Although I personally think the Eagles season can be graded in other ways besides making the playoffs. Most Eagles fans still hold onto the hope that the 2016 campaign will see a rejuvenated Eagles team, shock the world and recapture the NFC East title. For the Eagles to do this I need to see a number of things happen, obviously improve on defense, quarterback play at a higher level and an offense that can function week in week out. 2014 the Eagles went 10-6, to most that was an ‘unlucky’ year, so close but yet so far. The one thing the Eagles struggled to do was beat a genuine playoff team. The 10-6 record looked nice for Chip Kelly’s win/loss ratio but the underlying factor that the Eagles couldn’t get it done against a genuine post-season threat still stands. For the Eagles to even think of making the playoffs in 2016, the games against top tier talent in the NFC stand out to me as a fantastic measurable of where the team is at. Here are 3 games on the Eagles schedule that will show us exactly where the team is at this season.
Week 3 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
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Week 3 shapes as a huge game for Philadelphia, coming off a home game against the Browns and a road game versus Chicago, it’s not unrealistic to say the Eagles could potentially be 2-0 coming into Steelers week. There has been a lot of talk about how the defense is expected to improve this year, it’s a part of the team that was heavily addressed throughout the off-season and expectations are reasonably high. You aren’t going to find a tougher outfit to test our improved defense against than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Arguably the most potent offense in the league, Big Ben and co. will no doubt give Eagles fans a solid indication of where this team is at heading into our bye week. We have added a great defensive coordinator and some nice pieces through free agency and the draft, but this is a team that in 2015 let Tampa Bay and Detroit put a combined 90 points on them in a 2 week span. Pittsburgh is a different beast, it’s an early look at how far the Eagles have come or a bleak reminder at how far the Eagles have to go.
Week 11 @ Seattle Seahawks
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The toughest road trip the Eagles will face all year is Week 11 versus Seattle at CenturyLink Field. The last time these two teams met the Eagles got held to 14 points at home and given a reality check that they still had ways to go. If you are a team destined to be at least within reaching distance of a playoff berth, these are the games you need to show up and at least compete in. What I am looking for is simply not a blow out win to the Seattle. If the Eagles can travel to Seattle and put in a good performance in a hostile environment, I will be more than happy. In the last two years the Seahawks have lost a total of 4 games at home, whilst the Eagles outside of divisional competition have won 4 road games (Colts ’14, Texans ’14, Patriots ’15, and Jets ’15). It’s a huge task but it’s one that will show us midseason if this team has grown or still have a lot of growing.
Week 15 @ Baltimore Ravens
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Baltimore may be more like the Eagles in terms of talent, although Seattle and Pittsburgh are more of a contender, this Baltimore game could be the biggest of the season depending on what the Eagles record is come Week 15. The two games following this week versus the Ravens are Giants at home and Dallas at home. If the Eagles are entrenched within a divisional battle to take the NFC East title, then week 15 becomes a must win road game. I see the Eagles and Baltimore as pretty even competition, the last 3 contests between the two teams have gone the way of Philadelphia. December football is different especially on the East coast, frigid temperatures set in and the added pressure of the nearing post-season kicks in for teams fighting for a chance at playoff football. Divisional games are important but a rare road game against an AFC opponent just 2 weeks out from week 17 is equally important. If the Eagles are taking the next step in 2016 these are the games they simply must win.
I look at the Eagles 2016 campaign as one that shouldn’t be marked on making the post-season. In saying that, we don’t have a first round pick in 2017, there hasn’t been a back to back champion in the NFC East for 12 years and who doesn’t want their team to feature in January? It’s a long shot but being in the NFC East certainly leaves the door ajar for Philadelphia, these 3 weeks above certainly stand out to me as games we will get a good look at how far this team has come in 12 months.
First things First...I need to get something off my chest.
Although 2016 isn't necessarily a year that the Eagles franchise or fans expect their beloved team to go back to the post-season, with it being NFL slow season writers like myself need something to talk about!
Monday night NFL HQ posted this poll on twitter, many Eagles fans I'm sure voted yes but the majority of people called out NFL HQ for what they thought was a silly question. The Eagles spend $280 million dollars guaranteed on the core of their team, no longer are Philadelphia trying to build a team through Free Agency.
Listen to Howie Roseman talk, Doug Pederson and many other Philadelphia media personalities and they will tell you that the Eagles plan for the future is to build around their Quarterback and the teams core guys. In my opinion it's a great plan, teams that splurge in free agency rarely go onto being fantastic teams. Franchises like the Steelers, Patriots and Packers are good because they build a team of guys they have drafted, coached and moulded into their own style of football, oh and of course having 3 future hall of fame Quarterbacks help. (counting you Wentz)
My point here is I don't think many Eagles fans expect their team to go marching right back into the playoffs this season, that doesn't mean if they do we won't be ecstatic, it's just the point of their poll is misleading in terms of that's not why the Eagles spent money this year, there is more to it than simply hoping for a quick turn around.
So what should the Eagles 2016 season be graded on?
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Last season the Eagles defence ranked 30th per ESPN, it actually surprised me that they were ranked that poorly after such a promising start to the year. The one thing you always heard while Chip Kelly was in charge was, it will be extremely difficult for the Eagles to succeed because of how often the defence is on the field. The data suggests that the people saying that were correct, in Chip Kelly's final two years the Eagles defence ranked 30th and 28th.
As for 2016 the Eagles move back to 4-3 and have one of the best defensive coordinators in the game in Jim Schwartz at the helm. In Schwartz' last season as a defensive co-ordinator with the Bills the Buffalo defence ranked 4th overall for points, 3rd in passing defence, 11th against the run and 4th overall league wide.
I see similarities in what Buffalo had to offer in 2014 as the Eagles do this year in 2016. Both had young good defensive lines, a mix of experience and youth at the cornerback and linebacker positions. The one area the Eagles win out in terms of talent you could argue is the safety spots but never the less the pieces are in place for this defence to be better.
If the Eagles can get within the top 15 league wide, somewhere they haven't been since 2012 (surprisingly), we can say that Jim Schwartz has done a good job. If they have a great year their is hope they could possibly crack the top 10, but for now anywhere around 15-12 mark is good for an eagles unit that has been totally driven into the ground the past two seasons.
Nelson Agholor's Growth At The Receiver Position
A lot has been made of the Eagles receiving corps, after drafting Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff and Nelson Agholor the past 2 seasons, only Matthews has had any type of productivity that give Eagles fans hope at the Receiver position.
Since DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin left Philadelphia, the Eagles haven't had a Receiver or Tight End surpass 1,000 yards receiving, Matthews is closest with admittedly 997 yards receiving in 2015 but it's Nelson Agholor who had so much promise coming into his rookie campaign that I think will make or break the Eagles receiving unit in 2016.
If Jordan Matthews can hold onto a few more balls this season one would suggest he will break into the 1,000 yard receiving group, Nelson Agholor though could catch 10 passes and potentially surpass his 2015 campaign. I am a firm believer that Agholor was battling an ankle injury for a majority of the season and just flat out lacked targets when given playing time.
One play of Agholor's rookie season has stuck with me and is enough to suggest I think he can be an important player for the Eagles. It was vs the Giants in week 17 where he caught the ball, made a nice stutter move and burst up the field for a big gain. It might not seem much but the acceleration he has before and after the catch is special. The video below is a package of Agholor's ability to create separation from his opponents.
I'm not saying he is the next Odell Beckham, I am just saying I think the kid has talent and if Doug Pederson can incorporate him into the offence the right way then he could have a good year for us.
Zach Ertz Leads The Eagles Offence
Now this is the one guy it seems every year since being drafted we are waiting to take over games. Zach Ertz has the best opportunity in my mind to become the player we know he can be this year under Doug Pederson. As I have said before Doug Pederson helped build the offence we saw in Kansas City which so fantastically turned Travis Kelce into one of the elite tight ends in the NFL.
Ertz is on the brink of elite status in terms of Tight Ends, ask anybody and they will tell you Zach Ertz is a beast, what he lacks to make that jump is touchdowns in the redzone and a season over 1,000 yards. Although with Tight Ends few crack 1,000 yards receiving, if you want to be in that top echelon alongside the Gronk's, Olsens, Walkers and Grahams of this world you need one of those under your belt. Zach Ertz I believe can do that, if there is one offensive guy that we can shoulder the offence on it should be Ertz.
Pro Football Focus had Ertz ranked 4th overall in 2015/16, the jump can be thanked to his much improved blocking technique that he worked hard on over the summer. One thing we must remember is stats wise Ertz was hurt due to the fact Chip Kelly used Brent Celek a lot more throughout his time at Philadelphia because of Ertz's inability to block when asked.
I want this guy to succeed and I think with another year playing with Sam Bradford as well as a coach who has been in a system that has seen a tight end have great success, Ertz can finally be the player we have hoped for.
Sam Bradford Becomes a Leader and a Mentor
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Get used to Sam Bradford Eagles fans because he is our Quarterback and he is here to stay. Instead of harping on the fact you don't like him, what he did this off-season, we have Carson Wentz, here wears a long jersey.....let's look at the positives and how Bradford could help the Eagles this season.
He is 100% healthy, in the middle of his first full pre-season in at least 2 years and from all reports separated himself as the starter thus far through the Eagles off-season program.
What I am looking for from Bradford this year is obviously to continue on from his back end 2015/16 campaign but also to become the leader of the Eagles offence as well as a mentor for Wentz. I am optimistic about Bradford, I think given he is healthy and is in another year with mostly the same offensive players and an improved offensive line, he could actually have a good year if health is on his side.
Doug Pederson's offence is extremely QB friendly, Bradford will have control at the line of scrimmage which is something he never had with Chip Kelly, the prime example of that was Week 17 against the Giants where Bradford actually looked like he was having fun for the first time all year. Being 1st pick in the draft comes with it's pressures, being 2nd pick in the draft believe it or not also brings high expectation. This slightly odd Quarterback situation could come as a blessing in disguise that we have all failed to see.
What we see is $$$ signs and lot's of them for 3 starting calibre quarterbacks, when you think about the situation Wentz is surrounded by I honestly couldn't think of a better group in the league to be around, coaching staff who have played the QB position and Bradford a former number 1 pick. Sure he isn't Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers but the much maligned quarterback has a wealth of experience in terms of the added pressures of being exactly what Wentz is.
Give Sam a chance this year, as long as we are paying him we are playing him.
2016 is a clean slate in Philadelphia, we kind of know what to expect but at the same time we kind of don't. There is no point grading the Eagles on if they make the playoffs or not because this isn't what the off-season has been about. This Eagles team is being built for the future, if playoffs come this year, I put it down to it simply being a bonus to a successful off-season.
When an NFL Franchise makes the move to go up the draft and select who they think is their Quarterback of the future, the outside perception is that whoever it may be comes into the team and gives instant impact. In the case of the Philadelphia Eagles and Carson Wentz they have selected an alternative route, though different it's far from uncommon.
Drew Brees & Phillip Rivers in San Diego, Eli Manning & Kurt Warner at the Giants are just two examples of teams having legitimate starting Quarterbacks and right behind them who they think will eventually surpass them as the future of the franchise.
In the case of Sam Bradford and Carson Wentz the one key difference to the rest is the fact that this is Philadelphia, this isn't San Diego or even New York, the city of Brotherly Love wants results and if the starter isn't producing them, then the shiny new toy that was taken number 2 overall looks mighty fine from the fans point of view.
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Although most first round quarterbacks are made to start right away, I want to highlight some of the pro's and con's of allowing Wentz to sit behind Bradford for at least this season (barring injury etc)
Wentz - A full training camp learning a new system, adapting to a pro defence and competing with two veteran Quarterbacks in Bradford and Daniel. - The potential to increase starter Sam Bradford's play with Carson Wentz waiting in the wings - Avoid rushing potentially an under developed Wentz into the starting role in a city pretty unforgiving with it's Quarterback play. - Allow's Wentz to settle into Philadelphia and grasp the pressures and responsibilities of leading the Eagles franchise. - Adapt to Philadelphia's media: When you are good they love you, when you are bad you will feel their wrath, it's hard being a Quarterback in Philadelphia at times. - Being in a Quarterback room with not only two veteran quarterbacks but with two coaches who have played the position, the ability to be a sponge from 4 people who have played the position is second to none in my opinion. - Opportunity to take a big chunk of the pre-season snaps, especially pre-season games
Bradford - First full training camp in 2 years - An offence more suited to his skill set - A better/healthier offensive line than he had at any stage of last season - Having two starting quality Quarterbacks behind him evidently increases Bradford's play throughout the year - Working with a coaching staff who understand the Quarterback position - Another year with the same offensive guys (Matthews, Ertz, Agholor)
Wentz - Being made to sit and learn through what he is seeing and being told rather than experiencing it first hand or in a game situation - Relationship with Bradford could be tested with the notion that Wentz will ultimately take Bradford's job at some point, whether that is this year, next year or 3 years down the track is unsure at this stage. - Lighting it up in the pre-season so much so that he puts his name into the conversation of being named the starter ahead of Bradford or Daniel, exactly what Eagles coaches don't want after naming Bradford the starting quarterback on countless occasions. - Is sitting a guy coming from division 2 and grooming him into the role ultimately better than allowing him to start and learn through playing in the NFL? - Expectation from the outside, fans wanting and needing to see the future of the Franchise can't be ignored, one bad week from Sam and let the games begin.
Bradford - Having not only the pressure of being the starting quarterback but the added pressure of Wentz behind him. - Poor play from Bradford will see him benched with 2 guys capable of starting waiting in the wings - Already having asked for a trade in the off-season: Although everything is fine and rosy according to the Eagles, nobody is going to come out and say 'I think what Sam did was a terrible move' although Bradford palmed all the blame off to his agent Tom Condon, realistically both parties would have to agree on such a huge decision, so whatever way Bradford or his agent spin it whether he really wants to be in Philadelphia remains unseen. - Injury: One thing you can't discount with Bradford is unfortunately an injury, if he stays healthy and plays at a good level there won't be many problems, one injury and it could be the end of his career in Philadelphia. - Performing poorly in the pre-season: if there is one thing Bradford must do it is show he is ahead of the other two guys when given the opportunity come August.
As you can see each guy has a number of good and bad that can come from the situation they are going to be in for apparently the next two years. Both guys have their up's and down's, the situation hopefully won't be dicey and if anything we have a pretty good quarterback room in the grand scheme of things especially when you add the coaching staff. I am personally hoping both Bradford and Wentz can make each other better, having competition can bring the best out in players and if the Eagles can control the quarterback situation like they think they can,
To All My Eagle Brothers & Sisters! Make em Earn it!
One thing I want to leave you with... The Eagles have been crying out for a Quarterback since Donovan left us all those years ago, do I think Sam Bradford is the answer? No. Do I think Sam Bradford gives us the best chance to make a run at the playoffs this season? Surprisingly Yes. As much as I want to see Carson Wentz play for Philadelphia, I want to see him earn the starting spot. The reason I say this is the Quarterback position in Philly has been too easy for people to simply take and run with in recent years. We need to put a bigger emphasis on making this a position you have to earn to keep instead of plug and fill guys like Foles, Sanchez, Kolb and the like. Sam Bradford is an average Quarterback with the ability to maybe be slightly better than average which could potentially be enough to get the Eagles to the playoffs in an average division and a good defence. Is Bradford winning us a Superbowl? I'd say the odds are stacked against him hence why we made the Wentz move. Carson Wentz so far hasn't done anything to suggest he is the clear cut starter for the Eagles heading into 2016, I am of the view until we see Wentz stake his claim and announce I am ready to lead this franchise I think it's best we temper our expectations and wait it out. Bradford is good enough that we aren't going to be awful and off the back of last year showed that he can produce decent enough play that we can win some games. Barring significant injury or absolutely horrible play from Bradford or Daniel I personally think what the Eagles are doing is the right not only by the team and Wentz but by the fans, when Wentz is ready he will start, until then get used to Sammy Sleeves as he is all we got!