The Update: Philadelphia Eagles 2017 Preview

Justis Mosqueda

In an effort to break the two-paragraph preview trend of national writers, Setting the Edge has dedicated themselves to previewing all 32 teams in the NFL in a series called “The Update” which will focus on 1) where a team stands from a decision-maker standpoint, 2) where teams were efficient and inefficient last year by using percentile radar charts, 3) who the moving parts between the 2016 and 2017 seasons were and 4) where a team is trending heading into the 2017 regular season. Justis Mosqueda will be writing the team previews while Charles McDonald posts film breakdowns based on the writing. After posts on entire divisions are finished, they will discuss teams on division-specific Setting the Edge podcasts which you can find on SoundCloud and iTunes. Five stars only. Tell a friend.

I don’t want to rehash the same narratives over and over again, so here’s this excerpt from our Chicago Bears’ preview:

Winning close games is much closer to a coin flip than a tangible trait a quarterback or head coach has. From 2006 to 2015, only 15 teams (4.6%) were more than two games under .500 in close games. Of those 15 teams, every single one of them had an improved record the next season. Here’s the list:

  • 2006 Detroit Lions (1-8 in close games, 3-13 record to 7-9 record in 2007)
  • 2006 Jacksonville Jaguars (2-7 in close games, 8-8 record to 10-6 in 2007)
  • 2007 Miami Dolphins (1-6 in close games, 1-15 record to 11-5 record in 2008)
  • 2008 Green Bay Packers (1-7 in close games, 6-10 record to 11-5 record in 2009)
  • 2008 San Diego Chargers (2-7 in close games, 8-8 record to 13-3 record in 2009)
  • 2009 Washington Redskins (2-7 in close games, 4-12 record to 6-10 record in 2010)
  • 2010 Dallas Cowboys (3-8 in close games, 6-10 record to 8-8 record in 2011)
  • 2010 Cincinnati Bengals (2-7 in close games, 4-12 record to 9-7 record in 2011)
  • 2011 Minnesota Vikings (2-9 in close games, 3-13 record to 10-6 record in 2012)
  • 2012 Carolina Panthers (1-7 in close games, 7-9 record to 12-4 record in 2013)
  • 2012 Detroit Lions (3-8 in close games, 4-12 record to 7-9 record in 2013)
  • 2013 Houston Texans (2-9 in close games, 2-14 record to 10-6 record in 2014)
  • 2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-8 in close games, 2-14 record to 6-10 record in 2015)
  • 2015 New York Giants (3-8 in close games, 6-10 record to 11-5 record in 2016)
  • 2015 San Diego Chargers (3-8 in close games, 4-12 record to 5-11 record in 2016)

Every narrative you’ve been fed about teams winning close games and it having tangible value is factually incorrect. There are very few teams that win or lose significantly in close games in the regular season; that number either corrects itself in-season or the next season with only one team being the exception (we’ll get to them in our AFC South preview). The structure of the NFL Draft makes it so that you’re punished long-term by winning close games at a significant rate. Teams that win close games are playing above their talent and therefore receive a worse draft position. That doesn’t include the psychology of a coaching staff and front office that goes into the offseason overestimating their own talent level.

The Philadelphia Eagles were 1-6 in games within a touchdown last year. They got the short end of the stick and probably should have finished around 10-6 or 9-7 last season based on historical averages. They won the fewest single-score games in the NFL while also posting six multi-score wins, the fourth-best mark in the league behind the New England Patriots (10), Pittsburgh Steelers (7), Denver Broncos (7) and the Atlanta Falcons (7). That’s right, the only teams to win more games by multiple scores last season than the Eagles were three of the four playoff teams to advance to the conference championship games (they had one more multi-score win than the Green Bay Packers) and the 2015 Super Bowl champions.

Just based on the numbers alone, expect the Eagles to be one of the “rising” teams in the NFC this season. For reference, Football Outsider’s highly-respected DVOA metric had the Eagles as the fourth-best team in the league. If you treat close games as coin flips, the only team with a better mark (9.5 wins) for expected wins in the NFC last year would have been the Dallas Cowboys (10.5 wins) and Atlanta Falcons (11 wins). Only three teams in the AFC bested that mark in 2016 with the New England Patriots (12.5 wins), Kansas City Chiefs (10.5 wins) and Pittsburgh Steelers (10 wins).

Vegas has the Eagles winning 8.5 games this season, about half the distance between their total last year and their 2016 expected wins, if you treat close games as coin flips. Just assume the team improves.

Offense:

Backs: This time last year, rookie quarterback Carson Wentz was a third-string passer behind Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel. Wentz started for Philadelphia in Week 1, Bradford started for Minnesota in Week 2 and Daniel is in New Orleans. The message is clear: Wentz is the guy this coaching staff and front office is tying their job security to.

How did the passing game fair last season? Not so great. The team was 9th in sack percentage, 17th in completion percentage, 17th in interception percentage and 29th in yards per completion last season. Those numbers may not seem like a big deal, but the fact that Wentz was second in the NFL in turnovers last season and recorded 6.2 yards per pass attempt last year is a red flag, even for a rookie. He may not be “Peyton Manning pre-snap and Aaron Rodgers post-snap” after all.

While Daniels is gone, the team signed former starter Nick Foles on a two-year, $11 million deal that makes the backup quarterback the second-highest paid free agent signing, on an average salary basis, for the team this offseason.

The running back unit also struggled a bit last season. They finished 15th in run percentage, 18th in yards per carry, 25th in fumble percentage and 26th in TFL percentage in 2016. Four of their running backs recorded more than 20 receptions in Ryan Mathews (155 carries, 4.3 yards per carry), Darren Sproles (94 carries, 4.7 yards per carry), Wendell Smallwood (77 carries, 4.1 yards per carry) and Kenjon Barner (27 carries, 4.8 yards per carry). Barner signed with the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason, but the other three return.

Two other names were added to the backfield this offseason. The first is LeGarrette Blount, whose 3.9 yards per carry with the New England Patriots is worse than any back returning to the team with significant touches. Blount was a time-eater and a goal line option for the Patriots last season when he led the NFL in rushing touchdowns. Regressing in terms of yards per carry, where the team finished 18th league-wide compared to their 29th mark in yards per completion, isn’t something that this Eagles team can survive. That was also with Blount running behind a line that was significantly better on the first level of blocking.  Either way, the additions of Blount, who signed just a one-year, $1.15 million deal, and Donnel Pumphrey, a 176-pound fourth-round back from San Diego State, aren’t the type of talents that you’d assume could become full-time starters in a vacuum. Many will reference Pumphrey’s Mountain West statistics, but even Pumphrey’s backup was able to rush for 1,000 yards in 2016.

Cautious optimism is the key to the Eagles’ backfield. There are certainly names, but there isn’t one player who was a clear-cut starter in terms of efficiency in 2016.

Pass-Catchers: We can question Wentz or head coach Doug Pederson, but Philadelphia’s receivers have as much to do with their lack of a passing game as anything else.

These were the team’s leading receivers last season:

  • Zach Ertz (78 receptions, 10.5 yards per reception) [tight end]
  • Jordan Matthews (73 receptions, 11.0 yards per reception)
  • Sproles (52 receptions, 8.2 yards per reception) [running back]
  • Trey Burton (37 receptions, 8.8 yards per reception) [tight end]
  • Dorial Green-Beckham (36 receptions, 10.9 yards per reception)
  • Nelson Agholor (36 receptions, 10.1 yards per reception)

All of those names return, but it’s legitimately shocking that the Eagles didn’t have a single receiver who recorded over 30 receptions and a yards per reception mark north of 11 yards. According to ESPN’s yards per reception stats, 154 players caught at least 1.85 balls per game (just south of 30 receptions in a 16-game season), and 88 of those players (8 short of an average of three per team) had a yards per reception mark more than 11.0 yards. That’s an issue.

Football Outsiders has a stat called Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement which tries to put a number value on receiver play. 93 players had at least 50 passes sent their way. Of those 93 players, Green-Beckham ranked 87th, Agholor ranked 81st and Matthews ranked 76th. The team basically had three number three receivers playing starting roles last year.

Every major receiver and tight end is coming back this year, but two new faces could mix up the wide out room with the additions of Alshon Jeffery, who signed a one-year, $9.5 million “prove it” deal after leaving Chicago, and Torrey Smith, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal after his release from San Francisco.

Here’s how the receivers scored out in “DYAR” last season:

  • Jeffery: +134
  • Matthews: -1
  • Green-Beckham: -34
  • Agholor: -61
  • Smith: -78

If nothing else, Jeffery, even if for just one year, should kick up the competition at the position in Philadelphia.

Linemen: Eight players on the Eagles’ offensive line played in at least 20 percent of the team’s offensive snaps last season. Those names are Jason Kelce, Jason Peters, Brandon Brooks, Allen Barbre, Stefen Wisniewski, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Lane Johnson and Isaac Seumalo. All eight return along with a new signing in Chance Warmack, a former first-round pick guard who had his fifth-year option declined in Tennessee and signed just a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Eagles.

Competition should be high on the low end of the depth chart this year, but the higher end is a must improve too. While the team allowed just the 9th sack percentage in the league, a notably efficient mark considering future left tackle Johnson was out for a good chunk of the season, they also allowed the 26th TFL percentage in the NFL. Their running game was dead on arrival fairly often last season.

Defense:

Line of Scrimmage: The Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive line was solid last year. The team finished 5th in TFL percentage, 14th in sack percentage and 16th in yards per carry on the defensive side of the ball. There might actually be room for growth too.

The team returns defensive end Brandon Graham, a former first-round pick whose contributions will never match his sack total. Long-time starter Connor Barwin was a cap casualty who signed with the Los Angeles Rams on a one-year, $3.5 million deal as an outside linebacker, but the team brought in new faces at defensive end. Chris Long, coming off a one-year stint with the New England Patriots, and Derek Barnett of Tennessee, their first round pick in the 2017 draft. Long signed a two-year deal worth $4.5 million, but if he’s able to record say just eight sacks over the contract, that’s well below the market price for a sack.

Vinny Curry‘s second contract has held the team back, but he’s going to have to compete to get on the field from now on. Curry could start opposite of Graham or be the fourth defensive end in the rotation. This is a make-or-break year for the lineman. He’s recorded just six sacks over the last two seasons combined and is on Year 2 of a five-year, $47.25 million contract.

The stronghold at defensive tackle is back-to-back Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox. Opposite of him recently was Bennie Logan, who signed a one-year, $8 million “prove it” deal with the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason. Logan’s replacement will be Timmy Jernigan, who was brought in from Baltimore at the cost of the Eagles and Ravens flipping 25 spots in the third round. Jernigan is one of the better young defensive linemen in the league, but he’s at the end of his rookie contract. One would assume that this means that the Ravens wanted to get the most out of the value of his last year and that the Eagles are willing to pay him long-term. The depth at defensive tackle gets shallow after Cox and Jernigan, but they have a clear starting-caliber defensive line in Graham-Cox-Jernigan-whoever wins that three-way battle at defensive end.

Backs: Fumble percentage is usually tied to teams flying to the football on the second level of the defense. The Eagles finished 31st there, which isn’t great for their linebackers. With that said, three linebackers played significant snaps last season in Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks and Mychal Kendricks. All of them return, and there were no significant bodies added to the position. Expect status quo here.

The secondary was a bit of an odd spot for the Eagles statistically last season. They were 6th in completion percentage and 7th in interception percentage, but 25th in yards per completion. On paper, they cover well and get after the football. On paper, when they allow completions, it’s disastrous.

The team lost Nolan Carroll on a three-year, $10 million deal to the Dallas Cowboys, one of their biggest losses in free agency in terms of money, but they return three of their four most-played defensive backs in safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod and cornerback Jalen Mills. The team spent two Day 2 selections at cornerback in Washington’s Sidney Jones, who was considered to be a first-round player before he tores his Achilles during his pro day, and West Virginia’s Rasul Douglas. If Jones can see the field this year, that would be a huge development for the Eagles.

All in all, there’s some hope that young cornerbacks Mills (a 2016 draft pick), Jones and Douglas become really solid contributors for Philadelphia over the next couple of seasons. The team’s yards per completion mark hinges on that coming to fruition.

2017 Prediction: The numbers say that the Eagles are about as close as a lock as you’re going to get for a team that rises this year. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why though. Offensive and defensive skill players aren’t a strength for the team, but they have enough new names at virtually every position of need that there’s bound to be a surprise somewhere on the roster.

Both sides of the trenches should be better this season. Their offensive line shouldn’t have to go through the injury and suspension rotation that they did in 2016, and the tackle tandem of Jason Peters and Lane Johnson is the best in the league for my money, with the only bookend pairing close being Green Bay’s David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga. On the defensive line, Timmy Jernigan, Derek Barnett and Chris Long should give the team a healthy rotation, no matter if they want to field four defensive ends or a traditional style of defense on third downs.

I want to buy into the squad being a playoff team based off of their 2016 numbers and 2017 acquisitions, but it’s just hard for me to imagine that they take the reigns from the Dallas Cowboys this season. In a competitive NFC East, it’s going to be hard to come out as a wild card team, but Philadelphia has as good of a shot at it as anyone.

Video Breakdown: Philadelphia’s Passing Game