While the Chip Kelly era may be over, Eagles are primed to reap rewards from 2015 Draft

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With the Chip Kelly era in the rear-view mirror, this Eagles’ team looks a lot different than it did during the 2015 season – the last of Chip’s tenure in Philadelphia, and the one that saw him serve as the HC/de facto GM of the team. While the re-established Eagles’ front office has made sure there are few remaining remnants of Chip’s fingerprints left in Philadelphia, there are a couple of Kelly pupils left on the squad from that fateful 2015 offseason: 3rd round pick LB Jordan Hicks, 1st round pick WR Nelson Agholor, and free-agent acquisition RB Ryan Mathews (for now). 

 

LB Jordan Hicks

While Chip’s lone season in charge of Eagles’ personnel decisions was, by most measures, a disaster, he did leave the Eagles with a nice, shiny going away present: ILB Jordan Hicks.

With the 84th pick in the 3rd round of the 2015 NFL Draft, the then Chip Kelly-led Eagles selected the 6’2”, 240 lb. Texas product. The former Longhorn slipped in the draft due to his concerning injury history, missing a total of 19 games throughout his first 3 collegiate seasons. However, Hicks responded to the hype during his senior year. Most importantly, Hicks managed to stay the healthy the entire season and showed why he was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school – and additionally, why he was considered the nation’s #1 recruit at the position.

Ironically enough, as a prospect leading up to the 2015 draft, one of Hicks’ supposed strengths was that he was scheme-versatile. During a collegiate career that saw him play a multitude of roles in various defensive schemes, it was clear that not only was Jordan Hicks a top specimen athletically at the position, he was also a cerebral player that could adjust to coaching staff/scheme changes, and still be able to quarterback a defense.

To begin his NFL career, Hicks started five games and compiled 50 tackles, two interceptions (one for a TD), a forced fumble, and a sack. It was a small sample size, but Hicks definitely displayed the ranginess needed to be a middle linebacker in the modern-day NFL. However, regardless of the promise that Hicks showed during his rookie year, he had another season cut short due to injury. While Hicks proved he has the potential to be a game-changing linebacker, he can only do so when healthy.

Although his rookie season was cut short, Hicks still came on strong during his first year in midnight green, showing that he wasn’t merely a Chip Kelly pupil – instead, he proved that his sideline-to-sideline athleticism and ability to quickly diagnose plays transcend scheme and/or coaching staff.

Hicks made another successful transition into yet another scheme in 2016 – Jim Schwartz’ wide-nine version of the 4-3. With new responsibilities for the defense across the board, not only did Hicks have to learn his new role, he was likely teaching his fellow defenders theirs. Even though technically a ‘transition year’ for the defense and for the team, Hicks put together a brilliant 2016 campaign in his first full NFL season, and his first in Schwartz’ attacking 4-3 scheme.

Let’s take a look at Hicks’ numbers over his first two NFL seasons:

What jumps out here from year one to year two is simply the number 16. 16! Hicks stayed healthy for the entire 2016 season and the Eagles’ defense reaped the rewards. Because Hicks has such an alarming injury history, just the fact that he proved he could endure the rigors of an entire NFL season is a promising for the young linebacker. In addition, note the spike in passes defended, and interceptions. While his numbers were naturally going to get better with an entire season under his belt, just how much better remained to be seen.

This is a stat I really like for Jordan Hicks. Throughout the course of 2016, QBs learned rather quickly to avoid throwing in his direction.

Let’s take a further look at these outstanding ILBs and their coverage prowess:

PFF has already told us that Hicks, Johnson, and Minter, respectively, were the least targeted inside linebackers in all of 2016. We know these guys are great in coverage, and more times than not, opposing QBs made a habit of going in other directions with the football; but, what happened when the ball did get thrown at them? Well, for Hicks, he had more passes defended than both Johnson and Minter combined. Although it’s a small sample size, and while we can see Minter is trending in the right direction as well, it’s easy to see how Hicks is already projecting to be the best in the league at his position.

In 2016, Hicks led all LBs in interceptions (5). Not only does this guy barely get targeted, when a QB does decide to throw his way, number 58 makes plays.

It will be tough for Hicks to continue his crazy-steep trend projections heading into 2017, but I do think it’s reasonable that he puts up very similar numbers; provided that he manages to stay healthy the entire year. *Similar numbers* might not roll off the tongue or sound very impressive, but I think the Eagles [and fans alike] should be ecstatic if Hicks were able to replicate his 2016 numbers – let alone improve upon them.

(Thanks, Chip.)

 

WR Nelson Agholor

A year after using [wasting] their 2014 first-round pick on edge defender Marcus Smith, the newly Chip-led personnel department spent its 2015 first-rounder on USC WR, Nelson Agholor:

Despite an illustrious college career with the Trojans – particularly the 2014 season which saw him selected first-team All-Pac-12, and third-team All-American – heading into his 3rd NFL season, Nelson Agholor is on the verge of being labeled a Marcus Smi…… I mean bust.

Immediately after being drafted, expectations were sky-high for Agholor. NFL Network Draft Analyst Mike Mayock had this to say about the Eagles then first-round selection:

“Agholor is a precise route runner. He has added value as a great returner. He reminds you of Jeremy Maclin, the guy he’s replacing. Agholor can play anywhere – outside, and in the slot. The Philadelphia Eagles are going to love him.”

Unfortunately, if you haven’t heard, Nelson Agholor isn’t Jeremy Maclin. He has immensely under-performed during his first two professional seasons. Although it seems that Nelson is an intelligent and competitive kid, he just hasn’t been able to put it together since becoming a pro.

Looking back on Mayock’s comments, it’s interesting that he deliberately mentions Nelson’s versatility. He thrived in the slot at the collegiate level, but other than in OTAs and minicamp this offseason, we haven’t got to see many reps with Nelson lined up there. From the buzz around the team, he has had a phenomenal offseason (particularly filling in in the slot), and is on pace to possibly have – wait for it – the best season of his young career. The good news is, it probably won’t take much to accomplish that:

To say Agholor hasn’t lived up to the hype of being a first-round pick, well, would be an under-statement. He has massively under-performed, but not because of a lack of opportunity. With the new additions to the WR unit, Nelson is going to have to really work to get his targets, BUT, there will be opportunities there for him. We’ve all heard the buzz surrounding him so far this offseason – and, for his sake, hopefully he can provide the Eagles with a nice bump in production to get his career trending in the right direction soon – or those opportunities I mentioned won’t be around much longer; at least not in Philly.

As a collegiate receiver, Nelson drastically improved in each of his three seasons. It’s rather easy to see the steep rise in receiving production that led to him being a first-round pick in 2015.

But that was college – and this is the NFL. It’s needless to say that Nelson has under-performed during his first two seasons in Philly. Everyone on the planet already knows that; his production simply has to be better – not only to justify the 1st round pick the team used on him, but, to simply warrant a spot on the 53 man roster.

While it’s easy for the media and fans to write off Agholor as a bust due to the lackluster start to his NFL career, at a closer glance, I notice something similar between his collegiate and NFL career: an upward trend.

Call me crazy, but Nelson did improve upon his 2015 numbers last year – I didn’t say he played well – I said he improved, and that at least is a good sign.

Take the following into account:

The Eagles are letting Jordan Matthews play out his contract year. In an earlier piece, we highlighted a few reasons why the Eagles could have some hesitancy in regard to re-signing Matthews. If Nelson plays well during his reps in the slot in training camp, he may show the Eagles a glimpse of what life could look like after Jordan Matthews. Unless, somehow, Agholor goes nuts and receives for 2,000 yards, 20 TDs, and drastically increases his value, I have to believe the Eagles might be okay with letting the receiver who deserves a market-value contract walk [Jordan Matthews]; and, subsequently, re-sign the under-achieving Agholor to a team-friendly extension, providing the club more cap flexibility for the future.

This article isn’t meant to glorify Agholor, who *improved* in 2016 and was still graded by Pro Football Focus as their #115th WR of 2016. That’s out of 115 WRs that qualified – yikes.

Furthermore, not that Eagles’ fans need a reminder:

https://media.profootballfocus.com/2017/06/Nelson-Agholor.png

It will be interesting to see how the Eagles work Nelson in training camp and beyond in 2017. The young man seems to be on the right track this offseason. He is now working with established WRs Coach, Mike Groh, and is no longer feeling the pressure of having to perform as the Birds’ top wide-out – and that in itself is his biggest benefit heading into 2017.

Despite the high-profile acquisitions made to the WR room, Nelson will still see opportunities this year; I think we can count on that. However, if he produces another under-whelming campaign, not only will the target opportunities continue to dwindle away, so too will his NFL career.

While the Eagles have purged away most reminders of the Chip Kelly era, they haven’t completely washed their hands of it. For the lack of better words, the 2015 offseason was certainly a memorable one – and one that, in Jordan Hicks and Nelson Agholor, the Eagles are still feeling the effects of.

Jordan Hicks has proved in his short time in the NFL that, talent-wise, he is already a top LB in the league. But it’s not all roses and flowers with Hicks – the guy has to put together a string of healthy campaigns before he’s considered the best.

As for Nelson Agholor, he needs to continue to improve upon his numbers and prove to the Eagles that not only was he worth their (Chip’s) 1st-round investment, but that he’s worth keeping around into the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, for better or for worse, the organization still has two very intriguing Kelly holdovers on the roster. It will be interesting to see how these young players’ careers pan out.

  • Will Jordan Hicks stay healthy and ascend to stardom in 2017 and beyond?
  • Can Nelson Agholor revive his career in 2017 and beyond?

Only time will tell.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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