The NFL spring power rankings haven’t been kind to Nick Sirianni and the Eagles.
Last week, Pro Football Focus ranked them 30th, below everyone in the league except Detroit and hot mess Houston.
ESPN’s opinion of them was only slightly better. It ranked the Eagles 27th. NBCSports has them 28th, and NFL.com, 25th.
Bottom line: The external expectations for the 2021 Eagles aren’t very high. The same really can be said for internal expectations.
This is supposed to be the Year of Retooling down at One NovaCare Way. After firing Doug Pederson in January, owner Jeffrey Lurie acknowledged that the organization was in what he called “a real transition period, not unlike 2016.”
Center Jason Kelce and defensive end Brandon Graham are well aware of how bad the Eagles were last season. They were right there on the front lines of the team’s disappointing 4-11-1 finish.
They understand retooling, and they understand transition periods. They were here in 2016 when the Eagles finished 7-9 in Pederson’s first season as head coach, and they were here a year later helping the Eagles win a Super Bowl.
The problem is, both are on the clock. They don’t really have time to endure a transition period. They both are 33 years old, and there’s a real possibility that this will be their last season with the Eagles.
The same goes for other older players such as 31-year-old offensive linemen Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks, and 30-year-old defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. For all of them, the only certainty is that they will be teammates for one more year.
“There’s no question we’re in a transition period,” said Kelce, a three-time All-Pro. “We have a new head coach, a new coaching staff, a new quarterback. There’s been a lot of change that’s happened within the building. So there’s no question we’re in a transition period.
“But I think the difference between football and a lot of other sports is that being in a transition period in this league doesn’t mean you can’t compete and can’t be competitive.
“Last year, you had a lot of new coaches and coaching staffs that didn’t have a lot of time to prepare in the offseason because of COVID and everything else. Yet many of them performed very well. The Browns are a great example.”
The Browns, who finished 6-10 in 2019, won 11 games last year under first-year coach Kevin Stefanski (St. Joseph’s Prep grad), and made the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
“The bottom line is we can be competitive and win games [this year],” Kelce said. “We can win this division. I have no doubt about that if we go out there and go about it the right way. We can improve and continue to get better as a team.
“We can do that and also be in a transition period. I think that’s the best way to transition because we’ll be able to do it in a way where we’re still winning ballgames while building for the future.”
Kelce is absolutely right about the NFL being different from other professional sports leagues with respect to quick turnarounds. Of the 122 teams that have qualified for the postseason in the last 10 years, 57 of them were non-playoff teams the year before. Fourteen of those 122 made the playoffs after winning four games or fewer the previous season.
Graham is the Eagles’ longest-tenured player. This will be his 12th season with the team. But there was some real doubt about whether he would be back this season.
He had a $17.5 million cap number in 2021 and faded in the second half last season after recording seven acks in the first eight games. But the Eagles retained him, signing him to a two-year, $18.5 million contract extension.
Graham is an eternal optimist. To borrow a memorable line from writer Gary Smith about Dick Vermeil, Graham could see light at the end of the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. So, don’t try to tell him the Eagles can’t compete for the playoffs in 2021.
“There’s a lot of good stuff going on,” Graham said last week. “I love what I’m feeling already with the D-line.
“I know we can turn it around. Injuries didn’t help us last year at all. We’ve got a lot of guys coming back. We’ve got Brooks and Lane coming back. I can’t wait to see our O-line out there getting after it.”
The Eagles beefed up their defensive line last week, signing another old-timer, edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan.
Their offensive line, which was considered one of the best in the league last year before all of the bodies started to fall and the team had to use an NFL-record 14 starting combinations up front, is back to full health with the return of Brooks and Johnson, who have six Pro Bowl invitations between them.
All the injuries up front last year gave young players such as left tackle Jordan Mailata, guard Nate Herbig, and rookie Jack Driscoll the opportunity to develop. So the offensive line isn’t only good, but it’s also deep.
“I feel we’re both in a good place with our bodies,” Johnson said, referring to himself and his best buddy Brooks, who missed all of last season because of a torn Achilles tendon.
Johnson missed nine games last season with an ankle problem that needed two surgeries. He finally was fully cleared two weeks ago.
“I feel normal running again,” he said. “I really see no issues with it. I’m not thinking about it all the time like I was before.
“We’re in a spot where we have a lot to prove. When you get into your 30s, that’s when the doubt creeps in. That’s when a lot of guys hit the end of the road.
“So I feel a sense of urgency for [himself and Brooks] to go out there and really prove ourselves. That’s where we are. That’s where Kelce is. That’s where the whole offensive line is.”
While all eyes are going to be on quarterback Jalen Hurts, his chances for success will increase greatly if the offensive line performs well.
“You saw in the Super Bowl [with the Chiefs] what happens if you don’t have a good line,” Johnson said, referring to the Bucs’ ability to pressure Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes. “It is what it is. You win games at the line of scrimmage with the offensive and defensive line.
“Last year was an embarrassment for everybody involved. That’s been sitting with us and marinating ... We have a lot to prove. I have a lot to prove. Everybody coming back has a lot to prove.”