Philadelphia Eagles 2011 NFL Preview
Apparently Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman weren’t kidding when they said back in June that their club would make a major splash in free agency. Philly’s infusion of new defensive talent after the lockout was on a scale never before seen in one NFL offseason.
Before bagging the prized buck of the ’11 free agent class (former Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha), the Eagles signed ex-Titans defensive end Jason Babin (12.5 sacks in ’10) and Packers stud defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins. They also traded for Cardinals rising star cornerback Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie.
As if this weren’t enough, there was the ensuing enrichment of an offense that ranked third in scoring and second in yards last season. Brought in were ex-Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown, ex-Broncos right tackle Ryan Harris, ex-Packers tight end Donald Lee and first-round drafted guard Danny Watkins. And, perhaps more crucial than all those moves was the hiring of “retired” Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd.
Of all these transactions, the Rodgers-Cromartie trade best symbolizes the gamble this so-called Dream Team is making in 2011. In that deal, Philly acquired an additional second-round pick in 2012, giving them double-digit draft picks heading into next year. Thanks to shrewd contract language and crafty accounting from salary cap extraordinaire Roseman and team president Joe Banner, there was more than enough camp room to sign Asomugha and maintain a healthy financial outlook moving forward. Keeping one eye down the road has made this a playoff organization nine of the past 11 years.
But the Rodgers-Cromartie trade obviously came at a price. By making Kevin Kolb one of the 10 regular contributors from last year’s squad to be let go, the Eagles have effectively put all of their eggs in the Michael Vick basket. This is the only true gamble for Lurie, Roseman, Reid and Banner in 2011. And it’s the biggest any of them have ever made.
The magnitude of the Vick Gamble has nothing to do with Michael Vick’s off-field history and image. That was a separate gamble made two years ago when the organization signed him fresh out of prison. This gamble is a thousand times more complex because it’s multifaceted and tied directly to what happens on the field.
Let’s deal with the obvious facet first: it was a gamble to trade a proven backup like Kolb when you have a starting quarterback who’s subjected to as much wear-and-tear as the run-happy Vick. He missed four games early last season with a rib injury and battled various ailments down the stretch.
The acquisition of free agent quarterback Vince Young provides an important cushion because it gives the Eagles a backup with serious starting experience and a playing style that is similar to Vick’s. But unlike Kolb, the 28-year-old Young is not a potential long-term starter. Young doesn’t have the arm strength, throwing mechanics, on-field intelligence or mental fortitude to lead a franchise. He can run, but not in a mismatch creating fashion like Vick.
This means the Eagles are banking on Vick long-term. But being 31 years old and heavily dependent on raw athleticism, how many quality years does he have left? Two? Three? Can you imagine him rushing for 676 yards and nine touchdowns as a 35-year-old? Steve Young was an effective scrambler in his late 30’s, but he also had less wear and tear, having become a starter much later in his career than Vick.
This could be one reason the Eagles opted in February to give Vick the franchise tag in ’11 rather than a long-term contract. A more likely reason, however, was the uncertainty of the CBA and technical language from Vick’s previous contract. Still, what if the Eagles are quietly harboring at least a few doubts about whether Vick is really the superstar he appeared to be last season?
Yes, Vick has developed better pocket passing skills in Marty Mornhinweg’s West Coast style offense than he ever exhibited in Atlanta. But leaving Remedial Math and enrolling in Algebra 101 doesn’t make you Einstein. Because he still has a lot of bad habits in the pocket – such as stepping up into pressure, eyeing the pass-rush or abandoning the play by scrambling unnecessarily – Vick leaves a lot of plays on the field. It’s jut rarely noticed because he does it in such exciting fashion.
The addition of offensive line coach Howard Mudd could go a long ways towards correcting this. Last season, under O-line coach Juan Castillo, Eagles blockers had to correctly choose one of five or six different techniques to use based on the situation. The mental burden made for difficult cohesion. Mudd, one of the best teachers in the game, will have his linemen learn only one technique. Less thinking, more reacting.
This simplicity is a big reason why first-round rookie right guard Danny Watkins can start immediately. And why sixth-round rookie Jason Kelce can challenge ’09 starting center Jamaal Jackson (returning from last year’s triceps injury) and ’10 starter Mike McGlynn for the center job. And why ex-Bronco Ryan Harris, a solid right tackle before missing 13 games over the past two seasons in Denver, can step in ahead of incumbent Winston Justice should the up-and-down Justice not fully recover from offseason knee surgery. It’s also why unrefined backup tackle King Dunlap could challenge for playing time (Mudd loves the 6’8”, 310-pounder’s natural ability) and why left tackle Jason Peters can be expected to make his fifth straight Pro Bowl, and why left guard Todd Herremans can recapture his formidable run-blocking.
It’s tough when linemen don’t know where their quarterback will be, however. Vick’s sporadic nature makes Philly’s offense built almost solely on big plays. Normally, that doesn’t work. But normally, an offense doesn’t have a lethal running quarterback, two wideouts with 4.3-speed (DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin) and a running back that can make any defender whiff in space (LeSean McCoy).
People generally think that an offense built on speed is one predicated on the skill players simply running by defenders. Indeed, that’s part of it (Jackson has 18 catches of 40-plus yards over the last two years; Jeremy Maclin registered a 30-plus-yard catch in six games last season). But more than that, speed forces a defense to be overly cautious. Defensive linemen rush Vick with less vigor for fear that he’ll escape the pocket. Linebackers drift more towards the flats for fear that LeSean McCoy will get upfield. Obviously, cornerbacks play off the wideouts for fear that they’ll get burned over the top, while safeties are less inclined to drop down in the box (which is one reason the Eagles led the league with 73 runs of 10-plus yards last season.)
The threat posed by speed is what makes Philadelphia click. It creates enormous space for screen passes (McCoy led the Eagles with 78 receptions in ’10) and hitch routes on the outside. Vick does not often look for underneath options like tight end Brent Celek and slot receiver Jason Avant, but those passes are consistently there if he wants them.
Take away the speed on the outside and this becomes a completely different offense. It’s vital the Eagles have a happy Jackson (he staged a brief holdout in search of a long-term deal) and a healthy Maclin (the third-year pro battled an unspecified illness during the offseason and training camp).
If Maclin is out, free agent pickups Johnnie Lee Higgins or Sinorice Moss, because they posses decent wheels, may get a shot ahead of last year’s intriguing fifth-round rookie, Riley Cooper. But more likely, Reid and Mornhinweg would wind up giving more carries to McCoy and newcomer Ronnie Brown – which isn’t terrible but certainly not the key ingredient in a Super Bowl recipe.
It’s an all new defense in 2011. Three new starters along the front line, two new starters at linebacker and, barring a trade of cornerback Asante Samuel, three new starters in the five-man secondary (which is the predominant defensive package the Eagles will use this season). Also new is the system – or at least elements of it. Gone is Sean McDermott and some of the pressure-heavy schemes of predecessor Jim Johnson. In place is likely an even more traditional 4-3 installed by first-time defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. Castillo is one of a select few of coaches to ever move from the offensive side of the ball to defensive coordinator. (Most recent to do it is Mike Nolan, who in 2002 went from wide receivers coach to defensive coordinator in Baltimore. But Nolan had defensive coaching experience at previous NFL stops; Castillo hasn’t coached defense since 1989 at Texas A & M.)
Whoever coordinates Philadelphia’s defense would have too many resources to fail. Nnamdi Asomugha is indeed a shutdown corner. He played only man-coverage in Oakland but has made clear that he’s also capable of operating in all forms of zone. Asomugha gives Philly coverage varieties they were missing with Asante Samuel as their top corner. Samuel is an elite playmaker, but his lack of physicality limits him to off-coverage technique. If he isn’t traded, he’ll likely still start outside, with Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie, a more athletic man-defender, assuming Joselio Hanson’s nickel role. It will be interesting to see if the Eagles choose Asomugha or Rodgers-Cromartie to cover the slot in nickel.
The plethora of cornerbacking talent does wonders for Philly’s young safeties. Free safety Nate Allen, a promising second-round pick a year ago, has a chance to blossom as a free-ranging playmaker – assuming he bounces back from tearing a patellar tendon (knee) last December. The even younger strong safety Jaiquawn Jarrett (a second-round pick this past April) will also have unique freedoms. Expect Jarrett, a lively run defender at Temple, to have plenty of leeway for a rookie, as backups Jarrad Page and Kurt Coleman are both up-and-down players.
With three of the top 10 corners in pro football, the Eagles could theoretically blitz on every down and still be safe. But Castillo’s scheme emphasizes more of a classic four-man rush, which is why revered defensive line coach Jim Washburn was brought over from Tennessee. Washburn will have his old Pro Bowl defensive end from last season, Jason Babin, on the right side and tireless everydown star Trent Cole on the left. Both skim the edges with impeccable leverage and should relish getting snaps in the wide-aligning nine-techniques that Washburn employs as a means of ensuring one-on-one matchups.
Inside, Cullen Jenkins is one of the best pugilists in the game. He can get in the backfield or anchor against the run. His five-year contract amounts to a one-year trial period, perhaps because the team wants to see how he’ll translate from 3-4 defensive end back to 4-3 defensive tackle. Or, perhaps it’s because the Eagles think that breakout undrafted defensive tackle Antonio Dixon will become the better long-term investment. With Mike Patterson’s recent health problems (he’s been diagnosed with a brain arteriovenous malformation –a tangle of blood vessels in the skull, which may require surgery), Dixon and Trevor Laws will have a chance at first-and-second down snaps. That is, if they can fend off new backups Derek Landri (a try-hard veteran who can be attacked on the ground but can also get penetration) and Anthony Hargrove (a once-in-a-while playmaker from the Saints). On third down, the Eagles can use former starting defensive ends Juqua Parker and Daryl Tapp inside next to Jenkins. Both can also be backside run-stoppers from the outside, if need be.
It’s an embarrassment of riches in the front and back four; the Eagles’ second-string defensive line and backfield are comparable to some teams’ first-string units. Seriously. The hope is this can mask what’s expected to be a mediocre linebacking group.
It was assumed that fourth-round rookie Casey Matthews was drafted to star on special teams. Instead, he’s starting at middle linebacker. We know better than to bet against any member of the legendary Matthews family, but it’s hard to imagine a rookie filling the shoes of underrated Stewart Bradley. To do so, Matthews will have to be a thumper against the run and eat up significant ground in vertical pass coverage.
Bradley’s presumed replacement, Jamar Chaney, will now start on the weak side. The seventh-round pick from a year ago moves well against the run but doesn’t figure to work ahead of either strongside linebacker Moise Fokou or Akeem Jordan in the frequently used nickel package.
The David Akers era ended a year or two sooner than expected when Alex Henery was selected in the fourth round. Undrafted punter Chas Henry (who, unlike his fellow rookie kicker, knows how to properly spell his own last name) replaces Sav Rocca. In the return game, Jorrick Calvin will be tasked with handling kickoffs, while DeSean Jackson will be tasked with watching terrified punters boot the ball out of bounds.
On paper, yes, this is something of a Dream Team. The defense has too many weapons to fail. The offense, however, is one Vick/Maclin/Jackson injury away from having to be redefined, which is a bit unsettling. But most teams would be redefined if their quarterback or star receiver went down. Assuming everyone stays healthy, Philly’s Super Bowl fate will come down to the performance of their transformed quarterback.
Predicted Finish: 1st NFC East
Andy Benoit is the founder of N.F.L.Touchdown.com. He can be reached at andy.benoit[at]N.F.L.touchdown.com.
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