- On paper, the Eagles look like the class of the NFC East entering the 2018 season. Can the defending Super Bowl Champions avoid the repeat jinx in the division?
You know this, of course. You know that as much as you think you know about the 2018 season and what is ahead for the Philadelphia Eagles, the only expected outcome is what is unexpected. How to explain a worst-to-Super Bowl-Champion season for the Eagles in 2017? How to explain an NFC East that has not had repeat winners since 2004, when the Eagles did it on the way to their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history?
The prevalent theme out there is that the Eagles are the class of the NFC East, and on paper that seems safe enough to say. The champs have done a good job reloading in the offseason. They lost a starting running back, LeGarrette Blount, who went into free agency and signed with Detroit. Blount had a solid year in 2017 and he delivered power in the postseason, but the Eagles feel like they have a capable, complete backfield with Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Darren Sproles, and a handful of talented players (Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey, Matt Jones) competing for a possible fourth roster spot in that room.
The tight end position took a hit when Trey Burton – a valuable matchup advantage at tight end and a core member on special teams – signed in Chicago as an unrestricted free agent. So what did the Eagles do to replace him? They used the 49th overall draft pick on Dallas Goedert, hopeful that he can transition quickly from South Dakota State. The Eagles also released veteran Brent Celek and replaced him with veteran Richard Rodgers, so they head into Training Camp excited about the tight end room and the possibilities with a Pro Bowl player Zach Ertz.
On defense, the line changed when tackle Beau Allen signed in Tampa in free agency, but the ultra-aggressive early days in March brought veterans Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata to the roster to offset the losses of Allen and end Vinny Curry, whom the Eagles released. Cornerback Patrick Robinson, so valuable in his role as the inside cornerback last season, signed in New Orleans as a free agent, but the Eagles found in the spring that De'Vante Bausby was ready to make his move and, to add even more competition to an already-strong group of young corners, drafted Avonte Maddox in the fourth round.
Check. Check. Check. Check. The Eagles checked every box on the roster and it's pretty darn fair to say that the biggest roster question heading into July 26 and the first day of practice is at punter/holder, where Cameron Johnston, who has never played in an NFL regular-season game, is in line to replace Donnie Jones, one of the best in the business in the last 15 or so years. Even with that, Jones is unsigned, and there are teams with multiple punters on the roster and the Eagles are certainly going to monitor this situation very closely.
Yeah, so, sure, things look peachy (rather, Midnight Greeny) on paper to break the NFC East repeat jinx in 2018.
But still …
There is something to be said for the state of annual hocus-pocus in the NFC East. There is something real about it, however unexplainable it is. The worst-to-first thing is proven. And a quick check around the division suggests that Washington, Dallas, and New York all have reasons to believe they can upset the power chain in the East this season.
Washington has a new quarterback in Alex Smith, a heady veteran who is more of a "finisher" than was Kurt Cousins and certainly far less of a mistake-prone quarterback in crunch time. The Redskins think they have excellent pieces on defense, particularly in the front seven, and they've got playmakers on offense and Smith gives them a quarterback who can win with his arm, his brains, and who can do damage with his legs.
Dallas believes it will be better than last season with a full year from running back Ezekiel Elliott operating behind an excellent offensive line. Dallas may not have the explosive weapons in the passing game, but the Cowboys may just try to power teams with that line and with quarterback Dak Prescott throwing high-percentage passes to reliable receivers. Plus, the Cowboys are convinced they've got a young core on defense, particularly in the back seven, that is ready to jell.
The Giants have a new head coach, Pat Shurmur, a revamped offensive line, a superstar-from-the-start in rookie running back Saquon Barkley and a defense that, while it slumped in 2017, still has some star power and high expectations. One thing about New York: The organization is never down for long. If quarterback Eli Manning has time to throw the football and a strong running game at his disposal, New York can crank out the big plays on offense as well as any team in the league.
With Training Camp now only a couple of weeks away, and the regular season just around the corner from that, it's time to dig in deeper here with a look at what's ahead. And the reminder from here is this: No matter how it looks now, and what you think based on a paper roster, it rarely plays out as planned, especially in the NFC East. A "new normal" would include erasing the division repeat "jinx," which has been in play since 2004, a generation of Eagles football in the past.