By Lewis Gould
The Eagles open defense of their Super Bowl title tonight at the Linc against the Atlanta Falcons.
And it figures to be a defensive struggle.
At least that’s what the Eagles hope.
As their passing game limps into the season, Jay Ajayi figures to operate as the Eagles’ focal point behind arguably the league’s best offensive line against a Falcons defense built on speed over thump.
Atlanta has finished 20th, 28th, and 25th in run-defense DVOA since Dan Quinn became coach, and has allowed the NFL’s most running back catches in all three years, enhancing Ajayi’s receiving outlook as Philly deals with wideout injuries.
In these teams’ playoff meeting last January, Ajayi parlayed 18 touches into 98 yards while sharing early-down work with departed LeGarrette Blount and missing nine-time Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters.
Despite not joining the Eagles until Halloween and learning the offense on the fly, Ajayi averaged 15.7 touches over Philly’s final six games. Favored at home in a plus draw, 15 touches should be Ajayi’s floor as a high-ceiling RB2 play.
Last year’s Eagles backs averaged 28.0 touches per game. If we project Ajayi for 18, 10 are left to divvy between Corey Clement and Darren Sproles. Clement averaged just 20.4 snaps and 5.6 touches per game last Week 9 into the playoffs. He exploded for 108 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl 52, but did so on only seven touches. 7-10 touches would be a reasonable Week 1 forecast for Clement, who should be owned in all season-long leagues. He’s an Ajayi injury away from RB1 upside.
Carson Wentz (knee) fill-in Nick Foles managed 246 scoreless yards on 30 attempts against Atlanta in January’s Divisional Round, will be without playoff star Alshon Jeffery (shoulder), and is coming off an abysmal preseason, completing 16-of-26 passes for 171 scoreless yards (6.6) and two picks. Always a high-variance producer, Foles is a boom-bust two-quarterback-league play.
Foles’ 2017 target distribution: Zach Ertz 48; Nelson Agholor 40; Jeffery 35; Torrey Smith 34; Clement 14. … Ertz stands to benefit from Alshon’s absence after logging stat lines of 6/56/1 > 9/81/0 > 3/32/0 > 8/93/0 > 7/67/1 in last year’s five full games with Foles, who also targeted Ertz the most of Eagles pass catchers in this year’s third preseason game.
Ertz is a TE2 for Week 1 behind Rob Gronkowski, and ahead of Travis Kelce (@ LAC).
With Jeffery out indefinitely and Ertz sure to attract more attention, Agholor has every opportunity to improve on his third-year breakout. Agholor led the 2017 Eagles in red-zone targets (18) and targets inside the ten (9) and ran 86% of his routes inside, where PFF charged Atlanta’s Brian Poole with the NFL’s seventh-highest passer rating (108.8) allowed among 31 qualified slot corners.
Agholor is an easy WR3/flex starter. … Mike Wallace upgrades on Smith as a low-volume deep threat with splash-play potential, but Quinn’s secondary specializes in limiting big plays. Stout with LCB Desmond Trufant and RCB Robert Alford outside, the Falcons allowed the NFL’s eighth-fewest 20-plus-yard completions (43) and second-fewest completions of 40-plus yards (4) last year. … Sub-package pass-catcher snaps will be split among Shelton Gibson and rookie TE Dallas Goedert, who looked like a phenom in preseason games. Goedert would need an Ertz injury to be a truly confident fantasy play, but he should draw 4-5 targets as the Jeffery- and Mack Hollins-less Eagles run more two-tight end sets.