The Eagles enter the 2018 season as something they’ve never been before: defending Super Bowl champions. The euphoria that accompanied the team’s first-ever Lombardi Trophy continues to prevail in Philadelphia, and it will be interesting to see if hardened Birds fans, who have been known to boo the sunrise, will be sated by the world championship. More important is whether the magical run can be the start of a prolonged period of contention. An indication of the team’s confidence came during the NFL Draft, when the Eagles selected prospects and projects. This is a deep, talented squad, led by a bold, confident coach in Doug Pederson and with a first-rate quarterback. The Eagles will enter the season as a strong favorite to repeat in the NFC East and put themselves in position to return to the Super Bowl.
When Carson Wentz tore his ACL against the Rams on Dec. 10, many people thought the Eagles’ hopes of postseason grandeur had been dashed. That feeling only grew when Nick Foles stumbled during the last couple of regular-season games. Foles recovered to lead Philadelphia to a Super Bowl win -- and won the game’s MVP award -- and the Eagles enter 2018 with two proven passers.
The starting job belongs to Wentz, but the question is when he will be able to claim it. Wentz has everything needed to be one of the NFL’s elite, but expecting him to be at full speed in September is a bit optimistic. When he does return, Wentz will again dazzle with his arm strength, mobility in the pocket (provided his knee is totally healed) and great leadership. Until then, Foles will handle the job. He showed during the playoffs that he could be accurate and daring when put in the proper offensive situation.
Although there is no game-breaking megastar among the skill players, the Eagles have plenty of talented backs and receivers capable of pressuring defenses. The team’s wideout corps is led by Alshon Jeffery, who was reliable and productive during his first year with the team. Nelson Agholor spent much of 2016 wondering how he could fit into the Eagles’ plans, but last year he became a productive piece. After not getting the desired results with Torrey Smith, the Eagles have turned to Baltimore expat Mike Wallace to provide a deep threat, although anybody expecting persistent explosions will likely be disappointed.
Perhaps the biggest weapon of the receiving corps is tight end Zach Ertz, a favorite target of Wentz’s and one of the NFL’s best. The Eagles lost Trey Burton to free agency and released Brent Celek, so it will be up to second-round pick Dallas Goedert from South Dakota State to provide immediate support at the position.
The Eagles are in good shape at running back with Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement, who showed plenty of promise as a rookie. They went the undrafted free agent route to fill out the rotation by signing former Notre Dame star Josh Adams, and they re-signed Darren Sproles, who will serve as an all-purpose player provided his torn ACL is healed.
The offensive line entered 2017 as a question mark but became a strength, even though future Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters tore his ACL mid-year. Center Jason Kelce played at an All-Pro level after a disappointing 2016. Right tackle Lane Johnson was especially stout, and guard Brandon Brooks was a force inside. Peters has vowed to return at full strength, but if he doesn’t, Halapoulivaati “Big V” Vaitai improved last year and is a solid replacement.
Plenty of people doubted Jim Schwartz’s wide-nine scheme when the 2017 season started, but as the confetti fell in Minneapolis, it sure appeared that he knew what he was doing. The Birds ranked fourth overall in defense and first against the run, thanks in large part to a deep, ferocious front four. The Eagles sacked opposing QBs 38 times and picked off 19 enemy aerials. With just about everybody back and linebacker Jordan Hicks expected to be healthy, this should be a stout unit once again.
Tackle Fletcher Cox earned first-team All-Pro recognition after providing strong play against the run and pass last year. He’s becoming one of the league’s best. Meanwhile, end Brandon Graham (9.5 sacks) went from question mark to key contributor last year. Tim Jernigan is a powerful interior player, although the surgery he had on a herniated disc could keep him from being in the lineup at the beginning of the season. It’s good the Eagles added veteran run-stuffing tackle Haloti Ngata. Destiny Vaeao could play a bigger role inside while Jernigan gets healthy. Second-year end Derek Barnett displayed an ability to get to the passer last year and should start this season even though the Birds traded for pass rusher Michael Bennett for depth and brought back Chris Long on the outside for situational pass rushing and leadership. It will be interesting to see what production Bennett can provide -- and how he survives the assault charges that arose during the offseason.
Hicks is the Eagles’ best linebacker -- if he can stay healthy. Last year, a torn Achilles tendon shelved him. When right, he can find the ball anywhere on the field against the run and provides excellent pass coverage. He’ll team with forceful outside man Nigel Bradham and newcomer Corey Nelson in a strong trio. Behind them is a bit of mystery with Mychal Kendricks getting released in late May as a cap casualty and Paul Worrilow already lost for the season after tearing his ACL in OTAs.
The defensive backfield had some struggles early, but by the end of the year the group was formidable, and there is plenty of reason for optimism moving forward. The safety situation was never a question, thanks to stalwart Malcolm Jenkins and hard-hitting Rodney McLeod. There is plenty of promise at cornerback, with Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas returning. Mills and Douglas entered 2017 as question marks but grew as the year went on and benefited from the relentless pass rush the front four provided.
The Eagles are excited to see what cornerback Sidney Jones can do. Jones, a second-round draft choice last year, missed most of the season while rehabbing an Achilles tear. He has considerable skill and will be expected to make a significant contribution this year.
From the minute Jake Elliott drilled a 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants early in the season, the rookie was a force with the Eagles. He converted 26-of-31 attempts during the regular season and was a big weapon in the playoffs, when he went 7-of-7. The punting situation isn’t so set. Long-time standout Donnie Jones retired, and the Eagles will turn to Cameron Johnston, an Aussie who showed a big leg at Ohio State but who has never punted in an NFL game. Sproles is a valuable return man -- if healthy. The Eagles didn’t re-sign Kenjon Barner, so additional return work could come from Clement, Wendell Smallwood or rookie corner Avonte Maddox, who has plenty of speed.
The Eagles are set up well for their first-ever Super Bowl defense, thanks to the return of just about every significant contributor from the 2017 team. The only losses that could really hurt are offensive coordinator Frank Reich (new head coach in Indy) and QBs coach John DeFilippo (new Vikings OC).
When healthy -- and he should be early in the season -- Wentz is a top-10 NFL passer (at least) and a great leader. He prolongs plays and gets the ball downfield. Having Foles as a backup is a great thing, but this is Wentz’s team. He is surrounded by a deep collection of skill-position contributors who make it extremely difficult to focus on any one player.
The defense is built around getting pressure on the passer, and that’s what it does. The Eagles are outstanding at invading enemy pockets with just four rushers, and that makes the coverage schemes more sound and harder to exploit.
This is a deep, talented team buttressed by an outstanding organization that fills needs at all times with bold moves. Expect continued contention and plenty of excitement for a city still getting used to being atop the NFL mountain.