If the Eagles’ moves ahead of the 2017 season tell us anything, it’s that the protection of a franchise quarterback is paramount to management, coaches and just about everybody else in the city. Despite sizable holes on the defensive side and a dearth of talent at running back, the Birds decided to spend big on wideouts and fortify the offensive line in free agency while addressing their other needs through second-tier free agents and the draft. The reasoning was clearly that if quarterback Carson Wentz is happy, the team has a chance at future prosperity. If the second-year man from North Dakota State does not continue to develop — and more important, stay happy — the Eagles don’t have a chance.
It’s possible Philadelphia could sneak into the playoffs this year, but it’s clear the organization has decided on the long play, with Wentz at the forefront, and everything else coming together behind him.
Wentz set an NFL rookie record for most completions in a season (379) while posting the fourth-most passing yards (3,782) for a first-year player in league history. He started every game, and while his completion percentage dipped as the season progressed and he had some issues with mechanics, Wentz’s rookie season was a success by any measure.
The Eagles decided during the offseason to invest their limited salary cap space on some receivers for him to target. Last year’s crop of wideouts was disappointing, and that’s being kind. Second-year man Nelson Agholor was overmatched, to the point where he was a healthy scratch one week. Dorial Green-Beckham was wildly inconsistent, and even though Jordan Matthews caught 73 balls, he averaged a meager 11.0 yards per reception. So, the Eagles went shopping and purchased Alshon Jeffery for $14 million for one season and Torrey Smith for $15 million over three seasons. They also added a couple of prospects via the draft, and traded Matthews along with a third-round pick in next year’s draft to Buffalo for cornerback Ronald Darby on Aug. 11.
Jeffery is a big target who will help in the red zone, goes over the middle willingly and can be considered a No. 1 receiver, even if he did score just two times last year. Smith, meanwhile, has speed, but his catches have dropped in each of the past three seasons. Last year, he caught just 20 passes for the Niners. Still, this is an upgrade.
As usual, Zach Ertz looked good at the end of 2016, when the games didn’t matter, and led the team with 78 receptions. But he must become more consistent and deliver in more important situations. Don’t expect too much early on from Mack Hollins of North Carolina and Shelton Gibson from West Virginia. Hollins has good size (6'4", 221) and some speed, while Gibson is a burner, but neither is ready to be a standout in 2017.
By the end of last year, the Eagles’ running back situation was a mess. Ryan Mathews’ neck injury made him unlikely to return. Faced with the prospect of heading into 2017 with Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood as their holdovers, the Eagles signed LeGarrette Blount late in the spring. While Sproles is a veteran hybrid unable to handle many carries, and second-year man Smallwood also lacks size, Blount gives Philadelphia a big back who can get tough yards, especially in the red zone. Fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey rushed for more yards than anyone in FBS history but is only 5'8" and 176 pounds. He is expected to be a next-generation Sproles.
There won’t be too many surprises on the offensive line. During the offseason, GM Howie Roseman insisted that center Jason Kelce would return in the middle. He’ll likely be flanked by Brandon Brooks and Allen Barbre, with Lane Johnson and ancient Jason Peters at the tackles. But there are variables involved. Johnson missed 10 games last year after being suspended for his second PED violation. One more, and he’s gone for two years. Peters is a future Hall of Famer, but at some point his aching back and age will betray him. Look for second-year men Isaac Seumalo, a guard, and tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to get plenty of opportunities to grab starting jobs. Meanwhile, free-agent signee Chance Warmack and Stefen Wisniewski will handle swing work in the middle.
The Eagles weren’t awful defensively last year, finishing 12th in points allowed and 13th in yards surrendered. However, there is no doubt the team has some serious deficiencies at several positions.
The biggest problem area is cornerback, which was a huge liability last year and allowed opposing quarterbacks to connect on 60.2 percent of their throws. The departures of Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin did not disappoint any fans, but there’s no guarantee things will be much better this year. Ron Brooks is back, to little fanfare, and the offseason acquisition of Patrick Robinson, who is on his fourth team in as many years, isn’t a long-term solution. Philadelphia drafted two corners in April, Rasul Douglas from West Virginia and Washington’s Sidney Jones. Jones tore his Achilles during his pro day workout and fell from the first round to the Birds at pick 43. He has great skills and could be a Pro Bowler once healthy. Fans shouldn’t expect him to be 100 percent this season although he could contribute in 2017, and second-year man Jalen Mills has talent but must become more consistent. These are all reasons why the team decided to send Matthews and a third-round pick to Buffalo for Darby, who started all 29 games he played for the Bills after they took him in the second round of the 2015 draft. The return of safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod solidify that area. McLeod is a big hitter, and the versatile Jenkins makes plays all over the field.
There is concern at linebacker, too. While middle man Jordan Hicks is quickly becoming a dynamic force in all facets of the game, there isn’t much around him. Veteran Nigel Bradham is solid in the run game but hardly a star, and Mychal Kendricks’ inability to cover anybody is threatening to turn him from a favored prospect into a sideline spectator. The Eagles selected Nebraska safety Nate Gerry in the fifth round and hope to convert him into a coverage linebacker. If he shows some aptitude for the role, he’ll get immediate time.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz favors the Wide-Nine alignment with his defense, with the goal of creating maximum pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and the Eagles’ offseason moves were made with that philosophy in mind. They signed aging end Chris Long, who will be used primarily as a pass-rushing specialist, and traded with Baltimore for tackle Timmy Jernigan, who has the potential to reach the quarterbacks, although consistency has been a recent problem for him.
Though many thought the Eagles would spend their first-round pick on a receiver or cornerback, they went with end Derek Barnett, who set the all-time Tennessee sack mark. Barnett can play the pass and run and has plenty of room to grow, since he turns 21 in late June. The newcomers join standout tackle Fletcher Cox, a Pro Bowler who stars despite facing an onslaught of double-teams and extra attention. Also back is end Brandon Graham, who continues to improve but has yet to make good on his first-round pedigree. Another end, Vinny Curry, was paid starter’s money last year but registered only 2.5 sacks.
The Eagles have one of the league’s top special teams. Punter Donnie Jones has a big, reliable leg, and placekicker Caleb Sturgis made 35-of-41 kicks and didn’t miss from inside 40. Sproles is an electric return man, and Philadelphia’s coverage units are outstanding.
Early in the offseason, Roseman declared the Eagles not ready for real contention during 2017, and his assessment is right. Despite having what it believes is a franchise QB in Wentz, Philadelphia lacks proven playmakers. The defense is shaky throughout much of the back seven and must hope the front four can apply enough pressure to prevent rival passing attacks from thriving. Wentz will enjoy throwing to Jeffery and Smith, but with no proven ground game, he will face a parade of eager pass rushers. The Eagles finished 7–9 last year under first-year (and first-time) head coach Doug Pederson, and it’s hard to believe they will do much better than that in 2017.