With free agency and the draft in the rear-view mirror it’s time to start preparing for OTAs and minicamp. This will be the first time the 2018 Eagles will be able to practice together as a team, and it’ll also be the first time Doug Pederson and company will be able to evaluate their team as a whole. This is where the coaching staff will start to form their depth chart for the start of training camp in August. There’s quite a few newcomers to this year’s squad; Michael Bennett, Mike Wallace and Haloti Ngata to name a few, so the level of competition during training camp should be high. The depth chart is bound to get shuffled a few times leading up to August, so here’s my prediction for what it’ll look like once training camp officially starts.
This one’s a no brainer, if Wentz is healthy by week 1 he’ll undoubtedly be the man under center. According to multiple reports, Wentz is actually a bit ahead of schedule in his recovery which is remarkable to say the least. Not many athletes have the mental toughness to fight through an injury as severe as the one Wentz suffered and come back less than a year later. The juries still out on whether he’ll come back playing like the MVP he was last year, but my hunch tells me that he won’t let himself have a letdown.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I envision the newly signed Matt Jones having a solid impact on this team offensively. Maybe it’s because whenever I think of him I remember when he was with the Redskins and ran for 130+ yards against us. Jones has shown flashes of productivity in the past. The Eagles will be his third team in three years, so he’ll be looking to revive his career here in Philly, which makes this a similar situation to Patrick Robinson’s last offseason.
Doug Pederson also had some interesting words regarding Jones when has was asked about the signing last week, “So Matt gives us that depth and that competition. I’m excited for him to get in that mix, too. I don’t want to compare LeGarrette and Jay, but that type of dynamic, with his experience and what he brings to us.”
I really wouldn’t mind if this came to fruition once the season starts. Jones is only 25 too, so if he shows out this year he may be brought back since the often injured Ajayi is heading into the final year of his contract.
That leaves Sproles and Clement as the receiving backs. Sproles may be the best receiving back of all time, so having him as a mentor should pay dividends for Clement. Clement showed flashes of his receiving ability last season in Sproles’ absence, and he was the leading receiver for the Birds in their Super Bowl victory. He will only improve as a pass catcher with more time and experience. With Sproles coming off such a devastating injury and going into year 14 of his career, I don’t expect him to have a huge role in the offense. Rather, I think Sproles will hold down the punt/kick return duties, with a few offensive snaps sprinkled in during the game.
If I had to guess the percentage each runningback will play, I would say; Ajayi: 40% Jones: 25% Clement: 25% Sproles: 10%.
This another easy one to project. Zach Ertz was one of the best TEs in the game last season and he’s coming off the best season of his career. He finished the regular season with 74 catches, 824 yards, and 8 touchdowns. Ertz is just starting to enter the prime of his career, so barring an injury, don’t expect those numbers to dip at all.
The Birds did lose their second and third string TEs from last season to free agency, but Howie was able to replace Burton and Celek with players who I believe are improvements. First, they went out and found Celek’s replacement in free agency by bringing in veteran Richard Rodgers. Rodgers is infamously known for catching one of Aaron Rodgers many miraculous hail mary throws. Other than that one prolific snag, Rodgers has never been much of a receiving threat. In Green Bay, he was used primarily as their blocking TE, similarly to how Doug used Celek in his offense last season. In Rodgers’ best season, he put up 510 yards on 58 catches with 8 touchdowns. That was his best season by far too, he hasn’t even topped 300 yards in any of his other three seasons with Green Bay. He’s also very young (26), so if the Birds like what they see out of him he could become the main stay at blocking TE for years to come.
The second replacement that Howie added to his squad was second round pick Dallas Goedert out of South Dakota State. One look at Goedert’s highlight real and your jaw will be on the floor. He makes some of the most difficult catches look routine and he shows good strength in blocking and route running. He is a bit slow though, so separating from linebackers or D-backs might cause him some issues early on. Luckily, he has one of the best TE route runners in the game to learn from. I expect Geodert to come in and pick up right where Burton left off essentially. It took a few years for Burton to develop into a solid pass catching TE, but I don’t see Geodert facing that same dilemma.
WR1: Alshon Jeffery
WR2: Mike Wallace
Slot: Nelson Agholor
WR4/5: Mack Hollins/Markus Wheaton
Last season, Alshon Jeffery put up 57 catches for 789 yards and 9 touchdowns all while playing with a torn rotator cuff that he suffered in training camp. That’s just simply remarkable, especially when you consider how many acrobatic catches he was making each week. His numbers are only going to improve next season once he’s fully healthy.
With Alshon holding down the number 1 spot, I suspect newly signed wideout Mike Wallace will hold down the number 2 spot. He’ll most likely fill Torrey Smith’s role from last season. Nelson should maintain his spot as the slot receiver, with some Mack Hollins and Markus Wheaton mixed in the rotation.
I would like to see Hollins step up this season and become a legitimate weapon in Douggie P’s offense. He’s one of the hardest working wideout’s on the team and he showed flashes of his playmaking ability last season. Wheaton feels like a camp signing, and he may just serve as an extra body for training camp. I imagine him and second year man Shelton Gibson will compete for the final receiver spot on the depth chart.
LT: Jason Peters
LG: Steffen Wisniewski
C: Jason Kelce
RG: Brandon Brooks
RT: Lane Johnson
I don’t see this group changing up at all from last season. The Eagles possess one of, if not the best offensive line in the game. Both Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson received first team all-pro honors last season, and Jason Peters would’ve probably been on that list as well had he stayed healthy. There really isn’t a weak spot on this line, they should dominate opposing defenses again next season.
RE: Michael Bennett/Derek Barnett/Steven Means
LE: Brandon Graham/Chris Long/Josh Sweat
For as fierce as the Eagles’ defensive line was last season, it should be even more dominant next season. They did lose Vinny Curry and Beau Allen to the Buccaneers in free agency, but Howie effectively replaced them with pro bowlers Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata. Jim Schwartz is probably foaming out the mouth thinking about all the different sets and combinations of pass rushers he can throw at opposing offenses next year. It’s going to be fun to watch.
I expect Graham and Bennett will most likely start the game at defensive end, with Long and Barnett getting subbed in during passing downs. By the end of the season, I wouldn’t be surprised if Derek Barnett earns the starting spot over Bennett. He has a knack for getting to the quarterback and swiping the ball out of his hands. While only playing about 42% of the defensive snaps, he racked up five sacks as a rookie. Kick that percentage up to 60-70%, and we’re talking double digit sacks. He’s going to develop into a star with his pass rushing ability, it’s only a matter of time before he takes that leap.
As for the interior of the line, it took a hit when news broke that Jernigan will most likely miss the first half of the season while recovering from a slipped disk in his back. Luckily, as Howie always does, he made sure that he was insured at the position when he signed veteran Haloti Ngata. In his time with the Ravens, Ngata proved to be one of the most dominant interior lineman in the league. Since leaving Baltimore and joining Detroit, his numbers haven’t been as great, but he has still shown signs of dominance. He and Destiny Vaeao will split time in Jernigan’s absence and hold down the second d-tackle spot next to Fletcher Cox.
LOLB: Nigel Bradham/Corey Nelson
MLB: Jordan Hicks/Dannell Ellerbe/Joe Walker
ROLB: Mychal Kendricks/Nathan Gerry
This position group will most likely be the same as last year’s. With Hicks returning from injury he will again anchor the defense from the middle linebacker position. Kendricks and Bradham will then hold down the outside linebacker spots.
CB1: Ronald Darby/Rasul Douglas
CB2: Sidney Jones/Avonte Maddox
Nickel Corner: Jalen Mills/Rasul Douglas
Heading into this season, cornerback may be this team’s biggest question mark. Their starting nickel corner from last season, Patrick Robinson, was lost to the Saints in free agency. Robinson was a stud from the nickel position and was the Birds’ most consistent corner all season. Replacing him will be vital if this defense wants to have the same success it did last year. Howie did seem to go out and get Robinson’s replacement when he traded for Darryl Worley early in the free agency period but has since let go of Worley due to a physical police encounter about a month or two ago. Howie then went out and spent his fourth round selection in this year’s draft on Pittsburgh corner Avonte Maddox. Maddox was very inconsistent during his college career, but he has great athletic ability that will bode well for him at the next level. He’s a project at the corner position, so don’t expect too much playing time out of Maddox this season. That leaves only one option to finding a replacement for Robinson; use one of the corners already on your roster. Darby, Mills, Jones, and Douglas have little to no experience playing the nickel corner position. Both Mills and Douglas do have experience playing safety from their college days, so I think they’ll be asked to transition to the nickel spot once camp starts. Doug hinted at this possibility when he spoke at the Annual Owner’s Meetings in Orlando,
“I think he’s comfortable enough,” he said regarding Mills, “He understands. He’s a versatile guy. If you ever needed him to play a safety spot he can go back. He’s that type of athlete. He’s not just one position. He’s versatile enough to know that we can be able to move him around a little bit. For a guy that was drafted where he was, late, he’s been a real, real, big bright big spot for us these first two years.”
Mills is also the Eagles’ most physical corner right next to Rasul Douglas, which is what Jim Schwartz wants in his nickel corners – someone who is athletic enough to cover slot receivers and tight ends, but also strong enough to step up and make a tackle if need be. If Mills gets moved to nickel, I would suspect our second round pick from last year, Sidney Jones, to get the first shot at replacing Mills on the outside. Jones missed all of last season after tearing his achilles during his pro day workout. Before he sustained the injury, Jones was considered by many as the best corner in last year’s draft. In a draft that contained defensive rookie of the year Marshon Lattimore and Bills’ standout rookie corner Tredavious White that’s some high praise for Jones. With essentially two entire offseasons to mentally prepare for his first start, I believe Jones will step in and be just fine on the outside. With him holding down one half of the field, Ronald Darby will hold down the other half for the second year in a row.
FS: Malcolm Jenkins/Chris Maragos/Rasul Douglas
SS: Rodney McCleod/Tre Sullivan
Both Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McCleod will be returning next season, so there’s no reason to think that anyone will steal their starting spots from them. But, Jim Schwartz plays a solid amount of three saftey sets, and his third safety from last season, Corey Graham, was lost in free agency. Special teams’ ace Chris Maragos is returning from injury and will most likely step up to play Graham’s role from last season. Maragos was the starter at that spot prior to his injury, so again there’s no reason to think it’ll be any different next season.
That is of course, if the Eagles’ brass decides to keep Rasul Douglas as a corner and not move him to safety. Douglas was thrust into a starting spot last season once Darby went down and he didn’t disappoint. In the five games that he started, he was able to snag two interceptions and a plethora of pass break ups. To me, Douglas played well enough to earn some extra playing time in his sophomore season. With the cornerback group being as crowded as it is, I think safety could be an avenue for Douglas to get playing time. I don’t know if Schwartz and company will go in this direction, but I would love to see them give it a shot.