Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Philadelphia Eagles check in at No. 14.
After the nightmare “Dream Team” season of 2011, the Eagles are wide awake going into 2012. Owner Jeffrey Lurie admitted he considered making a change after Andy Reid’s 13th championship-free season as head coach. It is widely assumed Reid will have to make a deep playoff run, at least, to survive his 14th season. And while it is safe to say that the excuses for 2011 — the lockout, the enormous changes on the roster and among the assistant coaches — won’t apply this year, there is also a good chance that no excuses will be necessary.
Reid didn’t undo all those changes during this more typical offseason. Instead, he committed more fully to them. Juan Castillo remains as defensive coordinator after the team blew five fourth quarter leads. Michael Vick had another season plagued by injury, but Reid stood by his reclaimed quarterback and stood pat on his refurbished offensive line.
Reid has reached the playoffs in nine of his 13 seasons. His team has also done a little worse in each of the past three seasons. Which trend will hold? The answer will determine the Eagles’ course after 14 seasons under the league’s longest-tenured head coach.
The Eagles are betting on Vick to be better after his first full offseason as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. It is a bet that could make or break the 2012 season. Vick certainly has a championship-caliber supporting cast.
After several years in flux, the team’s offensive line has evolved into a strength going into this season. Todd Herremans has locked down the right tackle spot vacated by Jon Runyan. Journeyman guard Evan Mathis found a home after connecting with offensive line coach Howard Mudd, and 2011 draft picks Jason Kelce (center) and Danny Watkins (right guard) got through their growing pains and should be fixtures for years. The team suffered a blow when Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters tore his right Achilles tendon during an offseason workout and then tore it once again in a freak injury in May. The Eagles signed free agent Demetress Bell, a move that should minimize the loss.
The line’s emergence, and Mudd’s attacking style, helped LeSean McCoy establish himself as one of the top backs in the league. McCoy just got better as he developed a feel for his blockers, and he is poised to have a monster 2012 season.
One reason: The speed and production of wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin clear out the intermediate areas of the field. If McCoy can get through the line, there is room for him to get up to full speed and to use his exceptional shiftiness.
Jackson, who admitted pouting over his contract and was suspended by Reid for one game, did not have a great 2011 season. He has a new deal and will be expected to be the player he was in 2009 and ’10. His mere presence helps create opportunities for Maclin, slot receiver Jason Avant and tight end Brent Celek.
But it all starts, and sometimes ends, with Vick. His 14 interceptions and 10 fumbles (four lost) were among the team’s biggest problems in 2011. Vick also missed three games and parts of three others with injuries. For the Eagles to get the most from their array of offensive talent, Vick has to play smarter and stay healthy. “He understands how important he is to this football team, that he’s healthy,” Reid says. “And that means as healthy as you can be playing the sport. You limit some of the contact points you have.”
Once Reid decided to stick with Castillo, and with defensive line coach Jim Washburn’s signature “wide 9” philosophy, the focus became adding pieces that fit the puzzle. The first of those pieces filled a gaping hole in the middle. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans, acquired in a trade with the Texans, could be the team’s first impact linebacker since Jeremiah Trotter’s heyday. While Washburn’s approach generated enormous pressure on opposing quarterbacks, it also created huge gaps for running backs. Ryans, available because the Texans switched to a 3-4 defense last year, provides an imposing, three-down presence in the middle of the field.
The linebacker-light Eagles also drafted short but fast Mychal Kendricks from Cal to compete for the strong-side spot. That could leave the best of the incumbents, Jamar Chaney and Brian Rolle, competing for the weak-side job.
The other adjustment was made in the secondary. The Eagles dumped their best defensive back of the past few years, Asante Samuel, to commit to more aggressive press coverage. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, both of whom looked woefully miscast in their first seasons as Eagles, need to step up with Samuel gone.
At safety, the Eagles are relying on youth. Nate Allen is rebounding from a serious knee injury, while Jaiquawn Jarrett’s rookie year was spoiled by the lockout and the general chaos surrounding the defense. The team also signed veteran Oshiomogho Atogwe to a one-year deal to provide some depth at safety.
The centerpiece of the defense will continue to be the line. Ends Jason Babin (18 sacks) and Trent Cole (11), unleashed by Washburn’s system, combined for 29 sacks in 2011. Cullen Jenkins, Mike Patterson and Antonio Dixon rotated in the middle. They will be joined by first-round pick Fletcher Cox, a disruptive inside presence from Mississippi State, and rush end Vinny Curry from Marshall. Cox could displace Jenkins as a starter, while Curry is likely to provide energy off the bench.
The kids were all right. After years of continuity in the kicking game, the Eagles went with rookies Alex Henery and Chas Henry in 2011. They acquitted themselves well and will be back in 2012. Henery, a fourth-round pick, made 24-of-27 field goals and all 46 of his extra-point attempts. His field goal percentage was the best ever for a rookie kicker and the best in Eagles history. The only question left unanswered was how he would handle a clutch kick with the game on the line. The situation didn’t arise in 2011. The undrafted Henry was solid. As long as he doesn’t try throwing the ball — as he did on one ill-advised trick play — he should be fine.
The return game is less settled. Jackson and, to a lesser degree, Maclin are weapons as punt returners but figure to be used sparingly in that dangerous role. Rookie Brandon Boykin and running back Dion Lewis could compete for that job as well as kickoff returns.
Final Analysis: 3rd in the NFC East
The only way for the Eagles to shake the unfortunate “Dream Team” label applied by departed backup quarterback Vince Young is to rebound with a more typical Reid-era season. If Vick remains healthy and effective, this team should certainly contend for a playoff berth.
It may take more than that — an appearance in the NFC title game or even the Super Bowl — for Reid to retain his job, but it would be a good start.
Related: 2012 Philadelphia Eagles Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Defensive line coach Jim Washburn was very excited when the team traded up to select his guy, Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox. “I didn’t think we had a chance,” Washburn said. “Guess it was just meant to be.” Asked how Cox fits his philosophy, Washburn gushed, “When God made him, he made him to be in this system right here.” Tough to overrule the Big Scout.
When cornerback Asante Samuel accused Eagles GM Howie Roseman and president Joe Banner of playing “fantasy football” by acquiring corners Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, it was assumed he’d soon be an ex-Eagle. The rest of the NFL assumed it as well, and the Eagles were only able to get a seventh-round draft pick from Atlanta for the Pro Bowler.
Free trade agreements
Going into the 2012 draft, Roseman confided, “We like action.” And once again, Roseman engineered a bunch of draft-weekend trades. The big one was moving up to get Cox in the first round. To recoup the fourth-round pick surrendered in that deal, Roseman moved down eight spots in the second round in a trade with Green Bay. They got corner/return specialist Brandon Boykin with their new fourth-round selection.
A lot of players say they are fans of the teams that draft them. Vinny Curry, the second-round defensive end from Neptune, N.J., is the real deal. He declined a request from NFL Network to send a crew to his home because he didn’t want to take down his Eagles memorabilia. His first trip to NovaCare Complex coincided with a ceremony honoring retiring former Eagle Brian Dawkins. “This has got to be the best day of my life,” a teary Curry said.
Eagles fans already know one of the highlights of the 2012 season. It will be the game where the team honors Dawkins. There was much angst when Dawkins left to finish his career in Denver. The team and Dawk himself tried to repair that damage upon Dawkins’ retirement. He signed a one-day contract to retire as an Eagle, and the team announced the retirement of Dawkins’ No. 20.
His Twitter profile proclaimed him “The People’s OG.” Maybe, but guard Evan Mathis certainly is one of the wittier and more entertaining tweeters among professional athletes. On draft day: “Welcome to Philly @fcoxx_94 (Fletcher Cox). Watch out for their LG in training camp. He’s awesome.” Or: “For every new follower I get in the next month I’ll donate nothing to everyone.” Worth a follow.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15:Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14:Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: Wednesday, August 14, 2012
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Related: 2012 Philadelphia Eagles Schedule Analysis