Eagles

Examining the critical issue for each NFC East team

Examining the critical issue for each NFC East team

You could make a strong case from head to toe, the NFC East is the best division in the NFL. Some may argue the NFC South, but in these parts, we are locked in on the division the Eagles call home. So let’s dive deep into the No. 1 issue for each team entering the 2017 season.

Eagles: Pass rush
We begin, naturally, with the Eagles. As has been Howie Roseman’s style since his return from exile, it was an extremely busy offseason for his club. Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Ronald Darby were added to the team that went 7-9 last season. All are major upgrades from what inhabited those positions last year. 

So while I fully expect Carson Wentz and the Birds' offense to be much improved, the key to the season lies with the men up front on defense. Pass rush is the name of the game if the Eagles want to reach their first postseason since 2013. Jim Schwartz's unit was tied for 16th in the NFL in sacks – and middle of the pack isn't going to cut it again this year. A strong pass rush cures a lot of ills, specifically a secondary that, despite the addition of Darby, has major questions at cornerback. 

The NFC East is loaded with talent at receiver, not to mention the Eagles' out-of-division foes. Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan will be a force inside, but the Eagles' defensive ends need to get to the QB. If that group, including rookie Derek Barnett – the best natural pass rusher of the lot – delivers, the Eagles are a playoff team.

Cowboys: Elliott's suspension
The Cowboys have a lot of talent on offense, but Ezekiel Elliott is the straw that stirs Jerry Jones' Johnny Walker Blue. A judge blocked Elliott's six-game suspension Friday that will set the stage for the battle to play out in court. If Elliott ends up on the wrong end of a final verdict and has to miss games, what is the trickle-down effect on the rest of that offense? Dak Prescott was great in his rookie year, but he attempted only 459 passes. Compare that to Wentz's 607, and you see the impact the NFL’s leading rusher had on the entire unit. Prescott had a 23/4 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year. An ineffective run game could cause him to throw more and increase the odds of a turnover. 

Giants: Running game
Much like the Cowboys, the Giants' return to the postseason could hinge on their running game. New York spent lavishly and wisely on defense heading into last season and it paid off in a big way. But the Giants ranked 29th in rushing. Can Paul Perkins or rookie Wayne Gallman become a consistent force? And perhaps the bigger issue is can their offensive line open up the holes? Eli Manning is now 36, and despite excellent weapons to throw to, a balance will be the key for Old Man Eli.

Redskins: New-look wideouts
To the Birds' opponent Sunday, the Redskins. They lost two productive receivers in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. No one in the NovaCare Complex is shedding any tears over their departures (see story). Now in their place for the Redskins is a much bigger and stronger pairing in Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson. The question is can Pryor, the converted quarterback who burst onto the scene last year in Cleveland and signed a surprisingly low one-year deal, deliver in his new surroundings? And what kind of leap can Doctson, who played in just two games his rookie year because of an Achilles injury, make now that he’s a starter?  

Week 1 prediction: The Eagles beat the Redskins, 24-22, in a game that will come down to the final possession.           

Quite a Christmas present coming for Jordan Hicks

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USA Today Images

Quite a Christmas present coming for Jordan Hicks

It won't be a surprise, but Jordan Hicks is going to get a pretty great Christmas present this year. 

He won't find it under his tree either. 

Hicks, who has been recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and surgery, will hit another big milestone in his recovery on Dec. 25. That's the day the walking boot comes off of his right foot. 

"Real good present, right?" Hicks said. 

Hicks, 25, tore his right Achilles on the second play from scrimmage against Washington on Oct. 23. Having already torn his left Achilles in college, Hicks knew immediately that his season was over and a long recovery was ahead of him. 

But Hicks has no doubt he'll return to being the same player he was before. He thinks he'll be even better. 

"Oh there's no question about that," Hicks said on Friday, speaking to a group of reporters in the Eagles' locker room for the first time since the injury. "There's no question about that. I'll be fine. I did my left Achilles in college and came back better. I know more, the advancements are better. There's no doubt in my mind I'll be a better player when I come back."

Hicks said the normal recovery time from an Achilles rupture is six to nine months. The six-month mark will be April. He expects to be back for training camp and be completely ready for next season. 

Before suffering this Achilles tear, Hicks had been dealing with an ankle injury on his left leg. Hicks, who has been labeled as an injury-prone player since college, was very proud of playing all 16 games in 2016. So when that ankle injury popped up earlier this season, he tried to play through it. That ankle injury led to a calf injury in his right leg and then the Achilles popped. Hicks thinks overcompensating for the initial injury led to a more serious one. 

"I think a couple weeks could have helped me, but it's always easy to look back," Hicks said. "Hindsight is 20/20. I wouldn't change anything just because it's my personality. It's who I am. All I want to do is be there for my teammates. Every time I step out there, the biggest goal for me is to have my teammates know that I'm their leader and I can be accountable. For me to sit here and say I shouldn't have been out there those weeks, it's hard for me to say that because all I want to do is be out there."

Hicks lasted just a couple plays in that Washington game before his Achilles popped, which put him right back on that road to recovery. And initially, it wasn't easy. Jason Peters joined him in the locker room a quarter later with his own season-ending injury and tried to raise his spirits, but that didn't change the fact that Hicks' season was over.

And for the second time in his three-year career, he knew he would end the season on injured reserve. 

"The grief set in," he said. "For the first week or so, it was tough, but man, there's no time for that. There's no time to sit here and sulk. There's no time to think about what could have been. ... All I'm focusing on is making sure I'm better and ready next year for my guys. That's all it is. For me, it's about accountability."

While Hicks made a rare appearance in the Eagles' locker room during media time on Friday, he's been around the building plenty. He and the Eagles' other injured players have remained involved despite their injuries. In fact, every week, Hicks studies opponent film to see how they handle blitzes. And every Friday, he gets in front of the defense to present it. 

After the injury, Jim Schwartz came to him and asked him to do this. 

"It's easy to isolate yourself in situations like this," Hicks said. "For him to come up to me and ask me to do that was big. I try to keep guys' spirits up and share my perspective." 

For the last month and a half, Hicks has been around the team but has been forced to watch games on TV, which he said is really tough. He hopes that's about to end. He'll be in North Jersey this weekend for the Giants game and hopes he'll be back on the sideline. 

"It's tough," Hicks said. "It's never easy to go through something like this. It tests your patience, this tests your character. You learn a lot through these times because it is so difficult. You have to really grind through some hard times. Put your head down and I think your character is really shown through this."

Nick Foles may not have full protection vs. Giants

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Nick Foles may not have full protection vs. Giants

The Eagles will have a new quarterback this weekend, but they might not be able to protect him as well as they hope. 

Starting left guard Stefen Wisniewski will officially be listed as questionable for Sunday's game because of an ankle injury. 

Wiz had to leave the Rams game in the first half and did not return. He missed practice on Wednesday and was limited on Thursday. 

"We'll see where he's at today," head coach Doug Pederson said on Friday. 

After Wisniewski came out of the Rams game, he was replaced by Chance Warmack, who was then replaced by Isaac Seumalo. 

It sounds like Warmack will have the first chance to play this weekend if Wisniewski can't go. 

"We've worked Chance at that position this week," Pederson said. "Isaac has obviously gotten some reps really at all the positions but that would be the most logical."

Seumalo actually began the season as the team's starting left guard after he won the position in the offseason. From there, Warmack got the first crack at replacing him when he was benched, but Warmack couldn't keep the job, eventually giving way to a rotation before Wisniewski simply took over. The line has been much better since Wiz took over the starting job in Week 3. 

Alshon Jeffery and Steven Means, who both missed Thursday's practice with illnesses, will be back on the practice field on Friday. Both should be fine for this weekend's game. 

The Eagles will practice outside in 28-degree weather on Friday as they prepare for Sunday's outdoor game at MetLife Stadium. 

No word on the condition of the recycling can Jason Kelce kicked inside the bubble after getting cleated on Thursday. At least the outdoor practice will give it another day of rest.