The NFL's official offseason doesn't begin until March 11th, but the Eagles decided not to wait. They extended the contracts of tackle
Free agency shopping is a ton of fun, but history has proven that the best model for success is keeping your own players. Adding outside players leads to mixed results. You never know how players will respond to getting big money. You don't know how those players will perform in your scheme. Free agents are also outsiders to the locker room. You never know who will fit in and who won't. Just because a player is a good guy doesn't mean he will be a good fit in your locker room. Players need to fit in on a team if they want to succeed on the field.
There also is the pressure factor. Fans and the media expect tangible results from players who get big deals. You can look at the stats from 2004 and see that Jevon Kearse had 7.5 sacks. That's bad, right? Go back and re-watch the games. You see that he offered impact beyond the numbers. Some found him disappointing because they felt elite money meant he had to produce elite stats. The stats might not show it, but Kearse was worth the money in 2004. Injuries limited him the rest of his time with the Eagles. I also think pressure from fans and the media took a toll on him.
Signing free agents is an important tool, but re-signing your own players is the better option if they are worth keeping and the deals make financial sense. I think the Eagles were very wise in making these moves. Think about how these players affect the offense.
Chip Kelly wants to run the football. He also wants explosive plays on offense. Those two things don't always go well together. Think about some of the teams that ran the ball well in 2013. The Eagles led the league. The Bills finished second. The Niners were third and the Jets finished sixth. The Eagles were the only one of those teams that ranked high in explosive passing plays (20 yards or more). The Jets were 20th. The Niners and Bills tied for 22nd. The Eagles actually led the league with 80 such plays. The other three teams had 47 or fewer.
Any team that commits to running the ball and has a decent line and decent back can have a solid ground attack. Kelly isn't interested in just moving the ball 4 yards at a time. In order for his system to work, you need good blockers and good pass catchers.
The foundation of the offense is running the ball, but that is tied in to stretching the defense horizontally and vertically. Under Andy Reid the Eagles used a lot of bunch sets. Receivers would line up close to the formation. That allowed them to help as blockers and they did some criss-crossing as they released into pass routes to confuse defenders. This worked great at times. It could negate some blitzing. It could help get guys open. It also let the defense bunch up their players into a small area and that could make running the ball tough.
Kelly prefers the spread set. This puts maximum pressure on the linemen. The five of them will block and maybe a running back will stay in. Often, it is just the offensive line. If you don't have skilled blockers, this system has little chance to work. Even with skilled blockers, there will be times when they get beat and the quarterback/running back are going to pay the price.
Receivers are important because you need the back end of the defense to fear getting beat deep. If you have fast receivers, the defense isn't going to commit as many bodies to the box area, where they focus on stopping the run. It helps if you have a receiver or two who can catch the ball and then make plays after the catch. This allows the quarterback to throw the ball quickly and let his skill players make plays in space. These are low-risk, high-reward plays when you have the right personnel.
Keeping Peters and Kelce means the starting offensive line will return intact. In fact, they can stay together for a couple of years since everyone is under contract through at least 2016. Continuity is critical up front. The players have to develop chemistry so that when teams blitz and/or use stunts, the blockers know what to expect from one another. Offensive linemen must be on the same page when making a decision. They don't have time to stop and discuss what defenders are doing. They must see the same thing and make the same adjustments. If not,
Peters and Kelce have added value to the Eagles. Peters is one of the most athletic left tackles in the game and Kelce is the most athletic center in the league. They can get out in space and do special things. This helps the Eagles screen game and also the rushing attack. I think most people remember the 2011 game against the Falcons when Peters got downfield on a receiver screen and had some key blocks as Maclin went for a long touchdown. That was an amazing show of athletic ability by a big lineman. Kelce is one of the few centers who can pull on a running play and get out wide as a lead blocker. He can really get downfield on screen passes. These guys are ideal fits for the Eagles offense.
Maclin and Cooper will be important pieces in the passing game. Maclin tore his ACL and missed all of 2013. He is a complete projection to most of us, but Kelly got to see him in practice and must have some feel for how Maclin will look in the offense. The Eagles got very lucky last year in the sense that both Cooper and
It will be very interesting to see how Kelly and the coaches use the trio. None of them is a natural slot receiver, but if you play all three at the same time, someone has to be inside. I could see Maclin getting lots of looks in there. He has the quickness to get open over the middle. Maclin has good run-after-the-catch ability, although he has yet to maximize on those skills in the NFL. Kelly's offense will give Maclin a chance to make plenty of plays. Kelly needs his receivers to block well and to aggressively fight for yards after the catch.
The question with Cooper is if he can repeat his breakout performance of 2013. He finished third in the NFL in yards per catch with 17.8. That still is kind of crazy to wrap your head around. Defensive coaches and players will study the tapes, looking for holes in Cooper's game. They'll hope to make those holes show up on Sundays. The flip side is that Kelly and the Eagles coaches will try to get Cooper to be an even better player.
The X-factor here is how last year's success will affect Cooper. The coaches don't want him to be satisfied with last year. Cooper was a late-round pick so hopefully the success won't go to his head, but you never know. There is also the possibility that the success will build his confidence and he will have a great offseason. Cooper now knows that he is going to be a key player and that he'll be a big part of the offense. I would think Cooper will be focused on showing everyone that 2013 wasn't an anomaly, but rather just a sign of things to come.
The Eagles can still go add some outside players when free agency does start. If the right players are available, the Eagles could be buyers. I’ll write more about that next week. The offseason is really just getting underway, but the Eagles are off to a great start.