Yesterday we noted how the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants are among the five NFL teams most likely to decline this season. Now ESPN is back with the the five teams most likely to improve. And guess what? The Philadelphia Eagles are one of those five.
No team has a better stat-nerd case for jumping into the postseason in 2017 than the Eagles. Advanced metrics suggest Doug Pederson's team was already playoff-caliber last season; the Eagles finished fourth in DVOA (just ahead of the Steelers) and had the sixth-best point differential in the NFC, which should have been enough to push them into a wild-card spot.
Instead, the Eagles became one of five teams in 2016 to post a losing record despite a positive point differential, which is a particularly weird feat because it hadn't happened once in the league across either of the previous two campaigns. Philadelphia's gap between expected wins and actual wins was the largest of those five, owing to that 1-8 record in games decided by a touchdown.
Bill Barnwell echoes here what I’ve been saying all offseason: the 2016 Eagles were better than their record showed. He points out how a lot of their losses last season were close and came against good teams. Philadelphia also put a legitimate beatdown on some other good teams as well.
On paper, the Eagles look improved heading into this year. The offense is supplied with actual weapons now, including Alshon Jeffery. The offensive line figures to be much better with Lane Johnson is back. Carson Wentz, the make-or-break factor for this team, is enjoying a good summer.
Now, no one is saying the Eagles should be considered Super Bowl favorites or anything like that. They still have a very obvious weakness at cornerback, as Barnwell notes.
I'd also be worried about how the Eagles match up against their rivals, given that they are as thin as any team in the league at cornerback. Philadelphia used a pair of mid-round picks on cornerbacks, but Sidney Jones is recovering from a torn Achilles and is really a selection for 2018 and beyond. The veteran trio of Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson, and Ron Brooks will end up covering players like Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr., and Terrelle Pryor this season. That's going to be a weekly mismatch.
Still, that’s just one area of the team. It’s not like the Eagles are going to go 0-16 because of bad corners. Philadelphia had bad cornerbacks last year and somehow managed to hold the Falcons, who averaged 34 points per game last year, to only 15. A strong Eagles pass rush and strong starting safety duo could mitigate the Eagles’ biggest weakness to some extent. At least that’s the hope.
Projections don’t always bare out into reality. Numbers don’t guarantee that the Eagles will be successful this season. But for now, the models point to Philadelphia improving while their NFC East rivals get worse. The gap has closed and the Eagles should be pushing for a playoff spot in 2017.