Good morning, Eagles fans. One week from today, the Eagles will report for training camp. This is the final week without the Eagles together until … January? February?
This is an offseason edition of the Early Birds newsletter, which will go three days per week when training camp begins. If your friends haven't subscribed to Early Birds, it's free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
During a June interview, Eagles coach Doug Pederson was asked a question that has likely been bantered about on barstools throughout the Philadelphia region: Is this roster better than last year's?
"Oh, I don't know," Pederson said. "I don't want get into a lot of speculation. … A lot of things have to fall in place. I mean, obviously, you could say that on paper, possibly. But, you know, we haven't practiced yet. And I just don't want to speculate right now. …We haven't had everybody out there yet. … There's a lot of things where it's just hard to say if we're going to be that type of team again. You hope to. You want to. But yeah, ask me in a couple months."
Although it's too soon to answer with conviction, it's fun to explore.
As I look at it, I think the skill positions are better than last year. Mike Wallace might be an upgrade over Torrey Smith, and it's fair to expect progression from Nelson Agholor and Mack Hollins. Even though the Eagles lost Trey Burton and Brent Celek, Dallas Goedert and Richard Rodgers can both help in the passing game. At running back, a full year of Jay Ajayi as the top running back gives the Eagles a better backfield than they had at this time last year.
The concern on offense is whether Carson Wentz will be as good as he was last season while recovering from injury and whether there's regression from the offensive line. On paper, the offense can be better because they're better around the quarterback.
There are more questions on defense. The Eagles added Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata on the defensive live, although they lost Vinny Curry and Beau Allen. They're relying on four players age 30 or older. Then again, look for Derek Barnett to take a major jump in development in Year 2. There are questions at linebacker after cutting Mychal Kendricks, and the Eagles will need someone unproven to emerge as the third linebacker and provide depth if Jordan Hicks cannot stay healthy. The secondary could be better this season – especially if Sidney Jones is healthy. A full offseason should help Ronald Darby, and young players will continue to improve.
The Eagles made major changes on special teams. Pederson thinks that unit must improve from last season. They have some intriguing pieces in the coverage unit, although as last week's Early Birds noted, there's uncertainty at punter.
Overall, I do think the Eagles have a superior roster than they had last season. But last year's team had an intangible quality that is difficult to replicate. The Eagles will try to develop that chemistry and resilience during the few weeks.
If you missed it last week, the Eagles announced their training camp dates: They'll have their first practice on July 26, and most of the sessions will be at the team's practice facility and open only to invited guests. There will be two public practices: Sunday Aug. 5; and Saturday, Aug. 11.
It's important to note that even though these practices are free to attend, the Eagles will require tickets for entry this year. You can reserve tickets beginning at 10 a.m. today at ticketmaster.com.
The Eagles will practice four days at a time and then take a day off. So they'll practice July 26-July 29 with a day off on July 30; July 31-Aug. 3 with a day off on Aug. 4; and then Aug. 5-Aug. 8, with their first preseason game on Aug. 9 at Lincoln Financial Field.
Darren Sproles wrote on his personal blog that this will be his final season, which was widely expected after he put off retirement following last year's injury. Sproles did not want to go out that way. He also has another goal in mind. Sproles wants to move into the top 5 in NFL history in all-purpose yards.
Sproles has 19,155 all-purpose yards, which ranks eighth in the NFL. He needs 528 all-purpose yards to pass Tim Brown, who ranks fifth. (Marshall Faulk and Steve Smith are Nos. 6 and 7, respectively.) Sproles has averaged 68.5 all-purpose yards in 18 games in Pederson's offense. Even if Sproles misses time this year and has his role reduced, he should be able to beat Brown's mark. It's unlikely he'll catch Emmitt Smith at No. 4, though. That would require 2,409 all-purpose yards. He hasn't topped 2,000 yards since 2011.
Let's stick with Darren Sproles. This is a good question, and the answer is unclear at this point because Sproles didn't practice in the spring. To the first part of the question, my guess is the Eagles will be better in the return game with Sproles. He's a dynamic punt returner, and with the kickoff changes, I can see them experimenting with him as a kick returner. Sproles only returned one punt last year and went for 10 yards; Kenjon Barner averaged 8.9 yards per return. Sproles' sample size makes it difficult to compare, but he averaged 12.4 yards per punt return in his previous four seasons and had four touchdowns. So I see the Eagles being more dynamic with Sproles back there.
It's tougher to predict his offensive role. I don't think he'll contribute as much as he did earlier in his career because Corey Clement will factor into third downs this season. Just look at the way Clement played in the playoffs — he deserves to be on the field. So that would cut into Sproles' workload. He won't be on the sideline for every snap, but with Jay Ajayi and Clement on the roster, I don't see Sproles taking 45 percent of the offensive snaps like he did in 2016. My guess is that percentage is around 20.