The 2017-2018 version of the Philadelphia Eagles has developed into a Super Bowl contender, much to the surprise of both the National Football League and their own fans. A season that was thought to be another developmental year for second-year quarterback Carson Wentz with his new weapons in wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith has turned into a year that, at worst, will see the Eagles tied for the best record in the NFL at the halfway point.
A combination of Wentz making a big jump with actual playmaking talent around him, the defense having another year to buy defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz‘s scheme, and more balanced play calling, the Eagles find themselves as the front-runners in the NFC East. One of the biggest contributing factors to the success of this year’s team is that although the Eagles have been hit with injuries to key players, they have been able to replace their production with in-house options by utilizing the “next man up” strategy.
Philadelphia Eagles Utilizing Next Man Up Strategy
Started with the Cornerbacks
The “next man up” mentality has been associated with this Eagles team all season long and it all started way back in the 2017 NFL Draft in Philadelphia. When they followed up their second-round selection of injured cornerback Sidney Jones by taking cornerback Rasul Douglas in the third round, it was with the thought that Douglas would need to step up and take away the sting of Jones missing time, for what could possibly be the whole first season. In extension to not solving their lack of talent at the cornerback position, the Eagles also ended up trading wide receiver Jordan Matthews for third-year cornerback Ronald Darby during the pre-season.
Thought to finally be their lead cornerback, Darby would end up starting with Jalen Mills to give the Eagles something they desperately lacked last year: an ability to stop other team’s wide receivers. Unfortunately, the first game of the season saw Darby go down with a gruesome injury which lead the team call on Douglas yet again. With the future cornerback tandem of Darby and Jones both sidelined, at least until they come back from injury, the Eagles called upon Mills and Douglas to step up as the next men up on the depth chart and fill the role they need them to fill. With a bit of a help from their successful pass rush, not only have Mills and Douglas stepped up, but free agent signee Patrick Robinson is at least playing well enough to keep the Eagles from losing ball games.
The Not-So-Special Teams
Also injured in the first game of the season was kicker Caleb Sturgis. Finding himself as a member of the Eagles after a previous injury to Cody Parkey, Sturgis knows too well that losing a season because of injury could lead to losing your spot on the roster. Unfortunately for him, this seems like it may end up being the case due to the emergence of rookie Jake Elliott. After a rocky start to his Eagles career, Elliott has since won a game against the New York Giants with a 61-yard field goal and has continued on to make ten of his next 11 field goals and making all of the extra point attempts.
The next big injury that had plagued the Eagles roster was in that very game that Elliott became the hero. Veteran running back Darren Sproles suffered a broken arm and a torn ACL in one isolated play. These injuries have threatened to end his career on top of ending his season and could have also ended the Eagles season as Sproles is not only an important punt returner but a weapon that is used all over the offense.
Fortunately, the Eagles found that a familiar face in Kenjon Barner was available to at least fill in for Sproles as a punt return man and as an extra running back. The following weeks, with Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement stepping up, the Eagles have shown more life in their running game; even without Sproles, their effort has made up for the loss.
After finding a way to not allow the impact of the injury of such a veteran leader like Sproles hurt the team’s momentum, they found another team leader injured in their game against the Carolina Panthers. Special team’s captain Chris Maragos had suffered a knee injury which would lead him injured reserve. Though his name may not be a household one to the casual football fan, Maragos is an integral part of the team’s special teams unit. His sole purpose on the team, outside of filling in for injuries as an emergency safety, is to make an impact on special teams – a position he excels at filling. Special teams coach Dave Fipp has kept the Eagles special teams unit in the top of the league since being hired and he has been able to weather the storm without the voice of Maragos on the field for him to use.
The Defense Lost Their Voice
All of the way up until their second meeting with the Washington Redskins, the Eagles had been able to absorb every blow that their team had taken through injuries. Monday night’s game, however, took shots that would finally test out the true power of the Eagles “next man up” philosophy.
Their first big loss of the game arrived when linebacker Jordan Hicks had gone down with an ankle injury. After staying out of the game, the medical staff later discovered the injury to be a ruptured Achilles tendon, essentially ending his season. Thought of to be one of the best players on the team, the loss of Hicks stings a bit more during a season where the Eagles could possibly contend for a Super Bowl. Hicks is the signal caller on defense along with their starting middle linebacker, indicating the Eagles would need to replace two major roles on the team.
Thankfully, linebacker Nigel Bradham has been more than impressive this season to the point that his rise may be able to help on both of the losses of Hicks. The plan is to initially allow Bradham to call plays, even as he stays at his position of the strongside linebacker instead of the middle linebacker. Normally the play caller will be the middle linebacker but the Eagles are going try out a bit of an unorthodox method, in hopes that Bradham will be able to make the adjustment for them.
With their defense normally only using two linebackers on the field, at most, the loss of Hicks as a starter will not be as bad as they could just continue to play the third starting linebacker, Mychal Kendricks, with Bradham in most of the defensive packages. Kendricks, the forgotten man of the three, has shown at times to be a very talented linebacker who’s ability may be wasted when he is not playing as much. His ability to fill in during injuries temporarily this season and make plays should also be an indicator that the defense could possibly survive and continue to thrive, despite the loss of Hicks.
The Blind Side Has Been Blindsided
Quite possibly the biggest shoes to fill from Eagles injuries had come when left tackle Jason Peters was carted off of the field following a right knee injury on the first snap of the third quarter. Not only does Peters protect the blind side of their franchise quarterback, but he is a respected member of their locker room. At the young age of 35, Peters had been having what could have quite possibly been his best season of his career; he was as much of a part of the running game’s success as he was to Wentz’s development.
With such a talent in right tackle Lane Johnson, the question was whether or not the Eagles would shift Johnson to his eventual position at left tackle or leave him at his current position and find another option at the left side. Due to consistency, it seems as though Johnson will stay on the right side and the left side will be covered by backup tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who filled in for Peters after his injury in the Redskins game. Vaitai, who played for Johnson during his suspension last season, was thrown to the wolves and had to learn on the job as a rookie until he suffered an MCL sprain in Week 11.
As opposed to signing a veteran tackle to replace Peters or Vaitai, the Eagles had signed former defensive end converted to tackle Taylor Hart from their practice squad. Waived during the final cuts even despite showing improvement at his new position, Hart was put on the practice squad in hopes to continue to develop for next season. As he continues to develop, he will also be thrown to the wolves this season if needed as Vaitai was last year, giving him invaluable experience.