10 Bold (and Slightly Less Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Philadelphia Eagles
Which Philadelphia Eagles are going to be surprise Pro Bowlers in 2014? Which players are going to exceed expectations, and which ones will be on the sideline? Most important of all, how many games will the Birds win this season, and what is their ultimate destiny?
There’s only one way to find out the answers to these questions and more when it’s the middle of June and meaningful football is over two months away, and that’s by looking into my crystal ball. Lucky for you, I’ve already done just that.
So far, I’ve been able to foresee 10 events that will transpire in the Eagles’ season ahead. Some of these predictions are bold—some, not so much. But hey, either way, knowing now is better than waiting until the games are played, isn’t it?
Well, I guess that depends on whether the predicted outcomes herein are positive or negative. Again, there's only one way to find out...
Bold: Jeremy Maclin’s Numbers Will Approach DeSean Jackson’s 2013 Campaign
Now that fans are used to the fact that DeSean Jackson isn’t wearing midnight green anymore, there’s a lot less hand-wringing over how the league’s No. 2 offense will go on without its leading receiver. Initially, however, there was mass hysteria. How on earth did the Eagles expect to replace a 27-year-old, three-time Pro Bowler?
The full answer has multiple layers, but the simplest explanation is Jeremy Maclin.
People seem to forget Maclin was a first-round pick in the 2009 draft, arguably a top-10 talent. And while he has yet to produce a 1,000-yard receiving season in the NFL, there is reason to believe the best is yet to come for Maclin.
After all, almost every skill player in the Eagles offense enjoyed career years in season one under head coach Chip Kelly, including Jackson. It stands to reason Maclin, who’s only 26, stands to benefit as much as anybody else—especially now that he’ll be the No. 1 option in the Birds' passing attack for the very first time.
There is still some concern as to whether Maclin is healthy after his 2013 campaign was erased by a torn ACL. Assuming he’s completely recovered, though, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be up to the task.
Jackson posted 82 receptions for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Maclin’s previous personal best was 70 catches, 964 yards and 10 touchdowns back in 2010.
Maclin was always a higher-volume receiver than Jackson, so matching or surpassing 82 receptions in Kelly’s offense seems probable. Maclin is also a superior red-zone target, so somewhere in the neighborhood of nine touchdowns should be doable. Does Maclin have 1,332 yards in him?
That remains to be seen. Having said that, don’t underestimate him. With Jackson out of the picture in this high-powered offense, Maclin is walking into the most fertile situation since his arrival in Philadelphia. Expectations should only be on the rise.
Less Bold: Jordan Matthews’ Numbers Will Surpass Jason Avant’s 2013 Campaign
As much of a good guy as Jason Avant is, it was hard not to see the writing on the wall last season. While everybody else was enjoying career years, the eight-year veteran was only showing his age. The Eagles’ primary slot receiver posted his worst receiving totals since ’08 and wound up released in the offseason.
With so much turnover at the wide receiver position, it seems likely Kelly will shift to more two-tight end formations or use running back Darren Sproles in the slot to create mismatches. Regardless, Avant’s direct replacement appears poised to ramp up the production out of that position, even if he’s on the field less.
It’s only OTAs, but reporters are absolutely raving about second-round pick Jordan Matthews. Jimmy Kempski for Philly.com says the Vanderbilt product has been the best receiver at spring practices—and apparently it’s not even close.
Honestly, it’s not difficult to envision how Matthews would be an immediate upgrade over Avant. At 6’3”, 212 pounds, Matthews is bigger and stronger. Clocking in at 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash, according to NFL.com, Matthews is faster. Matthews was a far more productive receiver in college as well.
It stands to reason Matthews is going to be more productive than a 31-year-old Avant in the pros and almost certainly from the get-go. The Eagles may not run three wide 75 percent of the time like they did this past season, but for Matthews to beat 38 receptions, 447 yards and two touchdowns, they probably don’t have to.
Bold: Zach Ertz Will Approach 1,000 Yards Receiving
As mentioned earlier, there are multiple answers to the question of how the Eagles intend to replace DeSean Jackson. One of those should come in the form of tight end Zach Ertz.
Ertz demonstrated down the stretch of his first NFL season that he is ready to step into a more prevalent role in Philly’s offense. His 15 receptions, 195 yards and three touchdowns in the month of December accounted for roughly 40 percent of his production for the entire season.
Ertz finished 2013 with 36 catches for 469 yards and four touchdowns. Among active tight ends, he had a better rookie campaign than perennial Pro Bowlers such as Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis.
Now, with the Eagles likely shifting to more two-tight end sets, Ertz could be one of the prime beneficiaries from the release of DeSean Jackson. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ertz played 40.5 percent of the offensive snaps last season.
Ertz may be a tight end in name, but Philly often utilized him like a wideout either in the slot or even on the outside. At 6'5" with 4.68 speed, according to CBSSports.com, he's a nightmare matchup no matter where he lines up.
If his playing time jumps somewhere in between the 60-75 percent range, he could double last year's numbers. Ertz knows the offense now, so it's time to get him on the field more to exploit those linebackers and safeties.
Less Bold: Nick Foles Will Be Less Efficient Than Last Season
Not only is this prediction less bold. It’s hardly bold at all.
Suggesting Nick Foles’ numbers won’t be as sharp as they were last year might as well be stating the obvious. After all, nobody had ever done anything like that before. Nobody had even come close to throwing 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions. It’s completely unheard of. If you had woken up from a year-long slumber and people told you that, you wouldn’t believe them.
Either that or you would assume you woke up 500 years in the future.
Foles wound up finishing the '13 season with the third-highest passer rating in NFL history. That’s not the kind of achievement a lot of guys repeat. Or anybody repeats for that matter.
Sure, a healthy Foles for 16 games is going to complete more passes; he’s going to throw for more yards and touchdowns. His accuracy might even continue to rise.
Inevitably, though, the man is going to throw a few more picks in there—assuming he is a man, not a cyborg. Passes get tipped. Receivers run the wrong route. Quarterbacks get hit as they’re releasing the football. Nobody, not even a robot, can dodge all of these unfortunate events forever.
Bold: Trent Cole Will Exceed 2013 Sack Total
The Eagles are planning for life without Trent Cole. The two-time Pro Bowler turns 32 this year, and his salary-cap figure is set to balloon north of $11 million in 2015, according to Spotrac. Plus, after spending the first eight years of his NFL career at defensive end, moving him to outside linebacker was less than ideal.
Nonetheless, Cole thrived at his new position last season. He was a force against the running game and didn’t look completely out of sorts the little he was asked to drop into coverage.
Cole even started to come around as a pass-rusher. After going without a sack through the club’s first eight games, the light bulb suddenly went on for Cole down the stretch, as he reached opposing quarterbacks eight times over the second half of last season.
Some might see Cole’s inability to consistently get to the passer as a sign of decline, particularly after the previous season when he recorded just three sacks while playing his traditional position. Then again, it should come as no surprise there was a bit of a learning curve while learning a new role on the fly.
Even when the sacks weren’t coming early on, it’s not like Cole was ineffective. He just couldn’t seem to finish.
Now that he appears to have figured some things out, Cole stands to have an even easier time of hassling opposing QBs going forward. Rapid decline is certainly a concern at this stage of his career, but if the Eagles manage to squeeze one more year out of Cole before he becomes a cap casualty, it could be better than anybody ever expected.
Less Bold: Marcus Smith Will Have Limited Impact in Rookie Year
When Marcus Smith was selected No. 26 overall by Philadelphia in May, the thinking was the reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year would be the eventual successor to Trent Cole. While that may in fact be the long-term plan, it’s not the case at the moment.
So far at OTAs, John Gonzalez for CSNPhilly.com reports Smith has been lining up exclusively on Connor Barwin’s side. According to Pro Football Focus, Barwin was on the field for a whopping 94.3 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps in ’13.
As Chip Kelly explained during his press conference on Monday, transcribed by PhiladelphiaEagles.com, Smith is learning Barwin’s role in the defense because there was essentially no backup over there. Brandon Graham is currently behind Cole at the opposite end.
Plus, it makes some sense Smith would not be pressed into a pass-rushing heavy capacity. The converted quarterback sounds a bit raw based on his NFL.com scouting report and may not be effective until he improves his technique. At least on the other side, Smith’s athleticism could be put to use, as Barwin dropped into coverage more than any other 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL last season, per PFF.
Still, Barwin isn’t likely to come off the field very often, which would seem to limit Smith’s opportunities in his rookie year. The coaching staff will likely find different ways to work him into the rotation, but the end result will likely be that of a role player this season and little more.
Bold: 2 or More Defensive Players from 2012 Draft Class Will Be Named to the Pro Bowl
After two years of largely ineffective drafts, the Eagles front office appears to have finally come out of a dark period with some of its recent drafts. The 2012 class in particular has proved very fruitful, with several prospects on the verge of possibly developing into special players.
Obviously, the emergence of Nick Foles into a likely franchise quarterback is a big reason for that. Yet it’s a draft that may wind up producing multiple Pro Bowlers on the other side of the ball as well.
Defensive end Fletcher Cox was learning how to play 5-technique in a 3-4 alignment last season but flashed the ability that led the Birds to trade up to No. 12 overall.
Mychal Kendricks is a little rough around the edges, although his playmaking ability is off the charts, as he racked up four sacks, three picks and two forced fumbles in ’13.
Fellow second-rounder Vinny Curry is battling for playing time on the defensive line, yet once he carves out a niche, he has the potential to be a dangerous pass-rusher.
And fourth-round pick Brandon Boykin was tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions despite playing just 50 percent of the time as a slot specialist.
Boykin may be able to sneak into a Pro Bowl through his special teams prowess alone. He gained a reputation as a great gunner on the punt-coverage unit last season, downing multiple kicks inside the opponents’ 20-yard lines.
If just one more of those guys can take the next step, the Eagles could easily have multiple defensive representatives in Honolulu from the same draft class. Either Cox or Kendricks is the most likely, as both are starters who have posted quality numbers the past two seasons. My gut says one of the two will make the jump in Year 3.
Less Bold: The Eagles Will Battle More Injuries Than Last Season
There was the very significant loss of Jeremy Maclin and other bit players such as reserve wide receiver Arrelious Benn and reserve linebacker Jason Phillips early in training camp. From then on, the Eagles had extremely good fortune when it came to injuries in 2013.
Of the 22 regular starters on offense and defense, 17 appeared in all 16 games last season. Two more missed no more than two. The only positions where starters were out for any significant period of time were at quarterback and one of the safety spots.
It simply isn’t likely to work out that way again this season. Maybe ever. I know Chip Kelly would like to credit his sports science program for the club’s good health, and it undoubtedly helps to an extent, but this is a random and violent game.
Plus, the Eagles are relying on quite a few aging veterans, the perception being that older players are more likely to get hurt. Eight key role players on offense or defense are in their 30s already or will turn 30 before the Super Bowl.
When it comes to injuries, it’s usually luck of the draw. Unfortunately, that’s the sort of luck that always runs out eventually in pro football.
Bold: The Eagles Will Finish with Fewer Than 10 Wins
The general consensus from Eagles fans—at least in my own personal experience—is the team is on the rise. People are genuinely excited to see where Chip Kelly has the Birds heading in his second season on the sidelines.
On the whole, I tend to agree the franchise is trending upward. I’m just not so sure it's on a straight line in that direction.
Some of the reasons why I believe the Eagles could take a slight step backward in ’14 were already mentioned. Foles is naturally going to commit more turnovers—maybe not an inordinate amount, but turnovers are what swing games. And while depth appears to have improved in most areas, a likely increase in injuries will put that to the test.
There was also the side note about the number of key contributors in their 30s or approaching the magic number. Additionally, Philadelphia faces a tougher schedule than a year ago, both based on a first-place finish and having all four NFC West squads on the slate.
The starting lineup is almost exactly the same from a year ago—a projected 20 of 22 starters return—so where is the improvement? And some of the positive feelings are plain recency bias, which is to say folks feel good about the way the previous season went.
It’s not that I can’t envision a path to 10 or 11 wins for the Eagles or more. They're a dark-horse Super Bowl contender.
However, it would require almost everything to go right, almost exactly as it did oftentimes last year. The stars would have to align.
More likely, injuries, a tougher schedule, less turnover luck, regression of key veterans and other unforeseen circumstances will keep the Eagles from ascending to the class of the NFC. That doesn’t mean they’re not on their way, but sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take two forward.
Less Bold: The Eagles Will Win the NFC East Anyway
I’m sure I’ll hear from more than a few Eagles fans who feel I’m way off base in predicting something of a down year. My preemptive response? Relax.
While I imagine it will be a bumpier ride than most want to hear right now, I still believe the destination is a second consecutive NFC East championship.
Frankly, even though the Eagles’ improvements seem to have been limited largely to safety, special teams and overall depth, the rest of the division hasn’t done all that much more to grow in my mind either.
Washington has a new coaching staff and must restore confidence in an embattled franchise quarterback. The Dallas Cowboys’ already terrible defense was further crippled by an injury to its best player already, linebacker Sean Lee. The New York Giants, basically by default, might be the most improved.
I just don't see any team in the NFC East being leaps and bounds better than it was a year ago if at all. And while I believe the Eagles could have a worse record than 2013, that's not necessarily because I feel they got actively worse.
It's probably worth pointing out that but for two games, every team in the division plays the same schedule.
I anticipate the Eagles hanging on to the division and reaching the playoffs for a second consecutive season under Chip Kelly. It may not be pretty, but then again, the NFC East seldom is.