It’s finally here. The season starts in less than 48 hours, which means it’s just about the last chance I’ll get to set expectations for the season before we start getting actual data. I still plan to release a Points For/Points Against “true” win forecast before Sunday at 1 pm, but today I wanted to take a much broader perspective.
Above all else, I wanted to stress the following:
This is just season 2 of what looks to be a 3-4 year roster construction phase.
Yes, it’d be nice to see the Eagles do really well this season, but I’m much more interested in the long-term development of the team. With Chip Kelly, it’s possible the Eagles can become a perennial contender. It’s also possible that he’ll flame out more quickly than anyone expects. In that sense, there are much more important things to watch for than just the win/loss record this season.
With that, let’s run through a few of the things I’ll be watching closely:
Blue Chips – This might be the most important aspect of this season. Put simply, the Eagles will not grow into a consistent SB threat unless they develop a few true “star” players. Moreover, signing star players is a very difficult way to go. First, you’ve got the winner’s curse, which means you will nearly always overpay in free agency. Second, free agents don’t always fit nearly as well as you think they will (cough…Nnamdi…cough….puke). High-level talent is a prerequisite for winning a Super Bowl, and drafting a player and developing him within your system remains the best way to source high-level talent.
So…do the Eagles have any?
Well McCoy obviously fits the bill. The concern here is whether anyone else will develop quickly enough to overlap with Shady’s “prime”. As I’ve demonstrated a number of times, top-level NFL talent comes almost exclusively from the 1st and 2nd round of the draft. Here are the recent Eagles picks from those rounds:
2014: Marcus Smith, Jordan Matthews
2013: Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz
2012: Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks
2011: Danny Watkins, Jaiqwuan Jarrett (oh god)
It doesn’t make much sense to go farther back than that (not that it’d help anyway), since players who’ve been in the league since 2010 are most likely hitting their peak and so should already be stars if they’re that good. McCoy clearly is. I guess it’s possible Jeremy Maclin can become a star, but I’m very skeptical.
From above, we’re really left with six players to depend on. I was a big believer in Cox, but the transition to a 3-4 defense may have robbed him of his chance at high-impact status. Kendricks flashes star ability, but consistency is a huge problem (as is his tackling). Johnson – same story (plus he’s suspended). The other guys are too young to really judge. Beyond these guys, I it’s worth adding Foles and Boykin to the mix as well. Similar to the others, each appears to have the ability to be a true impact player, but we’re really far from being able to depend on it.
That’s why this year is so important. If you could only look for one thing this season, it should be the development of this core group. If a few of them become stars, the future is very bright. If not, the Eagles ceiling might be much lower than any of us are hoping for.
I mentioned him above, but he deserves his own section. We don’t know how good/bad Nick Foles really is. Last season was amazing. It was so good, in fact, that it suggests the odds of Foles being a “fluke” are quite low. League-average looks to be the floor. Of course, league-average isn’t going to get anyone excited. After this season, we’ll have a big enough sample to start making some conclusions regarding Foles’ ability. In every sense of the phrase, this really is a “make or break year” for Nick.
Specifically, pay close attention to his ability to push the ball downfield. Last season, Foles benefitted tremendously from the attention Shady drew. Foles’ Play-Action numbers, in particular, were off the charts. For the Eagles to be effective, Foles must continue making defenses pay for loading up against McCoy. This is why losing DeSean Jackson is such a big deal. If the Eagles can’t take advantage of the attention McCoy draws, things will go downhill very quickly.
This is a relatively minor issue in terms of actual impact, but a huge issue in terms of my sanity. Remember David Akers? Wasn’t it nice to never have to worry about the kicker? Every kicker is going to miss field goals every once in a while, but being nervous for every single kick just isn’t healthy. I’m glad Henery is gone, it’s time to try someone new. However, I harbor no illusions that the Eagles have already solved their kicking issues. The field goals are obvious; you don’t need me to tell you to pay attention to those. Do look for the distance though. Henery is not a very strong kicker, and was therefore rarely trusted with a 50+ yard kick. In a perverse way, this may have actually forced the Eagles to make the correct decision (going for it instead of kicking) more often than they otherwise would. Or maybe Chip knows the math. Parkey’s usage will go a long way towards answering that question.
Less obvious are the touchbacks. Casual fans don’t pay much attention to them, but they’re important, especially with a defense that still has a lot of weaknesses. If Parkey can kick the ball through the end zone, he’ll already be giving the Eagles a boost.
One of the reasons Chip Kelly was such a risky hire was his complete lack of NFL experience. As with any other position, we should expect a learning curve at Coach, especially for someone with no previous time in the league. So, beyond watching the actual players for improvement, we should also be watching Chip. It’s a bit tougher to judge, but things like TO usage, game clock management, 4th down decision-making, etc., are all easily quantified and/or analyzed. He did some very good things last year, but has plenty of room to improve in each of the areas I mentioned, as well as in others I didn’t. Unfortunately, projecting a coach to improve isn’t nearly as easy as projecting a player to improve. As all Eagles fans know, just having experience doesn’t mean you’ll get better at managing the clock (this is, actually, a shocking feature of the NFL and coaching in general). My hope is that when Chip looks around for areas in which to get an edge over other teams, he’ll include himself.
This ties into the last point above (segue!): the Eagles were a very healthy team last year. History says that’s mostly luck. Chip, though, has taken a much greater interest in the nutrition/conditioning side of the game. Hence, it’s reasonable to believe that the Eagles are more likely to remain healthy (relative to other teams) than pure luck would suggest. If that’s the case, it’s a very big advantage. Tremendous parity in the league means one or two injuries really can make the difference between winning a division/making a playoff run and missing the playoffs entirely.
This is especially true for the Eagles. Depth is much improved over last year, but there are still some glaring holes, at least from my point of view. In particular, I worry about the LBs and the Ss. If Ryans or Barwin goes down, for example, how confident are you in Najee Goode or Marcus Smith to fill in? The answer is not very. Similarly, many fans are banking on Malcolm Jenkins to make a big impact in the secondary. Beyond the fact that he’s not as good as his fame would suggest, if he goes down we’re looking at Chris Maragos? Did you even know he was on the team? If any of these backups have to play significant time, the hoped-for improvement in the Eagles defense will be much less likely to occur.
Conversely, if the Eagles have another relatively healthy year, then we can start ascribing more credit (slowly) to Chip Kelly’s #sportsscience.
Those are the long-term keys to watch this season. Once things get going, it becomes much harder to take the long-view, which is why I highlight these issues now. Just remember, the Eagles are not really a SB contender right now. Granted, even mediocre teams can win (see NY Giants…), but the fact is the Eagles are still very much a developing team, and likely not ready to mount a strong challenge for the Super Bowl. I’m much more interested in a sustained run of high-performance (like the Andy Reid era) than I am in a 3 year supernova of Chip Kelly madness followed by another restart.