Before the Philadelphia Eagles stretch their wings at training camp, there is already one large specter haunting the hallways at the NovaCare Complex. Carson Wentz, all 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds of him, is the green ghost in the room who has eerily disappeared at the end of the past two regular seasons. Now, as Wentz enters his fourth year in the league, the Eagles are talking about handing him a lucrative contract extension. Wentz is literally the wiz that stirs the cheese in Philly. What are the Eagles willing to pay their oft-injured franchise quarterback? The latest rumors have the price tag at $30 million per season. Much like confused Game of Thrones fans, everyone is waiting for a sensible answer.
While the Wentz situation will dominate the 24-hour news cycle over the coming weeks (hey, what will Wentz say at his charity softball game Friday night?) there are a couple other things to observe in the Eagles’ nest. Remember, this team is only one year removed from winning the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl. The roster has turned over significantly since Nick Foles stuck it to Tom Brady and called the Philly Special, a play immortalized in the Madden NFL video game.
The Eagles enter 2019 with the sixth-oldest roster in the NFL, with an average age of 26.4. They made a concerted effort to get younger at the skill positions in the draft by adding a lightning-quick running back (Miles Sanders), a play-making wide receiver (J.J. Arcega-Whiteside) and an uber-athletic left tackle (Andre Dillard). While the future isn’t quite here, it’s down the block. The Eagles’ intriguing mix of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance should make them the class of the NFC East, but can they compete for another Super Bowl? Let’s find out.
Locking Up the Franchise: Is Carson Wentz Worth More Than Dak Prescott?
The rumor mill is ripe this time of year, and the bar seems to be set at $30 million per year for Wentz as his rookie deal is set to expire. That’s a boatload of money for a guy who has only started 24 games since 2016. Is Wentz the MVP candidate we saw flashes of in 2017? Or is he the rifle-armed version of the Titanic?
ESPN’s Adam Schefter wouldn’t speculate on the terms of a potential contract, but he has stated that a deal will get done at some point this offseason. Some pundits have recently speculated that Wentz isn’t worth the investment, adding that Dak Prescott — Wentz’s archrival in Dallas — deserves a heftier contract. When a deal gets done for either player is anyone’s guess. The Eagles could do nothing and let Wentz play out his rookie contract, a deal that averages $6.67 million per season, with an option for 2020. Would the team do that? Probably not. It’s not a good look to play hardball with your franchise quarterback.
Meanwhile, head coach Doug Pederson had been painfully tight-lipped and borderline contentious when discussing his quarterback’s health. Wentz was sidelined with a bad back last year after playing with fractured vertebrae but looked great last week during OTAs. Wentz was a full participant at the team’s voluntary workouts as he zipped passes to his new teammates and ran the huddle with confidence. “I feel great and as you guys saw today there’s no limitations out there,” he said.
Contract aside, the bigger question is what will the Eagles do if Wentz isn’t ready for Week 1? Nick Foles can’t put the Superman cape on anymore because he’s in Jacksonville — and dealing with his own personal issues.
The new superhero is backup Nate Sudfeld, a player the organization beams about despite throwing a whopping 25 total passes in the regular season. He’ll have to learn on the fly. The team also went out and added two more insurance policies, in veteran Cody Kessler and fifth-round draft pick Clayton Thorson.
Protecting the Left Side: Can Andre Dillard Replace Jason Peters?
All eyes will be glued on big No. 77 when training camp opens in July. Look, anyone with any sense understands that Jason Peters is the undisputed starter at left tackle. The 37-year-old is a lock for Canton whenever he decides to hang it up, a warrior who started 18 games (including playoffs) last year after returning from a torn ACL. However, Peters is playing on a one-year deal and the elder statesman finally showed signs of slowing after missing at least one snap in 11 of 18 games. Plus, 90% of the snaps in 13 of 18 games. Not a dramatic drop-off, but certainly a clear sign the Eagles needed to draft his replacement sooner than later.
The latter comes in the form of the athletically-gifted Andre Dillard, a no-nonsense tackle who started 39 straight games in a pass-happy attack at Washington State. Many highly respected scouts, including Todd McShay and Mel Kiper — not to worry, Ray Didinger loved him, too — had Dillard rated as the top tackle in the entire draft due to his quick feet and lateral movement. The only real knock on this former “wuss” (Dillard almost quit football because everyone told him he sucked) appears to be in regard to his run blocking.
He’ll have plenty of time to work on that in the preseason, under the watchful eye of Jeff Stoutland. The Eagles’ offensive line coach is one of the best in the business, a guy Alabama tried to pry away. Stoutland is a master and was instrumental in the Eagles trading up to get Dillard at No. 22, so he won’t hesitate to throw him into the fire. That’s a good thing because they might need the big rookie sooner than expected with injured guard Brandon Brooks still rehabbing a torn Achilles.
The Next Thunder and Lightning: Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard
It’s really unfair to throw out these kinds of expectations so early in a player’s career, isn’t it? Oh well, get ready because here they come. Rookie sensation Miles Sanders, the 56th overall pick, sat behind Saquon Barkley for two full years at Penn State before running for 1,274 yards in his only season as the starting running back there. Now, every would-be analyst wants to compare him to the man he replaced. It didn’t help that Sanders picked out Barkley’s No. 26 to wear on his back.
NFL.com even did a simul-cam of their comparable 40-yard dash times.
The main difference is the people around them. The Giants own one of the worst offensive lines in football, while the Eagles boast one of the league’s absolute best. Jason Kelce has no match as a run-blocking center, and Lane Johnson is near the top of his trade at right tackle. Combine that power up front, with the fact that Sanders will be paired with Jordan Howard, and Philly should possess one of the NFL’s most lethal backfields. Assuming everyone stays healthy, of course. Sanders missed time at OTAs while dealing with a bum hamstring.
The bruiser of the two backs is Howard who came over in a trade from Chicago. He racked up 3,370 yards in three seasons for the Bears – and apparently brought a killer potato soup recipe with him.
The Sanders/Howard combo should have Eagles fans reminiscing about the halcyon “Thunder and Lightning” days when Charlie Garner and Ricky Watters made it look easy. Howard also quieted rumors of stone hands during OTAs where he ran solid routes and made difficult grabs out of the backfield.
Getting Dirty in the Trenches: Eagles Looking Thin at Defensive End
Some in the know think the Eagles’ lack of depth at defensive end has been greatly exaggerated. Maybe. But consider this: the team’s most elite pass-rusher (Brandon Graham) is 31 and saw his sack total cut in half last year, from 9.5 sacks in 2017 to 4.0 in 2018. That’s a huge slide for a guy fresh off a $40 million contract extension. Of course, Graham made the game-sealing play in Super Bowl XLII, for whatever karma that is still good for. In Philly, that’s a lifetime’s worth of free Yards beer.
Joining Graham in the starting rotation will be Vinny Curry and Derek Barnett, a duo that combined for a pedestrian 5.0 sacks in 2018. Barnett attempts to break last year’s injury-riddled sophomore slump, while Curry returns to the Eagles after a one-year exile in Tampa Bay. With Chris Long retiring from the NFL (maybe to smoke pot and watch Super Bowl highlights), there is a chance the front office inks a veteran free agent like Derrick Morgan. More likely, they’ll roll with what they have — and hope the forced decision to trade away Michael Bennett doesn’t crush their Super Bowl dreams. Another name to write down: Shareef Miller, a fourth-round pick from Penn State.
At defensive tackle, the situation is less dire. Fletcher Cox is arguably the best in the NFL. He’s a factor in stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, and a bona fide leader. He also has a nice supporting cast after the Eagles added Pro Bowler Malik Jackson. One name to keep an eye on at camp is Tim Jernigan, a key cog from a Super Bowl defense that held opponents to just 79.2 rushing yards per game. In 2018, Jernigan was limited to only 46 snaps as the team gave up 96.9 yards per game. Can he stay healthy and regain his swagger? If he can’t stay on the field, the Eagles will need big contributions from bubble guys like Treyvon Hester and Hassan Ridgeway.
The Other Carson: Eagles Get Big Upgrades at Wide Receiver
No one ever talks about position coaches, right? They aren’t glamorous, routinely hired and fired every year. When the Eagles parted ways with wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer back in January, there was barely a sigh from fans or beat writers. But the Eagles didn’t appear to be running sharp routes last year, especially Nelson Agholor — and those wide receiver screens that went for huge chunks of yardage in 2017 didn’t seem as smartly designed or executed. Publicly, no one said a word.
Inside the organization, there were whispers. Keep in mind the Eagles are on their fourth wide receivers coach in four years. Enter Carson Walch. The former assistant to Brewer takes over and there’s already a palpable buzz back in the wide-receivers room. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, a 6-foot-3 rookie out of Stanford, looked like the second coming of Alshon Jeffery at OTAs. That’s not by accident. Walch coached Jeffery in Chicago where the standout receiver finished with a career-high 89 catches for 1,421 yards in their first year together.
Walch and Jeffery clearly have good chemistry, and the Eagles are banking on Arcega-Whiteside developing a similar rapport. Of course, the addition of veteran DeSean Jackson can only strengthen the equation. He looked like a bolt of lightning at OTAs and that speed should stretch the field. Not to mention the threat he poses as a punt returner. Jackson’s 18.9 yards per catch led the NFL in 2018. The closest Eagle? Jeffery ranked 46th at 13.0 yards.