Looking ahead to the 2018 NFL season, let’s reset and take stock of where the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles stand at each offensive position within the NFC East. Spoiler alert: they’re talented across the board and while they weren’t represented at the top for every position, it wasn’t due to a lack of star talent.
QUARTERBACK: Carson Wentz (Eagles)
Remember the Dak Prescott vs. Carson Wentz debates from the summer of 2017? It’s a good lesson in not overreacting to a rookie season, especially at the quarterback position. Prescott went into a shell last season, progressively throwing less downfield and ranking 32nd out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks with his egregiously low 8.8% over throws over 20 yards in the air. The tape marries well with the analytics, showing a signal-caller that struggled when clean, pressured, blitzed, not blitzed, in the red zone and on money downs.
Dak lost his marbles, something that can’t be said for Wentz, who only grew bolder as the season progressed and finished 2nd in PFF’s “big-time throw” category. Wentz’s star shined brightest in the intermediate areas (10-19 yards), posting a 131.4 quarterback rating in those areas, good enough for 2nd in the NFL. Money downs, red zone, under pressure, there wasn’t a situation in which Wentz didn’t improve on from his rookie season.
Boy oh boy I can't wait for Carson Wentz to return - pic.twitter.com/cql2mQTPeN— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) April 8, 2018
Alex Smith enters the picture as the new Washington Redskins starter, but if you’re betting on him continuing to play like he’s raging on psycho-jet like he did for the better part of last season in Kansas City, that might be a risk bet considering the body of work over his entire career. It’s a safer bet putting your money down on a regression to the mean, especially considering the lack of dynamic weapons for Smith to chuck it to in Washington.
Did I not mention Eli Manning?
RUNNING BACK: Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys)
Elliott will face challenges from rookies Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice this year, but excluding rookies, Elliott has shown the ability to be a bell-cow back that can elevate the offense. He’s not without his flaws; there were questions if he was out of shape last season, which caused him to look less explosive and ultimately less production. There are also character concerns and with his ability to stay focused on the game. Still, when Elliott is locked in, he’s a top talent that’s capable of making game-changing contributions in the running and passing game. His return to form would give the Cowboys offense the hammer they were missing last year.
WIDE RECEIVER: Odell Beckham Jr. (Giants)
There isn’t much of a debate to be had on this one. Since entering the league, Odell Beckham Jr. has logged 38 touchdowns in 47 games while adding 4,424 receiving yards on 313 receptions. Excluding his 2017 campaign that was cut short by a season-ending ankle injury, Beckham ranks in the upper stratosphere of pass catchers. From 2014-2016, Beckham comes in top 5 for targets (458), receptions (289), receiving yards (4,181), and he ties for 1st in touchdowns (35). Perhaps his best feat is making Eli Manning look like a starter.
SLOT RECEIVER: Nelson Agholor (Eagles)
This stretch into slot, tight end, and offensive line is where things get tough. There are three viable candidates for the top slot in the NFC East: Nelson Agholor, Sterling Shepard, and Jamison Crowder. Shepard was dinged up for most of the season with neck, hamstring, and ankle injuries. He also suffered through migraines for most of the season. Despite all that, he put up respectable numbers, including big days against the San Francisco 49ers (11-142-0) and the Eagles (11-139-1).
Crowder was similarly bang up, being listed for hip and hand injuries while battling a reoccurring hamstring injury. Like Shepard, Crowder would post 2 100+ yard days, one against the Cowboys (9-123-0) and another against the Giants (7-141-1).
With those injuries in mind, and both players having better years in 2016, it’s hard to judge them against each other, and even harder to judge them against Agholor, who only has one season of above average production to his name. Trying to find more context, I searched for every possible stat from the 2017 campaign, but this should be taken with a rather large-sized grain of salt.
With Agholor out-performing Shepard and Crowder in money down, deep, red zone, and strictly slot production, I gave the edge to the reformed Trojan product. Agholor cracked the top 5 league-wide in slot targets (76), receptions (54), and yards (752) while finishing 1st in touchdowns from the slot (8) and 6th in yards per route run (1.82). The 2018 season should bring more clarity as we try to distinguish these three players from each other, but for now, Agholor gets the nod.
TIGHT END: Zach Ertz (Eagles)
If we’re judging on pure potential, you could make a compelling argument for Washington Redskins’ Jordan Reed. However, outside of 2015, Reed has failed to play in more than 12 games in a season, missing 14 games in the last two years and 28 over his 5-year career (5.6 average). On the flipside, Ertz has been available for 75 of 80 career games. With over 70+ catches and 800+ yards over the last three years and an increasing number of touchdowns per year, Ertz has been consistent, available, and on an upward trend while being deadly and clutch in the red zone for the Eagles.
OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Trent Williams (Redskins)
A real doozy of a debate for this one, as you could make the argument for several players here. The TL/DR version is that Tyron Smith has a serious back issue that has hampered his play, Jason Peters is coming off an ACL tear and is 36-years old, Lane Johnson is a top talent but isn’t as consistently dominant in all areas of the game like Trent Williams.
There is the concern that Williams hasn’t had a full season since 2013, missing 1, 2, 4, and 6 games consecutively since then, but when he’s on the field he’s the best at the position. He also dominated at guard when he had to fill in for a stint in 2016. A stud in both pass pro and the run game, you won’t find a better tackle at pulling and blocking in space than Williams.
OFFENSIVE GUARD: Zack Martin (Cowboys)
Brandon Brooks and Brandon Scherff have compelling cases, but the consistency and power that Zack Martin brings to the game was unmatched in 2017. Known as an old-school mauler in the run game, Martin’s contributions in pass protection are sometimes overlooked. Last season, Martin surrendered a league-low 11 pressures among guards that played 50% of their teams passing snaps. One of the easiest decisions in the off-season for the Cowboys was picking up Martin’s fifth-year option and if his dominance continues, he could see a gigantic payday next offseason.
CENTER: Travis Frederick (Cowboys)
Jason Kelce was the highest ranked center by Pro Football Focus, and there should be no mistake that he’s the best center in space in the game, but Travis Frederick stands above all as the standard bearer at the position.
From Bleacher Report’s NFL1000:
“It is nearly impossible to beat him one-on-one in a strength battle because he’s a leverage monster who’ll drive his opponent out of the play. He’s also great at quickly controlling his body in short spaces to deal with defenders on either shoulder. The 26-year-old has light feet and quickness to reset his body as a pass-blocker, which makes it tough for any defender to push him back or get past him. It’s not often you can claim that one player stands head and shoulders above everyone at his position, but that can be said of Frederick—and it’s been true for the last few seasons.” – Doug Farrar
KICKER: Jake Elliott (Eagles)
Fact: Jake Elliott was the most accurate kicker in the NFC East in 2017. Fact: Elliot had the most field goals made over 50-yards in the NFC East. Fact: Elliott was mystifyingly bad at extra points, but let’s not focus on that. Let’s focus on his game-winning 61-yard field goal against the Giants and his heart-pounding 46-yard make in the Super Bowl to help close out the game.
Next, we will take a lot at the top player at each defensive player at each position in the NFC East and get into the all-important punter debate.