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5 Most Pleasant Surprises for 2014 Philadelphia Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles’ 2014 season was marked by inconsistency; after starting 7-2, the team went 3-4 down the stretch to miss the playoffs despite reaching ten wins for the second straight year under Chip Kelly. While there were many disappointments, especially at the quarterback position, this year’s team was full of pleasant surprises. Here are five that stood out:

1. Darren Sproles

Sproles celebrates one of his six rushing touchdowns (photo: USA Today)

When the Eagles dealt a 2014 fifth-round draft pick to New Orleans for the then 30-year old Sproles, fans were cautiously optimistic. Sproles was obviously talented, but his production had dipped over the last two seasons and many wondered why the Saints would trade him if he was not firmly on the downward slope of his career arc.

Sproles silenced the nay-sayers, however, putting together an impressive season in midnight green. He was an asset running the ball in key situations, averaging 5.8 yards per carry and scoring six touchdowns. He was also effective out of the backfield, catching 40 passes for 387 yards including a couple game-changing catches-and-runs in Week 2 to bury the Colts.

Where No. 43 was most effective, however, was in the return game; he led the NFL with 506 punt return yards and 13.0 yards per punt return and was one of two players—the other being Micah Hyde—with multiple punt return touchdowns. Sproles’ punt returns single-handedly swung momentum in the Eagles’ favor at key points, helping the occasionally sputtering offense get going.

Meanwhile, the pick we traded for Sproles turned into OLB Ronald Powell, who amassed just two tackles this season for the Saints. Not bad, eh?

2. The Front 7

Seeing the Birds fly to the ball reminded viewers of the late Jim Johnson’s defenses (photo: Getty Images)

One area brimming with potential last season was the front seven. They were relatively successful in Billy Davis’ new 3-4 scheme, but it was easy to be worried that the team would revert back to struggling up front, just as they did after one good season running the wide-nine.

This group was once again phenomenal in 2014, finishing fifth in the league in yards allowed per run (3.7) and second in sacks (49). They put pressure on quarterbacks and were stout against the run, masking the deficiencies in the secondary despite missing Mychal Kendricks for the first half of the season and DeMeco Ryans for the second.

The pass rush received much of the glory, and rightly so. Led by Connor Barwin (14.5 sacks), they were constantly a disrupting force with players blitzing from all zones, through all gaps. Pass-rushing specialist Vinny Curry was phenomenal in limited snaps, recording 9.0 sacks. Brandon Graham (5.5 sacks) and Trent Cole (6.5 sacks) were also effective rushing from the weak-side OLB position.

The run defense was also impressive, shutting down elite runners like Marshawn Lynch (3.7 YPC), DeMarco Murray (3.0 YPC), and Andre Ellington (3.1 YPC). At the core of this unit was third-year defensive end Fletcher Cox, who had 61 total tackles, 5 tackles for loss, and 4.0 sacks. Nose tackle Bennie Logan, who came under much scrutiny after a poor showing against the Saints in the postseason last year, added ten tackles for loss in another fine campaign.

3. Cody Parkey

Unlike Henery, Parkey was deadly from beyond 50 yards (photo: NFL.com)

Remember when the entire fan base was nervous about the future of the kicker position? So do I; those were dark times in Philadelphia.

Alex Henery’s poor 2013 season and postseason had Eagles’ fans worried, and after Carey “Murderleg” Spear failed to pan out during training camp, Howie Roseman dealt running back David Fluellen to the Colts for kicker Cody Parkey, an undrafted rookie out of Auburn. Parkey impressed in his only preseason debut, hitting two 50+ yarders, resulting in Henery’s release.

Since then, Parkey has yet to look back, nailing 32-of-36 field goals attempts and all four from beyond 50 yards. A hiccup during the Redskins game may be some people’s lasting memory of Parkey’s inaugural season as an Eagle, but he given the circumstances of his groin injury, it is unfair to erase a terrific season due to one poor showing.

At least there is one less position the front office has to worry about going into 2015.

4. Jeremy Maclin and Jordan Matthews

Wearing 18 and 81 respectively, these two were a force to be reckoned with (photo: Fansided)

After the release of speedster DeSean Jackson following his breakout campaign, many—including me—were worried about the wide receiver position. The mantle would have to be carried by a guy coming off of an ACL tear (Jeremy Maclin), a rookie (Jordan Matthews), and a veteran with just one decent season to his name (Riley Cooper).

While Cooper may have disappointed, Maclin and Matthews starred despite being on the receiving end of inconsistent quarterback play. Maclin finished ninth in the league with 1318 receiving yards, a career high and his first 1000-yard season. He also added ten touchdowns and 21 receptions of 20 or more yards, easing the pain of losing Jackson—who had 1169 yards and 6 touchdowns while missing a couple of games for Washington.

Matthews was equally as impressive, featuring primarily in the slot. His ability to run after the catch turned many short passes into longer gains, and he finished the season with 67 receptions for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. He may be overlooked in a strong class of rookie receivers, which includes Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, and Sammy Watkins, but Matthews is going to be a start in this league.

5. Special Teams

Casey blocked two punts this year, including this one against Saint Louis (photo: Soshcentral)

I have tangentially mentioned this unit twice already, but their incredible season extends beyond punt returns and kicking. This unit was historically good, with undrafted players (Brandon Bair, Trey Burton), new signings (Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman), and long-time special teams studs joining forces.

They scored seven touchdowns, two from punt returns, two from kick returns (Huff, Polk), and three from returns off of blocked punts. They led the league in punt return touchdowns, kick return touchdowns, and blocked punts (four) while finishing top five in kick return average and punt return average.

Under the direction of coordinator Dave Fipp, who should and will be strongly considered for Assistant Coach of the Year, this unit made game-changing plays consistently throughout the year. If it were not for special teams, a phase of the game that head coach Chip Kelly constantly emphasizes, ten wins might have just been a dream.

For more from Manav, follow him on Twitter here. For more Philadelphia sports coverage, follow Khandyman here.

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Categories: Eagles, Editorial

Author:Manav Khandelwal

I am the founder of Khandyman Sports, and follow all Philadelphia pro sports teams religiously. I also write for the Hoop76, covering the Sixers for ESPN, and am a credentialed Flyers reporter for Main Line Media News.

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