Development was a huge focus for the Philadelphia Eagles in their first season under Doug Pederson. With a rookie quarterback at the helm, Pederson looked to really establish a young core around the face of the Franchise and set them up perfectly to grow together heading into year two. Some players flourished during the Eagles 7-9 season, but who were the most improved Eagles of 2016?
Drafted in the seventh round, the former LSU standout was labelled as one of the steals of the Draft. A strong Training camp seemed to validate that tag, but when preseason rolled around, Mills played nervously and inconsistently. The Eagles then went on to trade Eric Rowe with the development of the Green Goblin in mind, but they never intended or expected Jalen Mills to take on such an extensive role.
Mills was called upon as early as week one and went on to play in 64.8% of Defensive snaps that season. From covering the likes of former teammate Odell Beckham Jr, to taking on Slot responsibilities, Mills encountered just about every situation possible in his rookie year. He was burned badly, he recovered well and he hit hard. But what was really impressive, was how he learned from his sometimes frequent mistakes.
In the early games of his rookie season, Mills was far too soft in zone coverage. This allowed wide receivers to dominate comeback routes and curls, creating acres of separation and leaving Mills constantly having to make up for lost ground. Some of this stemmed from playing with his back to the ball (that was later criticized by Jim Schwartz), and some of it was just natural teething problems..but this often saw Mills near the top of the tackle tally due to the amount of attention received.
As the year went on however, Mills found a rhythm. The Finger-wagging (while premature) showed a rise in assertion from the young cornerback, who had gone on to cut out 7 passes along with his 61 tackles. There’s still a lot to learn for Jalen Mills, but what was holding him back one week, would be eradicated from this game the next.
Watching Mills find his feet in the NFL and build on his solid foundation each and every week was easily one of the most exciting aspects of the regular season and although the stats may not reflect it, Mills grew into an impressive young cornerback when you factor in just how much responsibility and pressure the Eagles placed on his shoulders.
It would be completely unfair to leave the Eagles rookie quarterback off of this list. Drafted to marinate behind Sam Bradford, Wentz was thrust onto the frontline during his first year, starting every game and playing nearly every snap. Unlike Jared Goff, who took a while to really find his footing in the NFL, the NDSU star started off explosively. Wentz set a rookie record for most passes attempted in a regular season, as well as ending the year with 3,782 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Various accolades including Rookie Of The Week and NFC Offensive Player Of The Week rewarded the incredible early form of Wentz, while a hot start and big wins over the likes of Minnesota, Atlanta and New York did the rest.
It wasn’t all Sunshine and Rainbows for the pride of North Dakota State. But whenever Wentz appeared to hit a Wall or present a flaw in his play, it would be corrected within a week. The long release that was slated by the Browns was absent in week 2 against the Bears. The decisions to slide when scrambling became far more educated and Wentz as a result grew into a far more confident quarterback outside the pocket. His tendencies to stare down receivers, once punished by the Seahawks, began to dissipate.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his development was the shots taken downfield. Wentz had little to work with outside and faced heavy criticism early on for “dinking and dunking”. Those arguments were shattered time after time as the Eagles signal-caller showed his gunslinging ability with deep passes to the likes of Bryce Treggs, Paul Turner, Jordan Matthews.
What really cemented his growth, were the last three weeks. After leading his team to a game-tying drive in the final seconds before a failed 2-PT conversion against the Ravens, Wentz carried his team to two big wins. From beautifully thrown touchdown passes to Zach Ertz, to some pocket presence that would impress Aaron Rodgers, Wentz came alive in the lights. In fact, in the final three weeks, Wentz threw for 567 yards, 3TD and 1INT..which is not shabby at all after smashing through the dreaded “rookie wall”.
This season was always intended to be one of growth for Carson Wentz and it proved to be just that. Wentz didn’t just grow as a Leader, but as a quarterback, a teammate and a person. Watching Wentz develop and overcome problems each and every week was truly one of the bright spots in a bumpy 2016 campaign. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that the future is very, very bright for the face of the Franchise.
He may have only rushed the ball 19 times for 64-yards, but the undrafted rookie who stuck around after being signed by the team during the offseason was able to flash plenty of potential in his first carries as an NFL running back. Marshall saw his first NFL carries against the Baltimore Ravens..and Marshall developed massively in that game alone.
It’s rare to see someone’s style adapt and evolve in a one-game period..but that’s exactly what we saw from Marshall against the Ravens. After arguably looking to do too much with the ball in his first few touches, bouncing around and panicking as he awaited a hole to open, Marshall became much more reliant on his instincts and started to hit the hole with intent. The flashy jukes, spins and elusive play-style that followed started to work its way into his game, once the confidence started to flow.
He then responded by averaging 4.2 yards per carry against the Cowboys in the final game of the year..building on what he had already shown the Eagles coaching staff in his NFL debut. The Eagles backfield is ripe with uncertainty as of right now..but there’s one thing that should be a lock..and that’s Marshall’s spot on the active roster. The former Oregon Duck developed so quickly in such a short space of time that it’s almost difficult to deny him of such a role.
Simba truly took over the Animal Kingdom this season. The Eagles linebacker corps was incredibly light on depth following an injury to Joe Walker, but a focus on nickel formations saw a newly signed Stephen Tulloch and frustrated Mychal Kendricks look on from the sideline. Hicks was a top talent coming out of College, but one of the concerns many had was his durability.
Hicks defied those concerns this year, playing in all 16 games..but then finished what he started last year. Hicks was debatably a candidate for rookie of the year, owning the Dallas Cowboys and putting up some phenomenal numbers. This year? The sophomore linebacker emerged as a leader of the Defense, finishing second on the team in tackles, batting down ELEVEN passes and picking off FIVE. Partner that with a fumble recovery and a vocal leader and you have a player who has thrived in the move to a 4-3.
The former Texas linebacker now has seven interceptions in two years and is helping the Eagles in nearly every aspect of the Defense. If you want to talk about development, look no further than the 24-year old linebacker who broke up just as many passes as the team’s starting cornerback, Nolan Carroll.
After giving the Burton Bus some life during the offseason, making the case for a move to the outside or an increased role in the Offense, it was amazing to see the Eagles third string tight end enjoy such a strong Training camp. As amazing as it would have been to see Burton take on a more prominent role, the fact that Celek and Ertz had received new long-term extensions seemed to limit that ceiling. But little did we know just how dangerous Burton would prove to be.
Taking what we saw in preseason and hitting it out of the Park, Burton caught 37 passes for 327 yards and a touchdown. Whether it was helping block in 3TE situations or filling in for an inured Zach Ertz, Burton showed his versatility and athleticism consistently throughout this season, growing into a reliable target for Carson Wentz.
The chemistry built up with the rookie quarterback would play a crucial role in the later games of the year, as Wentz sought out #47 more and more. With a 67-yard game against the Redskins, Burton proved to the Eagles that retaining three tight-ends on the roster not only makes sense from a depth standpoint, but also adds an incredible amount of danger in the passing game, which is something the team craved desperately in 2015.
Burton was a man waiting for his opportunity in 2016. After a strong offseason, he proved himself worthy of a shot and never looked back. Whether he was lining up as a TE, on the outside or as a fullback..Burton’s skill set only seemed to grow under Doug Pederson, which is an extremely encouraging sign.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports