This is the first in a series of five key Camp Questions for the Eagles heading into Training Camp.
The 2016 season served as a 16-game, welcome-to-the-NFL moment for quarterback Carson Wentz, then a rookie thrown into the starting mix just eight days before the regular season began. He had his ups and he had his challenges, and in the end he emerged knowing the future was extremely bright.
To aid Wentz's development, the Eagles devoted a considerable amount of their offseason resources to provide more playmakers. They added, as you know, wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency, and then drafted Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson in the NFL Draft. A new position coach, Mike Groh, is there to oversee the integration and development at a position that underperformed last year.
With an eye on the running game, the Eagles used a fourth-round draft pick on Donnel Pumphrey, the most prolific back in the history of the NCAA. Pumphrey, the Eagles say, plays a whole lot bigger than the 5-9 and 176 pounds he is listed at in the team's media guide. After the draft, the Eagles signed veteran LeGarrette Blount to a one-year contract, and the 250-pound power back gives the offense a much-needed dose of physical running, particularly in the red zone and inside opponents' 10-yard lines.
And then, just to make sure that Wentz feels safe and secure in and out of the pocket, the Eagles brought guard Chance Warmack on board in free agency, retained versatile Stefen Wisniewski and added to the depth in the post-draft period. The Eagles signed left tackle Jason Peters to a contract extension and go into Training Camp feeling, "great," as coach Jeff Stoutland said, about the line situation.
The complexion and personality changes from 2016. Significantly, even. The Eagles of last season relied on formation variation and changing personnel groupings. They weren't going to out-talent defenses, the idea was, so the only chance for success was to scout ferociously and coach 'em up and win by creating favorable matchups.
It worked for a few games, even four. And then right tackle Lane Johnson was suspended for 10 games and the offense took an immediate left turn into Struggleville. The shell of protection around Wentz was compromised with rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai on the field instead of Johnson. Left guard Allen Barbre was limited to 12 games because of injuries. The Eagles started seven combinations along the offensive line in the 16-game season.
In part because of that, the offense had limited success in two key areas: "chunk" plays in the passing game and scoring touchdowns in the red zone. The Eagles ranked tied for 28th in the league with 39 passing plays of 20-plus yards, and they ranked 24th in the NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency.
Hence, the additions.
It's fair, then, to expect the offense to make a substantial jump this year, and we should see some of the early indications in Training Camp. Jeffery is the new go-to receiver and he's as talented as any receiver, and maybe moreso, the Eagles have had since, gulp, Terrell Owens. Jeffery is a big target with a huge catch radius and he can go up and get the football. Jeffery and Wentz developed a quick chemistry in the spring and they again worked together in North Dakota earlier this month. Playing on a one-year contract, Jeffery is poised to capture some of the great production he had in Chicago when Groh was his position coach.
Smith brings the element of deep speed to an offense that sorely missed it last year. Smith can run. He can blow past cornerbacks and he's strong and can use his body to make plays down the field. Consistency will be the key here with Wentz and Smith being on the same page.
Jordan Matthews was the team's leading receiver last year playing mostly on the outside, and that's going to change. He will still catch a lot of passes, but he will likely line up more in the slot and create good matchups against smaller cornerbacks. A player to watch in the summer is Nelson Agholor, who had a fine spring after a disappointing first two seasons as an Eagle. Is Agholor ready to turn the corner? He's got skills, there is no doubt about that. Playing with confidence is the key for Agholor and he left the spring feeling full of it.
As for the running game, Blount addresses a lot of the questions. He scored 18 touchdowns last season with New England, 15 of those from the 10-yard line and in. If Blount has the same spring in his legs as last year, and with an outstanding offensive line in front of him, the Eagles have a chance to greatly upgrade the red zone effectiveness on the ground. And if the Eagles can have a consistent, legitimate running game going – one that will include second-year man Wendell Smallwood and the ageless Darren Sproles in a varied role – Wentz is going to have success in the play-action passing game.
As impressive as Wentz was as a rookie, his whopping 607 passing attempts was too many. The Eagles needed Wentz to lead the offense without, quite honestly, a lot of help around him. Head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich did all they could with the personnel groupings and the formations – using the tight ends, for example, in heavy rotation and at every position in the offense – but without the proven playmakers, the Eagles relied on Wentz dropping back and chucking the football.
This year? The Eagles want to establish the running game early and often and then use a heavy dose of play-action passing to gain those "chunk" plays. Having Jeffery and Smith and Matthews, all three proven in the NFL, as reliable targets will help Wentz immensely.
A lot falls on Pederson as the playcaller, but now that he's got an ample supply of talent, things will be easier. He will have more options. He can look at his play sheet and have confidence that the talent is there to execute the call.
At first blush, then, this offense figures to take a very important and convincing step forward in Training Camp and beyond. The playmakers are here to make a difference and when added together with the existing cast, the Eagles should be ready to soar on the offensive side of the football.