All-World left tackle Jason Peters is the leader of the remade offensive line.
By Michael Donovan
Eagles players report to the NovaCare complex in South Philly tomorrow, and the 2015 training camp starts on Sunday.
And that will put some meat on the bones of what Supreme Leader Chip Kelly has wrought with his roster overhaul that any new coach would have expected to do sooner.
In Kelly’s first two seasons as Andy Reid’s replacement the Birds went 10-6 and 10-6 using many of Reid’s holdovers.
Now we’ll find out if Kelly is as good a talent-spotter as he is a head coach.
The Eagles cut ties with five former Pro Bowlers, including their starting quarterback and face-of-the-franchise running back while reworking the roster with a cavalcade of pricey free agent signings.
Headlining the list of additions are former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford, 2014 rushing champ DeMarco Murray and “Legion of Boom” alumnus Byron Maxwell, together worth approximately $116 million over the course of their respective deals.
Rarely do successful teams build in the manner the Birds have chosen, but few coaches have merited carte blanche as Kelly has. He delivered back-to-back 10-win seasons with an Eagles team that couldn’t break .500 over the two years prior to his arrival. His offense has ranked among the very best in the league despite injuries sidelining multiple quarterbacks during his short run. While the team has only one playoff appearance to show for it, Kelly’s reputation as his generation’s Jimmy Johnson suggests greater success is just beyond the horizon.
But while Kelly currently has the full faith and support of team ownership, he must soon justify that belief with wins. The Eagles narrowly missed the playoffs in 2014, and they have a difficult road this season with the division-rival Dallas Cowboys returning most of their all-world offense and making necessary additions on the other side of the ball. Elsewhere in the NFC East, the New York Giants added weapons and protection around Eli Manning while Washington hopes that Year 2 of the Jay Gruden era sees Robert Griffin III return to form.
Can the Eagles, one season removed from a division crown, return to the top of the NFC East in 2015? Yes, but not without meeting certain benchmarks and getting a few fortunate breaks. Let’s evaluate.
Sam Bradford must start the majority of the season
Few teams can survive a prolonged absence for its starting quarterback. Though the Arizona Cardinals somehow managed 11 wins with backups Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley starting most of their games last season, the Eagles couldn’t quite keep pace once Foles broke his collarbone. While Kelly’s QB-friendly scheme made Mark Sanchez’s play palatable for a stretch, the offense averaged just 24.75 points during the final quarter of the year, more than five points fewer than its full-season average. That dip helps illustrate why Kelly felt the team needed more firepower under center in 2015.
Enter Bradford, a former Offensive Rookie of the Year beset by conservative play calling, poor protection and multiple ACL tears. The quarterback had largely been written off after five years with the St. Louis Rams, a not-totally-indefensible assessment. Still, Bradford briefly shone as rookie under the tutelage of Pat Shurmur, now his offensive coordinator once again in Philly.
Bradford became a top NFL prospect after a record-breaking career in Oklahoma’s up-tempo spread offense, a scheme similar to the one Kelly has installed with the Eagles. If the team harnesses Bradford’s strengths — quick decision-making and turnover avoidance — he may provide the Birds with the improved quarterback play necessary to reach the next level.
But for that metamorphosis to take place, Bradford has to remain upright. He has missed 25 games since the start of 2013 and 31 total since entering the league. The Eagles re-signed Sanchez to spot start should Bradford miss time, but anything more than a few games could put a serious dent into Philly’s playoff aspirations.
The offensive line must jell without Evan Mathis
One of Kelly’s less-discussed offseason changes was the release of All-Pro guard Evan Mathis, who wanted to renegotiate his contract while the team, wary of his age, preferred to keep him at his current price. In the end, Kelly decided a player not fully invested in his plan wasn’t worth the hassle, moving on from the veteran guard in favor of journeyman Allen Barbre. Mathis’ departure was the second loss for the offensive line, with the team releasing Todd Herremans earlier in the offseason.
Moving on from two reliable offensive linemen in one offseason presents risk for any team, especially one with so many other new faces on offense. The Eagles struggled with protection during the eight games Mathis missed last season, but at least this time around the team has a full offseason to adjust for his absence.
Though none of the Eagles’ interior linemen can match Mathis’ brilliance, they still have Jason Peters and Lane Johnson capably stationed at each tackle spot. Jason Kelce garners less attention than his tight end brother, but he is one of football’s most intelligent and athletic centers. So long as they stay healthy, whoever winds up at guard will have the luxury of a stalwart offensive lineman playing on either side.
The key, of course, is keeping the same five guys on the field together. Only Peters started all 16 games a year ago, and at 33 his chances of making it through another NFL season unscathed shrinks ever more. No team expects its preferred starters to play every game, but the Eagles have little margin for error, with depth looking scarce on paper.
The defense must improve significantly against the pass
If the 2014 Eagles had an Achilles’ heel besides their issues under center, it was their pass defense. The secondary, in particular cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, were regularly abused by opposing quarterbacks to the tune of 4,238 yards and 30 touchdowns, second and fourth most in the NFL, respectively. Though the advanced metrics thought more highly of Philly’s ability to stop the pass, the unit didn’t rate much better. The defense ranked 18th in pass defense in Football Outsider’s DVOA metric.
Like he did with the team’s other glaring deficiencies, Kelly invested a significant portion of the team’s resources in search of improvements. In addition to the blockbuster deal for Maxwell, the Eagles traded for former Defensive Rookie of the Year Kiko Alonso, re-signed promising edge rusher Brandon Graham and selected talented cornerback Eric Rowe in the second round of the draft. Kelly’s goal is clear: Get to the quarterback quicker to close his passing window.While the roster remodeling makes sense on paper, getting the defense to actually slow down opposing passing games could take some time. The back-seven could feature as many as five new starters from a year ago, and the cornerback depth behind Maxwell, Rowe and nickelback Brandon Boykin remains suspect.
And the unit won’t have much time to mature before it faces some major challenges. The Eagles face Pro Bowl passers Matt Ryan and Tony Romo during the first two weeks of the year. They also face off against Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Eli Manning (twice) and Romo again before season’s end. And, should the Eagles make it that far, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson likely await in the playoffs. If Philly struggles against the pass again this season, it risks spending January at home.
Dallas must take a step back without DeMarco Murray
For all of the Eagles’ attempts to improve themselves this offseason, their fortunes may ultimately be impacted the most by the reigning division champions suffering a backslide.
Little separated Philly and Dallas last season in terms of scoring, with the latter’s dominance in the running game providing the necessary edge in the NFC East. Led by Murray and the league’s best run-blocking offensive line, the Cowboys bowled over opponents all season. In contrast, the Eagles ground attack sputtered at times, a problem exacerbated by Sanchez’s similarly inconsistent play down the stretch.
Fast forward to 2015, and Murray has crossed enemy lines to join the Eagles. While Kelly plans to keep his new lead tailback fresh by splitting carries with Darren Sproles and Ryan Mathews, the Cowboys simply hope to squeeze acceptable play out of Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and any other spare parts that float through their backfield. Dallas still possesses a peerless offensive line, but nobody knows how much of a downgrade the team will endure with someone besides Murray toting the rock.
Barring a major injury, the Cowboys should still field one of the league’s better offenses. Romo remains a highly effective passer, and with Dez Bryant back in the fold, the passing game may compensate for some of the ground game’s regression. Dallas’ defensive additions could also provide a boost. None of that is guaranteed, however, and the Cowboys’ hold on the division crown may weaken enough for the Eagles to usurp them.