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5 Eagles make ESPN list of 99 players who will shape the 2018 NFL season

Looking ahead.

NFL: Super Bowl LII-Philadelphia Eagles vs New England Patriots Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’re in one of the slower parts of the NFL offseason, ESPN decided to fill some time by making a list of the top “99 NFL players, coaches and themes that will define” the 2018 season. Rather conveniently, I also decided to fill some time by highlighting the Eagles players who made the list. (Is it September yet?)

Rising stars returning from injury

8. Carson Wentz, QB, Eagles: The Eagles won the Super Bowl with backup Nick Foles behind center, but there is no question the Eagles are better positioned in the short and long term with Wentz. His recovery timeline will take him close to the start of the regular season. When healthy, Wentz is an annual MVP candidate.

For a long time now, the focus has naturally been on when Wentz will return. Given the way he’s progressed this offseason, I wouldn’t be shocked if he meets his stated goal of Week 1.

But forget the exact date of his return for a second because that’s an eventuality. The more interesting question is: how will Wentz perform in Year 3? He easily could’ve been named NFL MVP (and even Super Bowl MVP) if he stayed healthy last year. In only his second season! Will Wentz face some natural regression? Will the injury impact his performance?

Those are fair concerns to raise, for sure. But again, Wentz is not your typical player. He’s a freak.

Backup quarterbacks who could make a difference

40. Nick Foles, Eagles: I know. Duh, right? How long did it take you to come up with that one? Dude just won Super Bowl MVP. Obviously he can make a difference, and with Wentz working his way back from December knee surgery, the odds appear strong that Foles will have to open the season as the starter and play a few games.

It’s certainly possible Foles might have to play early in the season if Wentz isn’t ready to suit up. But I wouldn’t just assume that’s a lock.

If Foles does have to play, it’ll be interesting to see how he performs. He was obviously lights out against the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game and against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. He was significantly better than anyone reasonably could have expected.

But Foles wasn’t without his struggles in 2017. He was downright dreadful late in the regular season. People will be quick to dismiss those moments, of course, but the reality is he’s a player who has experienced high highs and low lows. If he has to play for an extended amount of time, it can’t just always assumed he’s going to be awesome in every game. On the flip side, maybe he only has to play for a game or two and we’ll see Good Foles in part thanks to a strong supporting cast and great coaching around him.

If Foles does play for several games and does play really well, it’s going to be pretty annoying to see talks of a “quarterback controversy” in Philly. Wentz is the guy. He’s the starter if he’s healthy.

Most dominant defenses

53. The champs are still as deep up front as anyone: The Super Bowl wasn’t the greatest showcase of how good last season’s Eagles were on defense, but with second-year pass-rusher Derek Barnett set for an expanded role and Michael Bennett joining an already-stacked defensive line, the depth in the front seven should help them be one of the league’s best defenses for the second year in a row.

The Eagles led the NFL in pressures generated last season. Then they added Michael Bennett. That’s almost unfair, in a good way for the Birds.

Of course, the Eagles also lost some quality defensive linemen in Vinny Curry and Beau Allen. Tim Jernigan’s back injury, which could cause him to miss at least the first half of the season, is also a concern. Brandon Graham, meanwhile, said he expects to be ready for training camp, but will that truly be the case? There’s some uncertainty here.

Assuming Graham is healthy, the Eagles will continue to have a pretty strong group of ends that goes five deep (at least). Graham is obviously a hero. Bennett should be effective with having to play fewer snaps. Chris Long and the aforementioned Barnett are starting caliber players who provide a lot of juice off the bench. Having Steven Means and Josh Sweat as your fifth/sixth ends is, as Howie Roseman said earlier this offseason, a “rich man’s problem.”

The Eagles’ d-line isn’t the only reason their defense figures to be good, though. That’s where it all starts, for sure, but they have two quality linebackers in Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks. Hopefully the latter can stay healthy. Then there’s the secondary, which will be receiving a boost with the addition of Sidney Jones. We should also see Ronald Darby’s A-game now that he’s: had an offseason to learn the defense, not having to deal with last year’s ankle injury, and is in a contract year. Philadelphia still needs to figure out who will man the slot but they have options there: Mills, Jones, De’Vante Bausby, Avonte Maddox, or even D.J. Killings.

Players set to cash in if they have a big year

64. Ronald Darby, CB, Eagles: He had a strong 2015 rookie season in Buffalo, and in his third year he helped the Eagles win a Super Bowl. Darby will be 25 when free agency opens in 2019, and with a strong 2018 he could be in position to cash in big. -- Dan Graziano

I think some people are too down on Darby for his perceived “struggles” last season. Put his performance in context. This is a dude who joined the defense late in training camp and had to return from an ankle injury that looked like it could have been season-ending when it happened. He’s 100% healthy now and he knows the scheme. Also, as I already mentioned, he’s entering a contract year. The motivation will be there.

Darby made one of the biggest plays last season that seemingly doesn’t get the credit it deserves. With 57 seconds left in regulation and the game tied at 10-10, the Raiders had a chance to move into field goal range and beat the Eagles on Christmas. Instead, Darby jumped a route and picked off Derek Carr to help the Birds clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC. This allowed the Eagles to mostly rest their starters in Week 17. Clutch play. (I’d wager Darby would’ve be a tad more appreciated if he didn’t drop a pick late on the Patriots’ final drive in the Super Bowl.)

In any case, I don’t know if the Eagles will be the team to pay Darby after this season. But even if they don’t, he still provides significant value to the team this season. They shouldn’t be trading him unless it’s a no-brainer deal.

Potential trade bait

88. Jay Ajayi, RB, Eagles: You always have to look at Philadelphia when you’re projecting potential trades. Let’s say Darren Sproles comes back from injury and makes a big contribution while Corey Clement continues to impress. The Eagles could find themselves with a surplus of quality running backs, and Ajayi could be on the move for the second trade deadline in a row. He’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.

Speaking of trades ... this is an interesting suggestion. It’s the worst kept secret that Ajayi is unlikely to be re-signed by Philly. The combination of his potential cost and his injury concerns makes it unlikely a cap-strapped team like the Eagles will even be able to keep him. But like I said with Darby, I think Ajayi has more value to the team this year than he does in a trade. Remember, this is a guy who averaged 5.8 yards per carry with the Eagles in the regular season last year. Plus it’s not like the guys currently competing for the fourth running back job (Donnel Pumphrey, Josh Adams, Matt Jones, Wendell Smallwood) are all that compelling or reliable.

Week 5: Vikings at Eagles. Case Keenum struggled against the Eagles in the NFC title game. Will new QB Kirk Cousins make the difference in the rematch?

Week 11: Eagles at Saints. New Orleans plays its final five home games against 2017 playoff teams, including this one against the defending champs.

As a bonus, ESPN included a section with the “10 games fans don’t want to miss.” I agree that these two games should be pretty fun to watch. I’m pretty confident they’ll beat the Vikings but that Saints game will be tough, even for the defending champs.

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