For the first time since the summer, the Philadelphia Eagles will not be playing a football game this week. Instead, the bye week is here. Eagles players, coaches, and staff members alike will enjoy their time off before returning early in the week to get started on preparing for their Week 8 opponent: the Arizona Cardinals.
While waiting for the bye week to pass by, here are 10 things I think about the Eagles.
1) Help is on the way
Philadelphia didn't have their bye week until Week 12 in 2013, which is the latest possible in-season bye. This year, the Eagles are dealing with a few injuries which make the timing of the bye valuable. Evan Mathis and Jason Kelce aren't scheduled to return to Week 10 so this bye week buys some time. The same could be said for the recently injured Darren Sproles, who might miss the team's outings against the Cardinals and/or the Houston Texans.
While it hasn't been made official, it seems like starting inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks will be able to return to practice following the bye week. Kendricks has been out since Week 2 with a calf injury. If the Birds can stay relatively healthy as they get crucial players back from injury, well, I don't think you need me to tell you that puts them in really good shape going down the stretch.
2) Tough schedule ahead
Speaking of that final stretch, the Eagles really have some tough games ahead. Mike Kaye and I already predicted Philadelphia's remaining games in detail. The good news for the Eagles is that a .500 record in the final record means going 10-6. That record should be good enough to earn a playoff spot, but just to be safe, Philadelphia really needs to find a way to stay above .500 and land in the 11-5 or 12-4 range. A first round bye really shouldn't be out of the question with this team. I'm not sure I see the Eagles dropping back to back games for the remainder of the season, other than maybe just once at most.
3) Nick Foles' uncertain future
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles is eligible for a contract extension after the end of this season. Given the way Foles has played, however, I really do not think the team is in a rush to give him a big payday. Of all NFL quarterbacks with a minimum of 50 passes attempts, Foles is just one of eight quarterbacks to complete less than 60% of his passes and average lower than 7.0 yards per attempt. The other seven quarterbacks include: E.J. Manuel, Matt Cassel, Geno Smith, Mike Glennon, Chad Henne, and Drew Stanton.
It's still unclear if Foles is the future in Philadelphia. There's still 10 games left this season, so he has time to turn things around. As it stands, the Eagles should let him play out the final year of his contract while also keeping an eye on other quarterbacks (ex: developmental draft prospects).
4) Keep betting against Chip Kelly
A lot of people were skeptical of Chip Kelly when he was first hired last season. They didn't think his "gimmick" offense would work. They thought he would run back to college. Well, those skeptics and doubters were proven wrong because the Eagles would go on to have a great year. It seemed like some of that skepticism returned during the 2014 offseason. The Eagles released DeSean Jackson. Teams would have a full offseason to study Kelly and "figure out" his offense. Well, those skeptics and doubters have been proven wrong yet again so far. Yes, the Eagles did get off to a slow offensive start, but things seem to be turning around with the revival of LeSean McCoy.
It's just funny to me how so many people are willing to bet against Kelly. Or those who criticize Kelly's supporters as some "Cult of Chip." I'm not trying to say Kelly is some infallible person, but it does seem to me he has a pretty good idea of what he's doing most of the time. It seems like betting against him never really turns out well, and yet some people still do it.
Philadelphia is very lucky to have a coach like Kelly.
5) Disappointment with Zach Ertz
Huh? Zach Ertz is a stud. He's caught 19 receptions for 306 total yards with a league-leading (minimum 50% snaps) 16.1 average yards per catch. He's scored two touchdowns, including a nifty grab along the sideline in the endzone most recently against the Giants. So why the disappointment? One costly fumble in the 49ers game and a drop passed aside, it's a little disappointing that Ertz hasn't been able to earn more playing time. Philadelphia's run game and pass protection have suffered with the injuries up front on the offensive line so the Eagles have had to call on veteran tight end Brent Celek (who is a fantastic blocker) and sometimes even James Casey to help out as extra blockers. Ertz just isn't able to make the same kind of impact as a blocker which has limited his playing time. Ertz has been seen working after practice with All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters after practice so he's aware this is something he needs to work on.
Once/if Ertz proves himself as a blocker, he should be able to earn more playing time. He's been far from a disappointment overall, but there's obviously still room for him to grow.
6) Bennie Logan is good
Bennie Logan received a lot of criticism in the offseason following Philadelphia's playoff loss to New Orleans. Some felt he wasn't big enough to play nose tackle. A number of those people wanted to Eagles to either sign a veteran or draft a massive nose tackle such as Louis Nix III (who is now on injured reserve in Houston, by the way). So far, Logan has looked pretty good in 2014. He is seventh among all defensive linemen in tackles and second among nose guards. Not too small at all.
7) Eagles pass rushing outside linebackers: Trent Cole not done, Connor Barwin surprising, Brandon Graham to stick around?
Sticking with the theme of areas on the defense that people thought the Eagles failed to upgrade, how about that recent Philadelphia pass rush? 19 sacks total, which ranks second best in the entire NFL. Trent Cole, who many people thought was toast, has 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles (2 of which directly led to defensive touchdowns), and leads the league in QB hits with 9. Barwin, who isn't necessarily the most dominant pass rusher by any means, is tied for first in the NFL with 7 sacks. Surely no one saw that coming.
And how about Brandon Graham? Maybe he's not the best in coverage but he can sure rush the passer as well as play the run. Graham is going to be a free agent after the season and it seems possible a 4-3 team could offer him big money to start at defensive end. But depending on what the Eagles do with Trent Cole, who's due $11.6M in 2015 and could be cut for a savings of ~$8.4M, keeping Graham might actually make sense. Right?
8) Who is Marcus Smith II?
The fact that Smith II hasn't been able to get on the field regularly seems like a disappointment. Then again, the players ahead of him at his drafted position (outside linebacker) are playing pretty darn well so it doesn't make sense to take them off the field. Smith II is now working at inside linebacker due to Philadelphia's lack of depth at the position. Dan Klausner suggested that Smith II might be the long-term replacement to DeMeco Ryans. Perhaps that's the case. Some pointed out that Smith II took group pictures with the inside linebackers only, and not the outside group. I'm not sure if that really means much, but it'll be interesting to see how Smith II's career plays out. Right now, it's a mystery.
9) (Don't Fear) The Cowboys
The Cowboys are playing really good football right now. They're clearly the biggest threats to the Eagles in the NFC East. If they can sustain their success, which remains to be seen, they will provide a significant challenge to the Eagles. Dallas is far from unbeatable, however. I would argue that the Eagles match up well with the Cowboys. The Eagles 3-4 two-gap scheme prioritizes stopping the run. More importantly, the Eagles have the personnel to slow down that Dallas ground game. It won't be easy. I expect the Eagles-Cowboys games to be really good.
10) Recipe for victory
The Eagles are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. That's not to say they are the favorites, but they are definitely in the discussion right now. There's still a lot of season left so that can change quickly, but for now, things are looking up for Philly.
Don't get me wrong, this team is far from flawless. Aside from Malcolm Jenkins, the secondary isn't very inspiring. The pass rush has been great recently but it's shown moments of weaknesses (two games without a single sack in Week 2 and 3). The offensive line is still banged up for a couple more games until Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis return. Nick Foles has looked shaky and leads the NFL in turnovers.
No team is without their issues. There isn't a flawless roster in the NFL. The Eagles have a winning recipe that gives them a chance to win it all. Here's the very oversimplified version. At their best, the Eagles are a top-notch offense (which struggled early but appears to be now returning to form) combined with a defense that's at least 'good enough' (or maybe now even legitimately just good) along with the best special teams unit in the league. A team like that has the makings of a contender. Philadelphia just needs to stay healthy and get hot down the stretch when it counts. Easier said than done, but there's room for hope for a Broad Street parade as soon as February 2015.
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