Philadelphia Eagles 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The 2017 Eagles won the Super Bowl, despite losing quarterback Carson Wentz for the season with a torn ACL, along with other key players like linebacker Jordan Hicks and offensive tackle Jason Peters. The 2018 Eagles dealt with a different level of injuries though and barely made the playoffs at 9-7 as a result. While the Eagles lost several notable players for the season in 2017, they still ranked just 13th in the league with 53.5 adjusted games lost to injury. In 2018, they had the 2nd most adjusted games lost to injury, more than doubling their 2017 total with 118.5 adjusted games lost to injury. They fell from 8th in first down rate, 3rd in first down rate allowed, and 5th in first down rate differential in 2017 to 13th, 8th, and 8th respectively in 2018.

Wentz dealt with injuries again, missing the first two games of the season rehabbing from the torn ACL and then missing the final 3 games of the season and playoffs with a back injury, but the Eagles weren’t really much worse with backup Nick Foles in the lineup. In Wentz’s 11 starts, the Eagles had a first down rate of 37.95%, as opposed to 36.04% in 7 starts with Foles under center. Wentz did not look healthy all season, dealing with knee and back issues, while Foles once again proved himself as the most valuable backup quarterback in the league.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, Foles was able to cash in on his value as an unrestricted free agent this off-season, signing a 4-year, 88 million dollar deal to be the starting quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wentz will need to stay healthy in 2019, as they almost definitely will be much worse with Wentz out of the lineup this time around. The Eagles have 2016 undrafted free agent Nate Sudfeld (25 career pass attempts), ex-Browns and Jaguars starter Cody Kessler (6.35 yards per attempt in 12 career starts), and 5th round rookie Clayton Thorson competing for the backup job. Sudfeld is a favorite of the coaching staff and is experienced in the system, while Kessler has starting experience, so they’re probably the two favorites for the job, with Thorson being more of a developmental prospect.

Whoever wins the backup job, Wentz needs to be in top form in 2019 for the Eagles to get back into Super Bowl contention. Wentz was an MVP candidate in 2017 before the injury and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked quarterback, but he fell to 14th in 2018 in a season in which he never looked quite right. He’s developing a concerning injury history, especially with how physically he plays the game, but the 2016 2nd overall pick still has the upside to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. If he stays healthy, he should have a strong 4th season in the league in 2019.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Another key injury for the Eagles was the torn ACL that ended running back Jay Ajayi’s season after 4 games. In his absence, Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood, and Corey Clement all had underwhelming and short lived runs as the lead back and the Eagles finished just 30th in the NFL in yards with carry with 3.94. Ajayi is still unsigned as a free agent as he rehabs from his injury, but the Eagles seem to have moved on, trading for ex-Bears starter Jordan Howard and using a 2nd round pick on Penn State’s Miles Sanders.

As the veteran, Howard will likely get the first crack at the lead back job. Howard had an impressive rookie year in 2016, averaging 5.21 yards per carry on 252 carries, but he dropped to 4.07 yards per carry in 2017 and 3.75 yards per carry in 2018. He’s proven he can carry a load, with 200+ carries in 3 straight seasons, and he’s worth a shot at the price of a 2020 6th round pick and a 2.025 million dollar salary. Perhaps he can find his early career form again in 2019.

Miles Sanders was added through the draft as insurance. Sanders was only a one year starter at Penn State, barely playing behind Saquon Barkley early in his career, but he averaged 5.79 yards per carry and scored 9 times on 220 carries in that one season and the fact that he comes into the NFL without a lot of tread on his tires might be a good thing. With Howard heading into the final year of his rookie deal, Sanders looks likely to be the feature starter and he figures to at least have a passing down role as a rookie. Howard has averaged just 24 catches per season in 3 seasons in the league, while Sanders showed promise as a passing down back on tape at Penn State. With a pair of new additions at running back, the Eagles should run the ball better in 2019.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Eagles also made additions to their receiving corps this off-season. With only two wide receivers topping 300 yards receiving 2018, the Eagles traded for veteran DeSean Jackson from Tampa Bay and used a 2nd round pick on Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Whiteside figures to be the 4th receiver and was drafted more as a long-term replacement for contract year wide receiver Nelson Agholor than as an immediate contributor, but DeSean Jackson looks likely to start with Agholor and Alshon Jeffery in 3 wide receiver sets.

Alshon Jeffery is likely to remain the #1 wide receiver, after posting a 65/843/6 slash line in 13 games in 2018. He’s averaged a 67/969/6 slash line over the past 6 seasons and, though he hasn’t topped 1000 yards since 2014, he’s still in his age 29 season and should have at least a couple more solid seasons left in the tank. Jeffery has been Carson Wentz’s favorite wide receiver target when both have been on the field together, but DeSean Jackson could challenge him for that in 2019.

Jackson is going into his age 33 season and has had injury problems, missing 14 games in the past 5 seasons, but he’s topped 1000 yards in his last 2 seasons with at least 15 games (2014 and 2016) and he was on a 1000+ yard pace last season through 12 games (41/774/4 slash line) before getting injured. He’ll probably miss a couple games again in 2019, but as long as his abilities don’t fall off a cliff he should be a valuable deep threat for this offense. His 17.7 yard per catch average is highest over the past 10 seasons among all pass catchers with at least 100 receptions over that time period.

Nelson Agholor will also have a role as the #3 wide receiver, lining up primarily on the slot. The 2015 1st round pick has shed the bust label, after his career started with just 59 catches in 2 seasons in the league, but his 62/768/8 and 64/736/4 slash lines from the past two seasons are underwhelming for a former first round pick. He’ll struggled to post big numbers in a crowded receiving corps in 2019 and he could be traded if they get a good offer or if Arcega-Whiteside has a strong off-season. His salary (9.387 million) is cost prohibitive for a 3rd receiver and he’s in the final year of his contract.

The Eagles’ tight ends will also be heavily involved in this passing game. Zach Ertz is coming off of a career best 116/1163/8 slash line and though he’s unlikely to match those totals in a more crowded receiving corps, he’s topped at least 700 yards receiving in 5 straight seasons and has been a top-8 overall tight end on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 6 seasons in the league. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Ertz could easily be the Eagles’ top target again in 2018, but the 156 targets (6th in the NFL) he had in 2018 seems unlikely.

#2 tight end Dallas Goedert will also have a role. He showed a lot of promise as a 2nd round rookie in 2018, posting a 33/334/4 slash line on 44 targets, blocking well, and overall finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked tight end on 523 snaps. It’s hard to see how his role could grow much in 2019 without an injury to Ertz, but he’s arguably the best #2 tight end in the league. This is a very deep receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Not much has changed for the Eagles on the offensive line, as they bring back everyone who made a start for them on the offensive line in 2018. Guard is the only position of uncertainty. At left guard, Stefen Wisniewski (7 starts in 2018) and Isaac Seumalo (9 starts in 2018) will compete for the starting job, while right guard Brandon Brooks is questionable for the start of the season after tearing his achilles in January during the playoffs.

Wisniewski is by far the more experienced of the two competing at left guard, with 101 career starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he struggled last season and is now going into his age 30 season. The Eagles released him this off-season ahead of a non-guaranteed 3 million dollar salary and brought him back for 1.5 million, suggesting they don’t view him as a starter. Seumalo, meanwhile, has just 15 career starts since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2016, but he outperformed Wisniewski in 2018, earning an average grade from Pro Football Focus on 548 snaps.

If Brooks isn’t ready for the start of the season, it’s very possible Wisniewski and Seumalo could both start week 1, as the Eagles lack a proven backup right guard. Brooks had made 90 starts in the past 6 seasons and has finished in the top-11 among guards on PFF in 5 of those 6 seasons, so the Eagles are obviously hoping he can make it back to full strength by week 1, but that could be tough less than 8 months removed from an injury that can sometimes take a year to recover from fully. He’s also in his age 30 season now, so his best days might be behind him.

The Eagles did draft an offensive lineman in the first round, trading up to take Washington State’s Andre Dillard 22nd overall, but he’s expected to be the swing tackle as a rookie. With left tackle Jason Peters going into an age 37 contract year and dealing with several nagging injuries last season, Dillard’s time will come sooner or later, but the Eagles are hoping that Peters can hold down the fort on the blindside again in 2019. He’s made 182 starts in 15 seasons in the league and was PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle as recently in 2016, but he was noticeably worse in 2018, after missing most of 2017 with a torn ACL.

Lane Johnson remains as the starter on the other side at right tackle. He’s made 80 starts in 6 seasons in the league and should continue playing at a high level in his age 29 season in 2019. He’s finished in the top-23 among offensive tackles on PFF in 5 straight seasons, including a 2018 season in which he finished 11th. He was originally drafted 4th overall in 2013 to eventually take over for Peters on the left side, but Peters has played longer than expected and the addition of Dillard in the first round suggests they plan on keeping Johnson at right tackle where he’s most comfortable long-term. That’s probably a smart move as moving him to left tackle when Peters is gone is a move that risks downgrading both left and right tackle.

Center Jason Kelce rounds out this line. He’s also coming off of a strong year, finishing #1 among centers on PFF and making all 16 starts. That’s pretty impressive, considering he was dealing with knee, elbow, and foot injuries for most of the second half of the season. Kelce hasn’t missed a game since 2014 and has finished in the top-5 of centers on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons, but he’s going into his age 32 season, so he may start to decline and suffer more injuries going forward. Even if that happens, he’ll still be one of the better centers in the league. This should remain one of the top offensive lines in the league.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

The Eagles also have one of the top defensive lines in the league. Veteran defensive ends Michael Bennett (716 snaps) and Chris Long (612 snaps) are no longer with the team, with the former getting sent to New England in a salary dump and the latter opting to retire at age 34, but this is still a deep defensive line. They get defensive end Derek Barnett and defensive tackle Tim Jernigan back from injury and they added defensive end Vinny Curry and defensive tackle Malik Jackson in free agency.

One player many thought the Eagles would lose this off-season was Brandon Graham, but the Eagles got creative, letting other players go and structuring Graham’s 3-year, 40 million dollar deal as a 5-year deal with automatically voiding years to limit his cap hit to 3.5 million in 2019. That cap hit jumps to 13.375 million in 2020 and 16.375 million in 2021 and he’ll have cap hits of 3.375 million in 2022 and 2023 even if he isn’t on the roster anymore, a risky deal for a player going into his age 31 season, but Graham is still playing at a high level and would have been a big loss on this defensive line.

Graham has never had a double digit sack season and has just 39.5 sacks in 7 seasons since 2012, but he gets to the quarterback more than his sack totals suggest, adding 61 hits and 393 hurries on 2,552 pass rush snaps (15.4% pressure rate) over those 7 seasons, and he plays at a high level against the run. Even getting up there in age, Graham was still Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked edge defender in 2018 and even if he starts to decline he should still play at a high level again in 2019.

Coming off of a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the final 10 games and playoffs in 2018, Derek Barnett is expected to be the other starting defensive end opposite Graham. After playing just 33.7 snaps per game as a rookie, the 2017 1st round pick started all 6 games he played in 2018 and averaged 39.0 snaps per game, which is 624 snaps over a 16 game season. If he stays healthy in 2019, he could easily see a snap total similar to or higher than that. Still only in his age 23 season, Barnett has shown a lot of promise thus far in 2 seasons in the league and could easily have a breakout 3rd season.

Free agent addition Vinny Curry will probably be the top reserve and have a significant rotational role. It’s a homecoming for Curry, who spent the first 7 seasons of his career in Philadelphia, before going to Tampa Bay on a 3-year, 23 million dollar deal last off-season. Curry struggled in Tampa Bay, leading to him getting released after just 1 year and 6.5 million, but he could prove to be a steal for the Eagles on a 1-year deal worth just 2.25 million. Curry’s age is a concern, going into his age 31 season, but he has a career 12.2% pressure rate and even in his 3-sack 2017 season he added 17 hits and 27 hurries on 367 pass rush snaps, giving him an impressive 12.8% pressure rate. He was PFF’s 91st ranked edge defender out of 113 qualifying in 2018, but could easily bounce back in a rotational role in 2019.

The Eagles also have high upside reserves in Josh Sweat and Shareef Miller, who were 4th round picks in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Sweat played just 68 snaps as a rookie, so neither has much experience, but there’s opportunity for at least one of them to play a significant role, given how much the Eagles like rotating defensive linemen. This looks like a very deep group, even with Michael Bennett and Chris Long both gone.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Eagles were not nearly as deep at defensive tackle as they were at defensive end last season, with Haloti Ngata, Treyvon Hester, and Destiny Vaeao all forced into playing more than the Eagles would have liked because expected starter Timmy Jernigan missed all but 45 snaps with a back injury. Jernigan’s injury problems led to the Eagles releasing Jernigan just 1 year and 13 million into a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension, but the Eagles eventually brought him back on a one-year deal at a much cheaper salary (11 million vs. 2 million) and if he’s healthy he should compete for a starting role. Prior to his injury plagued 2018 season, Jernigan earned average or better grades from Pro Football Focus in each of the first 4 seasons in the league on an average of 491 snaps per season. Only in his age 27 season, Jernigan has bounce back potential if he’s healthy.

Jernigan will compete for snaps with free agent acquisition Malik Jackson, who signed a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Jackson was once one of the better interior defensive linemen in the league, finishing in the top-32 among interior defenders on PFF in 5 straight seasons through 2017 and earning a 6-year, 85.5 million dollar deal from the Jaguars three off-seasons ago, but he had just an average season in 2018 and was released by the cap strapped Jaguars ahead of a 13 million dollar non-guaranteed salary.

Jackson is only going into his age 29 season, so he has a good chance to bounce back in 2019 and could be a good value for the Eagles at a cheaper rate. Even in his down 2018 season, he was still an effective pass rusher, with 3.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 38 hurries on 413 pass rush snaps (12.2% pressure rate). Rushing the passer will likely be his primary role with the Eagles, as Jernigan is a better run stuffer than pass rusher. Both players are capable of playing every down though and regardless of who ends up starting both should see a significant role.

As much as the Eagles like rotating their defensive linemen, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is a true every down player because he’s just too good to take off the field. He played 79.8% of the Eagles’ defensive snaps in 2018 (51.9 snaps per game). With more talent at the position, the Eagles may scale his snaps back closer to the 46.0 snaps per game he averaged from 2016-2017, but he’s one of the best defensive linemen in the entire league and he’s shown he can hold up on a huge snap count, so he won’t be getting too many breathers.

Cox has finished in the top-7 among interior defenders on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons and is coming off of a dominant 2018 season in which he was arguably the best defensive lineman in the league other than Aaron Donald. He had 10.5 sacks, 24 hits, and 60 hurries on 598 pass rush snaps, a ridiculous 15.8% pressure rate that only trailed Aaron Donald (18.2%) among interior defenders. Still only in his age 29 season with just 3 games missed to injury in his 8-year career, I see no reason to expect a drop off from him in 2019. He’ll have a lot more help inside this year too.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Eagles’ biggest off-season loss was middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, who was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked off ball linebacker in 2018. Hicks was one of many Eagles to miss time with injury last season, missing 4 games with a calf injury, and he’s missed a total of 21 games in 4 seasons in the league, so the cap strapped Eagles let him sign with the Cardinals on a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal. His likely replacement will be ex-Redskin Zach Brown, who comes over on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal.

At that price, Brown could prove to be a steal, given his run stopping ability (6th among off ball linebackers on PFF in run stopping grade in 2018 and 13th in 2017), but he’s not nearly the same player Hicks is in coverage and would be best as a pure base package player, especially now that he’s going into his age 30 season. His main competition will be fellow free agent signing LJ Fort, who comes from Pittsburgh on a 3-year, 5.5 million dollar deal. Fort was primarily a special teams player before 2018, when he was forced into action on defense and flashed on a career high 305 snaps. Fort is already in his age 29 season, but could prove to be a late bloomer. He could also struggle in a larger role and the 2012 undrafted free agent is highly unproven, but his contract suggests he’ll compete for a role on defense.

Fort could also see action at one of the outside linebacker spots in base packages. Kamu Grugier-Hill played that base package linebacker role last season (330 snaps) and the 2016 6th round pick played well enough in the first significant action of his career in 2018 that he could easily keep that job in 2019. Nathan Gerry, a 2017 5th round pick, could also be in the mix, but he’s played just 157 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and is not a lock for the final roster.

Nigel Bradham remains as an every down player, after playing 920 snaps in 15 games last season. Bradham has earned average or better grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons (46 starts) and is equally good against the run as he is in coverage. Even going into his age 30 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue being a useful every down outside linebacker for at least another couple seasons. He’s now their top linebacker without Jordan Hicks, whose absence will be felt.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The group on this team that was hit hardest by injury in 2018 was the secondary, especially at cornerback. The Eagles had 6 players that played more than 321 snaps at cornerback, but none of them played more than 543 snaps and only Rasul Douglas, who began the season 5th on the depth chart, played more than 10 games. Ronald Darby was their top cornerback, but he tore his ACL and missed the final 7 games of the regular season and the post-season. The one good thing about that for the Eagles is that Darby’s injury limited his market in free agency, which allowed them to keep him on a relatively inexpensive one-year, 6.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season.

Darby should be back for week 1 and could cash in on a multi-year deal as a free agent next off-season if he continues playing like he has when healthy. He’s earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, with his best seasons coming in 2015 (13th among cornerbacks on PFF) and 2017 (17th), but he’s also missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons. He’ll probably give them more in 2019 than he did 2018, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Despite starting the season 5th on the depth chart, Rasul Douglas finished with the 2nd highest PFF grade by an Eagles cornerback in 2018. Douglas has played just 967 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but he’s played pretty well and the 2017 3rd round pick has plenty of upside. He’ll compete for a role outside and could have a breakout 3rd season in the league if he can lock down a starting role. Douglas will have plenty of competition for a starting role though, with his biggest competition being Jalen Mills and Avonte Maddox.

Mills made 24 straight starts outside before missing the final 8 games of last season with a foot injury and was a capable starter in 2017, but he struggled in 2018 before going down and also had a terrible rookie season in 2016. This defense was better down the stretch with Douglas starting over Mills, so the Eagles might opt to keep Douglas as a starter ahead of Mills. Maddox also played pretty well down the stretch at cornerback, after the 2018 4th round pick struggled out of position at safety earlier in the season. Maddox has the versatility to play the slot as well, so he’ll probably have a role on this defense even if he doesn’t win the starting outside cornerback job.

Sidney Jones is also in the mix to be the slot cornerback. Jones likely would have been a top-15 pick in 2017 if he didn’t tear his achilles in the pre-draft process and the Eagles took him 43rd overall hoping to get a steal if he could get healthy and stay healthy. That hasn’t been the case thus far. He was limited to just 43 snaps as a rookie, which was predictable given the achilles tear, but the Eagles had high expectations for him in his 2nd season in the league in 2018 and he disappointed.

Jones dealt with a hamstring injury for most of the season, playing 321 snaps in 9 games and finishing as PFF’s 127th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifying. Still only going into his age 23 season, Jones still has upside if he can stay healthy and he can play outside in addition to the slot, but, given the Eagles’ depth at the cornerback position, he’ll likely need a strong off-season to get back into the good graces of the coaching staff. Cre’Von LeBlanc is also in the mix for the slot job after he flashed on 352 snaps in that role down the stretch last season, but the 2016 undrafted free agent and career journeyman isn’t a lock for the final roster in a deep group.

Safety is a deep group too. The Eagles had depth problems at safety in 2018 when Rodney McLeod and replacement Corey Graham missed 13 games and 3 games to injury respectively, but McLeod is expected to return healthy for 2019 and will return to his starting role opposite Malcolm Jenkins and the Eagles added veteran Andrew Sendejo in free agency to be an upgrade over Graham as the 3rd safety. Sendejo has been a capable starter in recent years, making 58 starts in the past 6 seasons, so he’s good insurance to have. The Eagles could also use 3 safeties frequently in sub packages to mask their lack of depth at linebacker. Both Sendejo and Malcolm Jenkins have experience lining up in the linebacker spot in obvious passing situations.

The only concern with Sendejo is his age (going into his age 32 season) and his injury history (19 games missed in the past 4 seasons). Otherwise, he should be an excellent addition as the 3rd safety on 1-year, 1.3 million dollar deal. Jenkins is also getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season as well, but he’s been very durable in recent years, not missing a game in 5 seasons. He’s also finished in the top-28 among safeties on PFF in all 5 of those seasons, so even if he starts to decline in 2019 he should have another couple solid seasons left in the tank at the very least.

With Jenkins and Sendejo working closer to the line of scrimmage, McLeod will reprise his role as the deep safety, after a knee injury cost him the final 13 games of the 2018 season. McLeod earned above average grades from PFF in 4 straight seasons prior to last year’s injury and he’s still only in his age 29 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential if healthy. As long as this secondary stays healthier than they did in 2018, which they should be able to do by default, this is a deep group with a lot of upside.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Eagles’ chances to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2018 were derailed by injury, but this is still one of the strongest rosters in the NFL and has a lot of the same starters and key contributors as their Super Bowl team in 2017. If we assume an average amount of injuries for them in 2019, they should be right back in contention, although that obviously assumes those injuries don’t knock out key players like quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles have gone on playoff runs without Wentz in the past two seasons, but backup quarterback Nick Foles is now in Jacksonville and any of his potential replacements would be a steep downgrade from Wentz if forced into action.

Prediction: 12-4, 1st in NFC East

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