Eagles Three-And-Out: State Of the Team
With the Eagles’ bye week upon us, Josh and Brandon debate a few topics about the state of the team.
PLAYER WHO IS THE BIGGEST SURPRISE
Josh: Brandon Graham.
I’ll focus my lens on the defensive side of the ball. We knew Fletcher Cox would be impressive. We knew Jim Schwartz would be a significant upgrade over Billy Davis. And we knew Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod could form one of the best safety tandems in the NFL. But who saw Graham at perhaps the best player on the Eagles’ defense after the first three games?
Cox won NFC Defensive Player of the Month, but Graham has been just as good. The defensive end is tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks (three) and he’s forced a fumble as the tables have turned a bit with Cox benefiting against Pittsburgh from all of the attention the Steelers gave Graham. The 28-year-old is even more impressive when you turn on the film and dissect the impact he’s had that isn’t reflected in the box score.
“He’s always been a good rusher. I don’t want to jump ahead of your question there, but he’s compact, he’s strong, he plays with great effort,” Jim Schwartz said last week. “Got to coach him at the Senior Bowl. We saw it firsthand. He’s a tough match-up for some offensive tackles.
“Just watching the film last year, he gave some of the offensive linemen or offensive tackles in our own division, he gave those guys a handful. I think his biggest thing is the tempo he plays with, his effort. He’s a tough guy and he’s one of our tempo setters up front for our whole team. He’s been that way since OTAs, since training camp, since preseason games and in the first two games.”
Graham’s emergence has been a pleasant surprise so far for the Eagles, and it makes game-planning for the Birds even tougher. Previously, offensive play-callers were concerned with how they would double-team Cox to contain him. For the time being, you now have to give Graham just as much attention, but you can’t double everyone. Opponents are playing a game of pick your poison against the Eagles’ defensive line, which makes life a lot easier for the rest of the defense — as well as Schwartz.
BLG: I have to go with the obvious answer: Carson Wentz.
No one saw Wentz being so good so early in his career. He wasn’t even going to be active on game day if the Eagles didn’t trade Sam Bradford.
Wentz didn’t have a stellar summer. He flashed big time potential at times, yes, but he also made his fair share of rookie mistakes. Then he got hurt in the first preseason game and missed three weeks of practice reps and preseason snaps. It wasn’t unreasonable to think he might not get off to the greatest start when the regular season rolled around.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Wentz has been excellent. He’s playing so well that he’s making history with each passing week. He’s already been named NFL Rookie of the Month and NFC Offensive Player of the Week through three games. He’s the first rookie in NFL history not throw an interception in his first 100 pass attempts. He’s a legitimate candidate in the conversation for NFL MVP.
Doug Pederson and the Eagles’ coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for Wentz’s success. They’ve clearly put him in a position to succeed. Wentz has lived up to his side of the bargain as well. He’s making great throws and smart decisions on a weekly basis. He’s a big reason why the Eagles are 3-0.
ONE CONCERN GOING FORWARD
Josh: Lane Johnson’s suspension.
The Eagles’ surprising success up front has flown under the radar because of how well Wentz and Pederson have done in the first few games, but the offensive line has been terrific in pass protection.
Philadelphia ranks fourth in the NFL in sacks allowed, and one of the four given up was Wentz rolling to the left and stepping out of bounds before the line of scrimmage instead of throwing the ball away. Plus, at least one of the other sacks occurred not because of the offensive line, but because Wentz made a mistake in a pass protection call against the Browns. While Jason Kelce has had his fair share of negative plays in the run game, the unit as a whole has been consistently good.
But the Eagles’ two best offensive linemen so far have been Johnson and Allen Barbre, meaning there will be some drop-off if Johnson’s 10-game ban is upheld on Tuesday. Barbre will be moving from his most comfortable position to his least comfortable position, and Stefen Wisniewski will have to step in at left guard.
Wisniewski played guard for three years in college and during his rookie season in Oakland, but in the last four years, he has started at center. He will have to adjust not just to the position, but to offensive linemen he’s never played next to in a regular season game. Wisniewski will most likely be worse than Barbre has been at left guard, and Barbre will most likely be worse than Johnson has been at right tackle, but much of the offense’s success going forward depends on how much they can diminish those drop-offs.
BLG: Johnson’s suspension is the correct answer here. Losing Johnson will make protecting Wentz more difficult. It could also put more pressure on Wentz to carry the Eagles through the air. The rookie quarterback has done a great job of doing that so far, but Philadelphia might eventually need to get their run game going in order to take pressure off the 23-year-old.
The Eagles’ rushing attack isn’t off to a great start this season. The Birds are averaging 3.7 yards per carry, which ranks 23rd in the NFL. A lacking run game has been contributed to the Eagles facing so many third-and-long situations. It’s hard to imagine the Eagles’ run blocking will get much better if/when they lose Johnson.
Since I don’t want to copy Josh’s answer completely, I’ll also say that the cornerback position is a concern for the Eagles as well. Philadelphia’s defense has played great overall but there have been times when they’ve allowed big plays through the air. Long receptions by Terrelle Pryor, Corey Coleman, and Alshon Jeffrey stick out.
The good news for the Birds is that their pass rush and their excellent cover safeties can make up for some of the weaknesses at corner. The Eagles are also expected to get veteran starter Leodis McKelvin back from injury after the bye. He’ll replace Jalen Mills.
OVER/UNDER: 10.5 wins (include playoffs) for the Birds — Whaddya got?
The Eagles’ dominating 3-0 start was practically impossible to predict, so who knows what their final record will be? That being said, I think they’ll win the majority of their final 13 games — putting them at a minimum of 10 regular season wins. I’d also bet on this team winning a playoff game for the time since 2008 in the Wild Card round.
As well as the Birds have played so far, there are still a lot of unknowns. When will Wentz start playing like a rookie and hit those expected rough patches? Will the defense hit a decline? Will Pederson start looking like an inexperienced head coach?
Philadelphia is already exploding with excitement after the Eagles’ fast start, but expectations could rise exponentially if the Eagles pull off another three impressive wins in a row against Detroit, Washington and Minnesota.
I had the Eagles going 7-9 (give or take a game) prior to the season. Given their impressive start, I feel comfortable upping their record to as high as 11-5. 10-6 with one playoff win would also be good enough to hit the over in this situation.
Yes, it’s early, but the Eagles look like the best team in the NFC East. Look at how they stack up against their division rivals through three games.
1 – Eagles 3-0 (+65 point differential)
2 – Cowboys 2-1 (+17)
3 – Giants 2-1 (+2)
4 – Washington 1-2 (-24)
Philadelphia should be able to take care of business in the division. And if that’s the case, they’ll host at least one playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field in January.