It’s hard to make a football argument against the Eagles being the pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl again this year.
Sure, I get that stuff happens. Key players suffer injuries, new coordinators can create some uncertainty, and the randomness of life is ever-present. And when experts are making preseason predictions, different is always better than more of the same. No doubt, the Cowboys and 49ers pose a threat, and teams like the Lions, Giants and perhaps a potential upstart like the Falcons or Panthers could get frisky, but there really is no football-based reason to pick anyone other than Philadelphia to win the NFC in 2023.
This team is just loaded, and some additions at the linebacker spot this week will only help strengthen a locker room that is teeming with talent and experience, not to mention, one that employs the best quarterback in the conference. With so many talented players everywhere, it’s hard to identify the best individual units, but here’s my go at this year’s positional groups, ranked first-to-worst.
It’s perhaps the best offensive line in football, so certainly they’re the best, and most important, positional group on the team. Their depth took a hit this off-season with Andre Dillard moving on, but there are few, if any, better than Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce, Jordan Mailata and Landon Dickerson. The only question is whether last year’s second round pick, Cam Jurgens (Kelce’s heir apparent at center) will win the starting right guard job now that Isaac Seumalo is a Steeler, or whether rookie Tyler Steen will steal it away from him. Whoever loses the job will provide some back-up at a couple important positions, as will Dennis Kelly, who re-signed with the team earlier this week as Dillard’s replacement. Oh, and Jack Driscoll is one of the better back-up offensive linemen in the league, too.
It’s a deep unit that can withstand the loss of one or two players for a stretch, although any time missed by Lane Johnson usually means the Eagles lose games, so it’s imperative that he stay on the field.
This year’s defensive line won’t pile up 70 sacks in the regular season like they did a year ago, and the departure of Javon Hargrave will have an impact. But Howie Roseman is attempting to fill that hole with the 9th overall pick in the draft, Georgia superstar Jalen Carter. Carter isn’t likely to provide the same volume of pressures and sacks in his rookie campaign as the veteran Hargrave did last year, but he should be a handful for opposing interior offensive linemen. Jordan Davis is also expected to step up in his second year on the team and provide elite run-stopping ability, with Fletcher Cox and Milton Williams giving the Birds a solid foursome in the middle.
The edge rushers should be fun to watch again this year, with the league’s best pass rusher, Haason Reddick, ready to repeat his outstanding 2022 season. Their other first round pick this year, Nolan Smith, has opened eyes with his speed rushing this summer, and Brandon Graham just keeps on plugging away, fresh off his first double-digit sack season. Oh, and perhaps the most underrated player on the entire team is Josh Sweat, who broke through in a big way last year. Derek Barnett is still around, although it’s hard to see a role for him.
There is a chance the D-line takes a step back with Hargrave and Linval Joseph out of the mix, but the Eagles are counting on their Georgia draftees to continue to make life miserable for quarterbacks and ball carriers.
There are so many good positional groups on this team that it was really difficult organizing these next three in the proper order.
When it comes to top-flight talent and depth, the cornerback room is the third-strongest unit on the team. Darius Slay and James Bradberry can shut down any wide receiving duo in the league when they’re on their games, and they’re usually on their games. Somehow, Bradberry did not make the NFL’s top-100 list, and both didn’t haul in the number of interceptions we were expecting in ‘22, but they are weapons for Desai to use to his advantage. The Eagles also have an outstanding slot corner in Avonte Maddox who, when healthy, is as good as they come, not afraid to smack someone in the mouth when they come across the middle.
The Eagles also really like their CB4, Zech McPhearson, with free agent addition Greedy Williams a viable back-up on the outside. Josiah Scott was not good last year, but if he’s CB6, you can live with it. Keep an eye on Kelee Ringo this spring. It’s always fun to see how the rookies do. He’ll certainly make the team as a deep back-up/special teams player.
RECEIVERS (WIDEOUTS & TIGHT ENDS)
A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith became the first duo in team history to cross 1,000 yards receiving each in 2022. Brown is likely one of the five best wide receivers in the game, and Smith is in the top-20. Couple them with tight end Dallas Goedert, who has emerged as one of the five best at his position, and you have perhaps the most dynamic trio of pass catchers in the NFL. They’re hoping to get more out of No. 3 wideout Quez Watkins, who disappointed in 2022 after an encouraging ‘21 season. He could ultimately be replaced by free agent signee Olamide Zaccheaus, who profiles as a more prototypical slot receiver than Watkins, who would be useful as the team’s No. 4, deep threat option.
There is a weakness at back-up tight end, with Grant Calcaterra and Jack Stoll the most likely players to play behind Goedert. This is an important position for the Eagles, as Goedert tends to miss a handful of games every year, so don’t be surprised if the No. 2 tight end is currently on the roster.
When you’ve got the No. 3 player in the entire NFL in your positional group, you’d figure that would catapult them to the top of this list. And, were it not for the sheer volume of talent in the trenches, you’d probably be right. Hurts’ legend only grows with each passing day, and so there’s no need to tout the 25-year-old’s status as the best QB in the NFC and a top-three quarterback in the entire league.
However, the QB room gets dinged for what comes next. While back-up Marcus Mariota has skills as a runner, he was woeful as a passer for Atlanta last season. With an 88.2 rating that ranked 20th last season and a 15/9 TD/INT ratio, Mariota threw for just 170.7 yards per game in 13 appearances with the Falcons before being benched. He’s also reportedly not looked very good thus far in training camp, although we’ll see a bit more this week as the Birds play their first preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens.
The thought of Jalen Hurts missing time this season induces bone-chilling shudders, more so than with Gardner Minshew under center last year. Ian Book and rookie Tanner McKee are the third string options, so the question is whether or not Hurts’ emergence as a true franchise QB is enough to balance out the shakiness after him on the depth chart. For the sake of this exercise, the lack of depth behind Hurts forces the entire positional group to this spot on the list.
The running back room is filled with both uncertainty and promise. With Miles Sanders now in Carolina, the Eagles are, more than ever, going to go with the hot hand/committee, and it’s a risk. This is no likely Pro Bowler in the mix, and Nick Sirianni will be hoping that some of his oft-injured but productive-when-healthy backs will stay out of the blue medical tent for the majority of the season.
As of now, no one has any idea who will end the season with the most carries. Will it be D’Andre Swift, the former Lion and Philadelphia native who is capable of hitting the home run at any time but sometimes leaves too much meat on the bones with his other carries? Will it be Kenny Gainwell, who emerged late last season as a stronger, more productive runner? Or will it be free agent Rashaad Penny, who has had one of the highest yards per carry average during the course of his career when he’s on the field, but often can’t stay on the field?
Boston Scott will do his usual damage against the Giants, and with that foursome, the Eagles have some good options. Perhaps spreading the wealth will help keep the injury prone backs healthier, but it is the one area of the offense that is a question mark right now.
A week ago, this position group would have been at the bottom of the list, but some recent additions have made the linebacker room less of a liability, although one still cannot call it “strong.”
Nakobe Dean missed five days of team drills after suffering an ankle contusion, a situation that could have prompted Roseman to sign two free agent off-ball linebackers over the weekend, Myles Jack and Zach Cunningham. Jack and Cunningham are not stars, but are stable presences with a decent track record. You can put them on the field and feel reasonably sure you’re going to get competent, if unspectacular play.
With Dean out, the Eagles were running promising undrafted free agent Christian Elliss as one of the starters and the underwhelming Nicholas Morrow as the other. Cunningham and Jack at least give Sean Desai some real human beings to add into the mix until Dean comes back. Dean will almost certainly enter the season ensconced as one of the starters, with Ellis competing with Jack and Cunningham for the other spot. I feel a lot better under that scenario than a Dean/Morrow combination, with the possibility that Jack or Cunningham will evolve into this year’s equivalent of Linval Joseph, only for linebackers.
This is now officially the weakest part of the team. It’s not a lock Reed Blankenship is an above average starter this year, although he did look good in his limited action last season. Here’s hoping he continues to improve. The loss of CJ Gardner-Johnson was unfortunate, but the Eagles felt good enough about Blankenship’s progress to move on, so we have to trust Roseman knows what he’s doing with that one.
As of now, Terrell Edmunds will be the team’s strong safety, although the hope is rookie Sydney Brown will take hold of that job in the spring and play his way into the starting lineup. A duo of Blankenship and Brown won’t strike fear into the hearts of anyone right away, and there is a real possibility the safety spot could hurt the Birds at times this year. I’d love for Roseman to go out and get one more guy, perhaps in the same vein as Jack or Cunningham, to provide a little more depth and security to the weakest position on the team. But for now, safety is the weakest position group out of a ridiculously deep overall roster.