By Andrew Garda
In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
The Philadelphia Eagles didn't stand pat after they won the division last season. They did what teams hungry for playoff wins do: they made changes. It was a smart move given that you could chalk up some of their success to the fact that the rest of the NFC East was horrible, so getting better was a necessity to stay on top. Of course, the danger in making changes after a successful season is that you could ruin a good thing, and the Eagles made a few moves which could have negative repercussions down the road.
Still, based on last year, they are the class of the division. To anyone who tries to come at the king, best not miss.
Biggest Offseason Move: Adding Malcolm Jenkins to the secondary
There's another big move you were probably thinking of, but we'll get to it momentarily. For now, let's talk about the secondary and adding some help for a unit which ranked dead last against the pass last season in terms of yards allowed.
Of course, they've been through this before, when they signed Nnamdi Asomugha to work with Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and we all know how that worked out. This year they have more of a foundation than that 32nd-ranked stat would lead you to believe, as they were tied with the ninth most interceptions in the league and were in the middle of the pack in passing touchdowns allowed with 25.
The corners held their own considering they were both new at the job, and strong safety was serviceable, but Patrick Chung was awful at free. Jenkins has underperformed the expectations he had as a first-round selection, but brings versatility and -- much more importantly -- some savagery to a safety position which has lacked it since Brian Dawkins bailed in 2008. T.J. Ward and Jairus Byrd were names a lot of Eagles fans wanted more, but they came with far heftier price tags.
As we said earlier, we've been down the "throw money at everything" path before, and it's no guarantee of success. Jenkins will fill several roles aside from enforcer, including stepping in as a slot corner. If they need him at strong safety for some reason, he can do that as well. He didn't work out for the Saints, but his addition to the Eagles secondary -- one which was not as bad as they appeared to be statistically in 2013 -- will help the overall defense and give them an edge in the race to retain the NFC East divisional crown.
Biggest Gamble: Cutting DeSean Jackson
In some ways, this divorce was easy to see coming. It seemed as if Jackson had been complaining about his contract for most of his six-year Eagles career and that certainly must have worn on the front office. More importantly, rumors surfaced after the move that he wasn't fitting in with what head coach Chip Kelly wanted in his locker room and offense, and although they claimed the move was for "football reasons" and not his alleged gang ties, the timing was difficult to ignore.
So in order to save some money and preserve chemistry, the Eagles tried to trade Jackson and then, finding no takers, released him, watching him land in Washington. While this was more than likely a net-gain for chemistry, it leaves the Eagles with the question of who will replace Jackson -- if they need anyone to at all?
Jackson was their vertical threat, a player who could stretch the field on deep routes due to his great speed. There's nobody on the roster who fits that role now. Jeremy Maclin will line up at the "Z" position where Jackson sometimes used to play and be the featured receiver for the offense. But even before his knee injury Maclin wasn't a burner and he won't have the speed to stretch the field the way Jackson did.
Coming off a career year, Riley Cooper will fill the "X" role, usually the receiver furthest from the offensive line, but it remains to be seen if he can reproduce last year's numbers without Jackson drawing coverage. Maclin will help in that regard, but Cooper is definitely going to see more attention and he sometimes struggles to separate. Rookie Jordan Matthews will be largely relegated to the slot, where Jackson lined up about 30 percent of his snaps. Matthews doesn't always separate from coverage cleanly either, but he has the potential to be deadly in the red zone and across the middle where his aggressiveness will win him a lot of possession battles.
Matthews was lauded by Philly.com's Jimmy Kempski during OTAs and I liked what we saw at Mobile during the Senior Bowl practices -- he certainly has upside.
In limited media access to OTAs so far, Jordan Matthews has looked like the best WR on the team, in my opinion, and it hasn't been close.- Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) June 10, 2014
Maybe the impact of Jackson's absence is minimal. Maybe they adjust smoothly and never miss him. But if they don't -- if Cooper can't replicate last season, if Ertz and Matthews fail in the slot, if Maclin gets hurt again or just isn't the same -- the net result could be losing the division.
Biggest Question: Is Nick Foles Legit?
Last season saw Nick Foles take over the starting quarterback role in Week 5, not throw an interception until Week 14 and throw just two for the whole season. Compare that to 27 touchdowns and total 2,891 yards on the season, and you can see why he was such a revelation. But is it crazy to think we're still not sold? Not really. Just two years into his career and entering his second year (first full) as a starter, we still haven't seen quite enough of Foles to know for sure.
Here is what we do know: Foles isn't afraid to throw the ball deep. The perception in some places is he won't, that he was prone to short passes which, in turn, allowed him to avoid interceptions. But that's not quite accurate. Philly.com's Kempski presented a stat in a piece recently which contained the following chart:
The Eagles led the league in pass plays of 20 or more yards. Sure, some came in the first few games when Vick was under center and a few more came in clean-up time with Matt Barkley. The large portion of these are throws by Foles. In support of that is Pro Football Reference's ranking of Foles as tops in adjusted yards per pass attempt and yards per pass attempt. So he definitely took chances, went long and his lack of interceptions seem to stem from the fact that he just also executed his passes well.
We also know, given his effectiveness in passing last season (Pro Football Reference has him completing 64 percent ) that he reads the field well and isn't prone to making mistakes when doing so. Whereas his new teammate (and backup) Mark Sanchez never saw a defense that didn't confuse him, Foles does a good job reading things both pre and post-snap.
What we don't know is how much losing Jackson will hurt Foles' effectiveness, if the offensive line will improve (it allowed the 25th most sacks in the NFL with 46 as well as 79 quarterback hits per NFL.com ) despite Lane Johnson likely being suspended or if tinkering with the backfield (dumping Bryce Brown for an aging Darren Sproles) will pay off.
And we don't know if Foles can keep up last year's pace. A lot is riding on Foles this season and if he falters, this could be a long year for the Eagles because neither Sanchez nor Matt Barkley seem ready to step up in his stead.
Bold Prediction: The offense stumbles….but the Eagles still win
Unfortunately, this year Foles takes a step back. It's going to be tough to replace Jackson and I don't believe Cooper will live up to his paycheck.
The amazing thing will be watching the team do enough to get into the playoffs, carried by a defense which has needed to prove itself for some time.
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Andrew Garda is a freelance writer currently murdering internet trees in the name of NFL football. A member of the Pro Football Writers Association, he is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth and has been featured on sites such as Bleacher Report, The Jets Blog, Comcast Sportsnet, Footballguys and CheeseheadTV. Garda has been credentialed for many NFL drafts, Senior Bowls, pro days and various NFL events and currently lives in Montclair, N.J., where you can't swing a stick without hitting another sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter at @andrew_garda.