NFC East Outlook: Repeat In Store For Birds?
The reigning NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles enter the 2020 campaign with another relatively promising outlook after remedying perennial problems with salient offseason additions to the coaching staff and personnel.
In efforts to improve their stagnant, sometimes-predictable offense that difference-makers in recent years, the team promoted quarterbacks coach Press Taylor to pass game coordinator and added former Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello along with former Mississippi State passing game coordinator Andrew Breiner to serve as senior offensive assistant and pass game analyst, respectively. The team also brought back former offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg for an advisory role.
(Third-year tight end Dallas Goedert is an emerging player at his position who’d probably have an even greater impact if he wasn’t playing second fiddle to Pro Bowler Zach Ertz).
The new offensive brain trust will work in concert with head coach Doug Pederson to conjure up more effective ways to incorporate the team’s newfound speed and explosion.
Though the offense will be tested by adversity after losing three-time Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks for the season due to an Achilles injury, the weaponry and protection are talented enough to compensate for the blow.
On the defensive side, the Eagles assembled perhaps the NFL’s deepest defensive tackle rotation the moment they added Javon Hargrave to the mix, and the Darius Slay trade gives them their first elite cornerback in nearly a decade.
Though depth concerns and inexperience remain prevalent, the new-look Eagles have the components to make another postseason run.
Without further ado, let’s take a deep dive into the Eagles’ 2020 prospects.
While Doug Pederson will remain the play-caller, it’s safe to assume the additions of Scangarello, Breiner, and Mornhinweg will prompt change, perhaps subtle.
Scangarello, instrumental to rookie quarterback Drew Lock’s success last season in Denver, has a rich history of developing quarterbacks. The Eagles’ senior offensive assistant also presided over Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Mullens for two seasons in San Francisco under Kyle Shanahan, so I suspect he’ll bring ideologies that highlight a diverse screen game, motions, play-action to create mismatches, and concepts to optimize Carson Wentz’ athleticism outside the pocket.
Breiner was Joe Moorehead’s understudy at Mississippi State, which ran an offense predicted on the run-pass option (RPO).
While much was made about Pederson’s curious comment during Tuesday’s Zoom conference regarding first-round pick Jalen Reagor, opening training camp at the “Z” receiver spot – a position currently occupied by DeSean Jackson – isn’t any reason to sound the alarm.
In what was likely a lesson-learned from J.J. Arcega-Whiteside’s forgettable rookie campaign, Pederson said the initial plan for Reagor is to focus on learning one position before cross-training. But make no mistake, the team didn’t invest significant draft capital on a dynamic talent without first envisioning his utilization. When I spoke to Reagor’s college offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie prior to the draft, he praised Reagor for being a quick learner.
I anticipate Reagor’s usage will compare favorably to Deebo Samuel’s usage last year for the 49ers. Expect the creative minds to design plays intent on getting the ball in the first-rounder’s hands and letting him operate in space.
Although often drawing the ire of Eagles fans, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz can make a convincing that has more talent to work with in 2020 than at any point during his five-year Philadelphia tenure.
The two prominent additions, Hargrave and Slay, have the potential to transform a middling Eagles defense into a stingy unit poised to take the NFC by storm. With Hargrave and Fletcher Cox manning the middle of the defensive line, Malik Jackson becomes a versatile the third option who can slide outside as an edge rusher.
Slay gives the Eagles their first shutdown perimeter corner since Asante Samuel wore the Midnight Green nine years ago. His ability to shadow the opposition’s top receiver and effectively eliminate one side of the field will be a welcome addition. This will allow Schwartz to creatively deploy Slay’s counterparts.
Schwartz will never be confused with an avid blitzer, and with three blue-chip defensive tackles and the relentless Brandon Graham bearing down on quarterbacks, doesn’t figure to change much from his philosophy.
Aside from linebacker, where names have changed but the quality essentially remains the same, the unit’s most glaring concern is still the secondary. Slay and Rodney McLeod are entrenched as starters, but finding the right usages for Avonte Maddox, Sidney Jones, Jalen Mills, Will Parks, and rookie K’Von Wallace will undoubtedly be among this summer’s top storylines.
Even though the Eagles seemingly restocked a cupboard barren of explosive playmakers, the potential of that group is largely a projection. When I assess the running back position — specifically sophomore wunderkind Miles Sanders – I see a player with 1,700 all-purpose-yard upside in 2020.
In the past, Pederson has relied on running back by committee simply because he lacked any other choice. But for the foreseeable future, Pederson finally has a three-down workhorse who can shoulder the load. Even without Brandon Brooks paving running lanes, Sanders is special enough to create on his own. Without an established veteran runner behind him to potentially usurp carries, Sanders could feasibly see anywhere from 18-to-20 touches a game. If Scangarello implements Kyle Shanahan’s ground-game concepts as expected, it’s not far-fetched to envision Sanders as a second-year Pro Bowl player.
Defensively, the strength lies in the trenches, where Cox, Hargrave, and Jackson are expected to take turns collapsing pockets and moving quarterbacks off spots. If all three remain healthy, this strong interior presence will ease the burden of a shaky secondary.
A strength merely days ago, the state of the Eagles’ offensive line has suddenly become worrisome. With Brooks out for the season, third-year pro Matt Pryor will be given the first opportunity to step in and seize the role. While I thought Pryor performed admirably in the playoff contest against Seattle, the reality is that he’s only played 79 snaps in the NFL –– hardly enough to feel positively or negatively about his prospects. If Pryor wins the starting job, the Eagles will have a void at backup swing-tackle.
To put this frightening depth concern into perspective: Jordan Mailata, Jack Driscoll, Prince Tega Wanogho, Nate Herbig, and Sua Opeta have yet to take an NFL snap. Though I’d argue that each of the aforementioned players presents some upside, it would be utter negligence to enter training camp with such an unproven bunch. My sense is they’ll add a veteran or two prior to the start of training camp.
On defense, until the secondary proves it can line up against a competitive receiving corps, depth concerns will linger. Yes, the Slay acquisition provides a premier cover corner, but the team will need Maddox and Jones to remain healthy and provide consistent play. Schwartz must also formulate a plan based on the strength of his personnel to mask the loss of ironman safety Malcolm Jenkins.
On the Rise
John Hightower/WR: The rookie fifth-rounder impressed me at the East-West Shrine Bowl with his releases and ability to separate and track the football. Hightower, who spent his first two collegiate seasons at Hinds Community College before transferring to Boise State, is far from a polished product but has the physical traits that suggest he can provide staying power at the next level. An accomplished return specialist for the Broncos, Hightower was a second-team All-Mountain West performer at both wide receiver and kick returner in 2019. The wiry pass-catcher reeled in 51 receptions for 943 yards and eight touchdowns, while averaging 24.6 yards per kick return.
In training camp, Hightower will be in a hotly contested roster battle with fellow rookie Quez Watkins and fourth-year pro Greg Ward.
Luke Juriga/RG: Juriga spent his first three seasons at Western Michigan at right guard before moving to center last season – and there now happens to be a need along the interior O-line. Juriga was a highly coveted undrafted free agent — he received $116,000 in guaranteed money – but his college tape and East-West Shrine Bowl performance suggest the Eagles stumbled on post-draft value. Juriga will be competing against an array of fellow upside-laden prospects, but I believe the former Bronco has the potential to follow in the footsteps of Nate Herbig, who defied long odds to make the Eagles’ 53-man roster last summer.
Like clockwork, injuries have ravaged the defensive tackle position every season for the Eagles for the past few seasons. If the frequent roster shuffling has shown anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as too much depth.
Over the past two seasons, Fletcher Cox has played alongside Destiny Vaeao, T.Y. McGill, Bruce Hector, Akeem Spence, Albert Huggins, and Anthony Rush. While the top four spots are essentially etched in stone, the team should find room for a player of Williams’ caliber rather than risk exposing him to waivers like they did with Rush.
I was surprised to see Williams slip through the cracks on draft weekend, as the 6-foot-4, 303-pound defensive lineman started 42 games in the middle of a stout Michigan State defense and recorded 48 tackles (7.5 for loss) and 5.0 sacks last season. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors and an invite to the prestigious East-West Shrine Bowl.
Most Underrated Player
Had he been drafted to just about any other team, Dallas Goedert would be widely recognized as one of the game’s premier tight ends by now. But even while playing second-fiddle to Pro Bowler Zach Ertz, Goedert finished ninth in the NFL last season in receptions (58) and tied for seventh in receiving touchdowns (7). Though not quite on Ertz’s level as a route runner, Goedert is the more explosive athlete, capable of creating yards after the catch and bringing a more above-the-rim style of play to the position. The South Dakota State product has improved as a blocker and should see his star continue to rise in the new-look offense.
Honorable mention: Nickell Robey-Coleman
Most Overrated Player
When the Eagles passed on Marlon Humphrey and Jonathan Allen in the 2017 NFL Draft to select Derek Barnett at 14th overall, the expectation was that he would provide instant production and infuse youth into an aging unit. For various reasons, the Eagles are still waiting for a return on their steep investment. In three seasons, Barnett has amassed 14 sacks over 35 games. Calls for a Barnett breakout have come every offseason since 2017, but depth issues at the edge demand that those proclamations come to fruition for the season to live up to expectations.
The Eagles placed an emphasis on speed and field-stretching this offseason. They now boast the required weaponry to contend with the NFL’s elite. Though I don’t expect to see wholesale changes on offense despite the addition of some prominent coaches, I do anticipate subtle tweaks in the running game, protections and screens along with a heavy dose of play-action.
Whether with Garoppolo, Mullens, or Lock, Scangarello built a resume on utilizing the quarterback outside the pocket, which accents perhaps Wentz’ greatest attribute.
The defense’s success largely hinges on its ability to apply pressure. If the defensive line can get home, alleviate pressure from the secondary, and help get the ball back to the offense, the Eagles should face little resistance in capturing another NFC East title.
Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com. He also writes for Pro Football Network.
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