Is it really such a bold prediction? Sam Bradford has too many flaws to keep the starting job
1. Carson Wentz will become this team’s starting quarterback before Thanksgiving. If the more experienced Sam Bradford were an old steady veteran, that’d be one thing. But Bradford is up-and-down in several core departments of professional quarterbacking, including: precision accuracy, pocket poise and coverage diagnosing. He struggled mightily in Chip Kelly’s system early last season, and that’s a system built on basic reads and route concepts. If there had been a high first-round rookie QB behind Bradford last season, he likely would have been benched. Doug Pederson’s scheme is user-friendly, like Kelly’s, though in slightly different ways. Remember: Bradford, like Wentz, has never played in it before. And while Wentz faced lower level competition at North Dakota State, he still had complete command of that pro-style offense. He called protections at the line of scrimmage; he adjusted running plays; he made audibles; plus his reads often weren’t dictated by the play design, but rather, by the defensive look. He’s more prepared to play than a typical rookie QB.
2. Tight end Zach Ertz will be a difference-maker in 2016. The difference could go in either direction, though. If Ertz plays at a high level, so will Philly’s offense. If he doesn’t, the Eagles have an issue. The most defining trait of the Kansas City offense that Pederson coordinated last season was all the different ways it used flex tight end Travis Kelce. He was the key piece in most of the formations. Ertz can be a tough cover, but he’s a tier below Kelce. That has to change.
3. One reason Ertz must elevate his game is because the Eagles don’t have any wide receivers who can win one-on-one. Jordan Matthews and especially Nelson Agholor don’t play with speed and quickness; they need to be helped by play design. Newcomer Dorial Green-Beckham is talented and improved his route running over the course of his rookie season in Tennessee, but he’s by no means a sure thing.
4. Jason Kelce deserves to still be considered one of the game’s top centers, but he must bounce back from a very poor season. Kelce is mobile but has difficulty in confined areas against bigger defensive linemen. True nose tackles can pose a real problem.
5. With no playmakers at wide receiver, Pederson needs to have an expansive package that features running backs Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles on the field together. That might compel defenses to play their base 4-3 or 3-4 packages, where coverages are static and more predictable. And even against nickel, it will also draw more “running back vs. linebacker” passing matchups—a scenario that favors Philadelphia, particularly if Sproles is involved.
6. New D coordinator Jim Schwartz, who has almost total autonomy with this defense, runs a simpler scheme than predecessor Billy Davis, particularly when it comes to how he uses the front seven. In theory, that should allow Philly’s defense to play faster. The question is: does this lineup have enough speed to actually do so? Last year, the answer would have been no. But with free safety Rodney McLeod and corner Leodis McKelvin coming aboard, plus linebacker Mychal Kendricks reading his keys from behind simpler fronts, maybe that changes.
7. Speaking of McLeod, he’s the best bang-for-the-buck free-agent acquisition of 2016. Among NFL centerfielders, his range is second to only Earl Thomas’s.
8. Fletcher Cox is worth every penny of his new $63.3 million guaranteed. Aside from J.J. Watt, no one in football can match the explosiveness of Cox’s initial step after shedding a block. But do the Eagles have enough true edge-rushers around Cox? Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham are the best hopes. Both have flashed, but neither has quite shone steadily before.
9. Jordan Hicks will quickly become a really solid NFL linebacker—and maybe more. His football IQ is very high. In his first NFL start last year, the third-rounder played every snap—base, nickel and dime. He also handled a lot of the signal-calling. Hicks has a natural sense for angles and play designs. He’s not a raging athlete, but he moves well enough. (In fact, when in two-high safety coverages, the previous coaching staff was comfortable having him defend tight ends man-to-man.)
10. Philadelphia’s cornerbacking corps is a mystery. The headliner appears to be the gifted but injury prone ex-Bill Leodis McKelvin, who has not often been the top corner on his team. Expect McKelvin to stay mostly on either the left or right side instead of traveling with specific receivers. That would leave Nolan Carroll, Eric Rowe and Ron Brooks competing for the other outside corner spot and/or slot duties. Brooks, like McKelvin, played for Schwartz in Buffalo and so he’s the most familiar. But he’s been a lower-level backup most of his four-year career. Rowe, a lanky 2015 second-rounder, has the most potential. His career will hinge on how well he can press on the perimeter. Carroll, coming off a broken fibula, is the most complete corner of the three. But until his breakout 2015 campaign, he’d been wildly inconsistent.
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