The beginning of Philadelphia Eagles training camp signals the closing of the offseason; therefore, it’s time to go back and determine which upgrades will be most beneficial for the future.
After making some quality moves to begin the NFL free agency period, Andy Reid received high marks for his selections in the NFL Draft.
Now while these upgrades might not have you screaming “Dream Team”, they could prove to be the difference between an 8-8 record and a deep playoff run.
10. Wide Receiver
The Philadelphia Eagles already boast one of the most diverse wide receiver corps in the NFL, but were still able to add another dynamic to their already dangerous offense when they selected Marvin McNutt in the sixth round of the NFL Draft.
At 6’4”, 216 pounds, McNutt will come in and compete with Riley Cooper to become the team’s big-bodied red-zone threat. He finished his senior year at Iowa with 82 receptions, 1,315 yards and 12 touchdowns while proving himself as big-time playmaker.
When combined with the healthy and motivated duo of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, McNutt should be able to exploit the middle of the field against one-on-one coverage.
His addition and expected improvement of Maclin and Jackson make this position a definite upgrade for the Eagles.
Poor safety play scarred the back end of the defense in 2011 as the team surrendered 27 touchdowns through the air.
Nate Allen enters training camp healthy for the first time since his rookie year and should carryover his strong play from last year’s four-game winning streak. With Allen penciled in at the starting free safety spot, look for there to be a heavy competition on the other side of the secondary.
Third-year pro Kurt Coleman is in the driver’s seat for the vacant strong safety spot, however, the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t spend a 2011 second-round pick on Jaiquawn Jarrett to watch him ride the bench. If neither of these youngsters impresses in camp, expect veteran O.J. Atogwe to play a prominent role during the upcoming season.
Regardless of who enters Week 1 as the starter, it should be noted that the Eagles have way more stability at safety, than they did at any point last year.
Philadelphia lasted an entire season using undrafted rookie Chas Henry as their punter, and got away without a Matt Dodge incident. However, that wasn’t enough to keep them from signing two-time Pro Bowler Mat McBriar.
McBriar spent his first eight seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and established himself as one of the best at his position. Not only did he lead the Cowboys franchise in gross and net averages with 45.3 and 38.1 yards per punt, but also most punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line with 175.
If McBriar can prove that he has fully recovered from a left foot injury that forced him out of two games and required offseason surgery, then there should be no doubt who the new Eagles punter will be.
While we’re on the subject of special teams, let’s direct our attention to the worst performing bunch of last season.
Last year the Philadelphia Eagles kickoff return unit averaged a paltry 20.9 yards per attempt—a number that ranked only ahead of the Indianapolis Colts. Primary kick returner Dion Lewis fielded 31 kickoffs and managed a long of only 33 yards.
Needless to say, Lewis shouldn’t be getting the lion’s share of these opportunities in 2012. He lacks the breakaway speed and open-field elusiveness to be an impact player on special teams. He will, however, have the opportunity to keep rookie Brandon Boykin from taking his job.
During his last three seasons at Georgia, Boykin thrived as the team’s primary kick returner—averaging over 24 yards per return, while taking it the length of the field four times. He also returned 14 punts during his senior year for an average 12.9 yards and one touchdown.
With this new special teams weapon at Bobby April’s disposal, it would be no surprise to see the offense to put up even more points.
6. Backup Running back
I don’t mean to pick on Dion Lewis, especially since he only carried the ball 23 times during his rookie season, but his hold on the backup running back spot is slowly starting to fade.
The Eagles selected Bryce Brown in the seventh round of the draft, and then signed undrafted free agent Chris Polk.
Brown left high school as the top running back recruit in the nation—over the likes of Trent Richardson, but struggled to find a home in college. Polk on the other hand, was a three-year starter at Washington and recorded over 1,400 yards on the ground in 2010 and 2011.
While both are strong runners, Polk is speedier and the better receiver. What Brown brings to this foursome of backs is the element of ground and pound. He is a bruising downhill runner who hits the hole hard and should find himself in short yard situations.
Although Brandon Boykin figures to contribute on special teams, Andy Reid brought him in to be a playmaker on defense.
Joselio Hanson has done an admirable job of manning the nickel slot for the past few years, but will enter the season as a 31-year-old with four career interceptions.
It’s a bit overlooked, but no longer does Hanson defend the middle well, and as you can tell from his numbers, was he ever a ball hawk.
This makes the camp battle between the eight-year veteran and incoming rookie very intriguing. Both corners measure at 5’9” and are separated by only three pounds in weight.
Hanson comes with a world of experience in slot—as the Eagles spent 46-percent of their defensive snaps in a nickel package, while Boykin is a dangerous playmaker and far more superior athlete in terms of strength, speed and leaping ability.
As of right now, I have Boykin overtaking Hanson in slot—giving the Eagles a freakishly athletic pair of cornerbacks in Boykin and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
4. Backup Quarterback
The backup quarterback position is often overlooked…until the starter goes down that is.
During last year’s heated playoff race, we saw Michael Vick, Matt Schaub, Tony Romo and Jay Cutler suffer from untimely injuries that influenced their respective team’s postseason chances.
Since Vick has completed a 16-game schedule only once in his career, his backup, Mike Kafka, is likely to have his hand in Philadelphia’s Super Bowl aspirations.
As he enters his third year under Andy Reid’s tutelage, Kafka will be given the first shot at filling in if Vick were to get hurt.
Reports out of OTAs have been nothing but positive—noting that the Northwestern product has come back with more arm strength and accuracy than ever.
Now by no means do I think is he ready to take over as the full-time starter, but he should prove to be a capable backup.
It was a sigh of relief to see the Eagles address the strongside linebacker position after watching Casey Matthews struggle with simple things like run defense and play recognition to begin the season.
Cal product Mychal Kendricks was drafted in the second round, 46th overall, and is already receiving first-team reps. As one of the most athletic players at his position, Kendricks boasts blazing speed, tremendous coverage skills and should be an asset coming off the edge in blitz situations.
He finished his collegiate career with 106 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions while winning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Not only will he be expected to become a playmaker in Juan Castillo’s defense, but also bring stability to a position that hurt the team in 2011.
2. Defensive Line
It’s difficult to determine whether the Eagles improved more at defensive end or defensive tackle, so we’re just going to rank the line as a whole.
It’s true that starting defensive tackle Mike Patterson has been shut down for the rest of training camp and has been placed on the non-football injury list, with no timetable for his return. However, that isn’t enough to take away from the offseason acquisitions of Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry. Both rookies are expected to receive significant playing time in Jim Washburn’s rotational system and should prove to be key contributors.
Even with these upgrades along the defensive line, we have yet to mention the return of injured players like former starting defensive tackle Antonio Dixon and former first-round selection Brandon Graham.
With these new bodies at Washburn’s disposal, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this unit break their league-leading mark of 50 sacks in 2012, while tightening the screws against the run.
1. Middle Linebacker
The Philadelphia Eagles led the NFL in sacks, but due to their lack of a true middle linebacker, received tons of criticism for Jim Washburn’s “Wide 9” scheme.
Ex-Houston Texan DeMeco Ryans comes to Philly with high expectations and looks to fill the void as the new signal-caller of a defense that struggled with tackling, and at times, looked helpless against the run.
His leadership in the huddle and consistent tackling ability should result in drastic improvements along the entire defensive unit and spare the secondary from engaging bigger tight ends and running backs.
The seven-year pro suffered an Achilles injury back in 2010, but is looking to distance himself from the past. This means that Andy Reid won’t ask Ryans to be spectacular, just merely reliable.