When Philadelphia finished 7-9 in 2015, it was a disappointing season that resulted in Head Coach Chip Kelly’s dismissal. When the team matched that record in 2016, it had a bit of a different feel.
The Eagles’ defense improved in every important metric last season and the team, for the first time since Donovan McNabb, appeared to have found a long-term keeper at QB. Carson Wentz was far from perfect during his rookie campaign, but he showed enough promise coming out of North Dakota State to feed fan optimism heading into this season.
Can he and the team keep the positive momentum moving and push for a playoff spot in 2017? Or will the city of Brotherly Love have to hate on another postseason-free offseason when the calendar turns to 2018?
Brandon Gowton, manager and editor in chief at Bleeding Green Nation, shares his thoughts.
Zoneblitz: The Eagles finished 7-9 for the second year in a row, but appear to have found a QB and improved on defense by 99 points allowed. How would you assess the 2016 season?
Gowton: The 2015 Eagles and the 2016 Eagles may have finished with the same record, but the most recent team was clearly much better. Last year’s Eagles blew out some good teams and their losses came in close contests. In 2016, Philadelphia finished tied for the ninth best point differential (+38) and tied for the seventh best turnover differential (+8). Compare that to how they finished 20th (-53) and 25th (-5) in those categories in 2015. The Eagles were far from a perfect team but they were a little better than their record indicated.
Zoneblitz: What were your thoughts on Carson Wentz’ first season – was the trade up to get him worthwhile, how does he need to improve and what is his upside?
Gowton: Carson Wentz’s first season was filled with ups and downs. Hard to definitively say if the trade was worth it at this point, but so far he looks promising. At the very least, the rookie flashed franchise quarterback potential. He needs to improve his footwork and refine his mechanics going into Year 2 and moving forward. If he can polish his game, he projects to be a top 10 passer in the league. The intangibles are there. Now the tangibles just need to get better.
Zoneblitz: What is your assessment of Doug Pederson as head coach after one season and what are your thoughts on the body of work of GM Howie Roseman in the years since he has gained more power?
Gowton: It’s hard to truly evaluate Pederson’s first season. As with Wentz, there were ups and downs. But it’s hard to get a full read on him given the team’s complete lack of offensive talent. The pieces weren’t in place for the Eagles to have much success. Pederson did a passable job in Year 1, but there’s room for improvement. As for Roseman, the Eagles are 56-56 since he took over in 2010. The Eagles are 0-2 in the playoffs in that span. There’s no doubt he’s made some good moves over the years; he’s not all bad. But so far he hasn’t been anything great either. His legacy in Philadelphia will ultimately be defined by the Wentz pick. If Wentz improves, Roseman will be in great shape. If not, he’ll be out of a job.
Zoneblitz: What caused the 99-point improvement in the Eagles points allowed total in 2016 and how does the unit need to improve in 2017?
Gowton: The addition of Jim Schwartz was a critical one. He’s still considered to be one of the better defensive coordinators in the league. Philadelphia’s defense had some rough outings in 2016, but they also looked elite at times. The Eagles shut down Atlanta’s top-ranked offense at one point. They also held the Steelers to only three points. Philadelphia needs improved cornerback play in 2017. The corners will be in better position to succeed, too, if the pass rush improves.
Zoneblitz: The top three picks last weekend were a defensive lineman and two defensive backs followed by a RB and a WR – what did you think of the draft and what holes does the team still have to fill before the season?
Gowton: I kind of feel indifferent about the draft as a whole. The Eagles did a good job of addressing needs, but I’m not sure how many truly impact player they got. It looks like a solid draft more than it does a home run draft. Of course, the Sidney Jones pick is an X-factor. If he can get fully healthy, which might not happen in time until the 2018 season, the draft looks great. One of the problems with this year’s draft is it’s defined by the lack of acquiring a legitimate three-down running back to help out Wentz and take pressure off the young passer. That’s the biggest need the Eagles still need to fill.
Zoneblitz: How is this team in the trenches on either side of the ball?
Gowton: The offensive line figures to be pretty good. Jason Peters is still playing at a high level despite his age. The left guard situation isn’t perfectly clear but the Eagles have a lot of depth and competition at that spot. The same goes for center, unless Jason Kelce is back. Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson form a good right guard/right tackle combo, assuming Johnson can avoid any more suspensions.
On defense, the Eagles might have one of the better defensive lines in the league. Brandon Graham had a very strong year in 2016. Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan could be quite the combo playing next to each other. 2017 first round pick Derek Barnett will have a chance to get snaps at defensive end and will rotate with the likes of Vinny Curry and Chris Long.
Zoneblitz: It sounds like Ryan Mathews will be cut. The Eagles’ RB corps is incredibly small – what’s the plan for establishing a run game in 2017?
Gowton: Great question. One would think the Eagles have to either trade for someone (Mark Ingram?) or sign a veteran running back. The team signed Corey Clement, a bigger back compared to their other ones, in undrafted free agency, so he’ll have a chance to push for a spot on the team. But it’s not a great looking group right now.
Zoneblitz: A largely disappointing receiving corps was supplemented by Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith this offseason. Does the team have the weapons to complement Carson Wentz? What needs to improve?
Gowton: Jeffery is a huge addition for the Eagles since it gives Wentz a legitimate No. 1 target. We’ll have to see just how good the other guys are. Smith had some good years in Baltimore but some really bad years in San Francisco recently. The two rookies the Eagles drafted — Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson — probably aren’t ready to be major contributors right away. Jordan Matthews could return but he’s rumored to be on the block. I wouldn’t say Philadelphia is stacked with weapons just yet but this receiving corps certainly has the potential to be much improved upon 2016’s group.
Zoneblitz: What’s going to happen with disappointing Nelson Agholor and inconsistent Jordan Matthews?
Gowton: Agholor is essentially guaranteed a spot on this year’s roster due to his salary. The Eagles would actually lose $2.3 million in cap space by cutting him, and Philadelphia is already tight against the cap. Nothing should (or will) be given to him, unlike past years. He’ll have to earn any playing time he gets and likely also help out on special teams, assuming he’s even active on game day.
Matthews could easily be traded still. The Eagles might figure they won’t be able to re-sign him next offseason so they might as well get value for him now. Philadelphia won’t look to move him just for anything in return, but they’d probably jump at something like a third-round pick.
Zoneblitz: How far do you think Philadelphia is from competing for a postseason run?
Gowton: I think the Eagles can make the playoffs in 2017. But I don’t see more than one playoff win at most. So maybe next year. It’s really all about how much Wentz improves and can carry this team.
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