- The Eagles earned the No. 1 seed and won a Super Bowl with their backup quarterback. Is there any reason to doubt their 2018 team will be just as good?
With the NFL season finally here, Andy Benoit has been previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Our final team: the Philadelphia Eagles, who finished 13–3 in 2017 and went on to win the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
1. There is zero debate about who should be Philadelphia’s starting quarterback once Carson Wentz is healthy. Yes, Nick Foles was spectacular in the playoffs; the Eagles reduced none of their offense for him. He even made the difficult deep throws late in the down from muddy pockets like Wentz. Normally, banking on a guy catching lightning in a bottle twice is no way to run a business. But you couldn’t blame a team for trying to make Foles its franchise QB, as the lightning that this particular career-long fringe starter/backup caught last January produced a Lombardi Trophy.
That said, Wentz is on track to soon be the NFL’s best quarterback. He’s already top five. He can make plays within structure and out of structure. He’s lethal from within the pocket and outside on the move. He’s smart enough to call a game at the line of scrimmage. He can make anticipatory far sideline throws and accurate deep heaves while in an opponent’s grasp. He’s everything an offense could want.
Foles allows Philly to bring Wentz back slowly from last December’s ACL tear. And, in 2019, assuming he hasn’t come back down to Earth (a real possibility, given his track record), Foles could give the Eagles valuable draft picks in a trade. (Foles’s contract is structured in a way that the QB himself would have to approve of the deal.) What he doesn’t give them is the choice to bench or trade the NFL’s best young player.
2. It’s legitimate to debate whether Doug Pederson is the NFL’s best coach. In Super Bowl LII, he outclassed the man who currently holds that title. Many are gaga over young offensive innovators Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, and respect for the previous generation’s offensive minds—Sean Payton, Bill O’Brien, Andy Reid, etc.—remains strong. Pederson, 50 years old, but entering just his third season as a head coach, is somewhere in between these generations. But his offense is as well-honed as anyone’s. It thrived in the playoffs even with a backup QB. It lacks dynamic wide receivers but still produces aerially with complex formationing and intertwined route combinations. The ground game, schematically, is the NFL’s most expansive—by far. And, on the human side, Pederson oversees a locker room that’s both deeply religious and politically active. That’s a delicate balancing act.
3. A big part of that expansive ground game is deception. The Eagles are great with misdirection (think jet sweep action, ghost reverses, etc.) and even better with disguised blocking assignments. They set the bar for executing “trap” and “wham” runs, where blockers attack defenders from unexpected peripheral angles. The pin-and-pull sweep also does this. It has become an Eagles staple, highlighting All-Pro center Jason Kelce’s mobility.
4. Expect a lot of multi-tight end sets in 2018. Pederson’s Eagles employed those often in 2016, when their wide receiving corps was in shambles. This receiving corps is much better, but still only so-so. Alshon Jeffery is a bit plodding, Mike Wallace is fast but stiff and Nelson Agholor is strictly a slot weapon.
At tight end, however, six-year pro Zach Ertz has honed his route running to emerge as a consistent mismatch-maker. And second-round pick Dallas Goedert is expected to bring a similar dimension. If new No. 3 tight end Joshua Perkins can be serviceable, you have an offense capable of doing a lot with three tight ends on the field. “Three tight end” packages are uncommon, so defenses, having rarely faced them, tend to become basic and predictable. Pederson loves to exploit that through the air. At times, he’ll even go three tight ends on 3rd-and-long.
5. The one concern with this offense is its inconsistent pass-blocking against blitzes and stunts—though some of these issues were rectified in the second half of last season. Nevertheless, 4-3 defenses like the Panthers, Redskins (nickel), Niners and even Seahawks had success with disguised pressure against Wentz, particularly from the slot. Left guard Stefen Wisniewski can be a liability in the passing game. Schematically, defenses have many options for attacking vulnerable guards. It’s a hard weakness to hide.
6. Will Philly’s vaunted defensive line be better or worse in 2018?
The case for better: 2017 first-round defensive end Derek Barnett is on track for stardom, as both a run and pass defender. Ex-Seahawk Michael Bennett might be declining, but he’s been more productive than the man he’s essentially replacing, Vinny Curry, and should play fresher in a reduced role. And Haloti Ngata is an upgrade over the departed Beau Allen.
The case for worse: Ngata might be in decline and play behind Destiny Vaeao. And both men must initially fill in for Tim Jernigan, who was sensational early last year before tailing off and then undergoing offseason back surgery. Jernigan is on the non-football injury list and will miss at least the first six games. When healthy, he has scintillating initial quickness. Bennett might have better numbers than Curry, but Curry was quietly a vital cog in Philly’s designer pressure concepts. He did the dirty work that let others prosper. It’s hard for any D-line to match the level of success that Philly’s had last season.
7. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz does a brilliant job scheming one-on-one scenarios for star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox in obvious passing situations. One thing you see is Cox align directly over the center. On these “odd” fronts, Schwartz either overloads one side or goes with a “diamond” look, flanking Cox with two defenders on each side. Both tactics isolate Cox against the center, whom he can always overpower.
8. Less than 15 percent of Philadelphia’s sacks last year came on blitzes, as Schwartz only sparingly dials up pressure. But when he does, it counts. Early in games, and again late if it’s close and an opponent is near the red zone, Schwartz will bring everyone on a Cover 0 blitz.
9. If Sidney Jones, who sat as a second-round rookie for most of last year with an Achilles injury, is what optimists expect, then this is a more talented cornerbacking unit than a year ago. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be BETTER. A lot hinges on how well either Jones or Jalen Mills transitions to the slot, where the Eagles are looking to replace one of the league’s best, nine-year veteran Patrick Robinson (who returned to New Orleans). Mills got reps in the slot in Week 8 as a rookie against Dallas in 2016, with decent results. The good news is in the slot he’s less susceptible to double-moves over the top, which were a problem down the stretch of what was his otherwise stellar 2017 campaign. Jones projects more as an outside corner but has gotten notable reps inside this offseason, which shows foresight from the Eagles. With three-receiver sets now the norm, most top receivers get occasional slot reps. Training your top corner to travel there is wise.
10. Corey Graham’s late re-signing was a big move. That makes the Eagles three-deep at safety again. It’s a strong trio, too. Malcolm Jenkins is still arguably the league’s most versatile defender, and Rodney McLeod is dynamic (though at times a tad too aggressive). That three-safety package was huge for Philly down the stretch last year.
Bottom line: This team is every bit as strong as last year's. But in a stacked NFC, replicating last year's success will be difficult.
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