Good morning, Eagles fans. This is the final week players are off before the Eagles' offseason program begins on Monday. Then comes a flurry of football news — from the schedule release to the draft to organized team activities and minicamp.
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— Zach Berman
Most years, the Eagles have a "breakout" player. (Cue your jokes about that being Zach Ertz's entire career.) It becomes an annual offseason ritual to try to determine who that player will be.
In 2017, it was Nelson Agholor. One year ago, Agholor seemed on the verge of joining the list of Eagles draft busts. After a breakout 2017 season, Agholor is one of the key players on the Eagles this season and could become a core player in the future.
Doug Pederson was asked at the league meeting who can be the 2018 version of Agholor. He answered it thinking about a breakout player — not necessarily one who struggled last season who will become more productive than expected.
"I think Sidney Jones has a chance," Pederson said. "We'll see how his development goes this spring. I think Mack Hollins has a chance to see where he goes this spring. We know what [Derek Barnett] is going to be. I look at some of the young receivers, like Greg Ward, Rashard Davis, Bryce Treggs, Shelton Gibson. That whole group right there, one of those guys, I know they'll emerge and do something special."
Jones could very well be the Eagles' breakout player in 2018. He's expected to play a major role after sitting out 15 games last season and has the talent to emerge as the Eagles' top cornerback. They return Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby, although Mills could bounce inside in the nickel formation to make room for Jones. There could also be a potential trade at cornerback.
Barnett played a significant role last season, and that will only grow. I'd expect him to take over Vinny Curry's starting spot. There will continue to be a rotation, but look for Barnett to approach — and potentially reach — double-digit sacks. Of course, if it's expected of him, he doesn't fit the Agholor profile.
For third-year players who could have career turnarounds, Isaac Seumalo and Wendell Smallwood fit the description. (More on Smallwood below.) Both were expected to be bigger contributors in 2017 and could have the light bulb go on in 2018. However, Seumalo had every chance to become a starter for the Eagles last season and couldn't keep his job. He would need an injury to enter into the lineup this season, although his value could lie in being a versatile reserve able to play tackle, guard, and center. My guess is Halapoulivaati Vaitai has a better chance to emerge into a starter for the Eagles.
Tim Jernigan is not viewed the way Agholor was last season, but he's someone who can take a leap in 2018. Jernigan didn't have the production expected when the Eagles acquired him — his sacks and playing time percentage both dropped from 2016, when he played in Baltimore; he nursed an ankle injury. I still think the Eagles bounce Brandon Graham and Michael Bennett inside on passing downs, which takes away Jernigan's third-down opportunities. Plus, Halati Ngata will play a role in 2018. But Jernigan should be able to generate more than 2.5 sacks this season, and I'm curious whether he can play more than 48 percent of the defensive snaps.
I also think Darby can fall in the Jernigan category. More was expected of him in 2017, although he didn't arrive until the second week of the preseason and suffered a significant injury in Week 1 of the regular season. He has the talent and a full offseason and preseason should help him entering a contract year if he remains on the roster.
Rodney McLeod doesn't fit the Agholor description, but he could be an Ertz-type breakout in 2018 — someone who is already a key player, but emerges into a Pro Bowler.
The Eagles have Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement atop the depth chart entering the offseason program. They're likely to add a running back in the draft, too. It's made Smallwood, who was considered a potential starter last year, a relative afterthought.
Pederson is not ready to give up on Smallwood.
"I like Wendell," Pederson said. "I think it was just a situation where we brought in Jay and Wendell was the guy we had to put down each week. I'm encouraged by Wendell. I think he's got value to our football team. He brings special teams value."
Smallwood rushed for 312 yards on 4.1 yards per carry as a rookie. He dropped to 174 yards on 3.7 yard yards per carry last season, and he was active for only eight games.
Smallwood fell out of the rotation when the Eagles traded for Ajayi. But there wouldn't have been a need for Ajayi if Smallwood had been consistent. He's far from a lock to make the roster. If the Eagles draft a running back that fits into the top three on the depth chart, look for Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey to compete for the No. 4 running back job. Smallwood could also be trade bait if a team was intrigued by the 2016 film and thinks he can benefit from a change of scenery.
Since last week's Early Birds arrived in your inbox, the Eagles added veteran tight end Richard Rodgers. This shouldn't move the meter much, but it gives the Eagles depth at a position where they need it. Ertz is the top tight end, and the Eagles had no proven options behind him. They'll likely add a tight end in the draft, but Rodgers is a solid backup. He's sure-handed and has been productive in the NFL. That's the type of No. 2 tight end the Eagles needed to find in free agency. You can argue they should have looked for a better blocker, but Rodgers could take on some of Trey Burton's workload from last year. He was used in different ways with the Packers — from the backfield to in-line — and Pederson can experiment with that versatility during training camp. Rodgers can also contribute on special teams. But this move shouldn't affect their draft plans. If you want an example, just look at 2013. The Eagles signed James Casey to pair with Brent Celek during free agency, and then they drafted Ertz.
I'd say safety or running back. The Eagles can play three players at both positions, as they did last season. I've been outspoken about how I think the Eagles' defense is best when it has three safeties on the field because of the versatility that provides against different offensive packages and how it benefits Malcolm Jenkins. If they take a first-round safety — watch out for Stanford's Justin Reid — they can get him Day 1 playing time in situational roles. And at running back the Eagles like to use a committee. Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement will get playing time, but a rookie could join them as part of a three-man backfield.
That remains to be seen because the Eagles can find that player in the draft. If they went into the season today without the draft, I think Donnel Pumphrey would be a punt return candidate, with Rashard Davis a sleeper to win the job. Davis, a practice-squad receiver last season, was a prolific return threat at James Madison. He could also join Corey Clement on kickoff returns. (Wendell Smallwood could also be a factor on kickoff returns.) Of course, the draft could change everything. The Eagles could select a return threat who could emerge as the front-runner.