No coach may have made more changes this off-season than the Eagles' Chip Kelly. But can he turn his madness into victories? It all may depend on Sam Bradford's left knee.
"No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness."—Aristotle
Chip Kelly's eventual legacy as an NFL head coach may not hinge entirely on this ongoing off-season, but it sure feels like it will.
Rather than tweak a roster that had produced back-to-back 10-6 seasons (but reached the playoffs just once), Kelly—who has full control of the team's personnel as of late—opted for a cast shake-up unmatched on this side of True Detective. He dealt the franchise's all-time leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, to Buffalo for LB Kiko Alonso in a stunning blockbuster swap. Then, just as free agency began, Kelly moved QB Nick Foles to St. Louis for his talented but oft-injured replacement, Sam Bradford.
The task of replacing McCoy turned into an extended chase. Frank Gore reportedly was on the verge of signing before backtracking and joining Indianapolis. Plan B just happened to bring the 2014 league-leader in rushing, DeMarco Murray, to the City of Brotherly Love, with a Ryan Mathews kicker.
"I'm not surprised by anything, to be honest with you," Kelly said at a press conference back in March.
Foles was a revelation in Year One under Kelly, throwing 27 touchdowns to two interceptions as he led a second-half charge to the playoffs. But he was far less effective last season before a shoulder injury sidelined him in early November.
In theory, Bradford meshes well with Kelly's spread offense—his college scheme at Oklahoma featured some similar looks, and on paper Bradford is a more mobile option than Foles. Keeping him on the field is another story. Bradford has suffered through multiple, major knee injuries, most recently an ACL tear last season.
A Murray-Mathews combo also (again, in theory) gives Kelly more of what he's looking for in the backfield.
"[Murray] is a physical, downhill runner, really what in a zone scheme we're looking for, a downhill, one-cut runner and both him and Ryan I think possess those qualities," Kelly said, via the team's website. "And when you have a physical, downhill runner, you better have two of them because they're going to carry the ball but they're also going to take a lot of physical shots, so we want to be able to spread out the carries. ... Knowing the style that those guys have, I think being able to distribute the carries to two guys is what we're looking to do."
That said, McCoy was a Pro Bowler in both seasons under Kelly and posted more than 3,600 yards from scrimmage. Murray is coming off a 449-touch, 2,261-total yard campaign himself.
The Eagles also had some turnover at wide receiver: Jeremy Maclin bolted for Kansas City, so Kelly spent a first-round pick on USC's Nelson Agholor. He and 2014 second-rounder Jordan Matthews will be asked to handle a heavy workload through the air.
Yet another somewhat-unexpected departure came this month when Philadelphia released disgruntled guard Evan Mathis, who was in search of a contract extension. That absence coupled with Todd Herremans' signing with Indianapolis puts both guard spots up for grabs.
The secondary also has a new look. Either Earl Wolff or Walter Thurmond will take over for 16-game starter Nate Allen, while the Eagles may have pulled off addition by subtraction with Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher departing. Ex-Seahawk Byron Maxwell is now the top option at CB, joined by Round 2 rookie Eric Rowe, Nolan Carroll and (for now) Brandon Boykin.
Philadelphia's defense finished 28th in yards allowed last season, a mark far too low for a legit contender. Kelly needs an improved effort from that unit in 2015. It was his aggressive work on offense, though, that could make or break the Eagles' hopes.
Best acquisition: Kiko Alonso, LB
He'll have to remind some people of this after a pre-season ACL tear cost him all of the 2014 season, but Kiko Alonso has the talent to be a defensive superstar. He absolutely looked the part as a rookie in 2013, en route to 159 tackles and a near-miss in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. (Alonson grabbed 19 votes; Sheldon Richardson won with 23.)
The Eagles already had a solid group of linebackers. Adding the dynamic Alonso to the mix might turn the set into one of the league's best.
"Kiko has got a really well-rounded skill set," Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis told CSNPhilly.com. "He's got length ... when you're playing the bigger tight ends, you've got a linebacker that matches up length-wise. He's got speed, so when he's on a running back he's got the ability to cover them man-to-man.
"He's a natural linebacker, he really is, who has the ability to cover man-to-man."
Alonso does put incumbent ILB starter Mychal Kendricks on the chopping block—Kelly reportedly tried to swing Kendricks for a draft pick earlier this off-season. The Eagles' use of a third-round selection on linebacker Jordan Hicks further hinted at Kendricks' looming exit. Alonso, Hicks and DeMeco Ryans (Achilles tear in 2014) figure to see most of the snaps, with free-agent addition Brad Jones as depth.
While Kendricks is far from a bust, he's also not up to Alonso's level. Few are, if the 2013 draft pick is 100%.
Biggest loss: Jeremy Maclin, WR
Transitioning out a starting quarterback, running back and wide receiver has to catch up with the Eagles somewhere, right? This could be the spot. Agholor is a terrific fit for Kelly's scheme, but Maclin was far and away Philadelphia's top receiving option last season. Coming off a knee injury and playing on a one-year deal, Maclin led the Eagles with 85 receptions, 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Who is the go-to target in his stead? Kelly might ask if the Eagles really need one—Agholor is a versatile weapon, Matthews caught 67 balls as a rookie, Josh Huff is pushing for a larger role and veterans Riley Cooper and Miles Austin are in the fold.
Underrated draft pick: JaCorey Shepherd, CB, Kansas
Shepherd just transitioned from wide receiver to cornerback in 2012, so he is a work in progress. So far, so good for the Eagles. Beat writer Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote last week: "Aside from Agholor, cornerback JaCorey Shepherd may be the rookie that has stood out the most at this early stage. The sixth-round draft pick has been taking most of his reps with the third-team defense, but has continually made plays."
As a bonus—and perhaps central to his chances at making the final 53-man roster—is Shepherd's kick-return background. He averaged 21.4 yards per attempt at Kansas.
"Obviously, we have a lot of guys, and then once we kind of figure out where they are from a special teams standpoint, we ship them over to [special teams coordinator Dave] Fipp," Kelly said, "and he gave [Shepherd] a really good grade as a returner."
Like Kendricks at the linebacker spot, Brandon Boykin could be training camp trade bait. Should Kelly find a taker, Shepherd's potential for meaningful playing time on defense would ratchet up a notch.
Looming question for training camp: Will Sam Bradford be ready for the regular season?
The Eagles believe so, but Bradford is still in something of a holding pattern 10 months removed from his latest ACL injury. He was limited during team OTAs, which could be part of the reason that Bradford's contract remains on track to expire following 2015.
Kelly did not make any inroads pursuing Marcus Mariota at the draft, so he's looking at a Bradford-Mark Sanchez competition. (No, Tim Tebow is not winning the job. Sorry.) Sanchez was wholly uninspiring during a 4–4 stretch as the starter last year, and it's fair to say that the book is more or less written on what he can do as an NFL quarterback.
There remains lingering mystery when it comes to Bradford, however. The 2010 NFL Rookie of the Year has shown flashes of upper-echelon ability, yet has not been able to maintain it either due to injury or inconsistency. Can Kelly unlock the full arsenal?
"I'm not 100% confident in anything. No one is," Kelly said, per Philly.com. "Can you predict the future?...We think Sam has a great skill set. The research our doctors have given us in terms of the guys coming off those injuries in terms of their recovery rate is 90%, so we feel real confident in that."
Said Bradford: "I think it really has gotten a lot better in the past two months. ... As long as we continue to progress and don't have any setbacks, I feel very comfortable with where my knee is at right now."
How will that knee feel come August? How about September? Assuming Kelly does not flip Bradford in another trade (possible, given Kelly's brief track record), there is little question Bradford is the top quarterback option on the roster.
The line between genius and madness for Kelly may lie with Bradford's left knee.