Yesterday, the Cowboys lost linebacker Sean Lee for the season. Tony Romo aside, that was probably the one player Dallas could ill-afford to lose. Below are my top ten players the Eagles can least afford to lose to injury this season. Obviously, many of the below choices are the Eagles' best players, but we tried to also consider their importance to the scheme, depth behind them, long-term vs short term effects, and other factors.
Starting from #10...
10) Mychal Kendricks, ILB: In Kendricks' rookie season, he gave up a lot of receptions, missed a lot of tackles, and didn't make many impact plays at all. That trend continued through the first four games of the 2013 season. Then sometime around the 2nd quarter of the 2013 season the light started to come on for Kendricks, and the impact plays he is capable of began to emerge. In his 30 regular season games, here's a snapshot of Kendricks' big play ability in his first 19 games as a pro, and the last 11.
Kendricks is an athletically gifted player who is beginning to become a plus starter at the NFL level. He made big strides from year 1 to year 2, and if he can continue to build on the progress in year 3, the Eagles will have themselves a speedy impact player in the middle of their defense. Kendricks needs to stay healthy to prevent his growth from being stunted. This is a crucial year for his continued development.
9) Zach Ertz, TE: Potential stud TE needs to stay on the field and keep getting better.
8) Fletcher Cox, DE: Cox is pretty clearly the Eagles' best defensive lineman, even if he has yet to have his expected 'breakout season.' The Eagles also lack proven depth along their DL. Vinny Curry is a talented pass rusher but is not a 3-down player in 3-4 DE role, and Taylor Hart is just a rookie. The loss of Cox would be a big blow to the DL.
7) Brandon Boykin, Slot CB, Gunner: Boykin is arguably the best slot corner in the NFL, as he produced 2 forced fumbles and 6 INTs in 2013, despite playing barely more than half the team's defensive snaps. But Boykin's contributions go beyond just his play in the slot. He is also quite possibly the best gunner in the punt game in the NFL. Boykin and Donnie Jones routinely teamed up to pin opponents inside the the 10 yard line last season.
6) Lane Johnson, RT: Lane Johnson's rookie season started off shaky, but he settled down as the season progressed. In his first 4 games, Johnson was physically beaten for a sack 3 times, as he struggled quite a bit against the Chiefs and Broncos. However, over the last 13 games, he was physically beaten for a sack by an opponent he was trying to block just 4 times. Jason Peters was also beaten 4 times over that same span. Early struggles for a rookie OT are to be expected, but Johnson's improvement as the season progressed was very encouraging.
Like some of the players noted above, Johnson is a player who must stay healthy to continue to develop. It is also noteworthy that the Eagles have almost nothing in the way of proven depth along the OL aside from Allen Barbre.
5) Jason Kelce, C: Kelce is on the verge of becoming a perennial Pro Bowl center, and the Eagles don't have much in the way of a replacement if he goes down.
4) Connor Barwin, LOLB: Last year, if Connor Barwin got hurt, you know who would have filled in for him?
(Jeopardy music playing)
"Who is Casey Matthews?"
By drafting Marcus Smith, the Eagles now have more depth at OLB, and could weather Barwin's loss more effectively, but there's little question how valuable Barwin is to the defense as a player who truly fits Billy Davis' scheme. Barwin does everything. He plays the run, he covers well, and while he didn't put up good sack numbers last year, his effectiveness as a pass rusher is underrated. In 2013, Barwin had at least 8 batted passes at the line, including perhaps the biggest play of the year on defense. When we think of the 'NFC East Championship Game' last year, we think of Brandon Boykin's game sealing INT. However, Barwin's batted pass in the 4th quarter on 4th down may have saved an eventual Dallas score that might have changed the entire complexion of that game.
Screen shots of seven of Barwin's batted passes can be found here. During the season, Billy Davis talked about Barwin's effectiveness as a versatile player.
"Connor makes the scheme go," said Davis. "We move him around ‑‑ the position is called the 'Jack,' the Jack of all trades, is what it was originally named. We move him around and we have different techniques we use with him and he's great with picking them up; if I need an edge set on one side or a certain reroute or chip, Connor is the guy we go to. He wears a lot of hats and doesn't get as many rushes as he would like but does a lot of things for the defense that it's unselfish on his part. He would love to be rushing every down and getting more sacks but he's dropping and doing more other things and never says a word about it."
A lot of what Barwin does won't show up in the stat sheet, but he'd be severely missed if he got hurt.
3) Jason Peters, LT: Peters isn't what he was in 2011, when he was probably the best offensive lineman in the NFL. Still, he turned in a great year in 2013, and was occasionally dominant. Peters is 32, which is a good reason to begin to project a decline in his play. On the other hand, in 2013, he was coming off a double ruptured Achilles. In 2014, he'll be two years removed from that whole episode. Perhaps in the short term, might we see Peters' play ascending instead of declining, at least for one season?
2) LeSean McCoy, RB: Shady is arguably the best running back in the NFL. Is there really much more to say about him than that?
1) Nick Foles, QB: I think there's a strong argument to made that if McCoy went down, that would be a bigger loss. However, I'm thinking long-term ramifications here. The Eagles are not on the same level as teams like the 49ers or Seahawks. Are they going to realistically compete for a Super Bowl this year? Possibly, but that will only happen if Foles follows up his studly 2013 campaign with another one in 2014.
More importantly, 2014 is a huge test for Foles. Following the 2014 season, the Eagles will need to decide if they should pay Foles bigtime QB money (~$20 million per season). They cannot do that without at least one more year of evaluation. It is absolutely critical for the Eagles to get that decision right for the long-term health of the franchise. Therefore, Foles staying healthy is crucial to the Eagles' ability to properly determine his worth.
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