Are the Philadelphia Eagles a playoff team in 2017? Spend some time in Philly these days.
Like most sports topics here – any topics, really — you’ll get a range of opinions.
Some believe the Eagles, who finished 7-9 last year thanks to a gimme final game against Dallas, made the necessary upgrades to win the two or three more games needed to get into the postseason. There’s even some talk about going from worst to first in the NFC East.
The pro-playoff crowd points to the team’s improvement in its weakest offensive area from last season. Thanks to free agency, the Eagles will likely start Pro Bowl wideout Alshon Jeffery and veteran field stretcher Torrey Smith instead of Dorial Green-Beckham, who was recently waived, and Nelson Agholor. They also point to the additions of veterans Chris Long and LeGarrette Blount along with first-round pick Derek Barnett.
Others aren’t convinced. They note that cornerback, for the umpteenth season, is the team’s biggest deficiency. The Eagles are either starting Jalen Mills and rookie third-rounder Rasul Douglas or are leaning on Patrick Robinson, who turns 30 in September, or Ron Brooks. Also, Carson Wentz is entering his second season and must trim down the turnovers from his rookie year. Likewise, head coach Doug Pederson is considered a big question mark for the playoff doubters.
The hunch here is that the Eagles are one or two games better than last season but not improved enough to get into the playoffs. However, if all of the following five things happen, the Eagles would look a lot more playoff-ready:
1. Nelson Agholor must emerge. Agholor, who was Chip Kelly’s first-round pick in Kelly’s one year in charge of personnel, hasn’t come close to fulfilling first-round potential. Last year (36 catches for 365 yards) was actually an improvement from his abysmal rookie season, but he was benched for repeated mistakes and played sporadically in the last five games. He came back for OTAs this spring looking like a completely different receiver, but let’s see what happens when the pads come out this summer. The Eagles have more speed than last year thanks to Smith’s signing, but they’re still not explosive on the outside. If Agholor could play like a first-rounder, or something close to it, the offense would be in much better shape.
2. Jordan Hicks must play at least 14 games: We wrote on Monday why Hicks is the most indispensable player on the entire team. His health is critical to the team’s success for two reasons:
1) He’s a rising star and true playmaker at middle linebacker;
2) the Eagles have zero depth at the position.
The Eagles can’t afford to lose Hicks, who dealt with injuries in college and played just eight games as a rookie, for an extended period of time. The defense would be in major trouble.
3. A pass rusher must finish with double-digit sacks. It doesn’t matter if it’s Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, whoever. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme is predicated on a four-man rush. He hates blitzing. With that kind of scheme, a defense needs a dominant edge rusher. Graham finished with just 5.5 sacks. Cox managed only 6.5 after a 9.5- sack season in 2015. Curry had 2.5. The lack of an elite edge rusher resulted in an inconsistent pass rush – great against Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Minnesota and terrible against Green Bay, Cincinnati and Seattle.
4. The corners must be more competitive. Look, nobody’s expecting miracles here. Regardless of whom the Eagles start at both spots, it’s not going to be pretty. However, the cornerback duo can’t be terrible, as last year’s was… and the year before, and the year before.
The cornerback group as a whole is young and will take some necessary lumps, but the corners must be competitive and show fight against the tremendous receivers the Eagles will face this year – Odell Beckham Jr., Dez Bryant and Terrell Pryor twice, plus Larry Fitzgerald, Demaryius Thomas, Amari Cooper and Doug Baldwin, to name a few.
5. Carson Wentz must have twice as many touchdowns as interceptions. Wentz showed tremendous promise last year, setting several team and league rookie passing records, but he also showed a penchant for sloppy footwork and sailed passes. He threw 16 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. This season, he’ll need to be around 24 to 26 touchdowns and 12-13 interceptions to make a convincing argument that the Eagles can be a playoff team.
Geoff Mosher, a longtime Philadelphia sports reporter, is also a host on @975TheFanatic in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.
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