The Eagles went 10-6 in 2013. They won the NFC East and hosted a playoff game. It was a good initial season for Chip Kelly, but there is a lot of room for improvement. As we talk about expectations for 2014, most of the discussion centers on whether the team will take a step back or maintain the status quo.
Is it possible for the Eagles to take a big step forward and challenge Seattle for NFC supremacy? Let’s talk about what would need to happen for the Eagles to make that kind of a leap.
Nick Foles – The numbers won’t be as shockingly good, but Foles overall level of play can be better. Think about how many games the Eagles offense raced out to 24 points or so by the mid-3rd quarter and then went stagnant.
* Eagles were up 20-3 on GB and held on to win 27-13.
* Eagles were up 24-0 on WAS and held on to win 24-16.
* Eagles were up 24-7 on ARZ and held on to win 24-21.
* Eagles were up 17-7 on DAL and held on to win 24-22.
Foles isn’t solely to blame for the offense going cold in those games, but he is the QB. If he’s going to emerge as a true star player, he’s got to be able to not only help the Eagles build a lead, but also keep it going. Good teams are greedy. They want more yards, more 1st downs and more point.
Foles needs to be quicker with his reads on some plays. He needs to be more accurate downfield. He needs to make some better reads. There were some open guys that Foles never saw. No repeats of the first Dallas game. I still have nightmares about how awful Foles was that day.
There is no QB competition this year. Foles can develop chemistry with the key players on offense. He’ll get a ton of reps. Foles has a good set-up. This is a great opportunity for him. However, this is also the first time in his life he’s ever had to deal with significant expectations. I don’t anticipate that pressure affecting him in a negative way, but it certainly can happen.
WRs – The Eagles can have an outstanding WRs corps, but some players do need to step up. Jeremy Maclin was very good in 2012 and should be very good this year. The one area where I’m most curious is physicality. Will he block the way Chip wants? Will he embrace the middle of the field? Kelly got DeSean Jackson to use the middle of the field (which didn’t happen in the previous 2 seasons). I’m guessing Chip can get Mac to do the same thing. DeSean had the best season of his career Kelly’s offense. There is no reason Maclin can’t do the same thing. That doesn’t mean the numbers will be the same, but they can be his personal best.
Riley Cooper needs to be more consistent in 2014. He was very good at times last year, but also disappeared in some games. Cooper has yet to prove what he really is. Is he meant to be a starter? Is he more of a #3 receiver? We know he can make some big plays, but is he a reliable, consistently good player? The drop in the Saints game was crushing. That should have been a huge play.
Jordan Matthews will need to play well if the Eagles offense is to remain an elite unit. He needs to be good in the slot, but also effective when used outside. In a fantasy world, he would push Cooper for reps with the starting offense (in 2-WR sets). Matthews doesn’t need to be as good as Jackson or Maclin in their rookie years, but he needs to be more than just an effective role player.
Someone from Brad Smith, Arrelious Benn, Damaris Johnson, B.J. Cunningham or the rest of the receivers needs to emerge as a reliable veteran. Josh Huff will offer depth, but he’s a rookie. It would be good if Smith or Benn could prove to be a solid role player. This only means 20 or so catches in a year, but 3 or 4 of them may come in one game where another player is hurt or something weird is going on with the offense. There are just some games where you need role players to step up.
OL – Stay healthy.
LBs – Last year the LBs played pretty well. That was okay, but if the Eagles are to win 12 to 14 games, the LBs must be better. The 3-4 defense is built on LB play. Trent Cole can’t go half a season without a sack. Mychal Kendricks can’t wait til the 2nd half of the season to make almost all of his plays. Connor Barwin was good, but needs to be better. DeMeco Ryans can be better.
And the backups did very little. Najee Goode had some good moments. Brandon Graham had 3 sacks. The backups need to be more productive in 2014. Part of that means they need to practice better so the coaches want to get them on the field more. When they do play, the backups need to make plays. Marcus Smith and Graham should be talented backup OLBs. Goode is the key man inside.
DBs – More than any other specific position group, this one must improve the most. The CBs weren’t physical or aggressive enough in 2013. Bill Davis is going to work on that. There was no depth on the outside. This year Nolan Carroll is going to push for a starting gig and Jaylen Watkins is in the mix as well. Brandon Boykin remains a terrific slot DB.
Malcolm Jenkins is in town to run the deep middle. The Eagles have had major issues at S for a while so Jenkins presence could be huge for the defense. He is a talented veteran that can help settle the defense down and make some plays. Jenkins would need to be an impact player for the defense to take the next step. This doesn’t mean he’s got to post huge numbers, but he would need to make some critical plays. With Nate Allen, Earl Wolff and Chris Maragos, the Eagles have better depth than last year. The entire group must play better. Allen had 1 INT and 5 PDs last year. Those numbers must go up.
Coverage and tackling must improve. The Eagles were too generous with coverage last year. They must be tighter this season. And when the DBs do give up short or even intermediate catches, they must close to the ball and tackle. Missed tackles were a huge problem. The Vikings game was a nightmare of sloppy DB play. They made Matt Cassel look like Peyton frickin’ Manning.
STs – The Eagles added firepower to help this group. Darren Sproles will likely be the primary RS. He could be a good upgrade for an Eagles return unit that hasn’t shined for a while. Maragos and Bryan Braman are here to add punch to the coverage units. They stood out for their teams last year. Rookie Marcus Smith could also be a big help on STs. Chip Kelly is going to keep working on this unit til he gets it right.
Alex Henery isn’t being seriously challenged, but he seems to have gotten the message that he must be better if he wants to keep his job for the long term. Many of you are upset with the coaches for not bringing in more serious competition. This could prove to be a big mistake. I’m trusting Kelly and Dave Fipp on this, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous.
No matter how you slice it, the STs play must improve. STs hurt the Eagles in the playoff loss. It hurt them in plenty of regular season games as well. If this group can get significantly better, that would help push the Eagles to the next level.
OVERALL – I think the Eagles have the potential to jump up to the 12 to 14 win level and play at a very high level. That said, it would require several players/units improving and having very good seasons. You never know when a player or unit is going to have a breakout season. Think about how good the Panthers DL was last year. Think about how good the Saints D got in a hurry. And so on.
I don’t expect the Eagles to make this jump in 2014. I think another season is needed for the team to really get better, but I’d love to be wrong.