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NFC East 2015 preview: Are the Philadelphia Eagles better or worse?

The Eagles are different than they were a year ago. But, are they better?

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Chip Kelly
Chip Kelly
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

What is Chip Kelly doing? That is the question on seemingly everyone's mind after a series of moves by the Philadelphia Eagles over the course of the 2015 off-season. Following an organizational convulsion at the beginning of the year, the Eagles' head coach assumed complete control over the team's personnel. Decisions about signing or re-signing free agents, roster cuts, and draft choices are all now made solely by Kelly.

Whatever happens to this team, all blame and all praise should be directed to Kelly. He has stocked this roster with handpicked players and banished mutinous play-makers to far-off franchises. Now, we look at whether those questionable changes will let the Oregon-style system run like a well-oiled machine, or if they result in Kelly as the captain of his own sinking ship. Postseason or iceberg, which will it be?

For this latest series of articles, Chris Pflum and Alex Sinclair have teamed up to look at the changes made by each division rival over the last few months in an attempt to answer the age-old off-season question; Are they better or worse? With the Eagles, things look a little less cut-and-dry than expected.


(By Chris Pflum)

Kelly quickly set out to use his new Belichickian powers to aggressively remake the Philadelphia roster. He traded starting running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills, traded starting quarterback Nick Foles to the St. Louis Rams, let Jeremy Maclin leave for Kansas City, released guards Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis. On the surface Kelly has shed some age on the oldest offensive line in the league, added a talented quarterback who can stretch the field, and some skill position players who are solid fits for his offensive scheme. On the field, however, each of these players comes with some significant questions.

Newly-acquired quarterback Sam Bradford was talented enough to be a No. 1 overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft, but that talent has yet to consistently translate to the field. Bradford has an extensive injury history going back to college and is coming off a 2014 season that was lost to a torn ACL.

Guard John Moffitt briefly retired from football in 2013 after a failed trade from the Seahawks to the Cleveland Browns and never playing a regular season snap for the Denver Broncos, to whom he was successfully traded. Durring his two years as an NFL starter he was graded in the bottom quarter of offensive guards by Pro Football Focus -- 76th out of 78 guards in 2011, and 59th out 81 guards in 2012. So while he is considerably younger than both Mathis or Herremans, he is not an improvement over either.

DeMarco Murray lead the league in rushing in 2014, when he carried the Dallas Cowboys to the playoffs following three straight 8-8 seasons. However in doing so, his work load raises some significant red flags for 2015. Between rushes and receptions, he touched the ball 469 times last season. Historically, nearly every running back who touched the ball more than 370 times has seen a drastic drop in production and a dramatic rise in their injury risk. That has to be a concern for a player who has never completed a season healthy and had that many more than 370 touches. Murray's new backfield-mate, Ryan Mathews, carries a significant injury history of his own, only playing two complete seasons going back to college.

Replacing Jeremy Maclin, who had a career year in 2014, falls to receivers Miles Austin and Nelson Agholor. Austin's combination of size and straight line speed made him a dangerous weapon for the Cowboys, particularly matched up on smaller defensive backs in the slot. However age - he's 31 - and a long injury history of his own, make trusting him for a significant contribution a chancy proposition. The Eagles are instead likely looking to Agholor, drafted in the first round out of USC, to be their long-term heir to Maclin. Agholor is similar in both physique and game to Maclin, and one of the slickest route runners in college football last year. Agholor will likely be a good player for Philly going forward, but it seems just a tad unreasonable to expect him to come in and completely overcome the loss of their No. 1 receiver in the same way that Odell Beckham Jr. -- a player Chip Kelly reportedly greatly coveted in 2014 draft -- did for the New York Giants.

So what is Kelly doing? From here it looks like the Philadelphia head coach has gone all in on his system. With the release of Evan Mathis, Kelly has completely dismantled the "Dream Team" assembled in a free agency spending spree four years ago. He has also parted ways with some of the prior administration's most talented draft picks in Jeremy Maclin,  DeSean Jackson, and LeSean McCoy, who were also the most productive players for his teams.

In their place Kelly has added players who haven't been as historically productive, but who he feels fit his offensive philosophy. That is exactly what a new coach should do, but Kelly is also pushing all his chips to the center of the table on his conditioning program. Almost without exception his roster additions carry some significant injury concerns. He wouldn't have added them if he didn't feel that his way of doing things would do what every other program they had been in had failed to and keep them healthy and productive.

So has the Eagles' offense improved? Looking at the talent that has left the roster and the questions surrounding the players that have been added, it's impossible to say that they have. Perhaps it is more apt to say that Kelly has assembled a "Glass Cannon" of an offense. If Kelly's faith in his system pays off, they could be dynamic, however as of now their fragility can't be ignored."


(By Alex Sinclair)

The success of the offense relies on a scheme that transcends the no-name players it has on-hand, but the defense is a different story. While Kelly's offensive mind does give him certain insights into how a defense operates, the functional implication of such is something he hands off to his coordinator, Billy Davis. Prior to his current position with the Eagles, Davis had held two previous coordinator jobs; two years with the 49ers under Mike Nolan and another with the Cardinals. Two seasons into his term with the Eagles, it now becomes fair to say that his defenses in Philly have clearly outperformed those of his past.

That said, there is always room for improvement. The secondary has been a problem point for Philadelphia ever since Brian Dawkins left in 2008. Since that time, they boys on the back end of the defense have been a source of turnover, and not the way one would hope from their defense. In 2010, the Eagles entered the season with Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs as their starting cornerbacks. In 2011, they signed Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as part of the "Dream Team" movement. When Chip arrived in 2013, he hand-picked Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams as his outside guys. Now, here we are in 2015, and both of those have been replaced with high-priced free-agent Byron Maxwell and rookie Eric Rowe. Quietly, Philadelphia has become to cornerbacks what Cleveland is to quarterbacks.

What will Maxwell and Rowe bring to the Eagles? Maxwell was a member of the "Legion of Boom" out in Seattle and Rowe was a dynamic defensive back in college, shifting between safety and corner to develop a versatile set of skills. Rowe may be a cost-effective solution to a long-term problem, but Maxwell's deal is a six-year, $63 million contract. If it doesn't pan out, that will be another Eagles corner on the scrap-heap. They need him to bring the mentality of the dominant Seahawks' secondary to Philadelphia and hope it catches on with the other players.

Some combination of Earl WolffWalter Thurmond and Malcolm Jenkins should provide sustainable play at the safety position, and nickel-corner Brandon Boykin is one of the best in the game, but the success of the secondary, and the defense overall, will come down to how well Maxwell and Rowe stack up against the best receivers in the game.

The pressure really is on those corners because there isn't a lot of holes elsewhere on this side of the ball. The front-seven is a well-rounded and effective combination of players who exceed the sum of their parts. The reality is that they have managed to get superstar numbers form productive role players. Bennie Logan's 40 tackles were the most of any interior-lineman last year, yet most people in Philadelphia couldn't pick him out of a line-up. Not much has changed along the defensive line, and that's a good thing. Fletcher Cox will be his usual commanding self, Vinny Curry has developed into a strong rotational player and Cedric Thornton received a positional top 10 grade from Pro Football Focus for his run-defense last year. The aim here is to keep the wheels turning.

Behind that line, things get even better. Outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham combined for 103 QB pressures in 2014. To put that in perspective, Barwin and Graham rank seventh and eighth in pressures from the OLB spot respectively. That's especially impressive for Graham because he only played about half the snaps that Barwin did. Again, their goal for this group probably isn't to improve as much as it is to replicate.

At inside linebacker is the only place this defensive front will see some change. Kelly was reunited with yet another former Oregon Duck when Kiko Alonso was brought over in the trade that sent McCoy to Buffalo. This was the pinnacle of a stunning offseason for the Eagles. Alonso was a stunning rookie, but tore his ACL last season and is unknown product right now. If he can return to capture some of his former glory and line up alongside the reliable Mychal Kendricks, for better or worse, it could prompt the defense to once again be the focal point of a team lead by an offensive "genius" and may even do enough to push this team into the playoff promised-land. It all just comes down to those pesky cornerbacks.