Examining Philadelphia Eagles' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin Onslow@@JustinOnslowNFLContributor IIMay 30, 2013

Examining Philadelphia Eagles' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    It’s the dawn of a new era in Philadelphia.

    After a tumultuous 2012 season that saw the Philadelphia Eagles drop 11 of their last 12 games, Andy Reid met a swift departure and an end to his 14-year tenure at the helm of a franchise that reached four NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl under his direction.

    But an 8-8 record in 2011 and a 4-12 finish last season were clear indications Reid was no longer capable of meeting those expectations, despite a roster filled with high-priced talent.

    Much of that talent saw its way out of Philadelphia this offseason as well.   

    Cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie—widely regarded as two of the best pass defenders in the league prior to the 2011 season—failed miserably in their two seasons with the team, and both left to find new homes on the free-agent market this offseason.

    Reid’s departure paved the way for former Oregon Ducks head coach Chip Kelly to take the reins, and he brought in defensive coordinator Billy Davis to facilitate a new plan for revamping the Eagles’ defense, effectively eliminating the Wide-9 defense and implementing a hybrid 3-4 front in its place.

    With the schematic changes, the Eagles also saw it fit to release defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins and let fellow defensive tackle Mike Patterson walk in free agency, later to sign with the division rival New York Giants.

    But the defensive overhaul was necessary for a unit that finished the 2012 season ranked in the middle of the league in total defense (15th) and 23rd in rushing defense—in a division with some tremendously talented offensive weapons.

    Philadelphia went on a spending spree to address its defense this offseason, inking former Houston Texans linebacker Connor Barwin to a six-year, $36 million contract. The Eagles also signed cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, safeties Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung, and former San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga.

    On the offensive side of the ball, the Eagles were in need of a few more pieces to fit Kelly’s up-tempo offense. With players like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy, Michael Vick and Brent Celek already in place, that wouldn’t be a difficult task.

    The Eagles signed former Dallas Cowboys running back Felix Jones in May to add to an already impressive backfield, as well as drafting Stanford tight end Zach Ertz with the 35th pick in the draft.

    But the offensive line was a major concern in 2012, especially with a quarterback in Vick who is prone to moving the pocket and forcing his linemen to adjust on the fly. Kelly found the perfect player to alleviate some of those issues with the fourth pick in the draft.

    With Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel already off the board at No. 4, Kelly opted for Oklahoma left tackle Lane Johnson—perhaps the most athletic offensive lineman in the entire draft class. With his mix of mobility and athleticism, Kelly will have the versatile left tackle he needs to lock down the position and perhaps allow the Eagles to open up the playbook with plenty of screens and draws to that side of the field, making Jackson, Maclin and McCoy even more intriguing weapons this season.

    Here, we’ll take a closer look at many of those offseason moves and also preview some key positional battles to watch as the 2013 season approaches.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 1 (Pick 4): OT Lane Johnson, Oklahoma

    Round 2 (Pick 35): TE Zach Ertz, Standford

    Round 3 (Pick 67): DT Bennie Logan, LSU

    Round 4 (Pick 98): QB Matt Barkley, USC

    Round 5 (Pick 136): S Earl Wolff, NC State

    Round 7 (Pick 212): DE Joe Kruger, Utah

    Round 7 (Pick 218): CB Jordan Poyer, Oregon State

    Round 7 (Pick 239): DE David King, Oklahoma

    Grade: B

    Offensive tackle was a big need for the Eagles, and Kelly did well in finding a player who fits his offense and the demands of protecting a mobile quarterback like Mike Vick. With Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel off the board, Kelly took advantage of both positional-value and needs-based drafting and made a terrific selection with the fourth pick.     

    Philadelphia’s free-agent spending spree allowed Kelly to continue targeting offensive players in the following rounds, first with Zach Ertz and again in the fourth round with USC quarterback Matt Barkley.

    While Brent Celek has been a consistently solid receiving target at the position, adding Ertz gives Vick another seam-stretching tight end who can open up the field for Jackson, Maclin and the rest of the Eagles’ receiving corps. If a team doesn’t have two quality tight ends in the modern NFL, it doesn’t have any.

    The Barkley pick was particularly intriguing, though.

    Philadelphia will have Vick under center for at least another season, as well as 2012 stand-in Nick Foles and offseason signee Dennis Dixon. Foles showed flashes of talent last season despite putting up somewhat pedestrian numbers (1,699 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions in seven games), and some believed the former Arizona Wildcats signal-caller would be the future of the position.

    That may still prove to be the case, but Barkley gives Kelly another developmental option and a quarterback with whom he was extremely familiar, having faced Barkley several times as head coach at Oregon. In the fourth round, there was nothing wrong with the new head coach taking a chance on another signal-caller—especially one whom many expected to find a home in the first or second round.

    Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff will add some much-needed depth at the defensive tackle and safety positions, respectively, but neither is likely to see a ton of playing time in 2013. However, Logan has the size and strength to see some time at both nose tackle and 5-technique defensive end in a limited capacity.

    In all, Kelly’s first draft went as well as could be expected. The Eagles found players who filled immediate needs and others that would add some depth crucial to competing with the top squads in the NFC East.

    There’s not a whole lot to dislike about the draft class.

The Big Question

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    For all the talk of Foles potentially earning the starting position under center to start the year—or Barkley ascending the depth chart with a terrific offseason performance—it’s important to remember what Mike Vick is capable of doing, especially in an offense that caters to speed and an up-tempo pace.

    Yes, Kelly’s offense will look different than the product he put on the field at Oregon, but there’s no chance he abandons the basic elements of the offense he spent years perfecting. While we won’t see an exact replica of the Oregon Ducks offense this year, it won’t be hard to pick out the elements that made it so effective at the college level.

    As intriguing a thought it is to see a new face under center in 2013, Vick is a good fit for Kelly’s offense. He’s still extremely mobile and is always tremendous at stretching the field with deep passes and play-action fakes. Without that element, Kelly will be without one of the factors that made him such an intriguing NFL head-coaching option to begin with.

    That said, Vick has missed 17 games in his four-year tenure with Philadelphia, and his playing style suggests he could see plenty more time on the injury report in 2013. If Vick fails to stay healthy this season, the door will be wide open for Foles and Barkley to battle it out for the starting job.

    Expect to see Vick once again under center to start the season with Foles second on the depth chart ahead of Barkley. I won’t speculate on the chances of Vick facing injury issues again this year, but look for Foles to be the candidate to step in should Vick miss time.

Not a Secondary Concern

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    The Eagles completely overhauled their secondary this offseason as Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie saw their way out of town, replaced by two free-agent cornerbacks who could potentially start opposite one another in Week 1.

    Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher weren’t high-profile signings, but both are in a position to earn a starting spot in 2013. While Brandon Boykin and Brandon Hughes are intriguing options, the former doesn’t exactly have ideal size to start on the outside (5’9”, 182 pounds) and the latter is a veteran whose biggest value comes as a special-teams performer.

    But Boykin has shown plenty of potential, and there’s a good chance he finds himself penciled in as the team’s nickel corner in 2013, ahead of Trevard Lindley, Curtis Marsh and Hughes.

    Seventh-round pick Jordan Poyer saw his value plummet during the draft, but he’ll be an intriguing player to watch as the depth chart becomes clearer. Some considered the Oregon State cornerback an early-round talent, and he’ll have an opportunity to prove his value alongside a duo of projected starters that hasn’t played a snap yet for the Eagles.

    Much of the same holds true at the safety position.

    While Nate Allen will likely retain his starting role from a year ago, free-agent acquisition Patrick Chung has been taking snaps with the first-team defense alongside Allen, as reported by Bo Wulf of PhiladelphiaEagles.com.

    Chung established himself as a key contributor at the back end of the New England Patriots defense in recent years, and he already has his eyes on the starting role in Philadelphia. There’s a good chance he earns it before the end of the offseason.

    Kenny Phillips could certainly give Allen some competition for the job, but the former New York Giants safety has been taking snaps with the second team, along with 2013 starter Kurt Coleman. Unless they really impress this offseason, expect Allen and Chung to have the inside track to the starting safety roles.

    Starting Defensive Backfield Projections

    CB 1 Cary Williams
    CB 2 Bradley Fletcher
    Nickel Brandon Boykin
    FS Nate Allen
    SS Patrick Chung

Line Dancing

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    Lane Johnson was expected to start at left tackle regardless of which team selected him in the draft, but the “left tackle vs. right tackle” debate is highly overblown. Not every team runs the ball considerably more to the right side, nor does every defense stack its best pass-rushers to the left side of the offensive line.

    There are fewer black-and-white concepts regarding NFL tactics than ever before, and there’s a good chance Chip Kelly decides Johnson is a better fit on the right side for now, especially with a left-handed quarterback under center. Jason Peters will be back to reclaim his spot at left tackle, meaning Johnson’s skills may be much better utilized at the right tackle position anyway.

    But like with all NFL offenses, injuries will ultimately determine where Johnson finishes the season. The Eagles lost four starting linemen to injury last year—a big reason for the inconsistency and ineffectiveness that led to Mike Vick missing six games last year.

    Todd Herremans is expected to slide inside to right guard should that be the case, locking down another position that has been a weak spot for the Eagles in recent years. Jason Kelce should start at center, leaving one more guard position up for grabs.

    Right guard Danny Watkins hasn’t performed well in his time in Philadelphia, but he’ll battle with Evan Mathis for the left guard position in a year that decides Watkins’ future with the team. Should he fail to impress again this season, he may not have another opportunity.

    One of Philadelphia’s only free-agent offensive line acquisitions, former Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks tackle Allen Barbre, will be a welcomed addition to a team that was desperately in need of depth. He’s spent much of his career moving between positions on the offensive line, and he stands to do plenty more of that this season if the injury woes continue.

    Offensive Line Projections

    LT Jason Peters
    LG Evan Mathis
    C Jason Kelce
    RG Todd Herremans
    RT Lane Johnson

Tricky Transition

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    Switching from a spread-out Wide-9 defense to a more traditional 3-4 base defense has already had a huge effect on personnel changes on Philadelphia’s defensive front. Considering the team’s defensive woes last year, that’s probably a good thing.

    Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins are gone, and defensive end Brandon Graham will transition to outside linebacker to fill a stand-up pass-rusher role. The addition of Connor Barwin will make the transition to a three-man front a lot easier, as the former Texans standout will provide a formidable pass rush from the other side.

    But along with personnel adjustments, playing in a two-gap 3-4 front is a lot different than the more straight-forward one-gap responsibilities of a Wide-9 defense. There’s nothing inherently special about the latter; it mirrors many of the same characteristics of a traditional one-gap 4-3 front. But there’s no shortage of examples of the most feared defensive transition in football going horribly wrong.

    Typically, such a switch takes two or three years to complete, as personnel is replaced to make it all work. That said, don’t be surprised if Philadelphia’s front seven struggles early in the season.

    Free-agent signee Isaac Sopoaga will lock down the nose tackle position ahead of Antonio Dixon and third-round pick Bennie Logan, but Logan will likely also see time at the 5-technique defensive end position along with projected starters Clifton Geathers and Fletcher Cox, as well as Cedric Thornton and Ronnie Cameron.

    Philadelphia did a good job in shoring up its linebacking corps this offseason to facilitate a smooth transition, however. Adding Barwin was a huge boost, and Graham and Trent Cole should fit nicely at outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme. With DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks and Jamar Chaney already in place, the Eagles won’t be lacking depth at any linebacker position.

2013 Schedule

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    2013 Philadelphia Eagles Schedule
    Week Date Opponent Time (ET) TV
    1 Mon, Sept. 9
     @ Washington Redskins 7:10 p.m. ESPN
    2 Sept. 15
     vs. San Diego Chargers 1 p.m. FOX
    3 Thurs, Sept. 22
     vs. Kansas City Chiefs 8:25 p.m.  NFLN
    4 Sept. 29  @ Denver Broncos 4:25 p.m. CBS
    5 Oct. 6  @ New York Giants 1 p.m. FOX
    6 Oct. 13  @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 p.m. FOX
    7 Oct. 20  vs. Dallas Cowboys 1 p.m. FOX
    8 Oct. 27  vs. New York Giants 1 p.m. FOX
    9 Nov. 3  @ Oakland Raiders 4:05 p.m. CBS
    10 Nov. 10  @ Green Bay Packers 1 p.m. FOX
    11 Nov. 17  vs. Washington Redskins  1 p.m. FOX
    12 Nov. 24  BYE WEEK N/A N/A
    13 Dec. 1  vs. Arizona Cardinals 1 p.m. FOX
    14 Dec. 8  vs. Detroit Lions 1 p.m. FOX
    15 Dec. 15  @ Minnesota Vikings 1 p.m. FOX
    16 Dec. 22
     vs. Chicago Bears 1 p.m. FOX
    17 Dec. 29
     @ Dallas Cowboys 1 p.m. FOX

    *For a complete look at Philadelphia's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

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    The Eagles don’t have a particularly dangerous schedule this season, but the NFC East is always a difficult division, regardless of what happened a season ago.

    A season series with the NFC North shouldn’t be any less challenging, and it’s hard to pinpoint which contests will present the biggest matchup challenges for the Eagles. With so much still up in the air, swiping five wins from those seven teams would have to feel like somewhat of a success.

    But outside those divisions, Philadelphia faces some much easier matchups, including a Week 2 contest with the San Diego Chargers, a Week 3 showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs and second-half games with the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals.

    Anything can happen on any given Sunday, and that’s particularly true in the case of the Eagles this season. While we have a pretty good indication of what the schedule will hold, Philadelphia is in a transitional state, making it nearly impossible to make an accurate prediction of 2013 success.

    Still, Chip Kelly’s offense should take off relatively early in the season, and Billy Davis is a terrific defensive mind who has already implemented some positive changes in Philadelphia. It wouldn’t be a major shock to see the Eagles rebound from a terrible 2012 campaign to challenge for the NFC East title this season.

    Prediction: 8-8, Third in NFC East

    When so much is up in the air, it’s important to temper expectations. Fans don’t want to hear it, but sometimes rebuilding is a gradual process.

    The Eagles will certainly be better than they were in 2012, though their 2013 schedule is marred with difficult matchups and stingy defenses. Expecting an eight-win season isn’t all that unrealistic.

    Look for Kelly’s first season at the helm to be a step in the right direction. Just don’t expect him to orchestrate a season that sees Philadelphia overtake the Washington Redskins and New York Giants.

    Then again, crazier things have happened.