The Philadelphia Eagles had Super Bowl expectations entering the 2019 season, which is expected given Philadelphia has one of the game’s best head coaches in Doug Pederson and a franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz. Philadelphia’s biggest question entering the season was whether Wentz could play a 16-game season after having back-to-back years with a season-ending injury. Wentz was finally able to capture the December magic of his own by staying healthy, becoming the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season in franchise history as the banged-up Eagles rallied from a 5-7 start to win the NFC East and advance to the postseason for the third consecutive year.
Wentz accomplished htis without their No. 1 running back to begin the season (Jordan Howard), their top three wide receivers (Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, and Nelson Agholor), their top tight end (Zach Ertz) playing with a broken rib and a torn rib cartilage, their Pro Bowl right guard (Brandon Brooks) out with a dislocated shoulder and Pro Bowl right tackle (Lane Johnson) missing the last four games with an ankle sprain. That was just on offense.
Wentz was able to win with the likes of practice squad players Greg Ward, Deontay Burnett and Robert Davis at wide receiver, practice squad find Boston Scott at running back, the emergence of second-round pick Miles Sanders as the No. 1 back and Dallas Goedert as the No. 2 tight end.
The Eagles have the hardest part of the formula figured out: a head coach that has won a Super Bowl and is one of the top five in the game and a franchise quarterback that has his long-term deal. Now it’s putting the talent around Pederson and Wentz to get the Eagles back amongst the NFL‘s elite and get Wentz that Super Bowl title of his own. Here’s what the Eagles need to accomplish this offseason to get back into title contention:
- A significant upgrade at WR, adding speed at the position
The Eagles wide receivers were their most disappointing unit in 2019. Alshon Jeffery suddenly became the oldest 29-year old in history (43 catches, 490 yards, four touchdowns in 10 games) and may miss the start of next season with a LisFranc injury. Jeffery will be back in 2020 with a $15,446,500 salary thanks to a restructure of his deal by Eagles general manager Howie Roseman that ties them to the aging receiver (Eagles lose $10,659,500 in cap space by cutting him). So Jeffery will be back, but the Eagles need speed at the position in a league that thrives off big plays down the field.
Sure, Philadelphia has DeSean Jackson for 2020, but he played just 65 snaps and will be 33 years old at the start of next season. The Eagles can’t rely solely on his game-breaking ability and think everything is okay at wideout. Philadelphia needs to get younger at wide receiver and add more speed to compliment Jackson, whether or not he stays healthy.
The 2020 draft class is deep with speedy playmakers at wide receiver, a position the Eagles should target with their first-round pick towards Henry Ruggs III (Alabama) or Jalen Reagor (TCU). The Eagles could also use their seven draft picks in the first four rounds (one in each round and three projected compensatory picks) to trade up and target CeeDee Lamb (Oklahoma) or Jerry Jeudy (Alabama), getting that game-breaking wide receiver they desperately need.
Philadelphia has a keeper at the slot receiver in Ward, especially since Agholor won’t be back. The Eagles also have to see what they have in 2019 second-round pick JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who was a disappointment in his rookie season. Philadelphia doesn’t need to give Arcega-Whiteside an expanded role in the offense, but they hope he can develop into a reliable red zone threat. The Eagles should use two of those seven picks in the first four rounds (especially an early one) on receivers that can stretch the field and open up the offense. Add that combination with Jackson, Jeffery, and Ward instantly makes the position better for a very good quarterback in Wentz, who is on the cusp of being elite.
If the Eagles choose to explore the free agency route to add speed at wide receiver, there isn’t much out there. Robby Anderson (27) and Breshad Perriman (26) are the top options if the Eagles are looking for downfield threats, but could command high salaries based on the lack of playmakers on the market. Amari Cooper (27) would be nice, but paying him top dollar isn’t ideal for an Eagles team that needs to get younger at so many positions. Philadelphia may have just over $50 million in cap space, but the Eagles need to use it wisely.
2. Get younger at safety while adding more depth
For years the Eagles had one of the best safety tandems in the NFL with Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, but both players have a realistic chance of not returning in 2020. Jenkins is 33 years old and wants a new deal, believing he should be paid as one of the top five safeties in the game. Jenkins has only missed six snaps since signing with the Eagles in 2014 and he is the emotional voice of the Eagles defense, so bringing him back shouldn’t be difficult. If the Eagles do decide to move on from Jenkins, it’s because they want to get younger at the position even though replacing him would be near improbable.
McLeod played well in a year where the Eagles restructured his deal to a one-year, prove-it contract, but he will be 30 this offseason. Giving McLeod long term money isn’t helping the Eagles get younger on the back end, so they may move on. There are a few free agent options available for Philadelphia, as Deon Bush (27), HaHa Clinton-Dix (27) and Vonn Bell (25) would be ideal options that wouldn’t cost much should the Eagles decide to keep Jenkins and move on from McLeod.
Philadelphia also needs some depth at safety, which they didn’t get with Andrew Sendejo and Johnathan Cyprien early in the season. That forced the Eagles to make Marcus Epps the No. 3 safety late in the season. If Philadelphia chooses to keep Jenkins and McLeod, they are going to need to use a high draft pick on a safety they can develop that can eventually replace one of the two and contribute immediately. Xavier McKinney (Alabama) and hybrid safety/cornerback Shaun Wade (Ohio State) are ideal picks in the first two rounds the Eagles could use a safety on.
An internal option would be to move Rasul Douglas to safety and give him some more playing time, as Douglas just isn’t fast enough to play in a man or zone scheme at cornerback, but makes enough plays on the back end to have a long NFL career at safety. With a crowded cornerback picture, moving Douglas is an option Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz must consider.
3. Add a pass-rushing specialist on the defensive line
The Eagles are high believers in rushing just four players in getting to the quarterback under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, but they were unable to do that this season thanks to an inconsistent pass rush from their rotation in 2019. Philadelphia decided to undergo a youth movement at defensive end by moving on from Chris Long and Michael Bennett, banking on 2017 first-round pick Derek Barnett and 2018 fourth-round pick Josh Sweat to fill the void. Barnett didn’t live up to expectations on the right edge, finishing with 22 quarterback hits and 6.5 sacks with 48 pressures. Sweat was a pleasant surprise as a rotational piece — he totaled four sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 25 pressures. That production wasn’t enough to compliment Brandon Graham, who had 8.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits at age 31) and Vinny Curry (fave sacks, 12 quarterback hits) as the No. 3 defensive end in Schwartz’s scheme.
The Eagles pass rush was good, but it lacked a dominant presence on the edge that could get to the quarterback. Losing Malik Jackson at defensive tackle in Week 1 was damning, especially since he and Fletcher Cox would have controlled the interior and freed up the edge. Even with Jackson coming back, getting a free agent to pair with Graham on the edge would be monstrous for a defense that banks on getting to the quarterback.
Yannick Ngakoue (25) would be the perfect player to pair opposite Graham and worth the money he would get on the open market, but it would be difficult to see Jacksonville letting him walk in free agency. Shaq Lawson (25) appears to be on the verge of breaking out as an edge rusher and would be significantly cheaper. Ditto with Carl Nassib (27), another player who can get to the quarterback as a starter or a No. 3 edge rusher. If the Eagles choose to add a pass rusher early in the draft, Yetor Gross-Matos (Penn State) and A.J. Epenesa (Iowa) are two pass rushers that would immediately improve the edge.
4. Settle the cornerback rotation, add talent in free agency
The Eagles surely need help at safety, but they have to get their cornerback situation figured out. Philadelphia has a 2017 second-round pick in Sidney Jones that can’t see the field and is heading into the last year of his rookie contract. Jones doesn’t deserve to be the starter, but the Eagles have to see if he can be part of the rotation going forward. Jalen Mills will be a free agent, but the Eagles like him and he’s expected to be back. Who starts opposite of Mills will be one of the team’s biggest question marks this offseason as the Eagles likely aren’t bringing Ronald Darby back.
Philadelphia could look on the open market for cornerback help, as Logan Ryan (29) would be a strong fit. James Bradberry (27) would be a cheaper option than Byron Jones (27), but he will command a high salary as one of the top options available. In the draft, A.J. Terrell (Clemson) would be an option in the first round, same with C.J. Henderson (Florida). The second round seems ideal for a cornerback if the Eagles decide to pass on safety. The best bet for the Eagles is to seek a cornerback in free agency, a position that has haunted them for a decade.
5. Upgrade at offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach
This is nothing against Mike Groh and Press Taylor, who have done a good job over the past two years with what they had to work with. For the sake of Pederson and Wentz, it wouldn’t hurt the Eagles to get an outside opinion and add new wrinkles to the offense. Groh and Taylor were in-house promotions when Frank Reich and John DeFilippo left, being extra eyes in the quarterback room while being one of Pederson’s “guys.” The Eagles had just the 15th-ranked offense in points (23.2) and 14th in yards (356.1), a unit that would be much better with a healthy roster and an innovative offensive mind like former Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden. If the Eagles would add an offensive guru like Gruden, who has done wonders with quarterbacks like Andy Dalton and Kirk Cousins, imagine the creativity he could use with a very good quarterback in Wentz.
Pederson needs an outside-the-organization voice to keep the checks and balances in his offense and to keep him from getting too pass-happy, especially with a rushing attack that will have Sanders and an improved Scott with Corey Clement coming back. If the Eagles were to re-sign Jordan Howard, that could arguably give them one of the best running back rotations in the league. The Eagles have thrown the ball 61.77% percent of the time (seventh in NFL), but they moved to 58.88% (20th in NFL) this year. In a league where the best teams are becoming run-oriented, it wouldn’t hurt the Eagles to pick the brains of a mind like a Baltimore or San Francisco to keep up with the times.
The most important aspect of upgrading the offensive coaching staff is to help Pederson with his play-calling and in-game decisions while making Wentz unlock his full potential. Keeping Groh and Taylor are fine, but the Eagles can do better. They need to in order to take that step from good to great.
6. Wentz’s backup quarterback
This is a position the Eagles need to address early in free agency. Philadelphia decided Nate Sudfeld wasn’t going to be the No. 2 quarterback as a hand injury influenced them to sign 40-year old Josh McCown to be Wentz’s backup. The Eagles signed McCown to be a veteran influence for Wentz and an added voice in the quarterback room, which worked (and may actually land McCown a job on the coaching staff).
McCown isn’t expected to return for his 18th season and the Eagles need to upgrade. There’s no reason to bring Sudfeld back, especially since the Eagles gave him $3.095 million to not play a down this year. That leaves Wentz and two open positions to fill.
The Eagles need a capable backup to Wentz in case of injury or he is unable to finish a game, just look how the offense took a hit when McCown entered in the playoff loss to Seattle. Foles isn’t walking through the locker room doors again and there are options to pay a veteran quarterback a decent one-year deal to backup Wentz. If Joe Flacco is released by the Broncos, he’s a target the Eagles should consider. Case Keenum is another option if the Redskins decide to let him walk as a free agent.
Philadelphia will also need to draft a quarterback in the later rounds after the Clayton Thorson disaster last year. The Eagles would be wise to use one of their three fourth-round picks or one of their two fifth-round picks on a quarterback they can groom to be Wentz’s backup. If they don’t want to use a pick on a quarterback, they can always go back to Sudfeld.
Wentz proved he could stay healthy for 16 games, but the Eagles have to make sure the offense has someone who can score points if he does have to miss a game or two. That’s the difference between getting a first-round bye and playing in the wild card round most years.