In 2013, Nick Foles seemed to set the world on fire, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, after the 2012 3rd round pick took over for an injured Michael Vick early in Chip Kelly’s first season in Philadelphia. He had a QB rating of 119.2, actually the 3rd best QB rating all-time. However, that was largely the result of the system and the surrounding offensive talent, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked quarterback.
Chip Kelly always seemed to understand that and didn’t overvalue Foles. Because of that and the fact that Foles, who was drafted by Kelly’s predecessor Andy Reid, never was an ideal fit for what Chip Kelly wants from a quarterback in terms of having strong mobility and pocket presence, Foles was heavily shopped this off-season, after a down 2014 season. Last season, he completed 59.8% of his passes for an average of 6.96 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, missed 8 games with a broken collarbone, and graded out 25th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks. It was very similar to his rookie year, when he completed 60.8% of his passes for an average of 6.41 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and graded out 31st among 38 eligible, so his above average 2013 season looks like a fluke now.
I have no problem with Kelly trusting his system and not seeing Foles as a long-term solution, especially with Foles going into the contract year of his rookie deal, with average or better quarterbacks getting boatloads over the past few years. However, I don’t think they got a fair return in the trade that sent Foles to St. Louis for Sam Bradford. Not only did the two teams swap quarterbacks, but the Eagles sent a 4th rounder and a 2016 2nd rounder to St. Louis for a 5th rounder, which suggests they see Bradford as an upgrade on Foles.
As lukewarm as I am on Foles, I disagree with the Eagles’ assessment. In 5 seasons in the NFL, Bradford missed 31 games (including 25 straight over the past 2 seasons with a twice town ACL), completed 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.29 YPA, 59 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions. He’s been better than his stats have suggested, as he always had horrible supporting casts in St. Louis, and he actually graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013 before his extended absence, but he’s still very tough to trust, especially coming off the injury. Early reports of him at practice haven’t been great.
The Eagles are also in the same situation contract wise with Bradford as they were with Foles as both are in the final year of their rookie deals, but the difference is Bradford’s rookie deal was the #1 overall’s under the old CBA, while Foles is a former 3rd round pick whose deal was signed after the new CBA passed. That means that Bradford is owed just under 13 million this season, while Foles is under a million.
For that reason, many thought the Rams would outright cut him this off-season. Certainly I don’t think anyone would have thought they could have gotten a 2nd round pick and a cheap functional quarterback for him. Many also thought the Eagles just acquired Bradford to flip to the Browns for a first rounder to move up for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who Kelly coached in college, but Bradford wasn’t even in their final offer for Mariota, so it’s clear they legitimately like Bradford. Bradford is a decent fit for Kelly’s offense and Kelly should be able to get the most out of him, but it’s unclear how much that actually is.
With Bradford’s health looming large, his backup is relevant. That backup is still Mark Sanchez, who backed up Foles last season and made 8 starts in his absence. Everyone was quick to say that Mark Sanchez had turned it around in Philadelphia last year working with Chip Kelly instead of Rex Ryan, but Sanchez was still a backup caliber quarterback. Overall though, he really didn’t turn it around. He completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Out of the league in 2013 because of injury, Sanchez has ranked 27th (2014), 37th (2012), 36th (2011), 27th (2010), and 39th (2009) on Pro Football Focus since being drafted in the first round by the Jets in 2009. He’s somehow made 76 starts over that period of time. If he has to make starts, the Eagles will be in trouble, as his previous employers have been when he’s had to start.
As I mentioned, part of Foles’ success in Philadelphia was his supporting cast. The Eagles don’t have quite the same supporting cast as they used to though, which hurts Bradford’s chances. It’s still better than what he was used to in St. Louis, but that’s not saying much. Last off-season, it was DeSean Jackson getting cut after a career best 82/1332/9 year in 2013 because the Eagles thought he was overpaid. That wasn’t as big of a deal as it could have been because the Eagles had Jeremy Maclin coming back from injury and he had a career best 85/1318/10 year in 2014, grading out 14th among eligible receivers, but now he’s gone too. I don’t blame them for not matching Kansas City’s 5-year, 55 million dollar deal as that’s a lot for a guy with one career 1000+ year, but there’s no doubt he’ll be missed.
In order to replace him, the Eagles drafted Nelson Agholor in the first round and are expected to give a bigger role to 2014 2nd round pick Jordan Matthews. As a rookie, Matthews caught 67 passes on 98 targets (68.4%) for 876 yards and 8 touchdowns on 484 routes run, an average of 1.81 yards per route run, grading out above average as a pass catcher on 779 total snaps as the #3 receiver, primarily focused on the slot. He’ll see more action this season and could be their leading receiver. Rookie wide receivers usually don’t produce like he did as a rookie, as even first round pick wideouts have averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns as rookies since 2005, even when you include last year’s insane wide receiver class, which is not the norm. That’s good news for Matthews, who could push for 1000+ yards, but also a reminder that Agholor could take a year or two to be what they think he’ll be.
Riley Cooper and Josh Huff will compete for the #3 job, largely playing outside with Agholor and Matthews both seeing significant snaps in the slot in 3-wide receiver sets. Huff, a dynamic kick returner, graded out below average on 210 snaps as a 3rd round rookie last year, but has a good chance to win the #3 job because of how horrible Riley Cooper was last season. The veteran caught 55 passes on 91 targets (60.4%) for 573 yards and 3 touchdowns on 561 routes run, an average of 1.02 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked wide receiver as a result.
The big 6-3 222 pounder showed an incredible inability to get separation or gain yards after the catch and was infrequently targeted as a result, only redeeming himself slightly as a run blocker on the outside. The only reason he’s still on the roster is because the Eagles foolishly signed him to a 5-year, 22.5 million dollar deal last off-season and his 4 million dollar salary for 2015 is guaranteed whether he’s on the roster or not. It doesn’t guarantee him a role though, as the Eagles will roll with the youngster if they feel they have to. The Eagles are hoping that Cooper flashes the form that got him that deal, when he graded out slightly above average in 2013, but that’s unlikely. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out above average just once in 5 seasons in the league, that 2013 season, and is the definition of a one-year wonder.
With Maclin leaving, the Eagles are likely to use more two-tight end sets at the expense of three-wide receiver sets. That looked like the case to many people last season as well, with DeSean Jackson leaving, and it never really panned out, but that was because of Jeremy Maclin’s return from injury. They don’t have anyone like that walking through those doors this year with Agholor likely at least a year or two away, so a greater focus on tight ends makes a lot of sense, especially since Bradford has always liked to focus on the short to intermediate parts of the field, thanks to limited deep ball arm strength.
Brent Celek has been the Eagles’ starting tight end for many years, but the added focus on tight ends should benefit “#2” tight end Zach Ertz more than anyone. Ertz has graded out above average in both seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2013, grading out 9th among tight ends in 2013 on 459 snaps and 5th in 2014 on 603 snaps. Celek has graded out above average in each of the last 6 seasons, but the 6-4 261 pounder is a better run blocker than pass catcher and has graded out below average as a pass catcher in 2 of the last 3 seasons, including last season.
Celek already had fewer routes run last season (297 to 397 for Ertz), even though he played more snaps, and he should play even more of a complementary role this season in his age 30 season, setting Ertz up for a breakout 3rd year in the league. Having averaged 1.83 yards per route run thus far in his career, he could have a 900+ yard year on 500 or so routes run this season, especially with Maclin gone and Bradford’s tendency to target intermediate options. He has the potential to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL. If the Eagles want to get their best players on the field regardless of position in the receiving corps, frequently going two-tight ends with Agholor, Matthews, Ertz, and Celek makes a lot of sense.
The Eagles also suffered a major loss on the offensive line as they released Evan Mathis, who graded out #1 among guards in 2011, #1 in 2012, #1 in 2013, and then #2 in 2014, despite missing 7 games with injury last season. The Eagles seemed to want him on the team for 2015, keeping him into June, but eventually granted him his release after he demanded his contract be dealt with, rightfully so, as Mathis was owed just 5.5 million in the final year of his contract. He wanted either long-term security or a short-term pay raise and the Eagles were unwilling to give him either. Even though he’s going into his age 34 season and coming off of an injury plagued season, he’s still been one of the best offensive linemen in the game when healthy over the past few years and he missed just 1 game from 2011-2013. He’s still unsigned as of this writing, but he’s expected to get both more money annually and more years on the open market. He’s going to be missed in Philadelphia.
Allen Barbre is expected to start in his absence. He graded out above average last season, but went down for the season with a season ending ankle injury week 1, starting at right tackle in place of the suspended Lane Johnson. Prior to last season, the 2007 4th round pick had never graded out above average, so, going into his age 31 season, he’s about as big of a downgrade as you can get from Mathis. He was originally supposed to be the starter at right guard, where Todd Herremans was also let go this off-season. Herremans struggled mightily last season (57th out of 78 eligible) and missed 8 games with injury so he won’t be missed immediately, but he played well as recently as 2013 so the Eagles have gone from really strong to really weak at the guard position really quickly.
With Barbre switching sides, it’s unclear who will start at right guard. Matt Tobin is reportedly the favorite, but he’ll face competition from Andrew Gardner and maybe even Dennis Kelly. None of them are good options. Tobin made 7 starts last season when Mathis was hurt and finished 52nd out of 78 eligible guards, after not playing an offensive snap as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Gardner also graded out below average last season on 683 snaps, struggling mightily in 2 starts at offensive tackle early in the season, but playing decently in 6 starts at guard down the stretch.
The big 6-7 304 pound converted tackle is probably a better option than Tobin, but the 2009 7th round pick has never graded out above average in a season in his career and he had never played more than 35 snaps in a season prior to 2014, so he’s a very uninspiring option in his age 29 season. The longshot Kelly has also never graded out above average in his career, since the Eagles drafted him in the 5th round in 2012. He struggled on 202 snaps last season, didn’t play a snap in 2013, and was horrible in 2012, grading out 70th out of 80 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie.
Fortunately, the rest of the offensive line is still strong. Jason Peters is also getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season, but he’s never graded out below average in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history and he’s arguably played the best football of his career over the past few seasons. With the exception of a 2012 season lost to a torn Achilles, Peters has graded out in the top-4 among offensive tackles in each of the last 4 seasons, including #1 in 2011 and #1 last season. His age is a concern, but he should have at least two more good seasons left in the tank.
On the other side, the Eagles have a much younger player, as right tackle Lane Johnson will be only in his age 25 season in his 3rd year in the league in 2015. An athletic freak who ran 4.72 at 6-6 303 at the Combine, Johnson was drafted 4th overall in 2013. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, especially struggling in pass protection, but he was dominant as a run blocker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in run blocking grade. In 2014, he put it all together, doing well in both aspects and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked offensive tackle, after missing the first 4 games of the season with suspension. In his 3rd year in the league in 2015, he should once again have a strong season and could even be better.
The Eagles also have another young stud at center. Jason Kelce was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center last season despite missing 4 games with injury. A 2011 6th round pick, Kelce was forced into action too quickly as a rookie and graded out 33rd out of 35 eligible centers, but he flashed in 2 starts in 2012 before going down for the season and then graded out 1st in 2013, before backing it up again last season. Only going into his age 28 season, he’s in the prime of his career and one of the best centers in the game. There’s still talent upfront on this line, but they aren’t what they used to be.
Trading Foles for Bradford, releasing Mathis and Herremans, letting Maclin sign with the Chiefs, and drafting Nelson Agholor in the first round were not the only things the Eagles did to shake up their offense this off-season. They also made another trade earlier in the off-season, sending LeSean McCoy to the Bills for Kiko Alonso. The Eagles were seen as the clear losers of that trade, but I think that’s because people either didn’t take McCoy’s contract into account or overestimated how good McCoy was (or underestimated how good Alonso is, but that’s a point for another time).
It’s hard to find someone to replicate McCoy’s 2013 production, when he rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 carries (5.12 YPC) and added 52 catches for 539 yards and another two touchdowns through the air. It’s not that tough to find someone to replicate McCoy’s 2014 production, when he rushed for 1319 yards and 5 touchdowns on 312 carries (4.23 YPC) and added just 28 catches for 155 yards through the air. McCoy fell from being Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in 2013 to their 3rd worst in 2014.
Because of the 7.8 million in difference between McCoy’s and Alonso’s salary, the Eagles were able to sign DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 1845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries (4.71 YPC) last season and was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back. The Eagles didn’t downgrade the running back position this off-season and basically got a free above average middle linebacker. That doesn’t mean the Eagles didn’t overpay Murray, but the McCoy trade allowed their overpay of Murray to not be so bad. I wrote in my Cowboys off-season preview that Murray was one of the top candidates to be overpaid this off-season and that he should come with a buyer beware label on his forehead, for a variety of reasons.
For one, since 1988, only 4 of 26 running backs who led the league in carries surpassed their rushing yards total the following season. Those 26 backs averaged 365 carries per season, rushed for 1612 yards, and scored 14 touchdowns in the season they led the league in carries. The following season, they averaged 262 carries per season, rushed for 1053 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns. Murray already saw his YPC drop from 5.14 in the first 8 games of the season to 4.23 in the final 8. There’s a reason backs are rarely given more than 350 carries, as teams don’t want to ruin that player for the following season. The Cowboys knew Murray wasn’t coming back in 2015 though so they didn’t care. They reportedly didn’t come close to making a competitive offer for him this off-season.
Murray has an injury history dating back to his collegiate days too. He made it through all 16 games in 2014 (not without a broken hand), but he missed 11 games in first 3 seasons and fell to the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft because of injury concerns. Even if Murray stays healthy in 2015, he’s highly unlikely to even come within 50 carries of his 2014 total, a problem as his 4.71 YPC in 2014 was good, but not outstanding or anything. He got to 1800+ yards on volume largely. He also was helped out drastically by the Cowboys offensive line, as the Cowboys were Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked team in run blocking grade. The Eagles had a strong run blocking offensive line last season, but the loss of Mathis deals a big blow to that.
The Eagles strangely also signed Ryan Mathews this off-season. What reportedly happened is they had a handshake deal with Matthews before they ended up signing Murray and didn’t want to go back on their promise so they kept Matthews as a backup. Going into last season, I thought of Matthews and Murray very similarly. Obviously, they both had very different 2014s, as Matthews missed 10 games with injury, but I think he’s still a good value on a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal as a bounce back candidate.
Mathews obviously has an injury history, playing all 16 games just once in 5 seasons, missing 20 games combined, including 10 last season. However, when he’s healthy, he has feature back potential. In 2011, he rushed for 1091 yards and 6 touchdowns on 222 attempts (4.91 YPC), with 50 catches for 455 yards. In 2013, he rushed for 1255 yards and 6 touchdowns on 285 attempts (4.40 YPC), with 26 catches for 189 yards and another touchdown. He’s a strong replacement if Murray gets hurt and will provide valuable, frequent breathers for Murray. The Eagles clearly plan to run the ball a lot in 2015 and I could see them getting like a 70/30 split with Murray seeing around 280-300 carries and Matthews seeing around 120-130.
Darren Sproles remains and, even with Murray and Matthews both in the fold, his role is so unique that it’ll likely remain unchanged. The only potential issue with Sproles is he’s going into his age 32 season, an advanced age for running backs usually, especially ones so reliant on speed. However, Sproles doesn’t see a ton of action, so he’s avoided a lot of hits in his career, and he’s also coming off of a fantastic season. Last season, he rushed for 329 yards and 6 touchdowns on 57 carries (5.77 YPC) and added another 40 catches for 387 yards through the air, grading out above average overall. Over the past 5 seasons, Sproles has graded out above average all 5 times and has been between 50 and 87 carries and 40 and 86 catches in all 5 seasons, while missing just 5 games with injury. I expect more of the same from him this season.
The Eagles also had a bunch of personnel changes on defense this off-season, though everything on the defensive line remains the same. Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, and Bennie Logan will continue to be the starters in base packages on Philadelphia’s 3-man defensive line. All 3 graded out significantly above average against the run, but only Fletcher Cox also graded out above average as a pass rusher. Cox, a 2012 1st round pick, has blossomed into one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league, grading out 19th among defensive tackles as a rookie, 13th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, and then 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014. His career trajectory is very impressive and, only going into his age 25 season, Cox could continue to get better.
Thornton is the other starter and, while he’s graded out 3rd and 8th among 3-4 defensive ends against the run in 2 years as a starter, he’s also graded out below average as a pass rusher both seasons. The 6-3 309 pounder is a great two-down base player, but that’s it. Nose tackle Bennie Logan is in a similar boat, though that’s naturally supposed to be a two-down position. After grading out below average in both aspects as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, Logan improved his run play in 2014, but struggled so much as a pass rusher that he still graded out below average overall.
In sub packages, Logan comes off the field, as does Thornton, and pass rush specialist Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox are the primary interior pass rushers. The 6-3 266 pound Curry is basically the polar opposite of the bigger Thornton. He struggles against the run, but is a very tough interior pass rusher. The 2012 2nd round pick has been in his current role for 2 seasons and has graded out 8th and 9th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends in pass rush grade in 2013 and 2014 respectively, doing so on 322 snaps in 2013 and 397 snaps in 2014. He should play a similar role in 2015. The pieces on this defensive line fit together really well. The only difference between 2014 and 2015 could be that the Eagles had very few injuries on defense in general, 2nd in defensive adjusted games lost. They’re unlikely to have such good luck again in 2015.
Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham will be the primary 3-4 outside linebackers and will also rush the passer off the edge in sub packages with Cox and Curry inside. The Eagles released Trent Cole this off-season, after 10 productive seasons with the team. The moved saved the Eagles 10.025 million in cash and 8.425 million in cap space and Cole was going into his age 33 season, but Cole did still play well last season, grading out 19th among 3-4 outside linebackers on the season. The Eagles are hoping that they can make up for that loss by giving Brandon Graham an every down role for the first time in his career. They opted to keep the younger Graham on a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal this off-season, rather than retaining Cole.
That should prove to be the right move long-term as Graham could easily break out as one of the top edge rushers in the game in an every down role, which would make him an obvious bargain at 6.5 million annually. Graham is seen as not being able to play in a 3-4, but, while he’s probably better in a 4-3, he’s shown over the past two seasons that he can play in both schemes. After struggling with injuries in the first two seasons of his career, Graham, a 2010 1st round pick, had somewhat of a breakout year in 2012. He didn’t get a ton of playing time (435 snaps), which is why it’s hard to call it a true breakout year, but he still graded out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends that season, despite the limited playing time.
Moving to a 3-4 in 2013, he only saw 331 snaps, but he still graded out 15th at his position, making it two straight years where no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out better at his position. In 2014, he was still the 3rd outside linebacker, but he set a career high in snaps played with 524 snaps and graded out 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers. For the third straight year, no one graded out better at his position on fewer snaps. As a 700-800 snap guy, Graham has the potential to break out as one of the best edge rushers in the game. It’s somewhat risky considering he’s never played a significant amount of snaps, but he’s handled everything he’s been given in his career very well and the Eagles aren’t risking a ton of money here. His only weakness is coverage, but he won’t be asked to drop in coverage all that much. This opportunity to be an every down player has been a long time coming and it’s long overdue.
Connor Barwin remains the every down player on the other side. He had 16 sacks last season, which is impressive, but when you take into account that he only added 11 quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries on 349 pass rush snaps, he only ranked 6th at his position among eligible players in pass rush productivity, not quite as good as the sack numbers suggest. He also graded out below average both against the run and in coverage, leading to him grade out only 24th at his position, despite the big sack numbers.
That’s also not the norm for him as the 2009 2nd round pick has only graded out above average in one other season in his career, not including a 2010 season where he missed 15 games with injury. He’s never graded out better than 16th at his position. Going into his age 29 season, Barwin is still an asset and a solid starter, but he’s not as good as you’d think just from looking at pure sack numbers. The Eagles also have Marcus Smith in the mix. A surprise first round pick in 2014, Smith struggled in practice as a rookie and only made it onto the field for 74 underwhelming snaps. He should have a slightly bigger role in 2015, but he remains a clear backup.
Inside at middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso is the big addition. Not only did the McCoy trade free up the cap space to sign DeMarco Murray, but Alonso was also Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker as a rookie in 2013, before missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL. At the end of the day, the final score of that trade was LeSean McCoy for DeMarco Murray and Kiko Alonso and, if you think about it that way, it looks like a much better trade for the Eagles. Alonso’s knees are a concern, as he tore his other ACL in college as well, and he’s technically only a one year wonder, but he’s only going into his age 25 season, he’s going to be 15 months removed from the ACL tear by week 1, and he should be good for the Eagles inside at middle linebacker this year.
The McCoy trade looked like it would free up more than just McCoy’s salary, as Alonso’s arrival seemed like the end for DeMeco Ryans with the Eagles. Cutting him would have saved the Eagles 6.9 million in cash and cap space and seemed like a no brainer with Alonso and Mychal Kendricks seemingly locked in as the starters. However, the Eagles made the peculiar move to keep Ryans on a restructured 2-year, 7.5 million dollar deal, with 4 million guaranteed in the first year.
They should have just outright cut him instead. Even forgetting the fact that Ryans isn’t necessary anymore with the Kiko Alonso trade, Ryans just isn’t that good. He’s coming off a torn Achilles that limited him to 8 games last season and he’s going into his age 31 season. He wasn’t horrible in those 8 games in 2014, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 53rd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013, his last healthy season. He also hasn’t graded out above average since 2011. The Eagles keeping him, but not Mathis baffles me.
Kendricks should be the other starter next to Alonso, though the Eagles did shop him this off-season, ahead of his contract year. His name was featured in some prominent trade rumors for Marcus Mariota and they also reportedly independent shopped him, but couldn’t find anyone willing to give up a 2nd round pick for a guy in a contract year. He could still get moved, but I think it’s likely he stays in Philadelphia for at least one more year.
A 2012 2nd round pick, Kendricks graded out below average in both 2012 and 2013 on 955 and 1022 snaps respectively, but had a breakout 2014, grading out 6th among middle linebackers. He and Alonso should form a strong middle linebacker duo as long as both are healthy, but it’s unclear what Ryans role will be behind them. At the very least, he should provide better depth than the likes of Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho, who struggled in Ryan’s absence last year, but the Eagles need to avoid giving Ryans too much playing time at the absence of Alonso or Kendricks, who are clearly superior players.
The secondary is the unit where the Eagles arguably underwent the biggest changes this off-season, as they return just 1 of 4 starting defensive backs from last season. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are both gone, the former as a cap casualty and the latter as a free agent. They won’t really be missed as both graded out below average last season and finished 49th and 92nd respectively among 108 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.
To replace Williams, the Eagles signed Byron Maxwell from Seattle. Maxwell was at the top of my list of guys I expected to get overpaid this off-season and sure enough he was overpaid, as his deal is worth 63 million over 6 seasons, with 25 million over the first 2 years guaranteed. Maxwell was a 6th round pick in 2011, played 152 snaps in his first 2 seasons combined, and then broke into the starting lineup in 2013. He flashed top cornerback ability in limited action in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked cornerback on 494 snaps with 5 starts. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better among cornerbacks in 2013.
However, Maxwell has never shown that kind of ability over a full season, grading out about average overall in 2014 as a 13-game starter (he missed 3 games with injury) opposite Richard Sherman. He was Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback in 2014 and allowed 63.4% completion. Things aren’t going to get easier for him now that he’s away from Seattle’s scheme, coaching, and supporting cast. He should be better than Williams was, but, considering Kareem Jackson got 8.5 million annually and Brandon Flowers got 9 million annually this off-season, it’s absurd that Maxwell got 10.5 million annually.
To replace Fletcher, the Eagles drafted Eric Rowe in the 2nd round and he’ll compete with veteran Nolan Carroll. The veteran would seem to have the upper hand right now. As the #4 cornerback last year, Carroll graded out above average on 388 snaps, including a week 17 start, and he also has prior starting experience back in his days in Miami. Carroll, a 2010 5th round pick, made 26 starts from 2011-2013, including 23 in 2011 and 2012 and 13 in 2013. He graded out slightly below average in both 2011 and 2012, but graded out slightly above average in 2013. He’s only a marginal starting caliber player, but he’ll function as a stopgap as Rowe develops. Rowe should slot in as the #4 cornerback as a rookie.
Brandon Boykin remains as the slot #3 cornerback. He’s been so good on the slot over the past 3 years since the Eagles grabbed him as a steal in the 4th round in 2012 that he now wants to be an every down starting cornerback and see more time outside. The Eagles reportedly aren’t budging on that because they don’t think the 5-9 182 pounder has the size to regularly play outside and Boykin reportedly isn’t happy about this. Going into a contract year, this could easily be his final season in Philadelphia. In 3 years in the league, Boykin has graded out 48th, 12th, and 21st respectively from 2012-2014 on 526, 635, and 524 snaps respectively. He should have another strong season on 500-600 snaps as a slot specialist 3rd cornerback.
Safety Nate Allen also left as a free agent. He had an up and down tenure in 5 years in Philadelphia, but he graded out 28th among safeties last season and signed a 4-year, 23 million dollar deal in Oakland this off-season, so he will be missed. Replacing him will either be Earl Wolff or free agent acquisition Walter Thurmond. Wolff graded out below average on 538 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013 and then graded out below average on 79 snaps last season. Thurmond is reportedly seen as the favorite, but talent has never been the problem for the converted cornerback.
In 5 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010 by the Seahawks, Thurmond has missed 44 games with injury and played in just 36 thanks to injury issues that date back to his collegiate days. Last year, in his only season with the Giants, he missed 14 games with a torn pectoral. If he can stay healthy, he could be solid at his new position. He’s graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, including a 2013 season where he was Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback. Of course, he’s never played more than 480 snaps in a season and he might be undersized at safety at 5-11 183 and he’ll probably just get hurt again, but the upside is certainly there. Wolff would see starts if Thurmond got hurt and Eric Rowe could even see some time at safety as a rookie, assuming he doesn’t win a starting job at cornerback. The 6-1 205 pounder is a big corner and could fit in at safety in the short-term.
The only remaining starter from last season in Philadelphia’s secondary is Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins had a great first season in Philadelphia, after the 2009 1st round pick spent the first 5 seasons of his career in New Orleans, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety, but it’s important to remember his inconsistent history. In 5 years in New Orleans, he only twice graded out above average and never finished higher than 33rd among safeties. He graded out 103rd among 107 eligible cornerbacks in 2009, 88th among 88 eligible safeties in 2012, and 65th among 86 eligible safeties in 2013. He’s unlikely to be as good in 2015 as he was in 2014, given his history. This secondary is the weakness on an otherwise strong defense.
The Eagles were the only 10 win team to miss the playoffs last season and they finished 16th in rate of moving the chains, 12th in opponent rate of moving the chains, and 12th in differential, which suggests they were a borderline playoff team. The Eagles made a ton of moves this off-season designed to get them over the hump and into the playoffs. I don’t expect their passing game to be better, losing Jeremy Maclin and going from Nick Foles/Mark Sanchez to a hobbled Sam Bradford and likely Mark Sanchez again at some point. The running game could be better because DeMarco Murray is coming in as a replacement for LeSean McCoy and McCoy really didn’t play well last year, but losing Evan Mathis, their top run blocker, really hurts.
Defensively, they should be solid again. They have same defensive line again and, while they lost Trent Cole, they add Kiko Alonso inside and Brandon Graham could have a breakout year in the biggest role of his career. The secondary still has problems, but, once again, the front 7 should prop up a mediocre back 4. Whether or not they break into the playoffs is going to be largely dependent on Sam Bradford’s health and his effectiveness. Injuries will likely strike more than they did last year, but their supporting cast on both sides of the ball is one of the best in the NFL overall. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cowboys after I’ve done all team’s previews.
Prediction: 10-6 1st in NFC East