Which Eagles Will Make the Second-Year Leap?

Hang around enough NFL coaches and players in the offseason, and you’re sure to hear about the second-year leap.

The theory goes like this: Rookies need time to adjust to several different factors. The structure and rules associated with a college program are gone. They are on their own, away from friends and family. And they are earning (legal) paychecks.

Add in the speed and talent associated with the pro game, and it’s clear life in the NFL requires an adjustment period.

That’s why the offseason from Year 1 to Year 2 is considered crucial. Initial questions have been answered, and expectations have been set. Second-year players can focus more on just on-field improvement.

“It’s already easier,” said linebacker Mychal Kendricks during mini-camps. “It’s crazy, knowing the formations and knowing the count without even having to look.

“Everything slows down the second year. It’s crazy, I can’t explain it.”

We’ve spent plenty of time talking about the Eagles’ new additions, and Tim covered the rookies a couple days ago. But below is a look at the second-year players and where they stand going into camp.

Fletcher Cox – Everything we saw from him as a rookie suggests he has the potential to go to multiple Pro Bowls. Cox was the Eagles’ best defensive lineman against the run and showed improvement as a pass-rusher, finishing with 5.5 sacks and 24 hurries (according to team stats). When the Eagles drafted him, they liked that Cox had the versatility to play in a 4-3 or a 3-4. He’s the Eagles’ best defensive player and one of the guys they will build around.

Nick Foles – With six starts under his belt, Foles has already accomplished more than most quarterbacks taken after the second round. He had turnover issues (five interceptions, eight fumbles) and struggled to get the ball downfield (6.4 YPA), but at the very least, he looked competent. Foles now finds himself in a new scheme, and Chip Kelly is serious about letting the QB competition play out on the practice field. Foles will have a chance to steal the starting job this summer.

Mychal Kendricks – His athleticism translated well from college to the NFL last season. Kendricks faced some issues getting off of blocks but showed signs that he can be a playmaker against the run. Where his real strength lies, though, is coverage. Kendricks is expected to play alongside DeMeco Ryans as an inside linebacker in the Eagles’ new 3-4 scheme. Look for him to have to deal less with blockers in his face. Kendricks rushed the passer quite a bit in college, and Billy Davis will seek to find ways to take advantage of that versatility.

Brandon Boykin – Given how often teams use three and four wide receivers, Boykin is a valuable piece as the Eagles’ nickel corner. Even as the defense was crumbling around him, Boykin was tremendous during the second half of last season. In the Eagles’ final seven games, he allowed just five completions on 12 targets, per Pro Football Focus  (hat tip to Derek Sarley of Iggles Blog). There’s been some talk of Boykin moving to the outside, but the guess here is that he’ll continue to fill the nickel role.

Bryce Brown – Fumbling issues aside, the Eagles look like they may have gotten a steal with Brown in the seventh round. As a rookie, he ran for 564 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry, showing a rare combination of size and speed. Evan Silva of Rotoworld had a good breakdown of Brown and concluded that he bounced too many runs to the outside. Given his lack of college experience (and college coaching), Brown might be poised to make the biggest leap of any player on this list.

Cedric Thornton - He played 37.7 percent of the defensive snaps last year and has the size (6-4, 309) that Kelly covets. Thornton figures to play the 5-technique DE spot in the Eagles’ 3-4. He lined up as a starter for most of the spring, but will have to hold on to that spot this summer.

** Note: As a reader pointed out, Thornton is actually a third-year pro, although he didn’t play a defensive snap in 2011.

Vinny Curry – His role remains a mystery. Curry had a tough time getting on the field as a rookie and now finds himself being asked to play up front in a 3-4. During the spring, Curry ran exclusively with the second team. He’ll need to show the coaches he can be effective in his new role if Curry wants to get more playing time in his second season.

Damaris Johnson – He played 25.4 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps and finished with 19 catches for 256 yards. But there is reason to believe Johnson could be a nice fit for Kelly’s offense, considering he averaged a team-best 5.5 yards after the catch in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus. Johnson also showed improvement as the team’s primary punt returner. Beyond DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, no wide receiver is guaranteed a spot. But Johnson has a good chance of sticking.

Dennis Kelly - He was up and down in 10 games as a rookie, gaining experience at both guard and tackle. At times, Kelly showed promise. In other instances, he looked like Demetress Bell. But the new coaching staff seems to like him. Kelly filled in with the starters this spring before Lane Johnson made the jump. Given the team’s lack of offensive line depth, Kelly will likely earn a spot as a swing tackle.

Chris Polk – In this offense, the third running back figures to have added importance. If LeSean McCoy or Brown goes down, the Eagles will need a backup who can play significant snaps. Polk will challenge for that role, along with Felix Jones and undrafted free agent Matthew Tucker. Polk didn’t play a single offensive snap in 2012, but has dropped weight and is motivated to get on the field. He’ll have to earn a roster spot this summer.

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