NFL Team Previews: Philadelphia Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles took three-quarters of the season to find their bearings in 2011, but when they finally clicked they won their last four games to finish 8-8 and nearly snuck off with the NFC East crown that the almost-as-mediocre New York Giants used to parlay into a Super Bowl title. Which Eagles team will we see in 2012? The dysfunctional group that looked like one of the worst in the NFL? Or the team playing as well as anyone in December? TheSportsNotebook previews Philadelphia…

OFFENSE: The attention is all on Michael Vick for understandable reasons that we’ll get to in a moment. But in the meantime, no one should underestimate just how good this offense is. The skill position talent is tremendous, with DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant making an excellent receiver trio, and tight end Brent Celek able to make defenses pay if they neglect him. In the backfield, LeSean McCoy has become a Fantasy must-have, prolific in piling up the yardage and able to cash in for touchdowns. Philly has the convoy up front. The interior of the line has tremendous potential—guard Evan Mathis is already a top-level player, while center Jason Kelce and guard Danny Watkins are young lineman on an upward trajectory. The tackles are above average at sealing the edge.

That brings us to Vick. When he’s healthy and running this offense there’s no reason for anyone to stop them. But the “when he’s healthy” is no small disclaimer, given his track record and playing style. Furthermore, there is a tendency toward turnovers, a natural byproduct of the playing style that have to be taken into account. The offense can make enough big plays to counteract the turnovers, but the backup quarterback situation in this organization is almost irresponsible, given the talent on the roster. Are you really going to entrust a Super Bowl contender to Mike Kafka? Rookie Nick Foles could easily be the man of the future, but he should be nowhere near the field this year. Trent Edwards might get it done, but I don’t know why Philly didn’t go after someone like a Kyle Orton—who signed to be a backup in Dallas—who’s proven they can start and at least give you a chance with all this talent.

DEFENSE: Jason Babin was one of the big signings prior to last year that drove the hype-meter through the roof and he delivered, with 18 sacks from his defensive end spot. Trent Cole was solid on the other edge with 11 sacks, giving the Birds a powerful pass-rush duo in the 4-3 scheme. Even defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins got in the act, with 5.5 sacks of his own. Philly can whip anyone in the trenches when it comes to pressuring the quarterback.

Turning the defensive line loose on the pass rush means susceptibility to the run and that’s where the linebackers need to be sure and steady tacklers. Demeco Ryan is just that in the middle, but the flanks are suspect. Philadelphia’s going to depend on Brian Rolle to develop quickly.

The corners are almost as elite as the defensive ends. Nnamdi Asomugha is a lockdown corner on one side, and Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie can operate at a very high level himself, even if 2011 was a down year. Nate Coleman is respectable on patrol at free safety. Kurt Coleman needs improvement at strong safety, but improve is exactly what he’s been doing his first two years in the league. Given the quality of the corners and the problems at linebacker, it’s probably more important that Coleman provide run support than cover.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 10—If you look at this lineup on paper, with Vick in it, this is an easy call on the Over. But the Eagles are going to be a tough time to call on this sort of proposition, because no one knows how many games he’ll be healthy. I respect Andy Reid’s ability to coach an offense and the overall talent level to believe they can manage 2-3 games without Vick if necessary and the upside if he stays healthy is without limit. I’ll take the Over.