It’s that time of year, when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today, it’s the 2018 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, who battled injuries all year and had their hopes for a repeat dashed by the Saints on Sunday.
What Went Right
Seasons come, go, and slip away like they were lathered in Crisco, but Eagles fans will have this moment embedded in their souls for eternity, and nobody can take it from them.
No matter what happened in 2018, it was all gravy. Nick Foles reinvigorated the team with a stunning upset of the Los Angeles Rams in Week 15 that kept the Birds’ Super Bowl repeat hopes—and the city of Philadelphia’s ability to keep moving forward—alive into the final week of the season. Zach Ertz followed up on his Super Bowl heroics with the most catches for any tight end in a single season in NFL history, passing Jason Witten’s 110 mark, set in 2012, and cementing himself as one of the best two tight ends in football along with Travis Kelce. Undrafted rookie running back Josh Adams showed promise that he could be a feature back if he can get past his ball-security issues, and Darren Sproles returned after his ACL tear as a 35-year-old, 5-foot-6 running back catching 37-yard touchdown passes on fourth down.
The only players in the NFL with more than 78 quarterback pressures this regular season were the Rams’ Aaron Donald (106) and Philadelphia defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (95), who earned first-team All-Pro honors and established himself as the premier interior player after Donald. Defensive end Michael Bennett, acquired in an offseason trade with Seattle for a fifth-rounder, finished with 68 pressures, ninth in the league and one less than Khalil Mack, who was eighth—not bad for a guy who wears Vinny Papale’s shoulder pads. In seventh place, ahead of Mack, was Philly’s Brandon Graham, giving the Eagles three of the top nine pass rushers and the second-highest-graded pass rush, according to Pro Football Focus.
Zooming out, one leaguewide trend in 2018 was how Philadelphia’s Super Bowl run inspired more aggressive play-calling. In 2017, there were 485 fourth-down attempts in the league and teams converted on nearly 46 percent of them. In 2018, there were 539 fourth-down attempts, and teams converted 300 of them for 55.6 percent. We saw fourth-down conversions from Sean McVay, Jason Garrett, and Sean Payton that indicate an aggressiveness never before seen in NFL history. The Eagles won’t have the chance to repeat this year, but the playing style that sparked their Super Bowl run has already changed how teams approach the game.
What Went Wrong
None of Philly’s individual accolades or leaguewide trend-setting is much consolation after the Eagles were bounced on Sunday by the Saints 20-14 in New Orleans. St. Nick Foles’s magic ran out after Christmastime.
Foles once again took the reins this season, this time because Carson Wentz fractured a vertebra in his back in mid-December. Strangely, quarterback was the least of Philly’s injury concerns this year. The run game looked lost once Jay Ajayi went down for the season, and Philadelphia’s secondary depth disintegrated as safety Rodney McLeod, cornerback Ronald Darby, and cornerback Jalen Mills all landed on injured reserve. Backup cornerback Sidney Jones also suffered an injury late in the year, which forced Philadelphia to lean on Rasul Douglas, fourth-round rookie Avonte Maddox, and De’Vante Bausby at times.
Last year’s Super Bowl team also had bad injury luck, but this year’s team couldn’t capture the same magic. Philadelphia fell to the middle of the pack in a number of important categories, including points per game, average starting field position, and red zone scoring percentage: Last year’s squad was no. 1 in the red zone, turning 65.5 percent of drives inside the 20 into touchdowns, while this year’s squad fell to 17th with 57.9 percent.
Yes, it’s tough, Philly fans. Just watch this again.
The Eagles have some hard choices on their horizon, and none of their options will make fans happy. Defensive end Brandon Graham, cornerback Ronald Darby, linebacker Jordan Hicks, kicker Jake Elliott, receiver Golden Tate, Ajayi, and Sproles are all set to hit free agency this offseason. The Eagles by far will have the least cap room in the NFL next season, and are projected to be $12 million over the cap entering March, so not only will they be unable to keep everyone—the Eagles will also need to either shed money or punt it down the road.
The elephant in the (cap) room is what to do about Foles. Football’s Robert Horry is in line for a $20.6 million cap hit in 2019, more than Jimmy Garoppolo and Aaron Donald and just a touch less than Odell Beckham Jr. That gives the Eagles three options for 2019:
- Pay Foles 10 percent of the team’s cap space to sit on the bench.
- Hope Foles will take a generous pay cut.
- Move on from Foles, save more than $20 million in cap space, and try to re-sign a combination of Graham, Elliott, Hicks, Darby, Tate, or to sign any number of free agents on the market.
If the team is so concerned about Wentz’s health that it’ll pay his backup $20 million, it might as well trade Wentz for multiple first-round picks. If that sounds heretical, welcome to camp #GoodbyeNick. Perhaps Philly can work out a trade in which one team gets Foles for the first eight games of the season but the Eagles get him back in November.
Philadelphia has two second-round picks and no third-round picks after acquiring Baltimore’s 2019 second-rounder in the Lamar Jackson trade last year and sending their third-round pick to Detroit for Golden Tate in October. The Eagles had only three draft picks in the first five rounds last year, the highest of which was second-round tight end Dallas Goedert at 49th overall. Considering the lack of young talent combined with their cap situation, it wouldn’t be surprising if Philly were to once again trade back to replenish its draft capital. They could certainly target a pass rusher to replace Brandon Graham if he departs, perhaps with Florida pass rusher Jachai Polite or defensive end Jaylon Ferguson, but the Eagles’ secondary depth might have them looking hard at the secondary playmakers on the board. LSU cornerback Greedy Williams will likely be gone by the time they pick, but Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker and Alabama safety Deionte Thompson could be excellent contributors.