Are Eagles better?

Posted: July 22, 2014

EVERY TEAM tries to get better, immediately.

The question is: Since they walked off the field after their playoff loss to New Orleans, have the Eagles improved themselves?

It is impossible to tell.

For one inescapable reason, it is impossible to tell.

Oh, they have taken logical and prudent steps toward improvement in every avenue.

Sometimes improvement means adding young players. The Eagles did that by drafting receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff in the second and third rounds, respectively.

Sometimes it means adding established players. The Eagles did that by signing free-agent safety Malcolm Jenkins, who made a reputation as a solid tackler with a sound football mind in New Orleans, where he played with Darren Sproles, the new backup running back. They also added a wave of special-teams talent in safety Chris Maragos, linebacker Bryan Braman and cornerback Nolan Carroll, who brings desperately needed depth in the cornerback position.

Sometimes it means securing emerging or established players. The Eagles did that by extending the contracts of linemen Jason Peters and Jason Kelce, as well as wide receiver Riley Cooper. Happy players tend to play better.

Sometimes, sadly, it means parting with players who don't suit the scheme. Fare thee well, Jason Avant.

It should follow, too, that the more familiar the team is with new coach Chip Kelly, and his machine-gun offense and 3-4 defensive scheme, the better it should execute both.

Then, too, Kelly and his platoon of fellow college coaches now should better understand the demands of an NFL season . . . and the demands of dealing with unionized professionals, instead of indentured students.

But is the team better?

Can it be better without its most dangerous weapon?

The Eagles in March decided to release explosive receiver DeSean Jackson and besmirch him on the way out, allowing pernicious rumors to circulate for weeks. Jackson was a highly paid, petulant, disrespectful and selfish player; less so at the end, but still.

Jackson also defined the Big-Play aspect of Kelly's offense.

Because of Jackson, safeties seldom lined up inside of 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. And then, their first step seldom was forward.

The threat of Jackson's speed and hands - he dropped three passes in the past two seasons, combined - helped the Birds reach new offensive heights. And, let's be honest: The offense propelled the Eagles to the playoffs last season.

No, no, it wasn't all DeSean.

Running back LeSean McCoy showed again why he is a unique backfield weapon: strong enough to shrug off tackles, elusive enough to get to the second and third levels, fast enough to score from anywhere and possessed of good hands, so he can act as a fearsome outlet receiver.

The four veteran offensive linemen played well enough, especially in the second half of the season, that rookie right tackle Lane Johnson was afforded a season to grow.

Michael Vick, then Nick Foles, combined for an excellent season at the quarterback position. Foles, of course, blossomed into a Pro Bowl player.

But there can be no overstating what Jackson did. His 82 catches and 1,332 receiving yards were the best of his six seasons, and his nine touchdowns tied his best. All led the team.

Remarkably, Jackson did this without the help of Jeremy Maclin, a first-round pick who, it could be argued, had been the Eagles' No. 1 receiver since he was drafted in 2009; a more consistent, more professional wideout with superb speed until a knee injury in training camp cost him the 2013 season.

Jackson last season played opposite Cooper, who, for 3 years, did little, but who, in 2013, enjoyed a career year sharing Jackson's yoke.

Much was made of Cooper's 17.8 yards-per-catch average and his eight TDs. But how many times would Cooper have gotten free without Jackson (and McCoy, for that matter) on the field?

We'll find out this season.

Two things about the Big-Play profile.

One: Sure, Cooper caught a few deep balls in 2013, but his yards-per-catch average wasn't close to Jackson's best season. Jackson averaged 22.5 yards per catch in 2010 - and 18.6 in 2009.

Two: Stats Inc. defines a receiving Big Play as one that goes for at least 25 yards. The Eagles led the league with 48.

Jackson had 16 of them.

That's one-third, for the fractionally impaired.

Six of those Big Plays went for scores.

Four of those scores: 61 yards, 55 yards, 46 yards, 36 yards.

So, that's what the Eagles gave away.

Who knows?

Maybe among Maclin, and his twice-repaired knee; and Cooper, with his tight end's physique; and Matthews, with his big frame and sprinter's stride; maybe Jackson's catches and yards will come.

Maybe, too, defensive coordinator Billy Davis will get a few more game-changing plays from his troops, who seemed to be rounding into form in the season's second half.

Certainly, the special-teams coverage and return units should be improved. They could hardly be worse.

There is a chance that the Eagles got no worse despite cutting their least conforming and most unpredictable player.

There is a chance that the team has better chemistry, a deeper sense of camaraderie, without DeSean Jackson.

But, to be fair, imagine how good they might be with him.

More Eagles: The hell that was Buddy Ryan's first training camp.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|