As we count down to the start of the regular season, Tim and Sheil try to answer some of the big questions facing the Eagles. First up, predictions on how the Eagles will fare in their first year without DeSean Jackson.
BIG QUESTION: How will the Eagles try to replace DeSean?
McManus: It will be a group effort. Howie Roseman has mentioned in the past that they don’t evaluate their offense by position but look at it collectively. They see not just Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and Jordan Matthews but Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles and believe there are enough weapons to keep the offense flying high.
They can get creative with their formations. Last year, Chip Kelly deployed two tight-end sets just 27 percent of the time. With Jackson gone and Ertz emerging that number will go up, especially early as Matthews adjusts to the pros. Expect plenty of two-back sets with McCoy and Sproles as well. Opposing defenses will still have plenty to think about.
Kapadia: The two key players to me are Ertz and Matthews.
In recent years, there’s been plenty of talk about the Eagles going to more two tight end sets. But 24 teams went 2-TE more than the Birds last season, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac.
I’m fully expecting that to change this season. Ertz is the offense’s best player when it comes to making contested catches – 50/50 balls, receptions in traffic, etc. And Celek is still a very good all around tight end. Multiple people at the NovaCare Complex have told me they think Celek is the best blocking TE in the NFL. Especially early in the season, it makes a lot of sense to get these two on the field together.
Then there’s Matthews. He showed plenty of flashes this summer and gives the Eagles a nice size/speed option in the slot. Last year, the Eagles played with three-plus wide receivers 73 percent of the time, third-most in the NFL, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. The Eagles will be counting on Matthews to make plays downfield in between the numbers.
When looking at the Eagles’ pass-catchers, Ertz and Matthews have the most untapped potential. Their development will determine how adequately the offense can replace Jackson.
OVER/UNDER: 80 pass plays of 20+ yards (what they had last year)
McManus: Well under. Jackson had 25 receptions of 20-plus yards last season (second in the league) and undoubtedly helped create space for some of the other big gains. It could prove to be a more efficient offense minus Jackson, but the number of big plays will probably dip.
“I think it’s going to be more of a horizontal game, sideline to sideline,” Ron Jaworski predicted. “Spread it that 160 feet one sideline to the other. Work in between the linebackers, maybe a safety will roll down, there’s space in there.”
By my count, the Eagles’ first-team offense had five pass plays of 20-plus yards this preseason. Four were to Celek and the other to McCoy. It’s preseason data and he Eagles were without their full complement of receivers for much of the time, but it will be interesting to see how many of the big gains come from the wideout position this year.
Kapadia: I’ll go with the under as well. To me, hitting on vertical shots through the air is the biggest question facing this offense. The Eagles were able to take advantage of a lot of Cover 1 (man coverage, one high safety) looks last year by doing damage downfield.
Cooper was successful in that department, but I need to see a bigger sample size before I’m convinced he can be a consistent downfield threat. And there weren’t many signs this summer that Maclin will be able to fill the void.
The scheme should be able to manufacture big plays, but I don’t see them producing as many as last year.
McManus: Not sure how bold it is, but I think this decision will come back to bite the Eagles this year.
I’m all for Kelly shaping the roster in his vision. Jackson didn’t fit what he’s looking for on a couple levels, so I understand why he would want to move on from him. But I kind of look at this like I do the decision to remove Wheels and Sarge from the Phillies broadcast booth: if you want to go in a different direction, fine, but make sure that you have adequate replacements before you pull the trigger.
Matthews and Josh Huff could prove to be the answer, but you can’t count on rookie receivers to produce right away. There is a lot riding on Cooper and Maclin for this year, then. If one goes down or disappoints, it could prevent the Eagles from getting to where they want to go.
Kapadia: Overall, I think the offense will play well – certainly top 10, possibly top five. But I think there will be specific matchups against specific defenses where the Eagles will sorely miss Jackson’s ability to stretch the field.
Pat Shurmur was asked recently what kind of receivers will be helped by the new emphasis on illegal contact.
“Any time you can’t grab a guy, I think maybe guys that are less physical don’t have to worry about playing with somebody hanging all over them down the field,” he said.
I’ve pointed to this stat before, but only three wide receivers last year had 80 catches, averaged 16.0 YPR and caught nine touchdowns: Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon and Jackson.
There will be plenty of weeks where the offense rolls. But there will certainly be times when not having a vertical threat like Jackson will put the Eagles in a bind.