Philadelphia Eagles 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Eagles went from dead last in the NFC East at 7-9 in 2016 to Super Bowl Champions in 2017, but that shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. The 2016 Eagles were better than their record suggested, as they finished with a +36 point differential that was better than 5 playoff teams. That was despite the fact that they were without stud offensive lineman Lane Johnson for most of the season with suspension (5-1 in the 6 games he played) and despite their underwhelming passing game, with rookie Carson Wentz throwing to one of the thinner receiving corps in the league. With Johnson returning from suspension, Wentz going into his second season in the league, and an improved receiving corps, a big jump in win total looked likely for them last season so, while they were not an obvious Super Bowl choice, it’s not a surprise that they had a strong season.

What pushed this team from a good team to a great one was their quarterback play. Carson Wentz took a huge statistical step forward in his second season in the league. After completing 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.23 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions as a rookie, Wentz completed 60.2% of his passes for an average of 7.49 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in his second season in the league and he almost doubled his rushing yardage from 150 to 299. Part of his statistical improvement came from having a much improved receiving corps, but there’s no denying Wentz was a vastly improved quarterback from year 1 to year 2. He jumped from 23rd to 5th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and was considered an MVP front runner for most of the year.

Wentz is still only going into his age 26 season, so he could keep getting better, but his development hit a snag when he tore his ACL down the stretch last season. Backup quarterback Nick Foles was still able to guide this team to a Super Bowl victory, but Wentz’s injury could end up having long-term effects if he isn’t able to return at 100% right away and it complicates his development. He could easily have another strong season in 2018, but it could be a few years before he develops into a consistently top level quarterback.

Foles returns to the backup role with Wentz returning and, assuming Wentz is able to start week 1 as planned, Foles will be the first Super Bowl MVP in NFL history to begin the next season on the bench. Foles played incredibly well in both the NFC Championship and the Super Bowl, but he had some bad games late in the season and he’s been inconsistent throughout his career, so Wentz is the obvious choice to remain the starter. The Eagles finished the regular season 8th in first down rate at 35.91%, but were much better with Wentz under center, moving the chains at a 37.53% rate in his 13 starts, as opposed to 28.02% in Foles’ 3 regular season starts. Foles also struggled in their first post-season game.

Given Foles’ inconsistency, it’s a surprise that the Eagles were offered a high 2nd round pick for him in a trade this off-season, after he was available on just a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. The Eagles ended up turning that offer down because they are in win now mode and know the value of a reliable backup quarterback, even if they expect Wentz to return to form. This is arguably the best quarterback situation in the NFL and both quarterbacks are under contract inexpensively, which has allowed the Eagles to spend significant money at other positions.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Unlike many Super Bowl winners, the Eagles have a very good chance to repeat. Not only do they get their franchise quarterback back from injury, but they had almost no losses this off-season, with most of their key players already locked up on long-term deals. As important as their quarterback play was last season, this was also probably the best all-around team in the league last season and that allowed them to keep winning down the stretch, even when Foles had some underwhelming starts.

On the other hand, the Eagles have little financial flexibility long-term. They are already well over the 2019 cap, even before re-signing several key players who are scheduled to hit free agency next off-season. Wentz will also be eligible for an extension next off-season as well and will be due a massive increase at some point, assuming he returns to form. The Eagles kept this team together for 2018 and will compete for another Super Bowl, but 2019 might be a different story.

Top wide receiver Alshon Jeffery was scheduled for free agency this off-season, signed from the Bears last off-season on an incentivized one-year deal that ended up paying him 9.75 million, but the Eagles locked him up long-term on a 4-year, 52 million dollar extension late last season. Jeffery only had a 57/789/9 slash line, but he had much better chemistry with Wentz than Foles. In his 13 games with Wentz, he had a 52/732/8 slash line, which extrapolates to 64/901/10 over a 16 game season. Wentz also did not throw a single interception on a target to him all season, on 105 targets. Primarily a deep route runner, he should benefit the most from Wentz’s return.

Jeffery should also benefit from better health of his own. While he played all 16 games, he played through a shoulder injury for most of the season. From 2013-2016, he averaged a 85/1263/7 slash line per 16 games with the Bears. He probably won’t see the 9.1 targets per game he saw with the Bears, as part of a deep receiving corps, but he had 7.5 targets per game last season with Wentz, which is still a fair amount, and he has obvious statistical bounce back potential.

The Eagles also added Torrey Smith last off-season, signing him to a 3-year, 15 million dollar, but he spent most of the year as the third receiver behind Nelson Agholor, who had a mini-breakout year, finishing 18th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and posting a 62/768/8 slash line on 95 targets. Agholor’s season comes as a bit of a surprise, as he was one of the worst receivers in the league in his first 2 seasons in the league, finishing dead last among wide receivers on PFF on both seasons, but he was a first rounder in 2015 and finally showed why last season. Converting him into a slot receiver proved to be a smart move, as that’s where he did most of his damage last season. He’s a one year wonder, but he’s also only in his age 25 season, so he could keep getting better.

Tight end Zach Ertz is also a big part of the passing game, with a 74/824/8 slash line on 110 targets last season. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Ertz flashed as a part-time player early in his career with slash lines of 36/469/4 and 58/702/3 in his first two seasons in the league respectively and has averaged a 76/831/5 slash line in the three seasons since. He’s also gotten a positive grade from PFF for his pass catching in all 5 seasons in the league, maxing out as PFF’s 4th ranked pass catching tight end in 2017. He’s not much of a blocker, but he’s only in his age 28 season with no injury history, so he should remain one of the best pass catching tight ends in the league.

The Eagles also added to their receiving corps this off-season, signing veteran wide receiver Mike Wallace to a 1-year deal worth 3 million and using a second round pick on South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert. Wallace will replace Torrey Smith, who was sent to Carolina this off-season, following a miserable 2017 season in which he had just a 36/430/2 slash line on 69 targets, finished 115th among 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF, and lost playing time down the stretch to #4 receiver Mack Hollins, a 2017 4th round pick. Owed 5 million non-guaranteed in 2018, the Eagles were going to release Smith for nothing if they couldn’t trade him, so credit them for getting a promising young cornerback in Daryl Worley, even if they had to release Worley a couple months later after an off-the-field incident. Why Carolina wanted Smith at his current salary badly enough to trade anything for him is unclear.

Wallace should be an upgrade on Smith, but that doesn’t mean he won’t face competition from Hollins, who was decent on 282 snaps as a rookie. Wallace has been a capable starting receiver in recent years, but he’s going into his age 32 season and the Eagles didn’t exactly give him a big contract, so he’ll have to earn his role. He had a 52/748/4 slash line with the Ravens last season, but that was on 92 targets as their #1 receiver. He’ll have a much smaller role, albeit on a much better offense, in Philadelphia.

Goedert, meanwhile, will slot in as the #2 tight end. The Eagles have had arguably the deepest tight end group in the league in recent years, with a pair of talented backups in Trey Burton and Brent Celek, but Burton was signed by the Bears on a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal this off-season, while Celek was released, ahead of his age 33 season, in which he would have been owed 4 million. Tight end depth was one of the Eagles’ few needs this off-season and Goedert should have an immediate role. He’s raw, but won’t have to play a huge role and he has a high upside. This is a solid group overall once again, possibly even better with Wallace replacing Smith.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Along with wide receiver, running back was a position of need for the Eagles last off-season, as Ryan Mathews, who spent 2017 out of the league, led the 2016 Eagles with 155 carries. The Eagles added veteran running back LeGarrette Blount in free agency and signed promising undrafted free agent Chris Clement, but their big upgrade at running back didn’t come until mid-season, when they sent a 2018 4th round pick to the Dolphins for Jay Ajayi at the trade deadline.

Ajayi was a 1200+ yard rusher and finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in run grade in 2016, but he averaged just 3.37 yards per carry through 7 games with the Dolphins in 2017 and they decided to scapegoat him for their offensive issues by dealing him for cheap, even though he was PFF’s 3rd ranked running back in terms of running grade at that point in the season and averaged 2.77 yards per carry after contact.

On a much better offense with the Eagles, he had a 5.83 yards per carry average. He only had 10 carries per game in 7 regular season games, but that number went up to 14 in the post-season and, with LeGarrette Blount signing with the Lions this off-season, expect his carry total to keep going up. Blount averaged 4.43 yards per carry on 173 carries last season, but Ajayi has a much better upside. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, this could easily be his final season on Philadelphia, but could have a big year as the lead back on a strong offense.

Ajayi’s one weakness is pass catching, as he has just 58 catches in 38 career games, but the Eagles fortunately have Darren Sproles returning from an injury shortened season. He will return to his old passing down role and will also mix in as a change of pace back, after playing just 89 snaps in 3 games last season before tearing his ACL. Sproles averaged 63 catches per season in his previous 7 seasons prior to the injury, but I would expect him to have fewer this season. Not only is he coming off the injury, but he’s also now two years older than his last full season (52 catches) and is going into his age 35 season. Sproles has already announced this will be his final season in the league. Unlike most running backs, Sproles has never topped 100 carries in a season, so he’s fresher than most backs in their mid 30s.

The Eagles also have Corey Clement, a jack of all trades back with 4.34 yards per carry on 74 carries, 10 catches for 123 yards, and 6 total touchdowns as an undrafted rookie. He’ll rotate in both on early downs and on passing downs and he should have more touches than he did as a rookie. Blount leaves behind a significant amount of carries and Clement figures to be second on the team in carries behind Ajayi. This is an improved backfield, even from a year ago, with Sproles returning and Ajayi taking on a larger role.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Wentz was not the not major injury the Eagles dealt with on the road to the Super Bowl, as they lost several other key players for the season. Probably the biggest loss was left tackle Jason Peters, who went down for the season after 7 starts with a torn ACL. In his absence, the Eagles started Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a second year swing tackle and 2016 5th round pick, but he struggled mightily, finishing 79th among 83 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He was a big downgrade from Peters, who was PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle at the time of his injury. A top-13 offensive tackle on PFF in 6 straight healthy seasons prior to last season, Peters will be a big re-addition for this team, but he’s not a lock to return to form, coming off of a serious injury and going into his age 36 season.

Even with Peters out for the year, this was still one of the best offensive lines in the league. Left guard was a bit of an issue, as week 1 starter Isaac Seumalo struggled mightily and then was benched for veteran Stefen Wisniewski midway through week 3. Wisniewski was decent in 11 starts, but then missed two games down the stretch with injury and his replacement Chance Warmack also struggled. Wisniewski has 94 starts in 7 seasons in the league and is still only in his age 29 season. A consistent capable starter, he should start week 1 this year and the Eagles would benefit from him making all 16 starts if possible.

The rest of this offensive line all played at a Pro-Bowl level, as right tackle Lane Johnson, center Jason Kelce, and right guard Brandon Brooks finished 10th among offensive tackles, 1st among centers, and 3rd among guards on PFF respectively. Johnson has missed 14 games in his career due to two suspensions for performance enhancing drugs, but he’s only missed one other game in 5 seasons in the league and has been a top-17 offensive tackle on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons.

Originally drafted 4th overall in 2013, Johnson was drafted by the Eagles with the idea of playing him at left tackle long-term after Peters, but Peters has played well into his mid 30s and, even with Peters out last season, Johnson stayed at right tackle, with Vaitai playing the blindside instead, even as Vaitai continued to struggle. It’s unclear if that’s their new long-term plan because Johnson has played so well at right tackle or if they just didn’t want to move him mid-season, but Peters is nearing the end and Johnson’s 11.252 million dollar annual salary is much more in line with left tackles than right tackles. He’s the highest paid right tackle by over 1.75 million annually, but would rank just 13th among left tackles. He has the athleticism to play either side, but figures to remain at right tackle for the foreseeable future.

Kelce and Brooks are also highly paid, on deals worth 6.3 million and 8 million annually, but both are bargains at that price. They’ve made 76 starts and 74 starts respectively in the past 5 seasons combined and both have finished in the top-8 at their respective position in 4 of those 5 seasons. Kelce is getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season, but Brooks is only in his age 29 season. Both should at least have another solid season on an offensive line that could easily be even better in 2018, with Peters returning from injury.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

The Eagles also had a strong defense last season, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed, which carried them down the stretch when Foles was struggling. They were led by their defensive line, which is arguably the deepest and most talented in the entire league. They rotated in 7 different linemen who all topped 400 snaps, but their two most dominant defensive linemen were defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham, who formed a devastating inside/outside combination.

Cox and Graham finished 6th and 4th among defensive tackles and 4-3 defensive ends respectively on Pro Football Focus. Both only see about two thirds of the snaps on a deep defensive line, but that keeps them really fresh and they ranked 3rd and 9th respectively at their position in pass rush productivity on a per pass rush snap basis in 2017, while also playing well against the run.

Both are far from one year wonders too, as Cox has ranked in the top-6 at his position on PFF in 4 straight seasons, while Graham has ranked in the top-8 among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF for 4 straight seasons, with back-to-back seasons in the top-4. Cox is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and, while Graham is now going into his age 30 season, he shouldn’t have that much of a drop off in 2018, if he has any.

Cox is locked up long-term on a 6-year, 102.6 million dollar deal that he is well worth, while Graham has been an absolute steal on a 4-year, 26 million deal, though he now enters the final year and is owed a significant increase that the Eagles may not be willing to give him, given his age and their cap situation. This could be his final season in Philadelphia, but it should be another good one unless he sees a significant drop off in his play.

Vinny Curry also played a big role on this defensive line last season, finishing with the third most snaps and starting all 16 games opposite Graham. He only had 3 sacks, but added 17 hits and 27 hurries on 366 pass rush snaps (13th among 4-3 defensive ends in pass rush productivity), played the run well, and finished 10th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF. Owed 9 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season, Curry was let go by the Eagles this off-season, but only because they traded a late round pick to the Seahawks for replacement Michael Bennett, who is set to make 5.65 million in 2018.

Bennett figures to take over as the starter opposite Graham and saves them a little bit of money, but he could easily be a downgrade and he too is also getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season. Bennett finished in the top-7 among 4-3 defensive ends in 6 straight seasons from 2011-2016, but he fell to around middle of the pack in 2017 and his best days are likely behind him. He also has off-the-field concerns and had issues with his coaching staff at the end of his time in Seattle. If the Seahawks could not find a taker for his contract, they likely would have just released him, even though he was just starting an extension that the Seahawks already paid him a 8 million dollar signing bonus on last off-season.

Reserve defensive ends Chris Long and Derek Barnett also played a role last season, with 496 snaps and 424 snaps respectively, and both earned positive grades. Long is going into his age 33 season and is unlikely to see a bigger role in 2018, but Barnett is a 2018 1st round pick who could easily play more snaps at a higher level in his second season in the league. The Eagles had more pass rush depth outside than inside last season, so they lined the 6-2 265 pound Graham up inside in passing situations about a third of the time. They still have more pass rush depth outside than inside this season, so I would expect them to continue using 3 defensive ends in passing situations with some regularity. Not only can Graham line up inside, but the 6-4 274 pound Bennett also has some experience as an inside rusher, playing about 40% of his pass rush snaps there last season.

Timmy Jernigan will be the primary inside rusher with Fletcher Cox in passing situations. Acquired from the Ravens for just a swap of third round picks last off-season, Jernigan was PFF’s 17th ranked defensive tackle on 493 snaps in 2017 and was given a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension late in the season, keeping one of their few key free-agents-to-be off the open market. Despite being acquired so inexpensively last season, Jernigan is not a one-year wonder. While last season was the best of his career, the 2014 2nd round pick earned positive grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league with the Ravens and started 28 of the 43 games he played in those 3 seasons.

They don’t have another good pass rushing defensive tackle though, which is where their defensive end depth will come in handy. Beau Allen was their 3rd defensive tackle with 422 snaps last season, but he didn’t provide much pass rush and he signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent this off-season. The Eagles replaced him with Haloti Ngata, a 12-year veteran. Ngata is coming off of a lost year due to a torn biceps and is only a two down player in his age 34 season, but that’s all the Eagles will need him to be on a deep defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

One key player the Eagles had that did hit the open market as a free agent this off-season was starting outside linebacker Nigel Bradham. Bradham earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus and made 15 starts, but he was not expected to be brought back. The Eagles had every down linebacker Jordan Hicks returning from injury and Mychal Kendricks, who played well in Hicks’ absence last season, could also play every down. Instead, the Eagles kept Bradham on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal and sent Kendricks packing, rather than paying him 6 million non-guaranteed.

Kendricks was PFF’s 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season, but he’s been inconsistent in the past and is much better against the run than he is in coverage, so the Eagles might have made the correct choice. Bradham’s contract is a steep increase on his previous 2-year, 7 million dollar deal, but he signed that deal after a miserable final year in Buffalo, when he finished dead last out of 35 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. In two seasons in Philadelphia, where he reunited with ex-defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Bradham has been much better, earning positive grades in both seasons and finishing 5th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2016.

A 2012 4th round pick, Bradham has made 56 starts in the past 4 seasons combined and has earned a positive grade in all 3 seasons he’s played with Schwartz as his coordinator. The contract the Eagles gave him is also pretty low risk, as it guarantees just 6 million in the first year and the Eagles can get out of it at any point after 2018. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, I’d expect another strong year from him, though he will serve a suspension week 1 for an off-the-field incident from 2016.

Hicks returns to his every down role at middle linebacker, after tearing his achilles last October. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Hicks has played well when on the field in his career, but he had his rookie year ended by a torn pectoral and has played in just 31 of 48 games, so he hasn’t been the most durable player. Hicks was PFF’s 5th ranked middle linebacker in 2016 in his one healthy season and is still only in his age 26 season, but he’s a bit of a question mark going forward health wise. He’s one of the players the Eagles have on an expiring contract and I wouldn’t expect them to address his contract until they see him healthy on the field again. If he’s healthy, he’s one of the players they have to keep, as they lack depth at linebacker.

With Hicks out last season, Najee Goode, Joe Walker, and Dannell Ellerbe all struggled in stints as the 3rd linebacker. The Eagles signed veteran journeyman Paul Worrilow this off-season to hopefully give them a boost, but he tore his ACL this off-season and is out for the year. With Goode and Ellerbe gone and Walker likely locked in as the backup at middle linebacker, the Eagles are expected to start 2017 5th round pick Nathan Gerry, who played just 20 snaps as a rookie, as the 3rd linebacker in base packages. It’s a weakness in an otherwise strong group, but fortunately it’s just a base package role that won’t even play half of the snaps.

Grade: B

Secondary

Cornerback is another area where the Eagles were significantly improved from 2016 to 2017. After having one of the thinnest cornerback groups in the NFL in 2016, the Eagles added veteran Patrick Robinson in free agency, used a 2nd and a 3rd round pick on cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, and then traded a 2018 3rd round pick and receiver Jordan Matthews to the Bills for Ronald Darby.

Those four cornerbacks had mixed results, but the Eagles also got a much better year from second year cornerback Jalen Mills and overall had a solid group of cornerbacks. A 7th round pick in 2016, Mills went from dead last among 120 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 661 snaps as a rookie, playing largely out of desperation, to finishing around middle of the pack (71st) and making 15 starts in a much stronger cornerback group in 2017.

Mills wasn’t the biggest surprise in this secondary though, as Robinson, a journeyman cornerback who signed for the minimum on a one-year deal last off-season, finished as PFF’s 4th ranked cornerback on 710 snaps, primarily playing on the slot (496 snaps). He signed with the Saints for 5 million annually this off-season, which the cap strapped Eagles could not justify offering to an inconsistent veteran slot cornerback who is going into his age 31 season. He’s by far the Eagles’ biggest free agent loss of the off-season.

Despite that, this is still a solid group, with both Ronald Darby and Sidney Jones returning to form after injury plagued 2017 seasons. Darby suffered an ankle injury week 1 and missed the next 8 games, but he was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback over the final 7 weeks of the season after returning and made a big impact during their playoff run. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Darby has earned a positive grade in all 3 seasons in the league, topping out as PFF’s 7th ranked cornerback as a rookie. Still only going into his age 24 season, he has obvious upside and can be a #1 cornerback if he can stay healthy. He may play himself out of the Eagles’ price range as a free agent next off-season.

Jones, on the other hand, came into the league injured, tearing his achilles working out before the draft, which dropped him from a possible top-15 pick into the middle of the 2nd round. That’s a serious injury, but he had a good recovery, even returning to play 27 snaps in the Eagles’ week 17 game, before being deactivated for the playoffs. He should be close to 100% for week 1 and, while he’s unproven and could take some “rookie” lumps, he has obvious upside. He’ll at least have a role in the slot, replacing Robinson, and could compete with Mills for the other outside job in base packages. Douglas, who played 423 nondescript snaps as a 3rd round rookie, and this year’s 4th round pick Avonte Maddox, will likely be reserves.

At safety, the Eagles bring back the starting duo of Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins for the third straight season. Both players earned positive grades from PFF last season and both are proven starters. Jenkins is a 9-year veteran with 127 career starts and 4 straight seasons with a positive grade from PFF, while McLeod is a 6-year veteran with 78 career starts and 3 straight seasons with a positive grade from PFF. Jenkins is getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season, and has been on the decline a little since finishing #1 among safeties in 2015 (19th in 2017), but he could easily have another couple seasons left in the tank as a solid starter. McLeod, meanwhile, is in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. This is a solid secondary, even without Robinson.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Eagles didn’t lose much this off-season and the players they did lose they did a good job of replacing. They could also be healthier, with key players like Carson Wentz, Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, Jordan Hicks, and Ronald Darby missing big chunks of last season. Given that, the Eagles have as good of a chance of repeating as any team in recent memory. On paper, this is arguably the most talented and complete roster in the NFL.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Eagles enter the season a little shorthanded with Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffery still recovering from injuries and Nigel Bradham serving a one game suspension, but they are still the most talented team in the league and should push for another Super Bowl appearance, even in a loaded NFC.

Prediction: 13-3 1st in NFC East

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s