Five Things the Eagles Have to Do in Order to Recapture the NFC East in 2015

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 5, 2015

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 28:  Head coach Chip Kelly of the Philadelphia Eagles looks on against the New York Giants during a game at MetLife Stadium on December 28, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, the Philadelphia Eagles won 10 games. But while that felt successful in 2013, 2014 was by most measures a failed season. That's because Philadelphia was supposed to improve in year two under head coach Chip Kelly, but instead the Eagles had a league-high 36 turnovers and missed the playoffs. 

Now, as they enter an offseason with questions in key spots, they'll have a decent amount of salary cap space—just under $20 million as things currently stand, according to Over the Cap, which is about the league median—but will be stuck with the lowest draft pick among non-playoff team. 

Still, this is a talented team with well-reputed front-office folks and a smart coaching staff, so the Eagles are capable of reclaiming the perennially wide-open NFC East in 2015. The key will be following these five fairly simple steps.  

1. Revamp the secondary

One year after this shabby unit ranked dead last in pass defense, it ranked 31st in 2014. 

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Most passing yards allowed, last two seasons
TeamYards allowed/game
1. Eagles277.3
2. Cowboys269.3
3. Falcons261.7
4. Vikings255.2
5. Bears248.8
Pro Football Reference

Time has run out on that Cary Williams/Bradley Fletcher starting duo at cornerback, and the safety position has officially been neglected for too long.

Williams and Fletcher were criminally inconsistent in coverage, especially against top receivers. They surrendered a combined 14 touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and Fletcher's coverage grade from PFF ranked 101st among 108 qualified corners. 

As a result, Philly was the only team in football to give up more than 70 20-yard passing plays. 

Most big passing plays allowed, 2014
Rank20 yards30 yards40 yards
1stEagles (72)Eagles (28)Eagles (18)
2ndBears (65)Steelers (26)Steelers (15)
3rdGiants (62)Cardinals (25)Falcons (14)
Pro Football Reference

Of course, it's easier to say "revamp the secondary" than to actually, you know, revamp the secondary. Williams and Fletcher seemed like good signings two years ago. Physical, experienced cornerbacks who fit coordinator Bill Davis' defense and could bring some size and swagger to a unit that lacked bite in 2012. But there wasn't much payoff, and now they need to find at least one replacement. 

I say one because nickel corner Brandon Boykin has a lot of talent but has been relegated to slot coverage for much of his first three seasons. Boykin's only 5'10", which has the coaching staff scared to play him outside against X and Z receivers based on an archaic philosophy that big people beat up little people with few exceptions. But Boykin, who allowed zero touchdowns and was PFF's 21st-best corner in 2014, has been the best cover man on this roster for two years running. 

He deserves a promotion, but Philly also has to consider using that No. 20 pick (or at least one of their two Friday picks) on a shiny new corner. That's a position it's ignored in the draft the last few years, but it has to be desperate now, especially with the free-agent market lacking at that spot. 

At safety, it did get a decent showing from the veteran Malcolm Jenkins in his first season in Philly, but Nate Allen isn't a starting-caliber player. He lacks the instincts to serve as a single-high safety in Davis' press-man schemes and is routinely too slow in attempts to give help over the top.

Allen's a free agent, but even if the Eagles decide to bring him back, it should be in a reserve role. The reality is that if Davis is going to continue to leave his corners on islands, he needs better corners, but he also needs a very skilled free safety.

That might mean the Eagles should use one of their top three draft picks on a safety for the first time since they took Jaiquawn Jarrett in the second round in 2011, or it could mean investing in a top-tier free agent such as Devin McCourty or Louis Delmas. 

"It’s broke," Davis said of the secondary last week, according to CSN Philly, "and we’ve got to fix it."

That should start with waving goodbye to Williams and Fletcher, rather than paying them nearly $10 million combined, and with finding at least two new starting defensive backs in March and/or April. 

2. Re-sign Brandon Graham, move on from Trent Cole

Cole had a solid season, but his best years are behind him and winning teams know when to cut bait on veteran players. That's especially the case when they have suitable replacements on the roster. 

And in this case, it's only natural to replace the 32-year-old, expensive Cole with the slightly cheaper, more promising Graham. Cole had 6.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 52 tackles, but Graham's numbers (5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 46 tackles) were comparable despite playing 310 fewer snaps. 

Pro Football Focus also ranked him first among all qualified 3-4 outside linebackers in terms of pass-rushing productivity: 

PFF's most productive pass-rushing 3-4 OLBs, 2014
1. Brandon Graham17.7
2. Justin Houston15.7
3. Pernell McPhee14.4
4. Ryan Kerrigan13.0
5. James Harrison12.9
Pro Football Focus

On the other side of the linebacker corps, they've got Connor Barwin, who, at 28, is in his prime and is coming off a career year with an NFC-high 14.5 sacks. Barwin is living up to a $6 million salary, but paying a premium for three outside linebackers seems a little silly. To keep both Graham, who is still only 26 and is slated to become an unrestricted free agent, and Cole, whose salary jumps from $5 million to $10 million in 2015, they'd have to do exactly that. 

Per PhillyMag.com's Tim McManus, Cole has indicated he'd be willing to rework his deal. But unless the Eagles get a tremendous discount, it might be time to hand the "predator" role to Graham. We've seen glimpses of what the former first-round pick can do, and the Eagles might be better off with him in the lineup on a full-time basis. 

That move will free up some cash, making it easier to accomplish the following task...

3. Re-sign Mark Sanchez

Maybe Nick Foles still has the ability to become the franchise quarterback for years to come, maybe not. Regardless, Foles has shown that he has some problems staying healthy, and the Eagles absolutely need support at the quarterback position. 

Kelly is a good enough offensive coach to succeed without a blue-chip starter for at least a short stretch, and Sanchez has proven to be one of the best backups in the league. He had a higher passer rating this year than Colin Kaepernick, Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton and a higher completion percentage than Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer and Joe Flacco. 

Does he throw too many interceptions? Yes, but he still possesses the ability to win football games. He won five of the nine games in which he was the primary quarterback this season. 

Now Sanchez is slated to become a free agent, but the Eagles should do everything in their power to bring him back on another short-term contract. It's the type of insurance they need under center. 

4. Name Nick Foles the starter, target a quarterback in Round 2 or 3

Sanchez didn't do enough to steal a long-term starting job from the injured Foles, but Foles didn't do enough prior to that to secure that job for good. But because franchise quarterbacks can't be found in free agency and the Eagles lack a top pick for Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, they'll be forced to open the season with the 2012 third-rounder under center. 

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Foles put up one of the best statistical seasons in NFL history in 2013 while leading the Eagles to a division title. And it's possible we're overreacting to a small sample of poor play from early in 2014, especially considering the fact he had little support from an offensive line in shambles and an unproductive running game. 

So Foles deserves a shot, and he'll get one because the Eagles' options elsewhere are very limited, if existent. 

But with the franchise tag in their back pocket, there's also little reason to give a long-term extension to a guy who has one year left on his rookie deal and is having trouble proving he can a) stay healthy, and b) be counted on to deliver on a consistent basis. Foles was nearly as interception-prone as Sanchez this season and his passer rating of 81.4 ranked 27th among 33 qualifying quarterbacks, leading many to wonder if his 2013 campaign was a one-hit wonder. 

Until we know for sure, the Eagles are better off waiting while forcing Foles to compete with Sanchez and possibly a rookie quarterback. Mariota is out of reach, but with guys like Jameis Winston, Brett Hundley, Dak Prescott and Garrett Grayson, this is an intriguing year for early-to-mid-round quarterback prospects. 

5. Forget about Jeremy Maclin

A lot of you aren't going to like this, but Maclin is bound to be overpaid in a major way after a breakout season on paper, and that's just not the type of investment the Eagles should be making right now.

I know he set or matched new career highs with 85 catches, 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns, but dig a little deeper and you see that he wasn't quite as good as the broad numbers indicate.

Maclin caught only 27 percent of the deep passes thrown his way, according to PFF, which ranked 28th among 35 qualified receivers. And Philly's quarterbacks threw a league-high seven interceptions on passes intended for him, per PFF. He caught less than 61 percent of the passes he was targeted on, which also ranked below average. 

And before you go blaming the quarterbacks completely for that, consider that guys like Jarius Wright (70.0), Pierre Garcon (68.7), Eric Decker (67.3), Kendall Wright (66.3), Robert Woods (65.3), DeSean Jackson (64.4) and teammate Jordan Matthews (68.4) all fared much better in that category despite their poor quarterback situations. 

And although he'll only be 27 entering 2015, consider that the guy has torn his ACL twice. He's a risky investment regardless of the circumstances. 

About those circumstances: The Eagles have used three of their six highest draft picks during the Kelly era on pass-catchers, so it's time to build around receivers Matthews and Josh Huff (second round and third round, 2014) as well as tight end Zach Ertz (second round, 2013). 

Yes, they might have the money to pay Maclin right now, but keep in mind that Foles, Boykin, Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks all have contracts scheduled to expire next offseason. All four of those guys are key cogs now, so they might need every penny they have in order to keep them around in 2016. 

Maclin is a good player, but this goes back to that whole thing about knowing when to move on. 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.


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