. Seven receivers for five spots. These are among the problems that the Eagles face right now, and the team is probably extremely grateful for that.
Looking at the Eagles' roster, they are a relatively complete team, with their only weakness being at the linebacker position. The linebacking corps' struggles against the Pittsburgh Steelers have been well-documented, but these should be attributed to growing pains.
The linebackers will improve during the course of the season, and while we shouldn't expect the second coming of the Steel Curtain or the '85 Bears, the Eagles' linebackers will become solid players. And even if Casey Matthews does not develop as quickly as hoped for, good free-agent linebackers, such as Kirk Morrison, can still be had for relatively cheap.
The only other legitimate area of concern for Philadelphia is at the right tackle position, and even that may not be as much of an issue as initially thought. King Dunlap has proven to be a solid backup and should be able to protect Michael Vick effectively, until the return of either WInston Justice or Ryan Harris. And in case of an emergency, the Eagles also have the option of moving either Todd Herremans or Evan Mathis to the position.
Apart from linebacker, the Eagles are a very complete team and possess a lot of depth, in the forms of both promising young players and proven veterans. The backup quarterback and running back were both former Pro Bowlers, as was the third cornerback. The Eagles simply don't have room for all the talent they have.
An Already Explosive Offense Got Even Better
In 2010, the Eagles gained nearly 390 yards per game. They also produced more big plays than any other team, leading the league in gains of twenty or more yards. Despite their offensive line and defensive woes, Philadelphia still possessed one of the NFL's most feared offenses.
They only got better during the offseason.
At running back, LeSean McCoy has consistently impressed—both in training camp and in preseason games—and could have another great year, while the addition of Ronnie Brown gives the Eagles a large, powerful, change-of-pace back who can be relied upon to lower his head and drive for an extra few yards after contact.
Dion Lewis may not see much playing time this year, but he has shown flashes of brilliance during the preseason, and may become a starting running back in the NFL someday.
At tight end, Brent Celek and Clay Harbor are both locks to make the team again. Celek had a down year in 2010, but if his red-zone touchdown catch against the Ravens was any indication, he should be on his way to another good year.
The third tight end, Donald Lee, is also likely to make the cut. A veteran player, Lee is known for his reliability, both as a blocker and a pass-catcher.
If the Eagles are talented at running back and tight end, then they have an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver. DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Steve Smith are all Pro Bowl-level players, and both Jason Avant and Riley Cooper have also proven to be good options in the passing game.
Maclin, Avant and Smith are among the most reliable third-down options in the league, and should greatly help improve the Eagles' ability to sustain long drives, rather than rely on low-percentage home-run plays, most often provided by DeSean Jackson. Already a premier passing offense, the Eagles can soar this year with the new and improved players they have on their roster.
Of course, the Eagles wouldn't be complete without their signature playmaker, born-again quarterback Michael Vick. The team needs to perform at an even higher level than last year, and early signs seem promising—the Pittsburgh aberration notwithstanding.
As the unquestioned leader of his team, Vick brings something to the table that few other players in the league have: the ability to change a game in an instant, as evidenced in the season opener against Green Bay and in the remarkable comeback against the Giants. With Vick calling the plays, opponents can never count the Eagles out of a game.
The Defense Can Be Dominant
As much as the offense improved, the defense did even more during the offseason. The addition of Jim Washburn and his wide-nine technique, while exposing the linebackers to the run, has definitely resulted in additional pressure being placed on the cornerback.
Trent Cole, after averaging 11 sacks for the last four seasons, could be heading for a career year, especially now that the Eagles seem to have found a complement for him in Jason Babin, who flourished in Tennessee under Washburn's tutelage. Backup defensive end Darryl Tapp also seems to have found his place, recording two sacks in the preseason opener.
The linebackers are an area of weakness, but should not be written off so easily. As the strong side linebacker, Jamar Chaney seems poised to become the sort of multipurpose linebacker the Eagles have lacked for so long.
Rookie defensive coordinator Juan Castillo has pointed out that Chaney has an important role in his defense, using his physical skills and prowess to react to the play as it happens, whether by covering a tight end, running back or stuffing the ground game.
Casey Matthews clearly needs improvement, though he began to look more comfortable towards the end of the first half against the Steelers. The upcoming game against the Cleveland Browns will likely show if Matthews is capable of handling the responsibilities of the middle linebacker, or whether the Eagles will need to sign another journeyman veteran.
But the Eagles' real strength lies in their dominant secondary. As their trio of Pro Bowl cornerbacks becomes more comfortable with their individual roles, Castillo can become more and more creative with his defense, blitzing from all over the field or letting All-Pros Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel to roam the field freely as safeties, while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie blitzes and plays the slot. The possibilities are endless with the talent Castillo has at his disposal.
The Eagles' safeties also are talented and deep. While the still-recuperating Nate Allen was exposed and torched by Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Coleman and the backups showed promise. Both Jaiquawn Jarrett and Jarrad Page (who will play with the first team vs. the Browns) also recorded interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens.
Philadelphia has all the pieces in place to field a dominant defensive side, one that can continually pressure the quarterback, get into the backfield and lock down the receivers. The unit will be a feared one, to say the least.
The Eagles Can Play with Anyone
As the saying in the NFL goes, any given team can win on any given Sunday. However, it is the good teams, the talented ones, that can go out and give themselves a good shot at winning against any other team.
As detailed in the previous few slides, the Philadelphia Eagles are one of those teams. The talent they have on both sides of the ball makes it so that they can never be counted out of a game.
The Eagles' success depends on their offense, which in turn rests on the shoulders of one Michael Vick, only the single most exciting and dynamic playmaker in the entire league.
With Vick, the game is never over. You never know what will happen next, only that you will be amazed (though perhaps not always in a good way). Vick alone is a game-changing player, who can tip the balance of a contest in a single play (see the Miracle at the New Meadowlands).
But with his supporting cast, the potential is near limitless. DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are both big-time playmakers, while Steve Smith and Jason Avant are excellent third down receivers. With the complementary talent surrounding them—including Riley Cooper, Brent Celek and Ronnie Brown, not to mention the equally dynamic LeSean McCoy—the Eagles have a myriad number of options.
With a high-octane offense that can theoretically score in an instant or sustain long, winding drives, the Eagles' plan is to score early, and force the other team to play from behind. In other words, they want the opposition to resort to the air game.
That is where the Eagles are strongest, when running nickel and dime packages and playing without the linebackers. With an imposing pass rush filling the gaps and swarming the quarterback, the secondary can lock down the passing game, leaving one of the corners to roam the field in order to make plays.
If the Eagles can get into situations like these—taking an early lead while rushing the passer—they give themselves a great shot at winning any game. And even otherwise, the talent on both sides of the ball ensures that Philadelphia will never go down without a fight.
The Schedule Is Favorable
This is perhaps the single biggest reason why the Eagles should lock up the NFC's No. 1 seed. The Eagles have a schedule that works in their favor. Not only do they get to play the NFC West (the only reason Atlanta and Tampa Bay had such good records last year), they also play two games against the bottom-feeders in the AFC East.
As important as who they play is when they play. The Eagles' road games against cold-weather teams, such as Buffalo, occur earlier in the season, while they have several warm-weather games during the stretch run, versus Miami and Dallas.
In the division, only Washington has taken a step forward. The Giants' recent slew of injuries has all but eliminated them from postseason contention, and the Cowboys, while a good team, are not as talented as the Eagles.
In addition, the Eagles' Week 17 game comes against the Redskins, likely at a time when Washington will be tanking its last few games for a shot at a high spot in the 2012 draft, and possibly Andrew Luck.
The Eagles' most difficult non-divisional games come at home, against the New England Patriots and New York Jets. Evenly matched against both AFC East powerhouses, the Eagles possessing home-field advantage could be a crucial factor in determining the winner.
Their other marquee showdown comes against Atlanta in Week Two, nearly a home game for Vick. As the Falcons will also be integrating new personnel into their schemes, the Eagles can win here by talent alone, if it comes to that.
At the same time, the teams in the NFC North and South—possibly the league's two toughest divisions—are slotted to play each other. With the caliber of talent in both divisions, it is unlikely any one of the other NFC heavyweights (Atlanta, New Orleans and Green Bay) will emerge with an outstanding record.
Reasonably, Philadelphia can go the entire season without dropping more than four games. Standing at 12-4, that alone should be good enough to secure the No. 1 seed, and definitely at least a bye, as the other NFC teams cannot hope to exceed that record. But if the Eagles emerge as a cohesive unit even earlier, the possibility exists of them finishing the season 13-3 or 14-2.
Whatever happens, the Eagles seem poised for a strong regular season, and possibly an even stronger playoff run.