Training camp is right around the corner, and with summer practices comes more anticipation for the NFL season ahead. The Eagles are only in Year Two of the Chip Kelly era, but there are no shortage of headlines surrounding the team this season. Here are NUMBER Philadelphia storylines to keep an eye on for 2014:
1. The Rise of Foles: Nick Foles was much more than a serviceable quarterback after taking over for Michael Vick in 2013, earning his first Pro Bowl appearance with 27 touchdown passes compared to just two interceptions. Now, the challenge for the former third-round draft pick is maintaining success as an uncontested starter. It’s probably far-fetched to bank on Foles leading the NFL in passer rating once again, but the Eagles shouldn’t need him to. What’s important is Foles showing that he truly is on the rise as Philly’s unquestioned QB of the future.
2. The Jordan Matthews (and Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper) Project: No one seems to know the full story behind DeSean Jackson’s sudden departure, but the outspoken play-maker hasn’t been an Eagle since March, so that’s that. The wide receiver corps is now headed by returning vets, but rookie Jordan Matthews is the guy in the spotlight. It’d be wrong to pin the workload of the post-DeSean WR group solely on Matthews, but his evident football smarts make him a candidate to have early success. Maclin and Cooper have question marks, but also have proven track records of production. Jackson was a big piece of the Eagles offense when he was in town, but one position that doesn’t seem to be in trouble is wide receiver.
3. The Search for Sacks: Connor Barwin seemed right at home in the 3-4 defense last season and longtime defensive end Trent Cole notched eight sacks in his first year standing up. Even so, the Eagles pass rush lacked a dominant presence at times. The team took a chance on Louisville linebacker Marcus Smith in the first round of this year’s draft, and the hope is that he can add some life to the OLB unit. Former first-rounder Brandon Graham and under-the-radar guys like Najee Goode could also be pivotal to the Eagles’ rotation.
4. A Backfield of Explosion: There might not be anything scarier (at least for opposing teams) than seeing LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles in the same backfield. The latter isn’t as young as he used to be (did you really think otherwise?), but he’s still fresh off an explosive tenure in New Orleans and figures to be a dangerous change-of-pace option behind McCoy. As long as the Eagles’ running backs are healthy, the ground game should continue to be a major strength for Philadelphia. Don’t forget that Chris Polk could also see more playing time now that Bryce Brown is elsewhere.
5. Safety in the Secondary: Familiarity could be the biggest strength of the Eagles secondary in 2014, as the projected top three cornerbacks (Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin) are back. The safety spots are where fans’ eyes figure to be glued, though, with free agent addition Maclolm Jenkins sliding in as a starter and looking to erase memories of the countless veteran fill-ins of recent years. Rookie Jaylen Watkins could be a dark horse play-maker in the defensive backfield, while either Earl Wolff or Nate Allen is likely to man the strong safety job.
6. Backing Up Nick: With Michael Vick no longer on the roster, the Eagles are prepared to have either Matt Barkley or Mark Sanchez hold the No. 2 QB duties behind Foles. Both backups have had illustrious journeys to/in the NFL and the competition between them could last through training camp. Barkley was prone to turnovers in limited action last year, but also knows Kelly’s offense more than Sanchez, the former Jets starter. In the end, all that matters is whether Barkley or Sanchez can be counted on in the event Foles goes down with an injury.
7. Rebooted Special Teams: Barring a tremendous training camp by undrafted rookie Carey Spear, Alex Henery figures to retain his job as the Eagles’ kicker. Donnie Jones is also back as the punter after a top-flight 2013 performance. Even so, the Eagles addressed their special teams unit by adding new pieces like Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman. Rookie safety Ed Reynolds could also chip in on kickoff coverage. Arguably the most impacting addition to the special teams unit is that of Sproles, who is likely to handle kick returns.
Honorable Mention: Roster battle at wide receiver, the expected emergence of tight end Zach Ertz, the contributions of the rest of the rookie class, and the health of the veteran offensive linemen.