Dream Team (Vince Young’s voice). Those 2 words might have been more damaging to the Eagles than anything else, as weird as it may sounds. They came into 2011 with massive expectations, yet failed to make the playoffs thanks to a 4-8 start. Everything that could have possibly gone wrong did go wrong. Lack of talent at linebacker made their new wide 9 scheme incredibly weak against the run. New defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was clueless as to how to get the most out of a talented secondary. Offensively, the Eagles turned the ball over 38 times, good for 2nd most in the NFL. The Eagles also went 2-5 in games decided by 7 points or fewer.
The good news for the Eagles, they finished last season on an impressive 4-0 run and turned into the team that no one wanted to have to face in the playoffs, outscoring teams 125-46 over that stretch. Juan Castillo made adjustments defensively that should carry into this season, when they will have a more talented bunch defensively, especially at linebacker.
Their +68 points differential was best among non-playoff teams by a mile (San Diego was closest at +29). In fact, only 8 teams finished with a higher points differential, which means the Eagles played like a 10 or 11 win team last year, a win total they could have had if they had an average record in close games. Turnovers and records in games decided by less than 7 tend to average out on a year to year basis and teams that turn the ball over 35 times or more in a season have on average 9.7 fewer turnovers the next season and win on average 1.61 more games, since 2002.
Add 1.61 wins to what this team’s points differential suggested their wins total should have been and you get an 11-12 win team. This year, they may be even more talented. Every year, one team goes from out of the playoffs to a 1st round bye, since 2003. The Eagles are definitely a candidate to do so, even in a tough NFC. They’re certainly plenty talented.
Believe or not, Michael Vick might be what’s keeping this team from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Despite having a ton of offensive supporting talent, he completed just 59.8% of his passes and just 18 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. He’s always capable of the big play, as shown by his 7.8 YPA, and Andy Reid has made him look better than he is over the past two seasons. However, he’s only once gone over 60% completion, only twice gone over 7.2 YPA, and only once had a TD:INT ratio of 2:1 or higher in his career. He’s also fumble prone.
Of course, he’s known for his rushing ability, and he’s a major threat on the ground, but he just turned 32 years old and, as you can see with running backs and wide receivers, that’s around the age when athletic abilities start to decline steadily. Given his reliance on his legs, not just to pick up yards on the ground, but to open things up in the passing game, he might not age very well.
He’s not a bad quarterback at all. I just think he’s always been overrated. He’s only ever won 2 playoff games in his career and he’s now going into his 10th season. One other major problem with him is that he’s never out there for all 16 games, only doing so once in his career. He’s missed 7 games in the last 2 seasons and you have to figure he’ll miss another 2 or 3 this year.
In his absence, Mike Kafka is the favorite to start. Kafka is unproven and hasn’t really impressed much in limited action since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010. He’s 11 for 16 for 107 yards, no touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in his career. He spent this offseason trying to improve his arm strength and he’s reportedly been wowing in offseason practice, so we’ll have to see. Eagles fans shouldn’t feel comfortable with Kafka likely having to start a couple games, which is why I think the Eagles should trade for a proven guy like Colt McCoy, before Training Camp.
One great thing Michael Vick has done for the Eagles has been how he’s opened things up for LeSean McCoy, as defenses have to fear Vick taking off himself. In the last 2 seasons, McCoy has carried the ball 375 times for 1954 yards (5.2 YPC) and 21 touchdowns in 24 games with Michael Vick and 105 times for 435 yards (4.1) and 3 touchdowns in 6 games without him. This isn’t to say McCoy isn’t talented. He really is. But there’s no denying that having a healthy Michael Vick under center helps McCoy, the way Vince Young helped Chris Johnson in Tennessee and Tim Tebow helped Willis McGahee last season in Denver.
On to McCoy himself, he got a 45 million dollar extension over 5 years this offseason and deserves every penny of it. He’s got the potential to be like Brian Westbrook, only healthier and maybe even more talented. He’s so good that he even makes Andy Reid actually run the football. In addition to what he does on the ground, he’s caught 116 passes for 907 yards and 5 touchdowns in the last 2 seasons. He’s the whole package.
If you can nitpick the Eagles’ running backs at all, it’s their depth. As is often the case with a team that has a legitimate feature back, they have minimal depth behind him, because it’s not really needed, so if injuries strike, they could be in trouble. If anything were to happen to McCoy, they would likely split carries between Dion Lewis and Chris Polk. Lewis was a 5th round pick in 2011, while Polk was an undrafted free agent this year, though it was a major surprise when he fell out of the draft. The Eagles reportedly had a 4th round grade on him. Lewis, meanwhile, rushed for 102 yards on 23 carries last year in one start when McCoy was out last year, but he’s still not a proven commodity.
The Eagles have two incredibly talented wide receivers in DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, but neither managed 1000 yards last year for different reasons. Jackson was unhappy with his contract situation all year and he let it affect him on the field. Now that he’s been paid, that shouldn’t be a problem, though it’s worth noting that he is a pretty mercurial player so it could be something else bothering him this year and affecting his game.
Maclin, meanwhile, dealt with injury problems all year. He got off to a slow start because he missed a lot of time in the offseason with a mysterious illness and then once he finally got going again, he got hurt, missed 3 games and was less than 100% for several others. However, both were still close to 1000 yards, with 961 for Jackson and 859 for Maclin.
Jackson has a pair of 1000 yard seasons in his career and while Maclin doesn’t have one, he was on pace for one last season before missing 3 games even with all of the problems he was having. He’s having a very strong offseason, with Eagles coaches going as far as to name him as someone who could make his 1st Pro Bowl this year. Maclin and Jackson could easily both have 1000 yard seasons.
Their depth at the position is very good as well. Jason Avant is one of the best slot receivers in the league with 52 catches for 679 yards and a touchdown last season, after 51/573/1 in 2010 and 41/587/3 in 2009. Riley Cooper had 13 catches for 240 yards and 1 touchdown in 3 starts in place of Maclin last year, solid stats, but he could be pushed for the #4 job in Training Camp by 6th round rookie Marvin McNutt, widely considered a steal in the 6th round. McNutt is having a strong offseason reportedly.
Tight end Brent Celek is a good pass catcher as well. After a down year in 2010, Celek caught 62 passes for 811 yards and 5 touchdowns last year. Some of that production increase has to do with the struggles of the receivers on the outside, but he likely won’t repeat the mere 42 catches for 511 yards and 4 touchdowns he had in 2010. Due to struggles on the offensive line, Celek had to stay back and block more than usual in 2010, which he won’t have to do anymore now that their offensive line has been improved (more on that later). Remember, he did have 76 catches for 971 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2009, so he should have another strong year.
Add in LeSean McCoy’s pass catching abilities and Michael Vick has tons of weapons around him. That’s why I say Vick is what’s holding them back a little bit. He’s a solid quarterback, but if they had a true top-10 quarterback, this would be an offense almost on the level of the Packers or Patriots or Saints or Lions. Still, they have an above average offense. I’ll go into more detail on that after I talk about their offensive line, another strong group.
I mentioned the Eagles had a very poor offensive line in 2010, but that’s not the case anymore. Why? Well, they added a few players, but the biggest difference between 2010 and 2011 was the scheme and the coaching of legendary offensive line coach Howard Mudd. In 2010, they allowed 49 sacks. In 2011, they allowed 32 and they were ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked run blocking team. There were 3 additions upfront between 2010 and 2011, but they were hardly proven players before they came to Mudd’s system.
The biggest example of that was left guard Evan Mathis. Mathis was a relative no name in the 2010 offseason. He was signed to a 1 million dollar contract over 1 year by the Eagles after 22 starts in his career in Cincinnati as a borderline starter. However, he ended up being ProFootballFocus’ top rated guard last season with a 34.6 rating.
This offseason he was in much more demand as a free agent before resigning with the Eagles for 25 million over 5 years. He doesn’t have the cleanest injury history in the past and he’s a one year wonder, but with Howard Mudd as the offensive line coach, he should have a very good year once again, barring a major injury.
Their other two additions up front last offseason were two rookies, Jason Kelce and Danny Watkins. Neither one had nearly as good of a season as Mathis. Watkins graded out with a -8.4, while Kelce graded out with a -14.6, worst among all centers in the league. Watkins was a 1st round pick in 2011 so he could definitely bounce back this year. Kelce, meanwhile, was thought much more lowly going in the 6th round so he might not bounce back. Center could be a position of need for the Eagles this offseason.
On the outside, the Eagles had two returning players from the 2010 season and both were much, much better with Mudd. Todd Herremans really impressed in his first season at right tackle, after spending most of his career at guard. Protecting the left handed Vick’s blindside, Herremans graded out with a 2.4 rating, with 4 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, 37 quarterback pressures, and 7 penalties.
The biggest single improvement on the offensive line from 2010 to 2011 was Jason Peters. Peters, a very overrated player in Buffalo, had really struggled in his 1st couple of years in Philadelphia after the Eagles gave up a 1st round pick for him in the 2009 NFL Draft. However, last year, he finally made good on his upside and athletic gifts, grading out as the top offensive tackle overall with a 27.6 rating. He allowed just 3 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, 17 quarterback pressures, and committed 7 penalties.
Unfortunately, Peters tore his Achilles this offseason. He will miss the entirety of the 2012 season, a major, major loss for the Eagles. They signed Demetress Bell (once Demetrius Bell), who was one of the top offensive tackles available this offseason, but it was a weak offensive tackle free agent class so that doesn’t mean much. He’s a very talented player when healthy, but he has missed 8 or more games 3 in of his 4 seasons in the NFL.
In 401 snaps (roughly 6 ½ games) last season, he allowed just 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit, and 7 quarterback pressures on the blindside at left tackle in Buffalo, which is very impressive. Now in Mudd’s system, he could have a very good season, but that’s assuming he can stay healthy. If he can’t, King Dunlap, would play at left tackle. Mudd is a very good offensive line coach (in case you couldn’t tell from me saying that like 12 times), but he’s not a miracle worker so they’re probably in trouble if Dunlap has to play a lot.
I know the left side isn’t the blindside in Philadelphia with Michael Vick, but it will still be a position of weakness. Besides, Vick always seems to miss a few games and Mike Kafka is right handed. If Bell and Vick miss the same game, Kafka will have his blindside protected by King Dunlap, which won’t help an already unproven and inexperienced quarterback. All this being said, they have a very solid group up front and (for the 15th time) they’ll very well coached.
They ranked 8th in points per game last year with 24.8 points per game last year and that was despite down years from Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson and despite 38 turnovers, a number that should be lower this season. Green Bay, New England, New Orleans, and Detroit all averaged 29.6 or more points per game last year, but no one else averaged more than 25.4. The Eagles, who averaged 24.8 points per game last year, could average in the 26 range this year. They could easily have a borderline top-5 offense this year, but they aren’t that top 4 level because they lack an elite quarterback.
While they ranked 8th offensively last year, they also ranked 10th defensively allowing 20.5 points per game. They had a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense last year even with everything going wrong. With better luck, this is a very good team. The talent is there. Defensively, they should be even better this season.
Juan Castillo was in his 1st season as defensive coordinator last year, after spending his entire career working with the offensive line. He was in over his head for most of the season, but figured things out later in the season. In their final 4 games, they allowed just 11.5 points per game, thanks to schematic changes which I’ll get into later. They also have a very good defensive line coach in Jim Washburn, part of the reason why they had 50 sacks last year, tied for most in the league, including 17 in their final 4 games.
I mentioned the 50 sacks. They have plenty of talent, but as is the case with Howard Mudd on the offensive side, you need to mention Jim Washburn when you talk about this defensive line. He’s had success everywhere he’s gone and no one else has used the wide 9 scheme as effectively as him. They could even have more sacks this season.
They used a 1st round pick on Fletcher Cox and a 2nd round pick on Vinny Curry, two good rush passers who are good fits for their scheme. Both should have situational roles this season. They also have Brandon Graham coming back from injury. The 13th overall pick in 2010, Graham hasn’t done much so far in his career thanks to injuries and weight issues, but he’s reportedly having a very good offseason and given that he could be cut with another bad year, it appears the light is finally on with him.
Those 3 players will be all good rotational players, but it starts with their starters, obviously, even though they use so much rotation. Their pass rush starts outside with defensive ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole. Babin and Cole combined for 29 sacks on their own last season, by far the most of any teammates. In fact, that was more sacks than the Titans or Buccaneers had as an entire team last season and the same amount that the Bills, Packers, Colts, and Chiefs had.
Babin was a 1st round pick bust going into the 2010 season, but Jim Washburn has turned him into one of the best pass rushers in the league. In Tennessee in 2010, where Washburn was the defensive line coach, Babin had 12.5 sacks and last year he had 18 sacks. He also had 12 quarterback hits and 37 quarterback pressures on 427 pass rushes (15.7%). He might not be quite that good this season, but he’s still a very good pass rusher and an incredible fit in Jim Washburn’s scheme so he should have another very strong season.
Cole, meanwhile, has been good with and without Washburn in his career. He’s not a big name, but he’s one of the most underrated players in the league. He has 9+ sacks in each of the last 5 seasons and 10+ in 4 of the last 5 seasons. Over that time period, he has 55 sacks. In his last 6 seasons, he has 63 sacks. Last season, he had 11 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 44 quarterback pressures on 375 pass rush snaps. His 17.9% sack/hit/pressure rate was actually better than Babin’s. That was actually tops in the league last year and considering he ranks 7th over the last 3 years with a 12.3% ratio, that’s not a fluke. For reference, Babin is 3rd with a 12.6% ratio. This duo will be very productive again in 2011, barring injury.
They have another productive pass rusher at defensive tackle in Cullen Jenkins. Jenkins had 6 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 25 quarterback pressures on 400 pass rush snaps, 9.8%. His 8.0% ratio is 4th at his position over the last 3 years. The Eagles have 3 players who are among the best pass rushers at their respective positions and a defensive line coach who specializes at getting to the quarterback. They’ll have an amazing pass rush once again this season.
The 4th starter on the defensive line is Mike Patterson. Patterson had a good season last year as well. It wasn’t on the level of Babin, Cole, or Jenkins, but he finished with a 7.0 rating, especially impressive since it looked like he might not play at all after having a seizure in Training Camp. He had brain surgery this offseason to remove an AVM, but he should be ready for Training Camp. He’s a tough guy and a good player.
Their top reserve at defensive tackle last year was Derek Landri, a very underrated player. Landri, despite only playing 355 snaps, graded out with a whopping 22.0 rating on ProFootballFocus. He was very good against the run and had 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures on 190 pass rush snaps (10.5%). Jenkins, Patterson, Cox, and Landri will rotate at defensive tackle, while Babin, Cole, Curry, and Graham will do the same at defensive end. There’s talent everywhere and they’ll have one of, if not the best pass rushes in the league because of it.
One thing this defense line was weak against last year was the run. They ranked 19th with 4.4 YPC allowed. The wide 9 scheme is weak against the run naturally, but the addition of Fletcher Cox should help. They also got better against the run as the season went on. In addition, they added talent at linebacker this offseason, a major position of weakness last season, which will also help against the run.
The biggest addition at linebacker this offseason was DeMeco Ryans. Ryans was never a good fit in Houston’s 3-4 last season so they traded him to Philadelphia. Back in a 4-3, he should regain his Pro Bowl form. He missed 10 games with injury in 2010, but in 2009, his last full season in a 4-3, he had a 7.9 rating and in 2008 he had a 9.9. That’s the type of play the Eagles can expect from him this year, which makes him one of the better middle linebackers in the league. That’ll be much better than the Jamar Chaney/Casey Matthews combo they had there last year. Both of those two had ratings below -10.
Another new starter in the linebacking corps is 2nd round rookie Mychal Kendricks. He may just be a rookie, but he too should be an upgrade. The only returning starter in the bunch is Jamar Chaney, who is expected to beat out incumbent Brian Rolle on the weak side. That will be Chaney’s 3rd different position in his 3 year career. He had a -10.0 rating last year at strong side and middle linebacker, but he was a little bit better as a rookie. Still, he should be the weak link of the linebacking group. Overall, this is an upgraded group over last season.
Cornerback could technically be seen as upgraded group over last season as well. Yes, they lost Asante Samuel, one of the top coverage cornerbacks in the league last year. However, Nnamdi Asomugha, who managed a -7.2 rating last year, played much better down the stretch last season once Castillo stopped using him as a zone coverage cornerback. He’s much better in man coverage so he could have a bounce back year this year. I don’t need to tell you how important that would be to this defense as he’s one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league when he’s right.
Opposite him, Dominique Rodgers Cromartie will move into the starting lineup in place of Asante Samuel. Cromartie was miscast in the slot last year and he’s a much better fit on the outside. He should be able to play pretty well on the outside this year, especially since he’ll be motivated in a contract year. When motivated, he can be an above average cornerback. He was a Pro Bowler in 2009. The motivation has just always been lacking since, in part because he’s been on some bad teams. On a better team, in a contract year, he could have a strong year.
On the slot, two more natural fits will compete for the job. Joselio Hanson will compete with 4th round rookie Brandon Boykin. Boykin was a steal in the 4th round and could have gone in the 1st or 2nd round if he wasn’t 5-9. His lack of height won’t be nearly as big of a deal in the slot and he has very good pure coverage abilities. Hanson, meanwhile, played alright as their 4th cornerback last year. Either way, their cornerbacks make more sense this season. There aren’t any guys playing out of place, even if the loss of Asante Samuel hurts talent wise. Besides, this team was 1st against the pass in the last 4 games last season. Their amazing pass rush obviously helps.
Things are a little bleaker at safety, but they could be better than last year. Nate Allen will be one starter. The 2010 2nd round pick struggled last year thanks to injuries, but he’s better now and could have a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league. Meanwhile, at the other safety spot, 2011 2nd round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett lost his starting job last year as a rookie to veteran Kurt Coleman. Coleman will probably start the season as the starter this year, unless Jarrett has an amazing camp. He’s a pretty mediocre player though, so they’ll really be hoping Jarrett can step up. That being said, they have a good secondary on what should be a good defense overall. They were 10th last year and should be improved this year with added talent and better things going on schematically.
People like to make fun of him because of his weight and his weaknesses in timeout and clock management, but Andy Reid is one of the better Head Coaches in the NFL, even if everyone is always calling for him to be fired. Reid is 126-81 in his career and is the longest tenured Head Coach in the NFL. He’s only had 2 losing seasons in 12 years.
He made Donovan McNabb look better than he was for years. It’s no coincidence McNabb’s career fell off a cliff once the Eagles traded him. Now, he’s making Michael Vick look like a better passer than he is. Meanwhile, he’s made AJ Feeley and Kevin Kolb look enticing enough that teams gave away 2nd round picks for the two backups, only to watch them struggle in their new homes.
Reid has always had very good assistant coaches and this year is no different. I’ve already gone on and on about Howard Mudd and Jim Washburn, but they really are among the best position coaches in the NFL. Juan Castillo is no Jim Johnson defensively, but he seemed to finally figure things out late last year. Before that, he was a good offensive line coach, which is why Reid kept him on staff, albeit in a different and possibly head scratching role.
Every year since 2003, one team goes from out of the playoffs to having a 1st round bye. The Eagles seem to be a natural fit as that team this year. Even last year, with everything going wrong, they finished the season on a 4 game winning streak, had a strong points differential, had a top 10 offense and a top 10 defense, and were the one team that everyone hoped wouldn’t make the playoffs because they could have done some real damage.
With likely fewer turnovers this year and better luck in close games, the Eagles should improve this year. They should also play up to their talent level, which they didn’t do last year. They made some additions and might be even more talented than the so called Dream Team they were last year. 12 or so wins and a 1st round bye is not a stretch at all.
Their +68 points differential was best among non-playoff teams by a mile (San Diego was closest at +29) and 9th best overall. They played like a 10 or 11 win team last year, a win total they could have had if they had an average record in close games. Add 1.61 wins as they regress to the norm turnovers wise and you get an 11-12 win team. This year, they may be even more talented than that.
They certainly have a tough division and 6 tough divisional games, but very good teams beat good teams and I think the Eagles are the best team in this division. They could easily go 4-2 or 5-1 in that tough division. Outside the division, they host Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta, Carolina, and Cincinnati. Carolina and Cincinnati are easier games and while those other 3 are tough, the Eagles can still go 2-1 in those 3 games, given that they’re at home and really talented. They also go to Cleveland, Arizona, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay. Pittsburgh and New Orleans will be tough games, but those other 3 are very, very winnable. 12-4 is definitely in reach for this very talented team.
Projection: 12-4 1st in NFC East