A Defensive End Preview

Sheil Kapadia:

Jenkins has been getting some reps at defensive end with Jason Babin out. We didn’t see him outside much last year, although Jenkins played defensive end while in a 3-4 with the Packers.

“I just gotta get back used to it,” he said. “My hand work is a little off, especially on the left side. When I did play D-End in the past, I was used to being on the right side, so when I’m on the left side, I gotta get used to the hands, vertical steps and all that stuff.”

I’m a fan of whatever looks Jim Washburn wants to throw at offenses, but with Trent Cole also out with swelling in his shoulder, now seems like the perfect time to get lots of looks at the quartet of Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Darryl Tapp, and Philip Hunt. You’re not going to be able to keep all four of those guys.

Seeing Cole and Babin both dealing with injuries is also a worthy reminder that they’re not youngsters anymore. They were tremendous pass rushers last year, but a decline could be coming.

UPDATE: Graham is running with the ones, and Jenkins and Tapp are rotating on the other side.

Harmony at Eagles Training Camp

All rookies and veterans reported to training camp at Lehigh this year. That makes it only the third time in the last decade that the Eagles have had everyone show up.

A brief rundown of your holdouts and no-shows:

2012:
2011: DeSean Jackson
2010: Brandon Graham
2009: Jeremy Maclin
2008: Shawn Andrews
2007:
2006: Broderick Bunkley
2005: Brian Westbrook*
2004:
2003: Jerome McDougle

*Terrell Owens actually reported on time. But it was worse than if he hadn’t.

Adventures at Summer Camp: Lehigh Day 2

Because someone has to read all the news coming out of the Eagles training camp.

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When double-negatives attack. Bobby April told the press, in as roundabout a way as he could manage, that DeSean Jackson won’t be the primary punt returner anymore, now that he has his big contract:

"I don’t think that we’re not going to use him," April said. "I just don’t know if he’s going to be the primary guy. … He’ll continue to work at the positiion. He just won’t get as much work as he normally does."

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Can’t lower the bar enough. April also said that while he was looking to bring in competition for Chas Henry, the former Florida punter did well for a rookie. That is simply not true. Among his fellow rookies, Henry had the second-lowest net average and tied for the lowest ratio of punts inside the 20 yard line to touchbacks, a rough measure of placement and touch. Needless to say, those stats look even worse compared to veterans.

UPDATE: Eagles signed former Cowboy Mat McBriar.

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My kingdom for a Washburn post-game press conference. Jim Washburn is so candid. He talked to the press yesterday, and the quotes were flying. On Mike Patterson coming back from brain surgery:

"Mike Patterson might be one of the best people I’ve ever had," said Washburn. "He doesn’t have to come to these rookie meetings at night and in the afternoon, he doesn’t have to be there, but guess what? He’s there. I said, ‘Mike, you don’t have to be here,’ and he said, ‘I like to be here.’ He likes football. He’s a good one. God dang, we miss him now."

On Antonio Dixon:

"I was so disappointed," said Washburn. "I couldn’t tell if he had any talent… I couldn’t tell if the guy was a good player or not. I couldn’t tell if he was a good athlete. He weighed 365 or something like that. His back was killing him. He was out of shape. I couldn’t even tell if he was a player. This spring, he worked his butt off. He’s down, I don’t know how much he weighs, he’s maybe 330 from 360 or whatever it was. He’s in so much better shape and I went, ‘Wow, this guy’s got some quickness.’ He likes to play and he’s tough, but he’s got ability."

On Trent Cole:

“He told me when I first got here, ‘I ain’t rotating,’” Washburn said Tuesday at Eagles training camp. “Said it right up there in that meeting room. I said, ‘Yes, you are … or your ass ain’t going to play.’ He’s a great kid, Trent.”

On Brandon Graham:

"He changed some of the habits in his life, I think," Washburn said. "He got serious. … I don’t know, [he’s] a mild-mannered guy. He was a good player in college, he was. I watched every game he played in college for a year or two. He was a good player. Should be a good player here. Lost his weight. Got too heavy.” Graham, of course, is coming back from knee surgery after losing most of 2011.

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Tearjerker. If you’re not rooting for lifelong Eagles fan Vinny Curry before, you will Be after you read Jeff McLane’s article about him. Plus, bonus Washburn quotes!

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Mini-Asante? Multiple reports talked about UDFA Cliff Harris picking off a few passes during yesterday’s practices, putting him out to an early lead in the Training Camp Darling category. But let’s not go crazy here. There are no good wide receivers at camp, and some of the picks just demonstrate how bad Trent Edwards is.

* * *

On the other hand, I’m starting to let the continued positive reports on Mychal Kendricks get to me. He seems much more prepared than Casey Matthews was, at any rate.

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Poorly Written Articles Edition. Bill Barnwell gives us what he pretends to be a statistical analysis of the top running backs in the game, but somehow concludes that Ray Rice is better than LeSean McCoy without demonstrating any number that backs that up.

Even less insightful was the book excerpt in Fast Company about how Jeff Lurie turned around the Eagles. What a waste of time.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Defensive End

Darryl Tapp Juqua Parker

What the Eagles did: Back in February, I ran the numbers on the pass rush from the Eagles defensive line. The results were telling:

2011 Eagles Defensive Ends

While production was way up across the entire group (thanks Wash), there was a clear separation. Trent Cole and Jason Babin were spectacular, and with any luck we can get similar production from that duo going forward. They are Pro Bowl-caliber players going into their 30 and 32-year-old seasons, respectively. That places them on the tail end of their prime, most likely, but certainly still in it. No worries there for 2012.

The next pairing I would group are Philip Hunt and Brandon Graham — the question marks. I’m not so sure about his run defense, but Hunt’s pass rushing in limited snaps showed tremendous potential. I’m very interested to see if he can increase his role this season. Graham basically experienced a lost year in 2012. This is his make-or-break campaign. He has the raw talent to push for serious playing time, or he could fall away completely.

The final two were Juqua Parker and Darryl Tapp. As situational pass rushers, neither player was bad, per se. But compared to the rest of the group? The Eagles let Parker walk in free agency, and Tapp now has serious competition to remain on the roster.

Meanwhile, the team added Vinny Curry in the second round, making him the most talented football-playing Eagles fan anywhere. Curry slots right in with Hunt and Graham at this point. He’s young, ideally-suited to Jim Washburn’s schemes, and could contribute right away.

What I would have done: I might have tried to trade Darryl Tapp away during the draft for an extra pick, but I can see the logic in keeping him around at this point. After Babin and Cole, Tapp is the only defensive end with starting experience. He’s a solid veteran insurance policy, even if he looks like the odd man out right now.

Other than that one nitpicky point, solid job by Howie Roseman.

Way-too-early prediction: Especially with the flexibility to slide Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox outside, I can’t imagine the Eagles would keep more than five players at defensive end. Barring injuries, Cole, Babin, Graham, and Curry are all locked in. As I discussed above, there’s reason to be fairly bullish about Hunt’s chances as well. That puts Tapp (and whichever free agent replaces the now-injured Maurice Favorite) out on the street.

Other than that general roster prognostication, I don’t really have any idea who will emerge as the first guy off the bench. It should be one of the more interesting positions to watch from a playing-time competition standpoint.

Photo from Getty.

Vinny Curry, Best Player Available

Chris McPherson:

Roseman hinted that the team has previously made some reaches in order to fill a need. Roseman was certainly tested in his third draft as the Eagles’ general manager. No situation better highlighted Roseman’s mission than what was presented to them with the 59th overall pick when the Eagles selected Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry.

"He was the best player on our board," Roseman said. "He was standing out to us. We just felt like we were in a position where we had to take him. He’s a talented guy."

Since the first press conference after Curry was drafted, the Eagles front office and PR squad have aggressively hawked the fact that he was the best player available — something they haven’t found necessary to mention (let alone pound into the narrative) with any other draft pick. Methinks they dost protect someone’s feelings too much.

What We Learned from the Fletcher Cox Selection

Fletcher Cox

I can’t remember the last time the Eagles picked somebody in the first round that both draftniks and fans loved. Look at Bleeding Green Nation’s fan poll on the pick: Cox’s approval rating sits at 94 percent. A year ago, Danny Watkins eked out majority approval by a margin of just 21 votes out of about 1,600.

The fact that Cox is popular doesn’t, on it’s own, make the selection a good one. But it fits in so many ways. Let’s break down what we learned last night:

  1. The Eagles have become remarkably clumsy at deploying smokescreens for their first round pick. Was anyone other than a few reactionary mock drafters buying a Dontari Poe selection? The way the Eagles led him on a pointless parade past reporters a few weeks back on raised major red flags. What Reid said last night about Kansas City and Poe confirmed that they never had any real interest.

  2. Scheme matters. On a related note, it is important to keep in mind the scheme prospects look most suited for. There were plenty of DT options in the middle of the first round, but the Eagles made sure to grab the one who fit best with Jm Washburn’s penetrating style.

  3. Despite the trades, the first eight picks played out almost exactly as planned. The elite eight ended up being a game of musical chairs (propelled by more reasonable contracts), but that didn’t matter much to the Eagles. Other than Mark Barron, who reportedly was never a NovaCare target, all the players you expected to go early did. That allowed the Eagles to sit back and wait for either Luke Kuechly or Fletcher Cox to drop. Note: I would wager that had the Panthers taken Cox instead, we would probably be having the same conversations we’re having now, except it would be Kuechly coming to Philly today.

  4. Don’t draft an immediate starter. The Cox selection continues a general trend in which the Eagles rarely draft anyone with the expectation that they will start right away. The defensive line is aging and Cox can step right in a contribute, without having to be a starter until year two, when the writing is on the wall for Cullen Jenkins.

  5. Valuing the second round picks more? Andy Reid talked about having a limit on what they were willing to pay for a trade up. He said they didn’t want to give up a second round pick, as Dallas did, to jump up into the top 10. I wonder if this is actually a change in policy dating back to the disastrous trade up for Jerome McDougle in 2003. Since then, the most the team has paid in a trade was a third round pick to move up for Brandon Graham. That hasn’t been a resounding success either. The fourth and sixth round picks the Eagles gave up this time amounted to an exceedingly reasonable price. (The draft value chart says the difference between pick 12 and pick 15 is properly a late third round selection.)

What to watch for tonight: If the Eagles make all three of their next selections, I would guess they’re looking to come away with a linebacker, defensive end, and some sort of offensive weapon at either wide receiver or tight end. But given their recent history, a trade back to accrue more picks (and starting linebackers) is likely in the cards.

Photo from Getty.

Brandon Graham, Bust?

Dave Spadaro:

Graham is back at square one, in a sense. The Eagles are counting on him to deliver the promise that made him a first-round draft pick. Is he that special player who the Eagles coveted so much that they traded up in the first round to acquire? Or is he just not the right fit in the league?

Or is Graham somewhere between the two extremes?

"Day by day," he says. "I’m just taking it day by day."

Maybe I’m the only one, but this was the first time I read a puff piece on the Eagles website and came away thinking the profiled player was more of a bust then when I started reading.

Jim Washburn, the Draft, and Size at DE

Jevon Kearse Trent Cole Eagles

Linebacker is by far my preferred first round draft choice for the Eagles. Given the severe dearth of talent at that position, it’s not even a particularly close decision in my mind.

That said, teams shouldn’t reach too far for need. You should attempt to select the best player available, lest you end up with another Danny Watkins. With that in mind, I could easily see the Eagles going with a different position in the first round, perhaps cornerback after they trade Asante Samuel, or, more likely, defensive line.

Whether or not it’s the first round, Jim Washburn could use an infusion of youthful talent along the front four. Trent Cole and Jason Babin are both Pro Bowl-caliber ends, but they’re both closer to the end of their prime than they are to the start — and the situtation behind them is murky. Brandon Graham is coming off a serious injury and a lost season. Darryl Tapp and Philip Hunt have had their moments in the Wide Nine, but neither can be trusted to take over as a starter if needed.

The defensive tackle spot is in a similar situation, but I’m just going to look at defensive ends today. The question is, what kind of end does Washburn want? And the answer to that question suggests that there may be more turnover than we think.

Jim Washburn DE Draft Picks At right are the defensive ends selected in Tennessee in the 12 years Washburn was coaching there. He must have had tremendous input into which players were taken. In theory, these are players that are prototypical for what Washburn wants to do at the position.

The thing that jumps out at me immediately is their size. Washburn’s only drafted two defensive ends shorter than 6’4”. And his free agent picks have all been in that 6’4”-6’6” range too: Kyle Vanden Bosh, Dave Ball, Kevin Carter, etc.

It’s just an interesting piece of trivia until you look at the Eagles current group of ends. Tapp is only 6’1”. Hunt is 6’0”. Graham,at a generously labeled 6’2”, would (given the opportunity) be the smallest defensive end who’s ever started for Washburn. Now, this doesn’t rule them out completely. If they’re good enough they’ll play, regardless of size. Both Cole and Babin, listed at 6’3”, are still on the small side of Washburn’s range.

(Note: Washburn’s tackles have been on average 6’3”. Only Cedric Thorton and Antonio Dixon currently fit that mold.)

But, with that in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if those two and Graham are the only players at defensive end who return in 2012.

Tommy Lawlor, the authority on all things Eagles draft, mentioned some of the defensive ends scouting consultant Phil Savage talked to at the Senior Bowl. Based on Washburn’s preferences, I would be surprised if the Eagles selected the relatively short Melvin Ingram or Courtney Upshaw. Cam Johnson, a player Tommy likes a lot, would a more natural fit at 6’4”.

Come April, the Eagles have ten draft picks. I could easily envision a scenario in which they spend four of them on the defensive line, and at least two at end. And when you’re shuffling through prospect profiles for a preview of players who might end up in Philly, keep your eye on height as a key factor.

Photo from Getty.

Howie Roseman Reevaluating the Draft Process

Jason Pierre-Paul

One of the headlines coming out of Howie Roseman’s comments yesterday (here and here) was that the Eagles GM is open to changing his draft strategy, given the results so far. His exact words were:

"I think those are things that you have to look at and kind of evaluate and see if maybe you’re putting too much weight on one area and not another. Those are the things that you got to learn from and figure out."

It was a vague statement, but one I’m glad to see. The last two drafts have been poor overall, and it’s vitally important that Roseman reevaluate his decision-making process going forward.

Regarding that process, Roseman had a few more quotes that shed light on some of the areas we had only assumed from his draft results. For example, Howie admitted that drafting the best player on the board is difficult when “human nature” gets involved and “you are pushing things up because there are things you want and whether that’s a specific position or a specific quality in a player — whether that’s toughness, intelligence, leadership.”

I’ve noted in the past that Roseman has almost exclusively drafted high character players with proven track records from big schools. Perhaps that’s a winning philosophy in general, but it has caused some notable misses (including everyone’s favorite bugaboo Jason Pierre-Paul).

Roseman expanded those thoughts regarding Brandon Graham:

"We’re talking about a guy that played four years at Michigan, was a two-time captain, averaged ten sacks a year. There was a great track record of success. I think for us, it wasn’t so much about the other players as it was the consistency he showed in college. A lot of times when you’re into the draft you have these decisions about making kind of what we talk about — doubles vs. Dave Kingman trying to go for the long ball. I’m not talking about a particularly player here, but those are some of the tough decisions that you have because you have other factors involved."

Kingman, the 6’6” slugger/strike out artist from the ’70s and ’80s, sounds like an oblique reference to Pierre-Paul, but the point applies generally as well. With picks like Graham, Nate Allen, Danny Watkins, and Jaiquawn Jarrett, Roseman has tended toward safe, “doubles” players with leadership and steady performance — if not tremendous upside.

Maybe that’s reassuring, since all but Jarrett have at least shown the ability to be solid NFL starters. But we’re also not looking at any of these guys saying, “Wow,” like we are with DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy — players who had big questions marks coming out of college but also amazing star potential.

The final comment I want to highlight stems from a rewriting of history that Roseman supporters have often used:

“We feel like we’re having success, and if you get five or six players in every draft who make the team and three of them are starting, you’re drafting pretty well. Do we want impact guys in the first round? Of course we do. We want to draft those Pro Bowl guys and hit on every guy in the first round, but we’re going to look under every rock for impact guys, and if we get them in the sixth round or from the CFL or in free agency, the main thing is getting good players who can help us win.”

Roseman has done well at finding contributors in the later rounds, guys like Jamar Chaney, Kurt Coleman, Brian Rolle, and Jason Kelce. But other than Kelce (whose rookie season was overrated), none of these guys look like starters on a playoff team. They were starters for the Eagles in 2011 because of failures in the earlier rounds, and performed at about replacement level. More “successful” results like that won’t help the team get back to the Super Bowl any time soon.

At least Howie seems to realize that.

Photo from Getty.

An Eagles Pass Rush Worth Keeping

Trent Cole Philadelphia Eagles

With the bottle still spinning in the Eagles presumed search for a new defensive coordinator, the fate of defensive line coach Jim Washburn is up in the air. Will Steve Spagnuolo, the free agent front runner, see working with Washburn, or are the tactical and personality differences too great to overcome?

All I know is, it would be an absolute shame if Spagnuolo or any other new coordinator failed to incorporate Washburn into his scheme. The numbers bear out what an amazing job Washburn did with the Eagles defensive line, turning it into the best pass rushing front four in the whole NFL.

Pro Football Focus has a great statistic on this, Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP). The stat measures the percentage of pass rushes in which players record a sack, hit, or hurry (weighted 75 percent for the latter two).

Here’s what PRP had for the Eagles defensive ends in 2010, with Jason Babin’s year in Tennessee included for reference. “25% Rank” is the player’s standing next to all other pass rushers with at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.

2010 Eagles Defensive Ends

As you can see, the Eagles defensive line was very effective under Sean McDermott. Darryl Tapp was the worst regular contributor, and he ranked 29th among all defensive ends. Trent Cole led the league in hurries and Brandon Graham showed promise before his knee injury.

But what about 2011:

2011 Eagles Defensive Ends

There were a number of changes. For starters, even without Graham, substitutions were up. Cole was in on over 100 fewer passing plays. Also, the zone coverage attempts by defensive ends that marked 5-10 percent of plays in 2010 were largely eliminated.

The result of these changes and the new Wide Nine technique was an across the board jump in pressure from the ends. Cole moved up to number one in the NFL, Babin improved on his Titans production, and Darryl Tapp — still the laggard — brought up the rear at 10th best in the league. Moreover, even the back ups scored highly in limited snaps.

That is a remarkable improvement. To be complete, let’s also check the defensive tackles’ pass rushing:

2010 Eagles Defensive Tackles

2011 Eagles Defensive Tackles

Broderick Bunkley had the highest PRP among Eagles defensive tackles in 2010. In 2011, the Eagles had three (almost four) who scored higher than Bunkley. That says pretty much everything that needs to be said there.

All the numbers above are interesting, and you can pull out other nuggets in the comments (such as Hunt’s efficiency or Laws’s ineffectiveness), but overall this tells a clear story about the positive impact Jim Washburn has had on this defensive line.

I’m optimistic that a good coordinator can adapt to Washburn’s strengths, but I fear that whoever the Eagles bring in will be too stubborn to do so. Cross your fingers.

Photo from Getty.

No, Seriously, Howie's Doing a Great Job

Chris McPherson, for the Eagles website:

The Eagles’ prolific run in free agency last offseason overshadowed the fact that the foundation for the team’s long-term success has been built in the past two NFL drafts.

Through aggressive maneuvering and clever moves, the Eagles have acquired eight starters in the past two drafts. None of the 2011 playoff teams in the NFC and only one playoff team in the entire league, the Denver Broncos, has drafted more starters in that timeframe…

Among the playoff teams this year, seven of them have first-round picks from the past two seasons that have yet to crack the starting lineup. The Eagles, overall, have drafted two starters on offense, five on defense and another on special teams in the past two years.

Those eight “starters” would be:

  • Brandon Graham — Not a starter, not healthy, not Jason Pierre-Paul.
  • Danny Watkins — Below average 27-year-old starter at right guard.
  • Jamar Chaney — Chaney is closer to the CFL than the Pro Bowl.
  • Brian Rolle — Better than Chaney, but shouldn’t be more than a 4th LB right now.
  • Kurt Coleman — Good backup, bad starter.
  • Jason Kelce — Promising young player, best rookie season of the bunch.
  • Nate Allen — Inconsistent, needs improvement to really own starting spot.
  • Alex Henery — He’s fine, but he’s also a kicker.

And yet, surprisingly, the Eagles are not in the playoffs. There’s a disconnect somewhere, I just can’t find it.

Graham & Pierre-Paul

Les Bowen, for the Daily News:

Brandon Graham has fled Twitter lately, Graham said yesterday, because he is tired of fans’ critical comparisons with Giants defensive end (and NFC defensive player of the week) Jason Pierre-Paul.

"It’s ridiculous, how bad the fans are, saying how they wish they had JPP," Graham said following yesterday’s practice. "I understand, ‘cause I haven’t done anything. I got nothing to say. That’s why I’ve been laying low, just can’t wait to erupt."

I feel bad for Brandon Graham. Here’s hoping he can rebound in 2012.

A Lost Season for Brandon Graham

Jonathan Tamari, at Birds’ Eye View:

Graham knows Pierre-Paul’s numbers: 12.5 sacks, a big blocked field goal last week.

"It’s tough for me going through it because I’ve got to live with it," Graham said, referring to the expectations and comparisons. At times, he doesn’t even want to go out because he knows the questions he will face from fans.

'Not an Old Football Team'

LeSean McCoy Jeremy Maclin

On Monday, Andy Reid pushed back against the gloom patrol, reminding everyone that the Eagles window is still wide open:

"People perceive us to be an old football team, but we’re really not an old football team." he said on his radio show. “We’re one of the youngest teams in the [NFL]. That takes time.”

Unfortunately, that’s just not as true as it sounds. The Eagles are young, but the core of the team is actually reaching the end of their prime, with few replacements on the way.

The Eagles have 14 players on the roster who are currently 29 or older. Some of them may still have two or three more years left in them, but there are no guarantees in the NFL. Tell me how comfortable you are losing these guys in the near future:

  • Brown, Ronnie (29)
  • Cole, Trent (29)
  • Herremans, Todd (29)
  • Peters, Jason (29)
  • Asomugha, Nnamdi (30)
  • Hanson, Joselio (30)
  • Jenkins, Cullen (30)
  • Mathis, Evan (30)
  • Samuel, Asante (30)
  • Babin, Jason (31)
  • Dorenbos, Jon (31)
  • Jackson, Jamaal (31)
  • Vick, Michael (31)
  • Parker, Juqua (33)

Let’s see… That’s three starting offensive linemen, including both tackles. Three starting defensive linemen. Three of the top four cornerbacks. Oh, and a $100 million quarterback.

Even scarier, can you pick out any of these players and tell me who his replacement is going to be? The Eagles have no quarterback of the future. With Brandon Graham’s return from injury still an open question, they don’t have a single promising young linemen on the team ready to take over at offensive tackle or defensive end. Do you trust Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback? What about Brandon Hughes or Curtis Marsh?

And it’s not like many other positions are bursting with young talent. With the possible exception of Brian Rolle, not a single linebacker looks like more than a backup. There are three young safeties, but none have them have shown they can play at higher than replacement level. Jason Kelce looks like a keeper, but his fellow rookie Danny Watkins isn’t exactly a spring chicken.

The only place where the Eagles have proven youngsters is at the offensive skill positions. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how long that group will stay together. The DeSean Jackson departure appears imminent and Jeremy Maclin has never proven he can be a top wide receiver. Why the Eagles haven’t already thrown gobs of money at LeSean McCoy is beyond me.

It’s discouraging to glance up and down the Eagles roster. The short term outlook is bleak, with this season likely to go down as the worst in Reid’s tenure. And as to the future… there just isn’t much to look forward to.

Almost two seasons have passed since I wrote about Reid’s third 5-year plan. So far, that plan has failed.

Photo from Getty.