Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
The Eagles not only just enjoyed the finest two-year run in club history -- or at least since Chuck Bednarik was playing all 60 minutes -- but the best football for this group might be coming down the pike right now. Philadelphia has one of the most complete rosters in the game, one of the best coaches in the game and a franchise quarterback. Things are going so well for the Eagles these days that y'all don't even have the time or energy to get upset about Bryce Harper and his contract.
How the Eagles got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.
-- Another magical run by Nick Foles. I mean that Big Nick Energy kind of carried the Eagles again last season, as Foles was once again called upon to lead the team after starter Carson Wentz went down in mid-December with a back injury. Behind the backup QB, Philly closed out the regular season with three straight wins to secure the second wild-card slot. And then, on Wild Card Weekend ...
-- The Double-Doink. It gives me absolutely no pleasure to bring this up once again -- some of you might not know that I'm a Schaumburg-born Bears fan -- but the Eagles logged a stunning playoff win over the host Bears when Cody Parkey missed a would-be game-winner from 43 yards out. That sucked. For me. It was great for Eagles fans.
-- Carson Wentz gets injured again. One of the bright young quarterbacks in the game hasn't been able to finish the last two seasons. And he wasn't the only Eagle who was hurt. (More on that in a moment.)
-- Losing to the Saints in the Divisional Round. I really thought the Eagles were going to pull off another stunner. I mean, you felt so confident in Foles. But his pass went through the hands of Alshon Jeffery, and Marshon Lattimore made the interception that sealed a win for the Saints. And effectively ended the Foles era in Philadelphia.
-- Mike Trout signing a 12-year extension to remain with the Angels for life. I know a lot of you had hoped that the best baseball player on the planet -- who just so happens to be an Eagles superfan -- would end up in Philadelphia after the 2020 season. But that's not happening.
Head coach: Doug Pederson. Am I being too much of a hot-take artist if I say Pederson is the best coach in the NFL? Because seriously, who is better right now? I know your first instinct is to say it's Bill Belichick. But I think we all remember what happened when the two matched up in Super Bowl LII. Just saying. OK, I know that was just one game and everything, so can we at least say that Pederson's top five? Wait, let's make that top three. I'll let you pick who the third guy is. Pederson has been a rock for this organization -- a franchise that had a wonderful coach for many years who could never get over the hump (Andy Reid) ... and then thought it would be a good idea to bring in Chip Kelly (it wasn't). Pederson came in, went 13-3 in Year 2 to win the NFC East, took down Belichick's Pats for the Lombardi Trophy, then guided a depleted roster to the Divisional Round this past season. (Though I might point out that it wasn't cool to freeze Cody Parkey like that, but whatever.) The most amazing thing about Pederson is that he was able to do much of it with his backup quarterback, Foles, a guy who was nearly out of football and probably looking at opening a Wahoo's Fish Tacos in San Clemente, California, or something. Right now, it doesn't seem like a huge accomplishment, because Foles is one of the more celebrated quarterbacks in the league. He just signed a huge deal in Jacksonville. But Pederson basically rescued this guy and re-instilled the love of football in him.
Quarterback: Carson Wentz. The Eagles made the decision to stick with Wentz, even giving him a huge extension. Because that's what happens when you land a franchise quarterback. And anybody who doubts Wentz needs to take a look back at what was happening with Wentz at the helm in 2017. Before tearing his ACL in Week 14, Wentz was the front-runner for the MVP award. Those Eagles averaged 31.1 points per game in his starts, converting 45.3 percent of third downs and posting a red-zone percentage of 67.4. I will concede that Wentz didn't look as crisp last year as he returned from injury -- remember, Foles started the first two games of the season -- but he's still the franchise quarterback the Eagles thought he would be when they drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick in 2016.
Projected 2019 MVP: Wentz. It's really difficult to pinpoint one player for the Eagles because they have one of the best rosters in the NFL. Maybe the most complete, from top to bottom. So Philadelphia has put itself into a pretty good position here. I will mention that it's Wentz because the Eagles have removed the safety net of Foles, turning the operation over to Wentz completely. Like when Obi-Wan sacrificed himself and turned everything over to Luke Skywalker. You can't just sit there and rely on the old Jedi to guide you through life. Although, Obi-Wan actually became more powerful as a force ghost. Wentz won't have that luxury.
And if not Wentz, then: Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle. Dude set career highs in sacks (10.5) and quarterback hits (34) last year. In fact, he's one of just two players with at least 10 sacks and 30 quarterback hits last year. The other? Aaron Donald. Cox had the second-highest pressure rate (11.4) among interior defensive linemen, according to Next Gen Stats. Go ahead and guess who he was second to. That's right: Donald. So let's just say Fletcher Cox is the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL, non-Aaron Donald division.
2019 breakout star: Dallas Goedert, tight end. He's the reason why I don't fire in on Zach Ertz in my fantasy leagues. The Eagles run a lot of two-tight end stuff, which means there's always going to be room for the both of them, but I like Goedert to really step up this season. He was good as a rookie, catching 33 balls for 334 yards and four touchdowns. And that was despite playing less than 50 percent of the Eagles' offensive snaps last year. I expect Goedert's P.T. to increase this season as Pederson finds ways to get him out on the field and get the ball into his hands.
New face to know: Miles Sanders, running back. I really liked this pick for the Eagles. He kind of got lost in the shuffle at Penn State, playing his first two seasons behind Saquon Barkley, but he made the most of his opportunity to carry the load in 2018. He's not the game-breaker Saquon is -- who is? -- but he has great skills. Sanders did post similar carry and rush-yard totals to Barkley during his final season in Happy Valley (Sanders rushed for 1,274 yards on 220 carries in 2018, while Barkley picked up 1,271 on 217 carries in 2017), but Barkley doubled up Sanders in rushing TDs (18 to nine). Sanders, though, is on a team that is going to the playoffs, so there's that.
Will the Eagles be able to ...
Make a run in the playoffs without Nick Foles? As I touched on above, I love Wentz. Philly made the right move going back to him. But his story will always be attached to Foles. In some sense, Wentz is replacing a legend. Kind of like the way Andrew Luck had to come in and replace Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. That might seem somewhat ridiculous when you consider Manning's standing in the hierarchy of NFL quarterbacks (the national perception, not mine), but realize what Foles has meant to this organization. He led the Eagles to their only Super Bowl title and first NFL championship since 1960. There are a good number of fans who believe Philly should have stuck with Foles, given what he's been able to do the last two years. And you know that if the Eagles struggle, there is going to be increasing pressure on Wentz. This is why the competitive urgency index is so high with this team. Because Wentz is now expected to win a Super Bowl.
Win with Nate Sudfeld if needed? I don't want to bring up this kind of evil, but it's a fair question to ask, given what has happened with the team over the past two years. The Eagles seem confident enough, though. Sudfeld has completed 20 of his 25 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown with zero picks during limited action for Philadelphia (appearing in three games over the past two years). He's one of those quarterbacks who has looked great when given a chance in the preseason. And really, many thought it was a risk to go with Foles back in the day, and that worked out pretty well. This is one of those instances where Pederson has earned enough credibility to trust his judgment.
Continue their late-2018 defensive momentum into this season? Philadelphia's defense took a step back last year. The unit allowed 21.8 points per game, up from 18.4 during the Super Bowl season. The 2018 Eagles allowed 269.2 passing yards per game (up from 227.3 in '17) and forced just 17 takeaways (down from 31). That said, the defense was much better from Week 12 through the end of the season. Philly allowed fewer than 20 points per game on average and was much better on third down and in the red zone.
Now, in defense of these first few months of struggles, Philadelphia dealt with a lot of health issues. DE Derek Barnett, CB Jalen Mills, CB Ronald Darby, CB Sidney Jones and S Rodney McLeod all missed significant time to injury. Many expect Barnett to have a breakout season as he returns from rotator-cuff surgery. And the Eagles also landed a number of veteran reinforcements in free agency (SEE: DT Malik Jackson, DE Vinny Curry, LB Zach Brown and S Andrew Sendejo).
One specific area where Philadelphia needs to see significant improvement from last season is in the secondary. The Eagles' defense pressured quarterbacks on 195 dropbacks -- the second-most in the NFL (behind only the Bears), according to Next Gen Stats -- but the Eagles allowed a 91.1 passer rating when applying pressure. So Philly's front consistently harassed opposing signal-callers, but the back end didn't hold up its end of the bargain.
Three key dates
-- Week 2 at the Falcons. I'm expecting a lot of things from the Falcons this season, so this is a pretty hype matchup for me. Wentz struggled last year against teams that finished above .500, and I don't want that Matt Stafford type of thing to get hung on him. So go down to Atlanta, beat the Falcons, and things will be looking great.
One storyline people are overlooking:DeSean Jackson was a great pickup. Loved this move by the Eagles. I really did believe the trade acquisition of Golden Tate was going to work out well for them last year, but it didn't. Jackson should be amazing, though, as he returns to the team that drafted him. Jackson ranks fourth all-time in receiving yards by an Eagle, even after spending the last five seasons with Tampa Bay and Washington. He has 29 career touchdowns of 50-plus yards in his career -- only Jerry Rice (36) had more. Jackson also averaged 19.1 air yards per target in 2018, according to Next Gen Stats, and that was the highest mark in the NFL among players with at least 50 targets. He's going to be the game-breaker the Eagles need. Although you shouldn't sleep on my dude J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who had the most contested catches in FBS over the last two seasons (40), according to Pro Football Focus. He also led the Pac-12 with 28 receiving touchdowns from 2016 through '18.
Another interesting note:Wentz is great against the blitz. This is one of the reasons Wentz was so good in 2017, when he recorded 13 touchdown passes (against only one pick) and a passer rating of 97.4 vs. the blitz. Wentz completed 63.5 percent of his passes against the blitz last year, with six touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 100.4.
One storyline people are overthinking:Jordan Howard fitting into the offense. I was bummed when the Bears traded Howard. He was one of the few good things that came out of the John Fox era in Chicago. But I wish him well in Philadelphia. The Eagles finished 28th in rushing last year, averaging just 98.1 rushing yards per game -- their lowest mark since 2005. Howard has the third-most rushing yards in the NFL since he entered the league in 2016, behind just Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley. Howard is one of five running backs with more than 1,000 scrimmage yards in each of the last three seasons. He rushed for 935 yards last year, and that would have made him the Eagles' leader in a walk. I'm going to love him and Sanders together.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Eagles MUST ...
And if you could, also keep the Cowboys out of the playoffs. In fact, being the only team from the NFC East in the playoffs would be great. But the Lombardi Trophy is the only goal.
There are some good teams in the NFC, but the Eagles have one of the top rosters (if not the best) in the NFL right now. They are taking a slight leap of faith by going with Wentz, but it feels like the right move to me. Philadelphia is not only going to be a contender for the Super Bowl this season, but for some time to come.