The NFL season is approaching, and Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams, counting down our power rankings with one team a day until No. 1 is unveiled on Aug. 4, when the preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton. Go to our Facebook page after you read the preview for all airing of grievances; we’ll have a daily discussion there to go with each preview.
Before the 2012 season, the Philadelphia Eagles were a relative bastion of consistency in an NFL where change is the only constant. The franchise had suffered just one losing season in the new millennium, and Andy Reid had been the head coach since 1999. However, it all fell apart last season, despite the fact that a number of high-profile player acquisitions had some (well, former backup quarterback Vince Young) calling this a "Dream Team." A fever dream, perhaps. The Eagles fell to 4-12, the worst record during Reid's tenure, and the only question was whether Reid would finish out the season before he got the axe.
Reid is off in Kansas City now, and to replace him, owner Jeff Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman went a bit atypical and offered a lot of money to former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. Though Kelly has no specific NFL experience, he's been a big name in the NFL for a while now, because his speed no-huddle concepts have become quite the game-changer in the pros. The New England Patriots had consulted with Kelly about his system as they installed it before the 2012 season, and the Baltimore Ravens rode some similar concepts to their second Super Bowl title.
Of course, there are questions about how a full-scale college transition like Kelly's will work in the NFL, and there's also the matter of new defensive coordinator Billy Davis superimposing some 3-4 principles on personnel that might not be a perfect fit. But those who played for Kelly at Oregon, and know how the NFL works, insist that the Eagles are in good hands.
"Chip's offense isn't necessarily set in stone," Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl center Max Unger told me last November. "The reason he's so good is that he can adapt to the players he has, and create the offense around what they do well. If -- and I think when -- he eventually goes to the NFL, I think it's going to be a matter of finding the offense that works well with the personnel that he has. I don't necessarily see him doing a total ... the same exact offense he has now. It will be interesting. If he goes and when he goes, I'll be bummed [for Oregon]. But he's a very, very good coach."
Running back Kenjon Barner, who gained 1,767 yards for the Ducks in 2012 and is now with the Carolina Panthers, is equally convinced.
"I've said it time and time again -- I've never been around a coach, or known of a coach, who has the type of mind that Coach Kelly has," Barner told me in January during preparation for the Senior Bowl. "When it comes to football, especially offensive football, the man's a genius. You have different coaches who are already in the NFL pulling at him and trying to pick his brain on the read-option offense, there's no better time for him. In my mind, he's the originator of this, and him being with the Eagles, I feel that he already has prime pieces to the puzzle, and he can be very successful there.
"I don't see that transition being a problem -- I think he'll be great."
Will the Eagles be great? That's a far more open-ended question, because there are positional issues everywhere. One thing's for sure -- they'll be a lot more fun to watch in 2013 than they were in 2012.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Unknown, but it will certainly be different.
The Eagles either cut, traded, or allowed contracts to expire for 15 players from the 2012 squad. Draft picks Lane Johnson (OT-Oklahoma) and Zach Ertz (TE-Stanford) will see starting time immediately. The Eagles acquired former Houston Texans linebacker Connor Barwin to lead the charge in those 3-4 schemes, but many of their acquisitions are low-risk guys who have mixed athletic potential and maddening inconsistency through their NFL careers -- guys like RB Felix Jones, S Kenny Phillips, DE Everette Brown, and S Patrick Chung. The Philly fanbase is a notoriously impatient one, but the bleacher creatures will have to understand that this depleted roster can't be corrected overnight.
Best offseason acquisition: Johnson. The Eagles have placed too much faith in the outstanding but oft-injured Jason Peters as their left tackle, and Johnson has a rare combination of strength and athleticism. He's the perfect anchor on either side for Kelly's quick-strike power zone offense. Ideally, Johnson would play right tackle and Peters would return to the left side after missing the entire 2012 season, but Johnson has the skills to get it done either way.
Biggest hole on the roster: Cornerback. Both Nnamdi Asomugha and Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie are out the door after disappointing seasons, but their replacements may fare no better. Bradley Fletcher was more a nickel defender in St. Louis, and Cary Williams, who was given a three-year, $17 million contract in March, seems more interested in recitals and sconces (sconces?) than getting on the field at this point, and his stats weren't any better than those of the guys he's replacing.
Position in flux: Quarterback, and in a big way. Kelly has the choice of three guys to run his offense, and their skill sets couldn't be more different. Michael Vick would seem to be the ideal short-term option, because he's got an arm to make all NFL throws, and enough mobility to keep defenses on their heels. Second-year man Nick Foles isn't nearly as mobile, but he's effectively so, and he impressed in sub duty after Vick started suffering his seemingly inevitable injuries. And fourth-round pick Matt Barkley is more of a play-action guy with a limited arm, but a great head for the game. Oh ... don't forget Dennis Dixon, who played for Kelly at Oregon and could bag a spot on the practice squad. Kelly has said that he'll take all the time he needs to make that starting call, and it's going to be a tough one, because his competitors are so very different.
Player you may not have heard of yet, but will soon: Defensive end Brandon Graham's great season was lost in the Eagles' defensive meltdown, and the idea that sacks alone determine a pass-rusher's worth. Per Football Outsiders' game-charting, Graham was on the field for just 421 snaps in 2012, but he amassed 26 quarterback hurries, good for 10th in the NFL. Graham will switch to outside linebacker in the Eagles' new system, and though he'll technically be behind Barwin and Trent Cole on the depth chart, we've seen enough players break out big-time after low-sack, high-hurry seasons to think he could do the same. So, don't let Graham's 5.5 sacks in 2012 fool you -- this guy is on the verge.
Stat fact: Want to know why Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie were shown the door? In 2012, per FO, the Eagles became the fifth team in NFL history to allow more than 30 passing touchdowns and pick off fewer than 10 passes. Whether you're into stats or not, that ain't good.
This team’s best-case scenario for this season is: Kelly's offense confounds NFL defenses, the new 3-4 schemes bear fruit, the right quarterback takes an enormous step forward, the secondary isn't entirely craptacular, and LeSean McCoy becomes the next Barry Sanders. That might get the Eagles past .500 in the relatively weak NFC East.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: Whoever the quarterback is, he's undermanned and overwhelmed by the demands of the speed no-huddle, the offensive line remains a work in progress, the new cornerbacks look far too much like the old cornerbacks, and Kelly is confounded by the NFL. We don't think Kelly is the next Steve Spurrier or anything, but this could very well happen at first. Pro football is just a different deal.
The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Running back LeSean McCoy. "Shady" has as much talent and determination as any man at his position in the league, and behind Kelly's blocking concepts, he could have a career year ... if he can stay healthy.
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26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
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