Eagles Midseason Report Card: Three-and-out
With the Eagles sitting at 4-4, including an 0-3 mark in NFC East games, let’s take a look back at the last eight games and project how they’ll finish the season.
Who is the Eagles’ midseason MVP?
Josh: Brandon Graham.
The 28-year-old defensive end has not only been the Eagles’ best player through eight games, but he’s also been one of the best defensive linemen across the league. Graham has four sacks, two forced fumbles, one quarterback hit that led to a red zone interception and many more impact plays that aren’t captured in the box score.
The switch to the 4-3 has really helped him, mostly because he can attack off of the line of scrimmage and not worry about diagnosing the play or dropping into coverage as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Graham ranks first in the NFL in quarterback pressures among 4-3 defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus, and his pass rush has been so good that he often faces as many double-teams as Fletcher Cox does.
“He’s a playmaker,” Jim Schwartz recently said. “Tackles-for-losses, sacks, strips, hustle plays down the field — all those things combined. He play was lot of energy, plays with a lot of toughness. He’s a reliable player.”
While the Eagles have a lot of talent on defense, they wouldn’t rank sixth in the NFL in points allowed per game without Graham. Philadelphia has also held opposing quarterbacks to an 81.4 passer rating, fifth-best in the NFL, in part because of Graham’s pressure. If the Birds hope to turn the season around and sneak into the playoffs, it will probably be because of Graham’s continued excellence.
BLG: Darren Sproles.
One could only imagine how much worse the Eagles’ offense would look right now if Darren Sproles wasn’t playing. I recently joked Doug Pederson’s playbook is just a picture of the 5-6, 190 pound running back.
It feels like the 33-year-old veteran is the only sure option on a team sorely bereft of offensive play-makers. Sproles’ success has given the Eagles no other choice but to use him as their lead back despite his age.
Sproles only has two less yards than Eagles leading rusher Ryan Mathews despite the fact Mathews has 15 more carries. Sproles also ranks fourth on the team in receiving yards with 241. His 14.1 punt return average ranks third in the NFL.
The feeling here is Sproles’ value goes beyond his stats. His presence gives rookie quarterback Carson Wentz a weapon who can make plays. That’s not to be undervalued when you consider Wentz’s other teammates struggle to make routine plays. In other words, Sproles’ is good for Wentz’s psyche.
It’s easy to take Sproles for granted since he’s largely been a part-time player, but he deserves a lot of respect. Sproles surpassed former teammate LaDainian Tomlinson this season to move into eighth place in all-purpose yards in NFL history.
I’d argue Sproles is one of the players the Eagles could least afford to lose right now. If he goes down with an injury, things could get even worse for a struggling Philadelphia offense. Who can be counted on to make a play at that point?
Which Eagle has been the biggest disappointment?
Josh: Vinny Curry.
Howie Roseman went on a spending spree in the offseason, giving out more than $280 million in guaranteed money, but several of the signees haven’t played up to their big deals. Lane Johnson got himself suspended for 10 games, Zach Ertz has been a non-factor for much of the season and while Fletcher Cox has played well, he hasn’t played like the fifth-highest paid player in the NFL.
The worst deal, however, appears to be Curry’s five-year contract for a reported $47.25 million, including $23 million guaranteed. Curry, who has the fourth-most guaranteed money on the Eagles, has just one sack through eight games and has only played 43 percent of the defense’s snaps.
Connor Barwin hasn’t been playing poorly, but he also isn’t playing so well you have to give him 31 percent more snaps than Curry. The coaches haven’t given much clarity as to why Curry plays a minority of the snaps, but Curry also bears some of the burden for not performing well enough in the coaches’ eyes to get on the field more.
The good news for the Eagles? Graham has played so well that he’s masking how Barwin and Curry are overpaid. The Eagles are tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks (23.0), and they have seven strip-sacks. Still, Curry got a lot of hype after getting his contract as the Eagles moved to a 4-3 defense from a 3-4, and he hasn’t delivered yet.
BLG: Zach Ertz.
Curry isn’t the only player who received a contract extension earlier this offseason and has been a disappointment for the Eagles. It’s hard to say the five-year, $42.5 million deal Ertz signed is looking great so far.
Among tight ends this season, Ertz ranks 22nd in receptions, 22nd in receiving yards, and 39th in yards per reception. There are 44 different NFL tight ends with at least one touchdown reception this year and Ertz is not one of them. Ertz ranks 109th in receiving yards among all pass catchers.
One of the biggest criticisms of Ertz has been his lack of ability to get yards after the catch. Peep this stat from Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.
Of 300 players with at least 1 catch this season, Zach Ertz ranks 298th in average YAC, at 1.5. He's 70th out of 70 TEs w/ at least 1 catch.
— Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) November 7, 2016
In fairness to Ertz, he did play through Philadelphia’s Week 1 game with a rib injury that later caused him to miss two games. Ertz is also coming off his best game of the season. The 25-year-old tight end caught eight passes for 97 yards against the Giants. It’s also worth mentioning the suspension of starting right tackle Lane Johnson has forced Ertz to be used more often as a blocker.
Still, Ertz’s numbers aren’t encouraging. The Eagles desperately need someone to step up on offense and Ertz hasn’t been that guy for them. Wentz needs more help from his teammates.
Ertz has historically played well in the second half of seasons, so maybe the Giants game was a sign of things to come and he’s set to rebound. For the Eagles’ sake, they had better hope that’s the case.
What will the Eagles’ final record be?
This has been an impossible season to predict. I’m just 3-5 with my game predictions each week, so take this with a grain of salt. Just as no one envisioned the Eagles starting 3-0, no one thought during the bye week they’d lose four of their next five games. Regardless, here’s the back half of the schedule:
- Falcons (6-3)
- @ Seahawks (5-2-1)
- Packers (4-4)
- @ Bengals (3-4-1)
- Washington (4-3-1)
- @ Ravens (4-4)
- Giants (5-3)
- Cowboys (7-1)
I think they’ll split the remaining games by beating the Packers, Bengals, Giants and Cowboys. The tough things to predict, of course, is upsets. Winning in Seattle seems like a near-impossible task, but that’s how the Patriots game appeared to be for the Eagles last year before the Birds left Foxboro with a victory.
The Packers and Bengals games look easier now than they did before the season, but the Giants and Cowboys are outplaying their preseason expectations. The Eagles’ wins over the Steelers and Vikings aren’t as impressive now as they were at the time, but Minnesota is still one of the best teams in the NFC, and Pittsburgh is a tough opponent when Ben Roethlisberger is healthy.
If Doug Pederson finishes 8-8 in his rookie season as a head coach, that’ll surpass the expectations many had for him outside of the building.
Here’s what I said about the Eagles before the start of the 2016 season:
“The feeling here is the Eagles will finish with a 7-9 record, give or take a game.”
After the Eagles started out 3-0, I revised my season prediction during the bye week. I had them finishing at 11-5 instead. That revision was clearly too optimistic as the Eagles now sit at 4-4.
As I’ve written multiple times, I really don’t believe the Eagles are a bad team. They haven’t been blown out once. They’ve been right in these games and they just haven’t found ways to find. A lack of talent explains some of their struggles. Some of it just might be bad luck and untimely occurrences, though.
The Eagles are third in the NFL in point differential. They were No. 1 in DVOA entering Week 9. Those just aren’t signs of being a bad team. Philadelphia’s defense has looked really good at times. Wentz has looked special at times and has played well overall. The Eagles’ special teams unit is one of the best in the league.
It’s clear Philadelphia has roster flaws. Their receivers are abysmal and their running game isn’t very threatening. The Eagles need an upgrade at cornerback. And so on.
Still, in my mind, the Eagles should finish at least 8-8. Ending the year at .500 doesn’t seem like an impossible task. Yes, the Birds have some real tough games coming up: the Falcons, the Seahawks, etc. But the good news for Philadelphia is that five or their final eight contests will be hosted at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles have played well at home this season; they’re 3-0 in the friendly confines of the Linc.
As for the playoffs, it’s clear the Eagles aren’t winning the NFC East. They’re 0-3 in the division and the Cowboys are already 7-1. The Eagles are still alive in the wild card picture if they can finish strong down the stretch.