Eagles Preview: Gonna Fly Now... Again
Among the many perks of having a great scheme is you don’t have to put up with a problem child, even one capable of posting 1,332 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. When Chip Kelly released DeSean Jackson, he didn’t “send a message” to his team. He simply shrugged and turned his back on a guy who wasn’t always fully invested in the greater cause.
Kelly knew he could easily find a replacement for Jackson. True, the 27-year-old’s tremendous speed and quickness fit the scheme. But the scheme doesn’t need players with an abundance of these traits, it needs players that simply have them. Kelly’s play designs can take care of the rest.
Don’t be surprised if many of Jackson’s touches are assumed by Darren Sproles, a 10th-year running back acquired from New Orleans for a fifth-round pick. The Eagles claim Sproles will be a runner first, receiver second, but it’s going to be tough to take carries away from LeSean McCoy. The two running backs will be most dangerous when on the field together anyway. (How would a defense match up to this? Base personnel? Nickel? A hybrid dime front?) Aside from Jackson’s vertical prowess he and Sproles are very similar. Both do their damage on catch-and-runs off east-west movement (think quick screens and shallow slants).
Because Sproles is not a pure wideout, the Eagles also spent a second-round pick on Jordan Matthews, projected by many as a starter, and a third-rounder on slot jitterbug Josh Huff, who played for Kelly at Oregon. And they’re also getting back Jeremy Maclin (ACL) who, stylistically, fits the system.
The only guy returning from a 2013 receiving corps that finished in the top five in catches of 20-plus yards is Riley Cooper, a resoundingly average but familiar player. Surprisingly, he was given a new five-year, $22.5 million contract ($10.5 million guaranteed) in February.
As for the system that will allow all these receivers to prosper... contrary to popular belief, it’s not particularly complex. Kelly doesn’t feature many concepts the NFL hasn’t seen before. What’s different is the way the concepts are presented. The formations are different and the accelerated tempo, even in today’s increasingly no-huddle-centric league, is different. Simply put: the Eagles’ offense is easy to figure out but difficult to play against.
The closest Kelly’s play designs come to unconventional are some of the read-option concepts, sprinting backfield motion off the snap (something Jackson used to do and now Sproles will do) and a few of the route combinations out of exaggerated plus-split alignments (i.e. receivers spread outside the numbers).
Kelly does a great job with balancing the field and crafting intertwined routes to create clear progression reads for his quarterback. The fact that Nick Foles was the highest-rated passer in the NFL last year (119.2) is a testament to this. Entering his third season, Foles is still in the relatively nascent stages of his mental development, while physically he has good but not great tools.
Right now, Foles is the definition of a system quarterback. In Kelly’s system, that’s okay. If Foles can become more comfortable late in the down, and with making throws from a crowd, he has a chance at stardom. Even if he doesn’t, he can be a solid enough game manager to lead this team to another NFC East title.
Quarterbacks like Foles really benefit from a vibrant running game. Some thought that without Michael Vick’s mobility, Kelly’s rushing designs would falter. Indeed, Kelly did get away from some of his read-option and rolled pocket concepts. But he still ran the gangly Foles on these just enough to make defenses account for it. And he dialed in more of his other run concepts that have read-option characteristics and are still space-oriented.
That’s an easy choice to make; in LeSean McCoy, Kelly has the best home-run hitting back in football. But just like the receivers, McCoy also benefits from the system—and not just in the passing game (where he’s very good). You’ll notice that a lot of Kelly’s widest spread alignments come on first and second down. That’s in order to force the defense to spread out, leaving a lighter box. Often, McCoy finds himself running against just six defensive linemen and linebackers. That’s terrific for a player with his lateral agility and quickness.
Overlooked in this offense is a front five that is perhaps the NFL’s most cohesive and consistent (which, by definition, would make it the best). The same starting five is back and should be even better in Year 2 under Kelly.
Jason Peters is the man everyone talks about, and understandably so. Despite being 32 and having some injuries in his past (including an Achilles in 2012), the 340-pounder remains one of the most athletic blockers in the game. But more important than Peters is center Jason Kelce, who also brings plus athleticism. Kelce has the mobility and body control to consistently reach the perimeter, not just in the running game but, more importantly, Philly’s rich screen game. If the Eagles had a center who was only modestly athletic, huge parts of their system would not work.
Between Peters and Kelce, Evan Mathis remains an upper echelon left guard. The 32-year-old is looking for a new contract, but the team’s attitude is, “we just gave you a deal two years ago.” (Perhaps Mathis, or his agent, should have recognized that if he’d waited a little longer for the new TV money to boost the salary cap, he could have scored more cash. But it’s always a risk for a guy in his 30s to wait.) Nevertheless, Mathis isn’t thrilled with his $5 million salary, but he swears it won’t be a distraction.
The only experienced player Philly has behind Mathis is journeyman Allen Barbre, who in seven years has never corralled a starting role. Barbre will, however, start at right tackle the first four games while Lane Johnson serves a PED suspension. Johnson struggled early last season, though with each game he showed more of the talent that got him drafted fourth overall. Offensive tackles tend to make big leaps from Year One to Year Two; there’s no reason to think Johnson won’t. At right guard, Todd Herremans has had ups and downs in pass protection, but he can often compensate with veteran savvy.
Occasionally aiding the linemen is Brent Celek, whose blocking the coaching staff holds in high regard. Celek also remains a good receiver down the seams, and he’s viable on the tight end screens that are called with some regularity. But if the Eagles eschew dual tight end sets and again use three-receiver personnel an NFC-high 72% of the time (according to Football Outsiders), Celek could find himself on the bench behind 2013 second-round pick Zach Ertz.
All the focus paid to a new-age offense makes it easy to overlook an Eagles defense that got markedly better throughout last season. Only two teams scored more than 22 points against them after Week 4: the Vikings, with 48 points in Week 15, and the Saints, with 26 in the wild-card playoffs, when Philly was eliminated at home.
If the defense continues on its current trajectory, it may get to skip past the wild-card round altogether this postseason. Kelly is not a defensive guy, but he knows what he wants here. He has instructed coordinator Billy Davis to do whatever’s necessary to generate pressure and, just as important, the illusion of pressure.
To do this, Davis uses a mix of 3-4 one- and two-gap principles plus 4-3 sub-package and amoeba looks. He’s aggressive with double-A gap blitz concepts, slot blitzes and green dogs, where his linebackers and safeties are well-trained to rush the passer when their man stays in to help block.
GM Howie Roseman has given Davis plenty of resources to keep generating pressure. Trent Cole, 32 in October, is showing hints of decline but is still capable of getting into the backfield, be it from low leverage and speed or sheer tenacity working laterally down the line of scrimmage. Cole figures to play fewer snaps in 2014 to make room for his eventual replacement, first-round rookie Marcus Smith. That is, if Smith can beat out Brandon Graham right away. Injuries early in his career prevented Graham from fully living up to his 2010 first-round billing. But in a part-time role, he still shows burst from not only a standup position but also as a 4-3 end.
Another player with these attributes is Vinny Curry, a second-round pick in 2012 who is developing into a real force when coming out of a three-point stance. Curry can take snaps away from defensive tackles in nickel (Davis’s preferred sub-package). Cole, Smith and Graham, on the other hand, will likely all compete for the same snaps because starting outside linebacker Connor Barwin almost never comes off the field. Barwin is stellar rushing the passer and even better dropping into coverage, something Davis, who strongly believes in doubling the opponent’s best receiver, puts to great use.
It’s possible Barwin will be used less in underneath coverage now that this secondary is solidified. The addition of ex-Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins corrects what’s been by far the Eagles’ biggest weakness in recent years. And it gives Davis a versatile chess piece, as Jenkins is a rangy centerfielder who can also cover the slot (and blitz from there).
Fortunately there is no dire need for help in the slot, as 24-year-old Brandon Boykin blossomed into a top inside defender last season. Boykin is an interception threat in zone coverage and can also lock receivers in man. That frees Jenkins or Earl Wolff, who will likely replace the unreliable Nate Allen as the second safety, to be a free defender or focus his help on the outside, where corners Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher have vastly improved.
Good as this defense can potentially be against the pass, it has a chance to be outright voracious against the run. It depends on how inside linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks perform behind what’s turning into a very stellar front line. While Fletcher Cox has done almost enough to justify his 2012 first-round status, the real monster up front is Cedric Thornton. The undrafted fourth-year pro is a dominant playside run-stuffer with a motor that allows for run and chase. Between Cox and Thornton is Bennie Logan, who has bulked up his squatty frame and has the lateral movement skills to become a premier nose tackle.
Kicker Alex Henery made a respectable (but only respectable) 23 of 28 field goals last season, and he must get stronger on kickoffs. Donnie Jones’s 40.5 net punting average tied for seventh in the league. In the return game, Josh Huff has impressed this preseason.