September 08, 2021
The Eagles open their 2021 season — the first of the Nick Sirianni Era — on Sunday in Atlanta against the Falcons. As we do each week of the NFL season, we'll have five over/unders for that Week 1 matchup coming on Saturday. But on Tuesday we published the first half of our season-long over/unders, covering everything from Jalen Hurts to the Eagles defense and even that first-round pick they're hoping to get from the Colts.
Today, we'll take a look at five other numbers to watch for this season regarding the Eagles, who have a lot of question marks up and down the roster that need to turned into exclamation marks — or at least periods — by the end of the season as Howie Roseman and Co. continue to figure out what exactly this team is going to be moving forward.
Owner Jeffrey Lurie said this was a team in transition, and we're about to see what that means starting on Sunday. But what it means right now is that not many people know much of anything about this team — or how good it might be. And that's kind of fun, at least for now. It could be another story once the games begin.
Before getting into the specifics of Sunday's game, let's continue to take the big-picture view for one more day and look at five more over/unders for the 2021 Eagles season...
[A quick reminder for those new to our over/unders: Unless explicitly stated otherwise, these are my own numbers based on how I think the players/teams will perform on Sunday — and the advice that follows is where I would put my money if I had to. Most are not actual numbers you can bet on, but we'll let you know when they are.]
Sometimes things work out nicely, like Miles Sanders' rushing total over at FanDuel being set right above 1,000 yards, which pretty much makes this one, "Is Miles Sanders' a thousand-yard rusher?"
In Year 1, it certainly looked like he was trending that way, finishing in the conversation for Rookie of the Year while racking up 1,327 yards from scrimmage, including 818 on the ground. In Year 2, Sanders took a bit of a step back from a total yards perspective, with that number dropping to 1,064 total yards. It was a season many were referring to as a "down year" for the Penn State product. But, despite playing in four fewer games, Sanders rushing total actually improved — and that came in a year of QB dysfunction and a makeshift offensive line that was different pretty much every single week.
His rushing total climbed to 867 yards, taking his per game average from 51.1 rushing yards to 72.3 and his yards per carry from 4.6 to 5.3. Where Sanders' production took the biggest hit was in the receiving game, where he dropped from 509 yards on 50 receptions, both very impressive numbers for a running back, to 28 receptions for 197 yards. And sure, some of that is on the poor QB play, but anyone who watched Sanders last season knew something wasn't right in that aspect of his game, an area the team is hoping they've fixed by this point.
That being said, we're only talking about his rushing total here. And if he's able to stay healthy — and the Eagles are as committed* to the run as I'm expecting them to be — there's absolutely no reason to think that Sanders' can't cross the thousand-yard mark on the ground this season. In fact, if he plays the full season, thanks to the added game, he'll only need to average 58.9 rushing yards per game, well below his average from a "down year" in 2020.
In 2020, the Eagles were one of the worst teams in the NFL in turnover differential, finishing fourth from the bottom with a -10 (19 takeaways, 29 giveaways). A whopping 20 of those turnovers were interceptions, second only to the Broncos' 23 interceptions. That's not going to get the job done — and as it turns out, it didn't. The Eagles went 4-11-1, had the second worst point differential in the NFC, and finished dead last in the worst division in the NFL.
Will they be better in 2021? Conventional wisdom says they can't be much worse, and despite having a relatively unproven quarterback and a first-time head coach, there's reason to believe the Eagles can be improved in this area. For starters, as mentioned above, I believe this team is going to be running the ball slightly more than it did a year ago, which will hopefully keep Jalen Hurts' interception numbers down. I also think the defense will be better. That should help keep the team in more games than a year ago and prevent that late-game pass-heavy action that can lead to a lot of turnovers.
What this could really come down to, however, is just how good the Eagles are at forcing turnovers, something that was their bread and butter during the Super Bowl season but has been a weakness since. After finishing fourth in the NFL in takeaways in 2017, the Birds have finished 22nd, 19th and 22nd, respectively, each of the last three seasons. If that number doesn't improve, it's going to be hard for them to come away on the positive end of the turnover differential.
Fortunately for Philly, they were so bad last year that they don't have to get anywhere close to breaking even to be better than 2020. And they don't even really have to do that to beat this number. If the Eagles can just finish in the middle of the pack in both giveaways and takeaways, instead of 30th and 22nd, they'll be fine. In the three games that Hurts started and finished for the Birds last season (small sample size, obviously), the team turned the ball over four times, but posted six takeaways. That's certainly a reason for hope here.
If you're new to our over/unders, this might be a little confusing, but don't worry, it's actually not. All I'm really asking here is whether or not Dallas Goedert will have more targets than Zach Ertz. And a month ago, writing about this topic probably wouldn't have even been possible, with it appearing to be a foregone conclusion that Ertz would be playing elsewhere in 2021 and Goedert would be inking a longterm contract extension to take over as TE1. But after failing to find a trade partner — and mending some relationships — the team is brining Ertz back for at least one more year as both he and Goedert are entering the season in the final year of their contracts. Interestingly enough, the most recent trade rumors involved Goedert, not Ertz, but that doesn't really matter much now as Ertz said he's happy to be back in Philly and is hoping to retire here, and that he doesn't view he and his younger counterpart as competitors.
But that's exactly what we're turning them into here, a competition. So, who will it be? Will Ertz continue to be the top option at the position, or will we finally see the changing of the guard that's been foretold by ancient prophecy for at least the last three years?
Honestly, after that emotional press conference that Ertz gave last week solidifying his commitment to the Eagles — and theirs to him — it's starting to feel like it could be Ertz who again leads the tight ends in targets. Because even last year, with Goedert posting 10 more receptions than Ertz (both played in 11 games), it was actually the veteran who finished with more targets, 72-65. And that was Ertz's worst season ever — and he was playing through an ankle injury that he said was "friggin' debilitating at times." And he was still posting numbers similar to Goedert's.
Sure, the Wentz-Ertz connection is gone, but there's every reason to believe that Ertz will remain a big part of the Eagles offense now that he's back (and healthy). Of course, there's always a chance that the Eagles struggle to start the season and wind up trading one of these guys before the trade deadline, in which case...
But for now, we're going to go with Ertz remaining the Eagles most-targeted tight end.
In his first season with the Eagles after signing a massing contract extension following a trade from the Lions, Darius Slay was a bit of a disappointment for the Eagles, finishing with just a single interception. According to Pro Football Focus, Slay allowed 58 receptions on 75 targets, which isn't terrible considering he was typically matching up against the opponent's best receiver. But it's also not great, and why PFF gave Slay a middle-of-the-road grade of 62.9 for the season, good for 56th out of the 121 corners they graded. (Hey, at least it's not Avonte Maddox bad, who finished dead last with an overall grade of 37.8. 😬)
The thing with cornerbacks is that it's often one of those positions where the less you hear a player's name in a given game, the better they're probably playing — except when it comes to interceptions. And last year, we didn't hear Slay's name that often in the turnover department, as he finished without multiple interceptions for the first time since his rookie season in 2013. It's also a long way from his personal best of eight interceptions back in the 2017 season.
Will Slay be more productive in that department in 2021? Well, there isn't much room for him to go down, so we're going to bet that a new number and a new cornerback playing opposite him in Steven Nelson will only help the veteran CB this season. Add in the fact that the Eagles defensive line is once again looking like it can force some bad throws from opposing quarterbacks, and it actually might not take too long for Slay to get multiple picks. After just one last year, it seems like this could be a game of averages thing where he winds up with more than a few this time around.
Essentially, we want to know if the Eagles will finish in the bottom or top half of the division, with a bet on the over meaning they're expected to finish in third or fourth place, which is currently where the odds suggest they'll finish. Here's a look at the Birds' division specials over at FanDuel.
|Eagles to finish in...||Odds|
As you can see, the further down in the standings you go, the more likely you are to find the Eagles. That plays out in the overall division odds as well, as the Birds have the worst odds of any of the four teams to win the division.
That being said — and despite the fact that I think they finish with about six wins this season — I don't think the Eagles will finish last in the NFC East. They're a team that I think (read: hope) is going to get better as the season goes on, and with almost all of their division matchups coming in quick succession at the end of the year with a late-season bye mixed in, they could be in a prime position to take a few of those games, especially the ones against Washington and New York. Throw in a game against the Jets and the Birds could actually build some momentum down the stretch that helps them pass the other two teams expected to be chasing the Cowboys this season.
However, I'm still taking the over here, because I think they're more likely to finish in fourth than second, but I think third might be the sweet spot for this Eagles team. While that's not what most fans are hoping for at the start of a new season, it would be an improvement from the year before. And as I've written previously and will say here again, it's all about how the Eagles are playing down the stretch and whether or not they're a better football team than they are in Week 1. If they win four of their last seven games (even if they come against poor opponents), that has to be encouraging for the fan base, even if it still ends with a third-place finish in the division.
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