Doug Pederson’s first year as Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles was filled with just as much excitement as the offseason that preceded it. From stunning wins to embarrassing defeats, it was a year of development for the players as well as the man calling the shots. But with free agency just around the corner and draft hype continuing to build, it’s time to take a closer look at the Eagles who really shined in 2016.
This list is designed to recognize the efforts and achievements of the 20 most impressive players on the Eagles roster during the 2016 season. Part one examines positions 20-16, recognizing those whose efforts went under the radar during the rollercoaster season or perhaps the players who were tipped for huge success and never quite found that next level.
20: Jaylen Watkins
A year ago, Watkins was a cornerback who despite big performances against Arizona and Washington, continued to remain hidden among the depth at the position. A late decision to move to Safety not only saved his career, as he beat out sixth round pick Blake Countess to the backup role, but also helped keep the Eagles Defense together when the going got tough.
When Ron Brooks suffered a season-ending injury, Malcolm Jenkins was forced into taking on slot duties..leaving a vacancy next to McLeod over the top. Watkins trounced his previous career high in tackles, amassing 32 in total to go with 3 pass breakups. Even though once again his contributions were largely overlooked, Watkins played in 38% of defensive snaps and over 50% of special teams snaps. His reliability at the position as a solid backup allowed Jenkins to put the weight of the toughest spot in the secondary on his shoulders and perform as only Malcolm Jenkins can.
Watkins did a great job during 2016, considering he had only been playing as a Safety for a matter of weeks prior to the start of the regular season. Emerging as a reliable backup and making some big hits along the way, Watkins demonstrated his value on plenty of occasions throughout the year..earning himself a spot on our list.
19: Halapoulivaati Vaitai
After a Baptism of Fire against the Washington Redskins, it’s safe to say that expectations were low for Big-V. But a resurgent 2016 saw him fill the hole left by Franchise RT Lane Johnson adequately. Vaitai flashed during his rookie year and as he began to build chemistry with the rest of the Offensive line, his play also improved.
In fact, if we take the four games that the Eagles played with Johnson at RT..and the first four of Vaitai’s career, the dip in performance is extremely difficult to see from a protection perspective.
Lane Johnson’s season opening games:
Vs Browns: 2 sacks, 9 QB hits, 133 rushing yards
@ Bears: 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, 100 rushing yards
Vs Steelers: 0 sacks, 7 QB hits, 125 rushing yards
@ Lions: 3 sacks, 3 QB hits, 116 rushing yards
Vaitai’s first four games:
@ Redskins: 5 sacks, 12 QB hits, 94 rushing yards
Vs Vikings 0 sacks, 2 QB hits, 101 rushing yards
@ Cowboys: 3 sacks, 7 QB hits, 97 rushing yards
@ Giants: 2 sacks, 7 QB hits, 96 rushing yards
Offensive line depth was a weakness in 2015 and given how heavily it was relied upon in Pederson’s first year as Head Coach, that problem has now become a strength for the Eagles. Vaitai was a major part of that and without his growing consistency, the Eagles would have struggled much more than they did.
In his rookie year, Vaitai was forced to line up against the likes of Minnesota (in which he only allowed one hurry), Seattle and the team that humiliated him during his debut. The TCU product isn’t the most explosive Right Tackle in the league, but showed enough promise to prove himself worthy of a third-round pick and even more worthy of a spot on the Eagles Offensive line. Cementing his role as a potential replacement for when Johnson takes over the Left Tackle throne, Vaitai’s first year in the NFL was greeted with a steep learning curve..but one that really shaped his future.
18: Nolan Carroll:
He may not have been as consistent as hoped..and injuries may have still hurt his progress, but Carroll was solid for most of 2016 in a Secondary that simply lacked at the best of times. Matching a career high in pass breakups and recording 55 tackles, Carroll really took to the Defense of Jim Schwartz. His most notable play of the season of course, being THAT hit..
— Nolan Carroll (@CarrollCity) November 23, 2016
Carroll had some exceptional games, including a standout performance against Atlanta and a dominant showing against the Giants in the penultimate matchup of the season. The birds are said to be in negotiations with Carroll and it’s easy to see why. The 30-year old is still playing at an impressive standard and really seemed to thrive in a more aggressive system. If he can just find the consistency he showed a year ago..then he can still have a huge role to play moving forward.
17: Caleb Sturgis
#SuperSturgis as I branded him on Twitter simply put it played a monumental role in the success of the Eagles during 2016. After a rocky first few games in Philadelphia under Chip Kelly, the former Dolphin was able to win the starting role in Training camp, securing his future with the team and beating out Cody Parkey, who was returning from injury.
2016 would be historic for Sturgis, who converted 18 consecutive attempts, as well as setting a new franchise record for field goals made (35). With four field goals coming from beyond the 50-yard line, that decision to not let Sturgis rip against the Cowboys will always stand out as a moment many fans wish to forget.
A career-high 85.4% of Caleb’s kicks went through the upright for field goals, giving the Eagles some much needed stability at the position. After Cody Parkey’s stunning 2014 campaign, many had hoped that he would recover from his injury to retake the throne. That spot now belongs to Caleb Sturgis, who was nearly perfect from the very first kick of the season.
16: Jason Kelce
After a 2015 season that left many questioning his long-term future on the Eagles roster and the continuation of a plantar fasciitis injury that certainly makes things difficult for the center, the expectations were that his athleticism would play straight into the hands of Doug Pederson..but could also come back to haunt him.
Kelce was the only player on the Eagles roster to play in every offensive snap in 2016, shaking any concerns of durability. His offensive holding penalties still cost the team, although he was penalized less on that front than he was in a flag plagued 2015 season.
As the year went on the chemistry with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz continued to grow and by the end, rogue snaps had been eliminated and the improvement was clear. The relationship between Kelce and Wentz has been reported by many as such a strong factor in establishing offensive continuity and confidence that it’s hard not to include a man who affected the growth of Carson Wentz more than most.
Kelce proved that he is still one of the most athletic centers in the league and his chemistry with Wentz simply has to be admired. The two struck up quite the bond in 2016 as the unit tightened together through tough moments. The pro bowler flashed the level of play that earned him that title..and as a result is more than worthy of a place in our top-20 ranking.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports