Eagles Preview: An in-depth look at the defending champs

Well-armed: The Birds are stacked at quarterback. They have Carson Wentz as their starter once he is cleared to play and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles as a backup. Source: Andy Lewis / contrastphotography.com

By Al Thompson

No NFL team has defended its Super Bowl title since the New England Patriots defeated the Eagles, 24–21, at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida on Feb. 6, 2005 in Super Bowl XXXIX.

There have been 13 championship games played since then, and there have been no back-to-back winners.

If the Eagles are to break that streak, they will have to overcome the Super Bowl hangover that seems to have had a grip on the winner for a long time. The Eagles also enter the season with several top players still recovering from injuries from last year.

But the Eagles do have something different from years past that could work in coach Doug Pederson’s favor.

They have a number of key players who missed the title game because of injury and are scheduled to return and are chomping at the bit to get to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, including league MVP candidate, quarterback Carson Wentz; All-Pro offensive tackle Jason Peters; special teams ace Chris Maragos; linebacker Jordan Hicks; Pro Bowl running back and kick returner Darren Sproles; and cornerback Sidney Jones.

Will it be enough? Eagles fans will start to learn if a repeat is possible beginning Thursday, Sept. 6, when the Birds host the Atlanta Falcons at the Linc in a rematch of last year’s divisional playoff game the Eagles won, 15–10.

Here is a look at how each position stands going into the last week of practice.

OFFENSE

Quarterback: The Eagles have one of the most unique quarterback rooms ever. The Birds have Wentz as their starter once he is cleared to play, The third-year signal caller suffered a complicated knee injury with three games left in the regular season. The timeline to return to play was set at nine to 12 months. The opener would be three days short of nine months, exactly. Wentz is bouncing off the walls and desperately wants to be ready. Realistic?

“I think there’s been really no secret that it’s going to be close,” Wentz said recently. “I think, naturally, it’s going to be close. Ultimately, it won’t be just my call or the coaches’ call. It will come down to what the doctors say, really.”

In case he is not cleared, the Eagles will go with Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. How many teams can just roll that line out as a matter of fact? None in recent memory. The Birds are stacked at quarterback. Third-string quarterback Nate Sudfeld, entering his third season, has continued to improve.

Offensive line: Jason Peters, Stefen Wisniewski, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson are the starters. Despite some truly bad play in preseason games, Halapoulivaati Vaitai will most likely be the backup to Peters; a role he played very well during the Eagles’ title run after Peters was lost for the season.

Jordan Mailata, the Australian experiment drafted in the seventh round in this year’s draft, has played well enough that the Birds may be forced to put him on the active roster.

Center/guard Isaac Seumalo seems to have shaken off an erratic training camp start and is playing better. He will likely make the roster. That’s eight players, the same number the Birds started the season with last year. If they keep nine linemen, it will likely be Matt Pryor, a massive tackle taken in the sixth round of this year’s draft out of TCU. If not, he will certainly land on the practice squad.

Receiver: There is some real concern here. Other than playing catch on the sideline, Eagles №1 receiver Alshon Jeffery hasn’t been able to practice at all this offseason.

Jeffery played most of last season with a torn rotator cuff. He had surgery in the offseason to repair it and is still out. Slot receiver Nelson Agholor has been out. Markus Wheaton and second-year receiver Mack Hollins, who hasn’t played well at all this offseason, have missed practices.

The good news is Shelton Gibson, the second-year receiver drafted in the fifth round out of West Virginia, and free-agent journeyman DeAndre Carter have played well in the preseason. Both could not only make the team, but contribute on the field until this talented group is healthy. The Birds will hope free-agent acquisition Mike Wallace, a 10-year veteran who last played for the Baltimore Ravens, plays better than he has in training camp. They will need him to be productive.

New offensive coordinator Mike Groh, who has taken the place of Frank Reich, now the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, talked about chemistry that has lacked between Foles and the top receivers so far in the preseason.

“It would be hard to put an exact value on it,” Groh said. “But certainly, that’s one of the reasons why we’re out there, is so that everybody can work together and find that continuity. That’s been challenging with different guys missing time here and there. That’s not an excuse. The guys that are out there are the guys that we’re expecting a lot of good things from, and they got to raise the level of their performance. There’s opportunities that come with that.”

Tight end: The Eagles rebounded well after losing veteran Brent Celek, who was released in the offseason and is likely to retire, and Trey Burton, who threw the “Philly Special” pass to Foles in the Super Bowl. Returning is Pro Bowler Zach Ertz, who is one of the best in the NFL. The Birds picked up Dallas Goedert in the second round out of South Dakota State. He has been outstanding so far, even as a blocker.

Richard Rodgers, a free agent from Green Bay, has played well, catching the ball better than expected. The Eagles will look for Rodgers to mostly contribute as a blocker.

Running back: Jay Ajayi will enter 2018 as the №1 back in a running back-by-committee backfield. The 25-year-old still has aspirations. “This is my fourth season now. If you’ve seen what I’ve done in the past, you know I’m an elite back.” Ajayi needs to be more consistent to accomplish that. For his career, Ajayi has rushed 573 times for 2,332 yards and 10 touchdowns.

For the Eagles last year, he rushed 70 times for 408 yards and one touchdown in seven games. Ajayi did have an outstanding 5.8 yards per carry after joining the Birds on Nov. 5 and also caught 24 passes for 158 yards and another TD.

Second-year running back Corey Clement has looked good in training camp, and veteran Darren Sproles claims he is 100 percent to go. The 35-year-old speedster is returning for one final season after breaking his arm and tearing an ACL in game three last year.

The fourth back will be either Wendell Smallwood, who is entering his third season, or rookie Josh Adams, rookie free agent out of Notre Dame and Central Bucks South. Both have been plagued by injuries so far.

DEFENSE

Secondary: The cornerback position is stacked. The most difficult decision for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is where to put everyone.

Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby, Sidney Jones and De’Vante Bausby can all play and possibly start. Fourth-round pick Avonte Maddox has been outstanding in the slot all training camp and in preseason games. Second-year corner Rasul Douglas has struggled at times but is expected to make the team.

At safety, the Eagles boast one of the better starting duos in the league with Pro Bowler Malcolm Jenkins and veteran Rodney McLeod. The depth here is weak. The Eagles decided to bring back veteran Corey Graham to help. An injury to either starter could really hurt their chances to repeat.

Defensive line: Same as the secondary, this unit is loaded. Tackles include All-Pro Fletcher Cox, veteran Haloti Ngata and Destiny Vaeao. Tim Jernigan, who was outstanding during the Birds’ title run, has not practiced at all this offseason as he deals with recovering from back issues. The 25-year-old may be lost of the season. The Eagles need a player from the back of the roster such as Elijah Qualls or Aziz Shittu to step up.

The pass-rushing unit is returning rookie standout Derek Barnett plus veterans Chris Long and Brandon Graham, who is now back practicing after undergoing ankle surgery in the offseason. The Eagles added veteran Michael Bennett and drafted Josh Sweat out of Florida State in the fourth round. If the talented Sweat can manage his achy knees, he could really add even more depth to this unit.

Schwartz was asked if he had too much depth with pass rushers and corners.

“Things that have never been said in the NFL: ‘I have too many pass rushers. I have too many good corners.’ ” Schwartz said with a sarcastic smile. “Those are things that defensive coordinators, defenses in general, value. You need to be built for the long haul. There’s going to be injuries. It was well-documented last year, injuries that we had. Part of filling those was having good depth. You’re not going to find a coach in the world that’s going to complain about that.”

Linebacker: Like most NFL teams, the Eagles will play two linebackers most of the time. Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham are your starters. Hicks is a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker if he can stay healthy, and that has been a major issue his entire career dating to his days at Texas.

Bradham was outstanding last year. But the Birds need to see some of their young linebackers step up.

Nathan Gerry, entering his second season, and Kamu Grugier-Hill, now in his third, have played well this preseason and have earned playing time. Joe Walker and veteran addition Corey Nelson have been invisible this training camp. If the injury bug hits again, we might see Jenkins move up for run support like he did last year.

SPECIAL TEAMS

As a rookie, Jake Elliott was outstanding. He was 26 of 31 on field goals including his memorable, team-record 61-yard walk-off field goal in week 3 against the Giants. He missed three extra points but with the longer distance now employed, that accuracy rate was solid. He will need to get his chemistry down with new holder Cameron Johnston, the punter who takes over for the retired Donnie Jones. So far, Johnston has been solid as a punter, not so much as a holder. That needs to get better quickly.

Gibson, Sproles and Clement will likely handle kick returns.

OUTLOOK

On paper, if Wentz is healthy, this is a 12–4 team and possible №1 seed in the NFC. A rejuvenated New York Giants team as well as challenges from the Green Bay Packers, Falcons, Minnesota Vikings, Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints will make the path to Atlanta very difficult. The 2018 NFC is a minefield. If the Eagles can get off to a good start despite all the injuries, they have a chance. But it will be tough. ••