First half evaluations: Eagles offense gets bad marks, defense overachieves

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After this week’s game against Dallas, we’ll be halfway through the 2015 season, and the Eagles’ most valuable players of the first half have undoubtedly been Washington, New York, and Dallas.

Oh yeah, and also the Eagles’defense.

With that award out of the way, let’s break down the position groups — both on the first halfand what we can expect out of them in the second.

Quarterback: D

There’sonly Sam Bradford to grade here, as much as it may have seemed like two different quarterbacks have played for the Eagles this season.

There’s the Bradford who torched Atlanta to lead a second half comeback before his final throw went off Jordan Matthews finger tips. The same guy had success throwing deep against New Orleans and Washington.

And then there’s the Bradford that has showed up far too often: scuffing balls into the dirt five yards in front of his receivers down the middle,throwing directly at opponents in the end zone, and throwing two yard swings on 3rd and 21.

As for the rest of the season, Chip Kelly thinks Bradford is playing well, so a change to Mark Sanchez seems unlikely.Bradford’s best performance came in the second half of Week 1, and his inconsistency hasn’t slowed down since then despite having more time in the offense.Hold out hope if you want, but don’t bet on a big improvement.

Running Back: C

The backs probably deserve a slightly better grade, but the team’s refusal to play Ryan Mathews is a factor here.Mathews has been everything advertised, running for 6.1 yards per carry.DeMarco Murray has not.

A lot has been written on the disparity in production between the two backs.After being the only weapon the Eagles had in the first couple weeks, Darren Sproles has cooled off tremendously, both in usage (similar to last season) and dropping balls that hit his hands — unusual for him.

Murray seems to be trending in the right directionafter a historically bad start to the season, but the best hope for the run game to improve going forward is that the coaches finally start to reward the back who plays better, not the one who earns more in his paycheck.

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: D-

The drops are killing any chance the offense has of forming a cohesive unit.Jordan Matthews in particular has been a huge disappointment, but so has Nelson Agholor, who can’t even get on the field and get a target to drop.

The big worry here is that over the last two drafts, the Eagles have spent a first, second, and third round pick on Agholor, Matthews, and Josh Huff.While it is early in all of their careers, receivers selected in those rounds and later ones are exploding with production all over the NFL.

Matthews has regressed after a fine season where he had Jeremy Maclin taking most of the defenses’ attention.Agholor has been invisible after a promising pre-season.And Huff has 21 receptions for 239 yards over his first 18 games, with his only receiving touchdown on a play where two Saints ran into each other.

The tight ends have been similarly absent in the passing game, and much of the trouble blocking in the run game has come on Brent Celek’s assignments. ButZack Ertz may again be a breakout Pro Bowl candidate in the 2016 offseason.

When Bradford has had success throwing deep, it has been Riley Cooper and Miles Austin of all people exceeding expectations, and they save this group from an F.

Offensive Line: C+

As bad as the situation seemed early in the season, the ship has righted itself somewhat.The Eagles have actually allowed the ninth fewest sacks in the league, and the ground game has progressed from literally gaining seven yards against the Cowboys in Week 2 to gaining 523 yards over the last three games.

If it were only the backups who replaced Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans struggling, you could understand it.But the most troubling part of the offensive lines early season woes has been the play of center Jason Kelce, whom Pro Bowl caliber play is expected from.Whether it’s been multiple early snaps or whiffed blocks, Kelce has struggled.

At the same time, Jason Peters absolutely needs to stay on the field, because Matt Tobin is no left tackle.Really, all the Eagles lineman must stay healthy, because they haven’t spent a draft pick to build depth here since Lane Johnson was taken fourth overall in 2013.

Front Seven: B

After finishing 2014 with 49 sacks, the second most in the NFL, the Eagles pass rush was supposed to be a strength.That hasn’t developed in 2015.The Eagles have just 15 sacks through seven games, which ranks them 18th in the league.Connor Barwin, who had 14.5 sacks last season, has just two this year, and none since Week 3.

Part of the problem with the pass rush is the continued inability of Marcus Smith, the Birds’ 2014 first round draft pick, to contribute to the football team.Smith, Defensive Player of the Year in the AAC in 2013 after recording 14.5 sacks as a senior, has yet to record a sack in the NFL.He has played in just 12 games for the Eagles, and recorded one tackle.With Trent Cole released, Smith was needed more this season, and he has not been the solution.

On the bright side, Fletcher Cox, helped by three sacks of Drew Brees against the Saints, has five already, just half a sack shy of his career high, established as a rookie in 2012.

The Eagles’ rush defense has been stout for the most part, despite the amount of time the defense has been forced to stay on the football field.Carolina gashed them on the ground in Week 7, dropping their overall rankings in yards allowed per game and per rush to the middle of the pack.Jordan Hicks has been a revelation, and a necessary one during the injuries of Mychal Kendricks and Kiko Alonso.

This unit should hopefully only improve in the second half, as the linebacking unit returns to full health and fitting all of the Eagles’ talented inside linebackers onto the field becomes a pleasant problem.

Secondary: A-

It is hard to imagine the Eagles having three wins at this point if the secondary had continued the level of play we had seen from them the previous two seasons.An off-season overhaul appears to have worked.After spending the past two years hovering near NFL records for passing yards allowed, the Eagles are allowing only the 16th most yards per game passing this season, and that stat remains skewed by Kelly’s offense.The defense is only allowing an impressive 6.7 yards per pass, which ranks sixth in the NFL.

Michael Jenkins, despite some dropped interceptions, has stepped up his play considerably from last season, and Walter Thurmond has been a natural fit at safety withthree interceptions for a defense that ranks fourth in the NFL in picks.The defense, in fact, leads the NFL in takeaways.

Nolan Carroll has two interceptions in the last two games and has by all accounts outperformed 63-million-dollar man Byron Maxwell.Whether that says more about Carroll or Maxwell is up to you, but it raises a lot of questions about why Carroll rode the bench behind Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher all last season.

But the defense has shown hints of its old vulnerability at times, likewhen Julio Jones andTerrance Williams were running past Maxwell in the first two games. Or when the Jets came out of their shell in the second half in Week 3.

For the future, Maxwell’s play seems to be picking up a notch from his poor early season form.It remains to be seen if the defense as a whole can maintain this level of play, or will succumb to fatigue from the extra snaps required of them.The worst play we saw from the Eagles’ secondary last year was down the stretch, and it was the second year in a row that they played about 200 more snaps than some defenses.

Special Teams: B-

Cody Parkey and Caleb Sturgis’ early misses cost the Eagles a lot, a couple wins maybe, but Sturgis seems to have settled in.Kicking struggles have encompassed the league this season, and being perfect on extra points and short field goals now seems the exception rather than the rule.

Donnie Jones is again among the NFL leaders in punting, and ranks ninth in net punting average, helped by the strong coverage unit.

The kickoff return game has been almost nonexistent; the Eagles have returned only five kickoffs this season, the fewest in the NFL.

Darren Sproles had a beautiful 89-yard punt return touchdown against New Orleans to spark the team after two Bradford interceptions, and is averaging 14.7 yards per return to lead all players with at least six returns this season.

The coverage unit ranks 6th in kickoff coverage and 7th in punt coverage and hasn’t allowed a touchdown or a return longer than 31 yards all season.This is an area the Eagles clearly emphasize each off-season, and their success here should continue.

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