The Eagles aborted the failed Chip Kelly experiment before last season even ended, giving the former Oregon Ducks boss fewer than three years to make his college system successful in the NFL. Owner Jeffrey Lurie, who in 2013 thirsted to dazzle the league with Kelly’s high-speed offense and alleged revolutionary approach to conditioning and practicing, realized the mistake he made putting someone in complete charge of a program who had never been a part of an NFL staff before. So, he looked back to find his next brain trust.
He started by reinstating Howie Roseman atop the team’s football org chart, after having exiled the Eagles’ former boss in favor of Kelly. Roseman then led a coaching search that featured some misfires (Adam Gase, Ben McAdoo, Tom Coughlin) before resulting in the hiring of former Eagles QB and Andy Reid acolyte Doug Pederson, who will try to take a roster with some serious questions to the top of the NFC East.
The Eagles appeared to have their quarterback situation figured out when they gave Sam Bradford a two-year deal ($22 million guaranteed), signed former Kansas City backup Chase Daniel to provide reinforcements under center and were planning to spend a draft pick on a young quarterback they would groom for the future. Then, the Birds jumped up to the second overall spot, chose North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, and Bradford demanded that he be traded to a team for which he could be the clear-cut starter.
The funny thing about all this is that while Bradford had a solid second half of 2015, he has never been a consistent winner, thanks to injuries (he missed two games last year) and an inability to avoid mistakes. His petulance created turmoil within the organization, and even if he plays for Philadelphia in 2016, it’s unlikely he will have complete support of his teammates. And it is certain the fans will be merciless in the abuse they heap on him.
Pederson’s West Coast offense is far more conventional than Kelly’s campus attack. The Eagles figured Bradford had the skills to be successful in it and gave Daniel a lot of money ($12 million guaranteed) because he knows it so well. Wentz, a big-armed, mobile passer who led North Dakota State to a pair of FCS titles, has the smarts and tools to be successful in the NFL. But if he plays in 2016, the Eagles likely will not contend.
Whoever is under center will work with an uninspiring cast of wideouts. Third-year man Jordan Matthews is a proven slot weapon but has no downfield ability, which renders the team’s decision to deploy him on the outside this year quite curious. Second-year man Nelson Agholor caught only 23 balls in ’16 and remains an unknown quantity, despite his first-round pedigree. Josh Huff, newcomer Rueben Randle and Chris Givens are hardly inspiring options. The tight end situation is strong, with Zach Ertz and veteran Brent Celek offering plenty of production.
The DeMarco Murray experiment failed spectacularly last year, and the Eagles dished him to Tennessee during the offseason. That leaves Ryan Mathews, who carried the ball just 106 times last year, as the main back, with aging Darren Sproles in reserve. Fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood, who led the Big 12 in rushing last year but had some off-field issues, will get a chance for some carries.
They will run behind a line that has some question marks, most notably Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, whose play has slipped the past couple years due to injury. Right tackle Lane Johnson has been steady and will ultimately slide into Peters’ position, while the Eagles need free-agent acquisition Brandon Brooks to provide stability at guard.
The Birds finished 30th in total defense last year, in part due to a gaping time-of-possession deficit caused by Kelly’s refusal to protect his D with any kind of ball-control principles. The Eagles added a couple of pieces to the unit, but it remains devoid of first-rate playmakers. The best move the team made during the offseason was trading underachieving cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Dolphins for a draft pick that helped the Eagles move up to acquire Wentz.
Second-year linebacker Jordan Hicks was a revelation last year before tearing his pectoral muscle. He’ll work with Mychal Kendricks, who must become more dynamic, and newly acquired Nigel Bradham on the second line of defense. They’ll work behind a line that includes standout tackle Fletcher Cox, who signed a six-year contract extension in June that is worth $103 million ($63 million guaranteed), and highly capable interior man Bennie Logan. But Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Connor Barwin are not first-rate ends, making this unit a little vulnerable against the run and in the pass rush. The Eagles’ 37 sacks last year were in the middle of the league hierarchy.
Philadelphia reconfigured its secondary during the offseason, a good thing, since only four teams surrendered more yards through the air. The secondary stalwart is safety Malcolm Jenkins, and the Eagles are excited about free-agent arrival Rodney McLeod. But the cornerback situation is not ideal. Neither journeyman Nolan Carroll nor second-year performer Eric Rowe is a standout, and former Bill Leodis McKelvin is not a front-line starter. The Eagles tried to upgrade things through the draft by acquiring safety Jalen Mills and versatile Blake Countess, but both were late-round choices, and it’s unlikely either will play a big role.
The Eagles were forced to use Caleb Sturgis as their kicker last year after Cody Parkey tore his groin muscles early in the year. If healthy, Parkey is a solid option who converted 32-of-36 chances in 2014. He doesn’t have the biggest leg around, but he proved to be a reliable option. If the Birds have to employ Sturgis again, that won’t be good. He isn’t overly accurate, and his leg is less powerful than Parkey’s. Donnie Jones averaged a robust 47.0 yards per punt last year, and his net of 41.6 was sixth in the NFL. His 23 fair catches were second in the league, and he was ninth in punts inside opponents’ 20-yard lines. Sproles is a dangerous punt return man, although he isn’t as electric as he once was, while Huff averaged a respectable 23.7 yards per kick return last year but hasn’t shown the ability to break off big runs yet..
The Eagles were in contention for the mediocre NFC East until late in the 2015 season, hardly reason for celebration. But Kelly is gone, and the team can get on with the process of playing real football again. The problem is that Pederson is an untested head coach. Roseman may have survival instincts, but he hasn’t shown any reason for fans to believe he is capable of re-tooling the roster. The Eagles’ executive hierarchy is among the least stable in the league, so even the selection of Wentz can be viewed as worrisome.
Should Bradford behave and play to his capability, the team is capable of finishing in the 8–8 range. While there isn’t an abundance of big-time NFL talent on the roster, there aren’t many gaping holes, either. If it’s up to Daniel, and worse, Wentz — at least in the short term — Philadelphia will be lucky to win six games.