Eagles begin OTAs

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A return to health for wide receiver Jeremy Maclin would be a boost for the Eagles' offense.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A return to health for wide receiver Jeremy Maclin would be a boost for the Eagles' offense.
Posted: May 28, 2014

THE 2014 EAGLES are to assemble for the first time today at NovaCare, as the team begins the spring's first full-squad organized team activities. Reporters won't be allowed to watch, and Chip Kelly and Nick Foles don't talk until Thursday.

We're all really eager to glean any faint hint of what Year 2 of Kelly will bring. There's a sense that this team's personnel will have the Kelly stamp on it, much more than the group Kelly inherited from Andy Reid a year ago. Two drafts and two offseasons' worth of free-agent acquisitions - and departures - have turned over the roster. Only 28 of the 90 players who will take the field today ever played or practiced under Reid. Four players - tight end Brent Celek, linebacker Trent Cole, long snapper Jon Dorenbos and right guard Todd Herremans - remain from the run to the January 2009 NFC Championship Game that was really Reid's last great hurrah.

Kelly was fortunate in Year 1 that a lot of the offensive personnel he inherited, particularly the o-line, meshed very well with what he wanted to do. He was very lucky to inherit Foles, who might not have meshed exactly with what Kelly wanted to do, but showed an accurate arm along with elite decision-making and leadership skills, and ended up in the Pro Bowl. Even so, general manager Howie Roseman and the coach made some significant offensive changes this offseason, trading for running back Darren Sproles, then drafting receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff in the second and third rounds, respectively. Most notably, they released wideout DeSean Jackson, in the wake of his third Pro Bowl season.

Jackson's jettisoning was the biggest cloud over the Eagles' offseason. While it's interesting to ponder what Kelly might do with a multidimensional weapon such as Sproles, and we're all eager to see how the wideout corps looks with the size-strength injection of Matthews and Huff, along with the return of Jeremy Maclin, much of the conversation has to do with how the team will make up for the loss of Jackson's 82 catches for 1,332 yards, and the fact that opponents no longer have to game plan against his explosiveness. If the Eagles had these weapons plus Jackson, it would be a different discussion.

Then there's the matter of the offseason basically being over, in terms of acquiring impact players (unless something really unexpected happens), but the Eagles still having shortcomings that could have been addressed by getting something for Jackson - even say, another fifth-round draft pick. That offensive line, which enjoyed excellent health in 2013, is one of the oldest in the NFL, with three starters over 30. The Eagles, who entered the draft with an all-time-low six selections, were not able to come up with an offensive lineman, as they used two picks on wideouts. The inability to address the o-line might not matter much now, but it might in December. Or in 2015.

Getting something for Jackson also could have helped the defense, the troubled unit that kept the Eagles from advancing in the playoffs. Fans went into the offseason hoping to see a safety savior arrive, along with a difference-making pass rusher. They got safety Malcolm Jenkins, a midlevel free agent from New Orleans who Kelly insists is a great fit for Billy Davis' system, and outside linebacker Marcus Smith, a first-round draft project who has both skeptics and believers in the NFL personnel community.

Davis did a wonderful job of scheming to his strengths last season, but the Eagles ranked 29th in overall defense (17th in points allowed), dead last in pass defense. A plus-12 takeaway figure, tied for fourth in the league, papered over a lot of problems and allowed a surprising run to 10-6 and the NFC East title.

Now, Davis - so far unavailable to reporters this offseason - has a young, emerging defensive line, bolstered by the draft additions of nose tackle Beau Allen and defensive end Taylor Hart. He also has an inside-linebacking corps that was up and down last season, led by DeMeco Ryans, who played more snaps than any other ILB in the NFL. Ryans turns 30 in July. Mychal Kendricks is a good young player with a year in the system under his belt now, but this is another area the Eagles have not significantly bolstered.

Davis has Connor Barwin at one outside spot, and Cole, who turns 32 in October, manning the other, with Smith and 2010 first-rounder Brandon Graham in the mix. Graham, who seems more suited to a base 4-3, probably is as surprised as anyone that he's taking the field as an Eagle today; the team definitely shopped him in the offseason. Graham has turned down recent interview requests, presumably not eager to dissect his situation. Graham, who got married over the weekend, could still move on through trade or release, but you'd think if the Birds were going to get anything for him, that would have happened by now.

In the secondary, Davis has adequate starting corners for his system in Brandon Fletcher and Cary Williams, and an emerging nickel corner star in team 2013 interception leader Brandon Boykin (six). Fourth-round rookie Jaylen Watkins is expected to press for playing time. At safety, the presumptive starters are Jenkins and Nate Allen, back on a 1-year deal, with 2013 rookie Earl Wolff and fifth-round pick Ed Reynolds in reserve.

It seems possible this secondary will be an improvement on the 2013 group (after all, Patrick Chung's gone), but if the Eagles still need to blitz to generate any kind of pass-rush pressure, they will be hard-pressed to shut many teams down.

You know all the arguments about how the Eagles might have a tough time equaling or surpassing last year's record - tougher schedule, opponents with more film on Kelly's second-ranked offense, the loss of Jackson, the seeming inability to add a difference-making defensive piece. But Kelly also has had an offseason to think over what he learned in 2013, to tweak and tinker. He believes he's assembling a smart, versatile, unselfish team that will respond to challenges.

Ultimately, the question of whether the Birds are better or worse in 2014 is going to have a lot to do with Foles. If he is the guy he seemed to be in throwing 27 touchdown passes against two interceptions, then the other problems become manageable. If Foles is substantially less than that, as opponents scheme to exploit his weaknesses, then nothing the Eagles did this offseason is going to matter, and we'll all head into next year's organized team activities eager for a glance at, say, Marcus Mariota.


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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