Philadelphia Eagles 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Eagles made the head coaching splash of last off-season, hiring supposed offensive mastermind Chip Kelly from the University of Oregon. There was no doubt that Kelly’s offenses were explosive and revolutionary on the collegiate level, but it still remained to be seen whether or not that could translate to the NFL level. Things started out sluggish, but that was mostly because Michael Vick was the quarterback.

Kelly actually did a solid job with Vick given what he was working with, as Vick completed 54.6% of his passes for an average of 8.62 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 306 yards and 2 touchdowns on 36 carries. He did that despite grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible in passing grade, which suggests that much of his production was a result of the system, the coaching, and the talent around him.

However, things with this offense really took off when Vick was benched for 2nd year player Nick Foles. Foles broke into the lineup because of a Vick injury (what else) and took the starting job and ran with it, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. He led the league in QB rating at 119.2, ahead of even Peyton Manning, and finished with the 3rd best QB rating season all time. In games in which Nick Foles started and finished the game, the Eagles moved the chains at a 78.69% rate, as opposed to 70.04% in their other games. That’s the difference between the 2nd and the 20th best offense last season.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked quarterback, which is less impressive than his statistics, which again suggests that much of his production was a result of the system, the coaching, and the talent around him. Still, he had a strong season last year and the Eagles have a great combination of quarterback and head coach. The Eagles probably won’t move the chains at a 78.69% rate again next season. It’ll be near impossible for Foles to repeat the 3rd best quarterback rating season all-time, especially not over a full 16 game season.

He definitely won’t throw an interception on just 0.6% of his passes again (2 interceptions on 317 attempts). Opponents also now have a full season of tape of Kelly’s offense, so they won’t catch opponents off guard as much, though part of what makes Kelly so great is his ability to adapt. The Eagles will also have a tougher schedule after they faced the 4th easiest schedule last season in terms of DVOA. Still, they should be one of the top offenses in the NFL, possibly top-5.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One other thing that could easily hurt the Eagles’ offense is the loss of DeSean Jackson. Jackson was coming off of the best season of his career, catching 82 passes on 119 attempts (68.9%) for 1332 receiving yards on 544 routes run (2.45 yards per route run), grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked wide receiver. However, he was still cut. There were rumors that he was cut because of potential gang ties he might have, but regardless of whether or not that’s true, it’s more likely that he was cut because he was owed 10.7 million by the Eagles and Chip Kelly felt he could replace Jackson’s production with a number of different players and some schematic changes.

One player who got paid by the Eagles this off-season was Riley Cooper, though he got paid a lot less than DeSean Jackson, re-signing for 22.5 million over 5 years with 10 million guaranteed. Cooper, a 2010 5th round pick, had a breakout year last year, catching 47 passes on 81 attempts (58.0%) for 835 yards on 526 routes run, an average of 1.59 yards per route run. However, he only graded out about average on Pro Football Focus and he’s the definition of a one year wonder.

A year ago, Cooper was the Eagles 4th receiver and had 46 catches for 679 catches and 5 touchdowns in the first 3 years of his career. He struggled to start the 2013 season as well, catching 8 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown in his first 5 games in a starting role, before breaking out down the stretch. He had only played 1054 snaps before last season and graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league. He’s a great fit for the Eagles’ offense and Chip Kelly could easily continue to get the most out of him, but he’s a one-year wonder and he could struggle without Jackson opposite him. He’s certainly not the coverage changing receiver that Jackson was.

The more promising wide receiver is Jeremy Maclin. Maclin missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Maclin is actually a more versatile player as compared to Riley Cooper and even DeSean Jackson and I think he can be a strong fit in Chip Kelly’s offense, though he’s yet to play for Kelly in a regular season game. Injuries have been the problem for Maclin throughout his career as the 2009 1st round pick has missed 21 games in 5 years in his career, including all of last season and has only once played all 16 games. He’s averaged 1.57 yards per route run throughout his career. The 2009 1st round pick could have the best season of his career in 2014 if he can stay healthy.

The Eagles also spent a 2nd round pick on a wide receiver to help make up for the loss of DeSean Jackson, drafting Jordan Matthews out of Vanderbilt. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle in their first year in the league, but he should still be an upgrade on the slot over incumbent Jason Avant, who is in Carolina now. Avant was Pro Football Focus’ 98th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible last season in pass catching grade, catching 38 passes on 71 attempts (53.5%) for 447 yards and 2 touchdowns on 462 routes run, an average of 0.97 yards per route run. The Eagles also used a 3rd round pick on Josh Huff, but he won’t have much of a role as a rookie. Matthews will because the Eagles frequently go 3-wide, as Avant played 807 snaps last season.

The Eagles will probably play fewer 3-wide sets this season though because one of the other things they’re going to do to make up for the loss of DeSean Jackson is use more two-tight end sets, which is a good idea because they have a pair of talented tight ends. Brent Celek was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked tight end last season, largely because he was their 2nd ranked run blocking tight end, but he still graded out about average as a pass catcher, catching 32 passes on 47 attempts (68.1%) for 502 yards and 6 touchdowns on 319 routes run, an average of 1.59 yards per route run. Celek has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2009, including last year’s #2 finish, a #13 finish in 2011, and a #13 finish in 2009.

Zach Ertz, meanwhile, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked tight end last season as a 2nd round rookie, despite playing just 459 snaps. He too was a solid blocker, but he graded out above average as both a pass catcher in addition to as a run blocker. He caught 36 passes on 55 attempts (65.5%) for 469 yards and 4 touchdowns on 243 routes run, an impressive 1.93 yards per route run. Going into his 2nd year in the league, the 6-5 250 pound Stanford product will have a bigger role and be used all over the formation.

The Eagles also added “running back” Darren Sproles, who will help in the passing game. I put running back in quotations because he’s had 291 catches to 238 carries over the past 4 seasons combined and he wasn’t brought to Philadelphia to help in the running game. He’ll backup feature back LeSean McCoy, but McCoy played 890 snaps last season and his backup played 199 snaps, including 75 carries. Sproles will help out as a versatile weapon in the passing game and often play at the same time as McCoy, lining up in the other side of the backfield and in the slot primarily.

Sproles was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked pass catching running back in 2009, 7th ranked in 2010, 7th ranked in 2011, 5th ranked in 2012, and 1st ranked in 2013. He’s going into his age 31 season, which is a minor concern, but he should still be an asset for them on about 6-8 touches per game. McCoy will also help out in the passing game. He caught 52 passes for 539 yards and 2 touchdowns last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked pass catching running back. The loss of Jackson will hurt, though the Eagles’ system, the return of Jeremy Maclin, the addition of Jordan Matthews, and the greater emphasize on Zach Ertz will help combat that.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Speaking of LeSean McCoy, he was another huge part of this strong offense last season and, unlike Jackson, he’s still around, fortunately. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back last season, grading out by far #1 in run grade and #7 as a pass catcher, only struggling in pass protection. He rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 attempts, an average of 5.12 yards per attempt, and caught 52 passes on 539 yards and 2 touchdowns. He broke 75 tackles on 366 touches and averaged 2.38 yards per carry after contact, giving him the 9th best elusive rating in the NFL.

There’s obviously no guarantee he continues that kind of success. It’s hard to repeat that at any position, especially at running back, especially when you’re a 5-10 198 pounder who had 366 touches (391 including post-season). This was the first time in his career he had graded out above 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus (55th in 2009, 12th in 2010, 19th in 2011, 10th in 2012), so he’s a one year wonder in terms of this kind of dominance. Still, he’s arguably the best running back in the NFL (Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles give him competition) and he’s a great fit for Chip Kelly’s offense so he could have another dominant season.

As I mentioned, Sproles will be his backup. Sproles is going to be much more valuable as a pass catcher, but he’s also averaged 5.08 yards per carry in his career (2221 yards and 11 touchdowns on 437 attempts). He’s not a good runner inside the tackles and he’s certainly not a guy capable of carrying the load if McCoy goes down with an injury, but he’ll be valuable on 6-8 touches per game. The guy who will be the lead back if McCoy gets hurt is Chris Polk, who will otherwise have a situational short yardage role. The 2012 undrafted free agent is 5-10 222 and has played 47 career snaps, rushing for 98 yards and 3 touchdowns on 11 attempts.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

One of the other reasons why the Eagles had such a good offense last season was their drastically improved offensive line. They weren’t great in pass protection, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked offensive line in that aspect, but they were easily #1 in run blocking, part of why LeSean McCoy was able to have such a good season. Both were better than 2012, when they were 27th in pass protection and 6th in run blocking.

The biggest difference was the return of Jason Peters from injury. Peters missed all of 2012 with a torn Achilles, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 offensive tackle by far in 2011. Upon his return in 2013, he barely seemed slowed at all, grading out 4th at his position. He’s graded out above average in every healthy season since 2007, grading out 14th in 2007, 19th in 2009, and 13th in 2010. He’s going into his age 32 season, but he should still be able to have another strong season on the blindside for the Eagles.

Left guard Evan Mathis remained the best guard in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked guard for the 3rd straight year. No one at any other position has graded out #1 in each of the last 3 seasons. The Eagles wisely snatched him up from the Bengals before the 2011 season, after he excelled as a reserve in 2010 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard in 2009 on 648 snaps in 7 starts. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher that season. He’s a better run blocker than pass protector, but he’s great in both aspects. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he should have another dominant season this year, provided he doesn’t hold out (he’s reportedly considering it because he’s unhappy with his deal). There might not be a more dominant player at any position in the NFL.

The Eagles also got a breakout year from 3rd year center Jason Kelce, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked center last season. He’s still a one year wonder though, which is especially concerning considering he was just a 6th round pick in 2011. He struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 33rd out of 35 eligible among centers. In 2012, he flashed on 139 snaps in 2 games before going down for the season with torn ACL and MCL. This is obviously nitpicking and he’s a very good player obviously, but expecting him to be as dominant as he was last year is a little short-sighted. The Eagles signed him to a 6-year, 37.5 million dollar extension this off-season, one that could turn into a steal if Kelce keeps this up, when you consider that fellow centers Alex Mack and Maurkice Pouncey got 42 million and 44 million respectively over 5 seasons this off-season.

Things aren’t as good on the right side. Right guard Todd Herremans’ return from injury in 2013 definitely helped this offensive line, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard. However, he struggled mightily in pass protection, grading out 3rd worst at his position in that aspect. He was dominant as a run blocker, grading out 2nd only to teammate Evan Mathis in that aspect, but his issues in pass protection are concerning, considering that’s the more important part of an offensive lineman’s job and considering he’s going into his age 32 season.

At right tackle, Lane Johnson was an upgrade for them as a rookie, but the 4th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft graded out below average. He was great as a run blocker, grading out 9th in that aspect, but he was 67th out of 76 eligible in pass protection, which, again, is a the more important part of an offensive lineman’s job. He really seemed to be getting it down the stretch last year as the incredibly athletic, but raw Oklahoma product graded out well above average in 5 of his final 8 games and well below average in none. This was after graded out well above average in 2 of his first 8 games and well below average in 5. He also had a strong playoff game. He looked on his way to a breakout 2nd year in the league.

The issue is that Johnson got suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, which will not only cause him to miss 4 games, but could also put him behind in the 8-ball and postpone his breakout year. He could still have a breakout year, but he could just as easily, if not more easily, not. In his absence, Allen Barbre will be the starter. He’s played a combined 94 snaps over the past 4 seasons, struggled the last time he saw significant action, grading out 64th out of 77 eligible on 544 snaps in 2009, and is going into his age 30 season. The Eagles clearly like him, giving him a 3-year extension this off-season worth 4.5 million dollars, but I don’t get it. He’ll be their utility reserve 6th offensive lineman when everyone upfront is in the starting lineup.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

While the Eagles had a great offense last season, they had a poor defense, ranking 22nd, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 73.10% rate. If the Eagles continue to move the chains at a 78.69% rate, as they did last season in games that Nick Foles started and finished, that won’t be a big issue, but if their offense struggles to maintain that type of success over 16 games, with a year of tape on their offense for opponents to watch and no DeSean Jackson, they’re going to be in some trouble. And even if their offense remains prolific, their defense could still hold them back from the next level.

They have talent on the defensive line though. Fletcher Cox was their 1st round pick in 2012 and he has a lot of talent. He graded out above average on 525 snaps as a rookie and then was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season on 908 snaps, in the defensive tackle’s first experience in a 3-4. He’s a significantly better pass rusher than he is a run stopper, but he graded out positive in both aspects this season. Going into his 3rd year in the league, he could continue improving this year and emerge as one of the better players in the league at his position.

Cedric Thornton graded out higher than Cox, grading out 10th at his position, but Cox is the better football player. Thornton is just a one year wonder. He was undrafted and didn’t play a snap as a rookie and then struggled on 406 snaps in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked defensive tackle out of 85 eligible, before last season’s big year. He’s also a terrible pass rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked in that aspect, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked run stopper at his position. The more important aspect of a defensive lineman’s job is to get after the quarterback, so that’s concerning. He’d be better off playing a two-down base package role.

If Thornton moves to a two down role or at least is on the field for fewer than the 436 pass rush snaps he was on the field for last season, it’ll be a gain in snaps for Vinny Curry. That’s a good thing, another reason why Thornton should be moved to a pure base package role. Curry was a 2nd round pick in 2012, but only played 89 snaps as a rookie. The 6-3 266 pounder turned out to be a better fit as a situational interior pass rusher in a 3-4 than he was as a defensive end in a 4-3. Curry was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season, despite just playing 322 snaps, excelling as a pass rusher. He had 5 sacks, 5 hits, and 22 hurries on just 228 pass rush snaps (a rate of 14.0%). He could be even more valuable in a 500 or so snap role with 300-350 pass rush snaps.

The nose tackle will be Bennie Logan, who will play a two-down base package role this season. Logan took over from Isaac Sopoaga mid-season last year, after Sopoaga got traded to the Patriots. Logan struggled on 488 snaps and 8 starts last season, grading out below average. The 2013 3rd round pick could be better in his second year in the league, but he’s not an ideal fit for the nose tackle position at 6-2 309 so he could easily struggle again. Unfortunately, the Eagles don’t have much competition for him. The only true nose tackle on their roster is 7th round rookie Beau Allen, a 6-2 333 pounder out of Wisconsin. There are issues on this defensive line, but it’s probably their best defensive unit.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Things aren’t great in the linebacking corps either, but they do have some talent. I’ll start with the good. Trent Cole had a revival year last year in his first year in a 3-4, as the 6-2 260 pounder graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. I call it a revival year because he struggled by his standards in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked 4-3 defensive end. That was his worst season since 2007 as he had graded out in the top-6 among 4-3 defensive ends in every season from 2008-2011, including #1 in both 2010 and 2011. That was a concern because Trent Cole is an aging player, which remains a concern even after his strong 2013 season. He’s going into his age 32 season. The Eagles drafted Marcus Smith in the 1st round in this past draft with the idea of him being Cole’s long-term replacement, as Cole will be owed 10 million going into his age 33 season in 2015.

Connor Barwin was the opposite starter and will continue to be the opposite starter this season. He played 1158 snaps last season, 120 snaps more than any other 3-4 outside linebacker, including 297 snaps in coverage. That allowed Trent Cole to only have to drop on 124 snaps last season, which was good because the first time linebacker struggled in coverage last season. The issue is that Barwin didn’t really play that well, grading out below average. He was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2011 (after struggling on a combined 377 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2009), but he’s graded out below average in each of the last two seasons, including 30th out of 35 eligible in 2012. He could be better in a smaller role next season.

Another reason why Barwin playing a smaller role next season would be a good thing is because it would be more playing time for Brandon Graham. The 2010 1st round pick was drafted as a defensive end and was impressive as a rookie on 482 snaps, but he suffered a broken leg down the stretch and played just 56 snaps in 2011. He had a fantastic 2012 season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end on just 485 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher at his position, showing that 1st round talent.

However, the Eagles moved to a 3-4 last off-season and Graham was moved to outside linebacker. The coaching staff didn’t feel the 6-1 274 pounder was a good fit for the position, signing Connor Barwin to start over him, limiting Graham to 331 snaps. Still, Graham impressed in that limited playing time, grading out 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher at the position. The Eagles obviously also have Marcus Smith, an aforementioned 2014 1st round pick. They’d be in better shape if they let Barwin be a two-down player and give more pass rush snaps to Graham and Smith. Graham is probably above the rookie on the depth chart, with Smith being brought in primarily for 2015, when Cole could be a cap casualty and Brandon Graham could leave as a free agent.

The Eagles have bigger problems at middle linebacker, where they have an aging veteran and an inexperienced youngster. That aging veteran is DeMeco Ryans, who graded out 53rd out of 55 eligible middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season and who is going into his age 30 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 2012, but that was in a 4-3 and now the Eagles are in a 3-4, a system that the 6-1 229 pounder has never been comfortable in. Ryans has graded out above average in every season in his career in which he’s played in a 4-3, but he was limited to part-time work as a middle linebacker in a 3-4 in 2011 and got himself traded to Philadelphia and then struggled last season back in a 3-4.

The youngster is Mychal Kendricks, who NBC’s Cris Collinsworth is obsessed with for some reason. He graded out below average last season. He missed a position leading 21 tackles and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He was better than when he was a 2nd round rookie in 2012 and graded out 2nd worst among 4-3 outside linebackers and he could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but he might also just not be that great of a player.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The worst part of the Eagles’ defense is the secondary. It hurts that easily their best coverage player (and only defensive back to grade out above average in coverage) is Brandon Boykin, a 5-9 182 pounder who can only play the slot. The 2012 4th round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked cornerback last season on 635 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He was even better in pure coverage grade, grading out 2nd in that aspect. He also graded out above average on 526 snaps as a rookie. He’s played a combined 107 snaps not on the slot over the past 2 seasons combined and he’ll have to remain purely a slot cornerback this season.

A trio of cornerbacks will compete for the 2 starting jobs, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, and Nolan Carroll. Williams and Fletcher were the starters last season. Fletcher graded out above average last season, after being limited to 677 snaps over the previous 2 seasons thanks to injury. He’s graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league and he’s a solid starter when healthy, so he should stick around as a starter.

The same is not necessarily true of Cary Williams, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible last season. The ex-Raven graded out slightly below average in 2012 and slightly above average in 2011, after the 2009 7th round pick played a combined 59 snaps over the first 3 seasons of his career. He averages out as a slightly below average starter. His 4.25 million dollar salary is already guaranteed for 2014, but that doesn’t mean he can’t lose his starting job.

Nolan Carroll signed a 2-year 5.25 million dollar deal this off-season, which suggests the Eagles see him as a legitimate competitor for a starting job. He has the talent to beat out Williams too.  Carroll has seen his snap count increase in each of the past 3 seasons, going from 330, to 653, to 809 snaps from 2011-2013. He’s been roughly an average player on Pro Football Focus the whole time and is now an average starter. Last season he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked cornerback, right in the middle of the pack, allowing 47.8% completion, which was actually the 4th lowest in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks.

The Eagles made another free agent acquisition in the secondary, signing Malcolm Jenkins to a 3-year deal worth 15.5 million. Jenkins will be an upgrade over Patrick Chung, who graded out 68th out of 86 eligible safeties last season. However, he won’t be a huge upgrade and he was overpaid. He’s failed to live up to his billing as the 15th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. He struggled mightily as a slot cornerback as a rookie before being moved to safety, where he was an average starter according to Pro Football Focus in both 2010 and 2011. However, in 2012, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked safety and in 2013 he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 65th ranked safety out of 86 eligible, just slightly above Chung.

At the other safety spot, the Eagles brought back Nate Allen on a one-year deal worth 2 million dollars and he’ll be given the first chance to remain the starter. Allen was awful in 2012, grading out 84th out of 88 eligible safeties, but he was better in 2013, grading just below average. It’s obviously still very tough to count on him as a starter, which is why he was forced to settle for a one-year prove it deal. Earl Wolff is the backup and the 2013 5th round pick could make his way into the starting lineup at some point. He struggled on 538 snaps as a rookie and, given where he was drafted, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into a starter. It’s a weak secondary on an overall weak defense.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Eagles had a poor defense last year, ranking 22nd in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 73.10% rate. They’re unlikely to be better on that side of the ball. Fortunately, they should be better on offense with a full season of Nick Foles under center, after ranking 7th, moving the chains at a 74.91% rate. They’re unlikely to be as good as they were in 2013 in games Foles started and ended though, when they moved the chains at a 78.69% rate. It’s hard to project that to a 16 game season, especially with a still inexperienced Foles under center, a whole season of tape for their opponents to study, and the loss of DeSean Jackson. They should still move the chains around a 75-76% rate and they are definitely the best team in the weak NFC East, but they have issues keeping them from the top of the NFL. I’ll have an official wins prediction after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 10-6 1st in NFC East

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One thought on “Philadelphia Eagles 2014 NFL Season Preview

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