My co-host on the show, Len, and I have said it countless times; it’s near impossible to predict how a NFL team’s season will turn out. Yet, it’s interesting and fun – at times – to play the guessing game even though we really don’t know squat – and especially with this incoming Eagles team. Training camp hasn’t started. Players are virtually healthy. Can rookies make an impact and to what extent? There are always tons of question marks floating around in July for every NFL team.
No one can say for sure if the Eagles will be better or worse this coming season. Inevitably, attempting to figure this out is like trying to decipher if we’ll have over three feet of snow in any given winter. We just don’t know. The optimistic component and glimmer of hope within just about every fan says, yes, they will be better. Conventional wisdom indicates they’ll be better and even more cohesive for the following reasons:
- Chip Kelly now has the team he wants.
- The defensive front seven has continued growing in a productive manner over the past two years.
- Better talent in the secondary.
- The offense will truly be built around a productive rushing game.
Even though RB LeSean McCoy last season rushed for 1,319 yards on 312 attempts (4.2 ypc average), and RB Chris Polk played well when his number was called, the Eagles now have a powerhouse and even better backfield with RBs DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. Rushing the ball, the Eagles finished the 2014 season ninth in the league, which wasn’t good enough for Kelly.
Last season, as we know, Murray was the NFL leading rusher with 1,845 yards. Mathews only played in six games last season (due to injury) and averaged 4.7 ypc. The previous year he ran for 1,255 yards. As for Sproles, many of us hope he’ll have more of an opportunity this season to showcase his speed on the ground and in the passing game. He averaged 5.7 ypc out of the backfield and 9.7 yards per catch. Don’t be surprised if the Eagles are a top three rushing team this year. It’s a bold prediction, yes. Barring any injuries in training camp, we should all feel very good about the Eagles running game as it’ll be one of the best in the NFL.
The defense has been upgraded, for sure. CBs Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams have moved on, thankfully. With CB Byron Maxell coming in, we should see improvements at the cornerback position. CB/S Walter Thurmond has, thus far, made a strong case to become the team’s starting strong safety. Even though we haven’t seen an official defensive snap yet, I have this strong feeling that Thurmond will a better player than S Nate Allen. Just about anyone would, right? In 2014, the Eagles defense ranked 22nd in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed. Most of this consistent damage from week-to-week came at the expense of a dreadful Eagles secondary in 2014 and due to players who are no longer on the team.
However, us optimists – and every NFL team that plays the Eagles this season – will see a defensive front seven that has the potential to be one of the best in the league. Defensively, this is what we should be concentrating on as fans. Tremendous pressure will be put on quarterbacks in every game. Holes for running backs to sneak through will be clogged consistently. The growth of the defensive line and linebacker corps is enough to keep me giddy for quite a while.
The Eagles defensive line – starters DEs Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thronton, NT Bennie Logan – only gave up 3.7 yards per attempt against the run. Statistically, that was fourth best in the NFL. That’s up there with the Seahawks defensive line. Having depth with DE Vinny Curry and NT Beau Allen, this d-line is going to continue being a major force in the NFL.
With the addition of ILB Kiko Alonso, we’re expecting even better results from the linebackers. Alonso missed all of last season because of an ACL injury. The previous year, his rookie season, he was a standout. His stats for 2013: four interceptions, 87 tackles and two sacks. He finished second in voting for AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. ILB DeMeco Ryans is getting up there in age (he’ll be 31 in just a few days), so the addition of a sure spark in Alonso will provide the grit and unequivocal speed from the ILB corps. Don’t be surprised if Ryans begins to play more of a mentor role for the young linebacker group.
My biggest concern, from a mental standpoint, is ILB Mychal Kendricks, and I hope he proves me wrong and plays to the level he performed at in 2014. The trade rumors in the offseason had to take some kind of toll on his psyche. However, he’s known as tough and thick-skinned. Kendricks did a tremendous job in 2014 as he continued maturing and taking on more of a leadership role. He excelled in matching up with running backs, making tackles in space and limiting yards after the catch.
The starters on the outside are OLB Connor Barwin who racked up 14.5 sacks last season and OLB Brandon Graham who is going into his sixth season as a pro. Some will say he hasn’t lived up to the hype of a first-round draft pick, but Chip Kelly liked his productivity enough to resign him in the offseason. In 2013 and 2014, Graham had a total of 77 quarterback hurries, hits and sacks on just 383 pass rush snaps. During the past two seasons, he’s been a top-five pass rusher on a per snap basis, in consecutive seasons.
Depth is thin, however, on the outside. Let’s not kid ourselves. We all can’t wait to see if OLB Marcus Smith II materializes into an NFL football player, can get on the field and make some kind of impact.
Kelly now has the team he truly wants after shipping out grade A and B talent that had produced thousands of yards and touchdowns for years. He’s doing it his way and kicked conventional wisdom out the door. With the talent he has chosen – puzzling as it may have been at times – there are countless unknown possibilities that provides the highest level of intrigue we’ve seen from an Eagles team in decades. That’s what will make this season interesting, exciting and fun. Kelly will continue to draw our attention to his eccentric patterns of behavior because after two years we still don’t know what to expect. The one thing we know for sure; it’s now his team for better or worse.
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