Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
There were 267 games, counting playoffs, in the NFL last season. You could argue the Philadelphia Eagles’ performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3 was the most impressive in any of those 267.
The Eagles’ 34-3 victory was dominant in every single way. The defense shut down a Steelers’ offense that is one of the best in the league. Carson Wentz threw for 301 yards. The Eagles rushed for 125 more. And this was against a Pittsburgh team that advanced to the AFC championship game.
That was the high point of the season. The Eagles lost four of their next five (the four losses by a combined 19 points) and nine of their next 11. But that Steelers game is a snapshot into what the Eagles hope they can become. That’s the ceiling. And most of that optimism is due to Wentz.
When teams trade a ridiculous amount to move up and draft a quarterback, it’s rarely a good idea. The caveat, however, is that if a team hits on the pick it’s worth whatever they gave up. It’s rarely smart to judge any decisions based on the result rather than the process, but it’s hard to get around it in this case. The Eagles seem to have done well to move up and get Wentz.
It’s fair to be skeptical about Wentz. There were times in the second half of the season in which he simply wasn’t a good quarterback. He finished with 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, which is rough. Though, he wasn’t exactly working with a great supporting cast last season. Here’s what Wentz showed, at times, as a rookie: leadership, arm strength, mobility, a natural feel for playing in the pocket, the ability to make accurate throws into tight windows, reading complex defenses and making correct adjustments. Did he do all of that all season? No. There were times he played too fast, his accuracy waned and he made some poor decisions … but he was a rookie. That’s expected, especially without much at receiver or running back to help out. But that incredible excitement from early in the season, which peaked at that Steelers game, wasn’t out of line. It would be wise to invest in Wentz now, because he’s going to be really good.
What the Eagles learned after that Steelers game is that Wentz needs help. It’s a practically useless argument to compare Wentz and fellow NFC East 2016 rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, because their situations were so different. Prescott played behind one of the best offensive lines ever, with a great rookie running back and a true No. 1 receiver in Dez Bryant. Wentz was pretty much asked to do it all himself. Wentz had no reliable running game, a leaky offensive line during Lane Johnson’s suspension and some really poor receivers. The Eagles couldn’t put him through that again.
Philadelphia signed Alshon Jeffery to be the lead receiver. Torrey Smith was added as a deep threat. LeGarrette Blount was signed to give the Eagles a semblance of a running game. The line should be pretty good if Johnson quits getting suspended. Wentz has help now.
What the 2016 Eagles proved is that simply adding a promising quarterback brings hope for the whole franchise. Wentz looked outstanding at times and like a rookie at others, but he displayed the physical skills and the mental aptitude that scream “future star.” When teams like the Chicago Bears, Kansas City Bears and Houston Texans gave up a ton to move up in this year’s draft to take a quarterback, it’s at least in part due to Wentz. The Eagles gave up way too much to move up to draft Wentz, but they clearly have zero regrets.
The Eagles have to feel like they have their quarterback in place. They also saw last year what happens if Wentz doesn’t have enough help. This offseason was spent making sure that doesn’t happen again.
I like the additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Jeffery is a rare talent when healthy, and Smith’s decline with the San Francisco 49ers can be reasonably blamed on him having to play for the 49ers. I wonder if LeGarrette Blount is one of those players who is infinitely better in the comfortable womb of the New England Patriots, but he’s worth a shot for one year and $1.25 million. Defensive end Derek Barnett, the team’s first-round pick, was wildly productive in college. I did not like the pick of injured Washington cornerback Sidney Jones in the second round, because when do high picks for seriously injured players ever work out? Jones tore his Achilles tendon in March. But there is obvious upside if he gets back to 100 percent. In free agency the team lost solid pieces like outside linebacker Connor Barwin, defensive tackle Bennie Logan and cornerbacks Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin, but nothing too devastating. Trading for Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan helps offset the loss of Logan. Grade: A-minus.
Amazingly, an actual NFL team used Dorial Green-Beckham and Nelson Agholor at receiver last season. Green-Beckham is gone and Agholor might not be far behind. Replacing them with Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith (with Jordan Matthews in a more complementary role) is a massive upgrade. The Eagles’ passing game wasn’t very good last season, ranking 30th in yards per pass play. That will improve.
Cornerback was an issue last season, and I’m not sure how it is any better. Second-round pick Sidney Jones might not play all season because of an Achilles injury. Jalen Mills, a seventh-round pick last year, probably will start. Alongside him will probably be rookie third-round pick Rasul Douglas or Patrick Robinson, who will turn 30 in September. In a division with Kirk Cousins, Eli Manning and Dak Prescott, this cornerback situation is scary.
There was plenty of chatter this offseason in Philadelphia about Carson Wentz’s mechanics. Probably an insane amount of chatter, but the market is intense and Wentz is the new star in town. Wentz worked with quarterbacks guru Adam Dedeaux in the offseason. Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo explained that the team wanted to tighten up Wentz’s release by having him hold the ball higher. Nothing major.
“I’ve always felt good with where I’ve been at [mechanically], and I’m always trying to keep refining and getting better,” Wentz said, via Philly.com’s Les Bowen. “And yes, I do think it’s been talked about quite a bit, but you know, it’s the nature of the game.”
At least Wentz has taken the scrutiny, including play-by-play reviews of his throws in OTAs, in stride. As long as he plays in Philadelphia, everything he does will be dissected.
The Eagles went 5-1 when right tackle Lane Johnson played. They were 2-8 when he was serving a 10-game suspension. Here’s more, from Jeff McLane of Philly.com: “The Eagles scored 27.1 points per game, averaged 5.4 yards per play and allowed only 1.5 sacks per game when Johnson played. They scored 20.1 points, averaged 4.8 yards per play and allowed 2.4 sacks when he was suspended.” Johnson is a fantastic player, and the Eagles also had no decent options to replace him. When Johnson is in the lineup, the Eagles have a very good offensive line, and that’s big for Carson Wentz’s development.
From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “Injuries and inept QB play soured Alshon Jeffery’s curtain call in Chicago. Brian Hoyer was respectable, but Matt Barkley is the football equivalent of the latest ‘Transformers’ movie – mostly crappy. Considering the limitations, Jeffery performed at a decent level. In the end, he tallied a WR3 line (on a per game basis) in 12-team formats.
“In Philly, Jeffery should pen a Rocky-like comeback story. Recall two years ago he closed out the season posting the 13th-most valuable WR output from Week 8 on. When featured and healthy he dominates. Torrey Smith, Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews (if he isn’t traded) will compete for looks, but the offseason acquisition should command at least 23 percent of the targets share. That occurs and he notches a line around 85-1100-9. If you invest in RBs early, he’s an ideal target in Round 3 (37.3 ADP, WR19).” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for the fantasy outlook on the Eagles.]
The Eagles were the biggest outlier in Football Outsiders’ final DVOA rankings. The Eagles were ranked fourth in the NFL in that DVOA per-play metric. Only New England, Dallas and Atlanta ranked higher. Right behind the Eagles in the rankings were Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Green Bay. No other team with a losing record finished higher than 15th. The Eagles graded as a 10.3-win team according to FO’s metrics. Two units drove that ranking: the defense, which finished fourth, and special teams, which ranked first in the entire league. In particular new coordinator Jim Schwartz’s pressure-based scheme seemed to do wonders for the defense, and it should be a formidable unit again.
DOES FLETCHER COX HAVE AN EVEN BIGGER SEASON COMING?
Cox played very well last season, moving to defensive tackle in Schwartz’s one-gap scheme. He led the Eagles with 6.5 sacks and was often the best player on the field. Although Cox has been very good, he hasn’t had that transcendent season yet. He hasn’t made an All-Pro team. He hasn’t had a double-digit sack season either. Cox doesn’t turn 27 until December, and with another year to get comfortable in the scheme, maybe this is the year Cox checks off both of those boxes.
Last season the Eagles played a brutal schedule, ranked the second toughest in the NFL by Football Outsiders. It gets significantly easier this season, about the middle of the pack in the NFL. Combine that with a better offensive supporting cast, and the Eagles could improve by a few wins. They went 7-9 with a brutally tough schedule, a rookie quarterback and a subpar offensive cast in 2016. It’s a team that last season beat the Steelers, Falcons, Giants, Vikings and Cowboys (although Dallas was resting starters in Week 17). The Eagles still play in a tough division, but if Carson Wentz develops fast then the Eagles will be in contention for the NFC East crown.
The NFL has a full season of film to watch on Carson Wentz, and maybe those midseason struggles will be repeated. It’s not too hard to believe Alshon Jeffery could get hurt again, Torrey Smith has lost it and LeGarrette Blount won’t be productive outside of New England. The real key though is Wentz, and it would be disheartening for the Eagles to see him take a step back in year two. It goes without saying he’ll be under constant scrutiny if that’s the case.
I’d like to pick the Eagles for a huge leap, because I do believe in Carson Wentz and like their offseason moves, but I can’t pick them ahead of the Cowboys or Giants. It was even tough to pick them ahead of Washington, a team I think is a bit underrated. This has the look of a team that is a lot better on the field but it doesn’t necessarily show in the standings.
32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
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