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Free Agency Preview: Eagles Feel the Need for Speed

Neil Dutton reviews the Philadelphia Eagles 2018 season, outlines players the team could lose to free agency and offers his thoughts on potential reinforcements the team would like to sign.

2018 IN SUMMARY

A year after a 13-3 regular season record, not to mention a victory in the Super Bowl, the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t have it all their own way in 2018. Thanks in no small part to a three-game winning streak to close out the year, they finished with a 9-7 mark. This was good enough for a second-place finish in the NFC East, and a Wild Card berth in the playoffs. They eventually lost in New Orleans to the Saints, after a stunning victory over the Chicago Bears in the WC round. The Eagles scored 367 points in the regular season, only the 18th most in the NFL. They only surrendered 348 however, good for 12th.

The Eagles amassed 4,275 yards through the air, with 29 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions. They finished 10th in net yards per attempt at 6.7 and completed 70.5 percent of their passes (422/599). Carson Wentz led the Eagles with 3,074 of the yards, as well as 21 of the touchdown passes. This marked his second consecutive season with at least 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. Only Randall Cunningham has more such seasons for the Eagles, managing it in three straight years between 1988-1990. Wentz missed the first two games of the season, as well as the last three, due to injury, and rarely looked like the same player who was an MVP front runner before his 2017 injury. Wentz’s full-season projections would have seen him eclipse his 2017 numbers, but it is noteworthy that Wentz was more efficient in 2017 than he was last season.

wentz 17-18

The bulk of the Eagles’ receiving work was done by Zach Ertz. He set an NFL record for tight end receptions in a single season with 116. He also finished with the first 1,000 yard season of his career. Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery were the only other Eagles players to finish with at least 50 receptions, with 64 and 65 respectively. The only Eagles player with at least 20 receptions who averaged at least 15 yards per grab was Jordan Matthews. Matthews managed exactly 15.0 YPR on exactly 20 catches.

phi wrs

Golden Tate had a 15 percent market share from Week 10 onwards, seeing 44 targets. He converted these into 30 receptions for 272 yards and a touchdown.

The ground game was not something the Eagles were able to consistently hang their hats on, however. They were 20th in the NFL in attempts (398) and touchdowns (12). But only four teams amassed fewer rushing yards than the Eagles 1,570. Only two gained them at a lower clip than the Eagles’ 3.9 yards per attempt. This was a marked difference from the success the team enjoyed in 2017.

eagles rushing 17-18

The team’s leading rusher was undrafted rookie Josh Adams, who finished with 511 yards. This marked the fourth season in a row in which no Eagles player ran for more than 1,000 yards. The last player to do so was LeSean McCoy back in 2014.

eagles rushing

OFFENSIVE FREE AGENTS

PLAYER POS AGE 2018 AAV STATUS
Golden Tate WR 31  $6,200,000 UFA
Chance Warmack LG 28  $2,500,000 UFA
Mike Wallace WR 33  $1,915,000 UFA
Darren Sproles RB 36  $1,415,000 UFA
Richard Rodgers TE 27  $880,000 UFA
Jordan Matthews WR 27  $790,000 UFA
Jay Ajayi RB 26  $625,023 UFA
Nate Sudfeld QB 26  $585,000 RFA

The Eagles are not exactly flush with cap space at the time of writing. According to OverTheCap.com, the Eagles currently have $2,150,065 in cap space, the second lowest amount in the NFL. However, they do have some scope to claw together some spending money. Restructuring Lane Johnson’s and Alshon Jeffery’s current deals could free up nearly $14m. Designating Timmy Jernigan as a post-June-1 cut would also bring forth another $11m. Managing the cap is something of a party piece for Howie Roseman, so it is nothing to be worried about at this time.

Tate saw a healthy dose of targets during his time with the Lions. But after joining the Eagles, it wasn’t apparent that the team knew how best to make use of him. His 2018 splits make for sorry reading, considering the Eagles gave up a 3rd round draft pick to get him.

tate eagles

Despite this, this isn’t a free agency crop overflowing with talent at the wide receiver spot. Tate is probably the most desirable player at his position, so he is likely to command too rich a deal to make an Eagles return feasible.

Mike Wallace was brought in to be a replacement/upgrade on Torrey Smith. But injury restricted him to just two games. He may be open to another one-year deal with the team, but he’d be hard pressed to exceed the $4m he “earned” for 2018.

Jay Ajayi’s ACL injury seemed to take everyone by surprise, ending his 2018 season after just four games. He’d accounted for 34 percent of the team carries up to that point, with his 37 attempts bringing him 155 yards and three touchdowns. The ACL injury, allied to his now famous chronic knee issues, makes his signing a risk for any team. Jimmy Kempski of the Philly Voice believes that Ajayi may be forced to settle for a one-year prove it deal. This could make it likely that he returns for 2019.

This past season was supposed to be the final one in the career of Darren Sproles after he played just three games during the 2017 season. He was restricted to a mere six this time around, and he has hinted that he could be willing to come back for one last go around the block. If he’s open to a low-price deal, similar to the $1.4m pact he penned last year, then he could be back in the Midnight Green one last time. But neither he nor Ajayi are the long-term answer for the Eagles at RB.

As for Jordan Matthews, his return to the Eagles in 2018 was celebrated by some followers who regretted his being traded prior to the 2017 campaign as if they had seen a relative swept out of the door. His limited work last year solidified his position as Wentz’s most productive partner, in terms of adjusted yards per attempt. But it probably wasn’t enough to convince the team to lock him up long term.

wentz aya

Matthews has not been the same player since he was badly diagnosed by the Eagles medical staff following the 2015 season. It was good to see him stay healthy for the 2018 season, but his future lies elsewhere.

POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS

One thing the Eagles passing game sadly lacked in 2018 was a field-stretching element. They thought they were getting such a player in Wallace. But as we have already seen, injury saw fit to scupper this right out of the gate. Despite not exactly putting up huge numbers himself in 2017, you only have to look at Wentz’s statistics when Torrey Smith was on the field to see what a difference a player with genuine game-changing speed can make to this offense. Wentz’s yards went down, but his touchdowns (and fantasy points) went up.

wentz wo torrey

Of course, if you mention speedy WRs and the Eagles together, one name that most immediately think of is DeSean Jackson. Jackson spent the first six years of his NFL career with the Eagles, amassing 6,117 yards and 32 touchdowns between 2008 and 2013. Jackson has led the NFL in yards per reception four times. This includes in 2018 when his 41 receptions came at 18.9 yards per grab. At the time of writing, Jackson is still a member of the Buccaneers. But it is expected that he will be released, and he has hinted in the past of his desire to return to the Eagles. However, even at his relatively advanced age, he will likely be too costly for the Eagles given their current financial state.

Another player with the ability to flip the field, as it were, is Tyrell Williams. A long-time favorite of the author, Williams boasts 4.48 speed. He averaged 15.9 yards per reception for the Chargers last season. He has shown in the past that he can if needed, shoulder a decent load in an offense. His splits with and without Keenan Allen show him to be competent, if not quite elite performer.

tyrell wo keenan

Sadly, like Jackson, Williams is likely to command too rich a salary for the Eagles. Spotrac puts his market value at three years, $28.9m. The Eagles are unlikely to pay this much for a player who they would hope compliments their existing WRs. But if it’s a low-cost burner they seek, then they could turn their attention to John Brown. Brown has averaged 15 yards per reception on his 215 career grabs. He finally seemed over the injury problems that had plagued him since the 2015 season last year. He finished with 42 catches for 715 yards and five touchdowns at 17 yards per reception. His counting stats might have been even better had the Ravens not been forced to turn to Lamar Jackson over Joe Flacco.

brown wo flacco

Spotrac puts his market value at something much more palatable for the Eagles, at two years, $12.2m. It is possible that he would take a one-year deal with an option for a second. But given the WR market, Brown can really afford to let the market come to him.

The Eagles, while not a team that leans heavily on the run, still need to upgrade the talent at this spot in the coming months. They have not committed a lot of draft capital to the position in recent years. They’ve drafted only two RBs since 2013. Those two players are Wendell Smallwood (211 carries in three seasons at 4.0 yards per attempt) and Donnel Pumphrey. Pumphrey’s next regular season carry will be the first of his career. The Eagles’ leading rusher in 2018 was a UDFA. It is more likely that the Eagles will look to outside for reinforcements, rather than plunge significant resources into a high draft pick, given this track record.

Assuming that the Eagles don’t re-sign Ajayi, even if they do retain Sproles, there are several intriguing options in this year’s free agency crop. Tevin Coleman is a name that immediately stands out. Despite having played four seasons already, Coleman has only 528 carries on the clock. He also averages an eye-catching 11 yards per reception on his 92 career catches. The Doug Pederson Eagles have shown that they do not want a workhorse to carry the ball 20-plus times and to command significant looks in the passing game. But they do still want a leader among their backs. Coleman would seem to fit the bill. But again, there is the issue of cost. Spotrac believes he could command $5m a year, which doesn’t seem to be an amount this Eagles front office want to pay for an RB.

Another player with limited tread on his tires who may interest the Eagles is T.J. Yeldon. Yeldon never became the bell cow the Jaguars must have hoped he would. He has just 465 carries in his NFL career. Like Coleman, he has shown some chops in the passing game, with 171 career receptions. Yeldon averaged 5.8 yards per touch over the last two seasons. He only averaged 4.5 in the first two seasons of his career. Given a choice between Coleman and Yeldon, I would rather see Coleman in Eagles green next season. But given their likely market value, it wouldn’t shock me to see Yeldon taken instead. If this is the case, and even if they do somehow end up with Coleman, I’d still expect the Eagles to bring in at least another player to give them the rotation that Pederson loves so much.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Eagles were able to rescue a season that was going off the rails in 2018 by altering their offense to suit the player that was running it, namely Nick Foles. In order to be successful going forward, they need to go about repeating the process, only this time molding it to suit Wentz. This can best be achieved by giving him a speedy option to keep defenses honest, and a ground game that answers the bell when called for.

Said deep threat is not likely to be the major outlet for Wentz, and shouldn’t be expected to contribute too much from a counting stats point of view. But his being there will enable Wentz to easier hook up with his buddies Zach and Alshon, all the while paving the way for more opportunities for the Eagles RBs. The Eagles are entering the stage wherein they need to start making decisions about Wentz and his future. The players that I’ve highlighted would, in my opinion, make the Eagles offense (and Wentz) better. They would not rob the team of valuable cash that they’ll need as and when they make Wentz the highest paid QB in football.

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