As the Eagles open training camp today in South Philly, expectations are higher for the defending NFC East champions coming off last year’s 10-6 surprise that ended with a home playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints
By Michael McCarthy
Coach Chip Kelly spent the offseason reshaping the roster in his innovative image, jettisoning speed receiver DeSean Jackson and adding former New Orleans dual-threat running back Darren Sproles along with the Saints’ former defensive quarterback, safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman drafted Jordan Matthews, a 6-3 receiver who covers 40 yards in 4.46 seconds and is the cousin of receiving legend Jerry Rice.
Running behind one of the most athletic offensive lines in the NFL, LeSean McCoy was the engine for an offense that led the league with 160.4 rushing yards per game and scored a franchise-record 442 points.
With his slippery style, McCoy led the league with 1,607 rushing yards, opening throwing lanes for quarterback Nick Foles, who tossed 27 touchdowns with just two interceptions in 317 pass attempts. The trick is finding a way for a fourth-ranked scoring offense to replace Jackson’s 82-catch, nine-touchdown production.
Defensive coordinator Billy Davis needs first-round outside linebacker Marcus Smith (above photo from Madden 25) to emerge immediately as a double-digit sacker who can harass quarterbacks off the edge. Veteran Trent Cole had eight sacks in the final eight games after struggling early in the transition from a 4-3, wide-nine defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker.
The Eagles have an added sense of confidence coming into what shapes up as a crossroads year for a team trying to crack the NFC’s elite.
How far the Eagles go is all about what a more confident Foles does for an encore (he was the NFL’s top-rated passer in 2013) now that he has the job from the start of the season. No Eagles quarterback has thrown for 4,000 yards in a season. Yet for Kelly to have a more dynamic attack, the Eagles need Foles to break that barrier.
Foles looked sharp during organized team activities, running the offense at an even faster tempo, and appears ready to take Kelly’s offense to a higher gear. Former New York Jets starter Mark Sanchez has played in two AFC Championship Games and should benefit from a change of scenery. Matt Barkley is the third-stringer.
Because McCoy, whose lateral quickness is eye-popping, thinks he can be even better, the question is how many touches the multidimensional Sproles will get. With Bryce Brown gone in a trade to the Buffalo Bills, Chris Polk is a between-the-tackles short-yardage thumper who scored three touchdowns on 11 carries last season.
Jeremy Maclin insists nothing has changed with the departure of Jackson. That remains to be seen, because the pressure is squarely on Maclin to prove he is a bona fide No. 1 receiver in his return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in training camp last year. Riley Cooper was a revelation, catching eight touchdown passes, more than the five scoring receptions he notched his first three seasons. For this group to avoid a post-Jackson hangover, Matthews will have to play like an established veteran. The selection of Kelly’s former Oregon receiver Josh Huff in the third round adds depth and an experienced hand in the coach’s system.
Brent Celek’s days as the featured tight end seem to be at an end given the emergence of Zach Ertz. The second-year pro will have a more featured role after scoring all four of his touchdowns during the second half of 2013. Ertz will likely emerge as Foles’ No. 2 target after Maclin as Kelly schemes ways to move Ertz around to exploit his rare size (6-5, 250 pounds) and speed in one-on-one mismatches. James Casey could see more snaps after he caught three passes for 31 yards.
The line will get a jolt with the potential four-game suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson. Another worry is that three of the unit’s starters — first-team all-pro honorees left tackle Jason Peters, left guard Evan Mathis and right guard Todd Herremans — are older than 30. Jason Kelce is considered among the league’s best centers.
The front three of Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton and Bennie Logan came on last season. They proved interchangeable parts in Davis’ 3-4, two-gapping system. Vinny Curry showed promise last season with four sacks as a situational pass rusher.
Connor Barwin was the do-it-all linchpin for Davis’ scheme. He is as talented dropping and covering a tight end as he is knocking down passes or blitzing the quarterback. Now he has more help with the first-round selection of Smith, a speed rusher drafted to add juice to an average pass rush. DeMeco Ryans is solid inside. Talented Mychal Kendricks needs to be more reliable in coverage.
The additions of Jenkins and fourth-round cornerback Jaylen Watkins improve a back end that sorely needed upgrades at safety and corner. Brandon Boykin had six interceptions as a standout slot corner. Watkins has the 4.41-second, 40-yard speed to mirror receivers in press man coverage. Free agent Nolan Carroll adds corner depth. Jenkins is the back-end leader the Eagles have lacked since perennial Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins was in his playmaking prime.
For the first time, kicker Alex Henery faces competition. He lacks a strong leg and was 5-for-11 on field goal attempts beyond 45 yards. Only 42% of his kickoffs went for touchbacks. Former Vanderbilt kicker Carey Spear was signed as an undrafted free agent. Donnie Jones was re-signed after setting a franchise record for punts inside the 20. Sproles figures to provide a punt-return upgrade and could see time on kickoffs with Brad Smith likely to get first shot.
Kelly’s success will largely be determined by Foles’ ability to progress and whether Jackson’s explosive playmaking is missed. Defenses spent the offseason scheming to stop Kelly’s offense. But he has new wrinkles with Ertz and Sproles expected to create matchup problems. “We run the See Coast Offense,” Kelly says. “If we see something and like it and we think it fits, we’re going to run it.”