February 27, 2023
Rest assured that the Eagles are going to be a pretty good team in 2023.
Probably not franchise history-altering good like the 2022 bunch, but there’s no reason to assume that Philadelphia will regress to the demarcation line of parity that defines the modern NFL because most of the franchise quarterbacks in the league are on the other side of the bracket.
The NFC table is Jalen Hurts with Aaron Rodgers, who is aging, has already ordered the psychedelics, and could be crashing the AFC contingency in a few weeks, with perhaps Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins or Jared Goff.
Lamar Jackson can’t even get a seat on the AFC side because Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, and Justin Herbert get the calligraphy treatment.
Sleep soundly. The Eagles are going nowhere (barring the always stipulated injury bug) when it comes to relevancy in the NFC, something Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout for the organization from 2010-12, explained last week.
“I think if you’re where the Eagles are right now, you’re thought process going into a draft, it’s not the division anymore, it’s not even the conference,” Jeremiah, currently the NFL Network’s lead draft analyst, said on his pre-combine conference call. “It’s ‘What do we have to do to win a Super Bowl?’”
Eyeing the landscape right now, even with the acknowledgment that drastic changes are coming when the new league year starts on March 15, the quarterback is too good in Philadelphia and the organization is too smart to stop stacking good decisions for a significant drop-off.
Where there is likely going to be a regression to the mean is with things you can’t fully control like games lost to injury and quirky turnovers, the latter of which already started correcting itself in the back half of the 2022-23 campaign.
Couple that with the coaching staff attrition after an uncharacteristic year of calm waters there and the confirmation by Howie Roseman that compensatory picks in 2024 are on the horizon due to upcoming free-agency losses and you have the cocktail for a bit of a backslide.
How steep that inversion is going to be could be determined by four younger players penciled in for larger roles next season, a group that includes the Eagles’ top three draft picks in 2022: DT Jordan Davis, interior offensive lineman Cam Jurgens, and linebacker Nakobe Dean, along with undrafted gem Reed Blankenship at safety.
The Eagles were so deep and talented last season that they didn’t really need their top three picks to handle major roles with Jurgens and Dean specifically selected as luxury picks, the former being the umpteenth heir apparent for All-Pro center Jason Kelce and the latter a best-player-available scenario after surprisingly dropping into the third round.
“We look at the draft as kind of long-term decisions. We don't want to just draft for immediate needs,” said Roseman. “It would be great if that's what ends up happening with the right players. But we have gotten in problems here where we've said, ‘hey, we have a need at this position.’
“Let's draft the best guy at this position.”
Moving forward the Eagles will likely be able to bring back only one of their two free agents at both safety and linebacker, opening up starting spots for Blankenship and Dean, while Davis will slot into a major role with the expected attrition at DT, and Jurgens' short-term role will be defined by Kelce’s annual retirement decision that should be coming soon.
If Kelce returns, expect Jurgens to slide over to right guard as Isaac Seumalo walks for big money on the open market. If Kelce, who just welcomed his third daughter to the family last week, decides this is it, Jurgens will be tackling the unenviable task of replacing a legend and the Eagles will try to make it work with Seumalo.
“All of those guys are ready to play if we need them and they can play a variety of roles,” Roseman said. “So that doesn't mean that we can't bring back the veteran players at those positions. Some of those players at those positions are some of the greatest players not only to play on our team this year but in this franchise, and we'd love to have some of those guys back.
“But those guys are ready. They were ready to play this year. They just had great guys in front of them.”
The biggest look Eagles fans got at the rookies last season was Blankenship, the little-known Middle Tennessee State product who showed up, made the roster with his physicality, slowly usurped K’Von Wallace as the top backup behind the scenes, and then balled out like he was Kevin Byard (another Blue Raider safety) when injuries to C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Avonte Maddox provided an opportunity.
Blankenship played more than any rookie with 348 reps – not a large sample size but certainly not small – and was graded as the No. 8 safety in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.
Uncertainty surrounds Jurgens and Dean because we just didn’t get to see much of either other than both flashing the traits advertised in mop-up duty, Jurgens had the Kelce-like athleticism to get to the second level with ease, and Dean the natural instincts to avoid false steps while finding the football at off-ball LB.
Davis remains the biggest question mark for two reasons: expectations and conditioning.
A pure nose tackle, Davis was the type of player former defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon wanted in order to toggle between his 50 and 40 fronts with the intent of winning early downs in order to create known-pass situations on third downs. That’s an esoteric role for a No. 13 overall pick projected as a star due to the unique physical gifts that saw him run a sub-4.8 forty at nearly 350 pounds at last year’s combine.
Tying up blockers to let others make plays simply isn’t sexy, however, especially when the others combine for 70 sacks and you get none of them.
To their credit, the Eagles typically don’t care all that much about uneducated outside voices pushing out narratives built on the foundation of misinformation. Davis wasn’t brought here to be Javon Hargrave, he was brought to Philly so players like Hargrave didn’t have to play nose tackle.
The legit criticism when it comes to Davis was the phone call to Linval Joseph in mid-November.
Pre-high ankle sprain for Davis, things were actually improving with him garnering more playing time. The run support suffered so greatly in Davis’ absence that Roseman was okay moving toward ring-shopping veterans Joseph and Ndamukong Suh, who played a different role than Joseph and Davis, more 3-technique out to 4I and 5.
Gannon, who knew Joseph from their days together with Minnesota where the big man was a two-time Pro Bowl player, felt more comfortable with the veteran as the stakes got higher even when Davis returned from the injury.
Davis played only 224 snaps in the regular season (20% of the defensive total), and finished with 18 tackles and four quarterback pressures.
“Well, I think he went from a team with a crap ton of talent in college and went to a team in the NFL with a crap ton of talent, so they rolled all those guys through,” Jeremiah said. “They kind of divvied up those reps. Maybe that’s why you didn’t see as much pop or as much production from him. But, I mean, golly, they have such a deep group there, and it’s one of the reasons why they went to the Super Bowl.”
There will be no Joseph or Suh this time around and it’s likely that either Hargrave or Fletcher Cox might walk, so the shrink wrap is coming off Davis in 2023.
“I’m still bullish on him,” said Jeremiah. “I think he is going to be really, really good. Obviously, I think he is still learning how to use what’s in his body. It’s all there. He has all the ability in the world. I think he just needs to play. He gets out there and play more. I think you’ll see that start to emerge.”
As a whole, regression doesn’t mean the desired result can’t unfold for the Eagles.
The 2023 team is not going to set another franchise record for wins, get 70 sacks, or have a starting group where 81.8% earn some kind of postseason accolade.
However, consider that the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots won six Super Bowls and the best team the organization ever had, the 2007 16-0 team, came up a little short on the biggest stage, losing the Lombardi Trophy to the upstart New York Giants.
You’ve got to be really good to win the big game, but the stars also have to align and they were affixed correctly for the 2022 Eagles right up to the final 30 minutes of Super Bowl LVII.
Perhaps a reversal to 11 or 12 wins comes with a solid January again next year before the February ticket is punched and this time the defense gets the one stop it needs.
If so, the 2022 draft class will have a lot to do with it.
John McMullen is a contributor to PhillyVoice.com and covers the Eagles and the NFL for JAKIB Sports, SI's Eagles Today, and ESPN South Jersey. He’s also the co-host of “Birds 365,” a daily streaming show covering the Eagles and the NFL, and a daily contributor to the top-rated drive-time radio segment in South Jersey. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow John on Twitter: @JFMcMullen