TIER 2: The Contributors
Darren Sproles, RB – I’m anxious to see what the 31-year-old has left. The Eagles seem to believe Sproles is well-suited for their run scheme. I still think his impact will be felt most as a receiver and on special teams.
Riley Cooper, WR – A repeat of last year (or improvement) would be a win for the Eagles. Cooper has excellent ball skills, but he’ll have to prove he can be productive without DeSean Jackson on the other side.
Jordan Matthews, WR – I thought about including him in “The Difference-Makers” category, but ultimately decided against it. Only four rookie WRs in the last decade have had 1,000-yard seasons off the bat. I’m not sure Matthews will be the fifth, but expect him to be the primary slot guy and contribute right away. If Cooper or Maclin go down, he’ll likely move outside.
Brent Celek, TE – I might be in the minority, but I still think he’ll play more snaps than Zach Ertz this year. Celek was a key factor in the run game last year, and that’s the focus of this offense. He didn’t get as many pass-catching opportunities, but made the most of his chances.
Todd Herremans, RG – I have no idea what to expect from Herremans this year. Can he be an adequate starter for another season? Or will the wear and tear get the better of him? This is a storyline we’ll explore in the coming weeks.
Allen Barbre, G/T – In all likelihood, he’ll be counted on to fill in for Lane Johnson in the first four games. After that, Barbre will be the first backup off the bench at all of the guard and tackle spots. The Eagles need him to play well this season and fill a variety of roles.
Lane Johnson, LT – As I mentioned this morning, Johnson will not be allowed at the NovaCare Complex during his suspension. That is worrisome for a second-year player looking to make the leap. The momentum Johnson built up towards the end of last year is gone.
Bennie Logan, NT – The Eagles wouldn’t mind adding a monstrous nose tackle in the future, but they like Logan a lot and think he can get the job done as the starter. For the most part, the run defense was very good after Logan took over for Isaac Sopoaga last season.
Vinny Curry, DE – He was handed nothing last year and eventually made his way to the gameday roster and then into a rotational role. Curry plays with great effort and is one of the better pass-rushers on this team. If he can show the ability to two-gap and play the run as a four-technique DE, he’ll earn even more snaps.
Marcus Smith, OLB – Now is when we start getting into “X-Factor” territory. The safe bet is that the rookie will play a rotational role behind Connor Barwin and Trent Cole. But given his measurables and athleticism, I’m not ready to rule out the possibility that Smith surprises some doubters in Year 1. At the very least, his versatility should allow Billy Davis to try some things we didn’t see last year.
Trent Cole, OLB – I struggled with where to put Cole. He adapted last year better than anyone could have anticipated and led the team in sacks. I think he can still be a productive player, but with the addition of Smith, he’ll likely see fewer pass-rushing opportunities.
DeMeco Ryans, ILB – The coaches are hoping one of the backups can step up so they can give Ryans more of a break after he played more snaps than any other defensive player in the league a year ago. He’s a great leader who doesn’t make mental mistakes and is extremely effective against the run. But Ryans won’t wow anyone in coverage; if he plays fewer snaps, the breaks will come when the Eagles are in their sub packages.
Cary Williams, CB – He’s not a shutdown corner, but the Eagles just need him to be adequate and physical. Williams showed the ability to fill that role a year ago, and it would be an upset if he weren’t starting at RCB all season long (barring injury).
Bradley Fletcher, CB – He’s still the favorite to start at LCB. Again, like Williams, he’s adequate but not great. Fletcher will have to hold off Nolan Carroll II for the starting job this summer.
Nolan Carroll II, CB – As I’ve written previously, he was very active during the spring and started 22 games the past two seasons for the Dolphins. Best-case scenario for Carroll is that he steals a starting job. Worst-case is that he’s the No. 4 CB and a contributor on special teams.
Nate Allen, S – He deserves credit for improving last year. But let’s be clear: The Eagles brought him back on a one-year deal after exhausting their other options. Allen is the favorite right now to start opposite Malcolm Jenkins.
Earl Wolff, S – Of all the players on this list, Wolff presents the widest range of outcomes. He could end up being a starter and a difference-maker. Or there’s a slim chance he doesn’t even make the squad (I still think that’s unlikely). One thing is clear: The coaches are not going to hand him anything. Allen took the first-team reps all spring. If Wolff wants to start, he’s going to have to flat-out win the job in the preseason.
TIER 1: The Difference-Makers
Nick Foles, QB – As you might have heard, good quarterback play often correlates to success in the NFL. Foles will be without Jackson and has a less stable offensive line situation to deal with. Opposing defensive coordinators have more film on him, and there will be natural statistical regression. On the flip side, Foles gets another year in the offense, and this offseason he’s seemed as comfortable as ever. The problem some have when evaluating Foles is there’s no glaring stand-out quality like a huge arm, great athleticism or a fiery personality. I would argue that his elite skill could be decision-making. Or at least it was last year. Foles might not put up historic numbers in 2014, but the guess here is that he will play really well once again.
LeSean McCoy, RB – If there’s one area where I’m not going to question Kelly even a little bit, it’s the run game. Of course, finding answers is made a bit easier when you have one of the most talented and productive running backs in the league at your disposal. I’m expecting another monster year out of McCoy. This is a spread to run offense, and he’s going to carry a heavy load.
Jeremy Maclin, WR – The reason he’s in this category is because Maclin is an X-Factor. On one hand, the first year back from an ACL tear can pose challenges. On the other hand, Maclin saw his teammates put up career numbers under Kelly last year. I need to see how he performs in the preseason before making any projections, but Maclin is one of the guys who can swing the Eagles’ season in one direction or another.
Zach Ertz, TE – You might be wondering why I put him in this category and have Celek in the previous one even though I think Celek is going to play more snaps. The reason is simple: upside. Ertz has the potential to be a true weapon in the passing game if he can make the leap in Year 2. If the going gets tough against man coverage, the offense will look to him more and more.
Jason Peters, LT – Is he the same player he was in 2011? No. But he’s still one of the better left tackles in the game. The Eagles know what they’re getting with Peters: a great athlete who can dominate against the run and handle opposing edge rushers one-on-one in the pass game. That’s why they extended him this offseason.
Evan Mathis, LG – He’s not happy about his contract, but Mathis will be at camp and put in the work. He’s coming off three really good seasons – a technician in the run game and a consistent performer in pass protection. If the Eagles were to lose him, Peters or Jason Kelce, they’d face a certain downgrade.
Jason Kelce, C – He’s emerged as one of the leaders on offense and a key component to the Eagles’ foundation play: the inside zone. It’s easy to forget that Kelce was coming off an ACL injury last year. The individual expectation for him in 2014 should be Pro Bowl and nothing less.
Fletcher Cox, DE – He’s on the short list of “swing players” on defense. Cox has the talent and upside to be a true difference-maker on a weekly basis, but he hasn’t reached that level in his first two years. Cox held up well last year against the run, adapting to a new two-gap scheme. But for him to take the next step in his career, he needs to be a disruptive pass rusher.
Cedric Thornton, DE – He showed last year that it’d be a mistake to limit his upside. Thornton was the Eagles’ most productive player against the run and looked like a natural playing left defensive end in the 3-4. Like Cox, he needs to take the next step as a pass-rusher. But Thornton is probably the most underrated player on this defense.
Connor Barwin, OLB – The flexibility a player like Barwin gives a defense cannot be overstated. He filled a number of roles for Davis last year – setting the edge, two-gapping, covering tight ends, rushing the passer, etc. And while I sometimes think chemistry is overblown, there’s no doubt that Barwin is a well-liked figure and a respected voice in the locker room. He could get more pass-rushing opportunities this season in the Predator role now that the Eagles have Marcus Smith to take over some of the Jack snaps.
Mychal Kendricks, ILB – Like Cox, he’s a swing player. Kendricks has the upside to be a really good inside linebacker, and he started to put everything together during the second half of last season. I’d like to see his athleticism translate to elite coverage ability. And Davis should continue to send Kendricks at the QB on blitzes. Really looking forward to seeing whether he can take the next step and be a consistent playmaker for this defense.
Brandon Boykin, CB – I debated whether to put Boykin in this category considering he only played 51 percent of the snaps last year, but ultimately decided he is deserving. One of the best slot corners in the game, Boykin brings elite athleticism. He’s a sure tackler with a physical presence and had six interceptions last year. His contributions on special teams must be taken into account as well. Boykin was great as a gunner in 2013. I don’t think he’ll necessarily see more snaps on defense this season, but Boykin is a valuable piece.
Malcolm Jenkins, S – I can understand why the Eagles felt he was a nice fit on defense, and having spoken with him, Jenkins is an impressive guy. But it didn’t all add up during his time with the Saints, who chose to let him go and upgrade the position elsewhere. Jenkins is expected to be the quarterback of the back end and help with communication issues, but I’m not ready to say the Eagles have solved their safety problems. Jenkins will have to prove he’s a significant upgrade.