10 areas the Eagles need to address for 2014

10 areas the Eagles need to address for 2014

January 12, 2014, 11:30 am
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Although this was a hugely successful turnaround season for the Eagles, with 10 wins, a division title and a playoff berth for the first time since 2010, the focus now is on getting better. And there are a lot of areas the Eagles can improve on between now and the weekend of Sept. 7, when Chip Kelly’s second season begins.

Let’s take a look at 10 areas the Eagles need to address heading into the 2014 season:

1. Pass rush
There were games where the Eagles got tremendous pressure on the opposing quarterback. Five sacks in the Chiefs game, five more against the Cards and Bears. But there were too many games where pass pressure was non-existent. In 10 games the Eagles got two or fewer sacks, and in their last two they got virtually no pressure on Kyle Orton or Drew Brees. They did sack Brees twice but they weren’t game-altering, momentum-changing plays – one for zero yards, the other for one yard. Overall, the Eagles were 20th in the NFL with 37 sacks. They were 5-2 when they had three or more, 5-5 when they had two or fewer. Although Trent Cole did have a good stretch there in the second half, the reality is when your best pass rusher is 31 years old and playing out of position, you need to get a lot better there. The Eagles desperately need a young 3-4 edge pass rushing linebacker as a centerpiece of an improved pass rush.

2. Kicking game
The Eagles lost two games after the start of October and both were directly related to the kicking game. In Minnesota, it was Kelly’s lack of faith in Alex Henery kicking the ball off out of the end zone in a dome that resulted in the bizarre squib-kick approach that gave the Vikings consistently terrific field position and fueled the Vikings’ 48-30 win. In the Saints game, it was again Henery’s miss of a difficult but makeable 48-yard field goal attempt and more short kickoffs, the final one allowing Darren Sproles’ crippling fourth-quarter kick return that set up the Saints’ short 38-yard winning drive and knocked the Eagles out of the playoffs. Henery rarely misses inside the 45-yard line (51 for 56 career) but he was 5 for 9 this year in the crucial 46-to-50-yard range. Those kicks are layups these days for NFL kickers. It’s not going to be easy to upgrade, just because it’s so hard to find capable kickers, and Henery is ninth-most accurate in NFL history at 86 percent. But the Eagles need to try. When they need a big field goal or a big kickoff, they need someone they can rely on.

3. Safety. Again.
Patrick Chung recalled memories of the worst safeties in Eagles history. Erik McMillan, Jarrad Page, Sean Jones, Matt Stevens, Jaiquawn Jarrett. Nate Allen was one of the most improved players on the roster, and he deserves a lot of credit for the way he played, but the bottom line is the Eagles can upgrade both spots. Howie Roseman often says safety is the hardest position to find these days. Guys with secondary size want to be cornerbacks because that’s where the money is – getting interceptions, not stopping the run. Earl Wolff has great potential, but this remains an area of huge concern. The Eagles haven’t been settled at safety since the days of Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell. It’s got to be a huge priority this offseason.

4. Outside weapons
DeSean Jackson had his best year, Riley Cooper had a breakout season and Jason Avant did his usual thing with big catches and terrific blocking, but this offense is dependent on multiple options, and when you carry two wideouts that combine for six receptions (Jeff Maehl four, Damaris Johnson two), you know you have a lot of room for improvement. Kelly loves playing three wides – 11 of the Eagles’ 13 most common lineups included three wide outs, and they ran three wides on 69 percent of their snaps. Avant is a sure-handed slot guy and a tremendous locker room guy, but the Eagles need firepower. Bringing back both Jeremy Maclin and Cooper has to be a priority, but they still need to add a big body and a speedster and just give Nick Foles more options.

5. Third and long
This is directly related to No. 3 above, but the Eagles’ woes on third and long were deadly and must be corrected. Here’s how bizarre the Eagles’ inability to stop people on third and long was: The Eagles were best in the NFL on 3rd-and-3 or shorter, limiting teams to first downs just 43.8 percent of the time (28 for 64). But on 3rd-and-10 or longer, they were 29th in the league at 26.9 percent (18 for 67). It ought to be impossible for those numbers to be so close. The Eagles allowed nine first downs on 3rd-and-12 or longer (third-most in the NFL), five on 3rd-and-15 or longer (fifth-most) and even a couple on 3rd-and-20 or longer (third-most). This is a product of both a lack of pressure and weak safety play. Those are such huge plays. Momentum-changing plays. And they have to stop.

6. Quarterback depth
Assuming Michael Vick won’t return – and you never know, but the odds are slim that he’s back – the Eagles need to figure out who No. 2 is behind Foles. How important is backup quarterback? Only three QBs in Eagles history – Ron Jaworski five times, Donovan McNabb four times, Randall Cunningham three times – have started 16 games in a season. The backup has started at least two games five straight years and eight of the last nine. Without A.J. Feeley in 2002, Jeff Garcia in 2006, Kevin Kolb in 2010 or Foles this year, the Eagles don’t go to the playoffs any of those years. The Eagles like Matt Barkley, but don’t be surprised if they draft a young, mobile prospect fairly high. Not necessarily to compete with Foles at the moment but to groom for the future.

7. Outside corner
Here’s how crucial it is to have a backup outside corner you can rely on: The Saints had a 3rd-and-12 midway through the third quarter on their own 32-yard line when Cary Williams got banged up and had to miss a play. Roc Carmichael entered the game, and Drew Brees immediately targeted him, completing a 14-yard pass to Kenny Stills for a first down that led directly to the TD that gave the Saints a 20-7 lead. That was the only defensive snap Carmichael played in the game. Stop the Saints there, it’s a completely different game. But the Eagles just didn’t have a reliable guy to stick in there on a key play in a postseason game, and it cost them. Williams and Bradley Fletcher both played very well, and we all know what kind of playmaker Brandon Boykin is in the slot. But Billy Davis has to figure out whether Boykin is going to be his third outside corner, and if not the Eagles need to be able to put somebody out there in a crucial situation if Williams or Fletcher gets hurt that they can count on.

8. Running game consistency
Crazy to even think about the running game after the Eagles led the NFL with 160 rushing yards per game, and LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing yards as well? Maybe not. The Eagles had games with 299, 289, 264, 263 and 204 rushing yards, but they also had games with 84 (loss to Dallas), 80 (loss to Saints), 79 (loss to Vikings) and 48 (loss to Giants), and their inability to get anything going on the ground in the playoff loss to the Saints was fatal. It looked like the biggest issue in those games was the offensive line just getting beat at the point of attack. The O-line was terrific for the most part, but Kelly needs to figure out why there were games when it couldn’t create holes for McCoy. A more consistent dose of Bryce Brown and Chris Polk would help, too. McCoy is the best tailback in the NFL, but a change of pace is always healthy and keeps the defense off balance.

9. Run defense consistency
The flip side of No. 8. During the regular season, the Eagles were brilliant against the run, holding opponents to 3.8 yards per carry – their best since 2008, Jim Johnson’s final season in Philly, and fourth-best in the league. But again, there was the Saints game, and in the most important moment of the season, they got destroyed up front by a few no-name running backs on a team that was one of the worst in the league running the ball during the regular season. There was no sign of that coming. The Eagles held their last five regular-season opponents to 74 yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry. Down the stretch, they were No. 1 in the NFL in rush defense. Then came the Saints and 185 yards and 5.1 yards per pop. You don’t want to overreact to one game because the Eagles were very good against the run all year, but something to keep an eye on. Bennie Logan had a promising rookie year, but he goes about 305 pounds. The the Eagles may need more of a pure 3-4 force like the top 325-pound nose tackles that are key to the best odd fronts in the league.

10. O-line youth
Todd Herremans, Evan Mathis and Jason Peters all had terrific seasons, although it took Herremans until about the middle of the year to hit his stride. But they’re all in their 30s, and you never know how long they’ll be able to maintain this level of play. The Eagles have some young offensive linemen they like, such as Matt Tobin and Dennis Kelly, but it may be time to draft a young guy or two for the future.