Previewing the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles team

The Philadelphia Eagles begin the 2017 season in two days against the Washington Redskins. It’s time to preview everything about the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles team, from the offense to the coaching staff and everything in between. 

Offense

This year’s Eagles offense is centered around the development of second year quarterback Carson Wentz. Wentz had an inconsistent first year, totaling 3782 yards, 16 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and a 79.3 passer rating. He did all that he could with what he had, which was one of the NFL’s worst receiving corps, an inconsistent offensive line, and an average running game. The Eagles took care of providing weapons for Wentz to use this season (wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, and running back LeGarrette Blount), and everything coming out of the Eagles camp is saying that Wentz has improved his mechanics and accuracy during the offseason. All signs are pointing to Wentz having a much better season as he continues to develop his skillset.

Behind Wentz at the quarterback position, the Eagles brought in Nick Foles on a two-year, $11 million contract. Foles played for the Eagles earlier in his career, and is best known for his 27 touchdown, two interception season in 2013. Foles has since regressed and has bounced around the league over the past couple of years. He will be able to provide veteran leadership in the quarterbacks room for the Eagles, and hopefully won’t have to see the field at all during the season.

At running back, the Eagles brought in LeGarrette Blount on a one-year, $1.25 million contract. Blount will most likely be used in goal line and short yardage situations due to his big body (6’0, 250 pounds). Blount ran for 18 touchdowns for the New England Patriots last season, and the Eagles hope that he can continue what he was doing in New England. Wendell Smallwood, the Eagles fifth round pick in 2016, will presumably receive most of the carries on first or second down. Smallwood totaled 312 yards and a touchdown on 77 carries in his rookie year, and the team is expecting more out of him this season. Darren Sproles, who has made a career out of catching passes out of the backfield, will continue to be a nuisance to opposing defenses with his quickness and ability to catch passes out of the backfield. Rookies Donnel Pumphrey (drafted in the fourth round in 2017) and Corey Clement (undrafted free agent) both made the roster but most likely won’t receive any playing time this season.

At the wide receiver position, the Eagles needed to overhaul the position and that’s what they did. They brought in the top receiver available via free agency, Alshon Jeffery, on a one year contract worth up to $14 million. Jeffery is one of the NFL’s top receivers, when healthy, but he has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. Jeffery hasn’t played a full 16 games since 2014, but when he was healthy, he made a huge impact, totaling 1133 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2014. Going along with Jeffery, the Eagles also brought in Torrey Smith on a three-year contract worth $15 million. Smith hasn’t been himself since his years with the Baltimore Ravens, where he was one of the NFL’s top deep threats at receiver. The Eagles are hoping that Smith can still burn past corners down the field and provide a deep threat that this offense so desperately needs.

Also at the wide receiver position, the Eagles have Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins, Marcus Johnson and Shelton Gibson. Nelson Agholor, a player that many consider to be a first round bust, has seemed to turn it around this offseason and has earned the role of being the team’s slot receiver. Mack Hollins, who was drafted by the team in the fourth round of last year’s draft, showed some promise during the preseason but it doesn’t seem like he will get much playing time this season. Marcus Johnson struggled to make the team this season, and is in a similar situation to Mack Hollins in terms of playing time. Shelton Gibson, the team’s fifth round pick in last year’s draft, had a disappointing training camp and he has struggled to grasp the offense. Gibson won’t get any playing time this season, and he was only kept on the roster because of his potential.

At tight end, Zach Ertz leads the group followed by Brent Celek and Trey Burton. Ertz developed good chemistry with quarterback Carson Wentz last season, and many expect Ertz to have a breakout season. Celek, used more now for his blocking than his receiving ability, is playing out the final seasons of his career primarily as a blocker. Burton will continue to receive more playing time to express his catching ability. Burton and Ertz should provide a good one-two punch at the tight end position, with Celek coming in when an extra blocker is needed.

The Eagles are going into this season with one of the league’s top ranked offensive lines. Left tackle Jason Peters, right tackle Lane Johnson and right guard Brandon Brooks anchor the offensive line. Center Jason Kelce, who has been trying to bulk up and get stronger, and left guard Isaac Seumalo compose the rest of the offensive line. Peters is heading into his age 35 season but he still is playing like a premiere left tackle. Lane Johnson is arguably the best right tackle in the league, but he needs to avoid getting suspended like he did last season. This unit was drastically worse when Johnson got suspended last season, meaning that it is all the more important that Johnson avoid doing anything that would result in a suspension. For depth, the team also carries guard/center Stefen Wisniewski, guard Chance Warmack and tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai on the roster. Overall, this unit should be a definite strength of the offense this season.

Defense

The defensive line, led by defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham, is one of the strengths of the Eagles defense. The pass rush as a whole is going to be one of the keys to this Eagles defense. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham are two of the key pieces to the pass rush, but the offseason trade for Tim Jernigan is what will really put this defensive line and pass rush over the top. Jernigan totaled nine sacks in his two years with the Baltimore Ravens, and his ability to rush the passer will help to take double teams away from Fletcher Cox. Graham, who totaled 5.5 sacks and a lot of quarterback hits/hurries last season, should continue to improve his game. At the other end position, Vinny Curry currently is the starter but, barring an all-pro performance, will lose that starting job to first round pick Derek Barnett. Barnett, who broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee, provides the ability to sack the quarterback at a high rate. Behind this group of starters, the Eagles also improved by signing veteran Chris Long and drafting defensive tackle Elijah Qualls.

The Eagles linebacking corps is composed of a very good starting group, but the lack of depth is concerning. Jordan Hicks, who totaled 85 tackles, one sack, and five interceptions last season, is proving to be an elite middle linebacker. Nigel Bradham made his mark for the Eagles last season by totaling 102 tackles, two sacks, and one interception, and is expected to have another good year. Together, Hicks and Bradham are one of the NFL’s best linebacker duos. Then comes Mychal Kendricks, who has been a massive disappointment over the past couple of seasons. However, Kendricks seems to have re-found his old self during the preseason, and the team hopes that he can continue his recent stretch of good play into the regular season. If Kendricks can continue his good play, then the Eagles will have one of the best starting linebacker groups in the entire league. However, Hicks has struggled to stay healthy ever since his college years, and the Eagles don’t have a lot of linebacker depth. Joe Walker and Najee Goode are both below average backups, and Kamu Grugier-Hill is on the team for his special teams ability, not for his ability to play as a linebacker.

Cornerback is one of the most improved positions on this football team. The Eagles are going from starting Nolan Carroll, Jalen Mills and Ron Brooks to starting Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, and Patrick Robinson. Darby, acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Bills, played very well as a rookie (68 tackles, two interceptions) but then proceeded to fall apart in his second season (69 tackles, zero interceptions). Darby, known for his exceptional man coverage ability and top end speed, should prove to be a solid cornerback and a definite improvement over what the team had last year. Jalen Mills, the team’s seventh round pick in 2016, was forced into a starting role last season, and he played not as bad as expected. Mills has some talent, and the coaching staff is excited about his potential to improve this season. Patrick Robinson was brought in via free agency this offseason, and was having a terrible training camp playing as an outside corner. However, the Ronald Darby trade allowed Robinson to move over to slot corner, and his play has taken a step up since the change.

The Eagles also brought in Dexter McDougle via trade during the preseason, and the team drafted Rasul Douglas in the third round. Both of these players will prove to be solid depth pieces, and Douglas should improve as the season goes along and he gets a better grasp of the speed and style of the NFL game. The team also spent a second round pick on Sidney Jones, one of the top corners in the draft before he tore his achilles at Washington’s pro day. Jones might play at some point this season, but the team is making sure that they don’t rush his recovery.

At the safety positions, things remain mostly the same as last season. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod continue to be the starters, but Jenkins play should improve now that he doesn’t need to help out at the nickel cornerback position. Behind the starters, the Eagles brought in Corey Graham via free agency to be a depth piece. The coaching staff liked Graham’s versatility and his ability to play both as a safety and a cornerback.

The Eagles defense as a whole improved from last season with the key acquisitions of cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Patrick Robinson, defensive tackle Tim Jernigan and defensive end Chris Long, as well as the drafting of defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas. The secondary is no longer a massive weakness, but it isn’t a strength either. The pass rush is definitely something that is going to headline this defense, and when combined with this group of linebackers, should help to make this defense into potentially one of the best in the league.

Special Teams

The Eagles have been one of the league’s top special teams units for the past couple of years, and this year should be no different. Kicker Caleb Sturgis is coming off of the best year of his career, and he should continue to be a solid kicker for the Eagles. Punter Donnie Jones will remain a top punter in the league. The only major change in the special teams unit comes at the long snapper position. The team traded Jon Dorenbos to the New Orleans Saints for a seventh round pick, opening up the door for Rick Lovato to take over the long snapping duties.

Coaching Staff

Head coach Doug Pederson is heading into his second year as the team’s head coach, and with increased expectations for the team heading into this season, could possibly be on the hot seat. Pederson made some rookie coaching errors (bad play calling, challenging meaningless plays, managing the clock) last season that cost the team a couple of wins. However, Pederson’s job arguably is tied directly to the development of second year quarterback Carson Wentz. If Wentz looks good, Pederson will most likely be guaranteed at keeping his job as the Eagles head coach.

Offensive coordinator Frank Reich has been doing a good job of helping quarterback Carson Wentz develop. With the play calling on offense being done by head coach Doug Pederson, Reich’s primary job should be to help Wentz further his development. One of the best acquisitions made to the coaching staff this offseason was the hiring of Mike Groh as the team’s wide receivers coach. Groh has played a big role in helping Nelson Agholor to regain his confidence after a terrible first two seasons of his career.

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is continuing to run his wide nine defensive system that has led to a lot of success by his defenses throughout his career. Schwartz did a good job last season, with the only criticism by some being that he didn’t blitz enough. Well, the Eagles defensive line is good enough this season to be able to apply pressure on the quarterback without requiring a blitz. However, linebacker Mychal Kendricks excels in blitzing, so it will be interesting to see how Schwartz uses Kendricks as well as how much he blitzes this season.

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