Philadelphia Eagles 2014 Season Preview

Philadelphia Eagles 2014 Season Preview

<p>Not many gave Kelly a chance in his first season and it was believed he would struggle from the jump. That was true through Week 8 of the 2013 season with the Eagles at 3-5 and an unsatisfied fan base already impatient with Kelly and his gridiron IQ.</p>

Not many gave Kelly a chance in his first season and it was believed he would struggle from the jump. That was true through Week 8 of the 2013 season with the Eagles at 3-5 and an unsatisfied fan base already impatient with Kelly and his gridiron IQ.

Au contraire!

The Eagles closed the regular season with seven wins over the last eight games and clinched the NFC East in the finale at Dallas on Dec. 29. They lost at home to the New Orleans Saints in the wild-card round of the playoffs, but exceeded expectations.

Kelly and the Eagles will no longer be in obscurity for the 2014 season, which is expected to be even better now that the players have fully grasped the system and understand what's expected. Kelly guided the Eagles to their third 10-win season in the last five years and their fourth playoff appearance in the previous six.

A big part of Philadelphia's success last season was the outstanding play of quarterback Nick Foles. Foles entered training camp behind Michael Vick and got his chance when Vick suffered a hamstring injury against the Giants. Set aside a concussion suffered against Dallas, Foles was off and running with the starting job and finished the season with 27 touchdown passes to only two interceptions. He had seven TD passes in a rout of Oakland and the City of Brotherly Love was abuzz with the 6-foot-6 signal caller.

Foles, who led the NFL in passer rating, set the bar rather high for himself and doesn't have to worry about looking over his shoulder.

"The great thing about Nick, what you love about him it's the same thing we preach is that he knows he's never going to arrive," Kelly said. "I think it's a great trait to have ... some guys get to where they want a job, and now they kind of kick their feet up and they go on cruise control and that's not him.

"He's continuing to improve on the little things. He's obviously got a very good understanding what we're doing."

Kelly said Foles still has to improve on "everything," including foot work, reading defenses, delivering the football on time, giving command. Of course the coach is going to try to keep his players guessing and motivated, and Foles has done everything quite well up to this point.

Foles will be without one of his top weapons in DeSean Jackson, who was released this summer and quickly scooped up by the rival Washington Redskins. Gone are Jackson's 1,332 yards, nine touchdown receptions and 82 catches from a year ago, and plenty has been speculated as to why Jackson no longer wears midnight green. Now he's with the despised NFC East-rival Redskins.

Who will replace Jackson's production? That could come from several areas. Running back LeSean McCoy is arguably the best in the game right now and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is returning from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2013 season. Maclin doesn't have the big-play ability or speed of Jackson, and that shouldn't matter in Kelly's system. There are plenty of balls to go around in this offense. It's just a matter of who wants it more.

Darren Sproles joined forces with McCoy in the backfield and the Eagles saw first-hand what he can do in last year's playoffs as a member of the Saints. An undersized back with great pass catching ability, the pint-sized Sproles can be a matchup nightmare against a defense and plays well out of the backfield.

The biggest concern heading into the 2014 season is not whether the offense can be productive again in year two under Kelly, but if the defense is ready to improve and not have to rely on the offense scoring nearly 30 points per week. Philadelphia's defense was brutal early on until the players jelled. Still, the Eagles were 10th against the rush (104.2 ypg), 17th in points allowed (23.9 ppg), 29th in yards given up (394.0 ypg) and dead last (32nd) in defending the pass (289.8 ypg).

Getting pressure up front is very important and one of the reasons why the Eagles struggled in pass defense, Defensive coordinator Bill Davis was asked if he wanted to generate more of a rush with a four-man base.

"Absolutely, absolutely. That's exactly it. And you want the guys to win the one on one battles and have a couple of opportunities," Davis said. "An outside rusher or inside rusher, they have a couple opportunities to set up some moves, to work some moves on that tackle, so there is a lot of thinking that goes into staying basic in the preseason believe it or not."

Davis's defense did improve over the last few weeks of the season until penalties and poor tackling cost them a chance to move on in the playoffs.

It's a new year and plenty of time has passed for the defense to emerge.

2013 RECORD: 10-6 (first NFC East)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2013, lost to New Orleans Saints in wild card round

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Chip Kelly (10-6 in one season)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Pat Shurmur (second season)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Davis (second season)

KEY ADDITIONS: QB Mark Sanchez (from Jets), RB Darren Sproles (from Saints), CB Nolan Carroll (from Dolphins), S Malcolm Jenkins (from Saints), S Chris Maragos (from Seahawks), WR Jordan Matthews (second round, Vanderbilt), OLB Marcus Smith (first round, Louisville)

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Michael Vick (to Jets), WR DeSean Jackson (to Redskins), WR Jason Avant (to Panthers)

QB: Foles (2,891 yards, 27 TD, 2 INT) will try to prove that last season wasn't a fluke and enters 2014 as the starter. He earned the job and now has to keep it. Foles threw two or more touchdown passes in eight games last season and earned himself a trip to the Pro Bowl. It will be interesting to see if Foles can live up to the hype he manufactured on his own. He does have the skill set to become an excellent passer in this league with poise in the pocket and pin-point accuracy. He's also tall and you can't teach height. One of the many issues with Vick was that he was too short and couldn't read defenses, therefore he took off with his legs. Vick also turned the ball over too many times and was injury prone. Foles understands how to get rid of the ball in enough time and can feel the pocket collapse instead of watching it happen.

The Eagles brought in Mark Sanchez to compete with Matt Barkley for the backup spot, and it's clear the veteran will win that battle. Sanchez spent the first five years of his career with the New York Jets and missed all of last season. Barkley played in three games in 2013.

GRADE: B+

RB: McCoy (1,607 yards, 9 TD) is one of the premier running backs in the NFL and had a career-high in rushing yards last season. McCoy enjoys talking a big game and can back it up with his sharp cuts and quickness. He doesn't have the speed of Jamaal Charles, but his game speed is top notch. McCoy will have another big role in Kelly's offense and caught 52 passes last season for 539 yards and two scores. He is entering his sixth year in the league and the prime of his career for the Eagles, who finished first in the league with 160.4 rushing yards per game and second with 417.2 total yards. The All-Pro McCoy and 2013 rushing champion ran for more than 100 yards in three of his last four games, including a 217-yard outburst in the snow versus Detroit. As long as McCoy has a clean bill of health, the Eagles' offense will run smoothly.

Meanwhile, Sproles spent the past three seasons in New Orleans and is a jack of all trades. He is dangerous out of the backfield and the Eagles will dare any defense to stack the box with eight men. Sproles caught 71 passes last season for 604 yards and two scores and will serve as a valuable piece to Kelly's chess game. Chris Polk should have more of an extended role in 2014, but it will be hard with McCoy there.

GRADE: A

WR: The loss of Jackson could hurt the Eagles severely. His presence alone made Riley Cooper that much better of a wide receiver and kept the defense honest and aware of the home run hitter.

With Maclin back in the fold to play with Cooper, the Eagles are hoping they made the right move to part ways with the enigmatic (and expensive) D-Jack. Cooper (835 yards, 8 TD) had a strong fourth season in the NFL -- all with Philadelphia -- and hauled in 47 passes in 16 games played. Cooper is big at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, but doesn't have game-breaking speed. Neither does Maclin. Maclin has recorded 700 or more receiving yards in each of his four seasons played with Philly and posted seven TDs and 857 yards on 69 catches in 2012. The Eagles are relying on Maclin to have a big year and help the fan base forget about Jackson.

The Eagles drafted a pair of wideouts in May, grabbing Jordan Matthews in the second round from Vanderbilt and Josh Huff out of Oregon in the third round. Much is expected of the talented Matthews in the slot but Huff was injured in the preseason and his behind the 8-ball. Veteran Brad Smith could start over Matthews as the Eagles' slot receiver if the rookie is deemed not ready.

GRADE: C+

TE: Brent Celek (502 yards, 6 TD) is the veteran of the tight end bunch and has been a nice safety valve at times for Foles. Celek has recorded 500 or more receiving yards in each of the past five seasons, but could be on his way down production wise.

Enter second-year tight end Zach Ertz. Ertz (469 yards, 4 TD) caught 36 passes in his rookie season and said this offseason he wasn't used as much because he needed to know the system better. Now that Ertz is in year two, Kelly will most likely involve the Stanford product more in 2014 for an Eagles pass attack that was ninth in yards (256.9). Ertz has a solid build at 6-foor-5, 250 pounds and some opposing players feel he can get open against anybody.

James Casey is a third option at tight end and was barely used last season.

GRADE: B-

OL: The Eagles will be without second-year right tackle Lane Johnson for the first four games of the season after he was suspended for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Johnson earned his way to first string as a rookie and will be replaced by Allen Barbre. Barbre is quite familiar filling in along the offensive line and should not miss a beat. Left tackle and All-Pro Jason Peters is one of the best at his position and protects Foles' blind side. Foles was sacked 13 times last season.

The Eagles have one of the best left guards in the game in Evan Mathis. Mathis, who's built much like a pro wrestler, muscled his way to the Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors in 2013. He originally signed with the team in 2011 and the move was a smart one for both parties. Center Jason Kelce and right guard Todd Herremans joined Mathis to transform the Eagles into one of the best running attacks in the league. The entire offensive line stayed healthy last season and that was key to the Eagles' run to an NFC East title. Kelly and Company hope the injury bug stays away once again in 2014.

GRADE: B+

DL: The Eagles didn't have much trouble stopping opposing teams from running the football and gave up 104.2 yards per games (10th in NFL). They need to improve on their sack total of 37.0 in 2013.

Vinny Curry led the line with four sacks and played his way into more time with a strong offseason and training camp. Cedric Thornton (60 tackles, sack) started at defensive end with Fletcher Cox (41 tackles, 3 sacks) on the end. Davis' 3-4 scheme began to work with ease late in the season and contributed to the Eagles' strong push toward the playoffs. Bennie Logan played in all 16 games his rookie campaign and looks for an extended role in 2014. The Eagles have to be sharp up front to keep pressure off the secondary and slow down the other backs in the NFC, especially in the division with Washington's Alfred Morris and DeMarco Murray of Dallas.

Taylor Hart and Beau Allen were drafted to beef up the line and provide depth.

GRADE: B-

LB: Philadelphia allowed 394.0 yards per game and made some changes at the linebacker spot. One-time dominant defensive end Trent Cole (56 tackles, 8 sacks) led the Eagles in sacks, but showed deficiencies in pass coverage. Cole did catch on later on and isn't getting any younger. Connor Barwin (58 tackles, 5 sacks, INT) had a solid first season with the Eagles last season and made a handful of crucial plays. The big Barwin should have an even better season in 2014.

Last year's leading tackler and middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans (127 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) will play next to Mychal Kendricks (106 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 INT) again. Ryans is a veteran heading past his prime, while the speedy and hard-hitting Kendricks is slowly grabbing the torch as top middle linebacker.

Brandon Graham (20 tackles, 3 sacks) still receives criticism for his high draft status from a few years ago and is trying to shake that label. Graham isn't a dominant force at linebacker and does just enough to keep an ample amount of playing time. The Eagles also were burned for possibly reaching for Marcus Smith in this year's draft. Smith is undersized and needs work both physically and technically. He does have plenty of brains to pick from during camp and will see some action when the starters need rest.

GRADE: C

DB: The Eagles were the worst at pass defense in 2014, allowing 289.8 yards per game. That's why pressure up front is so important. Disrupting the quarterback's timing makes it more difficult for the receivers to run their route.

The Eagles tried to shore up their safety spot by adding Malcolm Jenkins (44 tackles, 2 INT) this offseason. Jenkins played his first five seasons with New Orleans and seems to have a grasp of Davis' defense. Nate Allen (82 tackles, sack, INT) hasn't lived up to expectations and will be remembered as the Donovan McNabb pick from the Redskins.

Cary Williams (67 tackles, sack, 3 INT) and Bradley Fletcher (70 tackles, 2 INT) hope to have better seasons in the secondary because the NFL is turning into a pass-happy institution. Williams also needs to cut down on penalties, but does have plenty of confidence and ability.

The Eagles added Nolan Carroll (47 tackles, 3 INTs) in his offseason and he spent the first four years of his career with the Miami Dolphins. Carroll will also play a role in the return game. The jury is still out on safety Earl Wolff (45 tackles, INT) and he just needs to stay healthy. Wolff is a hard hitter, which reminds the fan base of Brian Dawkins.

Cornerback Brandon Boykin (47 tackles, 6 INT) led the Eagles in picks last season and is on the rise. Boykin may supplant one of the starters at cornerback and plays well in the slot and nickel.

GRADE: C

SPECIAL TEAMS: Alex Henery seems to have nailed down the kicking job once again even though he was 23-of-28 on field goals last season. He did make 7- of-10 between 40 and 49 yards and was perfect on all 45 PAT attempts. Henery missed a big field goal in the playoff game against the Saints and needs to redeem himself if he wants to stick around much longer.

Donnie Jones had a good year punting and averaged 44.9 yards over 82 tries. He landed 33 punts inside the 20-yard line and 11 inside the 10.

Carroll is expected to return kicks and the dangerous Sproles will be on punt return duty. Boykin has experience as well in the return game.

GRADE: C

COACHING: Kelly and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur hope for an encore performance in 2014. Not many coaches, if any, can keep up with Kelly and his meticulous way of coaching. Whether it's the use of a sports scientist or handing out smoothies after practice, Kelly always tries to stay ahead of the game and keep opponents guessing.

Davis doesn't have it quite as easy with how poorly the defense played last season. The stop unit did coagulate toward the end of the season and perhaps will tighten up for the entire 2014 campaign. Dave Fipp joined the Eagles in the offseason to become the special teams coordinator and hopes to instill more talent on both ends of the spectrum.

GRADE: B+ (because of Kelly)

THE SKINNY: While the Eagles appear to be the clear favorite to win another NFC East title, the second half of the season doesn't look so promising with Arizona, Carolina, Green Bay, Seattle and a handful of division rivals on the slate.

The Eagles, though, proved the naysayers wrong last season en route to a playoff berth and hope to do the same in 2014. Can Foles and McCoy remain dominant on offense? Will the defense use the momentum from last season and training camp to make a step forward? Only time will tell, and it appears nine wins will get them back on top in the NFC East and on another possible Super Bowl run.

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