Every NFL team wants to follow the Eagles’ blueprint this season. Philadelphia went from 7-9 and last place in the NFC East in 2016 to 13-3 and Super Bowl LII champions in 2017.
Which team could be next to go from worst to first? And which team could be the next Super Bowl-less franchise to win the big one?
Our panel of NFL experts rank through a few questions ahead of the 2018 season. Click the links below to jump to each question:
Nick Foles became the most underrated free-agent signing of 2017. Who will be the most underrated signing of 2018?
Tim McManus, Eagles reporter: Mike Wallace, WR, Philadelphia Eagles. The combination of Carson Wentz‘s big arm and Wallace’s speed could be scary. Wallace leads the NFL in 50-plus yard receptions since 2016 (8). He figures to be an upgrade over Torrey Smith as a starter opposite Alshon Jeffery, and should help boost an already high-powered offense that tied for second in points per game last season (28.6).
Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Trey Burton, TE, Chicago Bears. The former Eagle could be the sleeper of the pass-catching upgrades in Chicago. Think of Burton as a big slot target for QB Mitch Trubisky, with matchup size and route-running skills to fit in Matt Nagy’s new offensive system. That’s critical to the development of Trubisky as he looks to make a sizeable leap in his Year 2 development.
Mike Clay, NFL writer: T.J. Carrie and E.J. Gaines, CBs, Cleveland Browns. Cleveland’s defense managed only seven interceptions last season (31st) and has ranked 28th or worse in turnover margin each of the past three seasons. Enter Carrie and Gaines, who enjoyed breakout 2017 campaigns, as well as rookie Denzel Ward, and suddenly the Cleveland cornerback room is loaded with talent. Roughly half of a team’s win total can be determined by turnover margin, so the defensive additions, along with the DeShone Kizer-to-Tyrod Taylor upgrade, will be paramount to the Browns’ inevitable step forward in 2018.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Mike Pouncey, C, Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers were getting by with converted guard Matt Slauson at center last year, and having been to their camp and talked to a few people involved in the offense, I think they believe Pouncey unlocks a lot of things for them in their running game. Melvin Gordon told me he thinks Pouncey’s ability to get out and block at the second level will lead to more explosive plays for him. Pouncey in the middle of the offensive line could be a quiet key for an offense that has high hopes.
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Eric Decker, WR, New England Patriots. Decker put up big numbers with Peyton Manning as his quarterback. He’s not the same player now as he was then, but signing on with Tom Brady gives him a chance to revive his career at age 31.
Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: Eric Ebron, TE, Indianapolis Colts. Two years ago, Ebron finished fifth in the Football Outsiders DYAR ratings for total tight end value. Frank Reich has learned from the best how to use tight ends, and he sees Ebron as a mismatch similar to Zach Ertz who can line up in the slot, wide or in-line. If the Colts offense bounces back with a healthy Andrew Luck under center, Ebron is likely to be playing a major role.
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Alex Okafor, DE, New Orleans Saints. A torn Achilles tendon depressed his free-agent value, and the New Orleans Saints got him for $1.5 million guaranteed. When healthy, Okafor is a difference-making pass rusher. Early reports from Saints camp suggest he will be ready to play when the season begins. Can you imagine a veteran approaching double-digit sacks with such a modest contract?
Field Yates, NFL Insider: Preston Brown, LB, Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals needed to improve their linebacker depth for a few reasons, including that Vontaze Burfict will miss the first four games of the season because of suspension. Brown inked a one-year deal that pays him a max just north of $5.25 million, a fair number for a player that I suspect will rack up tackles. Tackles may not always be a full indicator of player impact, but I do believe Brown will make his mark in Cincinnati, his hometown.
Which team that finished last in its division in 2017 is the most dangerous worst-to-first candidate in 2018?
McManus: San Francisco 49ers. The biggest key to the Eagles making the jump from 7-9 to 13-3 was the development of Carson Wentz. Like Wentz, Jimmy Garoppolo looks the part. If he grows into a top-tier QB, the team will rise right alongside him.
Bowen: Houston Texans. When QB Deshaun Watson was on the field last season, the Texans featured a versatile offense that created stress at all three levels of the field with play-action, movement, misdirection and explosive play ability. With Watson now back healthy — plus an upgraded defense that features the return of J.J. Watt and the addition of playmaker Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary — Houston is in a position to make a run at the AFC South title.
Clay: San Francisco 49ers. The defending division champion Rams improved during the offseason, but if Jimmy Garoppolo proves the real deal, the Niners will surely be in the conversation for the 2018 NFC West title. Although all eyes are on the quarterback, the 49ers also have an impressive defensive core that includes Reuben Foster, DeForest Buckner, Richard Sherman and Jaquiski Tartt, and could soon include Solomon Thomas, Fred Warner and Ahkello Witherspoon.
Sando: Denver Broncos. The 2017 Broncos ranked 363rd out of 384 teams in Total QBR over the past 12 seasons, just one spot better than the winless 2008 Detroit Lions. That means even an average starter such as Case Keenum could add three or four victories by himself. While the Chargers remain my pick to win the AFC West, the Broncos are a pretty good worst-to-first candidate.
Yates: Houston Texans. Injury attrition impacts every team in the NFL every season. But the Texans had especially poor luck in 2017, losing DeShaun Watson, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus (among others) for extended stretches. The greatest improvement to this roster entering the year is merely getting healthy, as well as the projected improvement in Watson’s game entering his second pro season.
There are still 12 franchises that have never won a Super Bowl. Which team will be next, and in what year will it win?
Bowen: Minnesota Vikings. With the addition of Kirk Cousins to pair with Mike Zimmer’s top-flight defense, plus a roster that is set up to keep the Vikings in the hunt for multiple seasons, Minnesota will be the first team on this list to win a championship. However, Zimmer’s club will have to wait till the 2019 season, as the Saints are my pick to win the NFC this year.
Clay: Los Angeles Chargers. Injuries are, once again, piling up on the Chargers, but this is a roster built for success over the next few years. Come the 2019 season, an offensive core that includes Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry and potentially Mike Williams and Forrest Lamp will still be in place. The defense will be overloaded with young stars and/or talent in the form of Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa, Casey Hayward, Denzel Perryman, Jahleel Addae, Derwin James, Trevor Williams, Desmond King and Uchenna Nwosu. Plan on Philip Rivers hoisting the Lombardi at Hard Rock Stadium in 2020.
Graziano: Minnesota Vikings. But I’m picking a different NFC team to win it all this year, so I say the Vikings’ first title has to wait until 2019. They have basically everyone locked up that they need (except Anthony Barr) and should be able to continue their recent run of success as long as they can keep maintaining things on the offensive line.
Seifert: The Minnesota Vikings in 2018. On paper, this team is loaded on both sides of the ball. New quarterback Kirk Cousins has plenty of help surrounding him to ease his transition. It’s true that part of their 2017 success was an incredible run of good health, but this roster is built in a way that could absorb a few more injuries in 2018. The Vikings have their best chance to end the Super Bowl drought in at least 20 years.
Over or under 10.5 wins for the Eagles in 2018?
McManus: Over by a hair. I have them winning 11 games. Their schedule is tough, with games against the Vikings, Saints, Jaguars, Falcons and Rams all on the docket, and it’s to be determined how Wentz will play upon return. But the roster is loaded and the hunger remains after a championship run in 2017.
Bowen: Over. Picking the Eagles to win 11 or 12 games in 2018 is realistic given the enormous talent on the defensive front in Philly and the upper-level play of the offensive line. Plus, with the expected return of Wentz, Doug Pederson’s group has the makeup of a postseason squad that could make another deep, January run.
Clay: Over. I think 10.5 is a fair number, but the Eagles have the league’s best team on paper, which should lead to at least 11 wins. There are already some red flags here in the form of Nigel Bradham‘s one-game suspension, Michael Bennett‘s off-field drama, and notable injuries to Carson Wentz, Timmy Jernigan and Alshon Jeffery. That’s not a good start, but should be easily overcome by a creative offensive mind in Doug Pederson, as well as, a roster overloaded with talent and depth.
Graziano: Under, because the NFC is loaded and I think there are at least two other good teams in the Eagles’ division. I still expect the Eagles to be a good team, but what they did last year is tough to repeat, and there’s a lot standing in their way externally. Remember, the NFC East hasn’t had a repeat champion since 2003-04!
Sando: Under. The Eagles have exceeded 10 victories twice in the past 13 seasons. It’s a high bar for any team to clear. Let’s see how the team handles success, and whether Carson Wentz holds up physically throughout the season. Lots of people will tell you staying on top is even tougher than getting there.
Schatz: Under. The Eagles are the only team in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 preseason projections where all three units are projected in the top 10. But there’s just too much likelihood of the offense regressing in the red zone and on third downs to trust that they’ll automatically get to 11-5, despite all the talent on this roster. The NFC is so stacked that I don’t think we can trust any team to automatically make it to 11-5.
Seifert: Under. As we speak, the Eagles don’t know if they’ll enter the season with a quarterback fresh off major knee surgery or his backup. It’s true that Nick Foles was the Super Bowl MVP, and could fill in well for Carson Wentz again. But given the uncertainty at the position, and a full offseason for defenses to better prepare for the spread looks the Eagles and other teams are using, I’m not willing to say this is an 11-win team quite yet.
Yates: Over. The roster is without a major flaw, and while they’ll face the proverbial “best shot” from every team on the schedule, the culture of confidence and cohesion in Philadelphia leads me to believe that sustained success is ahead. Plus, have you seen those offensive and defensive lines?
Where will Carson Wentz finish in the MVP race?
McManus: I think he’ll end up in the top five. Although a limited participant, he has looked very good on the practice field this summer. His mobility is on its way back after ACL and LCL surgery on his left knee in December. It’s no guarantee that he starts Week 1, however, and there could be a period of adjustment as he adapts to whatever limitations do exist. Wentz will round into form before long, but MVP is a lot to ask from someone coming off a major injury.
Clay: Wentz may have a hard time hanging in the MVP conversation this season considering how many Super Bowl contenders are led by a top-end or elite quarterback. The likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and perhaps Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff will be in the discussion. A slow start could also be in play as Wentz recovers from a torn ACL and — fair or not — you have to wonder if voters will punish Wentz for playing in a scheme that allowed backup Nick Foles to win last season’s Super Bowl MVP.
Graziano: I think the most likely outcome is that Carson Wentz sits out the MVP discussion this year. Not only is it unrealistic to expect the same kind of magical year for the team itself, but it’d be hard to expect an exact repeat of Wentz’s individual season even if he’d had a healthy offseason. He hasn’t, and it’s important to remember this is still a young player heading into his third season. Not only is it possible he struggles to shake off the injury, but it’s likely the Eagles’ coaching staff had a plan for Wentz’s continued development this offseason that they were unable to put in place due to his rehab. The arrow still points up for Wentz, but expecting MVP-level play every year is not realistic.
Sando: Sixth. I’d reveal more, but I’d hate to spoil the season for everyone else.
Seifert: I don’t see him in the legitimate race this year. Knee reconstruction isn’t as devastating as it once was, and all indications are that Wentz will be ready to play the bulk of the season — if not Week 1. But the old adage is true: In most cases, bet on a full recovery from major knee surgery — in terms of performance — happening two years after the injury.
Yates: Top five. The award is often quarterback-centric, and I forecast this team to have plenty of success. His production will be robust, he appears on track to start Week 1; there’s no reason to think he won’t be in the thick of the race.