With LeGarrette Blount signing, are the Eagles actually contenders now?

The Birds went 7-9 last year, but with many roster improvements, the playoffs are the goal.

Is LeGarrette Blount the bruising back the Eagles need to compete?

Is LeGarrette Blount the bruising back the Eagles need to compete?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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The Eagles made a significant move Wednesday when they signed free agent running back LeGarrette Blount to a one-year deal. So far this offseason, figuring out the hole at running back was the one remaining decision borne out of utter necessity, and in signing the 6-0, 250-pound bruiser who just won a Super Bowl with the Patriots, Philly filled this huge need in the biggest possible way.

Now, with running back addressed for this year, it begs the question: Are the Eagles good enough to compete for the NFC East crown? Are they — GASP — good enough to fight for the Super Bowl?

Short answer: Vegas doesn’t think so. The most updated odds still have the Eagles in the middle of the pack, behind the Cowboys, Packers, Falcons, Seahawks, Giants, Panthers, Vikings and Cardinals. Doing the math, it’s clear oddsmakers don’t see the Eagles in the playoff picture this coming season, even with Blount. And, look, a 30-year old running back signed to a one-year deal in mid May who New England didn’t think was worth keeping around is probably not going to be the missing piece to a championship roster.

But what if he is? Like, no, seriously…what if he is?

In 2016, the Eagles had a really good defense and a woebegone offense in almost every way. What looked like a Super Bowl-caliber defense early in the year got exposed as the season rolled along, especially in the secondary — namely the cornerback position — where injuries and a lack of depth caught up with Jim Schwartz’s attacking style. But, truly, the defense was good enough in Doug Pederson’s first year as head coach to compete. It was the offense that sorely lacked luster, outside of a good-but-absolutely-not-great rookie season from Carson Wentz.

The Eagles’ offensive line was hurt or old or hurt and old all season. The running backs were mediocre or miscast or mediocre and miscast and the receivers were so bad fans (and analysts) were demanding Paul Turner and Bryce Treggs get more snaps.

For 2017 to be a success, the offense had to improve, and the defense couldn’t get any worse. Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas also had a big challenge this offseason: Make the roster younger and more talented without losing too much experience, and do it all with very little room under the salary cap, trying not to build a win-now roster that would neglect the future.

Done. Done. Done. Done and sort of done. The roster is younger, yet several positions of need were filled by players with more (read: better) experience. The salary cap was managed relatively well, shedding the contracts of players like Connor Barwin, Leodis McKelvin and Chase Daniel, which enabled the Eagles to sign the likes of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith at receiver, Chance Warmack to bolster the offensive line, Chris Long at defensive end and trade for defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan to replace Bennie Logan, who left via free agency.

Alshon Jeffery is part of the Eagles' new revamped offense.

Alshon Jeffery is part of the Eagles' new revamped offense.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Eagles even had enough money to re-sign back-up safety Jaylen Watkins and tight end Trey Burton to one-year deals, sign Patrick Robinson to fill a need in the secondary, bring Nick Foles back home, sign former Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin for reasons unbeknownst to anyone with a football-shaped brain and re-sign Stefan Wisniewski to a three-year deal, paving the way for Jason Kelce’s inevitable trade or release.

The Birds even filled some immediate and long-term needs in the NFL Draft, snagging DE Derek Barnett in the first round and injured CB Sidney Jones in Round 2, who could be the steal of the draft if he gets back up to playing speed.

The only position they roundly ignored this offseason was running back. Yes, they drafted Donnel Pumphrey in the fourth round and tabbed him as a “Darren Sproles clone,” but the Eagles already have Sproles, at least for one more season, but they didn’t have a guy on their roster they could trust to carry the ball 15-20 times a game.

Now, at least for a year, they do.

Blount had by far his best season in 2016, carrying the ball 299 times for New England and racking up 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns, with another 35 carries for 109 yards and a score in the playoffs. His yards per carry weren’t great — 3.9 ypc in the regular season and just 3.1 ypc in the playoffs  — but on 56 attempts with three or fewer yards to go last year, Blount had 33 first downs and 13 touchdowns. The Eagles needed a back who can get them one tough yard. If anything, Blount should be good for that, so while we’ve all been salivating over this highlight (against the Eagles) that the NFL put out Wednesday to showcase Blount’s talents, don’t expect too many of these runs.

Fifteen of Blount’s 18 regular season touchdowns came from inside the opponent’s 10 yard line, and of those, just two were from outside of five yards. Last season Blount had scoring runs of 43 yards, 41 yards, 13 yards, nine yards, eight yards, five yards, three yards and 11 scores from one yard runs. That’ll lower the average, but it helped New England win another championship, and it could help the Eagles get closer to one this year.

As a team, the Eagles had just eight touchdowns of one yard in 2016, two of which were passes and three of which were runs by soon-to-be-jettisoned back Ryan Mathews. The Eagles ran 73 plays last season inside the opponent’s 10 yard line, 47 of which were rushes. They scored 15 touchdowns.

On yards-to-go of three or less last season, the Eagles ran 139 plays and had just 78 first downs, 47 on the ground on 77 attempts. On 72 3rd-and-short or 4th-and-short situations, the Eagles attempted just 35 runs, converting a first down just 21 times.

This offense needs a guy like Blount, if not to carry the ball 20 times for 100-plus yards every week, than to at least keep defenses honest, and to gain the tough yards that can help turn a 7-9 record into a division-contending mark. Of the Eagles’ nine losses last season, six were one-score defeats. If the moves to add just Jeffery and Blount can even extend a few drives, collect a couple of extra first downs, and give the defense a little more rest, it’s safe to say that might be worth two or three wins.

To go from 7-9 to 9-7 is the type of development we should expect to see out of the Pederson and Wentz-era Eagles in Year 2. But what if the changes can amount to more? Wentz has viable offensive weapons now, and the front office did it mostly on one-year ‘show me’ deals. Jeffery, also on a one-year deal like Blount, was regarded as the top receiver in free agency. Unlike Blount, Jeffery had other options, but chose to come to Philly on the first day of free agency. If he’s willing to stay might depend on how this season goes, and how quickly the Eagles can become a contender.

Longterm, the one-year deals might be an issue, as the team knows it can’t survive on finding short-term contracts at key positions forever.

But for this year? What if last year’s 7-9 team just became a 10-6 roster? Is that good enough to beat Dallas, New York and Washington to the NFC East title?

What if it’s 11-5? Now we’re talking playoffs for sure, and by adding a back that knows what it takes to carry the load for a Super Bowl winner, the Eagles just might have transformed themselves a team nobody will want to play.

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