How Eagles wildcard win strengthens what could be a complicated offseason

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In true Eagles’ nature, Philadelphia pulled off a nail-biting, jaw-clenching, up-and-down upset of the NFC North Champion Chicago Bears this Sunday night. Needing all the fortuity the football gods could muster, and a timely timeout by Doug Pederson, the Birds will again look to play spoiler in New Orleans next weekend. Taking no time to soak in what might be the second-most thrilling Eagles win in recent memory, faultfinding fans dreaming of a dynasty will no doubt wonder what this win indicated for the future of the Eagles. So, let’s jump to some conclusions together. Based on the Bears game, here are some takeaways heading into what should be a very interesting 2019.

 

The Eagles are deep in the secondary:
Reaching into the bag of cast-offs and unproven talent, Jim Schwartz did an unbelievable job of turning another’s “trash” into treasure in just over a month. A secondary that began the season with Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby, Sydney Jones, Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins quickly transformed into a group devoid of household names. Jenkins being the only remaining starter to survive the season, his role in taking a young group of unsubstantiated substitutes should not be understated.

While the Bears’ passing offence clocked in at 21st during the regular season, they boasted a potent two-headed rushing attack that finished the season ranked 11th in the league, averaging 121.1 yards per game. Cornerbacks and safeties alike made their presence known clamping down on stretch plays and forcing the Bears’ speedy runners into the waiting arms of the Philly linebackers. On that front, Nigel Bradham was especially impressive. In total, secondary players made 32 of the teams 50 tackles and Rasul Douglas led the team with 8 stops.

Douglas was making tackles all over the field. One time in particular he chased a screen play down from the opposite side of the field to make a stop on what could have been a significantly larger gain. Individually, his growth over the last few months has been awesome to watch, and while he is still susceptible to get beat down the field by quicker receivers, he has intelligently used his length and ball-skills to force opposing quarterbacks to be spot-on when throwing to his side of the field.

What’s more is Cre’Von Leblanc made a number of key tackles and forced a textbook would-be fumble late in the first half, and although he missed his chance to convert on an easy interception, Tre Sullivan looked solid in coverage — something the thumper isn’t exactly known for.

The lone downside is that Avonte Maddox got toasted on a few pretty double moves by Allen Robinson. Early on, he was a toenail away from coming down with an impressive diving interception. There were, in fact, multiple instances where it looked as if Maddox was inches away from picking of Mitch Trubisky. Missing those opportunities clearly had Avonte hungry for more, which was not lost on savvy play caller Matt Nagy. This rookie voracity will taper in time, but the anticipation he displayed throughout the game was nothing short of impressive. Throughout the season, especially down the stretch, he has looked quicker than every receiver across from him and has been no slouch in the physical aspects of the game, despite his size.

In 2019, the defensive secondary will have Jalen Mills, Sidney Jones and Rodney McLeod returning to the mix. There has also been reported mutual interest between Ronald Darby and the front office for a possible one-year prove-it deal. If the Eagles are to add another piece to the secondary early in the draft, as many mocks have them doing, the roster will be ripe with young talent and will have ample veteran talent to help coach them up. What was once seen as a glaring weakness might now be a strength.

 

The Eagles may have found a reliable, and potentially dangerous kick returner in Boston Scott:
After watching DeAndre Carter get plucked off the practice squad by the Houston Texans, the kick returner position was in question while Darren Sproles focused on getting fully healthy. The Eagles in turn snagged rookie Boston Scott off the Saints practice squad. Against the Texans, Scott returned four kicks for 24.0 yards a pop. In this contest, he had a nice 21 yard return and 14-yarder which he probably should have left in the end zone. Chalk it up to a rookie mistake. Most importantly, he made no major blunders and kept the ball safe in the most important game of his career to date. In 2019, he could prove to be a younger, more athletic option than Kenjon Barner was in years past.

 

The Golden Tate trade was worth it:
Bah humbug to the naysayers. If one game is all it took for Tate to put his stamp on Philadelphia sports then so be it. Even Philadelphia’s least favourite commentator Cris Collinsworth mentioned the collective sigh of relief that was had by Eagles fans worldwide. The former Lions and Seahawks receiver made plenty of tough catches, as well as the most important catch of the game. In spite of looking hobbled on multiple occasions, his unwavering presence eventually sealed it for the Birds. It is unlikely that he returns for another year in Philly due to the high-paying offers he is bound to receive from other teams, but what a time to burst onto the scene. It wasn’t just that Tate made plays of his own, but that the chemistry between he and Nick Foles actually seems to be developing. This could be a compelling connection to watch when the team heads to New Orleans to take on the Saints. Even if he doesn’t manage to top his 5 catch, 46 yard, game-winning touchdown having performance going forward, the constant threat that he poses on defences will cause open lanes for Zach Ertz, Nelson Agholor and Dallas Goedert. Speaking of which . . .

 

Dallas Goedert looks like a bona fide star:
He only had two receptions all game, but boy were they big ones. The first was a touchdown on a masterfully run route — he has clearly been learning all he can from Ertz. The second was one of the most important non-touchdown plays of the game. After taking a screen pass on a well designed play by Doug Pederson and crew, he bounced off a would-be tackler with a beautiful spin move and fell forward for a crucial first-down. Defences are finding out very quickly just how difficult it is to bring this young man to the ground. He and Ertz will make a magnificent thunder-and-lighting tandem for years to come. He is also a criminally underrated blocker. Already in his young career, he looks to be a better run-blocker than Ertz ever was and seems to be ever-willing to lay a hit on anyone — lineman, linebackers, you name it. While Chris Herndon may have registered more stats than Goedert, Dallas looks to be the best of the highly-esteemed 2018 tight end draft class, and it’s not close.

 

Josh Adams is not the three down back of the future:
Despite getting off to a hot start midway through the season, the Eagles have gone away from Adams over the last month. Faced with many situations throughout the game that generally have teams turning towards their biggest back on the roster, Doug Pederson instead opted for Wendell Smallwood. The good news is that Smallwood seems to get better with every touch. He’s been running with a hunger and tenacity that we haven’t seen out of him before this season. On one run in particular — with the Eagles backed up on their own one-yard line — Smallwood showed just how strong he has gotten since being an undersized draft pick out of West Virginia. He also did everything asked of him in pass protection, regularly picking up the intricate blitzes synonymous with Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme. On inside zone runs, Darren Sproles seemed to be the go-to back. This may change heading into next season, but one carry for two yards is not exactly what fans had envisioned for Adams after his early success.

From the outside looking in, it seems as if the rookie has not done enough to earn the trust of the coaching staff. In fact, he may have done enough in the opposite direction — surrendering a late-game fumble to the Houston Texans that allowed them to get back into the game. Frankly, I have my own reservations on the Notre Dame product, which I hope to dive into in full during the off-season. Put simply, he will either have to gain weight or gain speed to be a truly effective runner in this offence — the former being the more realistic solution. If he is to carry the load for the Eagles on early downs, he will have to be considerably more decisive when running through the middle. Too often his strategy is to bounce hand offs to the outside in hopes that he is fast enough to outrun opposing defenders. Later in the season, with teams getting wise to his play style, he was much less effective.

Addressing the running back room in its entirety, it remains to be seen if the Eagles plan on keeping Jay Ajayi on the roster. As disappointing as it is to see the electric runner end his time with the team on IR, signs point to him donning a different colour in 2019. All hope is not lost for the Philly run game. The upcoming draft is rife with late-round gems and surprising small school backs: my personal favourite being Devin Singletary out of Florida Atlantic, who looks to be everything the coaching staff thought Donnel Pumphrey could become. Washington’s Miles Gaskin is another second day option. Neither of these backs will be the be-all-end all for the Eagles, who seem to be committed to the running-back-by-committee approach, but they will make excellent complimentary backs to Adams, if he is the lead horse going forward. On top of that, there are rumours Darren Sproles may return for another season, but let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.

 

Brandon Graham is declining as a run stopper:
Known as more of a pass rusher in recent years, Eagles fans know that Graham has long been an underrated asset in stopping the run due to his high motor and intelligent play. However, he registered just one tackle against the Bears and was not the game-changing presence he was in last year’s playoff run. While he did a fantastic job funnelling the ball back inside and forcing Jordan Howard into the throng of awaiting linebackers, he did not make his signature impact plays fans are used to seeing. Always a factor in putting pressure on the quarterback, Graham may see his role shift to a situational pass rusher if he returns to the team in 2019. He will be a much more expensive option than Chris Long has been, but the love is mutual between he and the organisation and the Eagles may get a discount. Either way, it will be interesting to see how they handle his contract in the off-season.

 

Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

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