The 2020 NFL regular season will begin with the Philadelphia Eagles over two years removed from their victory in Super Bowl LII. And how quickly life changes in the NFL; less than 20 players remain on the active roster from their 41-33 championship thriller against the New England Patriots.
Since then, the team has posted two straight 9-7 records and taken a small step back each year. Last season, they won a depleted NFC East, squeaking into the postseason before bowing out to the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card Round. Injuries took their toll on a group, a problem that peaked when starting quarterback Carson Wentz was lost to a concussion during that playoff game. Virtually the entire offense, from Zach Ertz to Alshon Jeffery to Desean Jackson, was sidelined or playing hurt for a large chunk of 2019.
But getting healthy was just part of the problem. The Eagles continued to struggle against the deep pass (their 6.25 pass yards/play ranked 22nd in the NFL) while Wentz was desperate for any type of pass catcher as the entire receiving corps fell apart. Upgrades were needed on both sides of the ball for them to launch back into Super Bowl contention.
How'd they do in free agency? A few weeks in, results have been mixed.
BOOM: Cornerback Darius Slay (And another signing, too)
Slay came to the Eagles via trade; they gave the Lions a third- and fifth-round pick for the 29-year-old corner they promptly signed to a three-year, $50 million extension. Slay has 19 interceptions over his seven-year career, including a league-leading eight in 2017, and brings instant credibility to an Eagles secondary patched together with duct tape and crazy glue since their Super Bowl LII victory.
There's some concern about Slay's age and that his numbers slipped a bit last season. A detailed analysis by Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic revealed he got his hands on just 16.1 percent of targets, his lowest percentage since becoming a full-time starter. The Lions finished just 28th in DVOA last season, meaning Slay's impact did only so much to lift up the defensive unit.
But in the eyes of the fan base, and the Eagles' defense, it's about credibility. Slay brings name recognition and a player who's made three straight Pro Bowls to a team that gave up 2,318 yards to outside receivers last season — more than anyone in the NFL. Too often in recent years, the Eagles have been burned by the big play late in games as teams know to target inexperienced, inconsistent cornerbacks on their roster like Rasul Douglas, Sidney Jones' and Avonte Maddox. Now, there's an anchor who is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the roster in talent.
Honorable mention goes to the signing of Nickell Robey-Coleman from the Rams. Just 27 years old, he's made eight starts for the Rams the last three years and shown the type of durability the Eagles' defense has lacked. Considering Jones, Maddox, and Cre'Von Leblanc showed improvement toward the end of last season (remember, Jones batted down the Cowboys' last-ditch effort in the end zone to win the NFC East) this position is suddenly filled with both quality and depth.
BUST: Wide Receiver
The Eagles set a dubious record last season, as Wentz was the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards despite zero wide receivers catching passes totaling 500 yards or more. Jeffery was hurt for much of the year and is currently recovering from a Lisfranc injury. Jackson was healthy for one game before basically getting scratched for the year with an abdominal muscle tear. Nelson Agholor was both injured and reviled by fans for his drops, most notably a Week 2 whiff against the Falcons that could have cost the Eagles a playoff spot.
Now, Agholor is gone to the Raiders and there's no guarantee Jackson & Jeffery will be 100 percent come September considering their history. So the Eagles looked to the free agency market and signed... no one.
The biggest move would easily have been DeAndre Hopkins, made available as a virtual steal from the Texans. But the Eagles didn't bite, unwilling to part with more draft picks with the Slay trade in the works (Hopkins went to the Cardinals instead).
Behind Hopkins, though there was an overload of inventory left around. Emmanuel Sanders. Randall Cobb. Breshad Perriman. All had tremendous upside at discount prices and the Eagles passed.
That means the Eagles are leaning on the draft, almost certain to pick a wide receiver in the first round later this month. There's plenty of talent in that pool this year; Sports Illustrated's mock draft lists a whopping 16 in the top 100.
But even a first-round pick at this position comes with a great deal of risk as historically, you don't get large contributions right away. The Eagles' second-round selection last year, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, was a bit player in 2019 (10 catches, 169 receiving yards). Overall, just one rookie wideout in the NFL last year (A.J. Brown) totaled more than 1,000 receiving yards.
The Eagles do really like what they have in Greg Ward (17 catches the last three games). Add in the double-tight end combo of Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz, sprinkle in the explosiveness of running back Miles Sanders and the team feels there's plenty of targets for Wentz. But wide receiver remains their biggest and most obvious weakness heading into a draft where that could be exploited should the Eagles look to trade up spots.
BOOM: Defensive Line
The Eagles' biggest free-agent signing in terms of name recognition was defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. The former Steeler earned a three-year, $39 million contract as the team looks to shore up what's already a formidable defensive line.
Hargrave, who totaled 14.5 sacks in four seasons with the Steelers, appears to be entering his prime at age 26 and could be a formidable pairing with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Add in 11-year veteran and oft-overlooked Brandon Graham at defensive end, 2017 first-round pick Derek Barnett, and veteran Malik Jackson returning from injury? Suddenly, you've got one of the more formidable front lines in the NFL if they stay healthy.
The Eagles were just eighth in the NFC last season with 43 sacks. Expect that number to increase and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to get creative with an uptick in talent that's more capable of battering the quarterback with his blitzing schemes.
The Eagles chose to give 30-year-old Rodney McLeod a two-year, $12 million contract. It was an appropriate deal for a guy who's been an average to above-average starting safety; he's recorded just two interceptions the last two years and missed 13 games due to injury in 2018.
That wouldn't have made news in a typical free agency period. But choosing McLeod over re-signing the Eagles' defensive leader, Malcolm Jenkins? Now THAT's a shocker.
Jenkins, 32, made it clear he wanted a new deal in order to finish his career in Philly. But GM Howie Roseman thought the price was too high, letting Jenkins go back to the Saints on a four-year, $32 million contract.
As NBC Sports points out, Jenkins' price tag was just a tick more ($7.85 million) than he would have been paid as an Eagle. It seemed like both parties reached a mutual decision to move on, surprising considering the depth of Jenkins' ties to the Philadelphia community and his leadership role in a defensive unit that was decimated by injuries the past two seasons.
You want durability? How about a guy who started all 96 games for the Eagles over his six seasons with this group? Jenkins made three Pro Bowls and, despite a small step back in performance last season, forced a career-high four fumbles.
Age was definitely a concern for the Eagles, a team looking to get younger in 2020 and beyond. But Jenkins should have been the exception to the rule. His outspoken style and veteran presence will be missed in a locker room looking for more leadership.
And who will replace Jenkins at safety? Jalen Mills appears to be a prime candidate, but he’ll be converting from the cornerback spot. The team also signed Broncos free agent Will Parks. Neither one comes close to the talent and presence of one of the great defensive players in Eagles history.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.