Column: Grading the teams in the Super Bowl by position

Photo courtesy of Brian Allen, Voices of America
Photo courtesy of Brian Allen, Voices of America

By Thomas Herron, news correspondent

 

The date is Feb. 6, 2005. Super Bowl XXXIX has just concluded, and with their third title in four years, the Brady and Belichick Co. have just cemented their legacy as one of the greatest sports dynasties of all time. The Eagles, led by All-Pro receiver Terrell Owens and dynamic quarterback Donovan McNabb, came up three points short of bringing the inaugural title to Philadelphia.

Fast forward 13 years and two Super Bowl titles later, the Patriots are here again. Despite Brady being the only remaining member, they look relatively similar.

The Eagles, however, have had some turbulent years over the last decade. Led by second-year coach Doug Pederson, the Eagles experienced a resurgence in 2017 thanks to the play of a hard-nosed defense along with the video-game-like play of second-year quarterback Carson Wentz. No team started hotter than the birds.

So here we are, awaiting the pinnacle of American sports: Super Bowl LII. As the American populace is left with nothing to do but wait, us sports fans are left to do what we always do: speculate. 

Quarterbacks

Patriots: Tom Brady

There isn’t much to say about Brady that hasn’t been said. The five-time Super Bowl champion is ageless. His 2017 campaign consisted of a 32-8 touchdown to interception ratio, 4,577 passing yards and a passer rating of 102.8. Did I mention he’s 40 years old? Brady has only improved on his regular season numbers throughout his postseason career, and whether you’re a fan or not, we’ve all seen what he can do in the fourth quarter.

Position Grade: A+

Eagles: Nick Foles

Losing Carson Wentz to a devastating injury, the Eagles had no choice but to turn to backup Nick Foles. Foles took over for the Eagles in 2013 and is one of only eight players to throw seven touchdowns in a game. Foles finished the season with the second-best TD-INT ratio in NFL history at 27-2, only to be surpassed by none other than Tom Brady. In his time as a starter in the regular season, his play seemed to spell the end for the Eagles. But when playoffs came around, Foles looked reminiscent of his former self.

Position Grade: B

Running backs 

Patriots: Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, James White, Mike Gillislee and Brandon Bolden, James Develin

The Patriots backfield lacks star power. This is not because of a lack of talent, but by design. All of the running backs are complete players, contributing traditionally as rushers, but also as receivers, returners, special teamers and pass protectors, arguably better than any other group in the league. Led by Lewis, this group was extremely hot in the last month of the regular season. If you stop this backfield from rushing, they turn to receiving, and vice versa.

The 2018 All-Pro Fullback, Develin is deceivingly necessary to the success of this group. Where traditional fullback roles have died, the Patriots seemed to have pulled Develin straight out of the ‘80s.

Position Grade: B+

Eagles: Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner

The Eagles backfield is loaded with talent. Ajayi is a complete back with the ability to hurt a defense anytime he gets the ball. His receiving ability is subpar, but he makes up for it with his vision and explosiveness. Blount is the definition of a power back and could be hungry for revenge against his former team. Neither of these two worry me as much as the wild card of the Eagles backfield: Corey Clement.

Clement is an extremely versatile back in his own right, but his talent stems from his speed, receiving ability and vision. He hasn’t yet proven his ability to run between the tackles, but that is a result of a crowded position group.

The only downfall of this star-studded backfield is inconsistency. Ajayi, Blount and Clement can fulfill the role of feature back. As a result, they get a significant number of carries in game, but the Eagles haven’t quite figured out how to master the committee approach to running the ball.

Position Grade: A-

Wide Receivers 

Patriots: Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt and Matthew Slater

This group is an odd one. Cooks and Dorsett are young speedsters who can burn defensive backs at any time. Cooks is hard to cover because no corner wants to let him beat them over the top, so look for a lot of comeback routes to take advantage of this cushion. Hogan and Amendola are both great fundamental players and their route running and ability to make tough possession catches makes them serious threats.

Position Grade: B

Eagles: Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith, Mack Hollins, Marcus Johnson and Shelton Gibson

The contrast between the Eagles’ and Patriots’ receivers is similar to that of the running back groups. The Eagles are loaded with playmakers.

Jeffery is gigantic, fast, has soft hands and runs routes well, making him a nuisance to cover. He is not impossible to handle though — actually he’s far from it. By taking the number one cover corner out of the game, Jeffery opens up Agholor’s game, allowing him to line up either in the slot or against a team’s second corner, making it only a matter of time until he gets free over the top.Smith is more of a possession receiver. But his fundamentals are worth their own textbook on how to play the receiver position.

Position Grade: B

Tight Ends

Patriots: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister

To make a not-so-long story shorter, Gronk is the best tight end to ever step on a football field. And yes, he will play, so stop trying to overspeculate about his concussion.

Allen is an above-average starter in his own right and two tight end sets could open up the middle of the field for the Pats. Hollister is more of a receiver than a tight end, and nothing would be more Belichick than to hit the opponent with the unknown. Expect 1-3 big catches for the rookie, too.

Position Grade: A+

Eagles: Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and Trey Burton

Ertz is as good as tight ends (not named Gronk) in this league can get. He can hurt you in similar ways, but the major difference between the two is Ertz’s ability with the ball in his hands. He may not be the same cheat code that Gronk is, but if Foles struggles, he will be the go-to security blanket.

Celek and Burton almost exactly mirror Allen and Hollister. Celek can prove to be a threat in the red zone. Burton is a receiving threat and his usage matches or betters any other third tight end in the league.

Position Grade: A

Offensive Line

Patriots: Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Cameron Fleming and Reserve-LaAdrian Waddle

This group is full of talent but cursed with inconsistency. The three middlemen are great run blockers and the group as a whole has improved on protecting Brady in the pocket. If they can manage to fend off the Eagles’ menacing defensive line, the Patriots offense can perform to its potential.

Position Grade: B-

Eagles: Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Stefen Wisniewski, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson Reserve- Will Beatty

The Eagles were the best offensive line in football this year, and it wasn’t close. The glaring weakness here is the left tackle. Vaitai had the impossible role of replacing future hall of famer Jason Peters after a devastating season-ending injury. This group’s success is strictly a result of the other four’s superb play — Vaitai has been an extreme liability. He could struggle with Trey Flowers, but otherwise the offensive line just has to do what it has been doing all season.

Position Grade: A+

Defensive Line

Patriots: Trey Flowers, Eric Lee, Deatrich Wise, Ricky Jean Francois, Geneo, Grissom, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Alan Branch and Adam Butler

This D-line has been a confusing group. Flowers has been a star, flashing his pure ability as a pass rusher and leading the team in sacks. Brown, Branch and Guy have been sufficient in stopping the run and fulfilling the traditional role of the interior defensive line. Butler has proved to be a nice rotational piece, offering an interior pass rush off the bench.

Wise, Lee and Grissom all have raw talent and have shown flashes, but because the group lacks stars, it depends on its depth to perform.

Position Grade: B-

Eagles: Brandon Graham,Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, Chris Long, Timmy Jernigan, Fletcher Cox, Beau Allen and Destiny Vaeao

The Eagles’ D-Line is scary. Graham is a top-tier pass rusher and Cox is dynamic in all aspects of the game. Jernigan has found new life with the Eagles, capitalizing on openings caused by his teammates’ play. Former Patriot Long has teamed up with the rookie Barnett to make for some scary depth and pass rush off the bench as well.

Position Grade: A

Linebackers

Patriots: Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers, James Harrison and David Harris

An early-season injury to Dont’a Hightower devastated this group. Their season can be summed up in one word: inconsistency.

Flowers was a complete unknown but has turned into a tackling machine. Flowers’ problem is that a good amount of his tackles come in pursuit. Roberts is filling the role of run-stopper relatively well and Van Noy is by far the most complete linebacker here, placing second on the team in sacks and third in tackles. Van Noy is doing his best Dont’a Hightower impression, but at the end of the day the linebacker group has been by far the weakest on the team because of a lack of elite talent.

Harrison has found the fountain of youth in a rotational role and yet again Belichick is making treasure out of another team’s trash.

Position Grade: C-

Eagles: Mychal Kendricks, Nigel Bradham, Dannell Ellerbe, Kamu Grugier-Hill and Najee Goode

The linebacking core has done above average but has its evident weaknesses. Kendricks and Bradham are every-down backers with well-honed instincts. They both play the way the position is supposed to be played and find their way to the ball on what seems like every play.

Ellerbe is more of a first and second down backer and is average at best. Their man-heavy coverage can make room for the Patriots receivers on crossing routes, so they’ll have to play better in coverage than they usually do.

Position Grade: B

Defensive Backs

Patriots: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe and Johnson Bademosi

McCourty is one of the best free safeties in football. His ability in zone is superb and despite his smaller frame, he has proven to be a good tackler at the third level. Chung is also a great closer and his aggressive playstyle has made up for some of what the linebackers can’t do.

Harmon is one of the top third safeties in football and can easily slip by a passive fan’s consciousness, but his coverage ability is key to a lot of what Patriots’ coach Matt Patricia does with the defense.

Gilmore has played to expectations, fulfilling the role of number one corner well. Butler has not looked like himself at all this season, but bad for Butler is still better than most corners in the league. His drop off in coverage has been redeemed by his outside run defense and ability to find the ball once it’s caught. There’s no denying his talent, as well as what he turns into in the Super Bowl.

Rowe has become a viable third corner and has been playing well above expectations, as he has a habit of making a big mistake and making up for it almost immediately.

Position Grade: A

Eagles: Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Corey Graham, Jaylen Watkins, Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and Rasul Douglas

Jenkins is also a top safety and his coverage is impeccable. He is a big-bodied free safety and hits like a linebacker. His hard-nosed style makes up for his lack of speed, but he will have his hands full covering Gronk.

McLeod is extremely similar to Chung. He is a versatile safety who plays at an above-average level, but his tackling ability is lacking.

Darby, Mills and Robinson have proven to be an elite arsenal of man corners, but we don’t really know how they’ll perform if forced to resort to another type of coverage. Darby versus Cooks could prove to be an intriguing battle, as Darby is by far the best of the bunch and Cooks is a proven man beater. Mills is slightly more exposable, but I don’t see any deep balls down the sideline being easy for the Patriots.

Position Grade: A-

My Prediction: 34-24 Patriots

As made evident by the comparisons, the Eagles and Patriots are much more similar than they may appear. But the glaring differences still shine through at the quarterback position, on the defensive line, in the linebacking core and on the coaching staff.

The Eagles have the upper hand on defense but the Patriots’ advantages are without a doubt in the most important places.

Experience is another deciding factor here, and history is not on the Eagles’ side. Keep in mind, I’m a Patriots fan through and through and I am in no way trying to hide my bias, but as both a Pats fan and a fan of football, my pick is that “Tom Terrific” will rack up his sixth ring and the Patriots will take their place as the greatest team in the history of the National Football League.

Graphic by Glenn Billman 

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