June 29, 2018
This week, all week long, we took a 100 percent vitriolic look at each of the teams in the NFC East, in detail, while ignoring the positives. The first target on Monday was the mired-in-mediocrity Dallas Cowboys. On Tuesday, we roasted the garbage Giants. On Wednesday, we pointed out as always that the Redskins are owned by Dan Snyder. On Thursday, we poked a little fun at the Vikings.
Today, we'll finish off the series with the Philadelphia Eagles.
After watching Wentz in OTAs and minicamp, I would be shocked if he didn't start for the Eagles Week 1. Here's a collection of videos I shot of him from the first day of OTAs, until the final practice of the spring. There is noticeable improvement.
However, it's highly unlikely that Wentz will heal to the extent that he'll have full mobility early in the season, which is going to limit his ability to extend plays, a huge part of his game in his MVP caliber season a year ago.
Dr. David Chao, who has a good track record of analyzing video and opining on players' injuries from afar, wrote that Wentz looks good, but that the injury is far from behind him.
He demonstrates considerable arm strength by making the throws without help from his lower body. That works fine in drills, but he will need more for game situations.
Of course, running and cutting is the other part of his game.We have said from the beginning that a Week One return as a pocket passer is possible/probable but that Wentz will not be his usual self and a running threat until the middle of (or even late in) the season.
Here's a highlight reel from Wentz's 2017 season:
Is Wentz making those same plays without full mobility? On numbers 8, 6, 5, 3, 2, and 1 above, I highly doubt it. He's not going to be the same player he was last year, at least early in the season.
Including Wentz, the Eagles have at least 10 players recovering from surgery either during the season last year, or this offseason.
• RB Darren Sproles: Sproles tore his ACL Week 3 last season against the Giants. He missed voluntary OTAs, and didn't do much in mandatory minicamp.
• WR Alshon Jeffery: Jeffery played all season with a torn rotator cuff, and had surgery to repair it after the season. He missed the entirety of spring practices.
• OT Jason Peters: Peters tore an ACL and MCL Week 7 last season against the Redskins. Peters worked out a little in individual drills, and participated in group install (when the Eagles install their plays). He did not play during competitive team drills, but he should be ready to go for Week 1 of the 2018 season. Still, we're talking about a 320-plus pound, 36-year-old recovering from ACL surgery, even if he is a freak of nature.
• DE Brandon Graham: Graham had surgery for an ankle injury suffered late in the Eagles' regular season. Graham did not practice at all during the spring.
• DE Derek Barnett: Barnett had sports hernia surgery shortly after the Birds' season concluded. Barnett practiced in full in OTAs and minicamp. He's fine.
• DT Timmy Jernigan: Jernigan had surgery for a herniated disk in his back late in April. The recovery period is four-to-six months, which means that the likelihood is high that he will miss some time at the beginning of the season.
• LB Jordan Hicks: Hicks ruptured his Achilles Week 7 against the Redskins last season. He said in April that his recovery from surgery is ahead of schedule. Hicks worked out during individual drills during the spring.
• S Malcolm Jenkins had surgery on his thumb this offseason. He practiced in full in OTAs and minicamp.
• ST Chris Maragos: Maragos suffered a season-ending knee injury Week 6 against the Panthers last season. The progress of his recovery is presently unknown (by me, anyway). He did not practice at all during the spring.
One of the biggest reasons for the Eagles' success in 2017 was their ability to scheme for opposing defenses. The Eagles had an answer for their opponents' strengths and weaknesses seemingly in every game. For example, the Eagles took Von Miller, and basically used him against himself. Beyond their ability to scheme their opposition, they were able to mold their offense around Nick Foles in a short amount of time after Wentz was lost for the season. The job the Eagles' staff did last season cannot be overstated.
As noted by the Inquirer's Jeff McLane during the season last year, Doug Pederson entrusted his assistants to help with the offensive game plans.
The Eagles break down their offensive preparation to essentially three areas: base downs (first and second), third down and red zone, and split game planning among coach Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and wide receivers coach Mike Groh.
Pederson: Frank and myself do the base. Frank, myself and Mike Groh will spend time on third down. Then Frank, myself and DeFilippo will attack the red zone.
As Pederson explained, a heavy focus of the game plans were on third down plays, as well as the red zone.
In 2017, the Eagles scored touchdowns on 64.1 percent of their trips inside the red zone, which was second in the NFL. On third down, if you were to strip out the final three games of the regular season after Wentz went down, the Eagles converted 45.3 percent of their third downs, which would have been best in the NFL.
With Reich becoming the head coach in Indianapolis and DeFilippo becoming the offensive coordinator in Minnesota, the Eagles are losing half of their primary game plan brain trust. That's no small thing, in my view.
With the exception of Brandon Graham's strip sack and Tom Brady's butterfingers as a receiver, the New England Patriots owned the Eagles' defense in the Super Bowl. Here's what Brady and the Pats did to Jim Schwartz's D:
And they did all of the above with the Eagles' offense possessing the ball for long periods of time and giving the defense long breaks in between series. In fact, the Eagles had an eight-plus minute advantage in time of possession.
Worse, it all looked so easy. Look at how wide open Brady's receivers are:
The Eagles' defense had other shaky performances during the 2017 season as well (both Giants games, for example), and they bounced back from those. Obviously Tom Brady is kinda good, so certainly that's a big part of the equation in the Eagles' defense's poor performance. Still, that's the last time we all saw the Eagles' defense on a football field, and a lot of man hours by NFL personnel are going to be studying how to (a) stop the Eagles' offense, and (b) beat the Eagles' defense.
The target is going to be on their backs.
As their roster currently stands, the Eagles' depth is thin at a few spots, particularly defensive tackle and safety.
At DT, if/whenever Jernigan fully recovers from back surgery, the Eagles will have a great trio of defensive tackles in Fletcher Cox, Haloti Ngata, and Jernigan. They also have a few defensive ends in Graham and Bennett who like to slide inside and rush the passer against opposing offensive guards who are ill-equipped to handle their quickness.
Until Jernigan is healthy, however, the Eagles' defensive tackle rotation is a potential trouble spot. The primary backup is currently Destiny Vaeao, a player who the Eagles had inactive down the stretch last season, and doesn't offer any obvious plus traits. To be determined if second year pro Elijah Qualls can become a quality reserve capable of giving Cox and Ngata the occasion series off. It's noteworthy that the Eagles reportedly worked out some defensive tackles soon after the draft, but haven't signed anyone.
At safety, the Eagles have Chris Maragos, who is really only a special teams guy, and a handful of guys with no NFL experience. They could still sign Corey Graham, who was with the team a year ago, but for whatever reason, that hasn't happened yet. If the season started tomorrow and the Eagles lost either Malcolm Jenkins or Rodney McLeod, they'd be in big trouble on the back end.
The Eagles have acknowledged on multiple occasions that Jay Ajayi's knees are a long-term issue, and they went way out of their way to keep him fresh and rested last season (as well as in spring practices), despite Ajayi never having suffered any notable injuries since he joined the team. That "keep him fresh" approach is highly out of the ordinary for a player who just turned 25 years old and has only been in the league three years.
If I were a betting man, I would say that 2018 will be Ajayi's last season with the team, as he may become too rich for the Eagles' blood when he hits the free agent market after the 2018 season. If that read is correct, there's a good chance the Eagles are going to ride Ajayi this season, having little worry about the long-term health of his knees. This will be perfectly fine with Ajayi, by the way, who will want his stats to look as appealing as possible in a contract year.
Of course, if indeed the Eagles ride Ajayi as I suspect they will, there's added risk of him going down. A season ago, the Eagles had a one-two power punch in Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount that was highly effective in closing out games once the Eagles got a lead. With Blount having moved on to Detroit, the Eagles would be left with no other power backs other than Matt Jones, who isn't even a lock to make the roster and has had major fumbling issues in the past.
In Jason Kelce's speech at the Eagles' Super Bowl parade, he went player-by-player, noting all the criticisms they overcame during the 2017 season.
While obviously the best speech in Philadelphia history, there was a lot of truth in the criticisms Kelce noted. Jason Peters is old. Nelson Agholor couldn't catch. Lane Johnson couldn't lay off the juice, lol.
Anyway, the reality is that a hell of a lot of Eagles players overachieved last season. For example, the idea that Tom Brady threw for 500 yards in the Super Bowl, and Nick Foles went toe-to-toe with him for four quarters, and won, is still crazy to me. And Foles is just one of more than a dozen examples of Eagles players who played far better than expected last season. Conversely, almost none had disappointing seasons. Isaac Seumalo? Maybe Jordan Hicks? Is that it? One or two guys?
While the underdog Eagles made for an incredible story last season, a fair question to wonder is if their overachieving is sustainable.
Way back in the 'Dream Team' season in 2011, the Eagles had three corners in Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who were all thought of at the time as top corners in the league. However, they were all best suited to play on the outside, and slot receivers hurt the Eagles that season.
For the first time in a long time, the Eagles are flush with young talent at corner:
With only 58 combined starts in the NFL between them, the Eagles' corners are very inexperienced. By comparison, there are 75 defensive backs in the NFL with at least 58 starts on their own. In addition to a lack of experience overall, the Eagles don't have a corner on the roster who has primarily played in the slot in the NFL.
Of the Eagles' losses this offseason in free agency, the one that could potentially sting is Patrick Robinson, who was one of the best slot corners in the NFL in 2017.
The punter is Cameron Johnston, who is taking over for the retired Donnie Jones. He has never appeared in an NFL game. Sorry, I'm running out of legitimate nitpicks.
The last time a team repeated as NFC East division winners was when the Eagles did it in 2004. In each of the last 13 seasons, we've seen the previous year's division champion dethroned.
As the NFC East champs a year ago, the Eagles have to face the NFC North and NFC West champs. Those two teams are the Vikings and Rams. Here's who the NFC East teams have to face in those two floating games:
The Rams are by far the most talented team among that group of teams above, and while the Eagles own the Vikings' soul, Minny is certainly better than all the rest of the teams above, with perhaps the exception of the Packers with a healthy Aaron Rodgers.
Beyond just trying to repeat as division champs, the NFC is loaded. If you go back and look at the combined wins of every NFC playoff group since the NFL went to a six-team format in 1990, here's how many combined wins the six-pack of playoff qualifiers had each year, in descending order.
Those 69 combined wins are even more impressive considering the fact that four 10-win teams in 2016 did not make the playoffs in 2017. The top six teams in 2017 didn't simply beat up on a bunch of other crappy teams in the conference.
Getting back to the Super Bowl will not be easy.
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