5 Philadelphia Eagles Players Who Should See Their Roles Expand in 2014
One thing is for sure, and that’s with the departure of three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson, the Philadelphia Eagles will need a few players to step up and assert themselves in 2014. That’s including and especially players who are already on the roster.
The offense figures to see a number of skill-position players have their roles expanded in the season ahead in an effort to replace Jackson’s production. Whether they can actually accomplish such a lofty goal or not remains to be seen, but the Birds have precious few options at their disposal.
Whether it’s Jackson and the wide receiver position or anywhere else on the roster, the situation is not altogether unique. Young, untested players are asked to take on increasing responsibilities every year on literally every team in the league.
Is there a more pertinent example than Riley Cooper in Philadelphia just last season? When Jeremy Maclin was lost for the season at training camp, a three-year reserve was thrust into the job of No. 2 receiver. Turns out, Cooper was ready.
Are there any similar opportunists on this year’s roster?
While multiple players will be asked to help mitigate the loss of Jackson, the Eagles’ need for progression from developing prospects goes beyond one position. Here are five who should prepare as if they’re going to see the field a lot more in ’14.
OK, so this is kind of cheating. Maclin was already a starting wide receiver in Philadelphia’s offense; he just happened to miss all of 2013 with a torn ACL.
Only here’s why it’s not cheating. With Jackson out of the picture, not only should Maclin get more opportunities. The 2009 first-round pick finally has a chance to step out of a three-time Pro Bowler’s shadow.
I know fans are leery about the prospect of a wide receiver coming off of knee surgery—one who’s never even recorded a 1,000-yard season—replacing Jackson’s production. Like it or not, Maclin is about to get just that chance.
Maclin is the Eagles’ No. 1 receiver now.
As long as he’s healthy, there is plenty of reason to believe Maclin is up to the task. With adequate size (6’0”) and 4.4 speed, the 26-year-old is effective in every level of the defense. His tremendous route-running ability gives him the ability to create space on short and intermediate routes—including inside the red zone—yet still allows him one of the more dangerous deep threats in the NFL.
As long as he’s healthy, of course. Nobody is quite sure how Maclin will respond to his rehabilitation. If fully recovered, though, he could go much further toward replacing Jackson than most are giving him credit for at this point.
When Jackson was absent for five games in 2012—four of those with Nick Foles under center—Maclin racked up 28 receptions, 353 yards and three touchdowns. If projected over a full season, that works out to 89 catches, 1,129 yards and nine touchdowns.
Jackson posted a line of 82, 1,332 and nine in ’13.
It’s worth pointing out that virtually every Eagles' offensive weapon posted a career year or personal best of some sort in Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach. Why should Maclin be any different?
Here’s a no-brainer. The Eagles used the 35th overall pick in last year’s draft on Zach Ertz, so it’s only logical the coaching staff continues expanding the tight end’s role in the offense.
Ertz was already seeing significantly more playing time as his rookie season marched on. The month of December in particular was undoubtedly a sign of things to come, as the Stanford product hauled in 15 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns over five games.
It makes even more sense Ertz would be an integral part of the offense going forward after the departure of Jackson. One way to minimize a loss of that magnitude at the receiver position is to employ more two-tight end formations with Ertz and veteran Brent Celek.
Make no mistake, Ertz isn’t just any tight end. A matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties to begin with at 6’5”, 250 pounds, he runs even better than his 4.68 40 time suggests.
The Eagles were already using Ertz in a variety of manners in ’13, including as a traditional in-line tight end, in the slot, and even split out wide. Celek will still get plenty of playing time due to his blocking prowess, but Ertz is likely to become a favorite target of quarterback Nick Foles.
Call him the forgotten man in Philly’s wide receiver carousel. The Eagles signed Brad Smith to a two-year contract midseason late last year, so naturally there wasn’t a lot of time to turn him into a focal point in the offense. With a full offseason in Philadelphia, this addition has the potential to become far more significant.
Specifically, it’s not too hard to envision the former New York Jet and Buffalo Bill taking over the role of primary slot receiver that had been occupied by Jason Avant for years.
Smith will have competition for the role, of course. The Eagles will draft a wide receiver. Arrelious Benn is returning from an ACL injury.
A rookie wide receiver will be starting from ground zero, though, and Benn has a history of being unable to stay healthy.
Another area where Smith could carve out a bigger footprint is in the return game. The eight-year veteran only handled four kicks for the Birds in ’13. At the very least, he’ll be in the mix for the job of primary returnman.
Smith is 30, but he has the kind of versatility Kelly loves. The former quarterback out of the University of Missouri can take a handoff out of the backfield or even attempt a pass. We saw some attempts at gadget plays last season. If Smith can find a home at receiver as well, gadget plays might become a regular occurrence in the year ahead.
With the Eagles’ trade for running back Darren Sproles, there may not be room for both Bryce Brown and Chris Polk in Philly’s backfield moving forward. Perhaps the last month of the 2013 season gave us some indication of who could be the odd man out.
Although Brown is the more accomplished back of the two in the NFL, Polk was beginning to see equal, and in some cases more, playing time last December. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Polk actually received more snaps over the final four weeks of the season.
Granted, it was such a negligible difference between the two as to border on meaningless. That being said, it was telling after Brown's struggles throughout the year—he averaged less than 3.0 yards per carry in nine games—that he was apparently being fazed out of the offense.
At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, “What’s the difference now that Darren Sproles is in town?” Well, Sproles is likely to be used primarily in a receiver capacity, much like he was with the New Orleans Saints.
The Eagles are still going to need a workload back behind LeSean McCoy, especially in the event anything were to happen to the reigning NFL rushing champion. That would be Polk, assuming he can beat out Brown for that roster spot.
It seems like a long time ago when Vinny Curry couldn’t even get himself activated on game day. Most recently, that was Weeks 1 and 2 in 2013, not to mention another 10 instances during his rookie year.
Once Curry finally got on the field, all he did was produce. Despite playing roughly only a quarter of the Birds’ defensive snaps, the second-round pick out of Marshall managed to rack up 4.0 sacks last season—and that merely begins to measure his impact.
According to metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Curry was second among qualifying defensive ends in 3-4 schemes in pass-rush productivity, a formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries. The lone player ahead of Curry: Houston Texan and 2012 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Given the fact that starting defensive end Cedric Thornton was almost completely ineffective in a pass-rush capacity in ’13, it seems natural Curry will continue to gain opportunities.
There are concerns. Some have questioned whether Curry is a fit for the scheme. If the right offer came along, it’s not out of the realm of possibility he could be traded this offseason.
Curry has two years remaining on his current deal, though, so the Eagles won’t move him on the cheap. And scheme fit or no, there’s no denying he has a knack for getting after opposing quarterbacks. Fans are craving to see more of that on display in 2014.