The Philadelphia Eagles were a disappointment in 2016. While the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants both made the NFC playoffs, Philly was held out of the race by an offense lacking in firepower and a defense without cornerbacks. 2017 offers something else entirely. The Eagles had a fantastic draft (at least thus far) and signed several great free agents. With that in mind, the Eagles writers here at Last Word on Pro Football pooled together and came up with some predictions for the 2017 season in our first iteration of our new Eagles series, State of the Nest!
Philadelphia Eagles State of the Nest: Part II
Which position will show the most improvement in 2017?
There are a couple of different options to choose here, but defensive line not only got significantly better but it will have the greatest impact for the Birds next season.
One large problem that inhibited the line last season was that Fletcher Cox was continually double teamed. Brandon Graham stepped up his game and rose to Pro Bowl level, but Vinny Curry didn’t rise enough to be a consistent force. Cox still stepped up and was extremely effective while taking on two opposing players, but the line didn’t do nearly enough putting pressure on quarterbacks or stopping the run.
The biggest thing the team did was draft defensive end Derek Barnett out of the Tennessee in the first round. Barnett broke the Tennessee school record for sacks with 33, held by Eagle great and former Volunteer Reggie White. Barnett’s presence, if he plays up to his reputation, should prevent opposing offenses from double teaming Cox and allow both linemen to flourish.
They also added Timmy Jernigan in a trade from Baltimore. The defensive tackle should be a forceful presence in the middle of the line and he is excited to play for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. They also added Chris Long on a one-year contract in free agency after he won a Super Bowl with New England last season.
The defensive line had a major overhaul this offseason and now has incredible depth and should significantly improve next season.
Which position took a step back?
Linebacker became weaker by the sheer fact that the Eagles did not really add anyone significant to improve it. Nathan Gerry was drafted in the sixth round out of Nebraska, but he played safety in college and it remains to be seen how good he will be transitioning to linebacker in the NFL.
The starting linebackers are projected to be Eagles 2016’s leading tackler Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks and Mychal Kendricks but that could easily change by the start of the season or midway through the season.
Bradham has a clear history of off-the-field issues and felony charges loom over his head from a battery incident last July. Hicks is a great linebacker when in the game, but he’s dealt with injury problems since he entered the league. Kendricks has been involved with swirling rumors over the last year or so that he doesn’t fit in Schwartz’s scheme. There is minimal depth behind those starters so this position is decent but stands on very weak ice as the season looms.
Which rookie are you most excited for?
If Sidney Jones was healthy next season, he would be the no doubter for this category. Based on his sheer talent and raw potential though, it has to be Derek Barnett. He was already extremely talented and impactful in college, but now he goes to a defensive line with one of the game’s best in Fletcher Cox. Cox should be able to take Barnett under his wing and be the perfect mentor to help transition Barnett into the NFL.
I expect Barnett to have a superb rookie season. With the opposing offensive lines focused on stopping Cox, Barnett should wreak havoc.
Who will be the Eagles’ MVP in 2017?
Last season, many expected Ertz to be the safety valve and go-to target for Wentz but the hookup wasn’t nearly as consistent as most wanted. Next year, that should all change. With a year under his belt and another offseason to build a rapport with his receiving corps, Wentz’s numbers should rise and his accuracy should be better. Ertz in 2017 will be the player that people wanted last year and will break out. The connection of Wentz to Ertz will be the top passing connection on the team, even ranking high in the whole league. I predict this connection will rack up 100+ receptions, 1,100 yards and eight or more touchdowns.