Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do to improve in 2016. Check out our other team outlooks, which we are rolling out in reverse order of finish leading up to the draft.
Key free agents
QB Sam Bradford, CB Nolan Carroll, S Walter Thurmond III, DE Cedric Thornton
Players that must be re-signed
Bradford (maybe), Thornton: The most compelling question for the Eagles this offseason is what to do with Bradford, whose first year in Philly was star-crossed, to say the least. Playing in an offense that was supposed to work to his strengths (at least based on his college tape), Bradford looked hesitant all too often, and never really seemed to get the hang of Chip Kelly's objectives. He did improve as the season went on, throwing 10 touchdowns to four picks from November through January, but his overall numbers (3,725 yards, 65% completion rate, 19 TD, 14 INT), fell short of franchise quarterback territory. Though given Bradford's history with different (often horrible) offensive systems and injuries, it's also fair to say that Bradford performed with more overall moxie than some expected. He was certainly a damn better sight than Nick Foles, who the Eagles traded to get him before the 2015 season began.
But now, with new head coach Doug Pederson in charge, and the Eagles heading back to the future with an Andy Reid-style West Coast offense, the team must decide if Bradford is the best possible fit. In the short term, there's no question that he'd be an asset, but can the team sign him to a contract that deals with the short term? The ideal solution would most likely be a contract that gives Bradford a yearly dollar total commensurate with his high-side potential, but gives the franchise the opportunity to cut bait after each season. This is the new dawn of quarterback contracts—both Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick have similar deals. Putting the franchise tag on Bradford would cost the team $19.9 million in cap this season.
"You can look at it from an Xs-and-Os standpoint," Pederson said last week of Bradford at the combine. "You can also talk to people that have been around Sam Bradford and understand where he’s come as far as his development as a quarterback. The fact that he himself put himself in a leadership role toward the end of the season proves to me that he can handle going forward this role, and the opportunity to start."
As for Thornton, he's been a good rotational run-stopping end over the last few seasons—the question is how he might fit best in the 4-3 system preferred by new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Most important position to improve
Cornerback: It's indicative of Chip Kelly's shortcomings as a personnel executive that the two positions he focused on most before the 2015 campaign—cornerback and running back—remain two of Philly's big question marks. We'll get to running back in a minute, but we have to start with the decision to sign former Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell to a six-year, $63 million contract with $25 million guaranteed. The current Eagles regime is stuck with Maxwell and his $9.7 million cap number for 2016, because the team would take a ginormous $16.3 million total penalty if they cut him. Moving on from Maxwell doesn't become a real possibility until after June 1, 2017, when the release penalty would drop to $4.2 million. Last season, Maxwell allowed a 65% completion rate on the passes thrown his way, with three touchdowns and a 100.7 opponent quarterback rating. Nolan Carroll was slightly better, but he's a free agent, and Schwartz may want to do a clean sweep of the guys he can control. E.J. Biggers is entirely replaceable.
Other positions to improve
Safety, offensive line, running back: Safety Malcolm Jenkins was one of the best at his position last season, and he provided a rare bit of stability in a defensive backfield that was all over the place. However, multi-positional safety Walter Thurmond may get more money elsewhere in a scant free agent market, and as much as the Eagles have liked to play Jenkins in the slot (378 snaps and 58 targets last year, and he was good there), depth is going to be a big deal.
The eventual plan as Jason Peters gets older and starts to decline is to take right tackle Lane Johnson and move him over to the left side. But Johnson allowed six sacks last season, including a three-sack mess against Washington and a two-sacker against Detroit. Johnson has improved over time, but there are still concerns. Guards Matt Tobin and Allen Barbre were negative reverse impressions of each other last season—Barbre allowed just one sack, but allowed a ton of pressures, while Tobin led the team with eight sacks. Right now, the team is set at center with Jason Kelce, and at both tackle positions with Peters and Johnson, though Peters has regressed toward the end of the season in each of the last two years.
The supposed three-headed machine at running back? Yeah, that didn't go so well as 2014 rushing champ DeMarco Murray was a relative disaster in Kelly's zone systems. Though you'd expect Pederson and his staff to do more about affixing player to scheme, we don't really know how much Murray can do outside of a line that's the league's best, as Dallas's was two seasons ago. Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles aren't feature backs—Mathews is more of a rotational player, and Sproles needs to be moved around to be at his best. Not that Pederson needs a franchise back to succeed—no NFL coach does in 2016. But it will surely be a point of discussion.
Overall priority this offseason
Redefine the team after the Chip Kelly debacle: After Kelly was fired in late December, all kinds of things came out about the internal culture, and how Kelly didn't seem to connect to his players. Though that's been denied to some degree in the months since, and Kelly is San Francisco's problem now, Philly's problem is how to move past it all. Franchises that have been decimated by divisive leaders aren't automatically fixed by change—it takes a new vision, and everyone pulling in the same direction. General manager Howie Roseman will take a more assertive role in the wake of Kelly's departure, and owner Jeff Lurie has said that Roseman will collaborate with Pederson and others to make personnel decisions—Schwartz will most likely have a big hand in things on the defensive side of the ball. That's all well and good, unless the team winds up in a "too many cooks" situation.
"Your message to the team is can they look at you and say you're the leader they want to follow," Pederson said at the combine, when asked about how he can put things in a more positive direction. "I think that's the challenge going forward. I think having the experience of being in the locker room as a [former] player helps. Knowing some of the players on the team obviously helps. But the biggest challenge will be to sell your message and for them to buy in."
That is indeed the biggest challenge for the 2016 Eagles. After three years of a mad genius and one year of Kelly's downside to the extreme, how do the replacements find the way back?