By Lance Epstein
Eagles Find Themselves as Sleepers:
Last year, fans and experts expected the Philadelphia Eagles to be a strong contender for the Super Bowl with quarterback Donovan McNabb at the helm.
Heading into the 2010 season, the expectation levels for the Eagles is significantly different. Most think that of Kevin Kolb's growing pains as a starter and the improvement of the NFC will have the Eagles struggling to make the post-season.
However, Steve Wyche of NFL.com believes that the Eagles could surprise a lot of people next year with Kolb running the show. Wyche spoke with numerous NFL insiders and they consider the Eagles as a sleeper team. One of the reasons was that head coach Andy Reid and team president Joe Banner would not have dealt McNabb to their division rival unless they had complete faith in their young quarterback.
"Most people feel the Eagles will be good depending on new full-time starting quarterback Kevin Kolb," Wyche wrote. "If he struggles under the pressure of stepping in for longtime fixture Donovan McNabb, then things could fall apart. The majority of opinions I've heard are that coach Andy Reid and president Joe Banner wouldn't have traded McNabb to Washington if they didn't think Kolb could handle things -- and handle them well."
The majority of the people that Wyche discussed the Eagles with compare Kolb’s situation to Green Bay handing the keys over to Aaron Rodgers. However, most think the Eagles have an excellent shot at making the playoffs, whereas Rodgers and the packers finished below .500.
"The move is being compared to Aaron Rodgers taking over for Brett Favre in Green Bay, but a lot of the folks that I spoke with think the Eagles will be much more serious playoff contenders than the 6-10 Packers were in Rodgers' first season as starter," he wrote.
"Kolb has been afforded a receiving corps McNabb rarely had: DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, Jason Avant, and if he can overcome a knee injury, second-year tight end Cornelius Ingram. Physical running backs LeSean 'Shady' McCoy and Mike Bell also send the message that the Eagles plan to protect Kolb by running the ball a tad more (that's not hard) than they did with Brian Westbrook.
"There is a feeling that Kolb will actually run the Eagles' version of the West Coast offense more to Reid's liking than McNabb did the past few years."
The high-powered offense is not the only reason for Wyche anointing the Eagles as a big-time sleeper. The revamped defense will have the Eagles back to one of the premiere units in the league.
"From my conversations, it's not as much the offense being cited as the reason why the Eagles could be better than a lot of people think," Wyche wrote. "Philadelphia has quietly stacked its defense with physical, tenacious pass rushers to give highly underrated defensive end Trent Cole more help.
"Philadelphia traded for outside linebacker Ernie Sims and defensive end Darryl Tapp and drafted a potential monster, defensive end Brandon Graham, to really allow defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to be creative and more aggressive in passing situations."
Speaking of Graham, Wyche interviewed him at the NFL's rookie symposium and he came away very impressed with the versatile and ultra-talented defensive end.
"A side note on Graham (6-foot-2, 268 pounds): When I met him at the symposium, he physically jumps out because he is wide and built like a wall. He's also one of the more engaging rookies I've met," Wyche wrote about the Eagles impact rookie. "He seems to understand what he's in for and has been wise enough to reach out to Reid for advice anytime he needs to."
Still, the Eagles have one of the toughest schedules in the league. They face 11 quarterbacks that are in the upper echelon of the league [Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub, Tony Romo (twice), McNabb (twice), Eli Manning (twice), Rodgers, Favre (potentially) and Matt Ryan. Additionally, the Eagles face a much-improved San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears teams on the road. If that was not bad enough, the Eagles face another challenging road game against one of the hottest teams down the stretch of last season in the Tennessee Titans.
On the other hand, the Eagles have an excellent chance to build some momentum early in the season. They face only one playoff squad from 2009 in their first seven games [Green Bay to kick-off the season]. Furthermore, the Eagles have the talent on offense and defense to keep games close and their special teams returners could be the difference makers It is not that far-fetched to imagine that the Eagles soaring in 2010.
Kolb Making Huge impressions:
With the plethora of talent at the wide receiver position, Kolb’s intangibles, demeanor and work ethic, there is no reason to doubt that he will throw 30-35 touchdowns in 2010 according to Razzano.
I think he’s very similar to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Same arm, same competitiveness, same drive. I think he might struggle a little early as he gets used to receivers and all, but I think by the end of the year he could have a big year. He could have 30, 35 touchdowns. I really believe that. With their arsenal of wideouts, I think Kolb is going to be outstanding. I think once the dust settles, and it’s his — his preparation is outstanding, his work ethic, the coaches believe in him. He’s a great kid. He’s got all the intangibles. Again, I think he’s similar to Aaron Rodgers. His whole being is similar to Aaron Rodgers. He can make all the throws. I think he’s going to be outstanding. I don’t think they’ll miss a beat, and the question in Philly will be their defense. They have a young defense, new coordinator, some new people in the secondary. That’s their question mark. Offensively, I don’t think they’ll miss a beat. They may even be more productive.
Razzano has an outstanding resume and pedigree, so Eagles fans should be estatic about his high praise of Kolb. He has 22 years of experience as a scout with the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals and has been part of three Super Bowl champions [49ers, 1989, 1990; Rams, 2000].
If Kolb can mirror Rodgers footsteps then the Eagles should be in good shape going into the future. However, Razzano is pinned the tail on the donkey with his assessment of the Eagles secondary being a giant question mark. The secondary is going to miss Sheldon Brown with Ellis Hobbs starting. Furthermore, rookie Nate Allen being thrusted into the starting role with Marlin Jackson going down for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon might be another issue as well.
Did The Eagles Solve The LB Dilemma:
So what was the Eagles biggest weakness at the end of the 2009 season? Linebacker? Secondary? McNabb's accuracy?
According to Yahoo! sports columnist Doug Farrar, the biggest weakness on the mediocre Eagles defense was not the secondary, but the linebacker position. Farrar discusses that the defense suffered immensely by losing starting MLB Stewart Bradley before the season started. His injury along with the lack of talent forced defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to play musical chairs with the linebacker corps for the entire season.
A torn ACL cost middle linebacker Stewart Bradley his entire 2009 season, and reinforcements at any of the three linebacker position were hard to come by until the team traded for ex-Rams defender Will Witherspoon in October.
The effects were obvious – and disastrous. The Eagles’ highest ranked run-stopping linebacker, according to Football Outsiders, was Witherspoon (40th) on the weak side with 69 percent. However, he’s now in Tennessee. The best ‘backer against the run in yards per carry allowed was strong-side linebacker Chris Gocong but he started just 10 games and was traded to the Browns. Six different players started at middle linebacker for the Eagles in Bradley’s place last season, including then 32-year-old Jeremiah Trotter ,who was once a warrior but looked overmatched, especially against the pass. Despite a high-quality front four, the 2009 Eagles ranked 19th in points allowed per game (21.1), and were especially vulnerable against playoff-caliber teams.
In addition, Farrar does an excellent job explaining how the deficiency at linebacker cost the Eagles in the playoff game at Dallas [Cowboys running back Felix Jones slashing and dashing Eagles defense for a 73-yard touchdown]. Farrar also links the horrendous linebacker play to the five scoring drives by the Cowboys in the second quarter.
Nonetheless, the most revealing stat that Farrar drops on fans is the difference in running yards per blitz from 2008 to 2009. In 2008 when the Eagles blitzed, they allowed only 3.7 yards per carry, which was significantly lower than in 2009 where they gave up 6.4 yards per blitz.
On the positive side, Farrar feels the return of Bradley and the addition of Ernie Sims should improve the Eagles linebacking corps and ultimately solve the linebacker conundrum.
With Bradley back in the fold, and talented young linebacker Ernie Sims brought over from Detroit to play the weak side, the Eagles should be in better shape when it comes to their intermediate defense. Sims always put up high tackle totals with the Lions when he was healthy, and while his coverage abilities have been questioned, it was difficult to know how talented any defender was in the Matt Millen era. With major changes on offense (in addition to Donovan McNabb’s departure, the Eagles also severed ties with running back Brian Westbrook), the Eagles could rely more on their defense than in recent years, and more consistent linebacker play is the key to improvement.
Even if Bradley returns to form [level of play he was accustomed to before his ACL injury] and Sims can prove he is not a first round bust, the Eagles still have question marks at strong-side linebacker with Moise Fokou. As a rookie, Fokou compiled 73 penalty yards, which was a team high on defense. Additionally, Fokou appeared to be confused at times and had to be removed in the playoff game due to his inability to stop the run.
On the other hand, fans should probably be more worried about the secondary than the linebacker position. Ellis Hobbs is returning from a severe neck injury and has not made it through an entire OTA practice this off-season. Moreover, starting free safety Marlin Jackson is out for the enitre season, which leaves the Eagles starting a rookie at free safety for the second straight year.
Nevertheless, the Eagles must improve at linebacker and cornerback if they have any aspiration of making the post-season for the third consecutive year.
Caplan Explains Graham As Second Round Grade:
Scout.com's Adam Caplan asked numerous NFL executives about each player drafted in the first round and why the player went higher or lower than expected or why a particular team drafted the player. Caplan explains that some executives graded Graham as a second-rounder due to his short arms.
Inside Info: The top question surrounding Graham seemed to be whether he was better off playing in the 3-4 or 4-3. Graham, who dominated Senior Bowl practices, rocketed up draft boards after that week. However, a source said at least at few teams didn’t have a first-round grade on him because of his shorter than ideal arm length. Philadelphia has decent depth at both end spots, but the talented rookie figures to be high in the rotation right away.
Even though some executives doubt Graham’s skills, the Eagles and their fans should be thrilled about selecting Graham. His relentless motor and being teamed with Trent Cole should have an immediate impact on the Eagles pass rush. If Juqua Parker can accumulate eight sacks playing alongside Cole then Graham could find himself in double figures in his rookie season.