New Years Eve is just around the corner and that’s what many people associate this time of year with. The thought of starting a fresh, reflecting on the year just gone and setting new goals and targets for the future. Maybe you want to go to the Gym more, save up for a new Car or even push for a promotion at work. But this day last year saw the firing of Chip Kelly..and for the Eagles, their New Years Resolution was to rid the franchise of problematic contracts and divides left by the Head Coach. The question is, are the team in a better spot twelve months later?
It would be extremely easy to say yes. With a Franchise Quarterback in place, a unified locker room and a strong draft class ahead, the extensions of cornerstone players certainly helped the Eagles propel into the 2016 season. But on a much closer look, there are some areas on the team which may have arguably taken a step back..despite the overall structure being far more favorable.
This is always a tough debate because it’s very hard to be critical of Carson Wentz given how much he’s achieved. There is no doubt that Wentz is the future of the Philadelphia Eagles and that despite countless setbacks and a lack of help around him, he’s still shone and developed far quicker than we would have sat on the sidelines. In terms of the bigger picture, Carson Wentz is absolutely an upgrade over Sam Bradford, especially given that the Eagles could well be picking inside the top 15 if week 17 is kind to them.
But with 17 touchdowns and 4 interceptions behind a terrible Offensive line and a complete lack of rushing attack, Sam Bradford has had himself a year in a growingly dysfunctional Vikings locker room. The roster may be filled with talent, but the season has been anything but easy. Bradford has been the perfect “check down” quarterback this year and when you take into account that the Eagles have lost six games by one possession, you could very justifiably make a case that with a more experienced quarterback at the helm this season, just as the plan was going to be initially, the Eagles would have made the playoffs with ease.
The structure of Wentz and Daniel over Bradford and Sanchez is undoubtably the better pairing..and for the future, the Eagles have an emerging talent in Carson Wentz, whose leadership is far beyond his years. He’s only going to improve as time goes on..but those “if’s, but’s and maybe’s” are extremely interesting.
When you look at how successful DeMarco Murray has been in Tennessee in comparison to his days in Philadelphia, it’s crystal clear that he was misused as an outside back. In terms of talent, the Eagles backfield in 2015 had all the potential in the world to become a three-headed monster..but the arrogance of Kelly saw the eventual demise of the unit..and his tenure.
In 2016, the Eagles have deployed a much deeper committee, consisting of Sproles, Mathews, Smallwood and Barner. Longevity and durability is a concern..but rookie Wendell Smallwood flashed plenty of potential prior to his injury. The future is uncertain however, given a struggle to stay healthy for Ryan Mathews and the age of Darren Sproles.
I think it would be fair to say that had the Eagles backfield not been so misused a year ago, the contract of DeMarco Murray would have stung a lot less. Even though the Eagles have a lot of potential in Barner, Smallwood and even Byron Marshall..the backfield is more than likely going to see a few changes this offseason, which to me says it’s not taken the step forward that the envisioned just yet.
The Eagles struggled massively when it came to Offensive line depth and performance last year. Whether it was the tempo of the Offense or a sheer lack of talent behind the starters, both Lane Johnson and Jason Peters were among the 15 most penalized players in the league in what was an extremely tough season.
The free agency additions of Brandon Brooks and Stefen Wisniewski have proved to be vital for the Eagles this season..and while the Lane Johnson injury has absolutely stagnated the team, the development of “Big V” has been great to watch. Babre and Seumalo have also had solid performances this year and the only way depth is really realized, is when it’s tested. The Eagles seemingly always had a setback when it came to their O-Line this year..but their depth never failed them. A definite upgrade.
There wasn’t really a change in tight ends between the Chip and Doug era’s. The only difference was that both Ertz and Celek received extensions, keeping them in Philadelphia for the duration of Pederson’s initial contract. Ertz exploded under Chip Kelly and was a constant threat..but under Doug Pederson, the engine took a little longer to kick into life.
Brent Celek has also absorbed a much more secondary role in the Eagles Offense but for me, the real X-Factor here is Trey Burton. The third string TE was rarely given a chance to shine under Chip Kelly but after an incredibly strong offseason and preseason, began to pick up the pieces left behind by Ertz when injured. Burton has 288 yards on 32 receptions coming into the final game of the season and has been instrumental in 3-TE sets, as well as helping Wentz succeed with such admirable chemistry. Tight Ends have been used far more creatively this season, even if the start was a little slow.
The Eagles receiving corps last season was messy at best, but the scheme and a pin-point accurate quarterback certainly helped elevate the Offense. Riley Cooper averaged 15.6 yards per reception in his final year as an Eagle, receiving for 327 yards in the process. But the flaws were still clear. The Eagles needed help outside and the screen passes with Huff and Agholor would only help so much.
In an attempt to bolster the unit, the Eagles signed Reuben Randle and Chris Givens during free agency, replacing Riley Cooper and Miles Austin with a deep threat and a receiver on the verge of a potential breakout. Both failed to make it past the preseason, leaving the Eagles with their backs against the wall. Forced to act quickly, the birds acquired Dorial Green-Beckham..but the success has been limited. A mid-season release of Josh Huff only made things worse as Nelson Agholor’s struggles worsened.
Chip Kelly may have made some mistakes in his time, but the Eagles have three receivers on their roster averaging 11 yards or less per reception and a complete lack of veteran help. No receiver averaged less than 11-yards per reception under Chip..and the corps was both more experienced and arguably more dynamic. There’s no doubt that this is an area of need and had the free agency punts landed inside the 5, we wouldn’t be having this discussion..but the Eagles took a calculated risk that backfired and left them in a far less enviable position.
Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry both received big contract extensions during the offseason and even though the dominance hasn’t been as regular as many would like, the closing games have been far more impressive. The Eagles Defensive line always had the talent cause problems..but under Jim Schwartz, guys like Brandon Graham have really flourished.
A lot of it is due to a schematic change back to a 4-3, but the front four has been unrelenting this year and even though Cox had a bigger year in 2015, the breakout from Brandon Graham, consistency from Bennie Logan and depth from the likes of Vaeao, Allen and Barwin have all been huge improvements.
The Eagles were quick to offload Kiko Alonso during the offseason, a decision which retrospectively is debatable due to the season he’s had in Miami. The addition of Nigel Bradham was one of the most underrated of the offseason and Jordan Hicks has only built on the phenomenal year he had behind DeMeco Ryans last year. Simba has truly taken over the Animal Kingdom now..but the position is still light on depth.
The Eagles signed veteran Stephen Tulloch, but he’s been a non-factor for most of the season, while Mychal Kendricks decided to try out for an open long-snapper vacancy on the sidelines just a few weeks ago, making a point that he isn’t playing anyway. From a productivity standpoint, the Linebackers are much more consistent..but the lack of depth is worrying. In a dream scenario, Hicks, Bradham and Alonso would be in my opinion a formidable starting lineup..but the Eagles lean on the Nickel formation more often than not, relinquishing the need for the third linebacker.
The Eagles just haven’t hit a home run when it comes to cornerbacks yet. After shifting Byron Maxwell to Miami (who once again has had himself a year, proving he could have succeeded in the right scheme), the Eagles bought in Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks before later drafting Jalen Mills.
Ron Brooks was often sporadic before his injury while Leodis McKelvin is yet to show any of the lockdown tendencies that he demonstrated under Schwartz in Buffalo two years ago. The gleaming positive has been Jalen Mills from a developmental standpoint after being tasked with everything from slot duties to covering former teammate Odell Beckham Jr.
On the other hand, Eric Rowe showed some great signs of development in his rookie season, but was traded to New England after “struggling to adapt” to an aggressive scheme. Rowe is stinging a corps low on depth by shining under Bill Belichick, although against the Giants, the Eagles cornerbacks looked far more prominent.
The problem is consistency. Neither Carroll, nor McKelvin have been able to find a rhythm this season, coming up big in some games and vanishing in others. It’s worrying when you have to rely on a seventh round pick to get the job done and at times the inconsistencies have really chained the pass rush down as quarterbacks are able to get the ball out much faster, knowing separation isn’t a concern.
It’s tough as both rosters had a young rookie flashing in an otherwise inconsistent corps, but the contract of Maxwell weighed the entire team down..and replacing that with a similarly inconsistent Leodis McKelvin leaves the Eagles with a similar, but much cheaper position with a young talent in Jalen Mills who could well develop into a star.
Verdict: Close..but better
Walter Thurmond was excellent during his time in Philadelphia, but his replacement, Rodney McLeod may be the most underrated player on the entire Eagles Defense. McLeod was snubbed for a Pro Bowl despite racking up 3 picks and 79 tackles this season. The partnership of Jenkins and McLeod was destined to become one of the best in the league had it not been for the reliance of Jenkins in the slot in the absence of Brooks.
The pair have been fundamental in the success of the Jim Schwartz Defense..and for me, this is the easiest question to answer. The Safety position, when you take into account the development of Jaylen Watkins, is easily better than it was this time twelve months ago.
Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports