Five Thoughts: State Of the Eagles

Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson (10) returns a punt return against the Detroit Lions during the fourth quarter of the Snow Bowl

From DeSean Jackson to the lack of additions on defense, here are five thoughts on the current state of the Eagles.

1. If you would have told me three weeks ago that the Eagles would get to March 18 with just one new defensive starter (or even rotational player) in free agency, I would have been surprised. Last offseason, the Eagles added Connor Barwin, Isaac Sopoaga, Bradley Fletcher, Cary Williams and Patrick Chung – five new starters as they moved from a 4-3 to a 3-4. The defense showed strides from Week 1 to the end of the season, but still finished 23rd overall, per Football Outsiders’ rankings.

This season, the team added one starting-caliber player: Malcolm Jenkins. That’s it. I’m sure there were other players the Eagles were interested in, but price tags didn’t match their evaluations.

One thing to keep in mind here is expectations. Even when the Eagles’ defense struggled at times last season, Chip Kelly was rarely critical publicly. The opposite was true for the offense: He demanded perfection. That speaks to the identity of the team. When the Eagles go up against an offensive juggernaut like the Broncos, Kelly’s thought process is never: Let’s slow it down and keep them off the field. Instead, it’s: Let’s get the ball as many times as we can and outscore them.

The Eagles will still have opportunities to upgrade talent in the draft, but instead of switching up a lot of personnel, it seems instead the plan is to focus on existing players improving in their second year in the scheme.

It also seems likely that the 2014 Eagles will have a similar identity to the 2013 Eagles: Put up a lot of points and ask the defense to do enough to win games.

2. Sticking with the defense, Kelly did his best job of selling the Jenkins signing last week, saying it had nothing to do with money and everything to do with Jenkins’ versatility.

I’m not buying it.

To say that Jenkins is a better scheme fit than Jairus Byrd is silly. Greg Cosell of NFL films recently outlined the four aspects of safety play he focuses on when evaluating players: tackling, playing as the single-high defender, playing in two-deep coverage and playing in man coverage. The only area where Jenkins might have an edge on Byrd there is man coverage.

In other words, if you asked 32 head coaches whether they’d rather have Byrd or Jenkins (price being equal), I’m pretty sure all 32 would choose Byrd.

The problem is the price tags weren’t equal. Howie Roseman wanted to maintain financial flexibility for next offseason. The guess here is the Eagles didn’t want to spend big money on a player who lacks elite size and athleticism (not to mention the fact that he missed five games last year because of plantar fasciitis). They decided those concerns did not warrant the big-money deal he got from the Saints. That’s understandable.

But make no mistake about it: Byrd could have played well in Billy Davis’ scheme and been a difference-maker.

3. Let’s talk DeSean Jackson. T-Mac did a terrific job yesterday of laying out what we know and what we don’t know at this point. I noticed there was some backlash about the speculation, rumors, etc. And I think I know why: Cutting ties with Jackson would be a devastating blow to the fan base.

Earlier this month, I spelled out the reasons why I thought moving Jackson would be a mistake. In short, he’s one of the top vertical threats in the game. He was a fantastic fit for this offense in 2013. And aside from his numbers, he opens things up for his teammates (see: Riley Cooper). Without Jackson in the fold, this is suddenly a below-average group of wide receivers.

Having said that, it’s difficult to believe there’s nothing going on with the 27-year-old wide receiver. The truth is this whole thing could be squashed with one simple statement (either on the record or off the record) from Kelly, Howie Roseman or someone else in the Eagles’ organization: “We don’t comment on rumors, but DeSean did a great job in 2013, and we expect more of the same going forward.”

That’s it. Yet no one is saying anything close to that. It’s gotten to the point where Jackson is unsure of his standing with the team.

In my opinion, one of two things is happening. One, the team is looking to move Jackson. Or two, the rumors are unfounded, but given Jackson’s comments about his contract following the season, the team is in no mood to provide him any reassurances. The second scenario is less likely, given Kelly’s open-communication policy and the fact that we saw how a distracted Jackson performed back in 2011.

So for now, we’ll continue to keep an eye on the situation and see what happens. But I would be surprised if we don’t hear anything else about Jackson between now and spring practices.

4. The Eagles did not make any moves at inside linebacker in free agency, but I think one player who could be affected by some of the additions is DeMeco Ryans.

Cornerback Nolan Carroll said he’s looking to compete for a starting job. But it would not be surprising if the Eagles installed a dime package this spring with Carroll, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin and two safeties on the field together (along with one inside linebacker, a 4-1-6).

Ryans played well against the run last season, but his value is diminished on passing downs. When the Eagles get offenses in third-and-long situations, it makes sense to go with an extra defensive back. Davis would still have some versatile pieces he could move around up front in Mychal Kendricks and Connor Barwin. But given that Ryans hasn’t proven to be great in coverage or as a pass-rusher, it makes sense to give him more of a breather.

If not Carroll, perhaps the Eagles add a third safety to the mix. We’ll see how the roster fills out after the draft, but I’m expecting Davis to change up his sub packages in 2014, if the personnel allows for it.

5. At the skill positions on offense, the team has parted ways with Jason Avant and added Jeremy Maclin and Darren Sproles.

A reasonable question is: Will there be enough touches to go around?

While Avant only caught 38 balls last year, he was targeted 76 times – third-most on the team. Right away, those will get distributed to guys like Sproles and Maclin. Cooper, meanwhile, was second on the team in targets (84). I would expect that number to come down, given the other additions.

And one final factor to consider: Don’t be surprised if Kelly wants to play faster in Year 2. Remember, last year, he was installing a new offense, developing a new culture and getting acclimated to new surroundings. There were new faces and a lot of roster turnover from the previous season.

This time around, there figures to be more familiarity. The Eagles moved fast at times in 2013, but reaching the tempo Kelly desires is a process. A faster pace in 2014 could lead to more plays and more opportunities for the Eagles’ offensive weapons to get their hands on the football.

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