The Philadelphia Eagles surprised a lot of people last year after going 10-6 to win the NFC East. Their season began with questions about whether new head coach Chip Kelly could succeed in the NFL after coaching at the college level since 1990 and whether the Eagles had a competent starting quarterback on their roster. Both of those questions were answered, as Kelly installed one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL while Nick Foles thrived in his role as the starting quarterback after Michael Vick went down with an injury.
While the team has championship aspirations, there are still some questions that need to be answered. We asked Brandon Gowton, the Manager and Editor-in-Chief for SB Nation's Bleeding Green Nation, about some of the questions that the 2014 Eagles face.
What should expectations be for Nick Foles after he broke onto the scene in 2013? Will he cement himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league, or do you think last season was an aberration?
There are high expectations for Nick Foles in 2014. It's not just about Foles proving he's repeating his 2013 performance. It's about repeating that success plus improving upon it. Foles recorded a mightily impressive 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2013 but there were times where the offense seemed to stall or too many plays were left on the field. There is reason to believe Foles will show improvement during his third NFL season. He's spent a year in Chip Kelly's system and he doesn't have to worry about winning a quarterback battle. Foles is known for being an extremely hard worker so it's not like he needs the extra motivation. Regression, to a certain extent, seems inevitable for Foles in 2014. I wouldn't call last season an aberration but he definitely still has a lot to prove. Consistency is key.
What role do you see newly acquired Darren Sproles playing this season? How will his presence affect LeSean McCoy?
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly couldn't have been happier when the team acquired Sproles in a trade with the Saints during the offseason. Kelly went as far to call Sproles an "unbelievable offensive weapon." One thing Kelly has not called Sproles, however, is a "wide receiver." He's been insistent that Sproles is a running back. This is curious because Sproles, 31, has recorded over 70 receptions in his past three seasons. Despite Kelly's word play, look for Sproles to rack up a number of catches in the short-to-intermediate passing game. He will also be a weapon on screen plays. Sproles won't likely take away too many snaps away from star running back LeSean McCoy because the NFL's leading rusher is too talented to keep on the bench. The Eagles ran out of a single back formation more than any other team in 2013 (98%) but that could change in 2014.
How important do you think DeSean Jackson's loss is for the team?
The loss of DeSean Jackson shouldn't be understated. Jackson was and still is a very talented player. For whatever reason, Kelly and the Eagles felt like the benefits of Jackson's talent on the field didn't outweigh any off-field concerns they had. Jackson's loss means the Eagles no longer have one of the best deep threats in the league. At the same time, the cupboard is hardly bare. Jeremy Maclin is returning from injury, Riley Cooper is returning from a breakout season, and the Eagles drafted two talented rookies in Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff. Darren Sproles and second year tight end Zach Ertz will also be part of the committee that aims to replace Jackson's production.
The team's defense really improved as the 2013 season went along. Can we expect this defense to become an elite one this year?
The Eagles defense may never truly be elite. The blistering pace of the Eagles offense ensures that the opponent's offense will hold on to the ball longer. Philadelphia's defense will be forced to face more offensive plays which means they're more prone to surrendering yards. Where the Eagles pride themselves is in forcing turnovers and limiting opponents to field goals. That's not unlike other good defensive units but the Eagles seem to especially embrace a "bend-but-don't-break" mentality. The Eagles defense just needs to be "good enough" and that's what they were last season when they went nine straight games of only allowing 21 points or less.
Which wide receiver do you see emerging as the number one target by the end of the year?
This a good question because the Eagles don't necessarily have a clear number one option. I'm not sure if they will by the end of the season because the ball will spread around often. The safe bet, however, is Jeremy Maclin. He's experienced and the Eagles brought him back because they felt he has the potential to excel in Kelly's offense. Maclin also seemed to have a good connection with Foles when they played together in limited time at the end of the 2012 season. Maclin needs to make the most of his opportunity in the spotlight.
Which players do you think are most poised for a breakout season in 2014?
On offense, second year tight end Zach Ertz is poised to make a big leap. He'll still have to split time with veteran starter Brent Celek, who remains the superior blocker in the Eagles run-heavy offense, but he should earn more playing time than he had in his rookie 2013 campaign. Ertz had a really encouraging season as far as rookie tight ends go. Ertz's 13 yards-per-reception were tied for the highest mark by a rookie tight end since New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski put up the same number in 2010.
On defense, third year defensive end Fletcher Cox is still only 23 years old. He's an impressive athlete and he'll enter his second season adjusted to playing in the Eagles 3-4 defense. Cox only finished with 3 sacks but his 39 QB hurries were tied for third-highest among NFL 3-4 defensive ends, per Pro Football Focus. Expect more production for Cox.
What are your predictions for the 2014 Eagles? Do you believe this is a Super Bowl caliber team?
Though many expect the Eagles to regress in 2014, I think the benefit of continuity will carry over from the positive results of the 2013 season. The Eagles aren't ready to take a major step forward but they should be continuing in the right direction. Philadelphia is definitely a Super Bowl contender because they're the favorites to win a NFC East title that's very much up for grabs. If you can make the playoffs in the NFL, you pretty much have as good a shot as any team. The Eagles aren't Super Bowl favorites at this point but they're definitely in the mix.
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