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State of the Eagles: Regular Season Primer

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Dear sweet baby Jesus, football is back!

NFL: Preseason-Philadelphia Eagles at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

What’s up, BGN? I watched this year’s preseason from afar while hiking in Norway, so of course it was one of the most eventful preseasons in recent memory. But I’m back to deliver my own insights on the Eagles ahead of the season, and if you ever have the opportunity to visit Norway, do it. (Just don’t speed. Holding my breath on receiving a speeding ticket from overseas...)

For those of you who may be new to the site, I cut my teeth here at Bleeding Green Nation writing my endearingly nerdy “Crunching The Numbers” series, in which I used some basic analytics to make observations about the Eagles and the NFL at large. It was a lot of work, and I loved doing it, but unfortunately my life became too crowded and I had to retire the series after last season. In its place I began my semi-regular “State of the Eagles” series. Every 4 games I will post a new article to offer my own take on the various narratives that will undoubtedly grip the Eagles as the season moves along. And now that we are LESS THAN ONE WEEK from Philadelphia’s opening contest against Washington, I’m here to wrap up the offseason and look ahead to our first 4 games of real, genuine, 100% certified NFL football.

In this post:

  • Final thoughts on the Eagles’ offseason
  • Quick take on cuts
  • ALL ABOARD THE HYPE TRAIN
  • What’s a reasonable expectation for Carson Wentz?
  • Win-loss predictions!

[Note: This is a LONG article, feel free to skip to the section that interests you the most!]

Now that we have all the pleasantries out of the way, let’s dive in!

An Ode To Preseason Football

Ah, the preseason. We all love it for 5 minutes, because it’s football, and then we hate it, because it’s not real football. Now that it’s over, I’ll very quickly discuss my overall impressions of the Eagles’ offseason from training camp onward, to give us a nice segue into regular season discussion.

The best news is that the Eagles mostly avoided major injuries, although the linebacker depth is certainly shaky with Kamu Grugier-Hill’s MCL injury and Nigel Bradham’s questionable availability for Week 1. On the flip side, they still haven’t recovered entirely from last season. Brandon Brooks is almost certainly missing some regular season action, and it’s hard to imagine that Rodney McLeod, Ronald Darby, Fletcher Cox, and Derek Barnett are really at 100%. As a general rule, playing in real football games makes you less healthy, so I would not expect the Eagles to start the season firing on all cylinders (more on this in the win-loss section). It’s something good to keep in mind when managing expectations (...and I’ll touch on this in the HYPE section).

All that being said, most - if not all - of my offseason concerns about the team were positively addressed during the preseason. Can Big V play guard with Brooks out? It’s looking like it. Should we be worried about the defensive line depth? Not at this point, no. Will the Eagles be okay at quarterback with Sudfeld’s injury? McCown’s now the #2 so... yes. How are we doing at safety? Should be okay, at the very least. On the whole, I am feeling better about the season now than I did at the beginning of training camp, which is a good thing.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles-Training Camp
Jenkins, the ultimate team player, has been with the team in spite of not receiving a new contract
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of safeties, I’m mildly surprised we haven’t heard any more news about Jenkins’ contract, or that (to the best of my knowledge) nobody seems to interested in finding out how things are going. Jenkins is with the team and playing, which is awesome, but he is the heart and soul of the defense and deserves more money. I thought something would have happened by now, but perhaps the front office is waiting to see if he maintains his level of play in his age 31 year before doling out more cash. In any event, it’s something I’ll be keeping on the back burner throughout the season.

Cut Down Quick Takes

Also speaking of safeties, I’m very surprised to see they kept five, especially at the expense of a third tight end with Goedert nicked up (yes, Perkins is on the practice squad, but he could get poached at any time). Outside of that, I didn’t think anything was really all that surprising:

  • Six defensive ends makes sense considering the draft capital they’ve invested in the position, although at some point you have to consider giving up on the Josh Sweat experiment, especially since he was immediately upstaged in preseason by the legendary Daeshon Hall.
  • Happy to see they avoided the sunk cost fallacy with Thorson. Lately the team has gotten fairly sentimental with later round picks. Hopefully they learned their lesson on getting cute with quarterback prospects. As for the “wasted fifth round pick,” I honestly don’t care that much. It was a fifth round pick - they don’t pan out very often anyway. Yes, a better selection could have been made, but hindsight is 20/20 and it’s time to move on.
  • Interesting to see they signed Bruce Hector over playoff hero Treyvon Hester. Maybe they offered him a practice squad position and he opted for the more lucrative offer to be on the Redskins’ 53 instead? The Eagles’ basically getting Rudy Ford for free with the Hector signing is good for a LOL, though.

WARNING: Hype Train Has Achieved Ludicrous Speed

Hey, so in case you haven’t heard, people think the Eagles are going to be pretty good this year! Just kidding, of course you’ve heard it, because everyone has been saying it. You can count me among those who believes in big things for the Birds this season.

However.

I’ve always struggled to manage preseason expectations, and this year is no different. There was a lot of talk in August of 2015 about how deep the Eagles’ roster was, and how well they were expected to perform (aside: the picture in that link gave me a chuckle), and we all know how that turned out - sorry for reminding you.

On the other hand, most people laughed off Doug Pederson’s remarks ahead of the 2017 season that his roster was “probably” more talented than the 1996 Packers team that won the Super Bowl. Again, we all know how that turned out, but even so it wasn’t really apparent just how deep that roster was until key players were sidelined to injured reserve and the team kept on trucking anyway.

This is all a drawn-out way of saying that the NFL season is long, brutal, and unforgiving. The preseason can only tell us so much about what is to come, and yet we eat it all up, because we are degenerates who have been starved of football for six months. And for me, as an Eagles fan, this post-Super Bowl world is still strange. I’m still adjusting. I need to counter my protective, hype-dampening reflex with a reminder that we have a Super Bowl-winning coach at the helm. Any fears of a veteran’s ability falling off a cliff (see Wisniewski, Stefen and Asomugha, Nnamdi) can be quelled by the intriguing mix of youth and depth at most positions. The only real question marks for depth come at linebacker and safety, and we’ve already proven we can weather those storms with our current roster. Maybe I’m the only one who still needs to battle these demons of Eagles’ seasons past, but if you do too, take a deep breath. This is an exciting time to be an Eagles fan - but patience may be key! The team is still banged up and it may take a few weeks for them to find their groove.

And, of course, this is the first season since that fabled Super Bowl run where we have a healthy franchise quarterback to start the season. But while this roster is still fairly deep even outside of the view of our green-colored glasses, ultimately most of our hopes and dreams fall on one man: Carson Wentz.

Expectations For Carson Wentz

Much has been made of Wentz’ efforts to protect his health this offseason. His new diet and team of nutritionists has been written about ad nauseum, and he’s been peppered with questions on whether or not he will “change his game” to protect his health. But the coaching staff still bears a fair amount of responsibility in this as well. A system based on the West Coast offense is going to be safer for your quarterback than one built on the zone read, for example. In 2017, Pederson expected Wentz to pick up at least 1 first down per game with his legs - I doubt he will ask the same of him moving forward. While that will bode well for Wentz’ health, it also suppresses an area of his game that helped make the Eagles’ offense so special during their Super Bowl run. I’m sure the crazy, breathtaking, sandlot football-style plays will still happen, but much less frequently. If the Eagles want to recapture the kind of success on offense they had in 2017, Pederson and his staff must design one that compensates for the magic lost on broken plays. So we need to speculate on these adjustments if we’re talking about what kind of season Wentz will have.

These adjustments, in my humble opinion, begin and end with DeSean Jackson. In 2017 the Eagles made a lot of big plays because Wentz’ scrambling allowed his receivers to get open downfield. He will not need to spend time scrambling for Jackson to get open. Furthermore, Jackson will likely help open up the intermediate middle of the field for Ertz, Goedert, Jeffery, and Agholor, and this is where I think Doug and company really want to attack. Big plays are nice, but the bread and butter of an offense is 15-25 yard “chunk” plays. If you don’t have a deep threat, you can try to make those happen with YAC, but like the zone read for quarterbacks this exposes your receivers to injury, and we’ve seen with Golden Tate that the coaching staff struggles to design plays that help generate YAC. It is much easier to do that damage with the pass itself and give the receiver the option to protect himself afterwards, provided these intermediate routes don’t lead to hospital passes. And sure, we all love fighting for extra yards, but to be honest if you’ve picked up 25 yards on the catch I won’t be too mad if you give yourself up afterwards.

So we have Jackson (a) stretching the field vertically at a MUCH faster rate than the Eagles were able to in 2017 and (b) helping to open the intermediate area of the field as a result. A boost to the run game should be an added bonus, especially with the Eagles’ intriguing stable of running backs. The wild card will be how the Eagles adjust to the games Jackson most likely misses. He rarely plays a full season, is currently on the mend, and they have shaky depth at deep threat behind him. I think they will go heavy on 12 personnel in those games, and bring back some more RPOs that they might move away from this year as league-wide trends change. Some more sandlot heroics may be necessary. Jackson’s health will certainly be something to keep an eye on this year.

Given all this, what does that mean for Wentz? His boost in efficiency in 2018 should help him in an offense designed to exploit the intermediate middle of the field, and we know that he’s established good chemistry with Jackson in practice. He should also be able to lean on a more reliable run game. I don’t think he will ever recapture his third down magic he had in 2017 - that was lightning in a bottle - but I don’t think he’ll need it as much either. The offense, if well designed and running smoothly, should help him avoid those situations, especially when you consider the talent involved.

I think Wentz plays a full season, and posts a stat line in the neighborhood of 65% completion percentage, 4500 yards, 40 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. (I’m not even going to take a stab at his rushing stats.) I don’t think he needs to do this for the Eagles’ offense to dominate, and I won’t be disappointed if the numbers are lower than this. But I think this stat line is reasonable considering his talent and supporting cast, and I have no issue expecting it.

Win-Loss Predictions

Everyone’s favorite! Since I am writing one of these after every 4 games, I will only preview the upcoming 4 games - in this case, Week 1 through Week 4. However, because it is the start of the season, I’ll offer a sneak preview of the Eagles’ final record.

This year, I have the Eagles going 11-5, with losses to Atlanta, Green Bay, Buffalo, Seattle, and Dallas (at home). This record will be enough to reclaim the NFC East division crown and snag the 2nd seed in the playoffs. I think their ceiling is 13-3, and their floor is 9-7. As for their first 4 opponents...

  • Week 1, vs Washington: I’m predicting a bumpy start to the season for the Eagles since they are still getting healthy and might have to shake off some rust from not playing much in the preseason. That won’t stop them from beating the Redskins, who suddenly find themselves with a suspect offensive line and a roster mostly bereft of talent at skill positions. And while Washington has pieces in place on defense, it won’t be enough - the Eagles are simply too good on offense to lose that battle over a full game. I think the first half is close, with Philly pulling away after the break. Eagles win, 27-13
  • Week 2, at Atlanta: Doug Pederson has never lost to Dan Quinn, and I generally have a rule of not picking one team on a losing streak against another until they show me they can. However, this is the first time the two coaches square off in Atlanta, and Quinn will be looking to get the monkey off his back against a team that is probably still not 100%. Falcons win, 24-21
  • Week 3, vs Detroit: The Lions are a trendy darkhorse candidate this season - does that mean they are still a darkhorse? Regardless, Matt Patricia needs to show he can assemble an offensive coaching staff that has the ability to get the most out of Matt Stafford. Until we see that, it’s hard to pick against the coach that smoked him in the Super Bowl, playing at home. Eagles win, 31-17
  • Week 4, at Green Bay: A lot of turnover in Wisconsin this offseason after Mike McCarthy pissed away another season of generational talent at quarterback. It’s hard to get a read on the Packers, but do you really predict Aaron Rodgers to lose in Lambeau on a short week? I don’t think so. The game will be a lot closer than people think, though. Packers win, 28-24

So, a 2-2 start for the Eagles - not ideal, but also not the end of the world. With the increasing irrelevance of preseason, September football is becoming more of an afterthought as teams settle back in to playing football. It’s much more important to hit your stride in November and December. Which is, of course, exactly what I think the Eagles will do.

Aaaand we made it! This was a doozy, but the midseason articles won’t be nearly as long. If you read this entire thing, thank you! And if not, well, no hard feelings. But what are your thoughts? What did you think of the offseason? What are expectations for Carson Wentz? The Eagles’ season at large? Sound off in the comments below, and Happy Kickoff!