Chip Kelly’s short tenure as Philadelphia’s coach has been anything but dull. It’s too early to tell if the many changes Kelly has made will pay off in postseason success, but there can be no denying the interest the team has created. In a town starving for good news in the light of the horrible play of the Phillies, Sixers and Flyers, the Eagles’ offseason personnel binge was a welcome diversion from the carnage afflicting the city’s other professional teams.
Now in his third year with the Birds, Kelly is completely in charge of the team on and off the field. The team is all his, and if some have been turned off by the decisions he’s made, Kelly frankly doesn’t care. He has a plan, and as one of the rare NFL coaches who also handles the personnel end of the business, he is in a unique position to carry it out. After two straight seasons of 10 wins — but no playoff success — the Philadelphia community is expecting more in 2015. It’s up to Kelly to prove that he knows what he’s doing.
The star of the Eagles’ offense is the scheme, which features a high-speed, run-first spread attack designed to leave opponents panting and confused. It worked well last year, since Philadelphia was fifth in the league in total offense, third in points per game and ninth in rushing. But thanks to a few significant offseason moves, there is no guarantee the Eagles will be able to replicate that success. Further, the success that top defenses — Seattle, San Francisco, Indianapolis included — had against Philadelphia last year may have created a blueprint for 2015 opponents.
The biggest change is at running back, where LeSean McCoy is off to Buffalo after rushing for 2,926 yards the past two seasons. By the end of last year, there were whispers that Kelly wasn’t happy with his featured back, who at times waited for a hole to emerge, rather than sticking his foot in the ground and powering straight ahead. That’s why the Eagles signed DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 1,845 yards and 13 scores — both tops in the league — last year for Dallas. Murray is more of a plant-and-cut guy, and Kelly likes that. He won’t get 392 carries, though, like he did last year, thanks to the arrival of Ryan Mathews from San Diego and the return of versatile Darren Sproles, although Mathews missed a big part of 2014 with a foot injury.
If Murray plays like he did last year, it will make life easy for new quarterback Sam Bradford, whom the team acquired in a trade with St. Louis. Although there were rumors the Birds were going to trade the team for Marcus Mariota, no deal happened, and Bradford is under center, so long as he doesn’t get injured again. Now on his third ACL, Bradford has played a total of seven games the past two seasons. If healthy, he can be accurate and productive, although he has limited potential to run from the zone read. Inconsistent Mark Sanchez will back him up.
For the second straight year, the Eagles lost a top-shelf receiver. After 2013, DeSean Jackson departed. Now, they will do without Jeremy Maclin (85 catches, 10 TDs), who signed with Kansas City. His loss hurts a receiving corps that now needs big contributions from second-year man Jordan Matthews, who has potential but isn’t a No. 1-type, disappointing Riley Cooper, veteran pick-up Miles Austin and rookie Nelson Agholor of USC. Agholor, the team’s first-round draft pick, is a Maclin clone who has good quickness and ball skills but won’t force opponents to double-team him. Tight end Brent Celek is a warrior, but he saw his production drop last year, so it’s time for third-year man Zach Ertz to develop into a major contributor.
The Eagles didn’t address the offensive line in the draft, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. Left tackle Jason Peters is still one of the best around, and center Jason Kelce is an All-Pro candidate. Right tackle Lane Johnson is solid but not yet a standout. There will be a new starter at left guard, as Evan Mathis was somewhat surprisingly released in June. Allen Barbre, who was slated to start at right guard before Mathis was released, will likely switch sides, while the other guard slot probably won’t be settled until the end of training camp, if not later.
Kelly’s offensive philosophy puts tremendous stress on the defense, and last year that was not a good thing. The Eagles finished 28th in the league in total D, tied for 22nd in points allowed and 31st against the pass. There have been some big changes made on the back end, but there remains no guarantee the unit can hold up against better opposition.
The trade for McCoy netted inside linebacker Kiko Alonso, who had 87 solo tackles and four interceptions in 2013 but missed all of last year with a torn ACL. If healthy, he is a downhill playmaker. If not, the Eagles are in trouble. The team re-upped inside man DeMeco Ryans, who tore his Achilles tendon in the eighth game of 2014 and could struggle getting back to top form. Mychal Kendricks spent the offseason upset about his contract and Alonso’s arrival, but if he plays hard, he can be a difference maker.
Sack man Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham are the main outside threats in Bill Davis’ 3-4, and it is up to Graham — who showed flashes last year — to play consistently. The Birds hope third-round pick Jordan Hicks can provide good depth inside, while second-year man Marcus Smith, the Eagles’ first-round pick last year, is still waiting to make his first NFL tackle.
The Eagles’ secondary was horrible last year, and fans welcomed the departures of Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams. Philadelphia will use former Seattle corner Byron Maxwell on one side and hope he wasn’t aided by the presence of Richard Sherman opposite him in the Emerald City. New addition Walter Thurmond could play on the other side, but he is more of a slot corner, as is holdover Brandon Boykin. By midseason, second-round pick Eric Rowe could have the job. Malcolm Jenkins is tough at free safety, but there is a hole next to him.
Up front, left end Fletcher Cox should be a Pro Bowler, while big Bennie Logan is a drain plug in the middle, and Cedric Thornton is a solid end.
The Eagles lucked into something good when they acquired Cody Parkey, who made 32-of-36 kicks last year, including 4-of-4 from 50 and beyond. Punter Donnie Jones averaged 43.8 yards per kick last year, a number that needs to improve. Agholor adds excitement to the return game, and Sproles is a threat to go the distance at all times.
This is a tough team to read because there are so many variables due to injury. If Bradford is healthy, the offense should be potent, thanks to Murray, but there are big concerns at wide receiver. The secondary is better (how could it be worse?), but the Eagles still need Alonso and Ryans to make healthy returns in order to make the second line of defense potent.
The Eagles will continue to try to outscore people, and while that works against some teams, it isn’t good enough against the NFC’s best.