The 2016 Eagles left a lot of different impressions. Not many expected a playoff team and after Sam Bradford was traded the week before the season, not many would have even expected 7-9. Carson Wentz had only thrown 24 passes in one preseason game.
But after a 3-0 start that culminated in a 34-3 thrashing of the Super Bowl contender Steelers, expectations changed. From Week 5 through Week 15 the Eagles went 2-9 while the Cowboys and Giants went a combined 19-3, putting the division well out of reach and causing each game to approach with a general feeling of morbidity.
Then the Eagles finished the season by beating the Giants’ starters and the Cowboys’ backups, and now no one is quite sure what to think. The 2016 season didn’t change the Eagles record. It remained at the 7-9 mark set in Chip Kelly’s final season. It didn’t particularly change their draft slot, which was originally 13th last season and will be 14th or 15th this season based on Minnesota’s 8-8 record.
So what did change? The quarterback, more quickly than expected. The coaching staff. And certainly not least, the surroundings. Even though they didn’t drastically fall beneath expectations in 2016, the Eagles’ season feels worse because the Cowboys rose from 4-12 to 13-3. The Giants went from 6-10 to 11-5, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie starred in their secondary. Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso made the playoffs in Miami, and DeMarco Murray led the AFC in rushing while Ryan Mathews led the Eagles with 661 yards.
The NFC East, no longer a collection of mediocre, directionless teams where the first to 9-7 takes the division, is now headed by a behemoth with rookie stars at quarterback and running back and the best offensive line in football, what looks like the beginning of a dynasty.
But tear your terrified eyes away from Dallas if you can, and focus on the Eagles.
The biggest change will always be Wentz. The great unknown that shaped the 2016 offseason is, for all intents and purposes, now a known. Wentz started on fire, struggled with the rest of the team in mid-season, but rebounded with a finish that left few in doubt the Eagles struck gold with their draft gamble.
The jury is still out on Doug Pederson, but he navigated a rookie year that included the Bradford trade, Josh Huff escapade and mid-season slump without losing the team, as evidenced by their closing victories. There is reason to be optimistic, even if play calls were as aggressive as anywhere outside of Pittsburgh and Carson Wentz was asked to throw the ball roughly every play. The Eagles did hope they were getting Andy Reid back.
Drafting wide receivers
A year ago, many fans would have been watching Clemson in the National Championship with visions of Deshaun Watson in midnight green dancing through their heads like the Alabama defense. That’s obviously not to be, but if you paid attention to the other end of Watson’s passes Monday night, you’d notice many of them being reeled in almost cartoonishly by Mike Williams, whom you can feel free to dream about wearing midnight (or kelly, please) green.
Williams and Western Michigan’s Corey Davis are two of the best prospects at wide receiver in this draft class and, if you’re looking for more things the 2016 season didn’t change, the Eagles still need a wide receiver, or three. The lack of progress and production by youngsters Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham and, before his release, Josh Huff, most recently resulted in Greg Lewis losing his job as wide receivers coach.
Even Jordan Matthews had his worst season while struggling to get on the field. Zach Ertz led the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns, with just four of the last. Providing Wentz with offensive weapons has become the chief mission of the offseason. Alshon Jeffery, Kenny Stills and DeSean Jackson are the veteran names that dominate the conversation. At running back, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Texas’ D’Onta Foreman are early round draft possibilities. Be it signing Jackson or Stills, or drafting Washington’s John Ross, adding deep speed is a priority.
On defense, cornerback is another unfortunately unchanged story. Despite at least average safety play, Pro Football Focus ranked the Eagles secondary 32nd (or, in layman’s terms: last) in the NFL in 2016 due to the play of the corners. Jalen Mills was a seventh round rookie moving to the position from safety and asked to cover the NFL’s best receivers. He survived, and can be excused. For Jim Schwartz favorite Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll, who led the NFL in pass interference penalties, it’s less easy to advocate their return.
It’s also less easy to replace them. The Eagles may be well wary of shopping for a cornerback in free agency after being burned on Nnamdi Asomugha and Maxwell. That means corner will compete with receiver and running back for attention on draft day. The good news is that the corner class in 2016 is deep and talent rich and more than one first-round prospect is almost guaranteed to slip into the second day.
Taking care of their own
While it’s more fun to prognosticate what new blood the Eagles can add to positions of need, there are their own players to keep in the fold, and this year Bennie Logan, Trey Burton and Carroll all have expiring contracts that need addressed. Logan in particular should be due a big increase in salary.
To find the money to do that and buy a wide receiver or two in free agency, the Eagles may need to increase their $9.5 million cap figure. Jason Peters, Connor Barwin, Mathews and McKelvin are some players whose contracts offer significant cap relief to the Eagles if restructured or released