Carson Wentz and the Eagles look to make another Super Bowl run
The Eagles' follow-up to their first-ever Super Bowl win included goodwill and happy feelings from their notoriously tough fans and another Nick Foles late-season rescue job, but it didn't produce a second Lombardi Trophy.
The question heading into 2019 is whether the Birds remain a true contender for the NFC title or if their Super Bowl LII triumph was a perfect storm of Foles' magic and a team that came together around him. Howie Roseman, the team's executive VP of football operations, certainly believes it's the former. Even though the Eagles fell short in the divisional round last year, Roseman didn't undertake an overhaul of the roster. Instead, he tweaked things with a few key additions but kept the team's core intact. Although many of the team's most important positions feature performers (left tackle Jason Peters, center Jason Kelce, safety Malcolm Jenkins) who are heading toward the ends of their careers, there is still plenty of talent remaining for Philadelphia to be a factor in the NFC title chase.
Foles is gone to Jacksonville, and that means the quarterback spot belongs to Carson Wentz. It really always has, except for times when he has been hurt, which over his first three years with the franchise has been often. Last year brought a back fracture that cost him the last part of the regular season and the playoffs. That was after he missed the beginning of the season rehabbing torn knee ligaments suffered at the end of 2017.
There is no doubting Wentz's talent. He has the arm to make all the throws, the legs to help him prolong plays and the demeanor of a star. However, can he stay healthy? It's a valid question. And without Foles as an insurance policy, the Eagles are tied completely to Wentz, especially after signing him in early June to a four-year contract extension worth $128 million that could increase to as much as $144 million and includes $107.9 million in guarantees. Nate Sudfeld or rookie Clayton Thorson figure to back him up, but neither is ready for steady work.
Roseman also got Wentz a couple of weapons. He shipped a late-round pick to Tampa Bay for DeSean Jackson, who returns to the city where he began his career as the deep threat the Eagles have lacked for a while. Last year, Jackson's 18.9 yards per reception led the NFL. Having him stretch the field will make life easier for Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, who are far more comfortable working closer to the line of scrimmage. Third-round pick JJ Arcega-Whiteside is a big, physical receiver who can win jump balls.
Last year, Zach Ertz set a record for the most receptions in a season by a tight end (116) and established himself as one of the league's elite players at the position. Second-year man Dallas Goedert showed that he had the potential to be a productive tight end.
The Eagles needed help at running back, so Roseman dished a pick to the Bears for Jordan Howard, who has been a featured back in each of his three seasons, but whose production and yards per carry have fallen each of the last two. He's a workhorse, but he isn't a breakaway threat. However, second-round draft pick Miles Sanders from Penn State is. He is elusive and can run away from defenders. His arrival leaves Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood and Josh Adams in a fight for time. If all-purpose veteran Darren Sproles returns for one more year, he will be a factor in small doses.
This could be the last round-up for Peters and/or Kelce, both of whom flirted with retirement during the offseason. Both are still highly capable. With an eye on Peters' inevitable departure, the Eagles drafted Washington State left tackle Andre Dillard, a strong pass protector, in the first round. Lane Johnson remains a solid brawler at right tackle. It will be interesting to see when guard Brandon Brooks will be recovered from the torn Achilles he suffered in the playoff loss to New Orleans. He says he'll be ready by the beginning of the season. We'll see about that.
The 2018 season featured inconsistency on this side of the ball for the Eagles, and the stats prove it. They were seventh in the NFL against the run but 30th versus the pass. They allowed the 12th fewest points in the league but were 23rd in total yards allowed. That's why some people were upset when the Birds used just one of their five draft picks — end Shareef Miller — on a defensive player.
The Eagles defense begins and ends up front. Coordinator Jim Schwartz wants to put pressure on the passer with his front four, the better to avoid having to blitz and sacrifice coverage. And given that the team doesn't value linebackers that highly, it's up to the D-line to make a preponderance of plays against the run, too.
It's good that the unit is deep and talented. Tackle Fletcher Cox is one of the league's best and can stuff the run and pressure the pocket. The Eagles signed former Jacksonville tackle Malik Jackson to a three-year, $30 million deal during the offseason, giving them one of the NFL's top tackle tandems. The team also extended end Brandon Graham, a steady outside performer who spends a lot of time in enemy backfields. Philadelphia hopes third-year end Derek Barnett will continue to blossom after he missed 10 games last year with a shoulder injury. Timmy Jernigan provides depth inside with Vinny Curry returning after playing in Tampa Bay last season to provide depth at end.
Although middle linebacker Nigel Bradham is a strong force in the middle of the defense, outside men Zach Brown (signed as a free agent in May), Nathan Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill aren't much more than serviceable. The Eagles said goodbye to Jordan Hicks, a talented player who had issues staying healthy. Paul Worrilow and former Steeler L.J. Fort will add depth.
The secondary depth was certainly tested last year. In the blowout loss to the Saints in the regular season, the unit was so banged up, it seemed like the team was asking for volunteers in the crowd to step in and play. The safety line remains strong, provided Rodney McLeod is completely recovered from knee surgery that cost him 13 games last year. Jenkins is a stalwart, but he is getting older. The Eagles signed veteran Andrew Sendejo to provide depth, although he isn't a long-term answer.
It's time to see if Sidney Jones can wrestle a starting corner position from either Ronald Darby or Jalen Mills. At worst, the third-year player will be the team's nickel man. Rasul Douglas, Avonte Maddox and Cre'Von LeBlanc gained valuable experience last year.
Cameron Johnston was fourth in the league in punting (48.1-yard average) and in a tie for third in net (42.7). His hang time didn't remind anyone of Ray Guy, but he had an excellent first year. Placekicker Jake Elliott isn't automatic, but he is very good in the clutch. Last year, he made 26-of-31 field goal tries but was only 2-of-5 from 50 and beyond. But when the Birds trailed by three or fewer points, he made 12-of-13. Clement is a solid kick returner, and DeSean Jackson may get the first crack at bringing back punts.
Barring a(nother) catastrophic injury to Wentz, the Eagles will once again be one of the best teams in the NFC. Their offense has plenty of weapons, and should the line hold up, Wentz will be able to make complete use of all of them. This should be an extremely dangerous and diverse offensive unit. The question is whether the defense can improve. The acquisition of Malik Jackson will help the interior line, and re-signing Graham was a good move. Cox is moving toward perennial Pro Bowl status and last year earned his first All-Pro first-team nod. So, the front is in good shape, a big thing in Schwartz's defense. But the back end must improve. The Birds have to get sturdier against the pass. Good health will help that. But the corners have to improve their play, too.
This is a top-shelf team with a strong roster and a great culture.