Last season, the Eagles got breakout seasons from players like Nick Foles, Brandon Boykin, Riley Cooper, and Cedric Thornton, who took their games to the next level. The Eagles don't lack for players who could break out in similar fashion in 2014. Here are three players who could do that for the offense this season. (We'll look at the defense tomorrow).
1) Lane Johnson, RT
Back in February, we looked at all 48 sacks the Eagles allowed last season. We took a look at each sack individually and dropped them into 1 of 5 buckets:
1) An offensive lineman was simply beaten by his opponent, and clearly at fault.
2) Miscommunication between two offensive linemen, or a misread by somebody (not recognizing a blitz, etc)
3) QB's fault.
4) Coverage sack, in which the OL gave the QB plenty of time to throw and nothing was open down the field.
5) Other odd situations.
The two varieties of sacks that are worrisome are numbers one and two. The miscommunications should decrease in 2014, seeing as the team is returning all five starting offensive linemen, and they'll all be together for one more year under Jeff Stoutland. When a player is simply physically beaten by his opponent, those are the most worrisome. Last season, Johnson led the team in "physically beaten" sacks, with seven of them.
Johnson had a few rough moments early in the season against the Chiefs and Broncos, 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 4 times. To give that context, 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.
Here's a very well done film breakdown by Ben Muth of Football Outsiders showing how Johnson improved his technique as the season progressed.
Johnson is as physically gifted an offensive lineman as there is in the NFL. As he continues to refine his game, he could go from a rookie who was trying to weather the storm in the first quarter of the season to one will look to begin dominating in year two.
2) Zach Ertz, TE
On "cleanout day" after the Eagles lost to the the Saints in the playoffs, Ertz told me that he didn't think the coaching staff trusted him early in the season because he struggled with drops in training camp and preseason games. Once Ertz gained their trust, he began making more meaningful contributions as the season progressed.
In the 2013 regular season, Ertz had 36 catches for 469 yards and 4 TDs. On the surface, those look like "OK" numbers for a rookie, but they're much better than most might think. Below is a list of the top 15 tight ends in receiving yardage in 2013. The statistics in the chart show what they did during their rookie seasons in the NFL. If you plug in Ertz (who was not among the top 15 TEs in receiving yards in 2013), he would rank second in rookie receiving yardage. There are a lot of tremendous players here.
Last offseason, Ertz missed all of OTAs because Stanford's school year had not yet concluded. With a full offseason under his belt and more confidence heading into year two, Ertz could be a much bigger factor from day one in 2014.
3) Chris Polk, RB
He didn't get many opportunities last season, but when he did, Chris Polk made them count. Polk only had 11 carries, but he had 98 yards and 3 TDs. He also caught 4 passes for 61 yards, including a 34 yard catch and run against the Cowboys in the "NFC East Championship Game."
That was a play they specifically ran for Polk, using the wide receiver (Jason Avant) to run interference on the linebacker while Polk ran a wheel route to the right. He outruns the LB, then makes him miss before the safety is able to tackle him 12 yards down the field from where he was initially contacted.
What makes Polk potentially valuable to the Eagles' offense is his contrasting style to LeSean McCoy. Polk tries to run through tacklers, while Shady tries to juke them. Here's Polk running through a weak tackle attempt by a Bears safety.
Here he is running through an arm tackle attempt near the line of scrimmage by a Detroit linebacker, then galloping to daylight.
And here he is giving a "get off of me" straight arm to a Broncos linebacker in a blowout loss.
Last year, LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing attempts (314) and total touches (366). While Darren Sproles (whatever position you want to call him) will lighten McCoy's load to some small degree, Polk should get more opportunities in 2014 after the team traded Bryce Brown to the Bills. He can complement McCoy's shifty style by being more of a "see hole, hit hole" hammer who runs through tackles instead of around them.
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