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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, complete with our initial 2019 power rankings.
Whatever the Eagles did last season was a bonus. It’s possible no fan base was happier to see a Super Bowl title than Philadelphia two seasons ago. You don’t have a storybook season and complain if the epilogue is a little rough.
The Super Bowl hangover was predictable. The Eagles were 6-7 after a crushing overtime loss to the Cowboys, and Carson Wentz was diagnosed with what was reported as a fractured vertebra. One of those losses was a 48-7 drubbing to the New Orleans Saints, the worst loss ever for a Super Bowl champion. At 6-7, with their quarterback shelved, Philadelphia’s season seemed over. Everyone knew the Eagles were better than that, but Super Bowl hangovers are unavoidable.
Then the Eagles rallied. Foles played out of his mind after Wentz’s season ended, adding to his legacy. The Eagles beat the Rams, Texans and Redskins and got every break they needed to make the playoffs. Then in the playoffs they beat the favored Bears on the road and gave the Saints a tough test in the divisional round. Had Foles not pulled out a miraculous comeback against the Texans or the Vikings hadn’t choked away that last wild-card spot, we’d view the Eagles’ title defense as a failure.
The good news about inevitable Super Bowl hangovers is they pass. And the Eagles’ roster still holds up as one of the best in the NFL.
The Eagles have a lot to be excited about. Their offensive line is projected to be the best in the NFL, via Pro Football Focus’ preseason rankings. Tight end Zach Ertz is coming off a record-breaking season. They added some talent at running back and a trade for DeSean Jackson seems smart. The defense was crushed by injuries last season but that group should rebound. Doug Pederson is still the same guy who completely out-coached Bill Belichick, almost inarguably the greatest NFL coach ever, in a Super Bowl.
Yet there’s one big question the Eagles need to answer, and it’s the guy who looked like the MVP of the league late in the 2017 season. Wentz hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and with Foles off to Jacksonville there’s no safety net.
In each of the past four seasons, going back to his final year at North Dakota State, Wentz has dealt with major injuries: broken wrist in 2015, hairline rib fracture in the preseason of his 2016 rookie season, torn ACL in 2017 and fractured vertebra last season. The term “injury prone” can be used too often. Sometimes players catch bad luck in a violent game. But it’s a concerning pattern for Wentz, especially since the Eagles signed their franchise quarterback to a four-year, $128 million extension and their expected backup is unproven Nate Sudfeld.
Wentz obviously has MVP upside if he can stay healthy. He has already played at that level. There’s a good reason the Eagles gave him all that money and let Foles walk. Even with fractures in his back and a return from ACL surgery last season, Wentz had 3,074 yards and 21 touchdowns in 11 games with a 102.2 passer rating. Foles became a legend in Philly and Eagles fans will celebrate him there forever, but Wentz is still the one who can be a franchise quarterback for the next decade.
Wentz seems like the only big question. Everything else seems to be in place. Philadelphia has done a tremendous job building its roster. With any luck, maybe the Eagles are worrying about another Super Bowl hangover at this time next year.
The most notable offseason move with the Eagles was Nick Foles moving on to Jacksonville. No matter what happens the rest of Foles’ career he’ll be one of the most popular athletes in Philadelphia sports history, and for great reason. But as long as Carson Wentz stays healthy, that move isn’t too significant to the 2019 Eagles. We’ll see how that plays out. Philadelphia was aggressive as usual in free agency, the trade market and the draft. The Eagles added receiver DeSean Jackson, running back Jordan Howard and defensive lineman Hassan Ridgeway in separate low-cost trades. Signing defensive lineman Malik Jackson, the crown jewel of the 2016 free-agency class, after Jacksonville cut him wasn’t cheap but he’s a quality lineman. His deal was $30 million over three years. Cornerback Ronald Darby signed a one-year, $6.5 million contract to stay, and that seems like a fair price with Darby coming off a torn ACL. A one-year, $2.25 million reunion with defensive end Vinny Curry seems smart too. Some recognizable players walked, like Golden Tate, Jordan Hicks, Jordan Matthews and Jay Ajayi, but those were either expected or not too crushing. The draft was solid as usual. Trading up for offensive tackle Andre Dillard in the first round makes a strength even stronger, and running back Miles Sanders and receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside could play big roles right away.
If you have a quarterback who has dealt with major injuries each of the past few seasons, you want an offensive line that might be the best in football. Carson Wentz couldn’t ask for a better group to protect him. The Eagles prepared for life after left tackle Jason Peters by taking Andre Dillard in the first round. Jason Kelce is a fantastic center, Lane Johnson is one of the NFL’s best right tackles and guard Brandon Brooks has paid handsomely on a five-year, $40 million deal he signed in 2016. Brooks is coming off a torn Achilles but has reportedly made good progress in his rehab. Left guard Isaac Seumalo is the most anonymous member of the line, but he’s capable and the Eagles just gave him a three-year extension worth almost $16 million. The offensive line is the Eagles’ biggest strength, and that’s a good one to have.
When you scan the Eagles’ depth chart, it’s hard to find a weakness. This is a solid roster. There is, however, some uncertainty in the secondary. At cornerback, Jalen Mills has been dealing with a foot injury and Ronald Darby is coming off a torn ACL. At safety, Rodney McLeod is coming off a torn MCL and Malcolm Jenkins isn’t happy with his contract. Cornerback is unsettled though the Eagles have options in Mills, Darby, Avonte Maddox (who could emerge as a star after an intriguing rookie season), Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas. Everything could be resolved by the regular season, but the Eagles will be looking for positive developments in the defensive secondary through training camp and preseason.
Given Carson Wentz’s health history, Nate Sudfeld could end up being a big part of this NFL season. He’s mostly an unknown. He has shown flashes in the preseason, though his 2018 preseason line (524 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions, 58.1 completion percentage) won’t make Eagles fans sleep peacefully. Sudfeld got extended regular-season playing time once and was OK, completing 19-of-22 passes in a 2017 Week 17 game against Dallas but for only 134 yards in a shutout loss. There’s really no way of knowing if the 2017 sixth-round pick of the Redskins — Washington cut him at the end of preseason that year — would be capable of leading a potential Super Bowl team if he’s called upon. The Eagles need Wentz to stay healthy and that’s far from a guarantee.
Tight end Zach Ertz has always been a very good player for the Eagles, but his 2018 season set records and lifted him to an even higher level among the NFL’s elite players. Ertz set an NFL single-season record for tight ends with 116 catches, and had 1,163 yards. That far surpassed his previous career highs of 78 catches and 853 yards. Ertz is the model for the modern tight end, a chess piece who can line up anywhere and stress a defense. He has long been a highly productive tight end from the slot — about a third of his snaps last season came from the slot, via Player Profiler. His versatility allows the Eagles to get creative, especially with fellow tight end Dallas Goedert in two-tight end sets. Ertz is the one featured piece of a deep offense that otherwise likes to spread the ball around.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Carson Wentz is currently a little cheaper in Yahoo (QB10, 92.0 overall) than he is in the NFFC (QB7, 81.6 overall). As your fantasy broker, I advise you strongly consider the discount.
”The funny thing about the Eagles offense is that I love it for real-life purposes, but it’s a little too crowded for my fantasy taste. The team is overflowing with talented running backs, which makes me leery on prioritizing one of them — Doug Pederson and friends love to utilize multiple backs and multiple packages. I am not sure what DeSean Jackson has left in his age-33 season, but I know he’s a unique player who tilts coverage simply by being on the field — and he did make 18.9 YPC last year, tops in the league. Even all-world tight end Zach Ertz has to contend with the presence of emerging second-year tight end Dallas Goedert.
”I also have some misgivings about buying Alshon Jeffery at this stage of his career. In short, this is a crowded, wide usage tree. But it’s the most talented group Wentz has ever worked with, and remember Wentz’s theoretical upside — he was sitting on a likely MVP season in 2017 before his late injury. Now he’s two years removed from that blowout, and working with a loaded crew. A career season for Wentz seems likely.”
According to Football Outsiders Almanac, Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox tied for first among all NFL defenders with 24 quarterback hits, second with 38 quarterback knockdowns and tied for third in quarterback hurries. Cox doesn’t get the same publicity as Aaron Donald, and to be fair nobody is in Donald’s class. But Cox is one of the NFL’s elite defenders, and he finally got named to his first All-Pro team last season. Cox doesn’t turn 29 until December, and he’s among the 5-10 best defensive players in the NFL right now.
BESIDES ZACH ERTZ, WHO COULD HAVE A BIG YEAR AMONG EAGLES PASS CATCHERS?
The Eagles have a lot of intriguing pieces for Carson Wentz to throw to. Bucky Brooks, a former scout who works for NFL.com, rated the Eagles as the third-best receiving group in the league (that counts tight ends). Philadelphia has put together a group that complements each other very well. Alshon Jeffery is a true No. 1, and he should be healthier after playing the Super Bowl season through a torn rotator cuff. He had surgery after the Super Bowl and that affected him early last season. Nelson Agholor has been rumored to be on the trade block or a possible cut, but he was very good in 2017 and even if he isn’t around, rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside could replace his production from the slot. DeSean Jackson is one of the best deep threats in league history, the Eagles’ tight end duo is probably the best in the NFL and rookie running back Miles Sanders could be a big factor in the passing game. The depth means the ball should be spread around. The only pass catcher who will command a consistent and large number of targets is Zach Ertz. Even Jeffery has yet to have a 1,000-yard season in Philadelphia, though his target share could rise if Agholor or Arcega-Whiteside disappoint. Expect this group to take turns having big weeks, which isn’t a bad thing.
The Super Bowl hangover is real. While we can debate the reasons why, there’s too much history to deny it. The Eagles were far better than their record last season would indicate. When you look at the Eagles’ roster this season you realize quickly that this is one of the most talented teams in football. A lot of the season hinges on Carson Wentz’s health, but just because he has had a bad run of injuries doesn’t mean he’s doomed to be injured every year. There’s no doubt that with some better injury luck, Carson Wentz could be an MVP candidate and the Eagles can win a Super Bowl.
If the name “Nate Sudfeld” appears on your television screen in a prominent way this fall, then the Eagles have realized their worst-case scenario. While I’m hesitant to label Carson Wentz as injury prone — it’s not like he could have avoided tearing an ACL or breaking his back — it’s absolutely a concern. While Sudfeld could be a hidden gem and shock the world if he has to play, realistically the Eagles are in bad shape if Wentz goes down. And it’s hard to bet on Wentz making all 16 games this season. That’s scary considering the money the Eagles invested in their young quarterback this offseason. An ill-timed injury could cost the Eagles a shot at a special season.
There’s a good argument to be made the Eagles should be higher in these rankings. If someone wanted to put them in the top three or four it’s not egregious; there’s that much talent on hand and in the right places too. But the dropoff if Carson Wentz gets hurt is so enormous, it’s hard to ignore it. It’s also at least a slight possibility that Wentz won’t be quite the same after dealing with some serious injuries the past couple years. Hopefully Wentz plays all season and for many seasons to come, but we have to factor in the possibility he doesn’t. I’ll say the Eagles win the NFC East but drop enough games to keep them out of a first-round bye.
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