The Philadelphia Eagles will only go as far as second-year quarterback Carson Wentz takes them. That’s a given in the NFL, where elite quarterback play is a must.
But for the Eagles to take a major step forward in 2017, a few of Wentz’s teammates from the 2016 draft need to improve and play major roles. Here’s a breakdown of three sophomores who can’t afford to slump if the Eagles expect to improve on last year’s 7-9 record.
1. Jalen Mills, defensive back
Mills had ups and downs last year, playing all 16 games and starting two as a seventh-round pick out of LSU. The Eagles really need to find out what they have in him. Internally, according to sources, the Eagles discussed in the offseason whether Mills was more suited for corner or safety. In the spring camps, he took several reps in the slot. Plus, the Eagles are almost assuredly viewing their future outside cornerback tandem as Sidney Jones, a second-round pick this year who’s recovering from Achilles surgery, and Rasul Douglas, a rookie third-rounder who has good size and physicality for the defense. If the Eagles don’t think Mills has a future at corner, they could move him to slot or perhaps backup safety with an eye on starting him down the road. Regardless, the Eagles aren’t loaded in the secondary and Jones might miss the season. Mills can certainly add to this year’s defense and carve out a niche somewhere if he makes major strides this season. The coaches liked his competitiveness and size (6 feet, 194 pounds) enough to keep him on the 53-man roster ahead of second-year corner Eric Rowe, who they foolishly traded to New England.
2. Wendell Smallwood, running back
The Eagles’ main ball carriers are expected to be Darren Sproles and LeGarrette Blount, two 30-somethings who very likely are playing their final seasons in the NFL. Neither will be a feature back as the Eagles are going with the committee approach. Smallwood, a fifth-rounder out of West Virginia, showed promise as a dual-threat tailback. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry last year and caught six passes for 55 yards. In Week 3 against the Steelers he carried the ball 17 times for 79 yards and a touchdown. Against Atlanta, he racked up 70 yards on 13 carries. There were also some lowlights, including a fourth-quarter fumble against Dallas, which led to Philadelphia squandering a 10-point lead in a bug division loss, and some blitz pick-up nightmares. Smallwood added some weight this offseason and worked on his pass protection. If he can hold onto the ball, protect the quarterback and stay healthy, Smallwood is poised for a bigger role, especially if Blount and Sproles have trouble staying healthy.
3. Joe Walker, linebacker
Some would think left guard Isaac Seumalo would be the obvious candidate here, but the Eagles are strong and deep on the offensive line. At linebacker, it’s the opposite. Aside from third-year star Jordan Hicks, the Eagles have a bare cupboard in terms of young talent. Walker, a seventh-rounder out of Oregon, had such an exceptional training camp and preseason last year that he would have made the 53-man roster had he not torn his ACL at the end of the preseason. Walker showed good instincts and range last year. With another impressive camp, he could easily contend for a starting spot. Last year, the Eagles played mostly nickel to keep weak-side LB Mychal Kendricks off the field on pass downs. The Eagles could start Walker in the middle, move Hicks to the weak side and play much more base defense. Or they can play Walker at the weak side and see if his abilities translate there. The Eagles really need another body at the position. Walker will get as many opportunities as he needs to prove he belongs.
Geoff Mosher, a longtime Philadelphia sports reporter, is also a host on @975TheFanatic in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.