The first Training Camp practice is 10 days away. Between now and then, we will look at the biggest Training Camp storylines facing the Eagles. To kick things off, here is a look at the team's offseason acquisitions and how they fit into the plans for 2019.
Chris McPherson: I'm going to focus on what is the most overhauled position group on the team this offseason and that's the running back room. The Eagles acquired Jordan Howard, a Pro Bowl selection as a rookie in 2017, in a trade with the Bears, and used the highest draft pick in a decade on a running back when Miles Sanders was chosen in the second round (53rd overall) out of Penn State.
The Eagles' leading rusher in 2018 was rookie Josh Adams with 511 yards. That's not a far cry from 2017 when LeGarrette Blount paced the Super Bowl squad with 766 yards.
The big difference is that in 2017 the Eagles ranked third in both yards per game (132.2) and yards per carry (4.5). Last season, the Eagles dipped to 28th in yards per game (98.1) and 30th in yards per carry (3.9).
Even in advanced metrics, the Eagles were 15th is rushing, according to Football Outsiders, in 2017 and fell to 27th last year.
Sure, game situations played a role. The Eagles were +58 in first-quarter scoring in 2017 and -20 a year ago.
Howard and Sanders will first and foremost provide stability to the running back room, head coach Doug Pederson said recently on NFL Network's Total Access.
Howard has been one of the league's most productive backs in his first three NFL seasons. He is third in the NFL in rushing yards (3,370) since he entered the league. In short-yardage situations (third- or fourth-and-2 or fewer), Howard converted 74 percent of his opportunities this past season (23 of 31). The Eagles were successful on 62.5 percent of similar rushing opportunities (20 of 32) in 2018.
As for Sanders, he was a full-time starter for the first time in 2018 after backing up Saquon Barkley. Sanders gained 1,274 yards rushing (15th in the nation) on 220 carries for an average of 5.79 yards per carry and nine touchdowns in 13 games.
In addition, Corey Clement is on track to return from last season's knee injury. Adams and Wendell Smallwood return along with Boston Scott, who was signed off New Orleans' practice squad late in the season and assumed primary kickoff return duties down the stretch.
Dave Spadaro: CMac, I hear you on the running backs. It's a new look, for sure, and it's critical that both Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders are up to speed early in this Training Camp. You've covered that position well.
I don't have a lot of concern about DeSean Jackson at wide receiver, and I think Andrew Sendejo was impressive during the spring and the coaching staff feels really good about him stepping up to add depth there. My focus is on the linebacker group, particularly veteran additions L.J. Fort and Zach Brown. The Eagles have some questions at linebacker, particularly with Jordan Hicks gone to Arizona in free agency. His departure leaves a hole at the middle linebacker position, and even though the Eagles play with nickel personnel for approximately 70 percent of their defensive snaps, they still need the answers across the board.
So how does Fort, who was almost exclusively a special teams player for most of his career until last season with Pittsburgh when he played as a starter, fit into the equation? He can run and the Eagles want to see his coverage skills in the defense, so can Fort challenge for playing time? I mean, don't the Eagles kind of need him to show in the summer that he can be reliable at any one of the three linebacker positions?
To perhaps a higher degree, the same can be said for Brown, an accomplished player in his NFL career who hadn't really worked his way into a solidified role throughout the spring. If Brown can become comfortable in the defense over the course of the summer, he's got a chance to be an impact player. He's a physical, ball-chasing linebacker who is always in on plays. If Brown can step up and, say, show Jim Schwartz that he can play on the strong side, the Eagles could theoretically move Nigel Bradham to the middle, where he helped quite a bit down the stretch in the Super Bowl season.
The Eagles have a lot of new faces. The rookies, of course, are on their first go-around and, truth be told, with such a veteran and loaded roster it's hard to imagine many of the five draft picks and rookie free agents to be thrust into impactful roles. Malik Jackson at defensive tackle is going to be just fine; he was at the NovaCare Complex throughout the spring and he has his role defined and the defense down. Vinny Curry is going to help at defensive end and, of course, he knows the defense.
Linebacker needs to be the focus for the fresh faces in Training Camp. The rise of Fort and Brown will be critical to how well the Eagles line it up on that side of the ball this season.
Fran Duffy: I think the linebacker discussion is really interesting, Dave, and one we will certainly be following all through camp, but let me talk about what could be a dominant defensive line.
We know this has been one of the strengths of the team over the last handful of seasons, but this group has a chance to be really special. We all know about Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. Derek Barnett returns from injury and we're all excited about his career arc. Tim Jernigan returns and he's one of my favorite players to watch on film.
That being said, I can't WAIT to watch this group with Malik Jackson in the fold. This is a player that I've loved going back to his college days at Tennessee, where he was seen as an end-tackle hybrid coming into the NFL Draft. Fast forward a few years, and we've seen him develop into one of the most dynamic interior disruptors in football. Whether it was with Jacksonville or Denver, Jackson has been great at getting after the quarterback inside.
In my mind, his presence relieves the need to play with three defensive ends on the field at one time as we've seen in recent seasons. I don't think you're taking him off the field too much, because his presence opposite Cox (who draws so many double teams) makes this group tough to block. When teams decide to send extra attention at Fletcher, can the other guys win one-on-one? With Graham, Barnett, Jernigan, Jackson, the return of Vinny Curry, and the young trio of Shareef Miller, Josh Sweat, and Joe Ostman all vying for time, it's going to make for a fun summer in the trenches as we all prepare for the 2019 season.