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Lawlor: Three Reasons Why Offense Will Fly

Posted Jun 4, 2017

When you have great players, scheme is less important than execution. Defenses knew Donovan McNabb was throwing the ball to Terrell Owens in 2004. That didn't matter and the Eagles' offense put up a lot of points. The 2006 team fed the ball to Brian Westbrook. Defenses struggled to stop him and the Eagles finished second in the NFL in yards. The 2010 team had Michael Vick handing the ball to LeSean McCoy and throwing it to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. That team finished third in the league in points.

We honestly don't know what to expect from the 2017 offense. There are some good players, but I don't know if there is enough talent for them to just go execute and overwhelm defenses. I think the coaches are going to have to be creative and find ways to use all the players to get the most out of this unit.

Everything starts with Carson Wentz. He had a good rookie season. I think he'll be better this year, but how much better is a mystery. Some quarterbacks take a big step forward in their second year, while others need a couple more years to really break through. The coaches can't count on him suddenly becoming a Pro Bowl passer. Wentz certainly has the ability to make plays and have some big games. At the same time, he is still a young quarterback and he will be at his best when there is a healthy run-pass balance and can count on those around him to make plays.

The run game will be huge for the Eagles this year. LeGarrette Blount will be the workhorse back. That doesn't mean he will get 20 carries every week, but he should be the foundation of the running game. Blount is listed as 250 pounds and has the ability to hammer away at defenses. That should make it interesting when Darren Sproles comes in and uses his athleticism and elusiveness to drive defenders crazy. You love it when runners have complementary styles.

Wendell Smallwood showed last year how effective he could be at times. He was terrific against the Steelers, running downhill and using his speed to move the chains. Like most young runners, Smallwood has to show he can be a reliable part of the passing game. You can't just put him in to run the ball.

Donnel Pumphrey will be a very interesting role player for the coaches to work with. I was rewatching some 2016 Eagles games recently and saw how the coaches used Josh Huff. Pumphrey could fill a similar role, as a runner, receiver, and returner. Huff played in the slot a lot. He also caught quick screens and was used to run the ball on end arounds. Pumphrey is faster, quicker, and more elusive. He can handle those same plays and might do an even better job on them. If he can get a touch or two a game and help to move the chains, that's what you want from a role player. If he can deliver a 20-yard gain here or there, that's even better.

The short passing game can be an extension of the run game. Sproles will be the key player for that, but Pumphrey can certainly help. Two other players who will catch short passes and move the chains are Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews. Ertz is coming off his best NFL season and really seemed to get on the same page as Wentz late in the year. When a tight end and quarterback have good chemistry, that bodes well for third-down success and moving the chains.

Matthews was the leading wideout the last couple of years, but that is likely to change. Free agent additions Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith will take away some of his targets. Matthews can still be very valuable, with his ability to work in the slot and create mismatches with his size. He may not catch as many total passes, but he can still make impact plays by moving the chains and being a good red zone target.

Jeffery should have a major impact on the offense. He is the best receiver the Eagles have had in a while. He doesn't have to be open for Wentz to get the ball to him. Jeffery can use his size and physicality to get the best of a defensive back and still make the catch. The last Eagles receiver who could do that was Owens more than a decade ago. You obviously prefer the receiver to be open, but there are some plays when the quarterback has to take a chance and force the ball to someone. Jeffery gives Wentz that option for the first time.

Jeffery should be the foundation of the passing game. That means feeding him short, intermediate, and deep throws. He runs well enough to get open down the field. He also runs good routes and can use a double-move to get behind a corner. That's what he did to Jalen Mills last year when the Eagles played the Bears and it resulted in a 57-yard gain. You can bet there will be lots of slants, digs, and other inside throws that let Jeffery use his size to get open over the middle.

Smith was signed to add speed as a vertical threat to the offense. He averages 17 yards per catch for his career, while Matthews is just a shade under 12 yards per catch. There was too much small ball last year. No one who caught 10 or more passes averaged more than 11 yards per reception. That has to change this season.

Part of that is on Wentz. It is easy for a young quarterback to throw the ball short rather than sitting in the pocket and making downfield reads. There were some protection issues during Lane Johnson's absence that forced more of a short passing attack. The receivers also didn't do a good job of making plays down the field. You have to do more than run fast. You must be able to locate the ball while running at full speed. You must adjust to it and then make the catch while running and/or fighting with a defensive back.

Throughout his career, Smith has shown the ability to stretch defenses and catch the ball downfield. That will be needed with Jeffery across the formation from him and guys like Matthews, Ertz, and Sproles working the middle of the field. You need someone who can affect the defense vertically. The line will need to block well and Wentz will need to make good throws. All of this can happen and the Eagles should be a more vertical offense this season.

Nelson Agholor was a key to the passing game this year but is likely to be a role player this time around. The receiver position is much deeper and there will be a lot of competition for roster spots and playing time. Agholor is having a good spring so that is a good sign for him.

Tight ends Brent Celek and Trey Burton combined for 51 catches last year. Celek is still an outstanding blocker and he plays regularly for that reason. The coaches used plenty of two-tight end sets with him and Ertz on the field. The coaches have flexibility when they do that because Ertz is such a talented pass catcher. He doesn't have to run basic tight end routes. The coaches can use him all over the field.

Celek has value on play-action passes because defenses look at him more as a blocker than a receiver these days. He is still dangerous when he catches the ball and gets out running in the open field. Burton showed flashes of real potential last year but must be more consistent. He might not catch 37 passes this year, but his catches could have more significance. He averaged just 8.8 yards a reception last year. He could catch 25 passes this season and exceed last year's yardage total. Quality is more important than quantity when it comes to receptions.

A healthy offensive line will play a huge part in the success of the offense. The Eagles scored 27 or more points in four of the six games that Lane Johnson played last year. They didn't score 27 in any of the 10 games without him. That should give you an idea how critical having the starting line together is. The Eagles have a deep, experienced line this season. If those players stay healthy, it will give the coaches freedom to run the offense the way they want to. It will allow the skill players to have success.

The offense will succeed or fail based on how Wentz, Jeffery, and Blount play this year. They are the key pieces. At the same time, do not overlook how important all of the pieces are. The coaches have some talented, versatile players to use. They need to come up with creative, aggressive game plans and give the players a chance to show what they can do.

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