“Every year is a new year” is a cliche, but for some teams it’s also a reality. Nearly every year a team in recent history has gone from worst to first, and it’s happened quite a bit in the NFC East.
It would take a miracle for the Jets, Browns, Bears, 49ers and Chargers to pull it off. The Jaguars seem just as unlikely, but somebody has to win the feeble AFC South. That leaves two teams with realistic predictive chances. The Panthers seem a good bet to be this year’s turnaround team, as the Falcons should fall back to earth without career years from their best players, the Saints shouldn’t pose a threat and the Bucs are a far from perfect team.
The other team that stands a decent chance to vault from worst to first is the Eagles, who play in a division where every team has serious flaws. The Redskins, who weren’t that good to begin with, have lost more than they gained. The Giants were carried by their defense in 2016, the highest offensive output the Giants had was just 28 points, and were 8-3 in one score games, 4-1 in games decided by 3 or less points. A non-dramatic drop off by a defense that overnight went from one of the worst in the league to one of the best will put great strain on a Giants offense that has been mediocre under Bob McAdoo, a serious drop off is likely to torpedo the season. The Cowboys defense is still mediocre at best with no pass rush and large turnover all over the depth chart, their offensive line breaks in two new starters, and the team has several suspensions to starters and contributors. Dallas should still be good, but the thin line they’ve been walking for years with their all offense/no defense has produced terrible results when things go wrong.
The Eagles went 1-6 in one score games, they were a handful of plays away from a winning record last year, and have added talent on both sides of the ball. There’s plenty of reason for optimism for 2017, and with strong seasons by these players, the Eagles could find themselves not just in the playoffs but as division winners.
Darby has a good chance to settle things down at cornerback, which is desperately in need of some stability. His skill set fits perfectly with what the Eagles lacked last year: he has speed in bunches, which the Eagles sorely lacked last year, and he gets his hands on balls (only six players have more passes defensed in the last two seasons, though Darby had only 2 interceptions). On that alone, he should be an improvement, so it won’t take much to make an impact. And he steps into a defense that is already very good to great against the pass. Thanks to a good pass rush, good coverage linebackers, and strong pair of safeties, the Eagles defense was 11th in passer rating, 7th in interception percentage, 2nd in passing DVOA. Darby might have the lowest bar to clear to have an impact.
The defensive line
Pick anyone on the defensive line. Or the whole thing. The line was the strength of the team in 2016, but there was room for more. Holdover starters Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham were very good but not great, in part because Bennie Logan and Connor Barwin weren’t good fits for Jim Schwartz. Timmy Jernigan should be an improvement over Logan in the pass rush (expect a drop off against the run), which should have a knock-on effect of freeing up Cox and Graham some. Connor Barwin was not effective, the hope is that Vinny Curry can be, and if he isn’t Derek Barnett is waiting in the wings. If the line finds another gear, and it easily could, the defense can carry the Eagles pretty far.
In the air, the Eagles have pieces in place to have a good season. On the ground, they still don’t have an every down runner to bring balance. LeGarrette Blount lacks the receiving ability to be that guy, Darren Sproles is not a starting running back, nor are their understudies Corey Clement and Donnel Pumphrey. That leaves Smallwood, who can run and catch, as the only option available. A year ago the coaching staff talked about Smallwood as a potential starting running back, but he didn’t show it and the staff didn’t give him much of a chance to. But this summer he’s looked like he could make that jump. He’ll likely start the season in a rotation, but as in many things it’s not always how you start it’s how you finish. If Smallwood can become the primary back, with Sproles playing his usual role and Blount as the short yardage and goal line back, the Eagles offense could be flying high this year.
Alshon Jeffery will singlehandedly turn the Eagles WRs from the worst in the league to something closer to the middle of the pack. But Jeffery can’t solve all the problems alone. A good season from Smith would have a ripple effect across the entire offense. A legitimate deep threat opposite Jeffery would help open up the entire offense, giving everyone else, most directly Zach Ertz, more room to operate. With games against some of the best secondaries in the league this season, there are going to be times where a reliable outlet that isn’t Jeffery is needed. If Smith can be that, the Eagles passing offense can be more than just functional.
In Baltimore Smith averaged 53 catches, 898 yards and 8 TD a season. He won’t need that much to be a difference maker for the Eagles, a 40+ catch, 600+ yard, 4+ TD season should get the job done. His value isn’t just in his production, but to borrow an NBA term, also in his field spacing ability.
All eyes are on Carson Wentz this season, as they should be. The success or failure of a team is generally disproportionately tethered to the play of their quarterback, and if Wentz is the franchise QB the team hopes for, then he will elevate his play in 2017. The additions of actual wide receivers—two thirds of WRs who caught a pass from Wentz last year aren’t on an active roster this year—will obviously help, along with all the usual reasons why players progress in their second year. The sum of the Eagles parts on offense should add up to an average offense, Wentz can make it a good one.
The Eagles, with a strong defense and special teams, are set up to be a good team with just modest progression from Wentz. A greater than expected step could give the Eagles a balanced team that could vault them from a good, playoff contending team to a very good, division winning team.