Eagles

Eagles need Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham to lead defense in 2nd-half push

Eagles need Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham to lead defense in 2nd-half push

The Eagles were mostly silent before this year’s trade deadline, which means they’ll be relying on their current team and returning injured players to get them into the playoffs.

No two players will be more important than Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham.

If the Eagles are going to make a second-half push into the playoffs, they’re going to need their two longest-tenured defensive players to dominate.

The good news is that they have already started. Both Cox and Graham had slow starts to their 2019 seasons but have picked it up recently.

• After failing to record a sack in his first four games, Graham has five sacks in his last four games.

• And Cox, after failing to get a sack in his first six games, has 2½ in his last two and could have had even more against the Bills. Sunday was Cox’s most dominant performance of 2019 so far.

It’s not all about sacks, but they can be a good indicator of success and they are, no question, huge plays.

For a team that’s entire defense is predicated on getting pass rush with the front four, that’s huge. When Jim Schwartz was forced to blitz more earlier in the season, it left their back end exposed. Pressure from Cox and Graham can change all that.

While Graham’s slow start was harder to explain, Cox had offseason toe surgery and he clearly wasn’t himself early in the year. Heck, in the Detroit game in Week 3, he failed to record a single statistic in the box score.

“We all expected him to come around,” Schwartz said. “Maybe it's taken a little longer than he had in mind, but he came back from a pretty significant injury and missed all of training camp. I think it just goes to show you it's hard to just pick right up at that point and be back to the player that we saw in the New Orleans game at the end of the year last year. But each game he's trended a little bit better.”

Schwartz noted that Cox could have had a 3½-sack game against the Bills, which would have been a career high. As it was, he had 1½, but finally looked like the dominant Pro Bowler the Eagles need him to be.

With three young players playing alongside him in Buffalo, Cox said he felt like he needed to be a “tone-setter” against the Bills. He definitely was.

Graham’s season got a kick-start against the lowly Jets, when he recorded a three-sack game. Even if you’re hesitant to give him too much credit for that game against an awful opponent, he still has two sacks in his last three. And his strip on Josh Allen wasn’t a sack on Sunday, but it was the turning point of that incredibly important game.

Everyone thought Graham was gone after last season, but then he signed a three-year, $40 million deal in the offseason. That was a questionable move, giving that kind of money to a 31-year-old veteran, but he’s starting to earn it. And we all know the financial commitment in Cox; it’s massive. But he’s worth it and he’s starting to play like it again.

This season is the ninth together for Cox, 28, and Graham, 31. Just Jason Peters has been in Philly longer than Graham. And just Peters, Graham and Jason Kelce have been here longer than Cox. There’s being invested and then there’s being in the same city with your linemate for the better part of a decade.

At 4-4, the Eagles still have a very real chance to make the playoffs. If they do, these two all-time Eagles will need to play a big role.

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Doug Pederson's ominous track record hiring coaches

Doug Pederson's ominous track record hiring coaches

The Eagles this year will have their fifth wide receivers coach in five years under Doug Pederson and their third defensive line coach in three years.

They’ll have their third offensive coordinator in four years and a new secondary coach as well. And there could be more changes on the way.

It’s a lot of turnover for a team that’s reached the playoffs each of the last three seasons and won a Super Bowl just two years ago.

And it tells you two things:

1) Doug Pederson won’t hesitate to jettison coaches he feels aren’t getting the job done,
2) And Doug's track record of hiring coaches is bad.

Let’s go back a few years. When Doug replaced Chip Kelly four years ago today, he kept seven of Kelly’s assistant coaches and brought in 11 assistants of his own. A year later he brought in Mike Groh.

Out of those seven original Chip assistants? Six are still here, all but Cory Undlin, just hired as Lions defensive coordinator.

Of the 11 guys he brought in? Only four are still here — all defensive coaches: Jim Schwartz, Dino Vasso, Ken Flajole, Tim Hauck.

All seven assistant coaches he’s fired — Eugene Chung, Carson Walch, Greg Lewis, Gunter Brewer, Chris Wilson, Phillip Daniels and Groh - are his own hires.

Of the 10 coaches from 2016 who are still here, six – more than half – are Chip Kelly holdovers.

So the pattern keeps repeating itself. He keeps Chip's guys and fires his own guys.

And with four coaching openings at the moment, that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

Some of the most highly respected coaches on Pederson's staff - Jeff Stoutland, Duce Staley, Dave Fipp, Press Taylor - are guys he didn’t even bring in. Duce, of course, pre-dates Chip and coached under Andy Reid.

Both his original coordinators, Frank Reich and Schwartz, were very good hires. Beyond that? His track record is kind of ominous.

Coaching is just a fancy word for teaching. And we keep seeing the Eagles’ draft picks - Sidney Jones, J.J. Arega-Whiteside, Derek Barnett, Rasul Douglas, Donnel Pumphrey, Mack Hollins – failing to develop the way they should.

If you can’t develop young players, you have no shot.

So many of the players at the heart of the Eagles’ recent success – Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Malcolm Jenkins, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Zach Ertz, Nigel Bradham and Lane Johnson – will all be in their early 30s by opening day this fall and with most NFL players in that 30-to-33 range, you know you're going to get a gradual (or sometimes abrupt) decline.

So the challenge facing the Eagles isn’t just drafting talented players, it’s coaching them and developing them so they can become that next generation of Malcolms and Fletchers and Jasons. That next generation of guys who can lead this franchise to more deep playoff runs and maybe another championship.

That’s why it’s imperative that Pederson figures this coaching thing out.

We all remember what happened when Reid struggled to replace that brilliant initial staff he put together 20 years ago this month. As those guys left for head coaching jobs or coordinator positions – John Harbaugh, Ron Rivera, Leslie Frazier, Brad Childress, Pat Shurmur, Steve Spagnuolo – he replaced them with long-forgotten, over-matched assistants.

There are a lot of reasons the Eagles were essentially a .500 team in Reid’s last eight years here (66-61-1), but a huge one was the inability of that second wave of coaches to develop the young players who had replaced the nucleus that made the 2000 through 2004 team such a powerhouse.

Pederson was there for that decline as part of Reid’s staff, so nobody understands better than him just how critical it is to find people who can teach promising young players how to become pros, how to take their game to the next level.

The challenge now is finding an offensive coordinator with fresh ideas and a vision for the future, a wide receivers coach who’ll stay more than a year, a secondary coach who can salvage Sidney Jones’ career and a defensive line coach who can make Barnett more than just an average pass rusher.

It’s easy to fire coaches. It’s a lot harder to find bright, motivated, capable replacements who can mold young players into big-time pros.

Pederson needs to prove he can do that.

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Eagles Stay or Go: Breaking down the three specialists

Eagles Stay or Go: Breaking down the three specialists

Reuben Frank, Dave Zangaro and Andrew Kulp bring back Stay or Go with the 2020 version, trying to figure out the future of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Today, we’ll look at their specialists: 

Jake Elliott

Roob: Elliott’s not going anywhere, but his late-season misses are a bit troubling. Elliott made his first 17 field goal attempts – only two longer than 43 yards – then missed four of his last nine (from 47, 49, 53 and 55 yards). They weren’t easy kicks, but league-wide in 2019 kickers were 54 percent from 53 to 55 yards. Elliott was 43 percent beyond 43 yards (3-for-7). The rest of the league was 66 percent beyond 43 yards. Elliott has been clutch, but his inconsistency is a tad concerning.

Verdict: Stays

Dave: In the regular season, Elliott was 22 of 26 and actually improved his career field goal percentage. And then in the playoffs, he made all all three of his field goal attempts in the loss to Seattle and is now 11-for-11 in his career in the playoffs. And the Eagles signed him to an extension during the season, so he's not going anywhere. 

Verdict: Stays 

Kulp: Elliott probably doesn't get enough appreciation from the fan base, but he isn't exactly elite, either. He's made a lot of huge, clutch kicks in three seasons, more than making up for the occasional game that's hinged on his misses. It's moot anyway, unless the 25-year-old suddenly becomes completely unreliable, because he just signed an extension. 

Verdict: Stays

Rick Lovato 

Roob: The dude can flat-out SNAP. Lovato made the Pro Bowl as a long snapper, joining Mike Bartrum and John Dorenbos as the Eagles’ third consecutive Pro Bowl long snapper. Hey, the Steelers have always had tremendous linebackers, the 49ers have a history of Hall of Fame quarterbacks, the Rams always have big-time receivers. The Eagles have great long snappers.

Verdict: Stays

Dave: Good season for the long snapper. First, he signed a four-year extension and then he was named to the Pro Bowl. In the first year players voted on long-snappers, Lovato got the nod, which must mean he’s pretty good. I’ll defer to those guys. 

Verdict: Stays

Kulp: What can you really say about Lovato? No, I'm asking. The best compliment you can probably pay a long snapper is admitting you don't really notice his work -- it implies things are running smoothly. Anyway, he too signed an extension, and at 27, he could be around for awhile. 

Verdict: Stays

Cameron Johnston 

Roob: Johnston had another big year, averaging 46.4 yards per punt with a net of 42.3, which is 2nd-best in franchise history (behind Johnston in 2018) and very good for an outdoor punter in the Northeast, where weather conditions are often challenging. Johnston is the Eagles’ career record holder in punting average (47.2) and net average (42.5). His net average would be 12th-highest in NFL history if he had more attempts.

Verdict: Stays

Dave: He’s the only guy of the three specialists who didn’t get a contract extension. That might be coming. For now, he’s an exclusive rights free agents, which basically means as long as the Eagles want him back, he’ll be back. As far as his play, this season Johnson was ninth in the NFL in average (46.4), eighth in net average (42.3) and 13th in punts inside the 20 (28). He’s pretty good. 

Verdict: Stays 

Kulp: Eagles fans may realize it, but Johnston is quietly one of the better punters in the league, even if it hasn't produced any trips to the Pro Bowl just yet. Not sure what the hold up is on getting a new deal done. He's an exclusive rights free agent, so he's not going anywhere or anything. Still, the team should just lock him up for the long haul already.

Verdict: Stays

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