They could be terrible. They could be OK. There is even a small chance they will be very good. The only thing certain about the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013 is that they will be different. Very different.
After 14 years, Andy Reid is off to Kansas City. Chip Kelly, the quick-thinking, fast-talking enigma who breathed high-scoring life into the Oregon football program, has taken his place. Nobody — not Kelly, not the Eagles, not the sharpest NFL observer — knows how this will turn out.
Will Kelly be another Pete Carroll or John Harbaugh, making the leap from college to excel in the NFL? Or will he be another Steve Spurrier or Bobby Petrino, overmatched and quickly sent back to the college ranks?
The early signs were mixed. Kelly opted to retain Michael Vick, the 33-year-old symbol of Reid’s final, futile years. But he also kept the immobile Nick Foles and added USC’s Matt Barkley in the draft. What do those contradictory moves say about Kelly’s offensive scheme? Kelly hired NFL lifer Bill Davis to run his defense, but neither the head coach nor the coordinator would commit to the kind of scheme they plan to run.
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 11th
However he deploys them, Kelly at least starts off with some legitimate NFL playmakers at his disposal. Running backs LeSean McCoy, Felix Jones and Bryce Brown, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and tight ends Brent Celek, James Casey and rookie Zach Ertz give Kelly the opportunity to create all kinds of mismatches.
Wideout Jeremy Maclin was expected to be in that group as well, but he tore his ACL early in training camp and will be out for the entire season. It's now up to someone, whether that be Jason Avant, Damaris Johnson or Riley Cooper, to step up and try and replace Maclin's production. Chances are it will be a collaborative effort of some sort.
Kelly also begins with a solid, potentially excellent offensive line. A disaster area last year because of injuries, the line immediately improves with the return of Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, veteran Todd Herremans and center Jason Kelce. First-round pick Lane Johnson should start at right tackle, allowing Herremans to return to guard. That would make for an athletic, agile unit able to push the tempo and get out into the second level, as Kelly likes.
The most pressing issue is just who this line will be protecting. With his mobility, Vick is the closest to the style of quarterback Kelly won with at Oregon. But Vick is injury- and turnover-prone. He started only 10 games last year, winning three of them. He threw 10 interceptions and fumbled the ball 11 times. He goes into the season on a one-year contract, which suggests he won’t be the quarterback by the time Kelly’s program peaks.
Foles had his moments as a rookie in relief of Vick. His release is as quick as his feet are slow, though, making him a terrible fit for a read-option offense. But Kelly has steadfastly insisted he can shape his offense around Foles. That position was reinforced when he drafted Barkley, the former USC star who dropped to the fourth round.
“We’re an equal opportunity scoring offense,” Kelly says, “whether we throw it across the line or run it across the line. If we can wing it, we’ll wing it.”
Accuracy is the quality Kelly values most in a quarterback. That would seem to favor Foles and even Barkley over Vick. But Vick can move, and that is almost indispensable in the modern NFL. How will it play out? If he were under pressure to win right away, Kelly might have to go with Vick. With a little leeway to build his program, expect him to focus on developing Foles and Barkley. There is always the 2014 draft if neither steps up.
If the quarterback situation is a puzzle, at least there are pieces. Davis will be trying to create a defense almost entirely from scratch. Chances are, the entire starting secondary will be different. In free agency, the Eagles signed cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, along with safeties Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung. All but Williams have dealt with recent injuries, but that still makes them less dubious than the Nnamdi Asomugha-led secondary that allowed 33 touchdown passes in 2012.
Davis is expected to run a variation of the 4-3 under scheme he has used in previous stops. The alignment can look like a 3-4, and sometimes the personnel will line up in a true 3-4. The scheme will ultimately accommodate the players.
Up front, that means 2012 first rounder Fletcher Cox will be either a tackle or a 3-technique end. Veteran Isaac Sopoaga and rookie Bennie Logan will line up at nose tackle. Beyond that, a group of players — Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry — will either be ends or outside linebackers, depending upon scheme, skill and situation. Of the three, Cole has the most experience as a pure edge-rusher while Graham is most likely to evolve into a linebacker capable of dropping into coverage as well as getting after the quarterback.
Connor Barwin, a free agent pickup from Houston, will be relied on to rush the passer from the weak-side linebacker spot. DeMeco Ryans, arguably the team’s best defensive player as a middle linebacker last season, will bring his savvy and toughness to one inside spot. Mychal Kendricks, who had solid games early in his rookie season, is likely to be the other inside backer. Combined, they bring some much-needed physicality to the middle of the defense.
But there are many more questions than answers on this side. It will be a huge challenge for Davis to shape this group into a cohesive unit.
Donnie Jones, who averaged 47.2 yards — with a net of 40.5 — last year in Houston, will shore up a position that was one of the Eagles’ many trouble spots in 2012. Third-year placekicker Alex Henery is tough to get a read on. His career field goal accuracy of 87.9 percent is very good, and he made 22 consecutive kicks last year. But Henery has had few chances to make kicks under pressure, and he missed two in a close game at Tampa Bay in December. He will need to deliver in those situations as they arise.
New special teams coordinator Dave Fipp will have his hands full retooling coverage units that struggled in all phases. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Jackson returning more punts, while nickel corner Brandon Boykin is likely to be returning kicks again.
Final Analysis: 3rd in NFC East
A quick turnaround is more than possible in today’s NFL. It has become the expectation. Kelly has enough skill players to implement a formidable offense, especially if he is as good as his reputation as an innovator. He will have to settle on a No. 1 quarterback and go all-in with him. Scoring points should not be as tough as it was in Reid’s final seasons.
Can the Eagles jump back to elite status with a patchwork defense run by a coach who failed to excel in two previous stints as a coordinator? That is probably the bigger question, and the issue most likely to keep the Eagles from contending in 2013.
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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)
San Diego (8/20)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)