By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — While I’m not much of a fan of chase scenes in films – especially when they are clearly being used as space-eaters to cover up a lame plot – there are enough storylines woven into the fabric of the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles that there is little to no reason not to cut to the chase from the jump.
What should we expect this season, the second in the tenure of head coach Doug Pederson and key members of his staff (offensive coordinator Frank Reich and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz) and second in the redemption of de facto general manager Howie Roseman and sidekick Joe Douglas?
Enough intrigue to rival Game of Thrones, that’s what.
Honestly, and not to cop out, but I can’t tell you. Not in terms of wins and losses. Overall, I think this team could be a bit better than last year’s 7-9 squad that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on too many occasions.
But the schedule is pretty exhaustive, beginning with two road games against the Redskins and Chiefs. And if the Eagles come in for their home opener against the Giants in Week 3 at 0-2, they are in must-win territory in September and could be behind an 8-ball that will grow to the size of the world’s largest 8-ball in Tipton, Missouri.
One would suspect the Eagles will again find themselves in close games, putting the magnifying glass on just a handful plays that will tip the scales one way or the other in those few contests.
Neither 6-10 nor 10-6 would surprise me, although I find it difficult to see this team scale the 8-8 wall without a few yet-unknown stars being hatched along the way.
As it is, we have the guys we can count on – and the lost causes we probably know we really can’t – and those somewhere in between.
As we now scrutinize the 53-man roster heading into Week 1, it seems to be more one of hope than nope, but a blessing from the Pope wouldn’t hurt, as bad bounces and injuries – not to mention gameday decisions from Pederson – might make the ultimate difference.
And now, if you dare, let’s sort out this Magical Mystery Tour:
QUARTERBACK (2): *Carson Wentz, Nick Foles
Summary: Unlike last year, less latitude will be given to Wentz, who was thrown into a sink-or-swim narrative in 2016 when Sam Bradford was dealt to Minnesota with the season beckoning. Although Wentz set some rookie records, and took almost every snap, most of the records – such as Bradford’s for completions by a rookie (379) were the result of Wentz setting the franchise mark for passes thrown (607) and by throwing the second most all-time by a rookie in NFL history. All in all, we can safely say that Wentz – for whom the Eagles gave up a great deal in assets to acquire at second overall – treaded water when tossed in the deep end.
What has changed between then and now? Wentz sought counsel from a quarterback guru, took his receivers for pre-camp getaway in his native North Dakota and studied more film of himself than Warren “You’re So Vain” Beatty. For good measure, the Eagles reached back into their recent past and brought in Foles, the last Eagles quarterback to play in a Pro Bowl, to serve as backup. Assuming Foles’ aching throwing arm heals up before being pressed into action, this seems like an upgrade over a raw Wentz and Chase Daniel as backup.
RUNNING Back (5): *LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles (left), Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement (R), Donnel Pumphrey (R)
Summary: For a position where the leading rusher in the preseason, Byron Marshall, landed on the practice squad, this group sure attracted a lot of attention. Blount, who led the league in touchdowns with 18 in New England last year, didn’t do much in the preseason, while Sproles didn’t play at all as a precaution heading into what will likely be the final year of his borderline Hall of Fame career. There were barely any snaps for Smallwood, the talented but oft-dinged sophomore back who could prove to be an X-factor between Blount’s power game and Sproles’ as a third-down option. That left the discussion between that of compare and contrast between Clement and Pumphrey, who was drafted in the fourth round to ostensibly be the next Sproles in 2018. Thing is, if Clement were the fourth-round pick and Pumphrey the undrafted free agent, it would have been a quick conversation. As it was, Clement – a South Jersey native and this year’s Rocky Balboa figure who had a strong senior year at Wisconsin – played too well to cut. The harsh reality about Pumphrey was that he looks more like a poor man’s Kenjon Barner, a former underused Eagle just released by the Chargers, than a poor man’s Sproles.
This may all be much ado about nothing. Sproles will get the most touches, and the hope is that Wentz has mastered the art of the screen pass to make the best use of Sproles in the open field, while Blount will be the guy in short yardage and the goal line and the end of games when trying to secure leads. In between, there should be plenty of chances – 10 touches, maybe – for Smallwood.
TIGHT END (2): *Zach Ertz, Brent Celek
Summary: For the first time since Ertz was nabbed in the second round in 2013, this is not a power-sharing arrangement. It’s Ertz’s chance to prove himself to be an upper-echelon tight end, and he will need to do that with more than just a few big games to pad his numbers. Ertz will likely benefit from the addition of NFL-caliber receivers on the outside and burgeoning chemistry with Wentz. Celek, still a reliable underneath target, likely winds down his career here blocking and being a spiritual leader.
UNCLASSIFIED (1): Trey Burton
Summary: You could just label the fourth-year man out of Florida a tight end and be done with it, but, even there, it’s a tough call whether his spot on the depth chart is before or after Celek. Burton caught 37 passes last year – for an average just under nine yards per reception and one touchdown. The plan is seemingly for that catch total to go up to the 45-55 range, for maybe a 10-yard average and a few more scores. That will come with Burton lining up as a traditional tight end, a motion tight end, a slot receiver and out of the backfield. Since it is likely the Eagles dress just three running backs on game day, Burton would be next up in the dire event of two injuries. Ditto at quarterback, with only two, and long snapper. Did we mention that Burton is one of the team’s best special teams players as well?
WIDE RECEIVER (6): *Alshon Jeffrey, *Torrey Smith, *Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins (R), Marcus Johnson, Shelton Gibson (R)
Summary: So, a year ago, Jordan Matthews was going to move from his comfort zone at slot receiver to wherever Pederson felt he had the best match-up for his default No. 1 receiver. Starting outside were Nelson Agholor, then coming off an uneventful rookie year, and the infamous Josh Huff. A year later, after trading Matthews – in spite of his kinship with Wentz – Agholor moves to the slot and legit veteran outside receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith step into the mix. They do so looking to reclaim some lost mojo on their recent production, but the preseason revealed the obvious upgrade in skill and professionalism. This is the last chance for Agholor to show a pulse – especially with Hollins, a fluid rookie, waiting in the wings. Johnson is the more under-the-radar “Rocky” story. Cut last year and re-signed in the offseason, he shined in camp enough that Roseman began working the phones to bring in corners, and then he nailed down a roster spot while worrying about his family back home in the Houston area. Right now, Johnson (6-foot-1, 205 pounds, sub-4.5 40-yard dash) is a more size-speed guy than a finished product but, if dressed, will help on special teams. Gibson, like Pumphrey, only made the team because he was a draft pick – although he did look somewhat more in the flow of the offense in the final preseason game.
Summary: From the outside looking in, this is one of the best lines in the whole NFC, if not the whole NFL. From this view? Eh. I’m not even sure if it’s the best in the NFC East, but I’ll take second – behind the Cowboys – and it will have to be in order for Wentz to utilize his new targets and for a better run/pass balance to be achieved. Peters, like Sproles and Celek, is nearing the end of the line. Unlike them, the success of the team rides more directly on his shoulders. Next to the aging longtime left tackle will be a first-year starter, and second-year man, Seumalo. There is upside there, but also a learning curve. While Kelce does some things that most centers don’t, like blocking 20 yards downfield on screens, he remains like the shortstop who hits 25 home runs but can’t crack the Mendoza line and isn’t really much more than an average fielder. His shortcoming is physicality in the trenches. Whenever the Eagles face a 3-4 team with a stout nose tackle, they are at an immediate disadvantage. The jury remains out on right guard Brooks, who was an above-average run blocker and below-average pass protector, making him an average player who had some personal issues going on as well. Right tackle Johnson is much like Ertz, his fellow member of the 2013 draft class. He goes in as a Pro bowl talent who still has to pay his own way to get there. The Eagles will start the season with only three reserves – center/guard Wisniewski, guard Warmack and tackle Vatai – but all have starting experience. In the case of Wisniewski, quite frankly, it might be an upgrade if pressed into action at center or guard.
DEFENSIVE END (5): *Brandon Graham, *Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, Chris Long, Steven Means
Summary: In a calculated risk, Roseman and Co. decided to address the secondary – in a draft loaded with blue-chip corners – by improving the pass rush and drafting Barnett in the first round. Time will tell if it was luxury they couldn’t afford, but the early glimpses of Barnett are that of an absolute beast who will likely overtake the perpetually underachieving Curry as the starter right before or after the bye week (Nov. 12). Long provides a steady veteran presence after winning a ring with the Patriots last year, while Means just played too well, for the second preseason in a row, to cut. As a matter of fact, this onetime journeyman received a contract extension. Graham, a second-team All-Pro choice last year, will get the most snaps in what will be a heavily rotated group.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE (5): *Fletcher Cox, *Timmy Jernigan, Beau Allen, Destiny Veao, Elijah Qualls (R)
Summary: With all due respect to Bennie Logan, who tended to break down by midseason and not draw significant double teams away from Cox, Jernigan’s ability to play in the other team’s backfield is an upgrade the brass is counting on. Allen just returned to the fold after a freak injury while working out in the offseason, but should get up to game speed and reprise his third tackle role. In the meantime, the cat-quick Veaeo and intriguing Qualls will get chances to appear on the radar.
Summary: Behind what appears to be a defensive line that might be stealing the headlines reserved for the offensive line, this group – if healthy – has a chance to do some easy cleanups and make plays. Hicks, in the middle, could arguably be the best player on the defense and is the unit’s most ascendant player. Bradham is earning his doctorate in Schwartz’s system, but more snaps will have to be found for a playmaker like Kendricks, who appears to be hitting his prime. Though essentially a rookie after missing last season, Walker is the likely fourth linebacker, while Goode and Grugier-Hill will be looked on to excel on special teams.
OUTSIDE CORNER (4): *Ronald Darby, *Jalen Mills, Jaylen Watkins, Rasul Douglas (R)
Summary: The Achilles’ heel of the defense for what seems like infinity will hopefully got a boost from a consistent pass rush, linebackers who excel in coverage and the combination of substantive additions. If that sounds familiar, it is almost verbatim of what I wrote last year about another cast of medicine men brought in to cure our ills at cornerback. The difference this year is that we are not looking at stop-gap guys. There seems to be a plan and vision of a future devoid of a revolving door of Bradley Fletchers and Leodis McKelvins. Darby, a former second-round pick of the Bills, has all the requisite physical tools and is immediately inserted as the No. 1 of the future after being acquired in a swap for Matthews and a third-round pick. There will still be a learning curve, as with Mills, a second-year man who played as well as could be expected in extended snaps last season as a seventh-round pick. He eventually will go to the slot when Sidney Jones, the 2017 second-round pick red-shirted this year with a ruptured Achilles, returns next season. Watkins is the defense’s version of Burton. In addition to special teams prowess, he can line up anyway in the secondary. Douglas, who led the nation in interceptions last year as a first-year starter at West Virginia, was drafted in the third round and is likely not to dress much on game day. He remains a work in progress but also part of a light at the end of tunnel that finally isn’t an oncoming train.
SLOT CORNER (2): *Patrick Robinson, Dexter McDougle
Summary: Robinson is this year’s lone carpet-bagger whose claim to fame is being a first-round pick and claim to shame is not living up to that before seeking refuge here. To Roseman’s credit, seeing Robinson getting torched by young receivers early in camp was enough to add Darby – albeit at the high cost of Matthews while banking on Agholor to arise from his coma and fill the void. To Robinson’s credit, he embraced a chance to stay on as the slot corner and made Ron Brooks expendable. While McDougle made the team after being added in a last-minute trade, he is only an insurance policy right now.
SAFETY (4): *Malcolm Jenkins, *Rodney McLeod, Corey Graham, Chris Maragos
Summary: Theoretically, a strong point. Jenkins and McLeod did a lot of chasing as the season wore on last season, but we will blame that on breakdowns around them. There’s only so much you can do on the back end when the pass rush is intermittent and the corner play non-existent. Graham is a key veteran who can be deployed in some packages. All that is separating Maragos from the Pro Bowl as a special teams choice is that the designation generally goes to players from playoff teams.
LONG SNAPPER (1): Rick Lovato
Summary: If it came as a surprise that the beloved snapper/magician Jon Dorenbos was traded away (almost unheard of for a snapper), it really shouldn’t have. There were signs a year ago that they were looking for a more cost-effective solution when a training camp roster spot was eaten up by a fella named Chris DePalma. Well, he didn’t make it, but Lovato – after filling in for an injured Dorenbos at the end of last season, did. If we don’t mention Lovato’s name at all – except for a special teams tackle or fumble recovery – then the mission was accomplished. If not, well, I wouldn’t want to be Roseman.
PUNTER (1): Donnie Jones
Summary: Now in the twilight of his career, but reliable, he fended off a formidable challenge this summer from undrafted rookie Cameron Johnston. Let’s hope the Eagles don’t live to regret it (i.e Brad Wing, now of the rival Giants).
KICKER (1): Caleb Strugis
Summary: He’s coming off a real good year, but yet he doesn’t inspire confidence. It might because he looks like he is 12 years old, or it might just be because he would need another solid season to settle any restless stomachs.
RETURN GAME: Sproles will reprise his role as punt returner before the curtain falls. The kickoff return job is likely to go to Smallwood, with either Hollins or Agholor also back deep, although some of the defensive backs – such as Watkins – have kick returning on their resumes.
COVERAGE UNITS: There seemed to be some slippage in this area during the preseason, but the hope is that it was more the net result of mixing and matching personnel and less that they will miss Bryan Braman, who was not retained as a free agent, or that coordinator Dave Fipp has been “figured out.” While Burton has made himself an integral part of the offense, Maragos is primarily just a special teamer now. Watkins and Grugier-Hill will be asked to become leaders of a next generation that will include Hollins, considered one of the best special teams players in college football the last few years.
* denotes starters
This preview/column/analysis first appeared at phillyphanatics.com