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

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

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.

Pros, cons and likely prospects of a Vince Velasquez trade with Rangers

Pros, cons and likely prospects of a Vince Velasquez trade with Rangers

Vince Velasquez just turned 24 in June.

He's under team control for the next five years and won't start making a lot of money (in baseball terms) until about 2020.

He has a big fastball that averages 93.7 mph, the 10th-best velocity of any NL starting pitcher.

He can be really, really good at times — the 16-strikeout shutout of the Padres, the 10-strikeout game against the Marlins, scoreless performances against the Mets, Indians and Diamondbacks.

And even when he's not at his best, like Friday night in Atlanta, Velasquez can succeed because his stuff is that good. He's made 18 starts this season and allowed two runs or fewer 11 times.

All of these things make him valuable to the Phillies. And all of these things make him attractive to every other team in the majors.

It doesn't seem likely that the Phils will ultimately pull the trigger and trade Velasquez to the Rangers, who are in "deep discussions" with the Phils on a deal, according to CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury (see story). But Texas has such an intriguing group of prospects that it makes sense for the Phillies to listen.

Velasquez, for all of his strengths, has not proven yet that he can be a durable, 180- to 200-inning starting pitcher. He's never even reached 125 innings at any level in the minors. There have been numerous games this season in which his pitch count has soared — either because of a lack of control, nibbling around the plate or a lot of foul balls. The result has been some early exits. That was a knock on Velasquez when he was in Houston and he hasn't yet fully outgrown it.

That's why it could make sense for the Phils to trade him. Perhaps they believe they'd be selling high on a guy who's shown so much talent and promise but not the type of consistency of a No. 1 or No. 2 starter.

Obviously, it makes sense to move him only if the return is strong. And the Rangers could certainly offer a strong package if they decide Velasquez is their guy.

The names you'll see thrown around a lot as the Aug. 1 trade deadline approaches are power hitting third baseman Joey Gallo, infielder Jurickson Profar and outfielders Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara.

Mazara is a pipe dream. The Rangers refused to include him in last summer's Cole Hamels trade, and he's only increased his worth to them this season by hitting .282/.334/.417 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs for a first-place team. He'll be a top-three finisher for AL Rookie of the Year. It's almost impossible to envision the Rangers trading away a valuable piece of their major-league roster for Velasquez. It would be a wash, at best.

Gallo and Profar are more realistic targets for the Phillies in a Velasquez trade. Gallo, 22, has some of the best raw power in the minors, true grade-80 power. The 6-foot-5, left-handed hitter bashed 23 homers in the minors last season, 42 the year before and 40 the year before that. Initially, that power translated to the majors when Gallo was called up last June. He hit homers in each of his first two games and had five in his first 50 at-bats before pitchers adjusted. So far in 136 big-league plate appearances, he's hit .192/.287/.408 with seven homers and 63 strikeouts.

The whiffs will always be a part of Gallo's game. To me, he has Brewers' first baseman Chris Carter written all over him — a lot of homers, a lot of strikeouts, low batting average. Gallo could be better than Carter because he plays a more important position and will hopefully be more than a .217 career hitter like Carter, but you also have to keep in mind that the Phillies already have Maikel Franco at third base. If Gallo was traded here, he'd likely play either first base or left field.

It's hard to say right now whether or not Gallo is more valuable or a better fit for the Phils than Velasquez. Usually, it makes sense to go with the everyday player over the pitcher who can make an impact at most twice a week. But, as stated above, Velasquez can give you six quality innings even when he's not "on." He has the most upside of any of the Phillies' young starting pitchers, including Aaron Nola.

Profar, who is somehow still just 23 after years atop prospect lists and a few injuries, would seem to be a better fit. He's a multi-dimensional player who has impressed scouts for years for a reason. He can play every infield position in addition to left field, he has the look of a .300 hitter, and his power is developing.

A switch-hitter, Profar has hit .301/.356/.440 for the Rangers in 181 plate appearances this season with four doubles, two triples and five homers. It's been a while since his last full season in the minors, but in 2012 he hit .281 with an .820 OPS, 14 homers and 62 RBIs as a 19-year-old everyday shortstop at Double A.

The opinion here is that Profar will be a better major-league hitter than Phillies top prospect J.P. Crawford.

There is, however, a vast financial difference between Profar and Gallo. Profar will go to salary arbitration in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before becoming a free agent. Gallo, like Velasquez, won't start making meaningful baseball money until around 2020.

But a team like the Phillies that has deep pockets and so much open payroll space moving forward should be more concerned with receiving the right player than playing the cost benefit game.

Another thing to consider here is that the Rangers need Profar. He's been playing every day for them and playing well at second base, third base and shortstop. He played Friday night in left field. He's started a bunch of games at first base, too, and figures to get some more reps there with Prince Fielder out for the season and Mitch Moreland having just an OK year.

Brinson is another name to keep in mind. A right-handed centerfielder, he was Texas' first-round pick in 2012. He had a terrific year at three different levels in 2015, hitting a combined .332/.403/.601 with 31 doubles, eight triples and 20 homers. He's struggled this season at Double A Frisco, hitting .227 with a .692 OPS in a hitter-friendly environment.

The Rangers also have some other pieces who could help the Phillies, but you'd figure any deal for Velasquez would have to include one of these three. Otherwise, it just makes no sense to even entertain the idea of a trade.

And really, if the Rangers are willing to include one or more of those three young players, they could get any team in the majors to listen to an offer for a starting pitcher. A package centered around two of them might be enough for Chris Sale. Maybe one of them could net Atlanta's Julio Teheran. Velasquez is really good, but so are the combinations of trade packages the Rangers can put together.

Eagles Injury Update: Nolan Carroll, Rueben Randle leave practice early

Eagles Injury Update: Nolan Carroll, Rueben Randle leave practice early

The Eagles' first day of training camp in pads wasn’t without some minor casualties.

Cornerback Nolan Caroll left early with a sore ankle and wideout Rueben Randle left early with cramps. Both are considered day-to-day.

After Carroll left the field, Eric Rowe got some first-team reps with the defense. Randle was having a very good day, standing out with a one-handed grab, before going inside.

Undrafted wide receiver Marcus Johnson, from Texas, went inside early with a quad injury. Corner Ron Brooks (cramps) also went in early.

The Eagles started the day without starting right guard Brandon Brooks (hamstring) and starting running back Ryan Mathews (ankle). Neither have practiced since the whole team got together for the first full-squad on Thursday.

Darren Sproles continues to get most of the first-team reps at running back, with Kenjon Barner filling in. Veteran Stefen Wisniewksi has been taking Brooks’ spot at right guard.

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Trade rumors swirl around starters Jeremy Hellickson, Julio Teheran

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Trade rumors swirl around starters Jeremy Hellickson, Julio Teheran

Phillies (47-58) at Braves (36-67)
7:10 p.m. on NBC10

Two starters with uncertain futures take the mound in Atlanta on Saturday evening . Will either Phillies righty Jeremy Hellickson or Braves ace Julio Teheran be traded before, during or shortly after Saturday's first pitch? Time will tell.

Here are five things to know before Saturday night's contest at Turner Field:

1. Hellickson on the trading block
When the Phillies acquired Hellickson from the Arizona Diamondbacks in mid-November, there was always a strong possibility the veteran righty would be flipped before this year's non-waiver trade deadline. 

With Charlie Morton going down with an injury early in the year, it appeared that Hellickson would be the only member of the Phillies' improved rotation likely to be gone on Aug. 1 (maybe not true, but more on that later). So after the Marlins already shored up their rotation with the acquisition of Andrew Cashner, who is still interested in the righty?

Teams like the Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays, among others, come to mind. After all, many top starters are far from free agency or locked up by their teams, making a middle-of-the-road starter like Hellickson a hot commodity at this year's deadline.

Face it: There are always teams that need starting pitching. Pitchers can go down in an instant (like Morton did) or begin to struggle out of nowhere (look at Aaron Nola). With Hellickson's early career resume and his recent resurgence, plenty of teams could make use of him (see full story)

In 21 starts this season, he has thrown 125 2/3 innings and has a 3.65 ERA, nearly a full run lower than his final ERA from 2015. He's regained his trademark command and upped his strikeout rate. However, he is still a fly ball pitcher who can be burned playing in a small ballpark (Citizens Bank park, for instance). A team like the Blue Jays that plays in the home run-friendly Rogers Centre may think twice before acquiring him.

If Hellickson is traded, it would continue a youth movement for the Phillies, and not just with the prospects they would acquire in a potential deal. Top pitching prospect Jake Thompson is on turn to start Sunday in Triple A and with the Phillies' day off on Monday, he could easily slide into Hellickson's rotation spot. 

2. Teheran could be gone as well
The Braves' scheduled starter for Saturday could also be in another uniform when the calendar flips to August. However, an injury has thrown his status into flux.

Atlanta currently has the worst record in baseball, so any and every player could be considered a trade chip at this point in the year. That includes a player like Teheran, who is signed through 2019 to a team-friendly deal that includes a team option for 2020. 

And Teheran has been easily the best pitcher for the Braves. In 20 starts this year, he has a 2.71 ERA while averaging just shy of 6.5 innings per start. He earned his second All-Star Game appearance with a career-best walk rate, not to mention a 4.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He also only allows 6.7 hits per nine innings, contributing to a career-best 0.956 WHIP. 

But the righty left his last start on July 22 with a tight lat muscle in his back. There was talk he may need to go on the DL, but he avoided it with a few extra days between starts. 

Teheran has been healthy in the past. He's made at least 30 starts each of the last three years and has thrown at least 200 innings each of the last two. He led baseball with 33 starts last season. 

However, the lat injury may scare teams hoping to acquire him before this deadline, making this start crucial. If there's no one willing to meet the price for Teheran, the Braves can simply retain him and see if anyone wants him in the offseason.

3. Hug watch on Velasquez?
In case you missed it, the Phillies are in deep discussions with the Texas Rangers on a deal involving 24-year-old starter Vince Velasquez (see full story)

Wow. It's certainly a shocker. Velasquez has been the Phillies' best starter in his first season with the club and has made Matt Klentak look like a genius for trading Ken Giles to the Houston Astros for him in the offseason. His fastball has electrified Philadelphia at times, especially during a 16-strikeout gem in his first start at Citizens Bank Park.

So could that really be coming to an end so soon? The Rangers, as mentioned above, are in the market for a starting pitcher. Their only consistent pitcher in the last month has been a certain familiar name acquired from the Phillies last year: Cole Hamels. 

Beyond Hamels, the Rangers' rotation has been battered by injuries this year. Colby Lewis and Derek Holland are both on the 60-day disabled list and Yu Darvish has been off and on the DL in his first season after Tommy John surgery. Furthermore, Velasquez isn't eligible to become a free agent until 2022, giving value beyond any normal deadline acquisition.

But if Velasquez is under team control for so long, why would the Phillies trade him? Two possible reasons: First, a team knows its pitchers better than anyone and may be concerned with something in his health record or they simply don't value him as highly as other teams. 2. The Phillies know they can extract a tremendous haul for the flamethrowing righty.

The Rangers have some exciting prospects and young pieces that could make the Phillies jump. Slugging prospect Joey Gallo, starting outfielder Nomar Mazara and infielder Jurickson Profar intrigue teams and have been mostly deemed untouchable by Texas. But if Velasquez is in discussion, it's easy to speculate that one of those could be the headliner in a package coming back to Philadelphia. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: No one may be seeing Teheran on the mound than Freddy Galvis. The Phillies' shortstop is 6 for 14 against him with two walks. He could use a multiple-hit evening after piling up just five hits in the last week.

Braves: After tonight, Nick Markakis will have faced Hellickson more than any other hitter. Markakis has made 46 plate appearances against Hellickson and has just nine hits in those appearances. Two of the hits, though, have been home runs.

5. This and that
• Teheran has not allowed a run in his last 14 innings, dating back to July 9. 

• The Phillies and Braves have identical .240 batting averages this season. The Phils have a big advantage in home runs, however, outpacing the Braves, 101-64. 

• Ryan Howard has two career home runs off Teheran in 24 at-bats. Cody Asche has one homer in 21 at-bats against him. 

• A.J Pierzynski has nine at-bats against Hellickson and just one hit. However, the one hit is a home run.