The Eagles are one quarter of the way through the 2017 season. Like in 2016, they’re in first place at 3-1, and without one of their key players. But this year has a completely different feeling. It’s a good time to take stock of whose stock is up and whose is down.
There’s not much more that can be said about Wentz this season that wasn’t said yesterday. But here’s a bit more: Wentz has progressed in virtually every facet of his game. He’s seeing the field better, he’s using all of the field, his accuracy has improved, his mechanics have improved, his turnover rate has improved, he has an even firmer grasp of the playbook and more freedom with it, and he continues to make plays with his legs that few QBs can. He still needs to improve his deep ball (and the Chargers game may be an indication he’s turned the corner), and he’s left some easy completions on the field. But no quarterback irons out every issue by their 20th start. Wentz’s improvements and positives far outweigh his negatives, and that’s all you can reasonably ask for at this stage of his career.
The breakout season that we’ve been waiting for appears to have arrived. Ertz is the best pass catcher on the Eagles on merit, and has been one of the best in the league so far. He is 3rd in the NFL in receptions but 8th in targets and 6th in catch rate among tight ends with at least 16 receptions, which means he isn’t just the beneficiary of an obscene amount of throws or easy passes. His touchdown rate could improve, but with just 3 targets in the red zone he hasn’t had many opportunities. And that could be in part due to the playbook that Doug Pederson took with him from Kansas City: Travis Kelce has, for his career, been a big time chain mover before the red zone but leaned on heavily in the red zone, Brent Celek has a similar usage rate.
And Ertz is doing this without his customary 10+ reception game to boost his stats. His game by game receptions are 8, 5, 8, and 5. His production has been consistent.
Through four games Agholor has turned his career around and looks like a legitimate receiver. He’s found a home in the slot, co-leading the team in touchdown receptions. Like last year his best game was the season opener, but unlike last year he’s followed it up with dependability. He’s validated the Eagles decision to move on from Jordan Matthews.
Thought to be left for dead, Kendricks has found new life in year two under Jim Schwartz. He’s carried over his standout preseason into the regular season, earning significantly more playing time and producing with a sack, three passes defensed and improved tackling. He’s playing better, and Jim Schwartz is using him more and using him better. He’s the biggest pleasant surprise of the season.
Pederson received an inordinate amount of criticism for last season. Given everything the Eagles were missing: wide receivers, running backs, key players on the offensive line, cornerbacks; and starting a rookie QB, 7 wins was a respectable debut season. It also made it difficult to evaluate if Pederson is a good coach or not. With an improved roster and a year of experience, so far Pederson looks like he’s a good coach.
For the most part his play calling has been good, certainly effective: the Eagles are 2nd in 3rd down percentage, 8th in the red zone, and 9th in DVOA. The Eagles discipline has improved, up from 26th in penalties per game in 2016 to 20th (interestingly, so far total penalties per game for the NFL have increased this season, so they’re actually committing more penalties, but then so is everyone else). A year after Jim Schwartz’s defense carried the Eagles, the reverse is true: Doug Pederson’s offense is carrying the Eagles. Perhaps the narratives can flip as well.
Pederson has room to improve, he could call a few less screen passes on third down; his fourth down decisions have some inconsistency (though they’re more defensible than last year); and that he’s already replaced a starter is troubling, though a modicum of credit is due for that being the right call. But no coach is perfect.
And give Pederson and his staff credit for Carson Wentz’s improvements in 2017. A quarterback doesn’t make the amount of improvements Wentz has made all on his own or just because he has more talent around him.
Pederson looks even better when you compare him to the coaches who were in the running for his job. Ben McAdoo is having a season that usually gets a coach fired.. It’s 2017 and Adam Gase is running the Wildcat and lost badly to the Jets.
Like his quarterback, Pederson still has areas where he can improve, but also like his quarterback, he’s progressed in his second year and his positives outweigh his negatives. And those negatives might be easier to fix.
Getting benched after two games is brutal. Seumalo still has a potential future at center, but that the team pulled the plug on him at left guard so quickly is embarrassing for both the player and the team.
As the Eagles expected, Smith’s season last year in San Francisco wasn’t a true reflection of his ability: he’s already halfway to matching last season’s receptions and yards. And he’s clearly stretching defenses, which has significant value. Zach Ertz’s breakout season owes a small debt to Smith opening up some space in the middle of the field (and a larger one to Alshon Jeffery and Carson Wentz, not to take anything away from Ertz’s improvements). While that’s an upgrade for both Smith and the Eagles from last season—he has as many receptions but more yards than Dorial Green-Beckham did this time last year—it’s not what the Eagles thought they were getting when they signed him in free agency. Smith has dropped a few big plays (per Football Outsiders he’s 2nd in the NFL in drops with 4; Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz have 5 combined), and his yards per reception is the same as it was last season--a career low by more than a couple of yards. His current output of 2-3 catches and a deep attempt to two a game is just enough to keep him in the starting lineup, but so far he’s been a replacement level deep threat. If he doesn’t turn it around the Eagles will be justified in looking elsewhere by season’s end and certainly in the offseason.
Handed a starting job by default, Curry hasn’t done anything with it to show he’s deserving of it. Curry’s next sack this season will be his first. He does have 7 pressures (per Football Outsiders), a good total, and he’s been good against the run, but that’s not much of an upgrade from Connor Barwin. With Derek Barnett already showing flashes (he has essentially the same per snap pressure rate as Curry), there’s been nothing to suggest that the idea that Curry won’t end the season as the starter was wrong.