By Kenneth Arthur
The Philadelphia Eagles have a plan, but perhaps Chip Kelly is the only one who knows what it is. People are skeptical if he knows what he's doing (to put it mildly).
During an impromptu press conference on Wednesday, Kelly did his best to dodge questions regarding myriad puzzling moves by the Eagles, explaining that he traded for Sam Bradford because he's "my quarterback" (Kelly also claimed he received a first-round offer for the oft-injured QB), and that he's not going to mortgage the future for Marcus Mariota. We'll see.
The Eagles could be the first team -- the first good one at least -- to lose or get rid of their starting quarterback, running back and receiver all within a week. Especially when two of them are among the best at their positions and the other is a young quarterback who made the Pro Bowl a year earlier. It seems insane, but maybe there is a method to the madness.
On Thursday, at least part of that plan came into focus when it was reported that the Eagles had signed DeMarco Murray to a five-year, $42 million contract (with $21 million guaranteed). So there's that.
The Moves (So Far)
• Traded LeSean McCoy to the Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso
• Traded Nick Foles, a 2015 fourth-round pick, a 2016 second-round pick to the Rams for Sam Bradford, a 2015 fifth-round pick, and a conditional 2016 pick
• Re-signed Mark Sanchez to two-year, $9 million contract
• Signed Byron Maxwell to a six-year, $60 million contract, $25 million guaranteed
• Re-signed Brandon Graham to four-year, $26 million contract
• Signed Walter Thurmond to one-year contract
• Signed Ryan Mathews to three-year contract
• Released Cary Williams, Todd Herremans and Trent Cole
* Signed DeMarco Murray to a five-year, $42 million contract, $21 million guaranteed
There was also the move that the Eagles didn't make by not agreeing to pay Maclin the $11 million per year he wanted, so he got it instead from the Chiefs. They still have needs at safety, cornerback, wide receiver and right guard, but there is also cap room with which to work, and a draft in April.
Let's take a closer look on how all this could shake out.
Best-Case Scenario: Kelly Finally Has a Defense
While the Eagles have managed to have a top-five offense in both seasons under Kelly despite making midseason changes at the most important position both years, they've had very little on the other side of the ball.
Philadelphia has finished 29th and 28th in total defense in both of the last years, respectively. Even though its overall defensive prowess may not be as bad as those rankings (Football Outsiders ranked them as the 10th-best defense last year by DVOA) it especially struggled against the pass. The Eagles were 20th in pass defense DVOA, and allowed the second-most passing yards and fifth-most passing touchdowns last season.
Now, what kind of answer do they have for having to face Odell Beckham Jr, DeSean Jackson and Dez Bryant a total of six times next season?
Though he may have been the fourth-best player in Seattle's secondary, that's still not bad. Maxwell held his own over the last season-and-a-half he spent as a starter, despite playing opposite Richard Sherman, meaning that he was often the preferred go-to target of opposing quarterbacks. But against 71 targets last year, Maxwell allowed only 45 catches and a passer rating of just 81.1.
In 2013, he allowed a passer rating of just 57.8 over the regular season and playoffs.
Even if the contract seems like a big one for a guy who has just over a season of experience, it was worth it for the Eagles, who really needed to improve their pass defense. He now becomes the best player in the secondary.
Meanwhile, new acquisition Alonso was the Pro Football Writer's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, but you could have made a solid argument that he was the best middle linebacker in the NFL that season at any level of experience, and that includes Luke Kuechly, who was named the Defensive Player of the Year. By adding Alonso to a group that already includes Barwin (14.5 sacks last year), Graham (5.5 sacks, 39 QB hurries) and Mychal Kendricks (83 tackles, four sacks), Philadelphia could have the best linebacking corps in football.
Yes, there has been a lot of attrition on offense, and many are rightly skeptical of having Sanchez and Bradford as the only options under center. But if Bradford is really the intended starter for next season, he will be playing with a better offensive line, better weapons and better offensive game plan than any he's had in the last six years. Even after the loss of Maclin, the Eagles still have Jordan Matthews, who had 872 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie, Zach Ertz, who improved to 702 yards last season, and Cooper, who has proven to be a reliable deep threat.
Though Philadelphia appears to be the only team in the NFC East without a true No. 1 receiver, it's become easier and easier every year for teams to acquire one, whether it's through the draft, free agency or trade.
The offense has consistently been great under Kelly and that has usually come after some significant pre-season and mid-season adjustments, but if he finally figured out how to build a defense -- and it looks like he may have -- then Philadelphia could be poised to make a deep postseason run.
Worst-Case Scenario: Injuries and Unfamiliarity Cripple the Team
Every move that the Eagles have made has carried a significant amount of risk and a healthy amount of faith. If the moves do not pay off, then Kelly could be on his way back to college sooner rather than later.
The trade for Bradford will cost them a second-round pick next season, and by then they might have just paid $12.5 million for one year of a subpar QB and have less than nothing to show for it. Not to mention that they also took the risk of getting rid of a QB that had thrown 27 touchdowns and two picks just two years earlier. Nobody can say for sure that Foles isn't better than Bradford, but they can say that he costs less, is also a free agent at the end of the year and wouldn't have cost them next year's second round pick.
They also just gave $60 million, including $25 million guaranteed, to Maxwell, who -- as we mentioned -- has only 17 career starts under Pete Carroll, the league's preeminent DB guru. Keep in mind that Carroll took Brandon Browner from the CFL and made him a Pro Bowler, but Browner had his struggles with New England last season after leaving the Seahawks system (the Pats opted not to pay him a $2 million roster bonus and let him go).
There's no way to know for sure that Browner's fate won't face Maxwell, but the Eagles won't be able to get out of that contract after just a year. It seems odd that they were willing to spend big money on Maxwell, but not make up the $2 million per year difference to keep their top receiver.
Finally, there's the fact that Kelly traded a two-time All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowl, 26-year-old running back for a middle linebacker with 16 games of experience who is less than a year removed from a serious knee injury. It sounds insane to say because … well, it is kind of insane to say. Despite Kelly's familiarity with Alonso and vice versa, in the NFL a change-of-scenery can sometimes go very wrong. Alonso could return to his 2013 form, but it will be hard to replicate McCoy's production over the last two seasons. However ...
What works about the Murray deal, despite the fact that it may not save them any money compared to McCoy, is that it allows the Eagles to still have an upper-echelon running back but also an upper-echelon linebacker. Kelly used a trade chip to bring in one of his former players from Oregon knowing that the running back position is fungible and that there are many big names available. Though it would appear that the original plan involved Frank Gore, there were plenty of other options, including Mathews and Murray, both of whom would appear to fill a specific need for Philadelphia.
As ESPN Stats and Info pointed out, Mathews and Murray finished first and second respectively in yards per carry out of the shotgun last season.
Did the move save them any money? No, it wouldn't appear so. Is Murray a significant upgrade over McCoy? Probably not. But now the Eagles have the personnel for a top-five rushing attack and also Alonso, one of the best middle linebackers in football. As more puzzle pieces come into place, the picture becomes much clearer.
The moves Kelly has made are a series of gambles that seem to have gone above and beyond a reasonable level of risk-for-reward, but we should remember one thing …
It is probably time for the Eagles to take some risks.
Kelly knows that after two 10-6 seasons, each of which ended in disappointment, finishing at or around .500 won't win him fans in the stands or the front office. What he needs to do is win 12 or more games, advance in the playoffs and convince everyone in Philadelphia that their first Super Bowl championship is somewhere on the horizon. As is continuously proven almost every year, that is done with defense before it is done with offense.
What he's doing with these moves is betting on himself to figure out the offense, as he's done in the last two years, and putting talent on the defense side because that's what they've been lacking.
The Eagles may look a lot different next season, but given Kelly's track record for adjusting on the fly, maybe that's not a bad thing.
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Kenneth Arthur is a freelance writer currently covering the NFL at Rolling Stone and the Seattle Seahawks at FieldGulls.com. His work has also been found at Football Outsiders and SB Nation, and he thinks that Andrew Luck is "just OK."