Carson Wentz and the Eagles hope an infusion of speed will keep them in contention
When the Eagles trudged off their home turf after a 17-9 Wild Card Weekend loss to Seattle, it was clear some things had to change. First, QB Carson Wentz, who played less than one quarter in the defeat due to a questionable hit by Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, needed to be capable of seeing an entire season to its (hopeful) postseason conclusion.
Perhaps even more important was that the Eagles needed to be faster. Last season's deliberate, often tortoise-like attack that needed at least eight plays on 55.8 percent of its touchdown drives had to be upgraded with a significant dose of rocket fuel. The defense had to gain speed, too, in order to keep up with the league's blistering offensive attacks.
General manager Howie Roseman tried to do both in a draft that included three new wideouts and some defenders with stopwatch-friendly 40-yard dash times. Even second-round pick Jalen Hurts, the quarterback from Oklahoma, runs well, and new corner Darius Slay has jets. Kansas City won a Super Bowl with a team loaded with sprinters, and the Eagles seem to be imitating that approach.
After missing parts of the previous two regular seasons, Wentz went the full 16-game route in 2019 and posted strong numbers (team-record 4,039 yards, 27 TDs, seven interceptions, 63.9 percent completion rate), and his concussion suffered against Seattle was a huge factor in the loss. Perhaps most impressive was that he became the first QB to throw for 4,000 yards without a single wideout who amassed 500 receiving yards. Wentz has a big arm, good mobility and a great understanding of head coach Doug Pederson's offense. He should again prosper and could be even better, provided his supporting cast is productive and healthy enough.
The Hurts selection shocked many. He's an interesting weapon, but the Eagles have a franchise QB. Hurts will likely be used in RPO packages and as a talented insurance policy. Nate Sudfeld is the other backup.
The wideout group has promise but questions. Oft-injured speedster DeSean Jackson played in only three games last year due to a core muscle injury. Expensive ($33.9 million over the next two years) Alshon Jeffery missed six games last year and wasn't too productive when he did play (43 catches, four TDs). Last year's second-round pick, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, caught 10 passes and looked overmatched, while late-season standout Greg Ward doesn't have enough of a resume to show he's a reliable slot man. Into that mix comes top draft pick Jalen Reagor, whose relatively unimpressive numbers in 2019 at TCU were a product of inconsistent QB play. He has breakaway speed and will work well on screens and jet sweeps, but he needs to develop as an underneath target. Fifth-round pick John Hightower can get deep, too.
The tight end spot is in great shape, thanks to Zach Ertz, one of the league's best, and Dallas Goedert, who caught 58 passes and scored five times last year.
The Eagles thought enough of Miles Sanders' rookie season (818 yards, three TDs, 4.6-yard average) to get rid of sturdy Jordan Howard. Sanders has plenty of potential, but he is not made for repeated work inside the tackles. Boston Scott is a solid third option, but his ceiling is not high.
The Eagles were already looking at changes along their offensive line but a couple of key injuries have shaken up the entire outlook, and also led to the return of a familiar face. The first blow came in June when guard Brandon Brooks tore his left Achilles tendon. That resulted in a reunion with sure-fire Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters, who the team initially allowed to become a free agent but then re-signed to play guard after the Brooks injury. But with expected starter Andre Dillard, last year's first-round pick, suffering a season-ending biceps injury in training camp, Peters could move back to his former spot as Wentz's blind-side protector. At least Philadelphia can count on outstanding center Jason Kelce and sturdy right tackle Lane Johnson as the anchors up front. Starting left guard Issac Seumalo is reliable but depth is now even more of a concern than it was before training camp started.
Coordinator Jim Schwartz's unit relies heavily on a strong pass rush to protect its defensive backs. But last year, the Birds finished in the bottom half of the NFL in passing yards allowed and interceptions. So Roseman set about trying to improve Philadelphia's pass rush and secondary.
There is no upgrade necessary for all-world tackle Fletcher Cox, who has earned five straight Pro Bowl invitations. Cox is impenetrable against the run and provides great push as a pass rusher. The Eagles hope Malik Jackson will play more than one game in 2020 (Lisfranc injury) and be a solid interior force. Free-agent pickup Javon Hargrave proved with the Steelers that he could play inside against the run and also collapse the pocket on passing downs. Hassan Ridgeway provides depth.
The Eagles welcome back stalwart end Brandon Graham after a season in which he registered 8.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits. Fourth-year end Derek Barnett has shown flashes, but he must be more productive. Josh Sweat has good speed and flashed promise last year but isn't a full-time option.
The Eagles secondary was vulnerable last year. The 2020 version boasts a pair of new corners and a position switch. Strong safety Rodney McLeod returns after finishing third on the team in tackles and brings a hammer against the run. When free safety Malcolm Jenkins made it clear he wouldn't play for $7.6 million in 2020, the Eagles released him. His departure means a loss of leadership and sturdy production, although his pass defense skills had atrophied. Jalen Mills, who has played corner for four seasons but has been injury prone the last two, will get the first shot at Jenkins' job, but there is no proven depth behind him. Rookie K'Von Wallace played well against the run at Clemson.
The Eagles upgraded at corner by trading with Detroit for Slay, who made the Pro Bowl each of the last three seasons. He has strong ball skills. Philadelphia signed solid slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman to a one-year deal and expects Avonte Maddox to start at the other corner. Sidney Jones, who has disappointed during his tenure with the team, Rasul Douglas and Cre'Von LeBlanc will provide depth.
At linebacker, Nathan Gerry is productive on the outside, but neither middle man T.J. Edwards nor Duke Riley would start on most playoff-caliber teams. Third-round pick Davion Taylor is another swift outside linebacker, but this group is clearly the weak spot on this side of the ball.
The Birds are in pretty good shape here. Kicker Jake Elliott has a sturdy leg and is automatic from inside 40 yards. However, over the past two seasons, he has been somewhat unreliable on longer kicks. Cameron Johnston's punting numbers dropped some in 2019 after a robust rookie debut, but his 46.4-yard average is still quite good.
Scott and Sanders are solid kick returners, and Sanders has the speed to break one. Expect Reagor and Hightower to get shots at returns; both have big-play ability.
The Eagles remain serious contenders in the NFC East, in part because of their relative roster stability as well as the coaching upheaval in the division. Wentz is a top-tier QB, and having Sanders, Ertz and Goedert with him will help a lot. But Reagor needs to produce right away, the Birds need full seasons (or close to it) from Jackson and Jeffery, and now the offensive line is a question mark following the loss of two expected starters. The defense addressed two big needs by adding help along the defensive front and in the secondary, but other than Cox, Hargrave, Graham, McLeod and Slay, there remain questions. Philadelphia is a good team, but remember that it needed to win its final four games to reach the playoffs. Expect playoff contention, but a lot must go right for postseason success.