Are the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles contenders?

Are the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles contenders?

Few people expected the Eagles to be in the thick of the playoff race heading into December, much less tied for first place in the NFC East. Chip Kelly’s inaugural season as head coach was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Instead, excitement mounts as Philadelphia makes its push for the postseason.

After the Birds failed to reach the past two tournaments, most fans understandably would be pleased by that much progress. Heck, a lot of folks are probably ecstatic the team is even in the hunt heading into the final month. Expectations are still relatively safe around here, as they probably should be, but at least football is fun again.

Win the division, maybe even advance as far as the second round, and that’s about as successful a season as anybody could have hoped for.

But if the Eagles can make the playoffs, perhaps even win a game in some eyes, why not more? That already puts them on the doorstep of the NFC Championship. One more W, and they’re only 60 minutes away from playing on the big stage. And if there’s even a remote chance they could make it that far, the thought has to begin creeping into your mind…

Is Philadelphia a darkhorse Super Bowl contender?

After talking to several Eagles fans during the bye week, I can tell a lot of you haven’t even entertained the thought. It may not have crossed your mind until now. Yet the Birds look like an increasingly formidable opponent, and prior to the break they were just beginning to fire on all cylinders, winners of three straight.

Chip’s offensive philosophies have opposing coaches on their heels. The quarterback is playing on a level that invokes names like Brady and Manning. The Birds’ defense has only allowed more than 21 points in a game twice this season. All things considered, the roster is in good health, and thanks to the sports science program, many of these guys are in the best shape of their life.

And the team is still improving. The Eagles are relying on major contributions from a ton of first- and second-year players, and they seem to be getting better every week. The youngsters round out a collection of solid veterans and Pro Bowlers that includes names such as LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jason Peters, Trent Cole and DeMeco Ryans.

Doesn’t it kind of seem like everything is coming together at exactly the right time for this franchise to make some noise come January? How many times have we seen the hot team run the table at the end of the year?

Nobody is implying that’s definitely or likely or probably what’s going to happen here. The Eagles still have yet to defeat an opponent with a winning record this season. At some point, Nick Foles is going to come down to earth a little, or at least make a mistake or two. The defense hasn’t been challenged by many great quarterbacks this season.

The one great opponent Philly has faced this year—the Denver Broncos led by Peyton Manning—took this group apart 52-20. The Eagles didn’t appear as though they belonged in the same league, let alone on the same field.

Yet that seems like it was eons ago. Are the Eagles the same as they were back in September?

They also don’t have to worry about seeing Peyton again unless they go on this improbable run, although the schedule does intensify from here. Four of the Birds’ remaining five opponents currently own winning records, and obviously any team they encounter in the playoffs would as well.

There are quality teams in the NFC for sure, but does anybody look unbeatable? Maybe New Orleans Saints’ QB Drew Brees would carve up Philly’s secondary like a Thanksgiving turkey, or the Seattle Seahawks’ suffocating defense would have the answer to Kelly’s wizardry.

We won’t know anything unless and until the Eagles make it that far, either. There’s a very good chance they don’t make it into the playoffs, so you can see why it might be difficult to take them seriously as a contender.

Then again, if the Eagles come out of the bye week guns blazing and their momentum continues building into December, they’re going to be the opponent nobody wants to see come January. And as we tend to see once the playoffs are underway and every week is do or die, it's not always the so-called "best" team that wins—it's the team that's playing the best at the time.

Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

In the sixth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — part 6 is Hart to Jones.

Taylor Hart

Roob: No matter how hard the Eagles try, they just can't get rid of Taylor Hart. Chip Kelly drafted Hart in the fifth round in 2014 and then Hart began last season with Kelly in San Francisco before reappearing here later in the season. Hart is going into his fourth NFL season and has 15 games, 12 tackles and no sacks to show for it. He turns 26 next month and has never shown any signs of being a guy who can contribute in a 4-3 defense. I’m going to say he goes, but don't be surprised if he finds his way back onto the roster at some point. 

Verdict: GOES

Dave: Hart was with the Eagles last training camp but cut him on Sept. 4 and he was claimed by the 49ers and Chip Kelly. Then when the Niners cut him, the Eagles claimed him back and he spent the rest of the season watching the Eagles play football. He was inactive in all but the last game and in that one he didn’t play. Hart is a former fifth-round pick who just fits better in a 3-4. The Eagles already played undrafted rookie Destiny Vaeao over him, so it’s time to set him free. 

Verdict: GOES

Jordan Hicks
Cap hit: $796K

Roob: Whenever you blast Chip for getting rid of Shady, DeSean and Jeremy Maclin, you have to mention that he did draft Jordan Hicks in the third round. Hicks, in just 24 games, has become one of the most productive playmaking linebackers in Eagles history. With seven interceptions, he already has the 11th-most interceptions in franchise history by a linebacker, and he led all NFL linebackers with five INTs this past season. Only four linebackers in NFL history have had more interceptions in their first two seasons – Hall of Famer Jack Ham is one of them. But Hicks is more than a ballhawk. He’s a smart, heady linebacker who is stout at the point of attack and is already developing into a terrific locker room leader as well. The future is certainly bright for Hicks.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: He just finished his second year in the NFL, but Hicks is quickly becoming one of the biggest playmaking linebackers in the league. Through the first 24 games of his career, he has seven interceptions. In his first two years, he has 7 INTs, 4 FRs, 1 FF. He’s the fifth player in NFL history to do that in his first two seasons and he’s the only linebacker. That said, Hicks needs to get better against the run and he knows it. Now that he won’t have an injury to heal from this offseason, he plans on hitting the weight room to get stronger and better at stopping the run. He looks like a cornerstone of the franchise. 

Verdict: STAYS

Malcolm Jenkins
Cap hit: $7.5M

Roob: Jenkins had another good year in his third season with the Eagles, although not quite up to his Pro Bowl level of 2015. Jenkins, who turns 30 late next season, is on the books for another four years with some pretty high cap figures — $7.5 million in 2017, then $10 million, $9.75 million and $9.25 million. But as long as Jenkins continues to play at a high level, I don’t see him going anywhere until after the 2018 season at the earliest, when he would count just $3 million in dead money if he’s released. But Jenkins is a guy you'd like to see finish his career in Philly. Hope that happens. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: It’s hard to quantify just how much Jenkins means to the Eagles or how much he’s worth. But it’s a lot. The last two seasons have been the best of his career and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. The best Jenkins stat is this: He’s missed just eight defensive snaps since arriving in 2013. Unreal. If the Eagles chose to play him at cornerback last year, he would have probably been their best one. 

Verdict: STAYS

Lane Johnson
Cap hit: $10M

Roob: If he goes, it’ll be because of a third positive drug test. Johnson’s play in the six games he was available to the Eagles was at an All-Pro level. But after two positive tests for banned substances and suspensions of four games in 2014 and 10 games in 2016, he’s now one positive test away from a two-year ban that would essentially end his Eagles career. My gut feeling is Johnson has learned his lesson and won’t take any more chances. That he understands what’s at stake here and isn’t going to risk his career by taking a supplement that hasn’t been pre-tested and cleared. Obviously there are other reasons the Eagles were 5-1 when Johnson played. Those five wins included games against the hapless Browns and Bears and a win against a Cowboys team that wasn’t trying to win. But that said, Johnson’s value is clear. He's a beast. It’s up to Johnson whether he becomes a Pro Bowl offensive tackle or a casualty of the NFL’s substance abuse regulations. I can’t imagine he’ll make the same mistake again.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: A lot was made about Johnson’s suspension voiding the guaranteed portion of his contract. And for a week or so, a bunch of fans were calling into talk radio saying the Eagles should cut him. That was laughable. Johnson is still the Eagles’ best offensive player and as long as he stays on the field and plays the way he did in 2016, he’s going to make most of the money in his contract. He obviously deserves plenty of blame for the way last season went, but he’s a big piece of the future. One more suspension and his career is basically over, so the Eagles just have to hope he doesn’t ruin everything.  

Verdict: STAYS

Marcus Johnson

Roob: Johnson is an interesting guy. Ran a 4.37 so he has wheels, but he didn’t have much of a career at Texas. Then again, Texas didn’t have a legit quarterback while he was there so maybe there’s a lot of untapped potential. The Eagles are so desperate for help at wide receiver they’ll take a good long look at everybody on the roster, even a guy who bounced off and on the practice squad last year. This Longhorn is a longshot to make the roster, but then again, if he catches the football consistently in training camp he’ll give himself a fighting chance.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: The receiver was with the Eagles during training camp and flashed some before getting hurt. He joined the practice squad during the season and was there at season’s end. He’ll be brought to camp but is a longshot to make the roster. 

Verdict: GOES

Donnie Jones
Cap hit: $1.25M

Roob: At 36 years old, the greatest punter in Eagles history (sorry Mat McBriar) showed no signs of slowing down. In his 13th NFL season, Jones averaged 45.8 yards per punt with a 40.7 net – both above his career highs. The most amazing thing about Jones is his knack for dropping punts inside the 20 without hitting very many touchbacks. He had 21 inside the 20 this year with just six touchbacks, and in four seasons with the Eagles he has 117 inside the 20 with just 26 touchbacks. When you don’t have an explosive offense, field position is critical, and Jones is a human field position flipping machine. The Eagles signed him to a three-year extension this year, and he’s now under contract through 2019.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: At times during the last two seasons, Jones has looked like the offense’s best weapon. That’s not a good sign for the offense, but it is for Jones. He’s already the best punter in team history. He’ll be 37 by the time the 2017 season starts, but he just signed a contract and will be the team’s punter for at least a couple more years if everything goes to plan. 

Verdict: STAYS