2018 NFL Preview: The Eagles can put away the dog masks, because they're the hunted now

Yahoo Sports

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Philadelphia Eagles authored one of the NFL’s best ever underdog stories last season. You remember. They wouldn’t let anyone forget.

There were no championship expectations before the season, whatever title hopes the Eagles had seemed to vanish when Carson Wentz tore his ACL and they had the slap in the face of being the first No. 1 seed to be an underdog in the divisional round. The dog masks fit well last season. Everyone remembers Jason Kelce’s speech. Until Tom Brady’s final pass fell incomplete, the Eagles faced doubters the entire season.

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The Eagles are nobody’s underdogs anymore. They were great last season, a well-coached team that had balance and didn’t stop when its MVP candidate quarterback suffered a season-ending injury. This season, they are the team everyone wants to beat. Doug Pederson, who went from foolish criticism last preseason to a spot among the best coaches in the NFL, is already preparing for a much different challenge.

“I want those guys to remember it, I want those guys to embrace it,” Pederson said, according to ESPN.com. “It’s a great motivating factor for us to sort of rip off the dog masks and no longer be the underdog, but be the hunted, have the target on our back.”

You can be the best team in the NFL – and the Eagles might be that again – and still not make a Super Bowl. Super Bowl hangovers are real. The offseason is short. The celebration seems to last forever, and that’s especially true for Philly’s first Super Bowl win.

“It wasn’t just the parade, it wasn’t just on the field with the confetti, it’s every day since. And the stories — I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me wherever it is, there’s always Eagles fans everywhere — and they may just see you and start crying,” owner Jeffrey Lurie said at the NFL meetings in March, according to Philly.com. “They may see you and start hyperventilating. The stories they have with their mothers, their fathers, who they got to experience it with.

“I don’t know if you could explain it to fans everywhere in the country, but those of us who know the passion and the love for this football team, and how much they’ve wanted the Eagles to win a Super Bowl, it’s like it gets played out every day in a real emotional, personal way.”

That’s what sports is all about. It’s also worth wondering if the team that fed off the underdog mentality loses a bit of that edge. I’m sure every Eagles player has a story like the one Lurie told.

“The hardest part is the very thing that coach [Pederson] has done a good job of talking about, which is, you show up, everybody is telling you how great you are, people are talking about a ring ceremony, people are talking about appearances that we got to do over the offseason, the first game they lower the [Super Bowl] banner [at Lincoln Financial Field]. There are reminders all the time of what you did in the past that was so great,” defensive end Chris Long said, according to the Eagles’ team site. “That’s the thing. It was in the past and as football shows you every year, I mean, it doesn’t matter what you did last year and even if you won a championship, it has almost zero bearing on what happens the next year. In fact, it makes it harder.”

Then there’s the matter of Wentz.

The Eagles’ opener comes less than nine months after Wentz tore his ACL. All reports on his rehab are positive, he started training camp on a limited basis and perhaps Wentz looks like the same player we saw before the injury. That’s never guaranteed though. No matter how much patience the Eagles preach, it would be no surprise if Wentz is pushing the return timetable hard. He’s a competitor and although his joy for what Nick Foles did seems genuine, why wouldn’t he want his job back?

“I’m not going to rush him out there. I don’t want to expose him,” Pederson said earlier this offseason, according to the Delaware County Daily Times. “I mean, he’ll be ready when he’s ready and when we feel he’s ready.”

If you want to pick the Eagles to repeat, there are many valid reasons. If healthy, they have perhaps the best young quarterback in the NFL. The offensive line is elite. They have depth at running back and weapons in the passing game. The defense has a lot of talent, particularly in the front seven. Pederson out-coached Bill Belichick in a Super Bowl, which tells you all you need to know about his acumen.

Yet it still won’t be easy, especially in a loaded NFC. Surprising the NFL world to win a Super Bowl was hard, and defending that title will probably be even harder.

Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson holds up the Lombardi Trophy after his team beat the Patriots in last season’s Super Bowl. (AP)
Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson holds up the Lombardi Trophy after his team beat the Patriots in last season’s Super Bowl. (AP)

The Eagles lost a few key players but did OK to replace them. Tight end Trey Burton got a huge deal in free agency, but Philly drafted Dallas Goedert in the second round. Vinny Curry left in free agency, but the Eagles traded for Michael Bennett. Mike Wallace replaces Torrey Smith as the deep threat at receiver, and that’s an upgrade. The key loss was cornerback Patrick Robinson, who played very well from the slot. Philadelphia managed to retain linebacker Nigel Bradham, who is a key playmaker (though he’ll serve a one-game suspension to start the season). The Eagles also had just one pick among the top 124 selections of the draft, so they won’t get a lot of immediate help from the rookies.

GRADE: C

It’s not like Doug Pederson re-invented football last season. He just used some common sense and wasn’t afraid to do things his own way. That sounds simple, but the NFL relentlessly criticizes anyone who does different, smart things like going for it on fourth down near midfield (just listen to the announcers when someone does it, they generally freak out like the coach is skydiving without a parachute). Too many teams act like if it was good enough for Paul Brown in 1957, it’s good enough for everyone in 2018. Pederson wasn’t afraid to break the mold a bit, and hopefully that ushers in a new era of sharper coaching. Pederson went for it on fourth down when the numbers said it was a good idea, and even had the gumption to use a trick play on a fourth down in the Super Bowl. He wasn’t afraid to go heavy on run-pass option plays, even with immobile Nick Foles.

When the NFL world waited for the Eagles to go into a conservative shell with Foles, because that’s what everyone does with their backup quarterback, Pederson let Foles air it out and Foles won a Super Bowl MVP. I do have some concern that the Eagles lost offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo – we can’t praise the Colts for hiring Reich and the Vikings for hiring DeFilippo and not concede that the Eagles lost a lot of offensive brilliance – but at this point Pederson has earned the benefit of the doubt.

If the Eagles have a weakness it might be at cornerback. The secondary probably played beyond its talent level last season, and a big reason was slot cornerback Patrick Robinson’s stellar season. He left for New Orleans. The Eagles have some good young talent, but Jalen Mills will probably be asked to assume a bigger role and Sidney Jones, drafted in the second round last year despite a torn Achilles, isn’t a sure thing coming off a major injury. While the defense played well all last season, don’t forget that Tom Brady had 505 yards in the Super Bowl against this secondary.

Let’s assume the Eagles would’ve received a nice haul if they traded Nick Foles. That the Eagles never seemed to seriously consider dealing him tells you there’s a level of concern about Carson Wentz, and/or the Eagles understand better than anyone the value of a good backup quarterback. If Wentz is slow to come back and Foles has to start the season, it wouldn’t become an uncomfortable issue in the locker room. Everyone knows there’s no QB controversy, no matter how good Foles finished last season. Also, Wentz and Foles seem close and it’s hard to imagine either of them turning the situation into a drama. We assume Foles will play well – though we have to acknowledge he has been inconsistent his whole career, capable of putting together one of the best seasons for a quarterback in NFL history and then falling off the map for a few years until Wentz’s injury – and while it wouldn’t be ideal to make a quarterback change a few weeks in, at least the Eagles feel comfortable if Foles has to start the season.

It says something about how the Eagles are built that there’s no obvious answer here. You could pick a number of talented players, like defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, defensive end Brandon Graham, safety Malcolm Jenkins, offensive tackle Lane Johnson or center Jason Kelce. Even running back Jay Ajayi and receivers Alshon Jeffery or Nelson Agholor have a case. I’ll go with tight end Zach Ertz because he might be the second-best tight end in the NFL. When the Eagles needed to convert a fourth down on their Super Bowl-winning drive, they threw to Ertz. On third-and-7 later in the drive, the Eagles drew up a play to get Ertz one-on-one coverage and he scored the go-ahead touchdown. He’s a multi-talented player and the Eagles’ passing game operates at a high level because he’s so tough to defend.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “The end zone was the fantasy deodorant for Alshon Jeffery last year. He scored nine touchdowns on just 57 catches, and added three two-point conversions. And he was undeniably terrific in Philly’s Super Bowl run, ringing up a 12-219-3 line in the postseason.

“Nonetheless, Jeffery comes with some fleas. He had rotator cuff surgery shortly after the Super Bowl; he might be eased through August. And his catch rate of 47.5 percent was shockingly low, especially given that his average reception covered an unspectacular 13.8 yards (he averaged 15 yards a pop in his Chicago days, with a catch rate around 57 percent). Remember, Carson Wentz was an MVP front-runner before his season-ending injury. Considering the surrounding fireworks, Jeffery’s season had a surprising number of potholes.

“Jeffery carries an expectant ADP, available around No. 37 overall in early Yahoo drafts. If you want a piece of Philadelphia’s passing game, you might get more bang for your buck targeting underrated slot dynamo Nelson Agholor, who has an ADP 71 picks later than Jeffery.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Eagles.]

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Nick Foles started six games last season. Here are the results of three of them:

Week 16 vs. Oakland: 19-of-38, 163 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Week 17 vs. Dallas: 4-of-11, 39 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
Divisional playoff vs. Atlanta: 23-of-30, 246 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT

Bringing up Foles’ worst games isn’t meant to pick on him, and the Week 17 stats were in less than a half of work. But we all remember that the Eagles were underdogs at home to the Falcons, and nobody seems to recall it was entirely because people thought Foles was terrible. He showed in the Eagles’ final two games he’s far from terrible. But as we consider the possibility of Foles starting some games this season, we can also fairly point out that he’s one of the NFL’s streakiest players. That can be good and bad.

CAN’T WE COUNT THE EAGLES’ RETURNEES FROM INJURY AS ADDITIONS?

What makes the Eagles’ Super Bowl run even more impressive is they did so without some very good players who were out with injury. We all know about Carson Wentz. But linebacker Jordan Hicks and offensive tackle Jason Peters return this season from injured reserve too. I’ll also add cornerback Sidney Jones, who barely played as a rookie because he was coming off an Achilles injury suffered at his pre-draft pro day, and acknowledge that Alshon Jeffery played last season with a torn rotator cuff that required surgery. Hicks has always been a prime playmaker when healthy, Peters is a Hall-of-Fame talent (he looked like a sure salary-cap casualty, but the Eagles clearly value him), Jones would have been a first-round pick last year if healthy and Jeffery should be better with two good arms assuming his recovery goes well. And, of course, Wentz will be back too. That’s a lot to add to a championship lineup.

There’s uncertainty with Carson Wentz, but his wide range of outcomes includes him winning an MVP. If Wentz looks like he did for the first three-and-a-half months of last season, the Eagles can still be the best team in the NFL. The core is strong and remains intact. Doug Pederson might be a superstar coach. There are a few elite teams coming into the season, and the Eagles are in that group. The last team to win a second straight Super Bowl was the 2004 New England Patriots. The Eagles have the talent for it.

As discussed at length up top, I have questions regarding Carson Wentz and while the Super Bowl hangover is hard to quantify, it’s real. The Eagles play in a tough division and a tough conference, and while nobody will be picking anyone but Philadelphia to win the NFC East, it isn’t that crazy to think the Cowboys could bounce back to their 2016 level. No realistic prediction would have the Eagles outside of the playoffs, but as stated many times before in these previews, some very good NFC teams won’t make the postseason. There are more than six good teams in the NFC. While it’s hard to believe on paper, the worst-case scenario for the Eagles includes them missing the playoffs.

I assume most preseason rankings will have the Eagles higher than No. 4, and it’s easy to see why. But I’m worried about Carson Wentz either coming back less than nine months after knee surgery or missing games to start the season, and I’m curious to see how they handle the change from wearing dog masks to being the team everyone wants to knock off. Also, a couple of NFC teams who haven’t appeared on the countdown yet loaded up this offseason to take the final step past the Eagles. Philly will be among the best teams in the NFL again, but will fall short of repeating as champions. History tells us that’s a good bet.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Dallas Cowboys
11. Kansas City Chiefs
10. Atlanta Falcons
9. Los Angeles Chargers
8. Green Bay Packers
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
6. Jacksonville Jaguars
5. New Orleans Saints

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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