The Eagles made an aggressive move up the draft board to grab a quarterback in 2016, sending useful defenders Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell to the Dolphins to move up from 13 to 8 and then sending #8, #77, #100, a 2017 1st rounder, and a 2018 2nd rounder to the Browns for #2, where they grabbed North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles eventually recouped a first round pick when they sent quarterback Sam Bradford, originally expected to be a veteran stopgap starter in 2016, to the Vikings for their first round pick, following the season ending injury to Minnesota starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
As a result of the Bradford trade, Wentz surprisingly made all 16 starts as a rookie and looked better than many expected, considering he was transitioning from the Division 1-AA. His overall numbers don’t look great, as he completed 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.23 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, but a lot of that is because he was throwing to arguably the worst receiving corps in the league. He finished the season 21st out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, unspectacular, but ahead of highly paid veterans like Eli Manning and Joe Flacco.
That’s pretty impressive considering he was a rookie coming from a small school and had to throw 607 times, just the 2nd time a rookie quarterback has thrown 600+ passes in NFL history (Andrew Luck threw 627 times with the Colts in 2012). Going into his 2nd year in the league, Wentz is expected to take another step forward and could easily be a top-15 quarterback by season’s end. He’s still young and inexperienced, but he’s plenty talented and has already exceeded expectations.
In order to assist Wentz with his development, the Eagles made an obvious effort to improve his receiving corps this off-season. As I mentioned, their receiving corps might have been the worst in the league last season. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews (73/804/3) and tight end Zach Ertz (78/816/4) were reliable targets in the passing game, but passing down back Darren Sproles (52/427/2) was 3rd on the team in receiving yards, as wide receivers Dorial Green-Beckham (36/392/2) and Nelson Agholor (36/365/2) both struggled mightily.
The Eagles added 4 wide receivers this off-season, free agents Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and draft prospects Mack Hollins (4th round) and Shelton Gibson (5th round). Hollins and Gibson aren’t candidate for real playing time this season, but Jeffery and Smith certainly are. Along with Matthews, those are going to be the Eagles’ top-3 wide receivers this year, while Hollins and Gibson will force Agholor and Green-Beckham to compete for the final roster spot at wide receiver, assuming they even keep 6 receivers. Agholor was a 1st round pick by the Eagles in 2015, which should help him keep his roster spot, but he hasn’t done anything in 2 years in the league (59 catches in 28 games) and was briefly benched down the stretch last season. He won’t be any higher than 4th or 5th on the depth chart.
Jeffery will probably be Wentz’ new favorite target and their #1 receiver this year. The ex-Bear, Jeffery is as good as any receiver in the league when he’s at his best, but has been limited by injury, suspension, and poor quarterback play over the past 2 seasons and has reportedly has durability and work ethic issues. These issues actually date back to his college days, which is why he fell to the 2nd round in 2012 and why he had to settle for just an incentive heavy one-year deal this off-season. Jeffery will make just 9.5 million this season in base salary, but could earn up to 14 million if he reaches certain milestones. It’s a win, win deal for the Eagles.
Jeffery has been a top-33 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus for 4 straight seasons. His best overall statistical season came in 2013, when he caught 89 passes for 1421 yards and 7 touchdowns and finished 9th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but his best season on a per snap basis came in 2015, when he finished 3rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and averaged 89.67 yards per game. However, he missed 7 games with nagging hamstring injuries that season, which the Bears felt stemmed from his poor conditioning, and then last season he missed 4 games with suspension after failing a drug test. A change of scenery could be good for him. Still only in his age 27 season, he should still be in the prime of his career.
Fellow free agent acquisition Torrey Smith will compete with Jordan Matthews for snaps opposite Jeffery. Matthews is a better receiver, but he’s best on the slot catching underneath passes, while Torrey Smith is a true downfield receiving threat, something this offense has lacked since losing DeSean Jackson after the 2013 season. Smith is not a volume catcher though, with just 266 catches in 6 seasons in the league. Even worse, just 53 of those catches came in the last 2 seasons.
Because he is a one trick pony (17.00 yards per catch in his career), he was incredibly miscast with the San Francisco 49ers, who didn’t have the stability at quarterback or on the offensive line to take many deep shots downfield. He also may have quit on a 2-14 team last season, catching 20 passes in 12 games and finishing 114th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Prior to San Francisco, Smith graded out around average in 4 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. Only going into his age 28 season, he has bounce back potential in a better offense with the Eagles. He could prove to be a steal on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal.
Matthews should also remain involved in the offense and is better as a complementary player than a #1 guy. A 2014 2nd round pick, Matthews has 225 career catches, but has never finished higher than 55th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and has a career 11.88 yards per catch average. His 11.01 yards per catch average in 2015 was highest on the team among anyone with 10 catches or more, which just shows you how badly the Eagles needed a deep threat. Matthews will probably see fewer balls this season, after a 117-target season a year ago (28th in the NFL).
Tight end Zach Ertz is also a reliable receiver, though he’s more of an underneath option too. The 2013 2nd round pick has finished in the top-18 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2015, when he finished 4th among tight ends. Last season, he struggled a bit as a run blocker, but caught 78 passes for 816 yards and 4 touchdowns (all team highs) on 106 targets. Like Matthews, he too may see fewer balls this season, but he should still be a big part of this offense once again, especially if he can bounce back as a run blocker.
The Eagles also have good depth at the tight end position, as both Brent Celek and Trey Burton will play roles on this offense again this season, after playing 442 and 327 snaps respectively in 2016. Celek is an experienced veteran who has made 122 starts in 159 of a possible 160 games in 10 seasons in the league, all with the Eagles. However, he is going into his age 32 season and is not the same player anymore, grading out below average last season for the first time since 2007. The big 6-4 261 pounder isn’t much more than a blocker at this stage of his career, catching just 14 passes in 2016. Burton, meanwhile, caught 37 passes on 60 targets for 327 yards last season and graded out above average (29th among tight ends) for the first time in his career. The 2014 undrafted free agent could have a bigger role this season at Celek’s expense. The Eagles suddenly have a pretty deep receiving corps.
Wentz likely taking a step forward and an improved receiving corps are two reasons things are looking up for this offense. In addition to that, they also get stud offensive tackle Lane Johnson back from suspension, after he missed a 10-game chunk of time in 2016. In the 6 games Johnson played (the first 4 and the last 2), the Eagles went 5-1, as opposed to 2-8 in their other 10 games. Of those 8 losses, 5 of them came by a touchdown or less, so they could have easily won another 2-3 games if Johnson were available all season.
Overall, they went 1-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less, so they were better than their 7-9 final record suggested. They finished with a +36 point differential, ahead of 5 playoff teams, including the 12-4 Oakland Raiders, and they beat four playoff teams: the Falcons (24-15), Giants (24-19), Steelers (34-3), and the Cowboys (27-13).. They won’t have to play that much better to get a few more wins this season and they should be significantly improved on the offensive side of the ball.
Johnson finished as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in the 6 games he played. That was a career best rank and it’s the type of player the Eagles envisioned him being when they drafted him 4th overall in 2013. Prior to 2016, Johnson was a top-15 offensive tackle in both 2014 and 2015, so he’s not a one-year wonder either. Still only going into his age 27 season, Johnson could have the best season of his career in 2017 if he can avoid suspension and stay on the field. Johnson has already been suspended twice for performance enhancing drugs, but is suing the league to get the last suspension off his record, alleging the league acted improperly in informing him that the substance he was taking had been banned by the league. If that suspension is not overturned, he would be facing at least a yearlong suspension if he fails another test.
Johnson was originally drafted to be the long-term left tackle, but has spent 4 seasons at right tackle thus far because veteran left tackle Jason Peters has continued to play at a high level. Peters is now going into his age 35 season, but was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle last season, so Johnson will stay on the right side in 2017. Peters has been a top-14 offensive tackle in his last 6 healthy seasons. At his age, it’s fair to wonder how long he can keep this up, as his abilities could fall off a cliff quickly at any point, but he could have another good season on the blindside.
Johnson was signed to a 5-year, 56.25 million dollar extension last off-season, which makes him the 10th highest paid offensive tackle in the league in average annual salary and the highest paid right tackle in the league. He’s being paid like a left tackle, so the Eagles are basically paying for two left tackles, but they also have arguably the best tackle duo in the NFL, so it might be worth it. Peters will make 10.7 million in the third season of a 4-year, 41.3 million dollar extension this season. Peters could opt to retire after the final year of his deal in 2018.
Along with arguably the best tackle duo in the league, the Eagles also have one of the better right guards in the league, ex-Texan Brandon Brooks, who they signed to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season. Brooks had a bit of a down year in the final year of his rookie deal with Houston in 2015, finishing 37th among guards on Pro Football Focus, but leaped back up to 4th in 2016. That’s in line with how he played in 2013 and 2014, when he finished 8th and 10th respectively among guards. The 2012 3rd round pick has made 58 of a possible 64 starts in the last 4 seasons and, still only going into his age 28 season, should continue playing at a high level in 2017.
In addition to those 3 high level players, the Eagles also have 4 starting caliber players competing for the final 2 starting spots at left guard and center. Center Jason Kelce has made 60 of a possible 64 starts over the past 4 seasons, but is coming off of easily his worst season to date, finishing 27th among 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. Kelce was a top-8 center in each of the previous 3 seasons and, still only going into his age 30 season, is a definite bounce back candidate in 2017, but there’s talk the Eagles could trade him for a future mid round pick before the start of the season. That would save the Eagles Kelce’s 5 million salary for 2017 and free up the center position for either veteran Stefen Wisniewski or 2nd year pick Isaac Seumalo.
Wisniewski and Seumalo are also candidates at left guard. Allen Barbre, who played both left guard and right tackle last season, is penciled in as the starting left guard. He finished 23rd among guards on Pro Football Focus last season, but is going into his age 33 season and is a one-year wonder, so the Eagles are rightfully concerned about whether or not he can continue that kind of play in 2017. Prior to 2016, Barbre had just 24 career starts in 10 seasons in the league and had graded out above average in just 1 of those seasons.
Even though he only started 6 games in 2016, Stefen Wisniewski is much more experienced than Barbre, as he was a starter for the first 5 seasons of his career, making 77 starts between left guard and center. He’s better at center than guard, but has graded out around average in all 6 seasons in his career, including 39th out of 72 eligible guards last season in 6 starts. Seumalo, meanwhile, only saw 336 snaps as a rookie, but played pretty well and the Eagles like how he has been developing as a prospect. They see the 2016 3rd rounder as a future starter, but don’t have an obvious place for him to start right now. Of course, having too much depth is a pretty good problem to have upfront. If Johnson can stay on the field all season and/or Jason Kelce can bounce back, that should push this offensive line from good to great in 2017.
While the Eagles did a good job of adding talent at the wide receiver position, they didn’t do much to address the running back position, where they also needed help. They did add a couple new players though. They used a 4th round pick on San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey and signed veteran LeGarrette Blount to replace Ryan Mathews, who led the team with 155 carries for 661 yards and 8 touchdowns last season. Mathews was not worth the 4 million dollar non-guaranteed salary he would have been owed this season if he had not been cut. Blount comes at about half the price.
Mathews might be the better overall back, but Blount is a better pure runner and much more durable than Mathews. Blount offers nothing in the passing game, with 46 catches in 7 seasons in the league, but has a career 4.39 YPC average and has graded out above average in pure running grade on Pro Football Focus 5 times in 7 seasons. Blount saw a career high 299 carries last season, but averaged just 3.88 YPC, the 2nd lowest season average of his career, and finished below average on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 31 season, Blount is probably on the decline, but could be a valuable early down back for them on about 150-200 carries.
Blount is a good fit in Philadelphia because the Eagles have Darren Sproles to handle passing downs. Sproles has never topped 100 carries in 12 seasons in the league, but has averaged about 70.63 carries per season and 60.38 catches per season over the past 8 seasons, while missing just 6 total games with injury over that time period. Last season, he finished 37th out of 62 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus, which is decent. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 34 season, but, because he’s basically a receiver, he’s aged more like a wide receiver than a running back. He led this backfield with 511 snaps last season and has a good chance to do again in 2017. The addition of Blount doesn’t affect his role in the slightest because they are polar opposite players.
Pumphrey, meanwhile, is the all-time leading rusher in NCAA history, but, at 5-9 175, he isn’t anything more than a long-term replacement for Sproles, so Pumphrey could end up having what amounts to a redshirt rookie year in 2017. Last year’s 5th round pick Wendell Smallwood will probably back up both Sproles and Blount. He averaged 4.05 yards per carry on 77 carries as a rookie. His chances for a bigger role in 2017 took a big hit when Blount was added. There is some talent here and the pieces fit together well, but this is still an underwhelming backfield.
With the offense struggling at the skill positions in 2016, the Eagles’ defense was their best unit, finishing the season 10th in first down rate allowed, while the offense ranked 21st in first down rate. Their defense was led by their two stud defensive linemen: defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham. Cox is one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL. After finishing in the top-5 among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in both 2014 and 2015, Cox showed his scheme versatility, finishing 4th among defensive tackles in 2016. The 2012 first round pick has finished in the top-19 at his position in all 5 seasons in the league, missing just 1 total game with injury, and is in the middle of the prime of his career, going into his age 27 season.
Graham is also in the prime of his career and one of the best players in the league at his position. He’s never put up high sack numbers, but part of that is because he didn’t become an every down player until 2015 and part of that is because he’s much more of a disruptor than a finisher in the backfield. Graham is among the league leaders in quarterback pressures over the past 2 seasons and has finished 9th and 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 2016 respectively. He also plays the run well. Even before 2015, Graham was still one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league from 2012-2014. Going into his age 29 season, having played 80 of a possible 80 games over the past 5 seasons, I see no reason that wouldn’t continue in 2017.
Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan were the other two starters on the defensive line last season and both are gone now. Both were better fits for the Eagles’ old 3-4 defense than their new 4-3 defense though and struggled as a result of the scheme change, so neither will be missed that much. The Eagles basically let them go, allowing Logan to take a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal with the Chiefs and cutting Barwin, rather than paying him his 7.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2017.
Barwin will be replaced with first round pick Derek Barnett, who was the most efficient pass rusher in college football last season, even ahead of #1 overall pick Myles Garrett. He doesn’t have Garrett’s athleticism, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked prospect overall and could prove to be a steal at #14 overall. He has been compared to his new teammate Brandon Graham due to his motor and his ability to get to the quarterback with a strong bull rush, which make up for his average athleticism.
Logan, meanwhile, will be replaced with Timmy Jernigan, who the Eagles acquired from the Ravens in exchange for moving down 25 spots in the third round. Jernigan was going into the final year of his rookie deal and the Ravens clearly didn’t want to pay him what he wanted to re-sign, but it’s still weird that they moved him so cheaply, considering he’s graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league. Even though he played 3-4 end with Baltimore, the 2014 2nd round pick is a better fit at defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense than Logan was, so he should be an upgrade. Primarily a rotational player prior to last season, Jernigan played a career high 631 snaps last season and made 15 starts in 16 games. If he continues to play at a high level, he could sign for more money somewhere else next off-season. The Eagles drafted Washington defensive tackle Elijah Qualls in the 6th round of the draft as insurance.
Jernigan probably won’t play much more than 600 snaps with the Eagles in 2017 (Logan played 467 snaps last season). That’s because he will be playing primarily a base package role, as the Eagles like to line up defensive end Vinny Curry up at defensive tackle in sub packages. Curry will also provide depth at defensive end, as well veteran free agent acquisition Chris Long. A 2012 2nd round pick, Curry was re-signed to a 5-year, 47.25 million dollar deal last off-season and was expected to play a big role in his first season in a 4-3 defense in 2016, but instead only played 435 snaps.
Those 435 snaps were a career high and he played well once again, finishing 19th among 4-3 defensive ends, the 4th straight season he finished above average, but he wasn’t worth what the Eagles paid him given how small of a role he played. Given how deep the Eagles are on the defensive line, I would be surprised if he played much more than 500 snaps in 2017. Long, meanwhile, signed with the Eagles instead of re-signing with the Patriots this off-season because he was unhappy with his playing time in New England (677 snaps in the regular season, but just 62 in 3 playoff games), but he won’t play much more than 300-400 snaps with the Eagles now that they’ve drafted Barnett. Long isn’t the same player he once was, going into his age 32 season, but is still a good backup. This is a very deep defensive line.
The Eagles also got great play from two linebackers in 2016, including breakout star middle linebacker Jordan Hicks. Just a 3rd round pick in 2015, Hicks flashed as a rookie on 459 snaps in 8 games, but had his rookie season cut short by a torn pectoral. Hicks picked up right where he left off in his 2nd year in the league in 2016 though, finishing 5th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus and, more importantly, staying healthy for all 16 games. Going into his 3rd year in the league, his best football might be still ahead of him.
Outside linebacker Nigel Bradham also had a great year, finishing 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Bradham had shown top level ability before, as the 2012 4th round pick flashed in limited action in the first 2 seasons of his career and then finished 13th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2014, before plummeting to 81st out of 97 eligible linebackers in his contract year in 2015. As a result, the ex-Buffalo Bill had to settle for a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal with the Eagles, where he reunited with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who Bradham played under with the Bills in 2014. Reuniting with Schwartz seemed to make a big difference and now Bradham is arguably the best value of any veteran in the league contract wise. He should be a big part of this Philadelphia defense again in 2017.
Conversely, fellow linebacker Mychal Kendricks has one of the worst contracts in the NFL. Signed to a 4-year, 29 million dollar extension following a 2014 breakout year, in which he finished 6th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, Kendricks hasn’t been nearly the same since. He fell to 60th out of 97 eligible linebackers in 2015 and then things got even worse for him when Schwartz came in and implemented a 4-3 defense, which Kendricks doesn’t fit at all. Kendricks played just 273 snaps as the 3rd linebacker last season, only playing in base packages.
He played the run well, which is all you really need to do in that role, but he wasn’t worth the 8 million dollar signing bonus they gave him or his 3 million dollar salary in 2016. This season, he is scheduled to make a guaranteed 5 million, so the Eagles are desperately trying to trade him. They are unlikely to find someone willing to pay him his salary though, so the Eagles will be stuck with him for another year and will have effectively flushed 16 million dollars down the toilet. He will undoubtedly be cut next off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 6 million dollar salary he would be owed in 2018. The Eagles drafted Nathan Gerry in the 5th round as a potential long-term replacement. It’s overall a talented linebacking corps.
As you can see, the Eagles have a pretty talented front 7 and one that could be even better this season with Barnett and Jernigan replacing Barwin and Logan. That’s much needed because the Eagles had arguably the worst group of cornerbacks in the league last season, much in the same way they had arguably the worst group of wide receivers in the league last season. Unlike the wide receiver position, where the Eagles made multiple upgrades this off-season, they did not really get any better at the cornerback position. In fact, they might have gotten worse, as their two best cornerbacks last season were Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin and neither is with the team anymore.
Carroll and McKelvin finished last season 91st and 70th respectively among cornerbacks out of 111 eligible, which isn’t great, but they were better than Jalen Mills, who remains with the team, and they didn’t really replace them. They signed veteran Patrick Robinson in free agency and he will start opposite Mills, but he’s a pretty mediocre player, and they drafted Washington cornerback Sidney Jones in the 2nd round of the draft, but he could miss his entire rookie year with a torn achilles. Jones likely would have been a top-15 pick if not for the injury and could still return to play down the stretch, but he likely wouldn’t be at 100%. Not only would he be coming off of a significant injury, but he also will miss the entire off-season, which is so valuable for rookies. Jones could end up as the draft class’ best cornerback when all is said and done, but I don’t expect him to be much of a factor in 2017.
That leaves Robinson and Mills as probably the worst starting cornerback duo in the league, with next to no depth behind them. Mills finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ lowest ranked cornerback, which is no surprise, considering he was a mere 7th round rookie. The Eagles like him for some reason, but I’d be surprised if they got good play for him this season. Robinson, meanwhile, was a little bit better last season, but not much, finishing 93rd out of 111 eligible, behind both Carroll and McKelvin. Robinson has had solid seasons in 2011, 2014, and 2015, but has graded out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league and now is going into his age 30 season, so his best days are probably behind him. He wouldn’t be starting for most teams, but he’ll be the de facto #1 cornerback in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, Ron Brooks will compete with hybrid cornerback/safety Jaylen Watkins, and 3rd round rookie Rasul Douglas for the #3 cornerback job. None of them are good options. Brooks struggled mightily on 235 snaps in 6 games last season, before going down for the season with a torn quad. Prior to last season, Brooks had been primarily a special teamer, making 3 career starts in 4 seasons. Watkins can play both cornerback and safety, as can starting safety Malcolm Jenkins, so the Eagles might use more 3-safety looks in 2017. Watkins was alright on a career high 387 snaps as the dime back last season, but is a very unproven player. Douglas, meanwhile, is very raw coming out of West Virginia. Cornerback will remain a problem position for this team until Sidney Jones can get back to 100%.
The Eagles will have to continue to mask their issues at cornerback with strong play in the front 7 and at safety, where Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are one of the better safety duos in the NFL. McLeod has made all 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and has graded out above average in the last 3 seasons, including a season in 2015 in which he finished 10th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Last season, he finished 36th. Jenkins, meanwhile, has ranked 19th, 2nd, and 28th in 3 seasons in Philadelphia, after an inconsistent tenure in New Orleans to start his career. Jenkins’ age is a bit of a concern as he goes into his age 30 season, but McLeod will only be 27 this season and they should both have solid seasons again, at the very least. They somewhat make up for Philadelphia’s terrible cornerbacks.
The Eagles were 7-9 last season, but could have easily won 8-10 games, given how many close games they lost. This season, with Lane Johnson back from suspension, Carson Wentz going into his 2nd year in the league, and an improved receiving corps and defensive line, they have a good chance to make a big jump in win total. Looking up and down their roster, they have one of the best in the league. Whether or not they’ll be a real Super Bowl contender is going to depend on how Carson Wentz develops, but the Eagles should be able to challenge the Cowboys, who lost several starters in free agency, for the NFC East. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.