Juggernaut Index, No. 11: Eagles loaded with fantasy assets, injury questions

Pictured, two dudes who do not care about their team’s rank in a silly fantasy index. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Admittedly, this rank may seem oddly low for the defending Super Bowl champs. Let’s just establish from the start that Philadelphia, without question, is very much in the hunt to repeat. No disrespect intended. The Eagles return every essential player from an offense that ranked third in the NFL in scoring and tied for the league lead in point differential (+162). Philly is a great team, period.

This is a good spot to remind you that you’re reading a meaningless preseason fantasy index and not a meaningless preseason NFL power ranking. Here, we’re less concerned with team win-loss projections than with fantasy ranks and forecasts for individual players. And this is where things get complicated for the Eagles, because key contributors are returning from significant injuries.

Let’s review…

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Carson Wentz is working his way back from a mid-December ACL tear. When asked recently about his availability for opening week, Wentz said, “It’s going to be close.” So that’s not exactly what you want to hear if you already drafted him near his ADP (70.3, QB6). Wentz of course was on an MVP trajectory last season before the injury, and he nearly led the NFL in TD passes despite missing three games. His dramatic improvement was one of the league’s great stories. But when you consider the overall depth at the quarterback position and the state of Wentz’s recovery, it’s awfully tough to make the case for him as QB6. Sure, you can handcuff him with Nick Foles, but that’s not the greatest use of a bench spot.

Alshon Jeffery underwent rotator cuff surgery in February, and he’s reportedly a candidate to open the season on the reserve/PUP list. Not great. We’ve been drafting Jeffery as WR21 (ADP 50.0), despite the injury worries and the fact that he only caught 57 balls for 789 yards last year. Jeffery’s fantasy season was saved by a healthy touchdown total (9), but he posted a career-worst catch percentage of 47.5 percent.

Alshon Jeffery needs to get healthy soon if he’s going to deliver on his fantasy draft price. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Nelson Agholor and Corey Clement are also dealing with injuries of unknown severity, and Darren Sproles is returning from a torn ACL. All three of these players are expected to have substantial offensive roles. Agholor in particular took a big leap last season, essentially matching Jeffery’s stats on 25 fewer targets (62-768-8). He’ll be desperately needed if Jeffery is limited or unavailable to begin the year.

Still, this is unquestionably a terrific offense, loaded with talent. Philadelphia is also an aggressive and analytics-friendly team that led the league in both fourth-down and third-down conversions last season. The departures of OC Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo are a small concern, but that’s the price of success. Head coach Doug Pederson is still at the controls, and the team promoted from within to replace Reich and DeFilippo. Everyone should fear the defending champs. Again, this is a damn good team.

Let’s get beyond the summer injuries and look at a few of Philly’s healthy stars…

Zach Ertz has a shot to finish as fantasy’s top tight end

Ertz actually saw his usual target volume last season (110), resulting in his third straight year with 70-plus catches for 800-plus yards. But he vaulted into the top-three scorers at his position by doubling his previous career high in touchdowns. Ertz found the end-zone eight times in 14 games, drawing 17 red-zone targets and seven looks inside the 10-yard line. He’s a gifted receiver tied to an excellent offense, guaranteed 7-8 targets each week. Give me Ertz in the fourth round (ADP 43.1) over Gronk in the second (ADP 23.6). Even a small uptick in targets for Ertz — not unreasonable, considering the injuries in Philly’s receiving corps — would give him a great shot at leading his position in fantasy scoring. He’s been the team’s No. 1 receiver in camp, for what it’s worth…

Trey Burton left for Chicago in the offseason, but the Eagles replaced him with second-round rookie Dallas Goedert. He was a hugely productive FCS player at South Dakota State, and he offers an uncommon combination of size (6-foot-5), wingspan (80 inches) and agility (6.87 3-cone). Philadelphia uses 12-personnel regularly, so Goedert will definitely see the field. We don’t normally expect first-year tight ends to make a fantasy splash, but Goedert could see enough red-zone targets to be an exception.

The Eagles signed Mike Wallace to a one-year deal in March, and he should be a more than capable replacement for Torrey Smith. Wallace caught 124 balls for 1765 yards over his two seasons in Baltimore — heroic work, considering the team context. Depending on the injury news with Jeffery and Agholor, Wallace has a shot to be a viable early-season fantasy option. Second-year receiver Mack Hollins could get moderately interesting as well. Hollins was a big-play receiver at the collegiate level, averaging 20.6 yards per reception at North Carolina.

Philly also signed Kamar Aiken and Markus Wheaton to one-year deals. And if we’re mentioning those two, it’s clearly time to move on.

Jay Ajayi is ready for a greater workload, if the Eagles’ coaches are willing. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Jay Ajayi leads Birds’ backfield

Ajayi ran for nearly as many yards in his 70 carries with the Eagles last season (408) as he did in 138 carries with Miami (465). He’s gained 2454 scrimmage yards and averaged 4.6 YPC over the past two years, playing for two different teams, so we shouldn’t need to convince you that he’s a quality runner. The key to his fantasy value, without question, will be workload. Ajayi was simply another committee member over his first four games with Philly last season, averaging just 7.3 carries per week. But his workload basically doubled over his final six games (playoffs included), when he averaged 13.8 carries and 2.5 targets. His position coach has hinted at a sizable workload in the year ahead:

“I’m pretty sure that Jay is excited about being able to go out there and dominate and being able to be that guy,” assistant head coach/running backs Duce Staley said. “I know Doug [Pederson] is excited about it also. We’ll see.”

Let’s recall that LeGarrette Blount, last year’s leading rusher in Philly, is now running for the Lions. Blount handled 173 carries for the Eagles last season, running for 766 yards. Ajayi has never been used as a high-volume receiver, but we know he can handle 280-plus touches because he did it just two seasons ago. He can deliver a profit at his recent ADP (32.9, RB19).

Clement impressed last season (4.3 YPC) and he saved his best effort for the Super Bowl (108 scrimmage yards, TD). He should open the year as a rotational back at the very least, and the clear handcuff to Ajayi. Sproles returns at age 35, likely to catch 40-50 passes if he remains healthy. Wendell Smallwood is likely next on the depth chart, but he won’t achieve fantasy relevance without an injury or two.

Let’s not forget about Philly’s D/ST

The Eagles defense ranked fourth in the league in scoring (18.4 PPG), yards-against (306.5 YPG) and takeaways (31) last season, so this group was a fantasy force. Philly’s D is top-five in the Yahoo consensus ranks at the moment, and the division schedule isn’t necessarily a minefield. Draft with confidence.

2017 Offensive Stats & Ranks

Points per game – 28.6 (third in NFL)
Pass YPG – 233.6 (13)
Rush YPG – 132.2 (3)
Yards per play – 5.6 (8)
Plays per game – 66.9 (3)
Super Bowl win? – Yes

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Buffalo, 31) Miami, 30) NY Jets, 29) Baltimore, 28) Oakland, 27) Cleveland, 26) Indianapolis, 25) Washington, 24) Chicago, 23) Tennessee, 22) Jacksonville, 21) Dallas, 20) Tampa Bay, 19) Cincinnati, 18) Denver, 17) San Francisco, 16) Arizona, 15) Seattle, 14) Detroit, 13) Carolina, 12) Houston, 11) Philadelphia

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