Can the NFC East champs get healthy for 2020?
For those who knew nothing about the 2019 Philadelphia Eagles' season, simply seeing a 9-7 record on paper looked like a disappointment. Two years removed from their first Super Bowl victory in team history, the team regressed into a first-round playoff exit, losing at home to the Seattle Seahawks 17-9 during Wild Card Weekend.
But that would be a shortsighted view considering the stockpiling of injuries the Eagles dealt with throughout the season. Quarterback Carson Wentz's concussion in their playoff game was the cherry on top, leaving just center Jason Kelce as the team's only significant player on offense not to miss time due to injury. In all, the team had two dozen players sidelined for 168 games, according to an estimate put together by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Eleven players, or enough to man one side of the ball, were put on injured reserve.
That list included key players like their top free-agent pickup (wide receiver DeSean Jackson), Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks, and potential Hall of Fame running back Darren Sproles. By the playoffs, the team was playing a ragtag group of wide receivers and at one point considered using 40-year-old backup quarterback Josh McCown at the position.
That context makes a 9-7 record, one that included the NFC East title, that much more impressive. Head coach Doug Pederson was once again praised for his coaching and has now taken this team to three straight playoff appearances. (Plus, you know, that little Super Bowl trophy.) They triumphed in a division where Pederson was the only coach who escaped firing; their three rivals in turmoil produced a combined 15-33 record.
That should leave the Eagles in a good position to make the playoffs once again in 2020. But what’s it going to take for them to make a deeper postseason run? Here are three storylines that need to be addressed this offseason as the team tweaks its formula for another potential Super Bowl trip.
1. Can everyone get healthy?
This question may the most obvious of any team because of how often Eagles players were crumpling on the turf down the stretch. But it's not just the recovery for these players that matters; it's whether management feels like they'll be back to 100 percent when they return.
Can nine-time Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters, for example, get back to a high level of play after two straight injury-plagued seasons? A knee injury sidelined him for three games in 2019, and the team saw a significant decline in his performance when he did play. Peters will be a free agent, so will it be worth the cost to bring him back at 38?
The quarterback position was ravaged by injury down the stretch, as both Wentz and McCown were injured in the same playoff game. Wentz will certainly be back — he's already 100 percent — but questions dog him about whether he can stay healthy over a full season after missing time each of the past three years. McCown, meanwhile, played through the Seahawks game with a torn hamstring; will he want to go through rehab at his age? More than likely, he'll retire, although the Eagles are interested in keeping him in some type of coaching capacity. That leaves the Eagles' backup QB spot wide open two years after Nick Foles proved it can be the most important position in the league. Third-stringer Nate Sudfeld also is a free agent.
Running back Jordan Howard may have injured himself out of a starting spot on this team long-term when a shoulder stinger kept him out much of the year. The emergence of rookie Miles Sanders makes him expendable, so the Eagles may seek a third-down, change-of-pace back to pair with him instead. (Maybe Corey Clement gets healthy and becomes that guy?)
But perhaps the most important position for the Eagles on this list is wide receiver. Alshon Jeffery had Lisfranc surgery in December and is expected to be out nine months. Can the team find a trade partner for a guy who was once looked at to spark this offense? Wentz seemingly improved with Jeffery and fellow wideout Nelson Agholor out of the lineup. Agholor is almost certainly gone after injuries and key drops highlighted a disappointing 2019 season. And who knows with DeSean Jackson, whose abdominal injury turned into a season-long trip to the sidelines after a promising start against the Redskins in Week 1? Greg Ward emerged as an inexpensive, promising option, as the quarterback-turned-receiver shined with Wentz in the final few games of the regular season.
2. What will become of the secondary?
Defensively, the Eagles remained a top-10 unit in 2019 by hold teams to 331.7 total yards per game. Their 90.1 rushing yards allowed ranked third, and, despite a subpar year from Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox, did a great job at the line of scrimmage with their front four.
But the secondary continued to be a patchwork unit with maddening inconsistency. Journeyman players and underperforming draft picks would go through weeks where quarterbacks like the Dolphins' Ryan Fitzpatrick (365 yards, 3 touchdowns) and the Vikings' Kirk Cousins (333, 4) looked like Super Bowl champs. The secondary intercepted just 11 passes, tied for 22nd in the NFL, and continued to be susceptible to the type of big-play passes that ultimately doomed the Eagles in 2018 as well.
The first call for change is coming from an unexpected source: safety Malcolm Jenkins. The longtime leader and social justice advocate, one of the NFL's most respected players, is suddenly calling for a new deal in the neighborhood of $14 million per season. While the team is expected to keep him, that could handicap the franchise in free agency as they pursue other cornerback and safety options to pair with Jenkins. It's unlikely injury-plagued cornerback Ronald Darby returns (20 games missed in three seasons), and the team needs to make a decision on free safety Rodney McLeod. McLeod started all 16 games but seemed to still be recovering from the torn MCL he suffered back in 2018.
The real issue is with the draft picks the Eagles have selected the past few seasons. Sidney Jones made one of the big plays of the year against the Cowboys in December, to help secure a postseason bid, but was otherwise disappointing. Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox, both homegrown players, suffered through injuries and inconsistency to the point neither one could cement themselves down as a starter. Will the Eagles hope their young secondary core can get better, keeping that group plus corner Cre'Von LeBlanc, or will they look elsewhere through the draft and free agency?
3. Who will be the new offensive coordinator?
Coaching changes can often be overlooked, but the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Groh from this role is a big one. Groh was never able to fill the shoes of now-Colts head coach Frank Reich, and the Eagles struggled to score in the first quarter under his tenure (31st in 2018 and 20th last season). They ended the year with an average of 24.1 points per game, 12th in the NFL, but couldn't put up the points when it mattered against top contenders like the Seahawks and Patriots.
Who replaces Groh could make the difference in 2020 for a team that's already well-stocked with a franchise quarterback, a blossoming star in Sanders, and Pro Bowl-caliber tight ends in Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. It's intriguing, though, that the position has remained open for two weeks while division rivals like the Giants have scored quality hires at the position (former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett). What is taking so long, and what type of fit are the Eagles looking for?
The fact McCown, still deciding his future, was reportedly offered the position with no experience is a clue to their future direction. The Eagles did best with Pederson having another former quarterback like Reich by his side, one who paired well with his aggressive instincts. Can McCown be groomed in much the same way? Or is there another recently-retired QB that the team can seek for the role? (Not named Eli Manning, of course...)
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.