Wake-Up Call: The One Area That The Eagles MUST Improve During The Offseason
The Eagles still have three games left remaining on their 2016 schedule, but for all intents and purposes, Philadelphia’s season is over. The Birds’ playoff odds literally stand at 5-million-to-1.
Given the fact the Eagles will likely be officially eliminated from playoff contention this week, it’s easy to take an early look ahead to the offseason. One of the biggest issues with the 2016 Eagles is a lack of talent, so this roster still needs a lot of work. Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas will have ample opportunity via free agency, trades, and the 2017 NFL Draft to add more talent.
The question is: which position is most critical for the Eagles to address?
For the first time in a long time, the answer to that question is not “quarterback.” The Eagles have seemingly found their new franchise passer by trading up and drafting Carson Wentz. Wentz has been far from perfect as a rookie, but he’s clearly showed encouraging potential despite a poor supporting cast.
Speaking of, there’s an argument to be made the Eagles must do whatever they can to help make life easier on their franchise quarterback. The feeling here is that should be the thesis statement of the Eagles’ offseason plan.
Yes, the Eagles badly need new cornerbacks. One could really make a case that the Eagles need upgrades at most positions. But no improvements seem more critical than assisting Wentz’s development. He is the team’s franchise player.
There’s several directions the Eagles could go in assisting Wentz. The team desperately needs some quality NFL talent at wide receiver. It’s painfully obvious that the Birds need multiple new pass catchers. But receiver might not actually be the biggest need, even though it’s still a big one.
The Eagles’ biggest offseason need is the offensive line. It’s obvious. Entering this season, Philadelphia had the oldest starting offensive line in the NFL. After Chip Kelly failed to draft an offensive lineman since 2013, the team has run thin on talent up front.
Future Hall of Famer Jason Peters turns 35 in January. It sounds like he still wants to keep playing but his time is clearly coming to an end. Allen Barbre turns 33 this offseason. The Eagles could look to push 29-year-old Jason Kelce due to his periodic struggles at center. Right guard Brandon Brooks figures to be a long-term starter but it’s worth noting how his anxiety condition caused him to miss two starts at the last minute this season. Starting right tackle Lane Johnson, who projects as the team’s left tackle once Peters is done playing, is one failed drug test away from being suspended for two full years.
Even if the Eagles bring back their same 2016 starting lineup in 2017, upgrading the depth and long-term pieces along the offensive line will be critical. Wentz won’t be set up for success if he doesn’t have adequate blocking in front of him.
Pass protection isn’t the only reason why an improved offensive line will be critical to Wentz’s success. Another reason why the Eagles must address the offensive line is because they need to fix their running game.
The Eagles have seen first-hand how critical the run game can be to a team’s success. Philadelphia needn’t look further than their top division rival: the Dallas Cowboys. Jerry Jones’ squad won 12 games in 2014 thanks to NFL leading rusher DeMarco Murray. The Cowboys struggled in 2015 after losing Murray but have gotten back on track this season thanks to drafting Ezekiel Elliott with the No. 4 overall pick. Dallas is No. 1 in the NFC playoff picture at 11-2 with three games remaining.
Having a great run game can go such a long way in the NFL. The Cowboys’ running success has made life very easy on rookie passer Dak Prescott. Dallas ranks 31st in pass attempts, which is a big reason why Prescott has played better than anyone expected. Wentz has not had the same benefit; the Eagles rank seventh in pass attempts per game. In fact, per Reuben Frank, Wentz has thrown more passes the last seven weeks than Donovan McNabb ever threw in his career in any seven-game stretch. He’s simply throwing the ball too much. Improving the run will make it so the Eagles don’t have to rely as much on a lackluster receiving corps.
The upgrade will also help Philadelphia’s defense. The 2016 Eagles have been at their best at times this season when they’ve been able to play a ball-control style of offense. Look no further than the Eagles’ win over the Falcons as an example of how running the ball prevented Atlanta’s top-ranked offense from having a big day.
Improving the offensive line obviously won’t be the only key to an improved ground game. The Eagles still need more rushing talent as well. The oft-injured Ryan Mathews turns 30 next season and could be cut or traded this offseason. Darren Sproles turns 34 in June. Rookie running back Wendell Smallwood has shown some potential but isn’t a proven lead back in the league. The good news for the Eagles is the 2017 NFL Draft projects to be loaded with running backs.
In an ideal world, the Eagles will be able to address all of their offseason needs in some fashion. But the reality is that the Birds have a limited amount of resources to work with. Thus, the Eagles need to go in to this offseason with a plan of attack. They need to form an identity. The feeling here is that the team would be best served by doing whatever they can to help Wentz and his development. In order to do so, the Eagles must address the offensive line and improve the run game.
Based on the past, there’s a good chance the Eagles will really focus on the trenches this offseason. A common theme of this current Eagles regime has been getting back to what the Birds used to do really well under Andy Reid. The Eagles always valued the trenches with Reid around so don’t be surprised to see the Eagles find some offensive line upgrades for Doug Pederson.
WHAT YOU MISSED
“It’s not just dealing with winning and losing, it’s all the exterior you have to deal with.” Joe Flacco‘s path to the NFL is a blueprint for Carson Wentz‘s journey.
Three Eagles numbers that matter for this week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens, which could see a lot of pass attempts.
Take a look at our picks for this week’s slate of NFL games.
We spoke to Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun to get a preview of what to expect from the Ravens.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Could this be Connor Barwin‘s final season with the Eagles, especially with the team returning to a 4-3 scheme? Jeff McLane of the Inquirer explores that thought.
Barwin had three primary responsibilities as a 3-4 outside linebacker – setting the edge against the run, rushing the passer from the left, and dropping into coverage. He had the athleticism to perform all three disciplines at a high level, but many of his game-changing moments came from diagnosing plays before they happened.
He would detect the direction of a run and beat a blocker to the running back, or he would read the quarterback’s eyes and bat down a pass, or he would bait and wait before cleaning up for a sack. As a defensive end in Jim Schwartz‘s defense, Barwin is mostly asked to go, go, and go.
“He’s too smart for that defense,” an NFL personnel director said. “That’s a defense for . . . linemen that can just pin their ears back and not think. He’s neither athletic nor strong enough to consistently win battles against the best left tackles.”
Barwin agreed that the scheme has taken away some of his more subtle attributes. And for whatever reason, Schwartz has had him rush from the right and Brandon Graham from the left. Barwin has had to face some of the best tackles in the league – the Redskins Trent Williams (twice), the Cowboys’ Tyron Smith, and the Bengals’ Andrew Whitworth, to name a few.
After impressing the team while on the practice shot, Byron Marshall is ready for his chance to impress on the active roster, pens Dave Zangaro of CSNPhilly.com.
“Byron — I’m not sure what action he’ll see — but I can just tell you, watching scout team this whole year,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said, “probably if you took the 10 most eye-popping ‘wow’ plays on the field this year, Byron might have three or four of them, where he’s running scout team and he runs a route or he makes a cut against our defense that [you] just [go], ‘Whoa!’ We’ll look at each other and say, ‘That was legit.’ So, he’s got some explosiveness and elusiveness to him.”
Because Marshall has been working with the scout team all season, he’s been going against the Eagles’ first-string defense. He said his goal was to make at least one play every day.
Like Paul Turner, who spent most of his season on the practice squad, Marshall thinks his time going against the first-team defense has helped him immensely. And apparently, he helped the defense, too.
“He gives us a great look every week, especially myself and Rodney (McLeod), being able to come out of the post and work on our open-field tackling,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “He’s a tough guy to get down in the open field. I know he’s been huge with giving me and Rodney a great look, so I don’t expect him to do anything other than have some success.”
Doug Pederson will address the media for the final time this week around 10:50.
Chris Jastrzembski contributed to this post.