It is almost that time of year again and hopefully the Eagles’ season will continue despite COVID-19. But what do the Birds need to do to get back to Super Bowl form?
Injuries an Issue Again in 2020
If the Eagles want to win another championship, health and depth will be critical. Recently, the injury bug has plagued the Eagles worse than Moses plagued the Egyptians back in the day as the Eagles were the second-most injured team in 2018 and the 12th-most injured team in 2019.
2020’s training camp has already seen some Birds bite the dust as Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks suffered a season-ending injury in June, starting left tackle Andre Dillard is set to miss the entire 2020 campaign, Miles Sanders missed most of training camp due to a hamstring issue, Lane Johnson has missed eight practices due to an unspecified “lower body injury”, and first-round pick Jalen Reagor is expected to miss multiple weeks with a torn labrum and could miss the season opener.
Per Geoff Mosher of Inside the Birds, Reagor could miss four weeks with his shoulder issue (although John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia recently reported Jalen Reagor could be available next week as he “has been feeling good and is eyeing a Week 2 return to the lineup”). Furthermore, Alshon Jeffery doesn’t have a timetable for his return from lisfranc surgery. This leaves either Greg Ward or second-year receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside as the likely starters alongside DeSean Jackson, which isn’t as bad as it sounds considering JJ is more of a big/possession WR while DeSean is obviously a smaller big-play guy. Arcega-Whiteside significantly under-performed last year considering he had just ten catches for under 200 yards and one touchdown, and he will need to make jump in year two.
Greg Ward showed he can be dependable last year and rookie fifth-round John Hightower has reportedly flashed at practices and might earn consideration for a starting spot as well, per Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Eagles fans have reason to worry about depending on rookie WRs though as few have been dependable since… DeSean Jackson. DeSean may not be as dependable as he once was as he has not played a full 16-game season since 2013, but his speed should open up defenses especially with Zach Ertz continuing to dominate the short and intermediate passing game.
Ertz meanwhile can be that dependable, dominant play-maker for the Eagles and has only missed six games in his seven-year career. Over the past two seasons he has missed just one game. Ertz’s talent and dependability has allowed him to put up stats like no other TE in NFL history.
In fact, Ertz is the only TE in history with at least 5,000 receiving yards and 525 receptions in their first seven seasons. He will need to continue his performance if this offense wants to get in the end zone consistently.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) December 15, 2019
Key Defensive Additions Need to Produce
How the defensive backfield and linebackers shape out will be key for the Eagles’ success as well. In particular, new roles for Nathan Gerry and Jalen Mills will be interesting to watch as Mills looks to transition from cornerback safety while Gerry aims to be the Eagles go-to linebacker, especially in passing situations.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) April 21, 2020
Gerry is somewhat wirey and undersized at just 209 lbs, and many questioned how the former college safety’s transition to linebacker would pan out. His first NFL season went smoother than expected, and his safety experience was a major benefit in passing situations. Mills’ move to safety will also likely help the Eagles improve their pass coverage, but it is a gamble for running situations considering his smaller frame. If both players answer the call, the Eagles defense could look vastly different with the additions of Nickell Robey-Coleman from the Rams and Darius Slay from the Lions helping out too.
Since 2015, Slay leads the NFL in pass breakups with 82 and made the Pro Bowl the last three years straight. Slay has grabbed 13 interceptions over the last three seasons including recording eight in 2017 alone, when he was named an All-Pro. At 29 years old, he is in the midst of his prime and is capable of blanketing opposing #1 WRs. The past two years he allowed completion rates of 46.8% (2018) and 55.9% (2019), and the Eagles’ 2019 15th-ranked scoring defense could use the help.
Most forced incompletions among CBs on 3rd & 4th down since 2018:
1. Stephon Gilmore – 18
T-2. Darius Slay/ Marshon Lattimore – 14 pic.twitter.com/tJcLiMyemf
— PFF (@PFF) September 7, 2020
Slay has experience shadowing some of the NFL’s top WRs including the Vikings’ Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, the Packers’ Davante Adams, and the Bears’ Allen Robinson twice a year in the NFC North. 19th in passing yards allowed per game in 2019, the Eagles hope Slay can prevent the likes of Terry McLaurin and Amari Cooper from blowing the lid off this defense once again.
Robey-Coleman on the other hand is a smaller corner with a different role. He showed with the Bills and Rams that he is capable of being one of the best nickel/slot corners in the league. Standing at 5-foot-8, 180 lbs, what he lacks in size he makes up for with toughness, agility, and technique. His footwork and short-area quickness are top-notch, allowing him to mirror smaller receivers in the open field. Howie Roseman admitted Philadelphia had its eyes on the diminutive defender since he became a free agent in 2017.
Roseman said, “Nickell Robey-Coleman is a guy that we’ve had our eyes on for a long time. He’s explosive. He’s twitched-up. When he became available as a free agent the first time (2017), we were interested in signing him because he can really mirror receivers and he’s got the competitiveness, the speed, the toughness we’re looking for in our defensive backfield.” The versatile DB is now one of the NFL’s top slot corners as he sticks with receivers in man, plays well in press, and has elite closing speed.
While known primarily as a small nickel corner, Robey-Coleman has the aggressiveness to come up and make solid tackles for TFLs or third-down stops that change games. He was an integral component during the Rams’ 2018 Super Bowl run, and that season he was targeted 58 times and held opposing receivers to 295 yards and under eight yards per reception. 2018 also marked the second-straight season Robey-Coleman earned a position grade over 80 from Pro Football Focus. He came in just shy of the 80 mark in 2019 with a 74.5 grade. But it is worth noting PFF ranked the 28-year-old as the 19th best corner in the entire league in 2019.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 4, 2019
Through 2019, Robey-Coleman allowed just an 80.1 passer rating and 0.63 yards per slot coverage snap. Those stats ranked him 13th and 6th, respectively, in terms of slot coverage snaps. Additionally, Robey-Coleman has the durability and toughness Eagles DBs in recent years lacked and has missed only one game due to injury in his career. Interestingly enough, he has an Eagles connection too as Jim Schwartz served as his defensive coordinator during Robey-Coleman’s early Bills career.
The additions of Robey-Coleman and Darius Slay transforms the Eagles DB group as the secondary goes from a big question mark to a formidable unit. The Eagles need a more consistent pass rush than they had last year if they want to fully pull everything together, but a deeper and more talented DB group will definitely help.
Although, it remains to be seen if Slay and Robey-Coleman can play in the scheme Schwartz has been running in Philly. While Schwartz draws a lot of ire from fans, (and some of if it is deserved) he gets results. The Eagles have allowed the fifth fewest points in the NFL since he was hired in 2016. The Eagles under Schwartz have also never finished with a defensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average: defensive rankings which are adjusted to take into account the quality of offensive opponents) lower than 15th and their average finish is ninth.
The Offense’s Success Will be Determined by Wentz and the O-line
Defense aside, much of this year’s success will once again come down to the play of Carson Wentz. While some think Wentz has regressed since his near-MVP season that was cut short by his ACL injury, the tape and the stats actually show a QB with clutch decision making, a talented arm, and decent mobility doing all he can despite lacking a true healthy #1 receiver or anything that remotely resembles a deep threat.
Wentz was the only QB last season who took his team to the playoffs without an 1,000-yard rusher or an 1,000-yard receiver and was recently ranked as the tenth-best QB in the NFL by Pro Football Focus (one spot behind Dak). Remember, Wentz had his highest passer rating of the 2019 season (121) with a healthy DeSean Jackson and with DeSean healthy again, Wentz’s numbers will likely improve.
Don’t forget this offense’s top speedster was Nelson Agholor in 2019. In case you forgot about Agholor’s capabilities as a deep threat, here’s a reminder:
Agholor jokes aside, he does serve as an example of another aspect of their operations the Eagles need to improve: drafting and not falling in love with the wrong player. Hopefully the Eagles are turning over a new leaf in that department because Miles Sanders looks like a stud and nine of the Eagles’ ten 2020 picks made the 53 man roster. Miles Sanders making an expected jump his second season will be crucial for returning to the Super Bowl. Ideally, Sanders maintains his big-play potential and receiving ability while continuing to progress as an NFL ball-carrier.
Sanders had one of the greatest rookie seasons of any Eagles running back last year, check out some of his 2019 accomplishments:
- The only Eagles rookie in history with at least 800 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards
- Totaled more rushing yards (818), yards from scrimmage (1,327), and all-purpose yards (1,641) than any first-year player in team history
- Among running backs with at least 200 touches, Sanders led all rookies with 5.8 yards per touch and came in third among all RBs
- His 1,641 all-purpose yards led all NFL rookies and ranked eighth in the league (fifth in the NFC) and were the most by any Eagles player since LeSean McCoy’s 2,146 in 2013
- His 1,327 yards from scrimmage led all rookies (worth noting five of the last six players to win Offensive Rookie of the Year led their class in scrimmage yards too)
- Sanders’ 13 plays of 20+ yards ranked tied for fourth among all NFL RBs
- Led all NFL rookie RBs with 50 catches, 509 receiving yards, and 3 receiving TDs
An effective and balanced running game will be key for Carson Wentz’s success by opening up defenses, and Miles Sanders seems like he could be the perfect fit.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) December 15, 2019
Philly fans will likely look for Wentz and this offense to break their own records en route to a successful playoff run. In 2019, Wentz threw for 4,039 yards with limited weapons, marking the first time an Eagles’ QB has thrown for 4,000 yards in franchise history. He also became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 4,000 without a receiver going for over 500. He has a great shot to throw for 4,000+ again with an improved and faster WR group.
In addition to upgraded skill positions, the Eagles’ offensive line will need to be one of the team’s biggest strengths, and that looked possible only a few months ago. But that all changed when they lost Brandon Brooks and Andre Dillard for the season. While they brought back Jason Peters and he is seemingly healthy, Lane Johnson missed most of training camp with an injury and Doug has been tight-lipped about if Johnson will be ready for the season opener.
A few months ago the Eagles’ projected offensive line looked like this: Andre Dillard, Isaac Seumalo, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson. Not bad, right? Their line on the last day of training camp however was: Matt Pryor, Isaac Seumalo, Jason Kelce, Jason Peters, Jordan Mailata.
Even if the Eagles sign a vet and the starting line is able to hold up there are still serious questions about the Eagles’ depth at the position. Matt Pryor was supposed to be that dependable backup but now he’s already in the starting lineup. At the moment, the Eagles backups have a combined total of three NFL snaps and they’re all from Nate Herbig.
If all goes well, the Eagles will overcome these offensive line issues to become the first NFC East team to repeat as division champions since 2004, a goal that was made more difficult with the Cowboy’s drafting college standout CeeDee Lamb in the first round of the NFL draft. If the Eagles path to the playoffs relies on earning one of the three wild card spots, that could be a problem as teams who barely make the postseason don’t win many championships anymore. Case and point: a wild card team hasn’t appeared in the Super Bowl since 2013.