This year there are many question marks heading into the season. Chip cleansed the locker room, ridding the team of expensive or me-first players, as well as players that did not fit his system. Some of his decisions have come into much scrutiny, such as his decision to trade a proven quantity in young quarterback Nick Foles for an underachieving, injury-prone talent in Sam Bradford, at the expense of a second round pick no-less. While many people might view Bradford as the most pivotal Eagle, he does not even come close.
Let’s first start by examining the Eagles’ quarterback situation. Because of Chip’s bold, and expensive (both because of the Eagles giving up a second rounder and having to take a huge cap hit by paying for his expensive contract), trade for Bradford, it is widely assumed that he will be the Eagles’ day one starter. Drafted by St. Louis with the number one overall pick in the 2010 draft, the Oklahoma product had high expectations. At first, they were met, as he threw for over 3000 yards and earned the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He had a great touchdown to interception ratio as well.
Unfortunately, a plethora of injuries derailed his career. When he did play, his production was unimpressive, however many intelligent football minds believe that this was due to the lack of surrounding talent. The offensive line was among the league’s worst, and his best wide receiver was the mediocre Danny Amendola. So, coming into Philadelphia many individuals consider Bradford to be the most pivotal Eagle because they believe that if he can start playing like he did in his rookie year, he has the chance to take the team to the promised land.
Still, there is also a good chance that either the brittle Bradford re-injures himself or does not meet expectations. There is the argument that elite quarterbacks should still be able to produce, even without a great supporting cast. Matt Ryan has an atrocious offensive line in Atlanta, as does Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. For a good part of his career, Drew Brees’ wide receivers and running backs were nothing special. It’s not as if the Patriots have had that many elite skill players. Tom Brady turned players like Wes Welker into stars.
Anyway, if Bradford somehow falters, the Eagles are far from doomed because they have one of the best backup quarterbacks in the game in Mark Sanchez. Team mates have had great things to say about the second year Eagle. Zach Ertz said that Sanchez looked like a completely different player from last year (in a good way of course!). In practices, Sanchez gives off a confident aura, running the offense crisply. He is decisive in his decision-making, and his passes are stronger, having an added zip to them. Before some of his balls appeared a bit flat (exciting Tom Brady). Sanchez himself attributed his better passes this year to extended practice and healing up from his previous injuries. Many insiders even believe that Sanchez has a significant chance of being the day one starter. His knowledge of the offense and great execution is certainly impressing coaches. Don’t forget either of Sanchez’s great post-season record.
He could very well thrive in what looks to be a very similar team (in some respects) to the Jets that made the AFC Championship Game. He has a great, arguably top 10, defense which takes the pressure off his shoulders, as well as the best running back stable in the league. One cannot forget the offensive line either, which is still among the league’s best with All-Pro talents Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, and Lane Johnson. Add in the fact that Kelly’s system is also quarterback-friendly, leaving receivers wide open, and it is safe to say that both Bradford and Sanchez have a good chance at succeeding this year, thus not making Bradford this year’s most pivotal Eagle.
That honor goes instead to a player on the defensive side of the ball by the name of Walter Thurmond III. Many disgruntled fans brushed off this signing due to the Oregon-alum connection, claiming the move to be due to Chip’s “Oregon bias.” Thurmond, while injury-prone, is a great talent however. At 5-11, he isn’t particularly tall for a corner, which is why he played a lot in the slot throughout most of his career. In 2006 and 2007, he earned honorable mention for the all-Pac-10 team. Thurmond has great instincts and is a true ball-hawk. His size and skill-set enticed the coaching staff to move Thurmond to the safety position alongside free agent success story Malcolm Jenkins. Many of the best safeties in the league are converted corners, including the likes of elite players such as Devin McCourty of the Patriots. Last year, the spot next to Jenkins was a huge weakness due to Nate Allen’s putrid play. Classic Raiders by the way for spending any money on him in free agency. Earl Wolff filled in the spot seasons prior as well, though among few flashes, had relativity uninspiring play.
So obviously Thurmond has a great responsibility this year in filling in the position that was the team’s weakest link last year. Billy Davis’ aggressive defensive scheme often puts corners on “islands,” where they play 1-on-1 man coverage on receivers. That puts a ton of pressure on the corners, especially if they know they’re not getting adequate support in the back from the safeties. With better safety play, the corners can be more aggressive and make more plays. Poor safety play led to many of the Eagles’ “x plays,” or in other words plays that give up lots of yards, often leading to touchdowns against the defense. It is a good thing that new defensive backs coach Corey Undlin has put a huge emphasis on eliminating those plays. Thurmond will certainly benefit from Undlin’s teaching, as he is among the best at his job in the league at teaching technique.
Thurmond has been taking to the coaching well, and has been among the most impressive Eagles this spring and early summer. Chip Kelly mentioned him as being one of the players that stood out the most. He has been seemingly always around the ball, breaking up passes and coming up with interceptions. If his health holds up, Thurmond looks to lock down one of the Eagle’s biggest weaknesses. Thurmond’s play is so critical because if he holds his end, the birds’ defense has the potential to be a top 5 unit, without having any glaring weaknesses.
In seasons past, the elite quarterbacks picked on the secondary’s weak spots, such as corner Bradley Fletcher and safety Nate Allen. This year, the front 7 looks to be elite with talents Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham, Mychal Kendricks, and Kiko Alonso dominating. They will be able to effectively stop the run, making offenses one dimensional, as well as pile on tons of pressure to the opposing quarterbacks, making the secondary that much better. Carolina’s secondary is nothing special, though it appears elite because of the team’s talented front 7. All the Eagles need is good to serviceable players in the secondary to succeed. They have that in Byron Maxwell, Nolan Carroll/Eric Rowe, Brandon Boykin, and Malcolm Jenkins. The question is whether Thurmond can solidify the defense. If he reaches his full potential with the scheme and coaching, Thurmond could be this year’s biggest free agent bargain with his cheap 1 year $3.25M contract.