Chad Henne vs. Eagles Pass Defense
Of the 30 teams that don't take residence at MetLife Stadium, Jacksonville posted the worst team passer rating in 2013, clocking in at a putrid 71.84. That rating factors 16 touchdowns (ahead of only the Jets) against 21 picks. Chad Henne did his part to steer the damage out of oblivion, throwing 13 touchdowns and 14 picks (personal rating: 76.5). That's certainly a far cry from Blaine Gabbert's rancid one touchdown vs. seven picks. Even Ryan Leaf winces.
Henne's game last season was further marred by too many short throws. Of his 305 completions, Henne merely averaged 10.6 yards a completion, tying him for 33rd in the NFL with Mike Glennon and Sam Bradford. Comparatively, Nick Foles led the league by a mile with 14.2 YPC.
Henne did complete 37 passes of 20 or more yards, but that number dips to a mere 12 when it comes to 30+ yard completions. The lack of a consistent vertical offense necessitated drafting Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson in the second round back in May. Their presence is required after promising Justin Blackmon all but caused his own exile from the team with repeated legal issues. Lee looks to be the play-making weapon that Blackmon failed to blossom into, bringing aggressive straight-line speed into the mix with fundamental down-field blocking, making him less of a liability than some receivers. Robinson provides a larger target that may be better suited for the slot at this time (much like Jordan Matthews), making up for a lack of down-field presence with quick acceleration on slant routes.
No team gave up more passing yards than the Eagles' 4636 last season. The defense allowed 300 net yards on seven occasions, but still managed to go 4-3 in those games. Only twice did Philadelphia manage to keep an opponent under 200, and both were wins: the Detroit snow game, and the Chicago massacre. One theory for the Eagles' pass defense being so vulnerable is the lack of player rotation. When Chip Kelly declared that linebacker DeMeco Ryans had played too many snaps last season, he was speaking to the number of plays the defense had to endure, thanks to the up-tempo offense being a success. The gassed defenders led to four instances where the Eagles nearly blew a big lead in the fourth quarter: the Redskins twice, the Cardinals, and the Cowboys in the finale.
To that end, players like cornerback Nolan Carroll, linebacker Marcus Smith, and safety Chris Maragos were signed or drafted in an attempt to shore up the depth. The up-tempo offense isn't going away anytime soon, so the defense needs deeper ranks. The fact that Carroll, Maragos, safety Earl Wolff, and linebacker Brandon Graham are coming off the bench at different points should put on a new face against the pass.
The only new starter added to the defense has been Malcolm Jenkins, presumably a considerable upgrade over the disappointing Patrick Chung. Jenkins has shown enough consistency in both man-to-man and zone coverage in his time with the Saints to plug some of the holes in the vertical dam. The Eagles' pass rush is another issue. In 2013, only 37 sacks came from the defenders that struggled in some ways to adjust to Bill Davis' 3-4 scheme. Philadelphia experimented with a 4-1-6 scheme in preseason that maximizes the pass rush of young stud Vinny Curry, but the rush at large is still very much a work in progress.
Toby Gerhart vs. Eagles Run Defense
While the Eagles pass defense was porous a year ago, their run defense was much tighter. Their 3.77 YPA allowed was the fourth-lowest average in the NFL, and Philadelphia only allowed a single 100-yard rusher: Rashad Jennings' 102, in the game where Nick Foles chucked seven touchdown passes.
Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton's edge-setting successes won't appear on any stat sheet, but their hard work up front has allowed Ryans, Mychal Kendricks, Connor Barwin, and Nate Allen to collect tackles at or behind the line with general frequency.
Of running backs with 15+ carries against the Eagles last year, those who struggled against the run defense include Eddie Lacy (3.04 YPA), Joique Bell (3.00), and DeMarco Murray (2.82). Even Alfred Morris (4.23) and Doug Martin (4.19) barely cleared the desired threshold of four yards a carry.
This is what awaits Gerhart, thrust into the spotlight without Adrian Peterson to spell for. Gerhart has barely run for 1300 yards in four seasons, and only cleared 100 yards in a game once (2011, vs. the Redskins). Only five times has Gerhart carried 16+ times in any game, and his average in those outings is a mere 3.98 YPA. It goes without saying that Gerhart is unproven as a full-time starter, but Gus Bradley will certainly mix in Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson as either a change-of-pace, or if Gerhart struggles. Neither back averaged more than two carries a game in 2013, but it wouldn't have mattered much. The offensive line was in such shambles, even Maurice Jones-Drew couldn't run behind it.
Cameron Bradfield is the right tackle, and the only Jags starting lineman to play more than five games for the team a season ago (eleven). Second-overall pick from a year ago Luke Joeckel returns at left tackle, following a lower-leg injury last October.
The biggest upgrade to the line is veteran Zane Beadles, the Bronco Pro-Bowler who plugs in next to Joeckel at left guard. While that makes for a formidible duo on one side, center Luke Bowanko is a sixth-round rookie tasked with replacing now-retired center Brad Meester, whose career spanned fourteen seasons in the River City. The skinny: there's talent on this line, but it likely lacks in continuity at this stage.