Improved Eagles still not ready for Super Bowl

Improved Eagles still not ready for Super Bowl

Smith, Matthews hope to be foundation of Eagles' future

May 19, 2014, 8:00 am
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The Eagles added Malcolm Jenkins (left) and Darren Sproles (right) this offseason, but the Birds still appear unready to compete for a Super Bowl in Chip Kelly's second season. (USA Today Images)

The NovaCare Complex doors opened this past weekend to seven Eagles draft picks, a flurry of rookie free agents and several other tryouts hoping to merit a camp-body contract that gives them some sliver of hope of recognizing their NFL dream.

Camp season is about to begin, which marks the unofficial curtain pull on free agency and the draft as teams shift focus from reshaping and upgrading their rosters to coaching up the players they’ve got and scheming for the upcoming season.

There’s always another veteran or last-gasp trade between now and the season opener, but the window of opportunity to make drastic improvements has opened and closed.

Which leads us to this question: Are the Eagles good enough right now to be considered Super Bowl contenders?

It’s hard to confidently answer with, “Yes.”

To recap: Since falling at home in a first-round playoff game against a Saints team that won’t be confused with the '85 Bears, the Eagles have made modest upgrades in major areas of need. They signed Malcolm Jenkins to end the carousel of subpar safety play, re-signed Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, drafted a first-round pass rusher in Marcus Smith, diversified the offense with Darren Sproles and even signed a kicker nicknamed “Murderleg” to either scare the bejeezus out of the soft-spoken Alex Henery or actually outduel him for the job. (Perhaps both.)

But they also wilfully pushed out the door one of the NFL’s last-remaining instant deep threats when they outright released DeSean Jackson in March, they jettisoned two team leaders in Mike Vick and Jason Avant, lost a valuable offensive coach when Bill Lazor accepted the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator job, left untouched a starting defensive line that got pushed around by New Orleans in the postseason and only moderately enhanced the cornerback position despite allowing the league’s most passing yards.

In all likelihood, the Eagles are better from top to bottom as they enter Kelly’s second season. They have more depth and balance at receiver and can hurt defenses differently with the pairing of LeSean McCoy and Sproles.

On defense, Smith brings another needed pass rusher, but his ability to run, drop and cover affords defensive coordinator Billy Davis some flexibility in nickel packages, and Jenkins just has to better than Patrick Chung because ... who isn’t?

The under-radar signings of Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman, two guys who run around the field like their jocks were soaked in hot sauce, should keep guys like Sproles from busting out the kind of late-game returns that lead to field goals at the buzzer.

But being slightly better than when they last walked off the field might not be good enough, not when two other division teams -- the Giants and Redskins -- made bigger moves this past offseason to strengthen their weaknesses, and not when the schedule rotation brings four games against powerhouse NFC West teams. On paper, the NFC West looks strong. It shouldn’t be considered a major sleeper if the Super Bowl champion Seahawks not only didn’t repeat as division champions but also don’t make the postseason.

Opposing defensive coordinators have 16 games worth of film to study and bare down on Nick Foles’ strengths and weaknesses. And McCoy, for the first time in his career, will see what boxes look like without Jackson’s presence commanding at least one safety about three miles downfield.

Kelly will have his counterpunch, whether it’s more two-back formations featuring McCoy and Sproles or a steady diet of Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews across the middle against smaller nickelbacks and safeties. Even without Jackson, this is an offense with plenty of playmakers.

It’s the defense that still provokes the most questions about this team’s readiness to contend. A unit that didn’t hit quarterbacks enough didn’t spend to bring in a bona fide quarterback assassins. A group that surrendered the league’s most passing yards and continuously let receivers get open across the middle brings back the same coverage linebackers and three-fourths of the same secondary.

Offense rules the roost in today’s NFL, but hitting quarterbacks and creating turnovers remain the tenets of teams that are standing at the end. The Eagles did only one of those two with regularity last year.

If being better was simply enough, the Eagles can feel pretty good about what they’ve done this offseason. But if the goal is being the best, it’s fair to wonder if they’ve done enough.

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