There were a few shaky moments in Chip Kelly’s first season as an NFL head coach, but everything ended up going pretty well for the Eagles.
Nick Foles took over for Michael Vick and turned in a very strong season while LeSean McCoy rebounded from injuries in 2012 to help power one of the league’s strongest offenses. The defense wasn’t quite as successful, but they played well against the run and didn’t break down often enough to make the offensive fireworks less significant.
Kelly and the Eagles won the NFC East with a 10-6 record, making the season a good one even if it ended with a loss to the Saints in their first playoff game.
The offseason had its twists and turns, particularly the departure of leading receiver DeSean Jackson, but our panel thinks that the Eagles remain the best team in the NFC East.
McCoy has done everything the Eagles have ever asked him to do and he’s done it so well that it’s a bit surprising that the Eagles haven’t asked him to do more. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but there aren’t many players in McCoy’s class these days when it comes to moving the ball on the ground or through the air.
Right tackle Lane Johnson is facing a suspension to start the year, which would probably be more troubling for the Eagles if they weren’t also returning their other four starters — Left tackle Jason Peters, left guard Evan Mathis, center Jason Kelce and right guard Todd Herremans – from a last season’s strong offensive line. That continuity should allow Kelly to continue to grow the offense in his second season.
It should also give Foles a good chance of following up his strong 2013 work with more of the same. There’s plenty of debate about how good Foles might turn out to be, but he was nearly flawless running this offense last year and that experience isn’t going to hurt him in 2014.
With Brent Celek, Zach Ertz and James Casey all back for the 2014 season, the Eagles are going to be throwing a lot of multiple tight end sets at opponents this year. They exploited the mismatches those created to great effect last season and should do so again this time around.
There are questions elsewhere at cornerback, but Brandon Boykin locked down the slot last season and there’s every reason to expect more of the same.
Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton had good years at defensive end for the Eagles and both return to start on the defensive line again this this season. Vinny Curry is also back as a pass rushing option in reserve, giving the Eagles a solid group of ends.
The Eagles spent all of last season looking for more pass rush at outside linebacker to go with Trent Cole and they continued the hunt into the offseason when they drafted Marcus Smith in the first round. Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham will also be trying to make the Eagles more threatening on defense, but neither one struck much fear last season.
We mentioned cornerback issues while discussing Boykin and they started with Cary Williams last season. The veteran didn’t play particularly well last season and banking on big late-career turnarounds isn’t always the wisest course of action.
They’ll need something better from the secondary, though, because the Eagles’ run defense wasn’t nearly as bad as their pass defense last season. Some of those numbers will always look bad because of how the Eagles play on offense, but they need smaller numbers on the opposition side of the scoreboard. Ideally they’d get better pass rush and pass coverage, but they’ll need at least one.
Jackson is gone and so is Jason Avant, leaving the Eagles with a different looking receiver group this season. Jeremy Maclin returns from a torn ACL and rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff arrived in the draft. Matthews has gotten rave reviews for his spring work, which may make any initial worries about losing Jackson hard to remember come the fall.
Another reason why Jackson’s departure may not be seriously felt is the acquisition of Darren Sproles in a trade with the Saints. Sproles is slowing down a bit, but it’s a good bet that Kelly will be able to find ways to take advantage of his skills as a runner and receiver on the deep Eagles offense.
Malcolm Jenkins signed as a free agent while Patrick Chung and Kurt Coleman departed, giving the Eagles a new look at safety. How much better the overall play will be is up in the air given Jenkins’ erratic play in New Orleans and the return of Nate Allen and Earl Wolff, but they’re trying something new.
The same is true at corner where Nolan Carroll signed to join Williams, Boykin and Bradley Fletcher. Carroll may wind up being an upgrade, but his play in Miami wasn’t good enough to guarantee that there are better days coming at cornerback.
Matt Barkley and Mark Sanchez will hold an All-USC competition to back up Foles this season. Barkley did not look ready for the NFL when he was thrust into action as a rookie while Sanchez missed all of last season with a shoulder injury suffered late in a preseason game.
Graham only played a quarter of the snaps for the Eagles last year and he may not be long for the roster if he can’t show that his second year in this defense will lead to better results. Bryan Braman and Travis Long should be his primary competition on that front.
We’ve discussed cornerback and wide receiver elsewhere, but both spots are worth watching during camp to see how playing time will be doled out early in the season.
The Eagles won the division last year and there isn’t a team that’s clearly better than them heading into this season, so a repeat should be their goal.
Barring injuries, the biggest reason to think that the Eagles may take a step back is that Foles is unlikely to throw 27 touchdowns against two interceptions again this season. More turnovers would put more pressure on a defense that’s still finding its way and that could lead to worse results this time around.
Given how strong the offense looks, though, Foles would have to pick up some of Sanchez’s habits from the Jets to keep the Eagles from competing in the NFC East even if the defense doesn’t make any major strides this season.