Team Previews: Philadelphia Eagles

Team Previews: Philadelphia Eagles

This article is part of our Team Previews series.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

THE SKINNY

The Eagles are looking to the future at the quarterback position, but there are still playmakers on both sides of the ball. This isn't a rebuild in the traditional sense of the word, and with the NFC East still one of the shakiest divisions in football, a playoff spot is certainly plausible.

THREE KEY STORY LINES

BRADFORD FIGHTING FOR HIS FUTURE

In yet another NFL offseason where the Eagles have been front and center, one of the most contentious parts of Howie Roseman's reboot as the team's top executive is his treatment of QB Sam Bradford. The Eagles signed Bradford to a two-year deal in March, before trading up and drafting Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in April's draft. Bradford's displeasure with the move was well-documented, as his agent, Tom Condon, requested a trade and spoke publicly about the situation. After skipping the initial weeks of voluntary workouts, Bradford returned to the team and quickly took hold of the No. 1 job under center. In the end, if he wants to be a starter in 2017, he'll have to play well enough to convince the Eagles, or another team, that he's worthy of big money. It seemed, at the end of 2015, that he had reached that standing in league circles. However, the upcoming season will be another prove-it year for the veteran signal-caller, who will need to play better than his middling history to earn a consistent starting gig going forward.

WHO'S RUNNING BEHIND THE IMPROVED O-LINE?

After two exquisite years of running the ball with LeSean McCoy, Chip Kelly decided to gamble big on DeMarco Murray in 2015. Murray was unable to gain a foothold behind a crumbling offensive line, though, which aided in Kelly's eventual dismissal. In an effort to rebuild the rushing attack, the team invested in blocking with the acquisition of free agent G Brandon Brooks, selection of G Isaac Seumalo in the draft and signing a handful of utility O-linemen. Now, new coach Doug Pederson needs to figure out who will carry the ball. He loved to run during his tenure as offensive coordinator in Kansas City, inspiring production from no-name backs in 2015 when Jamaal Charles was injured. With the Eagles, Pederson will bank on the delicate Ryan Mathews staying healthy and contributions from a combination of Darren Sproles and rookie Wendell Smallwood. It's far from a sure thing, but if Pederson's experience in Kansas City says anything, the viewing public should wait before judging the team's backfield. There just might be another Charcandrick West biding his time in Philadelphia, ready to break loose.

FEELING THE SCHWARTZ EFFECT

With the disappointing Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso experiments firmly in the rear view mirror, the Eagles' defense has a different tenor heading into 2016. Eager to regain the glory of Jim Johnson's reign, new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is reverting back to a 4-3 scheme, with an emphasis on pressure and sacking opposing quarterbacks into oblivion. No player should be more excited about the change than stud DE Fletcher Cox, who was stuck plugging and gapping in the previous regime. Nevertheless, Cox still racked up 9.5 sacks in 2015, and with a defense tailored to his skill set, the 25-year-old could truly become a household name. Fueled by Cox and his mates on the front line, the increased pressure under Schwartz may have residual effects on the secondary. Wary of the eventual squeeze, the Eagles made a free agent splash in safety Rodney McLeod, a heavy hitter who piled up five interceptions, five fumble recoveries and seven forced fumbles over the past three seasons with St. Louis. If the revised framework clicks, the defense could keep the team afloat well into January.

KEY JOB BATTLE

After the release of Riley Cooper and underwhelming seasons from a majority of the team's corps of young wide receivers, there's discussion over who, aside from Jordan Matthews, will line up as the second starting wideout in Week 1. Rueben Randle, who compiled 797 yards and eight touchdowns as a Giant in 2015, is certainly a viable candidate after signing a one-year contract with the division rival. He was moderately productive alongside Eli Manning in recent campaigns, and while he benefitted from the attention paid to Odell Beckham, the skills are there. If not Randle, Nelson Agholor, Philadelphia's first-round pick last year, could land the job, despite an unremarkable first season as a pro.

PIVOTAL PLAYER

Jordan Matthews

Under the guidance of previous coach Chip Kelly, Matthews tallied eight touchdowns in back-to-back seasons to begin his career but has plateaued at 997 yards to date. Heading into his third campaign, he's poised to add routes on the outside to his typical work from the slot as he develops into the Eagles' true No. 1 target in the passing attack.

BAROMETER

RISING: Zach Ertz
It's been predicted ad nauseam, but this is the year Ertz breaks out. As long as he's healthy for Week 1, unlike 2015, he'll be a top-notch tight end option and one of Sam Bradford's favorite targets.

FALLING: Darren Sproles
An aging Sproles, 33, saw his production decline precipitously as 2015 went on. He's never truly caught Sam Bradford's eye in the passing game, and the selection of Wendell Smallwood could further reduce his touches.

SLEEPER: Nelson Agholor
Agholor was nearly invisible as a rookie. Still, there's plenty of hope in the organization for the 23-year-old. Chip Kelly's monotonous offense is gone, and Agholor will have a chance to prove himself to a new coach.

THE INJURY FRONT

Ryan Mathews, RB – While history suggests that Mathews could miss time with another injury, he's recovered from offseason groin surgery, which was prompted by a nagging in-season issue. With DeMarco Murray gone, Mathews enters training camp as the leading all-around option out of the backfield.

Sam Bradford, QB – Yet again, Sam Bradford couldn't avoid the injury bug, sitting out Weeks 11 and 12 due to a shoulder injury and concussion. While he finished the season with three consecutive 300-yard efforts, it's unknown how he'll fare in the exchange of offensive systems.

Jordan Hicks, LB – Taking the NFL by storm, Hicks notched three fumble recoveries, two interceptions, and a touchdown in eight games, before suffering a season-ending pectoral in Week 9. Medically cleared by early April, the middle linebacker appears set for a true breakout.

IDP FOCUS

Fletcher Cox, DT – Cox signed a massive extension in the offseason, and he'll now be doing his best to show the Eagles they made the right decision. He accrued 9.5 sacks in a two-gap defense last year; in coordinator Jim Schwartz's aggressive system, he should be an absolute force.

Rodney McLeod, S – With a nose for turnovers, McLeod will join forces with fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins, allowing perhaps even more freedom to make impact plays. In any event, Schwartz will likely deploy McLeod in a similar fashion to his term with the Rams.

Bennie Logan, DT – Often lost in the histrionics over Fletcher Cox is the fact that Logan can flat out play. The shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense could unleash Logan's pass-rush ability, though expectations should be tempered due to his sack tally (three) in three seasons to date.

OFFSEASON MOVES

KEY ACQUISITIONS:

Carson Wentz –– QB (Rd. 1, No. 2 – North Dakota State)
Philly's QB of the future is interesting pick-and-stash candidate.

Rueben Randle – WR (from Giants)
After uninspiring year from wideout corps, adds speed and skill.

Rodney McLeod – S (from Rams)
Helps shore up shaky secondary with youthful presence.

BRANDON BROOKS – G (from Texans)
Provides answer at right guard after two years of uncertainty.

KEY LOSSES:

DeMarco Murray – RB (to Titans)
Despite necessary break, not many concrete solutions at running back.

CEDRIC THORNTON – DE (to Cowboys)
Experienced, productive lineman now leaves a lot up to young players.

Byron Maxwell – CB (to Dolphins)
Tough one-year stint, but departure makes cornerback a question.

DEMECO RYANS – LB (FA)
On the decline, but was defense's key organizer and leader.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Hermann
Adam Hermann is a student at Drexel University and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He has previously written for Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia and SB Nation.
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