2020 Season Preview: Look Out Below!
This is the second story of a lengthy series from Geoff Mosher and Andrew DiCecco previewing the Eagles 2020 season, from now until the start of training camp. Each weekday, Mosher and DiCecco will give their viewpoint on a specific topic. Today's category:
Eagles Player Poised For a Decline
Andrew's Choice: Jalen Mills, CB
After nearly a year of rehabbing a debilitating foot injury, Jalen Mills took the field as the Eagles’ starting cornerback in a pivotal Week 9 matchup against the rival Dallas Cowboys. While the unsettling 37-10 loss impacted their standings on paper, the Green Goblin’s return seemingly provided optimism for a maligned secondary in search of answers.
However, Mills’ long-awaited return proved to be in vain, as the back end still endured its share of lapses throughout the season. In his nine starts, Mills played 501 snaps, accounting for roughly 49 percent of the defense. Although Mills has hardly been the model of consistency over his four-year career, skepticism began to surround his prospect of returning.
While Mills and his counterpart, Ronald Darby, were missing time over the past two seasons from injuries, a young nucleus of defensive backs banded together and performed relatively well in their absence.
For perspective, Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox played 57 and 51 percent of the defensive snaps in 2019, respectively. In contrast, Sidney Jones and Cre’Von LeBlanc each played a sizable role in recent stretch runs.
As the season wrapped and free agency approached, it was evident that the team intended to move forward without Darby. Mills’ turbulent three-year run in Philadelphia appeared to be over as well.
In a strange twist, the Eagles inked Mills to a 1-year deal reportedly worth up to $5 million on the opening day of free agency. Only, Mills wouldn’t be reprising his role as starting cornerback. Because of uncertainty at safety, Mills was retained as a hybrid defender, with the presumption being that he would be the favorite to start opposite Rodney McLeod.
As it turned out, Mills was merely the first of three acquisitions the team made to bolster the position. Will Parks, who Geoff outlined in Monday’s piece, is a multi-faceted defensive back from the Denver Broncos and K’Von Wallace is an upside-laden rookie who’s widely regarded among the best value picks from the 2020 NFL Draft.
On the outside looking in, Mills lacks a clear-cut role. Although his high-level football intelligence quickly endeared the LSU product to defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz earlier in his career, Mills’ limited athleticism, lack of long speed, and over-aggressiveness ultimately prompted the move away from the perimeter.
Transitioning to a new position – in an abbreviated offseason, especially – is already a monumental task that’s further complicated by the additions expected to challenge Mills.
Perhaps a move to the middle is what Mills needs to revive his career. Really, there’s no alternative. With elite cover man Darius Slay in the fold, and with other options at cornerback, Mills will have to hope his football smarts, tackling prowess, and grit is enough to outlast the competition.
Geoff's Choice: Jason Kelce, C
Unfortunately, the Eagles have several players to choose from in this category. Even amid a youth movement, this team has plenty of veterans either approaching 30 or north of it, especially in the trenches.
My biggest concern candidate for a sudden decline is Jason Kelce, who’ll be 33 in November and has more miles on him than a rusty U-haul.
Remember all that talk about the tread on Malcolm Jenkins’ tires because Jenkins had played more than 1,000 snaps for several straight seasons? Kelce’s in the same boat.
Kelce has played all 16 games for the past five seasons and played 100 percent of the offense in three of those five years. The other two, he played 95 percent of the offense. That's a heavy workload.
Unlike receivers, running backs and tight ends, linemen don’t rotate based on personnel packages. Kelce has played more than 1,000 snaps every year in each of the past five seasons.
That’s a lot of head-to-head collisions over the years and enough trench warfare to be concerned that Kelce’s had more great days behind him than ahead.
Kelce made All Pro last year for the third straight season as he stakes his claim to eventually make the Hall of Fame, but in general, Eagles pass protection struggled at times compared to past seasons.
That’s not to single out Kelce as the culprit, but it should be a cause of concern going into 2020, especially with a potentially truncated training camp to be prepared for the season. Any decline in play from Kelce or missed time from injury or sickness would be catastrophic for a line that relies heavily on the veteran's blend of brains and unique athleticism to make the offense work.
Left guard Isaac Seumalo is considered Kelce’s eventual successor but if the Eagles needed Seumalo to move over mid-season, they’ll also need to find another left guard. They’re already trying to answer that question at right guard. They can’t really afford another problem on the line.
As an undersized player who’s constantly battling bigger, meatier defensive linemen who outweigh him, sometimes by almost 50-60 pounds, Kelce works harder than most do every offseason in his strength training to keep his body prepared for the grind.
But he’s also pondered retirement each of the past few seasons, which suggests that even Kelce knows that Father Time will eventually have his voice heard.
The Eagles have to hope that any decline Kelce suffers this season isn’t steep or obvious enough to cause more problems for an offensive line that’s already in flux.
Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the Inside the Birds podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com. Andrew DiCecco (adicecconfl) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com.
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