Philadelphia Eagles: 5 Positions to Upgrade This Offseason
Five Positions Eagles Must Upgrade
As the Philadelphia Eagles watch the later rounds of the NFL playoffs, they know they could compete with any of the teams currently playing, but even the most confident players must know that, thus far, the best teams have advanced. However, unlike the NFL franchises that will be looking to establish an identity in 2014, the Eagles are fortunate to have already settled on a philosophical approach that was proven successful last season. Stylistically, they know who they are, and who they want to be, on both offense and defense.
The Eagles' goal heading into next season will be incremental improvement from their established leaders and play makers as well as replacing a handful of weak position players with athletes that will have more of an impact. Incremental improvement starts by further developing franchise building blocks such as Nick Foles, Lane Johnson, Brandon Boykin, and Fletcher Cox. At the same time, the Eagles will leverage the draft and free agency to replace underperforming players.
The team will likely spend carefully on free agents as the sting from their misguided 2011 spending spree has not yet faded from the memory of Philadelphia's front office personnel or fans. In a deep, talent-rich draft, it would be reasonable to assume that the Eagles are entertaining offers to trade down. Trading down would be in line with the franchise's long term vision for the roster and allow the team to stockpile assets in hopes of hitting a home run in the middle to late rounds as they recently did with Nick Foles and Brandon Boykin.
Given that the Eagles will likely implement a conservative approach to replacing their key weaknesses, here are five positions that GM Howie Roseman and his player personnel team will be hoping to upgrade.
5. Inside Linebacker - DeMeco Ryans
DeMeco Ryans was originally signed as stout run defender in the middle of the Eagles' 4-3 defense. Since his arrival, the team have moved to a 3-4 defense, and this past year, Ryans understandably looked like a square peg in a round hole as he graded out second to last, ahead of only the 38-year-old London Fletcher, on Pro Football Focus' 3-4 inside linebacker rankings. Indeed, the team's defensive captain was actually a liability against the run and the pass in 2013.
Given his skill set, DeMeco Ryans could be a productive Ted inside linebacker (the Ted often serves as a space eater, occupying blockers and freeing up the Mike inside linebacker), but the Eagles are content with former second round pick, Mychal Kendricks, who showed encouraging improvement at the Ted as last season progressed.
Instead, Ryans has been asked to fill the Mike inside linebacker position. The Mike is the more athletic linebacker, who can blitz, drop into coverage, play the run, and "spy" the quarterback. With so much required of the position, speed-strength freaks like Patrick Willis are ideal 3-4 Mike linebackers. In 2013, DeMeco Ryans proved that, not only is he not in the same class as Patrick Willis, his skill set is incompatible with the demands of the position.
Due $6.8 million in 2014, Ryans is a prime candidate to be cut before March. Fortunately for the Eagles, prototypical Mike inside linebackers will be prevalent on the free agent market and available during the second day of the NFL Draft.
4. Slot Receiver - Jason Avant
Jason Avant can block, but he can't separate. Among wide receivers logging 800 or more snaps in 2013, Avant's pass receiving capabilities graded out behind only Kris Durham, TJ Graham, and Greg Little. At 30 years old, Avant is still an effective blocker, but that aspect of his game is not worth the $3.25 million that he is due next season (including roster bonuses).
The three receiver set is a base formation for the Eagles' offense, so they need better production from their slot receiver. Philadelphia could sign or draft a bigger, faster, stronger outside receiver to compliment DeSean Jackson on the other side and move Jeremy Maclin inside, replacing Avant with a proven playmaker in 2014.
3. Safety - Patrick Chung
Weak safety play significantly contributed to the Eagles' ranking near the bottom of the league in pass defense efficiency. While Nate Allen must shoulder some of the blame, their worst defensive back in terms of pass coverage was Patrick Chung, who also happens to be owed $3.25 million in 2014. His 2013 season can only be described as awful as he graded out as the 71st ranked NFL safety by Pro Football Focus.
Chung's game tape shows him getting relentlessly burned by opposing receivers and tight ends, and often taking bad angles on running backs. Most egregiously, Chung forced zero turnovers in 2013. Despite a second-round pedigree, he has been exposed as a liability against both the run and pass. Replacing him will be a top priority of the Eagles this offseason.
2. Right Guard - Todd Herremans
While it would be difficult to improve the left side of the line with Jason Peters making a Pro Bowl and Evan Mathis finally being recognized as LeSean McCoy's secret weapon, the right side of the line was the Achille's heel of the Eagles' offense in 2014. Philadelphia would be well-served using its first round pick on UCLA guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, who is unanimously considered the best guard in the upcoming NFL Draft, to solidify the the offensive line and ensure better protection for Nick Foles next season.
1. Cornerback - Cary Williams
Coming to the Eagles as one of the team's higher profile free agents in 2013, Carey Williams has taken the brunt of the blame for the team ranking 25th in pass defense efficiency by Football Outsiders.
The focus on Williams is well-deserved, because the most successful defensive schemes are predicated on a team's best cover corner holding the opponent's No. 1 receiver in-check. This was something Cary Williams struggled with all year as he finished the season as the 80th ranked corner on Pro Football Focus. His -7.9 grade in pass coverage was 5th from the bottom amongst full-time starting cornerbacks. And if it were not for an epic blizzard holding down Calvin Johnson's production in the Eagles December matchup with the Detroit Lions, his grade would have been even lower.
For the Eagles' defensive unit to have a true breakthrough in 2014, the team must upgrade the outside cornerback position.