Mosher's Mailbag: Can Eagles win with current WRs?

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Mosher's Mailbag: Can Eagles win with current WRs?

In this week’s edition of Mosher’s Mailbag, I answer a question about the Eagles’ receivers.

Q. Do you think the Eagles can win the division again in 2014 with their current receiving corps?

-- Rick Brzyski (@BossManRickB)

A. Sure do. Your question seems to imply that the Eagles have a substandard receiving corps, which I don’t think is the case. Of course, the fate of the corps hinges on whether Jeremy Maclin comes back fully healthy from last year’s ACL injury, his second since the start of his college career and in the same knee. If Maclin is anywhere near the receiver he was pre-injury, he should be a really effective weapon in Chip Kelly’s offense.

Maclin won’t be an exact replacement over DeSean Jackson. He’s a different kind of player. He can’t match Jackson’s speed (who can?) but Maclin is a better route runner and more versatile. He’ll probably see a good deal of snaps in the slot because he’s bigger and more equipped to handle the traffic across the middle.

The Eagles undoubtedly lost a pure field stretcher when they got rid of Jackson, but Kelly has shown throughout his coaching career, in college and in his first NFL season, that cats aren’t skinned just one way. Maybe the Eagles don’t get 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns out of Maclin, but it’s entirely possible -- probable, actual -- that tight end Zach Ertz and rookie receiver Jordan Matthews combine for much more than the 39 receptions for 447 yards that Jason Avant produced last year. (Ertz had 36 catches for 469 yards by himself, nearly matching Avant’s production).

I’m not sure what to make of Riley Cooper. He definitely benefited from the change-over from Mike Vick to Nick Foles, but he also reaped the benefits of playing opposite Jackson and seeing plenty of single coverage. Opponents probably won’t commit as many resources to Maclin as they did for Jackson, which means Cooper’s numbers could drop, but he’s still a big target and can still be effective red-zone weapon.

Although Darren Sproles isn’t technically a wide receiver, you still have to consider his impact on the passing game. Teams that try to man-press the Eagles will have to devote a linebacker or safety to Sproles, even if he’s just catching passes out of the backfield, and those are matchups Sproles has historically won.

Jim Schwartz on Eagles defense: 'We're in a 3-game slump'

Jim Schwartz on Eagles defense: 'We're in a 3-game slump'

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was just about five months shy of his 9th birthday when first baseman Lee May was traded from the Houston Astros to the Baltimore Orioles in 1974. 

By the time May arrived in Baltimore, he had already made the only three All-Star appearances in his career. But he had something left in his bat, knocking in at least 80 runs in his first four seasons with the Orioles. 

Growing up in Maryland, Schwartz was a baseball fan and for the next six seasons watched the Big Bopper go through his ups and downs in a No. 14 Orioles uniform. 

But one thing about May really stood out. 

“He was a streaky hitter,” Schwartz said on Tuesday. “He was that guy that when he was hot, it didn’t matter, you could throw him an eye-high fastball and he was hitting hit, change-up, curveball, the ball was probably a beach ball to him and he was just stroking. 

“But he could also go into some wicked slumps. Just some awful slumps. … When it’s not going good, it looks like a seed. You’re not hitting it. He had a famous quote one time. They wanted him to take extra batting practice. He said, ‘who’s going to be pitching?’ They said ‘the pitching coach.’ He said, ‘I’m not having a problem hitting him. I’m having a problem with those other guys.’”

For the sake of this analogy, the Eagles are Lee May. And for the last three games, they haven’t been able to hit anything. 

There was a time this season – although it feels like forever ago – that the Eagles’ defense was the strength of the team. Schwartz’s unit wasn’t just doing its part, it was carrying the Eagles to what looked like a playoff season. 

“For nine weeks, you probably could not mention the best defenses in the NFL without mentioning the Eagles,” Schwartz said. 

“The last three? You probably can’t mention the worst defenses in the NFL without mentioning the Eagles. Hey, facts of life, man, that’s what it is. Same scheme, same players, other than Ron Brooks (who’s on IR). We’re in a slump. We have to own that. We’re in a three-game slump.”

Through the first nine weeks of the season, the Eagles had a 5-4 record, which isn't great, but at least had them in the playoff hut. During those nine games, the Eagles allowed 17.8 points per game on 323 yards per game. 

In the three games since -- all losses -- they've given up 28.3 points per game on 412 yards per game.  

There are plenty of reasons for the demise of the Eagles’ defense. On Tuesday, Schwartz pointed at third-down defense, penalties and the struggling cornerbacks. 

“Facts of life, our corners aren’t playing very well right now,” Schwartz said. “Doesn’t mean I’ve lost confidence in them. That’s the same bunch of corners that have shut down some of the best offenses in the NFL.”

The Eagles haven’t yet been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but hoping for the playoffs now would be a fool’s dream. With the last quarter of the 2016 left on the schedule, the Eagles’ defense just has to find a way to be respectable down the stretch. 

They have to find a way to break out of this slump. 

“Every single guy that I’ve ever heard about getting themselves out of a slump,” Schwartz said, getting back to his baseball analogy, “it had nothing to do with burning his bats or changing his sweatshirt or changing his whole approach. It was always about going back and watching himself be successful.”

Schwartz said his players will spend this week – much like other weeks – looking back at film of what made them so successful early in the season, although he admitted they can’t completely “shy away” from the bad plays either. 

“I think in this case, it has a lot to do with confidence,” he said. “We need to get back to that. And they need to know that the first nine weeks, they were respected for what they put on tape and the last three, we’ve been in a slump and we need to get back to those first nine.”

Doug Pederson doesn't think 2016 struggles will ruin Carson Wentz in long term

Doug Pederson doesn't think 2016 struggles will ruin Carson Wentz in long term

In his first month in the NFL, Carson Wentz's trophy case was filling up quickly. 

He won two NFL Rookie of the Week awards to go along with being named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 3 and the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month for September. 

It's hard to believe all of that happened this year. 

Since September, the Eagles have gone 2-7 and Wentz has looked like a rookie. Sure, the Eagles have some major deficiencies on offense that haven't made his life any easier, but it's no longer possible to simply overlook the regression of the No. 2 overall pick. 

Could this tough stretch negatively affect Wentz long term?  

"I don't think it's going to affect Carson going forward," head coach Doug Pederson said on Monday. "I just don't think it's going to affect him at all, because he's really a pro's pro and he's learning how to handle adversity for the first time, probably, in his career. It's something that we get to the OTAs and we get a full offseason in and we just continue to work on it."

It's fair to say the 2016 season was probably never really about this year and making the playoffs. It's clear the more important thing is to develop Wentz into the franchise quarterback they drafted him to be. But the one thing the team probably didn't want to see was regression. It seems like that's what has happened. 

In the first four games of the season, Wentz had a passer rating over 100 three times and hasn't done it since then. Take a look at the difference in the first quarter of his season compared to the next two. 

First four games: Completion percentage of 67 percent, 7 touchdowns, 1 interception, passer rating of 103.5. 

Next eight: Completion percentage of 61 percent, 5 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, passer rating of 70.1. 

The Eagles will enter their final quarter of the season when they host Washington on Sunday. The best way to avoid any long-term issues stemming from a tough rookie season is to end on a stronger note. 

"Well, you avoid it by trying to win a football game, and you try to win as many as you can now with these last four that we've got," Pederson said. "If you're looking towards next season, you always want to go out with a bang and try to win as many as you can down the stretch."

Way back in training camp, the plan was for 2016 to be a redshirt year for Wentz. He was supposed to sit behind Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel, but Bradford was traded and the Eagles elected to start their prized quarterback from the onset. 

Wentz went from a redshirt season to being on pace to throw 603 passes, which would shatter the Eagles' record for a single season. 

"These are some of the decisions that I made back when the trade was made that if there was going to be some growing pains, these were going to be some of the pains we were going to have to go through," Pederson said. "And just him understanding and him learning and us growing together as an offense, he and I growing as coach and quarterback together, it's all part of the process."

Wentz and Pederson seemingly had a disagreement after Sunday's game, when Pederson attributed Wentz's struggles to mechanical problems, while Wentz denied that was the case. Pederson held firm to his belief that those mechanical issues can be corrected and it's probable Wentz spoke out of frustration on Sunday night. 

If Wentz is frustrated, it would be understandable. It hasn't been an easy couple of months. 

"I see him handling it well," Pederson said. "These are discussions that we will have, myself, [Eagles offensive coordinator] Frank [Reich], Carson [Wentz], as we talk to him, because we've played obviously at this level, and my experience, even in this city playing and knowing what that's all about, we can really help him. It’s our job to help him and make sure that he stays on track and stays focused and he doesn't get derailed by anything that's coming from the outside."