The five surprises that will change Eagles season | Bob Ford

This will be a more familiar sight for the Eagles in 2017, a Nelson Agholor touchdown reception.

The Eagles season of unknown expectation begins to grind into gear next week with the opening of training camp, and that truly describes it. While the team will be going into its second season with what is hoped to be an emerging franchise-level quarterback and with some key additions to trouble spots on the roster, it is still a developing team that could either reach its stride ahead of time or suffer another season of growing pains in which progress isn’t necessarily measured in the standings or with the goal of postseason play a possibility.

Still, as the heat rises steadily from the fields at the NovaCare Complex, that possibility, along with the others, is still in play. The Eagles do have the 10th-most difficult regular-season schedule ahead of them, based on results from 2016, but, if it’s any consolation, the Redskins and Giants have a more difficult one, and the Cowboys have an equally difficult one. So, if the Eagles can raise their own performance, they could still be well in the mix come December.

What will it take? Well, it will certainly take positive contributions from the newcomers, but it will also require guys like quarterback Carson Wentz and linebacker Jordan Hicks to continue their climb from promising young players to established stars. Additionally, making that leap would take a few pleasant surprises, some from unexpected quarters.

With that in mind, here are the five Eagles who, in keeping with that scenario, are going to have better seasons than you think they will.

Vinny Curry

Vinny Curry after a sack against the Detroit Lions last October. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

In the last three seasons, as his number of snaps has gone from 32 percent of the defensive total to 35 percent to 43 percent, his number of sacks (allegedly why he is in the league) has gone from 9.0 to 3.5 to 2.5.

This depreciation is somewhat understandable since he was on the field for fewer pure-passing, sack-opportunity snaps, but it still isn’t a very good trend. It moved Bleacher Report to call the five-year, $47 million contract he received before last season the worst defensive-line contract in the NFL. In fact, it might not even be the worst defensive-line contract on the Eagles (more on that later), but it is fair to say the return hasn’t been wonderful. The Eagles were so underwhelmed by their pressure on opposing passers that they used the 14th pick in the draft to select Derek Barnett of Tennessee.

Predicting a bounce-back season for Curry figures on two things: Jim Schwartz and the actual terms of Curry’s contract. Schwartz isn’t doctrinaire regarding positions on the line. He likes to move guys inside and out. With Bennie Logan gone, he will have even more flexibility to do so. Finding the right spots for Curry will be only part of the puzzle, but Schwartz is the one who lobbied to keep him, and Curry will get every chance.

As for the contract, the Eagles can get out after this season with only a $6 million cap hit and having paid Curry just the $23 million that was guaranteed. There’s no crying for him, but Curry, who will turn 30 before the 2018 season, is playing to keep the rest of his contract. He’s going to do just that.

Lane Johnson 

Lane Johnson. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Maybe it won’t be much of a surprise if Johnson plays well and the Eagles benefit. They were 5-1 when he started last season and 2-8 when he was out with the second PED suspension of his career.

There can’t be an Eagles fan (or teammate or coach or front-office administrator) who would fall over in shock if the right tackle didn’t run into some sort of trouble again, whether with the rules or with physical breakdowns that come from training only on kale and broiled fish. Let’s face it: The man is a physical specimen, but the problem has been that his specimens have been too physical.

Johnson swears he’s clean, but the guy who was a 202-pound junior-college quarterback has to keep 320 pounds of muscle mass on his frame. It’s going to require discipline and an awful lot of that kale, but I believe in him. Johnson is going to have a monster year, maybe his last one on the right side.

Fletcher Cox

Fletcher Cox. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

This is a cornerstone player, but one who was not always in evidence on the field last season even though he played more snaps than any other defensive lineman. In 2016, Cox’s sacks went from 9.5 to 6.5 and his total tackles went from 104 to 53. He also missed some spring work at the complex for a little vacay on the islands, which looked pretty sweet on Instagram.

Now his contract, which weighed in at six years and $102 million with a $63.3 million guarantee, doesn’t present a real out for the Eagles until after the 2019 season, so that’s not a motivating factor. But Cox isn’t a guy who needs outside motivation. He just needs a fair chance to come out of the shadows.

With Barnett added to the pressure from the outside, along with Brandon Graham and that rejuvenated Vinny Curry, Cox will probably see less double-team attention. Schwartz will move him around, too, to free things up. By midseason, there won’t be anyone still talking about where Cox was during OTAs.

Zach Ertz

Eagles tight end Zach Ertz runs after catching a pass against the Bengals last December. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Zach Ertz? He led the team with 78 catches. He caught more than 70 percent of the balls thrown in his direction. He was the least of it.

Yes, in some ways, that’s true. But Ertz is only scratching the surface of what he can be in the NFL. Those 78 catches, where do they rank on the list of single-season receptions for a tight end? That would be tied for 60th. Jason Witten alone has seven seasons with more than that, including 2012 when he set the record of 110 at age 30.

Ertz benefitted last season because Wentz didn’t have many (actually, any) better options, and, oddly, he will benefit even more this coming season because Wentz does have legitimate options. With receivers who will command attention and keep the other teams’ defensive backs occupied, Ertz will be operating more often against linebackers and with space in the middle of the field.

He still needs to improve his blocking, but we know that Wentz and Ertz have a chemistry and we know Ertz catches the ball when targeted. This is the season when he jumps up into the 90-catch range and starts to be mentioned with the elite tight ends.

Nelson Agholor

Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor catches a pass during a pregame drill last November.

I know, I know. You were with me up until now.

OK, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. Leaving aside the quarterback and three of the offensive linemen, who had the most offensive snaps on the Eagles last season? Yeah, it was Nellie. And during those 883 snaps, he was targeted just 69 times and caught 36 passes. That leaves 814 times he was just kind of running around, an average of nearly 60 per game, taking into account the game he was inactive to get his head together and despite the just six snaps he played in the season finale against Dallas because of a turned right ankle.

Did the Eagles save Agholor for clutch situations? Not exactly. Only 21.7 percent of his catches were for first downs, the smallest percentage among receivers with that many targets in the entire league.

I’m counting on a couple of things here with Agholor. One is that receivers often don’t begin to blossom in the NFL until their third season. That’s not the great ones, but the ones who are going to be solid second-line wide receivers. It takes that long for them to adjust to the speed of the game and the athleticism of the defenders. Sure, Agholor was a first-round pick, but he didn’t draft himself.

The other factor is that he isn’t going to be on the field as much and will benefit by having established wide receivers out there with him when he is. Let’s face it. It wasn’t easy to be the most disappointing receiver on a team that had Dorial Green-Beckham and a guy who crossed state lines with weed and a weapon, but Agholor somehow pulled it off.

That’s over now. He’s going to get only the snaps a second-string receiver should get. He’s going to get minimal defensive attention. He’s going to catch the ball. I am dead-sure of at least two of those things.

If all the above takes place, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t – or none I’m willing to admit – then the Eagles can bundle all of those surprises in 2017 and construct one big surprise of their own. With a week until training camp, it’s all still possible. Likely? We’ll leave that for later.

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