10 Reasons the Philadelphia Eagles Will Improve from Last Season

Randy JobstSenior Analyst IMay 6, 2012

10 Reasons the Philadelphia Eagles Will Improve from Last Season

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    2011 was an epic failure for the Philadelphia Eagles. Michael Vick was a turnover machine, the defense looked lost under new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and the return game was nonexistent.

    2012 appears to be a completely different story. Michael Vick will have his first full offseason as the Eagles starting quarterback. The defense should be in much better shape with more experience at linebacker and at defensive coordinator as well. The return game will get a big boost with fourth-round draft pick Brandon Boykin.

    The Eagles are in much better shape to compete for a NFC East division title and beyond. Last season, we saw the Eagles hit bottom after Week 13 when they fell to 4-8. This season should warrant better results with just about everyone back from a team that won its final four games, along with some new faces that should help the defense become elite in 2012.

1. Michael Vick Will Be Better

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    Michael Vick is coming off his second straight season with at least 3,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards. Those numbers didn't lead to a 7-6 record for Vick. It was his 18 total turnovers in just 13 starts. Turnovers and injuries have plagued him last season.

    Vick missed three games due to injury last season and was also knocked out of two more games. He also should have been pulled from the Arizona game last season, when he clearly wasn't himself in a 21-17 loss where he had just 128 passing yards.

    If he can learn to avoid the hits and be satisfied with going out of bounds when he makes plays with his feet and also throwing the ball away when his receivers aren't open, he will improve. Sometimes, the best play a quarterback can make is to just simply throw the ball away and avoid a big hit or a costly turnover.

    The turnovers have to decrease in 2012. Vick had 18 turnovers in 2011, but in 2010, in one fewer start, he had half as many turnovers. He had just three starts in 2011 with zero interceptions. In those three games, the Eagles outscored their opponents, 85-27.

    Vick will be entering his first full offseason as the Eagles starting quarterback. He will have more time to get comfortable with the first team offense. Last season, he was robbed with a very short offseason.

    Going into the 2010 season, he was Kevin Kolb's backup. Now, he is the franchise quarterback with several months to get comfortable with his teammates and the offense.

2. DeSean Jackson Is Happy and Ready to Take That Next Step

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    DeSean Jackson got paid to the tune of five years, $47 million with a $10 million signing bonus. Jackson had his fewest receptions and touchdowns since his rookie season. He clearly wasn't the same play even if he did manage 58 receptions and 961 yards in 15 games.

    It's safe to say that we can expect a better DeSean in 2012. He knows he is being taken care of financially. He can go over the middle and make plays when needed without worrying about that one hit preventing him from getting his big payday.

    Jackson is the most dangerous receiver in football. Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald have better size and ball skills, but no one is more difficult to cover one-on-one than Jackson. He is the fastest and quickest receiver in football. He forces the safeties to play further back and opens things up for the rest of the offense.

    Expect a happier DeSean Jackson to have a career year in 2012 with plenty of help around him to draw the defense in. He didn't have horrible numbers in 2011, in the midst of a contract dispute, so expect those numbers to increase this season.

3. The Offensive Line Will Be Elite in 2012

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    The offensive line went threw a makeover last season under Howard Mudd. Only Jason Peters stayed at his position from 2010 to 2011. The Eagles added Evan Mathis late in training camp to add depth, but he instead ended up earning a starting spot at left guard.

    They also drafted Jason Kelce, who started at center every game in 2011. Danny Watkins, a first-round pick in 2011, took awhile, but eventually earned a starting job as well. Todd Herremans was moved from left guard to right tackle shortly before the regular season.

    Heading into the 2012 season, only left tackle remains in question. Jason Peters suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon while training for the upcoming season. He will likely miss the 2012 season at the very least. Mathis, Kelce, Watkins and Herremans will all remain at their current positions.

    The Eagles signed Demetress Bell to repleace Peters this season at left tackle. He was the left tackle with the Bills last season. When healthy. Bell is athletic enough to thrive in Mudd's blocking scheme. As long as he can pick up on the scheme quickly and manage to stay healthy, he should be a solid starter in 2012.

    The offensive line appeared to be on their way to becoming the best in the NFL before Peters went down. Now, with an adequate replacement in Bell, they should be back on track to becoming a truly elite line. Mathis, Kelce and Herremans all played on a Pro Bowl-caliber level last season, and Watkins got better and better each week. 

    It will be exciting to see just how good this unit can be this season.  

4. The Defensive Line Will Be Dominant

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    The Eagles defensive line was dominant against the pass-rush last season. The entire defense racked up 50 sacks in 2011, but 46 of them came from the linemen. 34.5 of those sacks came from Trent Cole, Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins, which is more than 14 NFL teams had last season. The pass-rush was relentless last season, even with Antonio Dixon for the majority of the season and a Brandon Graham who was far from 100 percent while still recovering ACL surgery.

    The defensive line will have everyone back from last season, along with a healthy Brandon Graham and Antonio Dixon and two stout pass-rushers acquired from the 2012 NFL draft. Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry were two of the Eagles' first three draft picks last April. Both players are immediate-impact players that were born to play in the wide-9 scheme.

    The Eagles will most likely keep five defensive ends and five defensive tackles. Jim Washburn's rotation requires four healthy bodies at both end and tackle to work properly. That means that Derek Landri will battle Cedric Thornton for the fifth tackle spot, while Darryl Tapp will battle Phillip Hunt for the fifth end spot.

    The Eagles reserve defensive linemen (Curry, Cox, Dixon, Tapp) have more talent than a handful of other NFL teams have on their starting lines. This is a unit that could very well improve on their 46-sack total from last season. Last summer, only Jason Babin had experience in the wide-9 scheme going into a very shot offseason. Now, this unit will have the entire summer to improve as pass rushers under Washburn tutelage.

5. The Linebackers Will Be a Strength, Not a Weakness

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    Last season, the Eagles had a slew of talented but inexperienced linebackers. There was no leadership and nobody capable of covering tight ends and backs down the field. The Eagles have acquired two players that can do just that.

    Demeco Ryans was acquired in a trade with the Houston Texans for just a fourth-round draft pick. Ryans was arguably one of the top two or three middle linebackers in the game before an Achilles injury and a scheme change on defense held him back. Now, he is back in the 4-3 defense and he is healthy.

    The Eagles also added Mychal Kendricks to their linebacking core. Kendricks, a second-round pick in this year's NFL draft, was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He played inside linebacker, which should serve him well as the Eagles' SAM linebacker. He will line up inside of the defensive end as the strong side linebacker and will also have the responsibility of covering tight ends all over the field.

    The WILL linebacker spot is a bit more wide open. Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews are the leading candidates for the job. Rolle started 12 games at the position last year and had a lot of success there. He lead the linebacker in tackles for loss and also had a fumble forced and recovered for a touchdown. He has the speed, strength and tenacity you want in the position.

    Matthews also has a good shot at winning the position. He has more size than Rolle, about four inches taller and 5-10 pounds bigger. He also has better football instincts, even though they didn't show up in 2011. He was playing confused as the starting middle linebacker early in the season. He did have a lot of success as a nickel linebacker in the final four games of the season.

    This will be the first time since the early 2000s that the Eagles could have two quality linebackers that can play three downs. Despite the talent they have on both the defensive line and in the secondary, the linebackers will be the key to this team's success in 2012.

6. Press Man Coverage

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    The Eagles pass defense was a lot better than most people think last season. They finished 10th in the league last season in passing yards allowed. That's pretty impressive when you start the season with Kurt Coleman and Jarrad Page as your starting safeties. They were also forced to play more zone coverage because of Asante Samuel, which really hurt the play of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who are better served for man coverage.

    The Eagles traded Samuel, basically for a running back who hasn't been a part of a football team for more than one game since 2009. They are now expected to play primarily press man coverage with their corners.

    Asomugha goes back to playing the type of coverage that he dominated in. He was rarely thrown at more than 40 times in a season. Rodgers-Cromartie goes back to the outside, where he will also have a lot of success using his long arms to press receivers right at the line of scrimmage.

    In his last three seasons in Oakland, Asomugha was targeted a total of 88 times in those three seasons. That's less than 30 times a season. He was so good at jamming receivers right at the line of scrimmage and staying with them down the field that quarterbacks just stayed away from him.

    The Raiders never had a corner quite like Rodgers-Cromartie opposite of Asomugha. The Eagles will be able to take away most teams' top two outside receivers out of the offense for much of the game.

7. Jaiquawn Jarrett Will Be Ready to Start at SS

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    One of the players that was hurt the most by the lockout last summer was Jaiquawn Jarrett. He missed out on a lot of work during the summer that could have better prepared him to be the starting strong safety on opening week. He was on the inactive roster for much of the early part of the season

    Jarrett played in just 12 games and looked lost at times last season. In his defense, he wasn't the only player to look lost on that defense last season. This season should be a much different story with more time to improve his game this summer and a new defensive backs coach, Todd Bowles, that should help him earn a starting role this season.

    Jarrett was one of the most physical defensive backs coming out of college in 2011. He is a sure tackler and a natural leader. He is certainly talented enough to be a solid starting safety; it's just a matter of him getting the mental part of the game down and knowing where he has to be at all times.

8. Healthy Knees for Brandon Graham and Nate Allen

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    Both Brandon Graham and Nate Allen suffered serious knee injuries late in their rookie campaigns in 2010. Graham suffered a torn ACL, while Nate Allen had a torn tendon in his patella. Both were suffered very late in the 2010 season.

    Neither player was close to 100 percent early in the 2011 season. Allen eventually got back to full strength in the final month of the season, while Graham never looked like the player that the Eagles traded up to pick in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft.

    Allen should be able to take that next step in 2012. He looked like a future Pro Bowler in his rookie season before he got hurt. We should see that player this season. He showed that he was back to 100 percent late last December, and he should get even better with a full offseason to rest and get stronger.

    Brandon Graham has been written off by some and has received serious doubt about his value by others. Some have even suggested that the Vinny Curry draft pick was a move to replace Graham on the line. That couldn't be farther from the truth. It was probably a move to push Darryl Tapp out, who is earning about $1 million dollars a sack right now.

    Graham is in a make-it-or-break-it season. He is in year three and should be as close to 100 percent as he will ever be. It's unclear as to how healthy his knee will be. Will he still have the explosion off the line as he did back in 2010? We won't know that until training camp.

    Graham has to have a productive season in 2012. His career depends on it. He is in the right system. It's just a matter of going out and contributing to the pass-rush. There is too much talent on this defensive line to accept anything less than the former first-round draft pick.

9. The Return Game Will Have Life in 2012

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    The kick return game was pretty much nonexistent in 2011 for the Eagles. DeSean Jackson was a shell of his former self on punt returns, and Dion Lewis was anything but a natural return man on kickoffs. The Eagles went out and drafted a premiere return man in Brandon Boykin in the fourth round.

    Boykin had three returns for 100 yards or more in college and finished second in SEC history in kickoff-return yardage. He is a dynamic return man. He was used on kicks, punt and even on offense at Georgia. He is just a natural playmaker with the ball in his hands.

    The Eagles didn't draft any other return men in the draft, but they did sign a couple undrafted free agents who have been dynamic return men, but not since 2010.

    Cliff Harris and Damaris Johnson were both dangerous on kick returns in 2010, but were more dangerous to themselves in 2011. Both players were suspended for the 2011 season.

    Johnson has over 3,000 career yards on kick returns, while Harris has four career punt returns for touchdowns. Johnson is also a capable wide receiver, while Harris could be a really good cornerback at the next level.

    Both players had promising careers that have been set back with just plain stupid behavior off the field. If either of those players make the Eagles roster, they will have two dynamic return man to add with DeSean Jackson on special teams.

10. Juan Castillo Will Be a Better Defensive Coordinator

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    Juan Castillo had a rough first season as the Eagles defensive coordinator. He had been the team's offensive line coach since 1998. He not only made the switch to the team's defensive play caller, but he was coaching on the other side of the football for the first time since 1989, when he was the defensive coordinator at Kingsville High School.

    Add all that to a very short offseason to work with the defense, and you could see disaster coming. He was also forced to start Kurt Coleman and Jarrad Page at free and strong safety. Casey Matthews was forced in at middle linebacker as well. There was inexperience in the middle of the defense at both linebacker and in the secondary. They ran too much zone, mainly because of Asante Samuel.

    This season, the Eagles are healthier, more experienced and will play more man coverage to play to the strengths of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromarite. He is now an experienced play-caller on defense, but will have an experienced defensive coach in Todd Bowles to lean on when needed.

    Juan Castillo has everything and everyone around him to succeed. Last season, he had the eighth overall defense in terms of yards given up. That is pretty impressive given last year's circumstances. Expect Castillo to lead a top-five defense in 2012.