The final part in our top 20 Eagles ranking examines the five most impactful players of the 2016 season. It was a huge year for Doug Pederson’s team from both a developmental standpoint and a glimpse of what the future holds. If there’s one thing that we can say with certainty, it’s that the Eagles flashed plenty of potential and production last season..and if they are to sustain that, the growth of the following five players will be absolutely pivotal.
5: Jordan Hicks
A stunning rookie campaign was cut short last season by a pectoral tear..but the sophomore linebacker did more than build upon the foundations he placed in 2015. The Eagles parted way with DeMeco Ryans after the end of the Chip Kelly era, leaving Simba to take control of the Animal Kingdom. Partnered by newcomer Nigel Bradham, the 24-year old become the heartbeat of the Eagles Defense and flashed the potential to become a top-10 linebacker.
Powerful against the run and athletic in coverage, Hicks is incredibly versatile. From his 85 tackles and 5 interceptions, to his continued haunting of the Dallas Cowboys, the development of Jordan Hicks has been so rapid that it’s easy to forget that he’s only played one full season in the league. A stunning performance against the Vikings followed by a flurry of dominant performances painted the picture of a player who’s just getting started in the NFL.
The Eagles want to build a young core on both sides of the ball and Jordan Hicks may be one of the most important players of the next five years. He showcased that in a year where linebacker depth low and pressure was placed on the former Texas standout as the team relied on nickel formations more and more.
4: Jordan Matthews
A 1,000 yard season may still elude Jordan Matthews, but the Eagles slot receiver was imperative to the success of the Offense in Doug Pederson’s first year as a Head Coach. From showing up to the NovaCare two days before OTA’s opened in order to work out with Carson Wentz and racking up 804 yards and 3 touchdowns, to leading by example with his hard work and play on the field.
The Eagles receiving corps was plagued by inconsistencies throughout the 2016 campaign. From mental hurdles troubling Nelson Agholor, to a lack of depth that resulted in two undrafted rookies ending the year on the final 53-man roster, it was the production of Jordan Matthews that provided Carson Wentz with reliability through the rigors of a rookie season.
Although he missed two games due to injury, the impact Matthews had on the Eagles Offense is tremendous. As the oldest receiver in the corps in just his third year, Matthews let his play on the field do the talking as well as help Doug Pederson shape the Offense throughout the duration of the year. Entering his contract season, Matthews is one of the key cogs in the Eagles offense, regardless of what perceptions of statistics may incite.
3: Carson Wentz
It’s incredibly difficult not to rank Wentz first overall..but the two players ahead certainly have a justifiable case. This man needs no real introduction however. Drafted second overall by the Eagles, Wentz was expected to sit his rookie year behind Sam Bradford, learning the ropes and the marinating under the tutelage of Chase Daniel. Instead, 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.
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.
2: Rodney McLeod:
After being signed as a free agent, the ceiling seemed high for the tandem of Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins. But when Jenkins had his name called to take over slot duties..that potential dropped..or so it seemed. McLeod didn’t just thrive in the tenacious Jim Schwartz scheme, but he smashed through the ceiling and played beyond anyone’s expectations.
With 83 tackles, 3 interceptions and a forced fumble, McLeod was simply outstanding in 2016. Hard hits, true leadership and consistency that hasn’t been seen in years from an Eagles safety, were all staples in McLeod’s style of play last year. Without Jenkins, McLeod was at times left to carry the rear of the secondary on his own..and he very rarely faltered.
One of the Eagles biggest offseason acquisitions a year ago did everything to justify the price tag..racking up career highs in tackles and interceptions, matching a career high in passes defensed and achieving his first ever sack in the NFL. McLeod embodies everything that Jim Schwartz and his Defense stands for..and as the Eagles continue to grow, he could become one of the most exciting players to watch on the defensive side of the ball.
1: Brandon Graham
This was a no brainer. Brandon Graham had a career year in 2016, delivering the dominance and consistency demanded by the Eagles ruthless style of Defense. The 28-year old was relentless coming off the edge en-route to his 59 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles, often carrying the pass rush when the defensive tackles were unable to beat double and triple teams.
The loss to Cincinnati was the game that stood out avidly in my mind..as no matter how far the team may have been down by, Graham continued to play with the same motor and elevated his teammates to a late surge as a result.
Just how dominant was Graham? According to Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus, the DE pressured the opposing quarterback 83 times over the course of the season, the second highest number of pressures in the league. It’s strange to think that a few years ago, many were quick to label Graham as a “bust”. His 2016 season resembled that of an elite pass-rusher who still has an incredibly high ceiling in the NFL.
When the Eagles Defense was heating up, there was no stopping them. The combination of Cox, Logan, Graham and Barwin often proved too much for opposing offensive lines and it’s easy to see why. Graham did nothing but shatter expectations each and every week last season, becoming one of the team’s most vital assets.
His play needs no description. Graham was constantly one of the most impressive players on the Eagles Defense and earned his way to a second-team All-Pro mention. With a young corps beneath him and an expected shakeup in the offseason, the presence of Graham moving forward will be pivotal to the success of the Defense.
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