It’s finally NFL game week. The last time the Philadelphia Eagles played an actual game of football was Week 17 last season — a win! — on Jan. 1, 2017. That’s more than 250 days between regular season games, and it’s been even longer since they played a meaningful game of football. But each season starts anew, and the Eagles head down to Washington this Sunday tied for first (and last!) in the NFC East, primed to make Year 2 of the Doug Pederson era better than the first.
Playoffs? Super Bowl? The Eagles have some high hopes this season — probably not Super Bowl high, but nobody really saw Atlanta getting there last year — so each week we’re going to hold the team in check and look at seven questions leading into the next game the Eagles need to answer. We’ll call it something footbally like “Front 7” or…no, wait, I like that. Let’s go with that.
With this being the season opener, here are seven questions (and answers) we hope are right by the end of the year.
How many games will the Eagles win?
This is the only question that really matters.
FWIW, the number of bets on a team to make the Super Bowl doesn’t mean that’s the team people think will make the Super Bowl. It merely means those teams have the best odds-to-success ratio for it to be a sensible bet.
Important: Two of the teams in the Eagles’ division have very good odds to get to the Super Bowl. Dallas is at 12-to-1 to win the Super Bowl and 6-to-1 to make it there, tied with Atlanta and behind only Green Bay and Seattle, according to Vegas Insider. The Giants are just behind Dallas at 7-to-1 to get to the Super Bowl while the Eagles are a distant 20-to-1, ahead of only five teams in the NFC. Vegas has had the Eagles win total hovering around 8 wins all off-season, better than last year, but not actually good.
Where are these eight wins coming?
They have a 6-10 schedule with wins over Washington twice, probably the Chargers, 49ers, Bears and Rams. To get to 7-9 they’ll need to also beat Denver, Arizona or New York at home or steal a game from Dallas or the Raiders. Let’s say they win all but one of the games they should and steal a few games against teams they shouldn’t beat; 8-8 sounds perfectly average.
How many times will Carson Wentz throw the football this season?
Wentz threw a team record 607 times last season, completing 379 (62.4 percent) for 3,782 yards. Only four quarterbacks in the NFL threw more passes last year: Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Blake Bortles and Aaron Rodgers. Wentz had 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Brees, in 673 attempts, completed 70 percent of his throws and had 37 scores to 15 picks. Flacco completed 64.9 percent of his 672 attempts, tossing 20 touchdowns to 15 interceptions.
Bortles, who almost lost his job this offseason, completed just 58.9 percent of his 625 passes, tossing 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Rodgers, only completed 65.7 percent of his passes, but threw just seven interceptions to 40 touchdowns.
Maybe the real question should be, with that many throws how many touchdown passes will Wentz have? Let’s answer both:
Yahoo fantasy projections have Wentz throwing 21.4 touchdowns, but with huge upgrades at the skill positions, let’s take the over and say 22.
As for passes, everyone admitted Wentz threw too many times last year. Is that enough to stop Pederson from calling so many pass plays? No. But maybe a better running game will. Let’s put the number of passes at an optimistic 599.
How many games will Nick Foles start?
The Eagles are rolling the dice with just two quarterbacks on the roster, one being Nick Foles, who didn’t throw a competitive pass this preseason.
This weekend, GM Howie Roseman answered questions about keeping just two QBs thusly: “If you’re sitting here worried about a quarterback, you wouldn’t be able to keep two. I know Coach [Pederson] has talked about it. We feel good about where Nick’s at and where he is going into the Washington game, and that’s why we did that.”
Can Foles play if called upon or are the Eagles simply hoping Wentz stays healthy until he’s ready? Moreover, will Wentz be healthy enough to play the entire season? In addition to throwing a ton last year, he took a lot of hits. And let’s not forget he was given the job while he was hurt last summer, after taking a big hit in the preseason.
Foles is going to play this year. Bet on that. But the fact he’s the back-up right now is a huge concern. Let’s say Foles starts at least one game, and throws a total of 55 passes this season, if he can throw at all.
What will we be saying about Nelson Agholor in 17 weeks?
The Eagles starting wide receivers on the 2017 depth chart are Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith out wide and Agholor in the slot.
Jeffery and Smith have three back-ups listed as Mack Hollins, Marcus Johnson and Shelton Gibson. That’s two rookies and a guy who was on the practice squad last year and never played. Agholor has no back-up on the depth chart.
This is a huge concern. This is a season-defining concern.
Jeffery missed four games last year and eight games the year before and was already hurt this preseason. Smith had two horrible years in San Francisco before signing a one-year deal with the Eagles. Agholor has been a total bust so far in his two seasons after being drafted in the first round in 2015, catching 59 balls on 113 targets with three scores. In two years.
And yet, not only is Agholor the starter, the Eagles traded Jordan Matthews away to make room for him in the slot. He’s fast, and he can create separation with defenders Matthews couldn’t, but the issue Agholor has had is that he’s unreliable. He drops the ball too much, as evidenced by his 52.2 percent catch rate, and he admitted last season he couldn’t get out of his own head. What could have possible changed since January? A “new outlook?”
Agholor should get more targets this year than he’s ever gotten, and perhaps quick slants will give him less time to think about catching and more opportunity to just react. This plan could work. Or this plan could be a disaster.
Let’s be optimistic. After this season we won’t be calling Agholor a bust anymore, but he’s not suddenly going to be Terrell Owens either. We’ll be saying that Agholor found his rhythm in the slot and can be a solid member of the Eagles receiving corps for years to come. Let’s say he catches a 59 balls this season on…89 targets.
I said I was being optimistic.
Who will be the defensive MVP?
In Jim Schwartz’s second year in Tennessee he took one of the worst defenses in football and turned them into a top-10 unit. By the time he left the Titans, Schwartz had one of the best defenses in the NFL.
As head coach in Detroit he took over the worst defense in football and within a year made them better, eventually making them a top-15 defense before getting fired.
In his one season in Buffalo, he turned the 20th-ranked defense into a top-5 team. After a year out of the game, Schwartz returned to take one of the worst-ranked defenses in football into a top-12 unit in Philly.
All that’s to say Jim Schwartz will be the defensive MVP this season. If the Eagles are a top-5 defense it won’t matter how many times Wentz throws or how many drops Agholor has.
The key to the defense on the field will be Jordan Hicks. The third-year linebacker is the heart of the defense. But he played just eight games as a rookie and after playing in every game last year, has been hampered by injury this preseason. He says he is ready, and Pederson said his entire roster is healthy going into Washington, but how Hicks manages the 16-game schedule will go a long way in how the Eagles defense plays. Hicks had 58 tackles and 28 assists last year. Expect that number to go up, especially with the pressure the front four should be able to get on the quarterback this season.
Who will be the Eagles’ most valuable rookie?
Second-round pick Sidney Jones won’t be on the field for the first half of the season, if at all. Jones dropped to the second round because of an injury sustained in the build up to the draft, and the problems at cornerback were addressed via free agency and trades in hopes the Eagles wouldn’t have to rush Jones back.
Third-round pick Rasul Douglas has been hit-or-miss at corner this preseason, while fourth-rounder Donnel Pumphrey and fifth-rounder Shelton Gibson both barely made the roster. Will any dress on game day? Nate Gerry, the fifth-rounder, got cut and signed to the practice squad while sixth-rounder Elijah Qualls made the team at defensive tackle.
First-round pick Derek Barnett is going to be an enormous upgrade at defensive end this season, and his success will go a long way in reshaping the way Schwartz can apply pressure on the quarterback. If his preseason was any indication, expect Barnett to have a strong rookie season.
But that’s an easy pick for most valuable rookie. So we won’t pick him. We’ll take Mack Hollins. The first-year receiver had meager stats in college thanks to a broken collarbone he suffered last season, but the Eagles nabbed him in the fourth round based on his size and potential. In the preseason he had 13 catches for 139 yards and one score, a beautiful catch-and-run from Wentz.
Our guess: Hollins spends nearly as much time on the field as Agholor, and while he may not get as many targets, he’ll be the rookie most of us are talking about all season.
Is Doug Pederson a good coach?
— The Ringer (@ringer) September 3, 2017
Former NFL executive Mike Lombardi went in hard on Pederson this weekend because he knew every Eagles writer in the city would share it. And also because he might believe it. He even made the obligatory Donald Trump joke and said the word “ain’t” to make sure you knew he was really dishin’ it deep.
But he might be right. Pederson wasn’t even calling the plays in Kansas City when the Eagles hired him. The Eagles did get worse as last season went along, and Wentz did regress, at least statistically, throughout the year.
Pederson was asked about Lombardi’s comments this weekend and said, “I’m confident in what I do. He’s not in the building. I coach our coaches and coach our players. I think if you ask any one of your players or assistant coaches, I think they would maybe say something a little bit different.”
Knowing this city, and knowing the sport talk radio horde and rabid fanbase, what will be enough to keep Pederson safe? Nine wins? A 10-win season and trip to the playoffs? Will 8-8 be enough to keep people happy for another year?
Moreover, no matter what the record is, will anyone consider Pederson a good coach? Can we punt on answering this question until the end of the year?
No. That’s cheating. We’ll say this, then: Pederson has done some very good things as a coach. He goes for it on fourth down all the time and he seems to have handled a lot of tumult in the locker room very well. The team seems behind him. But he needs to get more out of Wentz this season than he did down the stretch last year, and he needs to run the darn ball more effectively. Clock management has to improve and the Eagles darn well better not lose another seven games by one score or less.
Is Doug Pederson a good NFL head coach? No. But maybe he can become one.