Kickoff in the 2017 NFL Season is upon us, and the Eagles will have to get off to a fast start to keep up with what looks like an extremely competitive NFC East. They certainly pulled it off in 2016, but faded as the season wore on. How they do in 2017 will have a lot to do with how the following storylines play out.
Carson Wentz’ next steps
The Eagles bet on Carson Wentz when they traded up to select him in the second round of the 2016 draft and doubled down on their wager during the 2017 off-season. Around the league, they weren't alone. Teams that have decided they have their franchise signal-caller wasted no resource this year surrounding those quarterbacks with proven playmakers. How Wentz fares will be closely contested with contemporaries like Jameis Winston, Derek Carr, and Marcus Mariota.
Wentz’ new weapons
While Wentz’ rookie season had it's positives and negatives it was hard to expect very much more from someone who missed the preseason and had a receiving corps best described as unhelpful. Neither of those is the case this season however. Wentz has spent all of camp working with the first team and the Eagles wide receivers bare little resemblance to those of recent seasons. Expectations for how Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, and Mack Hollins play this year are one of the biggest reasons for optimism about the 2017 Eagles.
The Eagles kept a shocking five running backs on their 53-man roster (and returned Byron Marshall to the practice squad for good measure.) While the carry-share has been a storyline in the past — think signing DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews in the same off-season — this is a different collection of players. Legarrette Blount, uninspiring summer aside, should see much goal-line and short yardage work and Darren Sproles is the team's most dangerous weapon from a year ago. The interesting battle for playing time and a chance to supplant one of the veterans is between three young players: second year pro Wendell Smallwood, fourth round pick Donnel Pumphrey, and undrafted rookie Corey Clement.
The last time the Eagles made the playoffs, in 2013, the starters along the offensive line all played a full 16 games. That’s no coincidence. Since then, injuries struck and the team struggled through Lane Johnson’s ten game suspension in 2016. A full season of Lane Johnson, and one where Jason Peters manages to stay on the field as he did in 2016, will bolster the Birds’ chances to return to the postseason greatly. They’re blessed with versatile backups that will let them enter game days with Halapoulivaati Vaitai ready to step in at tackle and Stefen Wisniewski capable of playing center or either guard spot.
Jim Schwartz’ pass rush
Schwartz' first season left a lot to be desired despite the talent along the Eagles’ defensive line, and at the end of the day too many quarterback hurries didn’t enter the stat sheet as sacks. His second season should find the team fielding even more players that fit Schwartz’ system’s strengths. Bennie Logan and Connor Barwin were talented and valued contributors in Philadelphia for many years, but neither was meant for exclusive pass rushing from a four-man defensive line. Timmy Jernigan and first round pick Derek Barnett on the other hand, were. Both have looked exceptional at getting to the quarterback this summer, and that should go a long way to helping the Eagles biggest weakness.
The rehabilitation of the wide receivers in Philadelphia leaves cornerback as the clear question mark on the Eagles. They didn’t go after big names on the free agent market, opting instead to spend two high draft picks on the position. While we will obviously have to wait a bit to see what kind of return the Eagles get on Sidney Jones while the rookie rehabs his achilles injury, whether he and Rasul Douglas mature into NFL corners quicker than the Cowboys’ Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis do could go a long way towards determining the division. At the very least, it will be an interesting comparison to watch.
Youth vs. Experience
The Eagles have been striking an interesting balance between turning to their younger players and adding veterans. At a few positions the turnover has already happened: guard where Isaac Seumalo supplanted Allen Barbre, receiver where the performance of young players like Hollins made the Eagles feel they had the depth to make Jordan Matthews expendable. A few other battles will take center stage this season. The Eagles defensive line depth, particularly at end, is well-discussed. How much playing time will Barnett be able to steal from veterans like Vinny Curry and Chris Long? Will any of the young running backs jump Blount and Sproles in the pecking order? Which corners will win the trust of the coaches: veteran Patrick Robinson, or Jalen Mills and Douglas?
When the Eagles added talent this off-season, they did so with a multitude of one-year deals. Jeffery, Blount, Robinson, and guard Chance Warmack all came to Philadelphia for prove-it seasons. Smith’s contract could easily become a one-year deal if the Eagles don’t like what they see. Warmack already got a contract extension on Saturday. The others could be due for the same if they play well. In Jeffery’s case in particular a sizable payday could be waiting. The Eagles also have players who need to be playing up to their contracts or risk finding themselves the victim of cap-friendly release numbers next off-season. Curry and center Jason Kelce are two of the most vulnerable. If Curry loses playing time to Barnett and Long, and doesn’t improve on the last two seasons’ dismal sack totals (six total) the Eagles could save $5 million against the cap with his release. The Eagles would save almost $4 million by moving on from Kelce.
Doug Pederson was welcomed to Philadelphia by both organization and fanbase as the exact opposite of Chip Kelly. It was questionable whether the team was trying too hard to return to the Andy Reid blueprint, but it was certainly a successful blueprint. While there weren’t very many complaints about the 7-9 result from Pederson’s first season, there were smaller complaints about reliance on the passing game, fourth down attempts, and time management. As we said, the Andy Reid blueprint. Pederson’s credentials came into the national scene recently when Mike Lombardi called him maybe the least qualified head coach ever. Much of the apparent qualifications rest on being a coordinator, which Pederson had done for “only” three years. Lest we forget, Reid was never one. There are complaints to be made about Pederson’s Season 1 performance, but his qualifications aren’t one of them. Let’s wait and see how the issues are or aren’t cleaned up in season two.
Special teams dominance
The Eagles have made their mark with special teams for about as long as most can remember. If they keep taking steps forward as a team, having this elite backbone will be one of the reasons. But some of the key contributors to that dominance — Donnie Jones (37) and Darren Sproles (34) — have accrued many NFL seasons. It’s important to say that there aren’t any signs of a drop off from these two performers, but how they perform will nevertheless be a key factor in the Birds success this season. The Eagles have been acquiring options to supplement Sproles in the return game (Smallwood, Nelson Agholor, Pumphrey) and we’ll see if any of them get a chance this season.