On Thursday, the Green Bay Packers kick off the preseason against the Philadelphia Eagles. Brandon Lee Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Eagles and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: Opinions nationally seem to be polarized regarding Carson Wentz's rookie campaign and potential for improvement. How do you see the Eagles' quarterback one year into his career?
A lot of national people who criticized Wentz didn’t give enough weight to the poor situation he was in last year. The Eagles didn’t plan to play Wentz as a rookie; he was supposed to be the third string quarterback to start the season. Then, despite missing most of the preseason with a rib injury, he became the starter just eight days before Week 1 due to the Sam Bradford trade.
Wentz had immediate success before cooling down later in the year. It was apparent that Doug Pederson’s scheming could only go so far before the limited talent brought the offense down. The Eagles had the NFL’s worst wide receiver corps in the NFL last year. They didn’t have a consistent run game and that led to Wentz throwing the second most attempts of any rookie quarterback ever. A key member of the offensive line, Lane Johnson, got suspended for 10 games. Other injuries occurred up front to force the Eagles into using a number of different line combinations.
As you can tell, this was hardly an ideal situation for a rookie. It’s really not comparable to the favorable situation Dak Prescott experienced.
Now, you might be thinking I’m a big Wentz apologist. I’m not saying he wasn’t to blame for any of his struggles. He clearly has room to grow. But it was really hard to get a great read on him last year when his supporting cast was downright dreadful at times.
Wentz has looked pretty good this offseason. He looks a lot further along than he was last year. A stronger supporting cast should help him as well. He still has a lot to prove, but there’s certainly reason for optimism moving forward.
2. Where have the Eagles improved most since last year? What part of the roster still needs significant improvement?
Definitely wide receiver. I can’t stress how bad last year’s group was: Jordan Matthews, Dorial Green-Beckham, Nelson Agholor, Paul Turner, Bryce Treggs. JMatt is a solid player but when he’s your best receiver, you’re in trouble. DGB was the second best player of that group and he deservedly got cut before training camp even began. Agholor was arguably THE worst wide receiver in the NFL over the past two years. Turner and Treggs were undrafted rookies.
Now the Eagles have Alshon Jeffery, who I’m sure Packers fans are familiar with. He’s a legitimate No. 1. Torrey Smith struggled in San Francisco but he’s had a good offseason thus far. At the very least, he’s a legitimate deep threat. He ranks second among active NFL players in career yards per reception. Agholor has been having a good offseason. We’ll see if that last into games. Rookies Mack Hollins and Greg Ward have shown potential while 2016 undrafted signing Marcus Johnson has come out of nowhere to suddenly be a likely roster lock. Needless to say, the receiver positioned is much improved on paper.
Cornerback is still the Eagles’ obvious weakness. The Eagles spent two draft picks on that area this year: they added Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas. But Jones might not even play this year and Douglas is a work in progress. The Eagles might be better off in the long-term at this position but they still lack talent in the short-term. Patrick Robinson has really struggled all camp long. Jalen Mills has his ups and downs. It feels like the Eagles still need to make a move at corner before the season starts.
3. What reason(s) give you the most confidence that the Eagles can win the NFC East this season? What gives you the most concern?
The Eagles finished the 2016 season ranked fourth in DVOA, tied for ninth in point differential, and tied for seventh in point differential. I’d argue they’re bound for some natural improvement this year. In addition, the Cowboys and Giants are poised to take some kind of step back this season. Those teams still might be better than the Eagles, but at the very least the gap between them has closed. It should be a competitive division and the Eagles will be right in the mix, especially if Wentz progresses as expected. The bad news is the Eagles’ corners could really struggle to cover the likes of Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr., Terrelle Pryor, etc.
4. Can you give us an outsider's perspective on the 2017 Packers?
First, allow me to say Eagles fans were super appreciative of the Packers beating the Cowboys in the playoffs. That was pretty sweet.
I figure the Packers will be one of the better teams in the NFC again. As long as Green Bay has Aaron Rodgers, that should always be the case. It seems like Rodgers has had some moments where you begin to wonder if he’s losing a step but then he comes back and shows that he’s still Rodgers.
5. Can you name an under-the-radar Eagles player on offense and on defense we should watch out for on Thursday?
Offense: Keep an eye on No. 89 - Greg Ward. The undrafted rookie has looked surprisingly refined for a player converting from quarterback to wide receiver. Ward has made some tough catches while working the middle of the field in practice. I could see him having success in the preseason because the backup quarterbacks will like to have a reliable option and Ward has been just that in the slot.
Defense: C.J. Smith was an undrafted free agent last year who made the practice squad and was eventually promoted to the main roster. The North Dakota State alumnus might actually be starting for the Eagles at corner by Week 1. He’s not a lockdown corner or ballhawk by any means, but he’s quietly been real solid. That’s more than what can be said about a lot of the other Eagles corners.
We'd like to thank Brandon and Bleeding Green Nation for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there, as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Eagles. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Thursday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Eagles vs. Packers.