If optimism for the Eagles in 2016 is a little lacking, that's certainly understandable. A lot of people got their hopes up the past few years, only to be let down hard. This feels like a franchise in transition now, with an inexperienced head coach — even as first-timers go — entirely different schemes and a bunch of new staff members. And the quarterback is still Sam Bradford, who has never taken a team to the playoffs, while the organization made it clear he has no future here when they moved up to the No. 2 pick in the draft and selected Carson Wentz. In fact, the only thing that might get some fans excited is the prospect of Wentz playing, which seemingly isn't going to happen as long as Doug Pederson has his way.
Yet while 2016 isn't exactly going to be Super Bowl or bust, and it could be awhile before we see the quarterback of the future play a regular season game, expectations might be a little too low. People are acting and talking as if the Eagles were one of the worst teams in the NFL last year, when actually they won seven games. Obviously that's nothing to brag about, but when we go through position by position and determine the personnel has improved almost across the board, it's a little strange to hear the majority of fans and media talk as if this is still just a seven- or eight-win squad.
In fairness, that might be the case. Bradford has never won more than seven games in a season, while Wentz and backup Chase Daniel own one NFL victory between them. Pederson didn't even start coaching in the NFL until 2010, and has just three years experience as an offensive coordinator, under an offensive coach mind you, one who has never shown a great mastery of game management at that. On the flip side, Jim Schwartz has been successful at every stop, but is tasked with taking a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 alignment, and a group that's formed one of the worst units in the league. A tough schedule does the Eagles no favors either, and did we mention Bradford?!?!
So yeah, pessimism hangs over the Eagles appropriately and for a reason. But is this team not better than last year's? Bradford or not, is he not more likely to succeed after a healthy offseason and some familiar faces among the supporting cast? Will Schwartz and his proven scheme not immediately restore some credibility to this defense? Did Pederson not learn from one of the most successful NFL coaches of the free-agency era, but also the best head coach in Eagles history in Andy Reid?
We're not yet prepared to go so far as to say the Eagles will win their division, which should also be better in 2016, or that they're going to the playoffs. Then again, it's July and the first day of training camp, so why not? We've already established that they are better. Now here are three key reasons why that might manifest itself in the team's record.
1. The offensive line is upgraded and deeper
What was the biggest reason for the Eagles' quick turnaround under Chip Kelly in 2013, when the club went from 4-12 in its final season under Reid to 10-6 and division champions? All five members of the offensive line started all 17 games, and it was a stellar unit that paved the way for a LeSean McCoy rushing championship.
With the anchor of the group, Jason Peters, now 33 and coming off a dismal, injury-plagued season, the O-line's ceiling may not be so high, while injuries are impossible to predict. That being said, the unit should be vastly improved. Even if Peters is half the player he once was, the guard situation has been resolved, with Brandon Brooks taking over at right, and a battle between veterans Allen Barbre and Stefan Wisniewski and rookie Isaac Seumalo on the left. It's a much deeper group overall as well, which means unlike in past years, they might even be able to withstand an injury or two. Ryan Mathews isn't likely to lead the NFL in rushing or anything, but with an improved interior and sane offensive philosophy, the offense should be stronger up front.
2. The defense won't be on the field all the time
Schwartz could easily turn the Eagles defense into a middle-of-the-pack unit in just one season on the job. Of course, the fact that a constant inefficient uptempo offense won't constantly have them out of the field might be the biggest factor of all.
There are questions about the personnel. Is there a feared pass-rusher coming off the edge? Who are the starting cornerbacks? What happens if the injury prone linebackers start dropping like flies? Fletcher Cox is irreplaceable. And all of that being said, the Eagles' defense almost has to be better, simply by virtue of they aren't guaranteed to lead the NFL in opponents' time of possession for the fourth season in a row. It's no coincidence they would fall apart late in games and in seasons. They were gassed from playing 40 minutes every week. Add the Schwartz effect, which should be huge, and we might not be talking merely a jump to league average. This could become a top-10 defense overnight.
3. The coaching will better
Pederson may be a total unknown, but he would have to work pretty hard to mess things up any worse than Chip. Kelly had lost half the locker room by about midway through last season, maybe sooner, and judging by how bitter most of the players who left beforehand were, perhaps never had the full support of a team. He could be petty and infantile, and not only that, but his "innovative" offense and philosophies were eventually exposed. Non-stop tempo was in many ways problematic, and opponents routinely pointed out he would only call about 15-to-20 unique plays a game. The staff is better too, at least the guys they replaced, primarily in that you'll take Schwartz over Bill Davis all day.
The Eagles managed to win seven games last season, and that was with a rift in the locker room, a rift in the front office, a basic college offense, a defense that was always on the field and guiding philosophies that it's become apparent simply do not work in the NFL. That suggests that maybe, just maybe, the talent level is a little bit better than their record suggests, and that if Pederson is any kind of NFL coach at all, could perhaps improve quite a bit.
Previously: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebackers, Safeties, Special Teams, CBs