Chip Kelly’s three year tenure as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles had a lot of issues, but one area where he really did seem to add value to the team as a coach was at the quarterback position. Despite a less than impressive bunch of quarterbacks (Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford), the Eagles have completed 62.7% of their passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 82 touchdowns, and 48 interceptions over the past 3 seasons. Those aren’t spectacular numbers, but Foles, Sanchez, and Bradford all played the best football of their career under Kelly, and even a well past his prime Michael Vick looked decent in Kelly’s system in 2013.
In Kelly’s first and only off-season in charge of the roster in 2015 (ultimately his undoing), Kelly traded incumbent starting quarterback Nick Foles, along with a 2015 4th round pick and a 2016 2nd round pick, to the Rams for Sam Bradford. It was a shocking move at the time because Foles hadn’t been terrible in Philadelphia and was still signed on a cheap rookie deal, while Bradford was a former #1 overall pick who had underachieved and missed the last 25 games with two ACL tears. However, compared to some of Kelly’s other personnel decisions, it didn’t end up being a terrible move.
Bradford, as I mentioned before, played the best football of his career in 2015 with the Eagles. He was unspectacular in 14 starts (missing 2 with injury), completing 65.0% of his passes for an average of 7.00 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, but he proved himself a capable starting quarterback, while Foles looked lost for most of the year in St. Louis and was ultimately benched for journeyman Case Keenum. Still, it was a lot to pay to get Bradford and they had to pay even more to keep him this off-season, signing him to a 2-year, 35 million dollar deal that guarantees him 22 million in the first year, including 11 million paid at signing.
That was one of many moves this season made at quarterback this off-season. In addition to signing Bradford, the Eagles splurged for a backup quarterback, signing Chase Daniel to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal. Daniel flashed in limited action as the backup quarterback in Kansas City, where Doug Pederson was the offensive coordinator for the past 3 seasons. Meanwhile, Mark Sanchez, previously the backup quarterback, was sent to Denver for a late round pick. Then, despite at the time having 29 million committed to quarterbacks this season, the Eagles also made a shocking move to trade up to #2 overall, sending the 8th overall pick, a 3rd rounder, a 4th rounder, a 2017 1st rounder, and a 2018 2nd rounder to the Browns to do so, with the intention of taking a quarterback. With Jared Goff going #1 overall to the Rams, the Eagles drafted North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz #2 overall.
Wentz entered camp as the 3rd quarterback behind Bradford and Daniel, but the Eagles then made the shocking decision to trade Bradford with less than 2 weeks before the start of the season to the Vikings, who had just lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater the week before to a brutal leg injury that will keep him out for at least the entire 2016 season, if not longer. The Eagles were paid well for Bradford, getting back a 2017 1st round pick and a conditional pick in 2018, but still not nearly as well as they paid for Wentz. They also owe Bradford his 11 million dollar signing bonus either way, meaning the Vikings are getting him for 11 million in 2017 and 13 million (non-guaranteed) in 2018.
Most importantly, the Eagles now have to pivot on the season’s eve to another quarterback, after trading away their best early season option. Daniel might now start week 1, though the Eagles also apparently feel good about Wentz’s ability to make starts early in the season. He could become the starter as soon as he’s healthy enough to return from a rib injury suffered in the pre-season, which could be pretty early on in the season. It’s a still fluid situation under center, which isn’t great for this team in general, but they have enough talent on both sides of the ball to be competitive in a weak NFC East regardless.
It’s definitely worth mentioning that Bradford didn’t have a great receiving corps last season, as their top 5 wide receivers (Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Riley Cooper, Josh Huff, Miles Austin) all graded out below average on Pro Football Focus last season. That kept his numbers down and made him look worse than he was, a concern for whoever is under center this season. Matthews was the best of the bunch last season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked wide receiver (out of 121 eligible), playing 79.5% of the Eagles’ offensive snaps and catching 85 passes for 997 yards and 8 touchdowns, all team highs. A 2014 2nd round pick, Matthews had a similar year as a rookie and is probably under-qualified to be a #1 receiver, but he doesn’t turn 24 until July and could have the best year of his career in his 3rd year in the league in 2016. That might not necessarily show up in the stat sheet though, as the Eagles figure to run more often and run fewer plays in general, going from Chip Kelly to Doug Pederson.
Meanwhile, Agholor, who was 2nd on the team in snaps played, playing 58.0% of the team’s offensive snaps, was the worst of the bunch last season, managing just 23 catches for 283 yards and 1 touchdown, despite significant playing time, really hurting the offense. It’s hard for him to be worse in 2016, as he was Pro Football Focus’ lowest rated eligible wide receiver in 2015, but he could also be significantly better, considering he was a 1st round pick in 2015 and still has great upside.
The Eagles signed free agent Rueben Randle to potentially start over Agholor as a rookie, but he had a horrible off-season and didn’t even make the final roster. That likely locks Agholor into the starting role to begin the season, but off-season acquisition Dorial Green-Beckham could take his job at some point. DGB wasn’t acquired until August, so it’s unlikely he can unseat Agholor early in the season, but he’s also going into his 2nd year in the league and played much better than Agholor did as a rookie. He also arguably has more upside.
At one point a possible top-5 pick, Green-Beckham was kicked off the team the University of Missouri for off-the-field issues, didn’t play at all in 2014, and then fell to the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He flashed on 580 snaps as a rookie last season and looked poised for a breakout year in 2016, but had a disappointing off-season, which led to the Titans sending him to the Eagles for a backup offensive lineman. It was a weird move from Tennessee’s perspective, even if Green-Beckham wasn’t going to be a starter, and the Eagles could benefit if he ever comes close to reaching his potential. Still only going into his age 23 season, that’s certainly still a possibility, even if it doesn’t happen this season.
With the wide receivers struggling mightily last season, tight end Zach Ertz, tight end Brent Celek, and running back Darren Sproles were 2nd, 3rd, and 4th on the team respectively in receiving yards, though Ertz had more than the other two combined. A 2013 2nd round pick, Ertz had a career best 75 catches for 853 yards and 2 touchdowns in his 3rd year in the league in 2015. Ertz has improved his receiving totals in each of his 3 seasons in the NFL, going from 464 in 2013 to 702 in 2014 to 853 in 2015, and is also sneakily one of the top few tight ends in the NFL.
Ertz graded out 9th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus on 459 snaps in 2013, 5th among tight ends on 603 snaps in 2014, and then finished 4th last season on 788 snaps, paralleling his yardage progression. In each of his 3 years in the league, he’s played more, produced more, and played better overall, as he’s also developed very nicely as a run blocker as well (last season he was 6th at his position in run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus). That’s the type of progression teams love to see out of high picks and the Eagles deservedly rewarded him with a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie contract, making him one of the highest paid tight ends in the league.
I see no reason why Ertz couldn’t continue to improve his pass catching numbers. He still only played 68.2% of the Eagles’ offensive snaps last season and he doesn’t even turn 26 until November. Plus, he was hampered by off-season hernia surgery early in the year last year, missing the opener and not really hitting his stride until the Eagles’ 6th game of the season as a result. He averaged 5.9 catches for 68.1 yards and 0.2 touchdowns per game in the Eagles’ final 11, which extrapolates to 95 catches for 1089 yards and 3 touchdowns over 16 games.
That’s a high end estimate, especially since the Eagles figure to play with a slower pace this season, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he topped 1000 yards in 2016 (a number just 4 tight ends exceeded in 2015) and the 6-5 250 pounder should get more use in the red zone, after scoring just twice on 75 catches in 2015. New head coach Doug Pederson comes from Kansas City, where a similar tight end Travis Kelce has scored 10 times on 139 catches in the last 2 seasons. Ertz is my pick to lead the team in receiving yards, over Matthews.
Ertz wasn’t the only Eagles tight end to get a new contract this off-season, as the Eagles re-signed Brent Celek to a 3-year, 13 million dollar deal. It was a bit of a surprising move, as Celek is going into his age 31 season and has seen his snaps decrease in each of the last 3 seasons, with Ertz emerging, going from 861 to 845 to 815 to 601 in 2012-2015 respectively. The presence of Celek has always somewhat limited Ertz’s snap counts and he could continue to be a thorn in Ertz’s side in that sense this season, but it’s also possible that the Eagles just really value Celek’s run blocking and veteran leadership and wanted to keep him around, even as a highly paid blocking tight end who mostly sees the field in two-tight end sets. Either way, I don’t see Celek putting up big numbers in the passing game in 2016, though he’s graded out above average in 7 straight seasons overall.
As I mentioned, Chip Kelly’s ultimate undoing in Philadelphia was his off-season in charge of the roster, which inarguably made the Eagles’ roster less talented than it previously was. One of his best moves was sending running back LeSean McCoy to the Bills for middle linebacker Kiko Alonso. Even though McCoy was more valuable for the Bills last season than Alonso was for the Eagles in an injury plagued season, Alonso’s salary was a fraction of McCoy’s, freeing up valuable cap space for the Eagles.
The Eagles were also able to trade Alonso to the Dolphins this off-season in a deal that allowed the Eagles to move from 13 to 8 in the first round, paving the way for them eventually moving up to 2 to grab Wentz. By the NFL draft trade value chart, the Eagles got a 3rd round pick worth of value by moving up 5 spots, not to mention that they were able to dump Byron Maxwell’s atrocious contract on the Dolphins in the deal as well. With McCoy headed into his age 28 season at the running back position, owed 26.5 million guaranteed from 2015-2017, it would be hard to imagine someone trading a 3rd rounder or the equivalent for McCoy last off-season.
Where Kelly made a huge mistake was using that freed up cap space to sign DeMarco Murray to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal to replace McCoy. Murray, an injury prone player whose production in Dallas can largely be attributed to the Cowboys’ offensive line and offensive supporting cast, struggled mightily in 2015 with the Eagles, rushing for 702 yards and 6 touchdowns on 193 carries (3.64 YPC). He spent much of the second half of the season in the doghouse, totaling just 38 carries over the final 5 weeks of the season.
The Eagles were fortunately able to get Murray to agree to a pay cut as part of a trade to the Titans this off-season, freeing them from what would have been a 7 million dollar guaranteed salary for Murray in 2016. The Eagles just got a swap of 4th round picks in the trade, but that’s a whole lot better than paying him. The problem is the Eagles didn’t really replace Murray, leaving the Eagles pretty thin at the running back position. That could be an issue if the Eagles want to run the ball as frequently this season as Pederson’s offenses in Kansas City did over the last 3 seasons (1564 pass attempts vs. 1311 carries).
Ryan Mathews will be the lead back with Murray gone. You could do a lot worse than Mathews, as Mathews has a 4.57 career YPC, a solid all-around skill set, experience as a lead back (topping 250 touches in both 2011 and 2013), and was easily the Eagles’ best running back last season, rushing for 539 yards and 6 touchdowns on 106 carries (5.08 YPC). However, durability has always been the issue for the 2010 1st round pick, as he has missed 23 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league and has been limited in many others. It’s not going to be easier for him to stay healthy as he heads into his age 29 season either. He’s a talented player, but ill-suited to be a feature back in a run heavy offense. The Eagles should be happy with 250 touches out of him and should be wary of running him into the ground.
Unfortunately, they might not have a choice because, as I mentioned, they didn’t add a real replacement for Murray and don’t have much depth at the position. The Eagles did not add a running back in free agency and did not draft one until the 5th round (West Virginia’s Wendell Smallwood), a big consequence of the Eagles’ huge trade up for Wentz that left them with just one other pick besides Wentz in the first four rounds. Smallwood lacks feature back size at 5-10 208, isn’t a powerful runner, and is probably ultimately going to be more of a long-term replacement for Darren Sproles than anything, but he provides valuable speed and pass catching ability out of the backfield.
Sproles, meanwhile, is still around, but is going into his age 33 season. Over the past 7 years, Sproles has averaged 67.3 carries and 61.6 catches per season, while averaging 4.97 yards per carry and 8.79 yards per catch. Last season, he had a similar usage to his career averages, with 83 carries and 55 catches, but averaged just 3.82 yards per carry and 7.05 yards per catch. He’s a declining player at this point in his career. He’ll work in behind Ryan Mathews in obvious passing situations, though he may see less usage than he’s used to with Smallwood in town. Like Smallwood and Mathews, he’s ill-suited for a big role. The only other running backs on the roster are Kenjon Barner, a 5-9 195 pound 2013 6th round pick with 34 career carries, and undrafted free agent Cedric O’Neal, neither of whom are lock for the final roster. They have a serious depth issue behind an injury prone starter.
One of the reasons the Eagles struggled to run the ball last season is because they got rid of veteran guards Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis last off-season (the latter of whom was once again one of the best guards in the NFL last season) and did nothing to replace them. That left Allen Barbre and Matt Tobin to play the majority of the snaps and both predictably struggled. This especially hurt Murray, who is primarily a between the tackles runner and needs good interior blocking.
The Eagles clearly made upgrading their offensive guards a priority this off-season, signing Brandon Brooks to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal to shore up the right side and adding Stefen Wisniewski on a one-year deal and Isaac Seumalo in the 3rd round of the draft (with their only other draft pick in the first 4 rounds) to compete with the incumbent Barbre. Barbre wasn’t horrible last season, finishing 43rd out of 81 eligible guards, but Wisniewski should be able to beat him out for the job. He’s going into his age 32 season, but has just 24 career starts in 8 seasons in the league, 16 of which came last season. On top of that, he’s only graded out above average just once in those 8 seasons.
Wisniewski, meanwhile, has made 77 starts in 5 years in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011 and has generally been a solid starter, grading out 17th, 11th, 22nd, and 19th among centers from 2012-2015 respectively. The one concern is he hasn’t played left guard since he was a rookie and that was the worst season of his career. It’s possible he’s better the second time around at left guard, now that he’s no longer a rookie, but it’s also possible Barbre or Seumalo beat him out.
Unfortunately for Wisniewski, playing center isn’t an option in Philadelphia, barring injuries, as center Jason Kelce is one of the best centers in the league. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked center in 2013, #8 in 2014, and then #8 again last season. With improved play at the guard spots around him, he could be even better this season. New right guard Brandon Brooks should be a huge upgrade over Matt Tobin, even though Brooks is coming off of a down year. Even in his down year, he was better than Tobin, grading out 37th among guards last season. In 2013 and 2014 respectively, he graded out 8th and 10th respectively among guards.
While the Eagles’ got poor play at the guard position last season, the rest of their offensive line was really good. They had a strong offensive line going into training camp this off-season, but lost right tackle Lane Johnson for 10 games, after he failed his 2nd performance enhancing drugs test. Johnson is claiming he received a tainted supplement, but the suspension is unlikely to be overturned. It’s a huge loss for the Eagles. Johnson finished in the top-15 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2014 and 2015 and could have had his best year yet in 2016, as the 2013 4th overall pick is only 26.
The Eagles were certainly betting on his best football being ahead of him, giving him a 5-year, 56.2 million dollar extension this off-season, with 2 years left on his rookie deal. It’s unclear how much of that extension is still guaranteed now and he faces an uncertain future with the team. If he can come back and play well in the final 6 games of the season, it’ll be a big boost, but, in the meantime, it looks like the Eagles will turn to Allen Barbre, at least to start the season. He also has experience at right tackle, but has never been good no matter where he’s played and isn’t getting better as he goes into his age 32 season. He’s a significant downgrade and could be pushed for snaps by 5th round rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai later in the season.
Fortunately, left tackle Jason Peters is also coming off of another strong season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked offensive tackle in 2015, which was actually a down year by his standards, as he was a top-4 offensive tackle in each of his previous 4 healthy seasons. That may be the beginning of the end for him though, as he heads into his age 34 season. The Eagles will have a big decision to make on Peters next off-season, as he’ll be owed a non-guaranteed 10.2 million in 2017 in his age 35 season. The long-term plan was to move Johnson to the left side in the next couple years, but the suspension obviously clouds things. All that being said, I do expect Peters to have another at least solid year on what should be an overall solid offensive line, though the loss of Johnson obviously hurts.
With Chip Kelly getting fired and Doug Pederson coming in, the Eagles are also switching defensive coordinators, going from Billy Davis to Jim Schwartz. Davis’ defenses allowed some big numbers, but were never terrible, finishing 22nd in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013, 12th in 2014, and 22nd in 2015, as much of their apparent defensive struggles were as a result of Chip Kelly’s fast paced offense. Things will be easier on them with Doug Pederson coming in (though their offense won’t produce as many yards and points as a result). Davis to Schwartz is also a significant upgrade at defensive coordinator, as Davis’ defenses often seemed to underperform their talent, while Schwartz is one of the better defensive coordinators in the NFL. He’ll also transition them from a 3-4 to 4-3, which I think fits their personnel better.
One thing that won’t change is the fact that Fletcher Cox is the centerpiece of this front 7 and their best defensive player. The 12th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Cox has been successful both as a 4-3 defensive tackle and a 3-4 defensive end in his career, grading out 19th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus as a rookie in 2012, 13th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014, and then 2nd among 3-4 defensive ends in 2015. A collegiate defensive tackle, Cox should have no problem switching back to a 4-3 in 2016 and is a great fit for Jim Schwartz’s defense. The Eagles clearly agree, giving him a massive 6-year, 103 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie contract in 2016.
On the outside, defensive end Brandon Graham should also be unaffected by the scheme change and may even be a better fit in a 4-3. He doesn’t get the attention that Cox does, but I’d argue he’s close to as important to this defense as Cox is, as Graham is one of the best outside pass rushers in the NFL. Despite being a first round pick in 2010, Graham was a bit of a late bloomer, struggling with injuries in the first 2 seasons of his career and not becoming an an every down player until last season.
Graham played just 435 snaps in 2012, 331 snaps in 2013, and 524 snaps in 2014, but, in all 3 seasons, no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out better at the position, meaning he was about as efficient on a per snap basis as anyone in the NFL. In 2015, he played a career high 856 snaps and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Only going into his age 28 season and with no games missed due to injury over the past 4 seasons, I see no reason why he couldn’t be as good or better this season. Like Cox, he’s a great fit for Schwartz’s system.
The player who probably benefits the most from the scheme change is Vinny Curry, who has shown great pass rush ability from the interior in sub packages, grading out 8th, 9th, and 6th among 3-4 defensive ends in pass rush grade over the past 3 seasons respectively. However, he hasn’t shown the ability to hold up against the run as a 3-4 defensive end, predictable considering he’s undersized for the position 6-3 279. As a result, the 426 snaps he played last season were a career high for the 2012 2nd rounder and just 69 of his snaps came on run plays. Transitioning to a 4-3, the Eagles seem to have big plans for him, re-signing him for a whopping 47.25 million over 5 years this off-season. They wouldn’t be paying him that kind of money if he was going to remain purely a sub package interior pass rusher. He’ll probably also see significant snaps in base packages as a 4-3 defensive end and should hold up better against the run in the new scheme.
Curry will split snaps inside with Bennie Logan, a 6-2 315 pounder who is essentially the polar opposite of Curry, strong against the run, but not much of a pass rusher. Previously a nose tackle in Philadelphia’s 3-4, Logan isn’t a great fit for Schwartz’ scheme, but complements Curry well and should still provide valuable run stopping ability on early downs. He graded out 10th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in run stopping grade last season. Mike Martin will also provide depth at the defensive tackle position. Prior to Philadelphia, he spent the first 4 years of his career as a rotational defensive tackle in Tennessee, where he flashed in limited action, especially as a pass rusher. He’s solid depth.
Along with Graham and Curry, Connor Barwin will play a big role outside as a defensive end, converting from 3-4 outside linebacker, a position he’s played for 5 seasons. Barwin has reached double digit sacks in 2 of those 5 seasons, but isn’t very effective against the run, and has only graded out above average in 2 of 6 healthy seasons in the NFL. Barwin has been among the league leaders in snaps played among edge rushers over the past couple seasons, topping 1000+ snaps played in each of the last 2 seasons, but now, going into his age 30 season, at a loaded defensive end position, Barwin figures to see his snaps reduced. He’ll play primarily a sub package role as an edge rusher. He’s the one player negatively affected by the scheme switch.
Also in the mix for snaps at defensive end is Marcus Smith, a 2014 1st round pick who, thus far in his career, is one of the biggest busts in recent memory. Unable to impress his coaches enough to even get on the field, despite a first round pedigree, Smith has only played 205 snaps in 2 seasons in the league. Only going into his age 24 season, it’s possible that Smith turns it around in his 3rd year in the league, with a new coaching staff coming in and implementing a 4-3 scheme that he played in as a collegiate player at the University of Louisville. He also could struggle to see the field again, but the Eagles have enough depth on the defensive line that they can view anything they get from Smith as a bonus. It’s a loaded and deep defensive line across the board.
As I mentioned earlier, the Eagles sent Kiko Alonso to the Dolphins in the off-season trade that allowed them to move up from 13 to 8 in the draft and to dump Byron Maxwell and his 8.5 million dollar guaranteed salary for 2016 on the Dolphins. The Eagles replaced Alonso this off-season by signing Nigel Bradham, who ironically was the one who replaced Alonso in Buffalo, when Alonso tore his ACL prior to the 2014 season. Bradham finished that 2014 season as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, but had a down year in 2015, finishing the season 81st among 97 eligible linebackers.
As a result, the Eagles were able to sign him fairly inexpensively this off-season, bringing him in on a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal. Last season was the first season of his career in which he graded out below average, as he flashed on 402 and 288 snaps respectively in 2012 and 2013, and he reunites with Jim Schwartz, who was his defensive coordinator in Buffalo in 2014, so there’s certainly a lot of bounce back potential here. He’ll primarily play a two-down role anyway and come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, which should make live easier for him.
Alonso wasn’t the only linebacker the Eagles lost this off-season, as they released DeMeco Ryans, owed 3.5 million non-guaranteed ahead of his age 32 season in 2016. He won’t be missed though, as Ryans was a shell of his former self last season (and really for the past couple seasons), finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 75th ranked linebacker out of 97 eligible. There’s a reason he’s still unsigned on the open market as of this writing. He’ll be replaced by Jordan Hicks, a 2015 3rd round pick who flashed on 459 snaps as a rookie when injuries struck the Eagles’ linebacking corps, before going down for the season with an injury of his own. He should be 100% recovered from that torn pectoral this season and, though he’s still unproven, the Eagles have big hopes for him as an every down middle linebacker. He was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked linebacker as a rookie.
Along with Hicks, Mychal Kendricks will also play every down at linebacker for the Eagles. Kendricks is commonly seen as one of the league’s better linebackers and he had a dominant season in 2014, finishing 6th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. However, he’s bookended that season with below average years in 2012, 2013, and then again in 2015, when he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked linebacker out of 97 eligible. The Eagles, who gave Kendricks a 4-year, 29 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of his contract year, are obviously going to be hoping for a bounce-back year from Kendricks, but it’s hard to know what they’re going to get from him, especially as he moves back to outside linebacker for the first time since his rookie season, when he especially struggled. WIth Bradham, Hicks, and Kendricks, it’s a trio with tremendous upside, but a relatively low floor as well.
The Eagles seem to recognize that and added veteran linebacker Stephen Tulloch for depth purposes. A cap casualty who wasn’t released by the Lions until late July, when he was finally healthy, Tulloch still managed to get 3 million from the Eagles on a 1-year deal, suggesting the Eagles are at least ready to start him if they need to. He’s purely a middle linebacker, but Hicks could play either outside linebacker spot if they needed him to, so Tulloch wouldn’t be purely a replacement for Hicks if he entered the starting lineup. Tulloch has experience with Jim Schwartz from Schwartz’s days as the head coach in Detroit, so there won’t be much of a learning curve for him, meaning he could end up starting sooner rather than later.
Tulloch started his career strong, grading above average in 6 of 7 seasons from 2007-2013, including a 2013 season in which he finished 2nd among middle linebackers for Schwartz’s Lions. However, he missed 13 games with a torn ACL in 2014, wasn’t the same in 2015, finishing below average, and then was released this off-season. Still only going into his age 31 season, there’s definitely bounce back potential here and he was a good, cheap depth signing, but he’s still hard to trust as a starter. It’s a solid linebacking corps overall though.
While the Eagles’ front 7 is an obvious strength, they have issues in the secondary, especially at cornerback. I mentioned that they unloaded Byron Maxwell in the Kiko Alonso trade, allowing them to get out of the 6-year, 63 million dollar deal that the Eagles foolishly signed him to under Chip Kelly’s watch last off-season. That’s a win just because they were able to get out of the remaining 11.5 million guaranteed on his contract (including his 8.5 million dollar salary in 2016), simply not worth it for a player who had one good year in Seattle and who finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 75th ranked cornerback out of 111 eligible. Getting rid of him freed up valuable cap space.
However, they didn’t really do anything to replace him, so they’ll have to do so internally. Eric Rowe, their 2nd round pick last off-season, was the early favorite for the job, despite grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 82nd ranked cornerback out of 111 eligible on 503 snaps last season. However, he has reportedly had a bad off-season and will have to compete for snaps with a couple of ex-Buffalo cornerbacks in Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks, both of whom played under Schwartz in 2014.
Brooks only played 54 snaps last season and has largely been a special teamer in 4 years in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2012 (3 career starts), so McKelvin should be the favorite for the starting job, with Brooks likely being the 4th cornerback. However, McKelvin is heading into his age 31 season and has missed 30 games in 8 years in the league, including 7 last season. In the 9 games he played, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 83rd ranked cornerback out of 111 eligible on 388 snaps, leading to his release by the Bills. It’s possible Rowe could overtake him as the starter by mid-season.
Nolan Carroll, meanwhile, should remain the starter on the opposite side. He had a solid year last year before missing the final 5 games of the season with a broken ankle and has overall been a league average starter in 34 starts over the past 4 seasons. He’s an unspectacular player, but he might be their best cornerback and they were wise to bring him back on a cheap 1-year deal this off-season. However, when he’s your best cornerback, it’s a problem. It’s a position of weakness for the Eagles.
Fortunately, things are a lot better at safety, especially after the Eagles signed Rodney McLeod to a 5-year, 37 million dollar contract this off-season. McLeod has made all 48 starts over the past 3 seasons and has improved significantly in each of his 3 seasons as a starter. He graded out 75th among 86 eligible safeties in 2013, but has graded out above average in each of the past 2 seasons and finished 10th at the position in 2015. He’ll be a very valuable addition to this team, replacing the retired Walter Thurmond.
At the other safety spot, Malcolm Jenkins was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked safety in 2015. A 2009 1st round pick by the Saints, Jenkins had an inconsistent tenure in New Orleans, playing both cornerback and safety and having serious peaks and valleys in his play. However, he’s been great in 2 seasons in Philadelphia, grading out 19th and 2nd in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Ahead of the final year of the 3-year deal he signed with the Eagles two off-seasons ago, the Eagles gave Jenkins a 5-year, 40.5 million dollar extension this off-season, keeping him in Philadelphia for the foreseeable future. He and McLeod are both locked up long-term and are one of the best safety duos in the NFL. They’ll help mask some of the Eagles deficiencies at cornerback.
The Eagles just barely missed out on winning the NFC East last season and I like a lot of what they did this off-season, to reinvent their roster and their coaching staff. They got rid of dead weight like DeMarco Murray and Byron Maxwell and locked up a lot of their young core. They also added right guard Brandon Brooks to fill a big hole upfront. On the other hand, they lost right tackle Lane Johnson to a 10-game suspension. They also spent most of their draft picks trading up to grab quarterback Carson Wentz, while sending away proven veteran Sam Bradford. However, I like the addition of Jim Schwartz on defense and I think overall this is the most talented roster in the NFC East and the team most likely to win the division and sneak into the playoffs.
Prediction: 9-7 1st in NFC East