The New York Jets take on the Philadelphia Eagles in East Rutherford on Saturday night in the Jets third pre-season game of 2019. Previewing this matchup, Brandon Gowton, the Manager of Bleeding Green Nation, was kind enough to answer a few questions for me regarding the 2019 Eagles. You can check out Michael Nania’s answers to Brandon’s questions regarding the Jets here over on Bleeding Green Nation.
1. The Eagles made the decision to stick with Carson Wentz and cut ties with Super Bowl hero Nick Foles this past offseason, despite Foles seemingly rescuing the Eagles’ season in relief of Wentz two years in a row. Wentz is obviously the more physically gifted quarterback, but he struggled to generate wins last year. Is there any sentiment among Eagles fans that the Eagles may have picked the wrong guy to keep?
Technically it’s Foles who decided to cut ties with the Eagles. The team picked up his 2019 option but Foles opted out in order to seek a more lucrative offer in free agency.
The “Foles > Wentz” sentiment definitely exists but it’s a minority opinion. The idea that Foles rescued the Eagles two years in a row isn’t entirely true.
Wentz was obviously playing at an MVP level before getting hurt in 2017; he looked plenty capable of leading the team on a special postseason run. Foles looked shaky towards the end of the regular season and even the Eagles’ first playoff game before really turning it on in the 2018 NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl itself.
Wentz wasn’t as good in 2018 as he was coming off his ACL injury but he was hardly bad. His passing metrics were merely slightly above average to average. Foles did have success when filling in again for Wentz in 2018, yes, but the entire team also really stepped up around him. The defense allowed 5.2 fewer points per game in Foles starts than Wentz starts. The offensive resurgence also coincided with the Eagles’ increased utilization of 12 personnel.
Foles will always be a legend in Philly for what he accomplished as the team’s only Super Bowl MVP. He was a great backup quarterback for the Eagles. But the jury is still out on Foles as a long-term starter. For all the talk about Wentz’s injury issues, Foles has been hurt a lot as well and has never even played a full 16 game season. Foles is also a very high variance quarterback; he can look amazing and he can look awful. It’s easier for him to get hot in shorter stretches like he’s had with Eagles as opposed to starting for entire seasons.
I’ll be curious to see how Foles does with the Jaguars. I’m hoping for the best. Based on his career body of work, though, I’m expecting to see some real ups and downs.
Sticking with Wentz was the easy call. Wentz is far from perfect but we know his ceiling is an MVP caliber player. He didn’t finish the job in 2017, no, but he put the Eagles in tremendous position to win their first Super Bowl. Betting on Wentz’s upside -- while receiving a 2020 third-round compensatory pick for losing Foles -- seems pretty reasonable to me.
2. There have been some positive reports out of Eagles camp regarding Eagles draftees running back Miles Sanders and wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. How do you assess this year’s Eagles draft class?
The early returns on the Eagles’ 2019 draft class are encouraging.
First-round pick Andre Dillard has impressed. He looks like a legitimate replacement at left tackle once Jason Peters retires (or gets hurt this year). The Eagles have the luxury of not forcing Dillard into the starting lineup right away since Peters is still around. Dillard will benefit from learning from Peters -- a future Hall of Famer -- and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland.
Miles Sanders is easily the most dynamic running back on the Eagles’ roster. He just has juice that the other backs on the team don’t possess. Sanders should be fun to watch while he makes defenders miss. He’s hardly going to get 20 carries per game out of the gate; that’s not how the Eagles operate. But Sanders could earn more and more playing time as the season goes along, especially if Jordan Howard isn’t lighting the world on fire.
JJ Arcega-Whiteside had a great spring but a quieter camp before exploding for 104 yards and one touchdown during the Eagles’ third preseason game. JJ won’t be a starter in the Eagles’ offense since Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, and Nelson Agholor are all ahead of him on the depth chart. But there’s room for JJ on offense as a role player and he looks like he can contribute in that capacity. His signature jump ball ability makes him an especially intriguing weapon in the red zone.
Fourth-round pick Shareef Miller likely won’t play much in 2019. The rookie defensive end is behind five guys on the depth chart.
Fifth-round pick Clayton Thorson looked like a Christian Hackenberg-level disaster (sorry to invoke his name) in his first preseason game but he settled in during his second preseason appearance. It looks like the Eagles will try to keep Thorson on the practice squad.
3. The Eagles added big back Jordan Howard in the offseason to a backfield that includes Miles Sanders, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, Josh Adams, Donnel Pumphrey and Darren Sproles. How do you think the workload will be shared in a crowded Eagles backfield? Which Eagles backs might be on the cutting block?
Sanders, Howard, Sproles, and Clement are the four running backs likely to make the Eagles’ 53-man roster. There’s been some talk they could keep Smallwood as a fifth guy, which I hope isn’t true because there’s no need to do that.
Sanders and Howard will likely split the bulk of the Eagles’ carries. I tend to think Howard will be the “1A” in their rotation early on but he could lose playing time to Sanders as the season goes along. Beyond those two, Sproles and Clement project to get touches as role players since they’re factors in the passing game. Doug Pederson and Duce Staley haven’t been shy to rotate their backs in Philly so I’m expecting we’ll see that continue in 2019. Certain matchups and certain situations will influence who gets the rock.
4. The Eagles struggled to defend the pass in 2018, giving up more passing yards than all but two NFL teams. What have the Eagles done to address the pass defense, and are you optimistic it will be improved in 2019?
The Eagles have invested resources into the defensive line, as they’re wont to do. They re-signed Super Bowl hero Brandon Graham to a deal worth $40 million. They also signed Malik Jackson to a deal worth $30 million in addition to bringing back Timmy Jernigan. The Eagles led the NFL in total pressure generated back during their Super Bowl season. They’re always going to emphasize their pass rush.
The Eagles didn’t make any major new additions to the secondary. They did re-sign 2017 and 2018 starting cornerback Ronald Darby, who is coming off an ACL injury. The other corners in the mix for playing time are young draft picks: Sidney Jones (2017 second-round), Rasul Douglas (2017 third-round), and Avonte Maddox (2018 fourth-round). Jones has shown some progress this offseason so the team is hoping they can count on him as a key contributor. Douglas has also looked good and is pushing for snaps on the outside. Maddox made a number of big plays as a rookie and the Eagles like him as their slot corner. The Eagles still have Malcolm Jenkins at safety and Rodney McLeod is back after suffering a knee injury early in 2018.
The pass defense struggled earlier in 2018 before settling down towards the end of the season and into the playoffs. Maybe the Eagles can carry that positive momentum into 2019. I wouldn’t say I’m super confident in the pass defense since the Eagles have some players on defense still making their way back from injury. I think there’s potential for it to at least be respectable, which is all I really care about to be honest. I think the offense is going to have to be the unit that shines for the Eagles to be successful in 2019 anyway. The defense being good would certainly be nice but I don’t think it’s realistically good enough to make up for an ineffective offense.
5. What are your expectations for the 2019 Eagles? What is your biggest concern, and what are you most confident about?
I expect the Eagles to go 11-5 this year. They should be legitimate Super Bowl contenders will all the talent they have on this roster. Doug Pederson has proven himself as a championship caliber head coach.
You’ll be shocked to see this but I’m most concerned about Carson Wentz’s health. He’s had injuries issues and -- with all due respect to Josh McCown -- the Eagles’ season is likely over if Wentz gets hurt for a long period of time.
I’m most confident in this Eagles offense being real good. Wentz has MVP level talent and he’s working with a tremendous supporting cast. Tell me this isn’t an impressive list of weapons: Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Darren Sproles, Corey Clement. The Eagles’ offensive line should also be among the best units in the league.
Jackson’s presence is especially intriguing because he’s arguably still the best deep threat in the NFL; he led the NFL in yards per reception last season. Jackson is easily the best burner that Wentz has ever played with and they’ve already formed a strong chemistry in practice.