There was mystery and excitement as the Carson Wentz era began a year ago. The situation is vastly different heading into the 2017 season. There is still some mystery, but the questions have changed. We wondered if Wentz was ready for the NFL a year ago. The questions now are how good Wentz can be and if he can lead the Eagles to the playoffs this season.
The Eagles were in the playoff hunt last year, but having a rookie quarterback and a roster in transition proved to be too much to overcome. Wentz now has a year under his belt and a much improved supporting cast around him. This year, there are expectations.
No one is penciling the Eagles into their Super Bowl predictions or anything to that extent. Playing a rugged schedule in arguably the toughest division in the NFL means that making predictions on win totals and getting to the postseason are tough. Wins are the ultimate test for any team, but how the Eagles play will also be critical. The 2016 team needed to do all the little things well to have success. They struggled when they fell behind early in games. They couldn't hold late leads in Dallas and Detroit. Seattle and Green Bay were simply too much to handle.
The Eagles have enough firepower that they should now be able to handle deficits better this season. The 2016 team hung tough when they fell behind, but they just couldn't make enough plays and score enough points to win those games. This team has playmakers. They won't have to move the chains a few yards at a time. They can come up with some chunk plays, which is what you need when down 10 or 14 points in the second half of a game.
This team should be better prepared to close out games. The offensive line is big and strong. LeGarrette Blount is the kind of powerful back who can help you move the chains even when defenses know you're going to run late in the game. Alshon Jeffery gives you a big receiver to force the ball to in some third-down situations. He can be covered, but still open. The Eagles didn't have a guy like that last year. The defense has a better secondary this time around. That's important when trying to cover receivers and denying a team the chance to come back.
Most importantly, the Eagles have a better overall roster. They can step on the field with any other NFL team and feel they've got a chance to win that game. That just wasn't the case last year. Any team can beat any other team on a given Sunday, but I'm talking about having a sense of true confidence that the two teams are pretty evenly matched. Can you beat the team across from you even when they have their A game?
Sunday's opener in Washington will be a great test for the Eagles, who have lost five straight games to the division rival. Washington has played some of its best football against the Eagles. Quarterback Kirk Cousins turns into Johnny Unitas and the Eagles' defense has really struggled against him. We don't really know what to expect this time out. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay left to become the head coach of the Rams. Cousins lost a pair of veteran receivers in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon. They combined for more than 2,000 yards last year. Washington thinks 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson and free agent addition Terrell Pryor are ready to fill their shoes. We'll see.
Cousins does have some key pass catchers coming back. Jordan Reed is not a traditional tight end, but he is a gifted receiver. The Eagles will use a combination of linebackers and defensive backs to slow him down. Jamison Crowder is one of the best young slot receivers in the league and Patrick Robinson will have his hands full with Crowder on Sunday. Crowder is dealing with a hip injury and that could affect him as well. The Eagles' improved secondary will be in for a challenge with Washington's talented receivers.
As always, the best way to slow down a passing attack is to pressure the quarterback. The Redskins have quietly built one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. The Eagles have one of the best defensive lines in the league. This should be a fun week to watch the line of scrimmage. I'll be especially interested in new additions Tim Jernigan and Derek Barnett. Jernigan didn't make many plays in the preseason, but he ate up double teams and that let Fletcher Cox wreak havoc. You can't double both of them. Jernigan will have a chance to make some plays if Cox draws the attention. As for Barnett, he had a great summer. It will be fun to see if that carries over to the regular season and he's able to be a key contributor to the pass rush.
The Eagles can't just sell out to get to Cousins. Washington has run the ball well during the five-game winning streak and that balance has helped them to average more than 28 points a game in that stretch. The Eagles must play better defense to win this game. You can't give up 28 points and expect to win.
It will be interesting to see how Wentz and the offense do against Washington. The Eagles didn't have their full offensive line in either game last year and that really hurt them. Wentz was sacked nine times over the course of those two games and the offense struggled. The line is healthy and deeper this time around. Wentz has a full year of experience under his belt. The Eagles should be able to move the ball and score points.
We don't know exactly what to make of the Washington defense. They have a new defensive coordinator in Greg Manusky. Their strong safety just decided to sit out the first month of the season and is contemplating retirement. They have other changes in the secondary, at inside linebacker, and on the defensive line. The Redskins actually think their defense will be improved, but with a new scheme, a new coordinator, and major personnel changes that's not a given. At the very least, there could be some issues early in the season.
I'm curious to see Doug Pederson's game plan for the offense. He could focus on trying to establish the run to let his offensive line get into a rhythm and to see what his new running backs can do. Pederson could spread out the offense and have Wentz feed the ball to the improved receiving corps. Darren Sproles didn't play at all in the preseason. Maybe he'll be the first back on the field and he'll be the key to the opening drive. I also wonder if the Eagles might use some tempo. With all those changes and new faces on defense, mixing in some up-tempo offense might be a way to confuse Washington and create problems for it.
Everyone is excited to see what Wentz does in his second season. There will be a lot of focus on Jeffery, the best receiver the Eagles have had in recent years. There are a couple of young players I'll also have a close eye on. Wendell Smallwood is in his second season in the NFL. He was banged up this summer, but when he did play, Smallwood was very impressive. The Eagles don't have one feature back right now so the hot hand may get the most touches. Smallwood could be that guy on Sunday. The other player I'm curious about is Nelson Agholor. He'll spend most of his time in the slot, a role he thrived in this spring and summer.
The Eagles were not good on special teams in the preseason, but that has been a strength of the team in recent years. I trust Dave Fipp to get his unit to play at a high level. Still, it bears watching.
There will be a lot of emotion in this game. The Eagles are playing a division rival. They are playing a team they've struggled against. They are on the road, something that gave them problems last year. There is a lot on the line for the Eagles. That can bring out the best in a team or it can backfire if they try to do too much. Win or lose, this is just one game.
The NFL season is a marathon and Sunday's game is just the start of the adventure. Each season has a life of its own. There were the red-hot start and the fast finish last year. In between, there were a lot of struggles. If the Eagles are more consistent this year, they will have a good chance to get back to the postseason. For now, focus on beating Washington and getting off to a good start.