From the time the Eagles moved heaven, earth, and Kiko Alsonso in order to leap-frog to the second pick in the 2016 draft, it was clear the Doug Pederson phase of the team’s building plan would be all about a quarterback from North Dakota named Carson Wentz.
The decision was made even before that, apparently, when owner Jeffrey Lurie went all the way to Fargo, along with Howie Roseman and Pederson, for a private workout with Wentz and dinner that evening. By the time dessert arrived, it was a full-on love fest and the organization was sold on its course of action.
Less than three weeks later, Roseman completed the moves that put the Eagles in position to draft Wentz – at a significant cost in future assets, cap room, and roster depth – but nothing was going to halt the momentum of the Wentz Wagon.
As the team enters the second year of both the Pederson and Wentz eras, that momentum has, if anything, gained speed. It doesn’t matter that Wentz turned in a quarterback rating of 79.3 in his first season that ranked him 25th in the league. There were plenty of reasons for that, including the normal growth process for a rookie in the NFL, a decided lack of weapons, and some instability on the offensive line.
With more help, the organization figured, Wentz will continue to develop, and the plan to build a Super Bowl team around him will continue apace. Well, Wentz got his help. Receivers came onto the roster through free agency and the draft, the running game was beefed up as well, and even the line, which looks healthy and solid, received some attention. As was the case when Lurie, Roseman, and Pederson walked out into the brisk March air in Fargo after dinner, it’s still all about Carson.
That’s fine for now, and will make for an interesting season, with the possible exception of when the Eagles don’t happen to have the football.
The question that the early part of the season might answer is not whether the team did enough to pad the corners for Wentz’s benefit, but whether it shorted the defense in the process. On the surface, that doesn’t necessarily appear to be the case. The front office made moves designed to help the defense, but some of those moves may turn out to be cosmetic at best.
A year ago, the defense performed better than one might have expected given the fact it was considered weak or just OK in all three personnel groupings – linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs.
The Eagles were middle of the pack, no better, no worse, in most measurables, and were actually very good at preventing touchdowns when opponents were within the red zone (third in NFL, 45.1 TD percentage). Where they fell down sharply was in yards per play and, particularly, passing net yards per play. When the Eagles got beat, they got beat. They were 26th in the league in giving up big rushing plays (10 yards or more) and 31st in allowing big passing plays (25 yards or more), according to sportingcharts.com. Their big pass differential of minus-19 (the offense generated just 18, compared with 37 allowed) was dead-last in the league by a sizable margin.
Fixing that was largely supposed to be accomplished by increasing pressure at the line of scrimmage and by upgrading the defensive backfield, particularly the cornerbacks. To that end, the team drafted defensive end Derek Barnett with the 14th pick of the draft, added veteran Chris Long to that position, replaced tackle Bennie Logan with Tim Jernigan, allowed cornerback Nolan Carroll to leave in free agency, and released fellow starter Leodis McKelvin. They drafted two cornerbacks, only one of whom, Rasul Douglas, is expected to play this season, and signed free agent Patrick Robinson to a one-year contract.
It’s not that they didn’t do much, but they didn’t do much that cost any money. By the middle to the end of training camp, the cornerback position was still a mess. Robinson was a disappointment playing on the outside and the Eagles had to engineer a trade with Buffalo for Ronald Darby, who walked into camp and became the starter about 10 minutes later. As the season begins, he’s expected to start on the outside along with Jalen Mills. That might turn out to be a lot better tandem than Carroll and McKelvin, but not yet it’s not. As for depth, it is a patchwork. The team released veteran Ron Brooks last week after waiting a year for him to recover from injury.
What the exhibition season didn’t reveal was whether Robinson will be serviceable in the nickel package that is used a majority of the time, or whether Malcolm Jenkins will have to be employed as a “box safety” again, which further diminishes the deep backfield. There’s not much depth at the safety position, either.
At the line, Barnett is very promising, but appears to be mostly a passing-situation option at the moment, which is also what is still said about veteran Vinny Curry. So, how will coordinator Jim Schwartz handle that duplication without short-shifting Brandon Graham, who is his best all-around end? And, taking a step back from the line, how will he get production from Mychal Kendricks, who is probably his most physically gifted linebacker, but struggles with recognizing his assignment on a given play? And don’t ask what happens at middle linebacker if Jordan Hicks gets hurt again, which is his history. Three of his last five football seasons have ended because of injury – and he also managed to hurt himself on his honeymoon this offseason. So, there’s all that.
As the season begins in Landover, Md., against the Redskins, the focus and the conversation will mostly be about Carson Wentz and the offense. That’s understandable. Quarterbacks get attention, especially ones who arrive with the hype of Wentz, and are loaded down with weapons to help get the job done.
But don’t be surprised if it takes only a few weeks of the season for the conversation to change, and for the talk to shift to the other side of the ball. That won’t be a good sign, but a sign that a large dinner in Fargo didn’t leave much room for defense.
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