Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Philadelphia Eagles organization, Eagles fans around the world and those who know I'm never taking any calls when I'm at McCusker's in South Philly:
It took the Eagles more than 50 years to nab their first Lombardi Trophy. And I have to say that it's hard to believe we're two seasons removed from Philadelphia winning the Super Bowl. It seems like just yesterday. But as Paul McCartney once wrote, "Yesterday came suddenly." Philly hasn't fallen apart in the ensuing campaigns, making the playoffs each year with a 9-7 record, but Doug Pederson's crew also hasn't made it past the Divisional Round since the title run. With better injury luck, I expect this team to be fighting for football's biggest prize once again in 2020. And shoot, I just realized that a reference to an Eagles song might have been more appropriate. Next time.
How the Eagles got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.
- Rallying for a Week 1 win after falling behind 17-0. In the 32-27 win over the Redskins, DeSean Jackson had eight catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns. (Unfortunately, D-Jax finished the season with ... nine catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns.)
- Preventing Dallas from clinching its second straight NFC East title with a tight Week 16 win over the Cowboys. Embattled Eagles CB Sidney Jones broke up Dak Prescott's fourth-down pass to Michael Gallup in the end zone in the closing minutes to essentially put the game on ice.
- Boston Scott fueling the Week 17 road win over the Giants to take the division crown. Yes, Boston Scott, whose name sounds like a character played by Dunder Mifflin's Michael Scott during a conference-room meeting, replaced the injured Miles Sanders and racked up 138 total yards and three touchdowns.
- Making the playoffs despite a bevy of injuries and a record that once stood at 5-7. I'm not here to hand out participation trophies, but Philly's December rally was pretty impressive, with Carson Wentz dragging the injury-riddled team to the postseason. Oh, and the uber-talented Cowboys missed the dance with just eight wins.
- Injuries, injuries ... and more injuries. Wentz finally made his first postseason start ... only to suffer a concussion on a questionable hit from Jadeveon Clowney during Philadelphia's second drive vs. Seattle. Ageless backup Josh McCown gave an inspired effort -- amazingly playing most of the game with a torn hamstring -- but the Eagles fell short, 17-9.
Head coach: Doug Pederson. Is Pederson the best coach in the NFL? I dared to ask that question in this space last year. Blasphemy! Obviously, you have to start every "best NFL coach" conversation by reciting the name of Bill Belichick. That's the law. When I pondered whether Pederson could be the top dog around this time last year, I didn't really throw any caveats out there. My mistake. It's not like Pederson led the Eagles to a Super Bowl win over Belichick's Patriots -- with his backup quarterback -- or anything ...
Yes, I remain firmly in the corner of Doug Pederson. Come at me. He's the best right now. Belichick is the G.O.A.T. coach, no doubt. And I'll be fascinated to see what he can do without the G.O.A.T. But right now? I'll ride with Doug. Don't overlook what Pederson has accomplished in four short seasons as a head man, particularly in the last three.
In Year 2, Pederson posted a 13-3 record and went on to win the Super Bowl after being forced to replace his MVP candidate quarterback with a signal-caller who'd nearly retired one year prior. In Year 3, he guided the Eagles back to the playoffs and again won a postseason game with his backup quarterback (do not say "Double Doink" -- I'm a Schaumburg-born Bears fan) before nearly knocking off the heavily favored Saints in New Orleans. Philly made the playoffs once again last year, a miracle considering that voracious injury bug. Only four teams have made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons: the Eagles, Patriots, Saints and Chiefs. Not coincidentally, those three other organizations have their own claim to having the best coach on the planet today. That's fair. If you want to have that conversation about Belichick or Andy Reid or Sean Payton, I'll patiently listen. But you're wrong.
Quarterback: Carson Wentz. I'm just going to say this right here: Carson Wentz is the most underappreciated quarterback not named Russell Wilson. Why on Earth do some people still question if Wentz is a true franchise quarterback? How is it possible to walk away from last season and still spew this nonsense?
Wentz just became the first quarterback in NFL history with 20-plus touchdown passes and seven-or-fewer interceptions in three consecutive seasons. Another first accomplished in 2019: Wentz is the only QB in league history to eclipse 4,000 passing yards without a single wide receiver reaching 500. That's like when Dave Grohl first started Foo Fighters as a literal one-man band, playing all of the instruments himself for the debut album. As brilliant as Dave is as a musician, and he is indeed awesome, you still need to assemble a band to go out on tour. I would love to see Dave perform an acoustic set all by himself -- this cover of "Tiny Dancer" is killer -- but it's better when we have the rest of the band. Just like you want Carson surrounded by his own talented teammates, unlike down the stretch last season, when the receiving corps was in tatters.
Obviously, the Eagles' offense has tailed off a bit since 2017, when Philadelphia ranked third in the NFL at 28.6 points per game. But don't blame Wentz, who has completed 66.2 percent of his passes in the last two seasons with a TD-to-INT ratio of 48:14. And again, he carried a team to a division title when his top wideout for the stretch run was a former undrafted free-agent signee who played quarterback in college (Greg Ward). So enough. I swear, if I hear one person bring up Nick Foles, I'm going to lose it. Wentz is your quarterback. Please stop hating on him. Or send him to Chicago. Either is acceptable.
Projected 2020 MVP: Wentz. The Eagles were two games under .500 in the first week of December last season. No room for error. No receivers to speak of. Wentz took over. During Philadelphia's four-game winning streak to close out the regular season, the quarterback completed 67.6 percent of his passes with a 7:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 100.8 passer rating. Again, it's absurd anyone has to defend Wentz's resume. In the coming season, I expect him to not only be the team's MVP, but also be in consideration for league MVP. Of course, grouping Wentz with Wilson again ... Neither QB is likely to get any votes if Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers plays a full season, because that's what MVP voters are all about.
2020 breakout star: Miles Sanders, running back. We might have some semantics issues here, because Sanders was really good last year. In fact, the rookie led the team with 1,641 all-purpose yards -- the most for an Eagle since LeSean McCoy in 2013. And Sanders didn't spoil Avengers: Endgame, so he's got that on Shady. Sanders became the fifth rookie in NFL history to record 750 yards rushing and 500 receiving in the Super Bowl era, and was one of just five running backs to accomplish that last year. He's never going to be a Derrick Henry type of running back with 400 carries, but 15-to-20 touches per game is quite a reasonable expectation. Sanders played 72 percent of the snaps in the team's final eight games and averaged just north of 18 touches.
New face to know: Darius Slay, cornerback. Philadelphia has made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons despite having one of the worst secondaries in the league. So it made perfect sense for the Eagles to toss Detroit a third- and fifth-rounder in exchange for Slay, one of the top corners in the game in recent years. Since 2017, Slay has 13 interceptions (tied with Marcus Peters for No. 1 among corners) and 56 passes defensed (alone at No. 1 among corners). Slay apparently had heat with Matt Patricia after a pair of slights from the Lions head coach, including one incident where Patricia told Slay he wasn't "elite." And I don't know what Joe Flacco has to do with any of this, but even Lions haters raised an eyebrow at that Patricia assessment. Slay could also have an impact on Avonte Maddox, who has played well in stretches for the Eagles but has never become a consistent stud. Playing opposite Slay could really help.
The 2020 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: REALLY HIGH. You have nobody to blame but yourselves, Eagles. Philly fans had longed for a Super Bowl title for half a century. But they always had that feeling of dread, that feeling that doom was right around the corner. Once you won a Super Bowl, though, expectations were raised. It's like walking into a Wawa. Once you enter those doors, nothing else can ever compare.
Three key dates:
- Week 4 at 49ers (Sunday night). Two of the best teams in the NFC right here. I have the Eagles winning this game. Normally, you would favor the home team in this kind of contest, but the 49ers have back-to-back roadies against the Jets and Giants leading up to this one. An opportunity for the Eagles to steal a road win.
- Week 6 vs. Ravens. This stretch of the season is going to be tough for the Eagles. After the 49ers game, Philly's at Pittsburgh before coming home to play the Ravens. The Eagles could be in for a special season if they emerge from that three-week stretch with a positive record. This is also the start of a three-game home stand that includes contests against the Giants and Cowboys.
- Week 16 at Cowboys. Just a brutal schedule for the Eagles. Starting in Week 12, Philly goes vs. Seattle, at Green Bay, vs. New Orleans and at Arizona before this Week 16 trip to Jerry World.
Will the Eagles be able to ...
Replace Malcolm Jenkins? Look, it was amazing to get Slay. He's that true No. 1 cornerback you have missed for quite some time. And you extended him, so he's locked and loaded. But that means somebody had to leave at another spot. And that player was Malcolm Jenkins. He's 32 years old, so a youth movement in his slot was reasonable. At this point, Jenkins is replaceable on the field. I'm not sure how you replace him in the locker room and out in the community. He's at the forefront of the league's social activism, having followed Colin Kaepernick's lead back in 2016 by raising his right fist during the national anthem throughout that season and then co-founding of the influential Players Coalition, in which his work continues to this day. Malcolm is still out there in the streets of Philadelphia making a difference, despite the fact he's with the Saints now. Credit Rodney McLeod, who is trying to fill Jenkins' shoes, on and off the field.
Get the best out of Derek Barnett? The No. 14 overall pick from the 2017 NFL Draft hasn't exactly set the world on fire off the edge, though he is coming off his best statistical season, with 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2019. And the Eagles did indeed exercise his fifth-year option this offseason. There's optimism this will be his best season yet. Having better coverage in the secondary should help -- Slay can help make that quarterback hold the ball for another moment -- but the biggest acquisition to help Barnett might've been another big body up front. Putting Javon Hargrave next to Fletcher Cox in the middle of Philly's defensive line has explosive potential. Hargrave got pressure on 14.2 percent of his rushes last season, according to PFF. The Eagles should boast one of the best D-lines in football. If that kind of beef on the inside doesn't allow Barnett to log double-digit sacks off the edge, I don't know what will.
Establish a No. 1 receiver? The Eagles selected Jalen Reagor at No. 21 in this year's draft. A mild surprise, as Justin Jefferson was still on the board. (He was selected by the Vikings with the very next pick.) But the Eagles like Reagor's blazing speed and big-play ability. Though don't expect Philly to take advantage of his versatility on the field just yet. The Eagles plan to have him just play one receiver spot and learn from DeSean Jackson. The veteran receiver is also known for his speed, and it's not hard to believe Reagor will eventually replace D-Jax in the lineup (especially considering Jackson missed 13 games with an abdominal injury last year). Philadelphia currently doesn't have a timetable for the return of Alshon Jeffery, who missed six games with a Lisfranc injury. It's cool the Eagles won so many games without a receiver reaching 500 yards last year, but come on, team. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is one player I'd love to see get an opportunity at some point. But he has to fight off a pair of speedsters in rookie John Hightower and trade acquisition Marquise Goodwin.
One storyline ...
... people over overlooking: The offensive line could be an issue. Or maybe you just missed the news. Right guard Brandon Brooks is out after tearing his Achilles tendon earlier this month. That certainly doesn't help a team that wants to re-establish ground dominance. Remember: In the title season of 2017, the Eagles averaged 132.2 rushing yards, good for third in the NFL. They've finished outside of the top 10 in each of the past two seasons. Rookie fourth-rounder Jack Driscoll appears to be next up on the depth chart at right guard, but could Philly bring in someone who's not currently on the roster? My guy Kyle Long recently made some noise on Twitter about being open to playing again. That wouldn't likely be with the Bears. He would follow in the footsteps of his brother, Chris, who won a Super Bowl with the Eagles.
ANOTHER storyline people are overlooking: How good the tight ends are. The Eagles' tight ends had more receptions (155) and receiving yards (1,610) than any other tight end corps in the NFL in 2019. Zach Ertz trails only Travis Kelce in every major receiving category among tight ends since 2016. Ertz has logged 70-plus receptions in five consecutive seasons -- the longest-active streak in the NFL for tight ends.
Fantasy tip: If you're worried about Reagor being a thing and taking production away from Ertz, realize that -- if that happens -- it will mean much less 12 personnel. And that'd inherently suppress the statistics of Dallas Goedert, who was great last year.
... people are overthinking: What is the role for rookie QB Jalen Hurts? The Eagles raised more than a few eyebrows when they selected Hurts in the second round of the NFL draft. Though many were the haters who wanted to make memes calling him the best quarterback on the Eagles' roster. And that's hilarious and everything. But let's not underestimate the fact that Hurts could find himself on the field this season. That said, the highly abbreviated offseason means this might not happen until later in the campaign. You'd assume he's going to see the field at some point, though. The NFL is a copycat league -- we know this. And when you have an opportunity to do some Taysom Hill stuff with a guy who was quite a decorated college quarterback, that's intriguing. But yeah, miss me with the "QB competition!" jokes. Like I said above, Carson enters this season as an MVP-candidate type of talent.
For 2020 to be a successful season, the Eagles MUST:
- Get a full season from Carson Wentz. Put all the nonsense to bed. Shut up the haters for good. I do NOT want to be here next year, hearing from certain circles of the interwebs that the Eagles are considering making Hurts the quarterback of the future.
- Make a deep run in January. I would even suggest a trip to the Super Bowl. This should be that kind of team.
Pederson's Eagles are consistently good. And having a Super Bowl win already in your pocket puts you in a position where you are playing with house money -- at least for a bit -- and not desperately chasing the ultimate prize. (Something that loomed over Andy Reid in Philadelphia.) But the Eagles have a roster that, with better health, should seriously compete for another championship. Don't be satisfied with a fourth straight trip to the postseason. Now's the time to get your one Lombardi Trophy a friend.