Predictions Week: Will Eagles' Offense Have a Bounce-Back Season?

Predictions Week: Will Eagles' Offense Have a Bounce-Back Season?
August 27, 2012, 9:31 am
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When you're talking about an offense that set a single-season franchise record for yards from scrimmage, usually it would sound a little funny when somebody implies anything needs turning around. That is definitely the case for the Eagles however, at least to an extent, because all those yards didn't add up to nearly enough points last year.

The truth is the Birds have been shattering offensive milestones on a regular basis lately. In 2008 a Donovan McNabb-led unit surpassed the club record for points scored, which the team would go on to break again in '09, and once more with Michael Vick in '10. With all that yardage, there's no reason the offense shouldn't have made a run at topping themselves for a fourth-consecutive season, but they didn't even come close. The Eagles fell 43 points shy of 439, or roughly six touchdowns.

It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out how that happened. Philadelphia was second in the NFL with 38 turnovers last season, and an astounding eight of those occurred inside the red zone. Even if they settled for field goals on each of those failed trips inside their opponents' 20, that's 24 points the Eagles left on the field.

To be fair, the franchise scoring record is not the only measurement of how good the offense was, but we bring it to your attention because those turnovers also contributed a great deal in the win-loss column. While the defense was made the scapegoat for much of the squad's troubles in 2011, had the offense posted an extra three or six in a few of these red-zone situations could have made the difference between an additional win or two, not to mention a trip to the playoffs.

So, yes, while the Eagles' offense can still rack up big numbers, they will need to operate far more efficiently than they were a year ago if they intend to make any sort of run. The question for the day is, with the current makeup of the roster, do they have that efficiency in them?

Offensive Line
Greatest Strength: Some continuity, finally
Biggest Question Mark: Left tackle

So King Dunlap actually beat out Demetress Bell at left tackle. I can't pretend I'm completely shocked by this news, as Dunlap played relatively well when given the chance, and Bell -- the best left tackle available in free agency -- was still unsigned weeks after the market had opened. Having said that, you got the feeling when the front office finally brought in Bell, there wasn't really going to be a competition or anything.

Regardless, good for King, and I probably have a lot more faith in the fifth-year veteran than most. Dunlap was just coming into the league when I started covering the team for this site, and he looked completely lost as a rookie. He's transformed quite a bit since then, and now gets the opportunity to prove he can be more than a replacement player.

Of course, the issue is he still needs to prove it. The coaching staff was successful in preparing him for the seven starts he made over the past two seasons. Here we're talking about 16 games. Even assuming Dunlap is up for it, how does it change offensive game plans? Can the running game be anywhere close to as effective as it was with Jason Peters? Will backs and tight ends need to focus on pass protection over route running? On top of that, if Dunlap is hurt, is Bell even a viable backup?

There will certainly be some drop-off from Peters, but again, I feel confident Dunlap will be fine. The good news is at least the rest of the line is set. This will be the second season Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Danny Watkins, and Todd Herremans are together, and as good as the unit looked toward the end of last season, they should only continue improving. Continuity is such a key component along the offensive line, and yes, Mathis and Kelce did have that snafu in New England, but generally speaking these guys should be very comfortable with one another.

The development of second-year players Kelce and in particular Watkins will be fun to watch. After struggling to catch on upon being named the club's first-round pick in 2011, Watkins' learned as the year went on, and this summer he's looked solid. Without Watkins in the starting lineup from day one last season, the Eagles were forced to turn to Kyle DeVan at right guard for the first four weeks. The unexpected change in plans appeared to play a role in the early woes, especially at the goal line, where by Week 4 the offense had been stuffed so many times, coaches thought they needed to attempt a halfback option to find the end zone.

Overall, the offensive line figures to remain a plus for this offense as long as Dunlap can capably anchor the left side, which is admittedly a fairly big if. With Kelce and Watkins progressing, and Herremans having a season under his belt at right tackle, the rest of the group only appears to be getting stronger.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Greatest Strength: Big play ability
Biggest Question Mark: DeSean regaining his form

Ever since the Eagles began short circuiting scoreboards, they've been known for possessing a quick-strike, big play offense. Despite setting the franchise record in yards though, the wide receivers had a remarkably poor season in 2011. DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin were tied for 21st with five other players for receptions that went 20 yards or over last season with 15 a piece, only one more than teammate Brent Celek. The season prior, Jackson was third on the same list.

Of course, Jackson was playing on the final year of his contract, and was grossly underpaid considering the service he provides. I realize it's not a popular position, but I don't blame the wide receiver for being weary of a sustaining a serious injury that would damage his opportunity to get what was coming to him. Whatever your feelings on the matter, it clearly weighed on his mind and caused some of his poor efforts, including dropped passes and missing meetings, the latter getting him scratched from a game.

Jackson has been paid, but one of my biggest concerns when the Eagles signed him to an extension at five years, $50 million was this -- once a player begins playing the game at half speed, does he ever turn it on again? Will DeSean's toughness and concentration come into question again this season? It's impossible to answer, but so far everybody is saying all the right things. Teammates and coaches have lauded his attitude this summer, and Djacc himself has said it's 100% effort this season.

The fact is, Jackson may never have another season as good as the one he had in '09, when he caught 63 balls for 1,167 yards and nine touchdowns, and he may never average 22.5 yards per reception as he did in '10. Still, having that vertical threat on the field makes everyone else better, as his speed forces extra attention from opposing safeties.

One thing we don't question is whether Jeremy Maclin should experience a jump in his numbers after they regressed in '11 coming out of a scary summer. Maclin battled a mysterious illness during much of the offseason, then missed training camp as doctors searched for its cause, which in part led the signing and implementation of a hobbled Steve Smith. Eventually it turned out he was fine, but Maclin had lost some weight, then would miss a few games due to injury. With a full camp under his belt, Maclin should return to being a big weapon for the offense.

Other than that, there isn't much change here. Jason Avant and Brent Celek are still their reliable selves, and Clay Harbor had a nice preseason and may be ready to emerge as a pass-catching threat as a second tight end. If Jackson finally has his head on straight, this group could be
in for a big year.

Running Backs
Greatest Strength: LeSean McCoy
Biggest Question Mark: Inexperienced depth

What can we say about Shady McCoy that hasn't been said already? He earned first-team All-Pro honors last season, finishing fourth in rushing yards (1,309), fourth in rushing yards per attempt, fifth in total yards from scrimmage, and first overall in rushing and total touchdowns. At 24 years old, he is absolutely one of the best backs in the NFL. If McCoy sees any decline in his numbers this year, it will likely have more to do with the situation at left tackle than anything he's doing wrong.

Yet behind Shady we have ourselves a bit of a mystery. Dion Lewis, a second-year back from Pitt, came into camp as the number two running back, and likely holds the job for now. Lewis saw little action in his rookie season, carrying the ball 23 times, but he was a workhorse for two seasons in college, gaining over 2,800 yards on 5.3 yards per carry. At 5-8, 195, he is on the small side, so how he holds up in pass protection will be key, but very often the ability is more reliant on technique and willingness than size.

Adding to the intrigue behind McCoy were strong showings from a pair of rookies this summer.

A seventh-round selection, Bryce Brown was especially stood out, and appears to be a lock to make this team. So far in the preseason, Brown has carried 19 times for 102 yards and hauled in four passes for 32. Beyond numbers, at 6-0, 223, he is a bit of a bigger back than McCoy or Lewis, but also has impressive quickness, runs with a rhythm, and finishes with power.

The Eagles also have Chris Polk, an undrafted runner out of Washington. Polk hasn't made as big of a splash this preseason, but he runs hard and isn't afraid to lower his shoulder on a defender. He carried for over 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in three seasons for his collegiate career. There has been talk of moving him to fullback so the team can keep him on the roster, but he seems a little undersized for that at 5-11, 222, plus Stanley Havili has performed the job well.

The only problem with having all these first- and second-year backs is the collective inexperience behind McCoy. Pass protection is such a focal point for a back in Andy Reid's system, and we don't really know yet if any of these guys can do it consistently. Then again, the Birds went out and signed Ronnie Brown to be the primary backup, and he was a dud. At least there is a ton of upside in the group, possibly even a future 1,000-yard rusher in this mix.

Quarterbacks
Greatest Strength: Michael Vick
Biggest Question Mark: Michael Vick

Naturally, when we're discussing the offense, it all comes down to Michael Vick. He could be their greatest asset, or he can be their greatest liability. We already examined Vick in-depth prior to the start of training camp, and the questions are all the same. Can he stay healthy for 16 games, can he cut down on the turnovers, and can he grow into an elite NFL quarterback? So far, it has not looked so good, has it?

Ultimately, it may not matter much who Vick's backup even is. Most observers believe rookie Nick Foles has done more than enough to wrestle the job away from Mike Kafka, who entered the summer as the clear favorite -- it's unclear whether Trent Edwards is even in the fight. Foles certainly brought attention to himself this preseason though. He's 36 of 57 for 507 yards and six touchdowns to two interceptions this summer, good for a passer rating of 112.2. He's opening eyes, and some short-sighted fans have even suggest he start.

I'm all for tamping down Foles fever a bit. He's a rookie, going primarily against second- and third-string defense, all that. He certainly may have passed Kafka, who hasn't seen much action since a fracture in his non-throwing hand. If Edwards is in the running, there is even a slight possibility Kafka could find himself out of a roster spot altogether next week.

Admittedly, backup QB was a problem for the Birds last season when Vince Young turned out to be both a less-than-desirable replacement and team publicist, but it all boils down to Vick. Since the NFL expanded the playoffs in 1990, only three backups quarterbacks have replaced the starter due to injury and gone on to win a Super Bowl -- two of them, Kurt Warner and Tom Brady, happen to be future Hall of Famers. The Foles hype is in full swing, but I'm not sure anybody is ready to compare him to either of those passers.

So much the same way the Eagles' championship dreams rest on Vick this season, so too does the offense's chance of having a bounce-back year. Either Vick will take the next step, and the offense could launch a full-out assault on both the franchise scoring record and a parade, or Vick will be Vick, and the offense will remain explosive but simultaneously wildly inconsistent. Which of the two scenarios do you think is more likely?

All images via US Presswire.

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