Questions, questions. We all have them about the 2017 Eagles and Sunday's game at Washington will go toward answering them. Some of them, anyway. The Eagles are healthy and eager to get things rolling at FedEx Field. Here are five questions to consider with the opener ahead.
1. Can The Eagles Run The Ball Effectively?
"I have great confidence that we can run the ball very well," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said.
The Eagles ran the ball well at times in 2016, ranking among the better teams in rushing efficiency. But they also failed at critical times, including late in losses at Detroit and Dallas, and at times in the red zone. The Eagles ranked 24th in the NFL in touchdown efficiency in the red zone last season, a statistic that is absolutely critical to improve (see below).
The idea is to go with a running back-by-committee approach, which means that LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood, and Darren Sproles will get their touches. It won't be easy going against a stout Washington front seven on Sunday, but the Eagles have to, over the course of 16 games, earn the respect of defenses with the ground attack.
It's not about yards-per-carry average, nor is it about touchdowns scored running the football. Those are important numbers, but the Eagles also have to run better on first down to help them stay away from third-and-long situations, and they need to be more consistent in the four-minute offense. Can the Eagles ice games when they have a lead late in the fourth quarter of games?
2. Has The Red Zone Offense Improved Sufficiently?
Gotta score touchdowns. Caleb Sturgis is a fine placekicker and everything, but the Eagles must put the football in the end zone more this season. To that end, they've added a big target in wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and they brought Blount on board to make defenses understand that the running game is a threat in the red zone. Blount had 15 of his 18 touchdown runs inside the 10-yard line last season in New England.
How much will the scheme change from last season in the red zone? Where are the Eagles going to attack inside the 10-yard line? Will they utilize quarterback Carson Wentz's mobility in those tight situations?
On the subject of Wentz, there is no doubt he has the skills to take his game to a new level in Year 2. He has to be extremely accurate in the red zone and he has to throw the football with confidence. For the first time, Wentz has a receiver in Jeffery to go up and get the football. Maybe we'll see the fade pass in the corner of the end zone from time to time, and the back-shoulder throw is certainly an option.
With Jeffery and Zach Ertz, the Eagles have some big-bodied targets in the passing game. With Blount, they have one of the biggest bodies at the running back position in the league. The red zone should be a productive place to be for the offense this season.
3. Will The Eagles Dominate On Special Teams?
Dave Fipp always gets the most out of his players and his schemes, and he has some familiar faces to work with this season – Chris Maragos, Trey Burton, and Kamu Grugier-Hill to name three – and the Eagles will find out about the rest of their core teams starting on Sunday. The goal is to dominate after the 2016 special teams ranked first in the cumulative rankings complied by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News.
Rick Lovato is the long snapper and he acquitted himself well in three games to close out 2016, as well as the entire preseason. Sturgis is the placekicker and Donnie Jones handles the punting. Wendell Smallwood figures to be the primary kickoff return man with Darren Sproles, of course, handling the punt return duties.
4. Are The Cornerbacks Up For The Challenge?
Washington changed out its wide receivers, but the Redskins are still extremely potent in the passing game with receivers Terrelle Pryor, Jamison Crowder, and Josh Doctson, along with star tight end Jordan Reed. A very good offensive line protects quarterback Kirk Cousins well.
The Eagles have a top challenge on Sunday.
, Patrick Robinson, and Dexter McDougle helps. Darby can match up against Doctson, with Jalen Mills working against Pryor. McDougle and his quickness can work against the quick Crowder, if the Eagles go that route. Robinson gives the Eagles versatility inside and outside.
Teams are going to throw the ball up for grabs when they have a bigger receiver lined up against Darby, as we saw in the Miami preseason game. But he's still a quality cornerback, much more athletic than anyone else the Eagles have. Darby is the closest thing to a "shutdown" corner on the roster.
5. How Good Can The Pass Rush Be?
As noted above, the Eagles have a very difficult matchup against Washington's offensive line that features left tackle Trent Williams and right guard Brandon Scherff. Brandon Graham and the defensive ends who go up against Williams will be in tough spots, and Fletcher Cox has his hands full with Scherff.
Having Tim Jernigan next to Cox should help a lot. Jernigan will benefit from teams paying a lot of attention to Cox. Jernigan's strength is his burst and his aggressiveness up the field. His style works well within the scheme here.
Rookie Derek Barnett will get his reps behind Vinny Curry and Graham, and he will have to make the most of them. The Eagles have five quality ends with Graham, Curry, Chris Long, Barnett, and Steven Means. There is depth at tackle with Beau Allen and Destiny Vaeao behind Cox and Jernigan.
So to beat Washington, the Eagles have to win up front. That isn't easy against one of the best offensive lines in the league. But it's a good test. And it's an answer to a question, one of many, the Eagles have to answer starting Sunday.