Ranking the 5 Players the Philadelphia Eagles Can Most Ill Afford to Lose
Philadelphia Eagles training camp is light on contact under head coach Chip Kelly, but he can’t keep his squad in bubble wrap forever. As the Birds get set to embark on their first preseason action of the year on Friday night, one of the storylines is whether they can continue to remain relatively injury-free.
Minus a few minor dings, Kelly’s roster is still in mint condition after two weeks of camp. Until the real games begin in September, though, fans will be holding their breath any time certain players hit the deck. We’re talking about the guys the Eagles can least afford to lose if the team intends to make a run at the Super Bowl this season.
Which losses would be most detrimental to Philadelphia's chances? We ranked the five players whose absence from the lineup would be most potentially damaging to the Eagles. The criteria used was a combination of a player’s importance and how replaceable he is by players currently on the roster.
Last season, Philadelphia was incredibly fortunate in that not one player landed on injured reserve after training camp, and in fact, only two starters missed more than two games all season. Such luck isn’t likely to occur again, though—you can only hope nothing happens to the following players in particular.
5. LeSean McCoy
LeSean McCoy might be the best running back in the NFL. He does things with the football in his hands that no other active player can do.
That being said, McCoy plays the most replaceable position in the game. As long as the blocking is good, it doesn’t take an especially skilled back to average four yards per carry or even run for 100 yards from time to time.
Case in point: According Zachary Rodgers for ESPN.com, Philly ball-carriers averaged a whopping 3.6 yards before contact per rush last season, the highest such margin in the league by nearly half a yard.
None of which is to say the Eagles wouldn’t miss Shady dearly. He’s a fantastic receiver out of the backfield as well, not to mention solid in pass protection. He makes special plays that alter the outcomes of games on a regular basis.
Would the Eagles survive without the All-Pro back, though? Keep in mind, the club added Darren Sproles in the offseason. While Sproles isn’t a workhorse back like McCoy, he is a dynamic player who can replicate certain aspects of No. 25’s game in small doses. Chris Polk should be more than capable of toting the rock the other 10-15 times per game.
McCoy’s disappearance from the lineup would be difficult to overcome but far from impossible. There’s a slight chance he’s even overrated on a list like this.
4. Brandon Boykin
Despite lining up for only roughly half of Philadelphia’s defensive snaps, Brandon Boykin finished tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions in 2013. Two of the six clinched victories, including a division title. Four came during the fourth quarter of games. All were recorded in wins.
Boykin was easily the most valuable player on the Eagles defense last season. While it would be difficult to replace a force like defensive end Fletcher Cox up front, nobody on that unit created more landscape-altering plays than the nickel cornerback.
Can a slot specialist really be one of the most vital players on the team? In today’s game, absolutely. More and more of the best playmakers in the game are doing their damage out of the slot, so much so that many teams are using the nickel defense as their base look.
And simply put, do the Eagles win the same number of games last year without Boykin’s contributions? Probably not.
It’s not like you can plug just anybody into the slot and expect the same success either. Boykin has really excelled in that position, to the point where after two seasons, he may already be the finest nickel cornerback in football. It’s unclear who the Eagles would even replace him with.
What is almost certain, however, is Philadelphia’s defense would produce fewer takeaways with Boykin in the lineup. In the NFL, no statistic besides points correlates more with winning than turnovers. Thanks to Boykin, the Eagles won the turnover battle more often than not in 2013, and as a result, they won 10 games.
3. Jason Kelce
You knew the Eagles were going to be in for a long season in 2012 when Jason Peters was lost to a ruptured Achilles tendon in March. As if replacing an All-Pro left tackle wasn’t enough, center Jason Kelce wound up going down with an injury just two weeks into the season.
I doubt the offense would’ve got over Peters’ absence, but once the center was out of action too, you knew it was all over for the Birds. Philadelphia’s offensive line was in shambles, and the team finished with a 4-12 record.
The Eagles are actually in a much better position to replace Peters now than they were at the time. Swingman Allen Barbre did a capable job filling in for Peters occasionally last season, and in the event of a more prolonged absence, 2013 fourth overall draft pick Lane Johnson could probably take over his spot.
The plan of succession is far dicier at center, though, where the depth is essentially untested. Julian Vandervelde is battling David Molk for the backup job. Between the two of them, they’ve played a combined 24 snaps in their NFL careers, according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
While it may sound as though the Eagles have still neglected to address the depth at the position after all this time, the truth is it’s a difficult spot to stock up on in case of emergency. Quality, experienced centers are probably starters somewhere else.
Which is why losing Kelce is potentially devastating. The Eagles can mix and match what they have to replace any one of Peters, Johnson, Evan Mathis or Todd Herremans. Losing the center means a new face would have to take over in the crucial role as keystone of the offensive line.
2. Jeremy Maclin
When Jeremy Maclin suffered a torn ACL early in last year’s training camp, it was a huge blow to be sure but one that was lessened by the fact that the Eagles still had DeSean Jackson. If Maclin was to be struck by a serious injury again this year, the offense would turn to...Riley Cooper? Yikes.
Cooper did an admirable job filling in for Maclin last season, but his upside is strictly as a No. 2 receiver. More likely, second-round pick Jordan Matthews would be thrust into a feature role, but rookie wideouts often struggle to produce. Among active receivers, only four have recorded 1,000 yards in their first NFL season.
The rest of the depth chart doesn’t offer many other great solutions. Josh Huff, a third-round pick out of Oregon, is in the same rookie boat as Matthews. Veterans Brad Smith and Jeff Maehl own the inside track to roster spots at the position, but neither has demonstrated No. 1 capabilities thus far.
Could Ifeanyi Momah, who’s never caught a pass in the NFL, come off the practice squad to give the Eagles a boost?
As you can see, losing Maclin for any amount of time could be an unmitigated disaster for Philadelphia.
On the bright side, the Eagles have weapons at other positions who would help ease the pain. Running back Darren Sproles and tight end Zach Ertz are receiver-like in that they often line up that way in the first place. Increasing their roles would be a start.
If it’s Cooper and Matthews on the outside, though, that could spell disaster. Cooper can’t carry an offense, and we don’t even know for certain whether Matthews can play at this level. The other options, if you can call them that, aren’t much better. With so many unknowns at wide receiver, a case could be made that Maclin might be the most important player on the Eagles' roster for 2013.
1. Nick Foles
But win the Super Bowl? Those hopes and dreams rest squarely on Foles’ shoulders for now.
Believe it or not, Sanchez actually has a winning record as an NFL starter, including in the postseason. He was 4-2 in the playoffs with the New York Jets, both losses coming in conference title games. Again, he’s good enough to win a few games, but Sanchez probably won’t get you over the hump.
For all we know, maybe Foles can’t either. The difference is he’s still an ascending quarterback in this league, so we don’t know what his limitations are yet. But if 2013 was any indication, Foles may just possess some of that magic.
While Foles wasn’t able to produce a playoff victory last January, he did manage to etch his name in the history books a few times. He tied the NFL record for seven touchdown passes in a game against the Oakland Raiders and set a new single-season record with a 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
And you can’t blame Foles for the Eagles' failure to beat the New Orleans Saints. When he came off the field for the last time in that Wild Card loss, Philly was leading.
While there are examples to the contrary littered throughout nearly 50 years of Super Bowl history, in most cases, teams can’t win a championship without stability under center. Foles has provided that much since stepping in to the starting quarterback job last season.
The Eagles are counting on Foles to be more than stable, though. They’re hoping he can be special.