Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Defensive backs

Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Defensive backs

Another year, another shakeup in the Eagles’ secondary. The good news is the biggest difference – a serious investment in cornerback on draft day, using second- and third-round picks on Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, respectively. Still, 2017 marks yet another offseason where both starters needed to be replaced, with Leodis McKelvin (released) and Nolan Carroll (free agent) departing.

There’s some stability, with Jalen Mills sticking at cornerback, and especially at safety, where Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are holding down the fort. Ron Brooks returns from injury, and veteran Patrick Robinson is added to the mix as well. So after once again reshuffling the deck, can the Eagles find a combination of defensive backs that will mark an improvement over the 2016 squad?

BETTER

Jalen Mills

As rookie seasons go, Mills’ was not bad. You can read more on that here, but the basic gist is a seventh-round pick held his own. The thing that stood out about Mills is he was seldom out of a play, meaning even if the catch was made, he was usually right there to contest the pass or make the tackle. Mills kept receivers out of the end zone as well, limiting his assignments to a lone touchdown in 2016.

Again, this was a seventh-round rookie who was thrown into the fire. Can’t stress that enough. Even if Mills was merely adequate last season, imagine how improved he could be with a year of NFL experience. Maybe not No. 1 cornerback material – which Mills is by default – but there were signs he could become a nice player for the Eagles.

Young talent

The Eagles have more intriguing prospects in their secondary, period. In addition to Mills, Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, cornerbacks Aaron Grymes and C.J. Smith and safety Terrence Books are all into their second year in the program, and all three have a legitimate shot at cracking the 53-man roster.

The average age of those six players on opening day will be 23.5 years.

WORSE

Less experience

Of course, the flip side to loading up on young talent is their collective inexperience. Of the six players listed above, only Mills and Brooks – two seasons with the Ravens and one with the Eagles – have seen much action in the NFL, and only Mills has started. The rest, it’s anybody’s guess how they would hold up if they take the field in 2017. Even Ron Brooks, although entering his sixth NFL season, has only eight career starts.

It’s not as if the Eagles lack any veterans in the defensive backfield. The unit is set as safety with Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, and Patrick Robinson brings with him seven years NFL experience at corner. Nonetheless, the unit could wind up looking a little green, particularly at corner.

THE SAME

An anonymous veteran just passing through

For the record, Robinson is upgrade over McKelvin, as long as he’s healthy, and is probably undistinguishable from Carroll, too. Nobody is complaining about the presence of a low-risk/high-reward veteran starter, especially in this inexperienced group.

Still, part of you has to roll your eyes and wonder how much longer the Eagles have to go through this. Robinson is also the latest in a long line of temporary fixes at corner, from McKelvin and Carroll, to Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, to Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Okay, those last two were supposed to be good. The point is, Robinson is another short-term solution, and that’s getting a little old.

Safeties

Jenkins didn’t have quite the dominant campaign in 2016 that he did the previous season, but still managed a career high 3 interceptions, 2 of which he returned for touchdowns. McLeod got a bad rap for a perceived lack of effort late in the season, but also managed to set new personal bests with 83 tackles, 1.0 sack and 3 interceptions.

The nice thing about the Jenkins-McLeod tandem is the Eagles know what they are getting. Jenkins is a tremendous leader who is at his best when playing around the line of scrimmage and can fill in at cornerback in a pinch. McLeod is a hard-hitting centerfielder who won’t necessarily wow with extraordinary athleticism but knows his role in and out. Either player has the potential to go off on a Pro Bowl year, or, they may simply remain solid.

THE UNKNOWN

Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas

Both of the corners the Eagles picked up in the draft are intriguing for different reasons.

Of course, there’s no telling when Jones will even take the field, if he does at all in 2017. Achilles injuries are tricky, and the Eagles have rightfully promised they won’t try to rush a 21-year-old prospect back. Assuming Jones returns to 100 percent, he was supposed to be a top-10 pick in the draft, which means the club may have its No. 1 cornerback in waiting – but who knows.

Douglas has an opportunity to compete for playing time right away, and from the little we saw this spring, he’s a mixed bag. Listed at 6-foot-2, 209 pounds, he’s not afraid to use his length to get physical with receivers, which is a huge positive. However, like most rookies, Douglas is prone to double moves and was getting beaten over the top.

It’s far too early to evaluate either player’s chances of contributing in 2017. Douglas is likely to see the field at least occasionally out of necessity. Beyond that, who knows how much or when Jones and Douglas are going to play – or more importantly, how good either one will be.

BETTER OR WORSE?

McKelvin was one of the worst corners in the league last year, so you can probably plug just about anybody into his place. Carroll wasn’t any better than Mills, and honestly, the seventh-rounder probably out-played him. Replace McKelvin with Robinson, add two highly touted rookies, and continue developing the prospects in the system, and suddenly the Eagles might been in okay shape at corner. There’s still a long way to go, but stability at safety helps, too. The difference overall might be marginal, but the changes seem like a step in the right direction. Better

Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Running backs

Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Running backs

The Eagles’ final major offseason addition may also turn out to be their biggest – quite literally. LeGarrette Blount joins Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood in the backfield, giving the offense the big running back fans have been coveting for years. The draft also produced the all-time leader in rushing in NCAA Division I/FBS history, Donnel Pumphrey.

There are certainly more and different options in 2017 than there were last season, but does that make the Eagles better? Ryan Mathews was the starter, and while he’s still on the roster for now, all reports point to his departure. Instead, the Eagles appear poised to go with a true running back-by-committee approach, which raises some questions.

BETTER

Short yardage

One area where the Eagles were surprisingly lousy in spite of hard-nosed Ryan Mathews was in short yardage. On 3rd and 4th downs with 3-or-fewer yards to go, the Eagles ranked 21st in the NFL with 2.7 yards per carry and 26th with 57.1 percent of attempts going for first downs. The offense also ranked dead last in the league with 9 rushes for negative yards in these situations.

This is one department where LeGarrette Blount is almost guaranteed to help the Eagles. Blount led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns in 2016, so we know he’s a force to be reckoned with down by the goal line. In addition to his innate ability to get into the end zone, Blount also led the league with 5.4 yards per carry in short-yardage situations.

Simply put, at 250 pounds, it’s difficult to stop Blount from falling forward for at least a few yards. He may not be a capable receiver out of the backfield, perhaps limiting the Eagles’ ability to use him in other situations, but he’ll help the offense keep the chains moving and consistently putting six points on the scoreboard rather than settling for three.

WORSE

No clear-cut “feature” back

Say what you want about Ryan Mathews being hurt all the time – not a wholly untrue statement. When he is healthy, the seven-year veteran is almost the complete package. Mathews can break tackles and fight for hard yards, he has home-run speed in the open field, and he can catch the ball out of the backfield. Ball security is an issue, but Mathews is a very versatile player.

Of course, Mathews isn’t expected be on the Eagles’ 53-man roster. He’s still recovering from neck surgery to repair a herniated disk, and the club is expected to part ways if and when he does return. Assuming that’s the case, the offense appears to lack a true three-down player in the backfield.

Blount is fantastic in short yardage, but is not much of a threat as a receiver, so his presence on the field tips the offense’s hand. Darren Sproles and Donnel Pumphrey are dangerous receivers, but are smaller backs who may not hold up with a workload of 15-20 carries per game. Wendell Smallwood looks the part, but touched the ball just 83 times as a rookie in 2016. Clearly, there’s no shortage of talent, but there isn’t any one player who we know can carry the load no matter the circumstance, either.

THE SAME

Darren Sproles

Entering his 13th NFL season, Sproles shows little sign of slowing down. He bested his 2015 marks last season, totaling 438 yards on the ground with a 4.7 average (compared to 317 and 3.8), and 427 yards and an 8.2 average through the air (388, 7.1 in ’15). Sproles failed to return a punt for a touchdown in 2016 for the first time since joining the Eagles, but he only had 17 opportunities, as teams finally learned to kick away from him.

Sproles just turned 34, and could be headed for decline. Nothing in his play would lead anybody to believe that’s about to happen. Expect the venerable veteran to do produce in all three phases in 2017, as always.

THE UNKNOWN

Wendell Smallwood

Nobody would suggest Smallwood did anything last season to prove he deserves a bigger role in the offense. That being said, it’s become unclear how and how much the Eagles plan to use the second-year back in 2017, as he appeared to take a backseat to Blount, Sproles and Pumphrey at spring workouts.

That may not mean a whole lot. Blount only arrived in mid-May and was a limited participant at OTAs, so he needed the work to get ingrained the offense. The Eagles have also been experimenting quite a bit with Sproles and Pumphrey on the field together, so again, this is the time to iron out the kinks with that package.

Still, at this point, there is no telling what kind of role Smallwood will play this season. He flashed some potential as a rookie, carrying 77 times for 213 yards – a 4.1 average – with 1 touchdown, but not enough to draw many conclusions. A fifth-round draft pick only a year ago, it remains to be seen what kind of opportunities he will get in a suddenly crowded backfield.

Donnel Pumphrey

For now, it appears Pumphrey is going to see the majority of his work as Darren Sproles-lite. The Eagles call it a “move bac” – somebody can lineup in the backfield or at wide receiver, which can give defenses all sorts of problems.

How much we see that package this year likely depends how much of the offense Pumphrey is able to absorb between now and the start of the regular season. And beyond that, there are concerns about his size as a ball carrier. He may own the all-time college record for rushing yards, but at 5-foot-8, 176 pounds, Pumphrey may never be an every-down player in the NFL.

For now, that’s not even on the Eagles’ radar. However, even how much we see Pumphrey as a move back is a question mark.

BETTER OR WORSE?

Is Mathews a better all-around running back than Blount? I tend to think so, but it’s also unclear whether Mathews will even be able to play in 2017. Blount also gives the Eagles something they desperately need in somebody who can convert those short runs. That upgrades this team, even if you’re of the opinion he’s not quite as talented. Add Pumphrey to the mix for good measure, and there’s a lot of versatility in this backfield – even if the group is without a definitive starter. Better

Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Tight ends

Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Tight ends

No position on the Eagles roster remained more static than at tight end, where the depth chart projects to look exactly the same in 2017 as it was last season. That means whether the unit is better or worse is dependent entirely upon the development or regression of the players who are already here – Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and Trey Burton.

BETTER

Zach Ertz

If it feels like we’ve been listing Ertz in the “better” column for years, well, that’s because we have. There has been talk of breakout potential for the former second-round draft pick every offseason since 2014. Instead, Ertz has only improved incrementally, though steadily from year to year.

And the arrow is still pointing up for Ertz in ‘17, believe it or not. Now entering his fifth NFL season, Ertz is only 26, plus now has a full year of working with Wentz under his belt. To get a sense of just how important that rapport is, look at how last season ended. Ertz and Wentz did not appear to be on the same page early on, with the tight end averaging 4.2 receptions and 41.4 yards per game with 1 touchdown over the first nine games together. Then over the final five weeks, Ertz exploded, averaging 8.0 receptions and 88.6 yards with 3 touchdowns.

Ertz is no stranger to late-season heroics, and needs to prove he can sustain that production over the course of a full 16 weeks. Then again, for the first time since ’14, he’ll be catching passes from the same quarterback as the previous season. That has to count for something.

WORSE

Brent Celek

Celek posted the worst totals of his career in 2016 and started ceding playing time to Trey Burton, who has become a better option in the passing attack. The 10-year veteran is no longer one of the best blocking tight ends in the game, either. The simple reality is at the age of 32, Celek’s athletic ability is in decline, and the guy who once had 971 yards and 8 touchdowns in a single season is no more.

That doesn’t mean Celek can’t be useful. He’s still a decent blocker, and it wouldn’t be surprising if his receiving numbers improve marginally in ’17. Celek also battled a rib injury last season, which no doubt slowed him down some. If healthy, he’s still a viable player for a few hundred snaps per season – although he certainly isn’t getting any better.

THE SAME

Depth chart

Ertz has completely overtaken Celek for the starting role as of last season, finalizing a process that was drawn out over four years. As noted, Celek is also giving way to Burton in some situations now, sort of giving the Eagles a TE2A and TE2B situation. Expect the plan to look roughly the same as last year, with Burton perhaps making more gains on Celek if the aging veteran continues to slow down.

THE UNKNOWN

Trey Burton

After playing only sparingly in his first two NFL seasons, Burton emerged as the No. 2 tight end in the passing attack. It was a mixed bag. For every game the 25-year-old posted big numbers – like his 5 catches for 49 yards and a touchdown against the Bears in Week 2 – there were two more where he might have one reception for 3 yards, or no touches at all. Burton only averaged a meager 8.8 yards per reception for the season as well.

Some of that was by design or based on the game plan, no doubt. Burton played more in some games than in others, and saw more action in short-yardage situations and down by the goal line, limiting his opportunities to stretch the field. Still, it’s unclear what the Eagles really have in Burton. He’s outstanding on special teams, and a better target than Celek at this point. Whether Burton can become more of a threat vertically and every-down player from a blocking standpoint remain very much in question.

BETTER OR WORSE?

Basically, does the continued progression of Ertz offset Celek’s natural decline? There’s no easy answer, especially because optimism for Ertz’s growth has always outpaced reality. Then again, it’s not as if Celek is some hobo out there, and while Burton is a bit of a wild card, he’s young and still theoretically ascending. Even if Ertz improves only marginally – and 1,000 yards isn’t out of the question – the Eagles should be in a good place here. Better