Things started rocky for the new look Philadelphia Eagles and seemingly nothing went right for them in 2015. They started off behind the 8 ball with a 1-3 start that featured two division losses, including a home loss to the Cowboys minus Dez Bryant, and a second half without Tony Romo. The Eagles bounced back, and some thought they found their groove on a 3-1 run the other way that featured two wins this time in the division. The 4-4 Eagles led 16-3 in the first quarter at home to Miami when starting Quarterback Sam Bradford went down with a shoulder injury. He missed the end of that game and the following two weeks. In those ten quarters the Eagles were blown out 107-34 including blowing that one. From 4-4 to 4-7 with Mark Sanchez the Eagles season effectively ended on Thanksgiving, despite the fact that they could have finished 4-1 and had a shot to win the division. They finished 3-2, and while Bradford has a record of 7-7 as a starter, it is certainly more like 7-6 with the loss to Miami, and taking away that first stretch of 1-3 with his new team and coach, he finished 6-3 in starts down the stretch. Their big win of the year came in New England when they shocked the Patriots, and their ugly loss can be a tie breaker between any of the Sanchez starts. They now head into the offseason with Bradford a free agent, and a new head coach, but somehow the direction of the team seems to have little change.
Despite back to back 10 win seasons prior 2015, a 6-9 record was enough to make the Eagles move on. His coaching on the field wasn’t substandard, but the reports were strong that he didn’t maintain a working relationship or instill belief in his players. Kelly also had major personnel problems. In college when a highly praised guard leaves, or a 4.3 receiver moves on, you recruit another guy in the same mold and he slots right in. In the NFL there are only so many Evan Mathis’, Jeremy Maclin and Desean Jackson’s’ in the world. Had Kelly known that, it would have been a lot easier to explain to management. If the team couldn’t afford these players, that happens, but to toss them aside and assume you can win with cheaper, less experienced players was the wrong way to go. In the end though, it is the Eagles who look rather foolish. The team dismissed Andy Reid, a guy who was there for thirteen years to move on to Kelly. They then toss Kelly aside after his first losing season. To be fair, Reid only had two losing seasons in that span, but the next move is most curious. In replacing Kelly, they went for a coach who literally has only coached professional football under the mentorship of Reid. Doug Pederson was hired by the Eagles in 2009, and as the quarterbacks coach in 2012, he chose to follow Reid to Kansas City, as the Eagles clearly didn’t have any interest in promoting him. Now three years later a guy you once saw first hand is coaching over 1,000 miles away and it becomes clear he is their guy? It seems like they are that guy to dump their girlfriend, only to remember how much they loved that girl, and when she moved on to another guy, they find themselves clinging on to their ex’s best friend. Thats real smooth, and certainly doesn’t show desperation.
Many were quick to write off Sam Bradford and his career moving forward, and while he clearly didn’t set the world on fire, let’s step back and remember that patience is typically what makes success in the NFL, especially when talking of a guy who is coming off of two years of off due to knee surgeries. Sure, he missed 2.5 games this year, and the injury prone label is alive and well, but of the eleven starters on offense he was typically the best of them. Bradford set career highs in completion percentage and yards per attempt. We will get deeper into it later, but it has to be noted he not only did this, he did with a receiving core that was one of the worst in drops. a line that ranks bottom five in overall efficiency, and a run game that was predictable and lackluster. Also, in 2014, when Mark Sanchez came in for relief of Nick Foles there was hardly a difference. In 2015, the Eagles absolutely fell apart the second Sanchez took over. Not to say that is all tied to Bradford, but for a free agent to be, the Eagles need Bradford more than he may need them at this point.
One of the more curious decisions Chip Kelly made was trading Lesean McCoy in an attempt to save money only to spend said money on Demarco Murray who was coming off a season with much more wear and tear than McCoy even was. The use of Murray was as bad as you can use him, and he seemingly had no interest in running down hill this year. Add that to the fact that the run blocking was abysmal and you have virtually no run game. Ryan Mathews ran hard in 2015, had a 5.0 yards per carry mark compared to Murray’s 3.6 and there could be questions as to why he wasn’t getting nearly as many touches as Murray. Kelly shifted that blame to his running back coach Duce Staley (who is still the running back coach) saying that Staley has 100% say on who gets what snaps. Staley is back and so is Murray (who may have helped in the firing of Kelly) and Mathews. While Mathews isn’t very durable you would really hope that the two enter camp in a competition for carries. Darren Sproles is added to the mix as a guy who can open things up in the pass, as well as the ground with 83 targets and 83 carries in 2015. Sproles at 32 has one year left on his deal, but with Kenjon Barner on the roster, they seem to be locked in their back situation for the next couple of years. The hope is that they use them more effectively this time around.
Wide Receiver and Tight end play
The Eagles wide receiver play was mainly a disappointment as well, starting with rookie Nelson Agholor. While Agholor shouldn’t have been thrust into the expectation of being relied upon heavily, the team essentially swapped Jeremy Maclin out for him making it kind of hard to ease the guy into anything. Agholor struggled to see the field early, and then got hurt in the middle, and while he finished decently strong, it ended with 23 catches and one touchdown in place of the 85 catches and 10 touchdowns Maclin saw in 2014. The loss of Maclin shifted Jordan Matthews into the spotlight, but Matthews only saw 18 more catches on 23 targets more and turned it into 125 more yards than his rookie year. Matthews was a commodity in the draft for not his upside, but his extremely low floor. Many knew he could come in right away and produce, the questions were if he could elevate his game to a number one threat. In his first two years he has proven many right, he looks like one of the best number two options in the league, but isn’t dynamic in enough ways to lead an offense. It will be major for Agholor, a top twenty pick to step into that top dog role and would more than likely just make Matthew’s life a heck of alot easier. Without Agholor the team relied on the trio of Riley Cooper, Josh Huff and Miles Austin to fill the void. The three combined for 61 catches for 873 yards and six touchdowns. Essentially, if you combined all three guys with Agholor only then will you get to match what they lost in Maclin. Austin more than likely is done for his career, Cooper should stay as he is a strong blocking receiver and isn’t a problem as a third or fourth option, but it is Huff who will need to elevate his game in the slot, or may just need to be replaced all together.
The Eagles also extended Zach Ertz and Brent Celek to be their one-two punch at tight end. Ertz had a strong year, and picked up a lot of the targets that Maclin left behind. However, despite career years in targets, catches and yards he accounted for two touchdowns, a career low. While that is more than likely statistical variance, it can be mentioned that they kept Celek around mainly because Ertz is such a poor blocker. Celek then gets a few more red zone and goalline stats resulting in one more touchdown on 48 less catches. The hope is that Ertz who is much younger and signed for a lot more than Celek can grow as a playmaker and specifically as a blocker leaving the Eagles set in depth as well as top tier tight end talent.
Offensive line play
As mentioned, the run blocking in Philadelphia was as poor as any team in the league. They are also tied into the majority of the line for the future, and aside from guard will need in house contributors to make the line closed to what it was in the first two years of Kelly. Jason Kelce didn’t have a poor year at center, but he wasn’t exactly up to his caliber either. Jason Peters has made eight pro bowls, including this year but many can claim this year he may not have deserved it. He dealt with a knee injury early on and missed two games. Between Kelce and Peters if the play doesn’t step up there is no doubt they will struggle again next year. In a similar move to Ertz, the Eagles extended Lane Johnson in the hopes that it will inspire him to perform better as an overall player in 2016. The talent is there, but in three years the former top two pick has struggled to prove he is a legitimate starter, let alone a guy who can live up to playing with Peters. At guard were the major problems, and with Alan Barbre, Matt Tobin and Andrew Gardner all signed on for next year they will either have to maneuver around them, or hope that these names can step up to the plate in 2016. Essentially all five starters will have questions, and if the team wants to add a guard for talent purposes it wouldn’t hurt.
With so much to prove on the offensive side of the ball the Eagles have to love the fact that they have Fletcher Cox cemented into their defensive line. Cox was drafted a 3-tech tackle, but moved outside to the end in a shift to the 3-4 with Chip Kelly. It didn’t stop him from turning into a stud and Pro Bowler with 9.5 sacks. Now with Jim Schwartz in at defensive coordinator they go back to the 4-3. This shouldn’t affect Cox though, and in Schwartz you now have the guy who has coached Ndamukong Suh and Marcell Dareus in his past two stops. In the new 4-3 both Cedric Thornton and Bennie Logan can find a fit, and honestly this whole team seems to have a better fit for a 4-3, as Kelly didn’t really have enough time to flip the entire roster. This offseason extending Logan, who had a nice 2015, and resigning Thornton should be high on the to-do list, and with that the defensive tackle rotation is solid. On the edge, Connor Barwin, and Brandon Graham will move to being 4-3 ends. Graham, like the tackles was drafted to run a 4-3, and while he has struggled at rushing the passer in either scheme, it should be noted he is growing as a run defender. Still, the hope will be for a big season for Graham this year. With Marcus Smith not doing much as a former first round pick, the Eagles will definitely be looking to resign Vinny Curry. Curry can move all over the line and would be a nice fit moving forward, and if they can bring him back, the front should be set moving forward.
The Eagles finally know to do with all of their inside linebackers. The Eagles most impressive linebacker in 2015 was probably the least likely in rookie Jordan Hicks. Hicks ended his season short due to injury, but as crazy as it seems, he should be the first one slotted to start. Hicks played all three linebacker spots at Texas, and can slot in around the others. Kiko Alonso has also played a couple of spots in college as well as his rookie campaign. Alonso, brought down as well by injury during the middle of the year had a rough year in 2015, and will have a lot to prove as it is the last year of his rookie deal, and now he is thrown technically his fourth defensive scheme in 3 years if you count his couple of offseason weeks under Rex Ryan. Mychal Kendricks also had some injury issues, but he should be back, and in my opinon is most likely to start in the middle. It leaves Demeco Ryans extremely expendable. and if the Eagles felt good about the health of three they could move on from him to save three million dollars. However, I would expect you hang on for one more year in the name of depth.
While Barwin and Graham were not setting the world on fire in the pass rush, it really was the secondary play that held the Eagles back. Malcolm Jenkins had a strong year, but the rest of the secondary struggled as a whole. Walter Thurmond is a free agent, and while they may not want to resign him, they are bare with depth below him to move on. Byron Maxwell, like Thurmond has not been able to succeed away from the legion of boom in Seattle, and the Eagles just invested a lot in him making it really a problem if he does not step up next year. Eric Rowe as a rookie looked lost at times, and Nolan Carroll, a free agent should not be retained as they can certainly find a cheaper option in the draft or off the street. The key here is Maxwell and Rowe and if they don’t make the step, the secondary will be weak. Still, it will be a position that will need to be addressed, even with money invested in Maxwell, and a second round pick last year in Rowe.
Where do they go?
What a weird place for the Eagles to be. You have a team that needs a face lift, and is currently going through one, but at the same time the personnel is mostly locked in. It is going to put a ton of pressure on Pederson to get this draft right. They pretty much have to sign Bradford because if not they have a win now roster with a potential unknown, and most likely a rookie as their quarterback. Wherever they go, every step should be looked at in to seeing what the front office thinks about their 2016 chances.