The Eagles come into 2017 with a kind of shy confidence. An offseason that was, for once, fairly settled, saw investment throughout the offense, and while there is always turnover on an NFL roster, the Eagles have the sort of team that could surprise a few people this season.
The 2016 Eagles started off 3-0, with a thrashing of the Steelers in Week 3 lifting everyone’s hopes sky-high. Those hopes wouldn’t last long, but with rookie Carson Wentz under center the Eagles were more impressive offensively than anyone thought they would be. While FootballOutsiders ranked them just 25th in passing DVOA, Wentz proved more NFL-ready than most experts had forecast. He completed 62.4% of his passes for 3,782 yards with 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. It may not look like the most amazing rookie season, but given what went on in Los Angeles it was a godsend.
Elsewhere on the Eagles team, Their stable of running backs all looked good, with Ryan Mathews leading the way with 661 yards and 4.3 yards a carry, however the lack of talent at receiver (outside of Jordan Matthews) was a real problem. Wentz ended up leaning on tight end Zach Ertz and running back Darren Sproles for a lot of his throws.
On defense, Fletcher Cox was a star, picking up 6.5 sacks and 14 QB hits. Brandon Graham was a monster too, and while his sack total was shockingly low (5.5), he led the team with 22 QB hits and was a terror off the edge and anchored a strong pass defense.
Offseason additions & losses
|Torrey Smith, WR||Nolan Carroll, CB|
|Alshon Jeffery, WR||Leodis McKelvin, CB|
|Chance Warmack, G||Connor Barwin, DE/OLB|
|Chris Long, DE||Bennie Logan, DT|
|LeGarrette Blount, RB||Allen Barbre, G|
|Patrick Robinson, CB|
|Stefen Wisniewski, C/G|
|Timmy Jernigan, DT|
|Derek Barnett, DE (Draft)|
The Eagles got a lot better at wide receiver during free agency. It was a desperate need and they addressed it without crippling their cap too by adding Torrey Smith on a non-guaranteed deal, and by bringing Alshon Jeffery in on a one-year deal. Both have performed well in the past but injuries and poor teams have held them back.
They are the sort of players Carson Wentz needs to take the next step in his development. Smith is a burner who can take the top off any defense, and while Jeffery can go deep too, his biggest asset is an insane catch radius than makes it very hard to cover. Adding these two to Matthews, Ertz, and Sproles gives him the weapons to run basically any passing play imaginable.
The loss of Connor Barwin, who signed a free agent deal with the Rams, is going to hurt. He was a do-it-all outside linebacker and his release was a bit of a head-scratcher at the time. Bringing in Chris Long helps to cancel out some of the losses, but he racked up 30 TFLs, 26.5 sacks, and 47 QB hits over the last three seasons. Not having that, plus his underrated coverage skills, is a blow.
How LeGarrette Blount fits into the backfield will be interesting to watch develop. He is a thumper of a running back, and yet too good to be saved just for short-yardage downs. He and Ryan Mathews seem to occupy the same space in this team, and it may be that one will go before the end of training camp.
|1||@ Washington Redskins|
|2||@ Kansas City Chiefs|
|3||New York Giants|
|4||@ Los Angeles Chargers|
|6||@ Carolina Panthers|
|8||San Francisco 49ers|
|11||@ Dallas Cowboys|
|13||@ Seattle Seahawks|
|14||@ Los Angeles Rams|
|15||@ New York Giants|
The NFC East is, as ever, likely to be incredibly close and unpredictable. But opening with three road games and hosting the Giants tough defense is not a nice way to start your season.
Their strength of schedule game against Chicago is at home and they should win, but in Carolina they face an opponent who could be very tough. Facing the AFC West and NFC West is no easy thing, and in the end their tough slate (T-10th for strength of schedule) could really hamper their playoff hopes.
Three players to watch
Every year a few players take a step forward and become key contributors to their team. Here are our picks for those on the Eagles who could stand out in 2017.
Derek Barnett, Defensive End
The Eagles first round pick, at #14, has been getting rave reviews during training camp, not from his coaches but from those trying to block him.
“Barnett man, I mean he’s probably got the most bend on the team,” RT Lane Johnson said to local radio last week. “You talk about the guys like the Von Miller’s, the Khalil Mack’s that can really get the edge. One good thing about him is, he works hard. So I’m very excited about what we have.
“He’s very blessed with the bend,” Johnson said. “There’s a whole lot of guys who can’t bend like him, so he’s very fortunate from that standpoint. So if the tackle isn’t on his technique, he’s gonna get beat. So as he progresses, as he gets older, he’s gonna get stronger and develop there. He’s only, what, 20, 21 years old? So, he’s got a very bright future ahead of him.”
Barnett broke Tennessee’s sack record before leaving for the NFL, a record previously held by NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White. A history like that brings a lot of expectations, and while his athleticism was found a little wanting in the draft, his technique was unparalleled. It’s that technique, along with an ever-improving instinct for the ball, that makes Barnett potentially the best player on this defense already. There are some very good tackles on the schedule for Philly.
Chance Warmack, Guard
The former first round pick didn’t work out in Tennessee. His strength and size were all very good, but his foot speed and smarts were found out. A new team, and one who has gotten good production from another monstrous guard in Brandon Brooks, could do wonders for Warmack’s career. If the Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland can bring even half of the dominance we saw at Alabama out of Warmack then they will have a very good player on their hands.
Carson Wentz, Quarterback
Ok, this one is cheating a little bit, but all eyes will be on Wentz this year to see if he can be the kind of quarterback the Eagles paid for last year. The expectation is that his reading of defenses and grasp on the playbook improves, and with better receivers around him he can open himself up a little more. It’s reasonable to expect 25+ touchdowns and 10-12 interceptions from him this year. If he limits mistakes and is willing to take what the defense gives him a little more often he could put in the kind of season that lifts the Eagles into the playoffs, if he can’t then the Eagles will need to start thinking up a plan B.
There are very few easy games on the Eagles roster, and they will need to avoid injury to key players if they want to compete with three strong NFC East rivals. I have their range between five and nine wins. San Francisco, Chicago, and the Rams are the most obvious wins on their schedule, and I suspect they will split with the Giants and Redskins too. However Dallas, the AFC West, Carolina, Seattle, and Arizona are very tricky, and with the Panthers and Seahawks being road games it’s tricky to see them as wins. At least, on last year’s performance…
The Eagles 2016 defense was strong, ranking fourth in DVOA, and it could be even better this season if all the pieces fall right. If that happens, along with some improvements from the passing game, then the Eagles could easily outperform my expectations and challenge for the division.
However, the most likely outcome of this season is a wildcard challenge that, I think, will ultimately fall short. There is enough about this team for 2018 to be their year though, especially having picked up Sidney Jones in the draft. He is likely to miss all of this season, but he was one of the most highly-touted corners in a deep class, and pairing him next season with a good pass rush could be dominant.
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