The final regular season game takes the Cowboys to Philadelphia for a Week 17 matchup with the Eagles. There isn’t much at stake here for either team except pride, but let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Eagles offensive personnel.
The Eagles offense is led by the second-overall pick in the 2016 draft, Carson Wentz. Cowboys fans should be very familiar with Wentz as there was plenty of buzz that the team was interested in selecting him with the fourth-overall pick after coaching him at the Senior Bowl this past February. Similar to Dak Prescott, Wentz had a hot start to his career, throwing for seven touchdowns and just one interception over his first four games, but over the last 11 he has just seven touchdowns to 13 interceptions (he has also fumbled 14 times for the season, but has only lost three). Wentz has size, a strong arm, athleticism, mobility and most importantly, great football intelligence; it’s been reported that the Cowboys considered Wentz and Prescott the two most intelligent quarterbacks in the draft when asked to draw up plays on the board. Not only can he extend plays with his legs to make throws downfield, he’s also a dangerous runner with surprising speed for his size.
With that said Wentz struggles with his ability to go through reads quickly and maneuver inside the pocket. He is definitely tough in that he is more than willing to stand in the pocket and take hits in order to make downfield throws, but at times he stares down targets and doesn’t feel the rush, which can lead to big hits, such as the one during the preseason that resulted in a hairline rib fracture. Generally speaking, the Eagles have asked Wentz to make easier, low risk throws with a heavy dose of wide receiver and running back screens. He won’t hesitate to take shots down field when given one-on-one coverage though, and he can be dangerous when extending plays with his legs as he will keep his eyes downfield instead of immediately running for yardage.
Wentz has all the makings of a franchise quarterback but he is still raw and needs improvement in many of the finer points of being an NFL quarterback. At this point he is an average at best player, but with refinement I believe he could become something of a more athletic and mobile Matt Ryan.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
This group is led by third-year man out of Vanderbilt, Jordan Matthews. Despite his size at 6-3, 212, Matthews generally works out of the slot. He doesn’t have outstanding speed or route running ability, but he doesn’t lack in those areas either. His hands are inconsistent as he struggles with drops at times but overall he is a solid all-around receiver, certainly not elite or a true “number one” type, but he is a capable starting receiver in the league. On the year he has 804 yards and three touchdowns, but he is averaging just 11 YPC, which is an indication of the limitations of his talent. His status for Sunday is questionable, and if he isn’t able to play it’ll be a big blow to the Eagles passing game as he is clearly their best receiver.
There isn’t much behind Matthews as the other two primary targets at receiver are second-year players Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham. Neither has been particularly impressive since entering the league, and Green-Beckham somehow managed to get himself traded only a year after Tennessee invested a high second-round pick in him. For the year the two have combined for barely over 700 yards and just four touchdowns, while Agholor has struggled so badly with drops that he has met with sports psychologists. He did have a 40-yard touchdown last week against the Giants though, so there’s that.
Bottom line, this is one of the worst receiver corps in the league and it is likely the number one spot the Eagles will look to upgrade in the offseason.
The Eagles do have a trio of tight ends that must be accounted for though. The group is led by Zach Ertz, who ranks second on the team in catches (65) and yards (677). He has impressive size at 6-5, 250, functional speed, good hands, and is a good route runner, and while he isn’t a truly elite tight end, he is one of the primary receiving threats that the Cowboys defense will have to hone in on. Behind Ertz is veteran Brent Celek, who is mostly just a blocker at this point, albeit a very good one, and third-year man Trey Burton, who is primarily a receiver and struggles in the run game. Neither is a significant threat on their own but the Eagles love to use two and three tight end formations and can scheme ways to get Celek or Burton open with misdirection and play-action.
Long story short, there never was a lot here to begin with and there is even less going into the final game of the season. The “starter” was veteran Ryan Mathews, but he is now on injured reserve with a neck injury after yet another mediocre, injury-prone season. He has likely taken his last snap as an Eagle. Further, backups Kenjon Barner and Wendell Smallwood will also miss Sunday’s game.
That leaves receiving back extraordinaire Darren Sproles and a couple of guys named Byron Marshall and Terrell Watson to fill out the depth chart. Sproles isn’t much of a threat as a traditional back out of the backfield, although he can hit you with a big run on a draw if you fall asleep on him; however he is clearly one of the top receiving backs in the league. He isn’t quite what he was five years ago when he was putting up 600-700 yards receiving a season but he is third on the team in catches (49) and receiving yards (423). The Eagles love to set up screens to him, which gives Wentz low risk, easy throws, with the potential of a chunk gain if Sproles can get out in space. The Cowboys will have to be aware of where Sproles is at all times because he is still capable of breaking games open with huge plays.
At only 5-9 Marshall is primarily a receiving back, although you couldn’t tell by the grand total of six receiving yards that he has on the season. Watson on the other hand is more of a traditional, early down, short-yardage type of back who is playing in his first NFL game.
This group is led by eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time First Team All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters. At 34 years of age Peters isn’t what he once was, but he is still one of the better left tackles in the league. Opposite Peters is right tackle Lane Johnson, who was suspended for 10 games and missed the first meeting, but he returned last week against the Giants and looked excellent. Johnson is extremely athletic in space and is very good in the run game. He may be the Eagles best offensive player.
The starter at left guard is Brandon Brooks (6-5, 343), a massive interior lineman signed in the offseason from the Houston Texans who is excellent in the running game, although he can struggle with quickness in pass protection. At the other guard spot is Allen Barbre, a 32-year-old journeyman who has impressed so far this season to the point where some in Philadelphia believe he has been their best lineman after Lane Johnson. Brooks has missed time with anxiety issues while Barbre has been in and out of games with more traditional injuries. Brooks will play Sunday, but Barbre’s status is up in the air. If he can’t go he will be replaced by Stefen Wisniewski, a replacement-level player who is a clear liability on the interior.
At one point center Jason Kelce looked to be on his way to becoming perhaps the best center in the league, although he has plateaued a bit over the last few years and some in Philadelphia wonder if he is a poor fit in the new system due to his lack of size. He’s still very good in space but is a liability against bigger linemen.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- One of the worst groups of skill position talent in the league
- Lack of any true game-breaking threats in the passing game, Darren Sproles at 33 years of age is the Eagles most explosive weapon in that regard
- Wentz tends to stare down receivers and has so much belief in his arm that he will attempt to force throws into coverage, which could lead to interceptions
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Darren Sproles getting into space on screens
- Wentz using his legs to keep plays alive
- Excellent pair of offensive tackles