Everything is a question now, clearly, with the NFL in its virtual offseason planning for a regularly scheduled season in 2020. But for the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that significantly addressed its defense in free agency and its offense in the NFL Draft, there is a series of questions that don't have answers at the moment. It's worth asking, anyway, in anticipation of Training Camp, the preseason, and the lead to the regular season.
Without further ado, then …
1. Who starts opposite Darius Slay at cornerback?
Adding a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback in Darius Slay clearly upgrades the defense and the expectation is that Slay will slide right into a scheme that he knows very well from his Detroit days, when Jim Schwartz was the head coach who drafted Slay. That side of the field is buttoned up. And the slot position looks to be in great shape with Nickell Robey-Coleman and Cre'Von LeBlanc competing. Both are excellent inside cornerbacks and they provide options for Schwartz and his defensive packages. But who starts on the outside opposite Slay? It's a great question without an answer at the moment. Avonte Maddox, Rasul Douglas, and Sidney Jones are three of the leading candidates. Who separates when Training Camp and the preseason roll around?
2. How do the Eagles replace what Malcolm Jenkins brought to the field on defense?
The Eagles declined the 2020 contract option of safety Malcolm Jenkins, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. Jenkins then signed with New Orleans in free agency. And that means the Eagles have a void in their secondary. Jenkins started at safety, played every snap there and in a quasi-linebacker role and as a dime defensive back. His versatility and his smarts and his durability need to be replaced along with, of course, his production. So, who steps in? Jalen Mills is a leading candidate after re-signing on a one-year contract. Free agent addition Will Parks is another option. The Eagles like his speed and versatility. Draft pick K'Von Wallace will get looks along with holdovers Marcus Epps and Rudy Ford. The Eagles used Jenkins in a variety of roles to take advantage of his skills. Will they modify the role of the starting safety next to Rodney McLeod beyond how they used Jenkins? Can they? This is a big question for the defense in the summer.
3. Is there enough depth at running back?
Miles Sanders is confident that he's ready to be the man and take on more responsibility in the backfield. His confidence is matched by his talent and he's ready to be a No. 1 option in the backfield. Behind Sanders is Boston Scott, a terrific change-of-pace player. Corey Clement returns for what is a critical summer in his career. The Eagles want to see Elijah Holyfield in the role of a physical runner. Michael Warren is an intriguing rookie signed after the draft. That's a young group. Do the Eagles need a veteran presence, just in case?
4. Just how much have the Eagles really upgraded at wide receiver?
They are faster, that's for sure. By trading for Marquise Goodwin and drafting three speedsters, the Eagles added wheels to the wide receiver corps. None of those four players will take an on-field rep until Training Camp, though, so there is a sense of the unknown. Also unknown is how veterans Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson will return after injuries ruined their 2019 seasons. Second-year man J.J. Arcega-Whiteside needs a big bump from a tough rookie campaign. Greg Ward made it to the 53-man roster and played well out of the slot. There are a lot of names, a lot of new faces, and a lot of questions. The talent is there – headed by Jackson and Jeffery – to have an excellent group coached by Aaron Moorehead.
5. Does the Andre Dillard era begin at left tackle?
As it looks now, 2019 No. 1 draft pick Andre Dillard is in line to become the starter. The Eagles have expressed all kinds of confidence in him, and at the same time, they've acknowledged that the lines of communication are still open with incumbent starter Jason Peters, currently an unrestricted free agent. Dillard showed good things in his rookie season at left tackle. He needs reps, reps, and more reps to take the next step in his career.
6. What do the Eagles have at linebacker?
Nathan Gerry made some good strides in 2019, taking the first extended reps of his career. The Eagles believe T.J. Edwards can be a major factor in his second season. Duke Riley is here for a full summer after the Eagles acquired him in a trade from Atlanta last season. Jatavis Brown, once a full-time starter with the Chargers, is here via free agency. Davion Taylor, raw but very talented, was a third-round draft pick.
The Eagles are going to need some time to develop chemistry and timing. They need to find out who steps up and earn playing time. And while the defense uses two linebackers on the field for the majority of the snaps, the Eagles need their linebackers to make plays, to get to the football, to run free, and flow to the football playing behind one of the best defensive tackle groups in the NFL. There isn't a thumper in this group. The Eagles are relying on speed to make it work at linebacker.
7. After Carson Wentz at QB, how does the depth chart play out?
It's very likely that Nate Sudfeld will be the No. 2 with Jalen Hurts in a developmental role in his rookie season. But you never know. Kyle Lauletta is also aching to show his worth, so the camp period and preseason games will be extremely interesting to watch.
8. Are new coaches going to make the offensive scheme look any different?
Head Coach Doug Pederson values the input he's receiving from a coaching staff boosted by the additions of Senior Offensive Assistant Rich Scangarello and Senior Offensive Consultant Marty Mornhinweg, among others. It's a veteran staff and a free-thinking one. Pederson says the changes "won't be noticeable to the naked eye, necessarily," but we're all going to be watching closely for trends, use of personnel, and how the Eagles use Wentz in the passing game. The sense is that the Eagles want to take advantage of Wentz's ability to throw from the perimeter of the pocket, so that could be worked more into the passing game. Stay tuned. Should be fun to watch with a lot of weapons in the offense.
9. Which young defensive ends are going to step up?
Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett are the starters and they are quality edge players. Who provides the depth? The Eagles hope that young ends like Shareef Miller, Josh Sweat, Daeshon Hall, Genard Avery, and Joe Ostman emerge. The Eagles need depth here. And while the Eagles may get some good reps from tackle Malik Jackson if he slides from the inside to the outside, the defense really, really, really needs these young ends to produce off the edge.
10. How does the locker room dynamic change after this very unusual offseason?
Veterans like Jenkins and linebacker Nigel Bradham aren't here. Peters is still an unrestricted free agent. The quarterback room just became a lot younger. There are new faces scattered throughout the roster. And then there is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced a virtual offseason. The dynamic changes every season, but by the time the summer comes around and Training Camp begins, the players have had an offseason at the NovaCare Complex to get to know each other. Now, well, every team faces the same challenge.
The Eagles have plenty of veteran leaders and there is usually a natural succession that takes place. That's going to happen here, but it's just going to be later than usual. How that impacts the team, we don't know. But it's a question to consider, one of many as the Eagles finish their fifth week of the nine-week virtual offseason program.