Adventures at Summer Camp: Lehigh Day 1

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

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Confirmed: DeSean Jackson let frustration over his contract hurt his performance:

“Human nature-wise, yes it affected him,’’ Culley said. “It did. He tried not to let it affect him. Sometimes he didn’t do a very good job of that. It affected him in meetings. It affected him on the field. There were days when it didn’t. But it made him inconsistent. And that’s where the human nature part of it comes in.”

“I saw a couple of times last year where I saw him maybe trying to maybe save himself because (he was thinking), ‘I’m not under contract and I don’t want to get hurt,’’’ Culley said. “I don’t think there was a fear factor involved. I think it was more, ‘I don’t want to get hurt because I don’t have a contract.’ The first two-and-a-half years he was here, that wasn’t an issue. A couple of times last year, that came up. And I believe it came up simply because of that.”

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Punters, ahoy. The Eagles brought in not one, not two, not three, but four veteran punters for tryouts yesterday. It’s not that surprising once you understand how bad Chas Henry was last year. Reuben Frank says the most likely candidate to sign is former Pro Bowl Cowboy Mat McBriar. I honestly didn’t realize he had fallen off last year and was cut. Turns out, he couldn’t lift his foot.

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The Felony That Wasn’t. I love how the charges were dropped against Dion Lewis because the DA concluded there was “no evidence a fire alarm was ever pulled.”

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Backup Running Backs Will Push… Who? I absolutely don’t understand where this headline comes from. Sheil’s replacement isn’t looking so hot.

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Speaking of Mr. Kapadia, he brings us a great quote from Howard Mudd on where Danny Watkins is in his second year. Sounds like the mental side of the game is the real roadblock for our friendly neighborhood fireman:

“Comfort in the position, eliminating doubt about himself,” Mudd said. “That just happens to players. That just happens. That’s part of the growing process. I call that the valley of darkness. You get somewhere and then you start doubting yourself, doubting, doubting… and then the ball is snapped and you don’t have a clue where you are. You can be very amateurish, if you will. All of a sudden, it starts to click again and you quit doubting yourself. Do well, and then all of a sudden, for whatever reason, you get there. So Danny, that’s what I think the offseason’s done for him.”

Jimmy Kempski tells us that Mudd also alluded to the Vandervelde-Reynolds backup center competition as the position battle he’s most looking forward too. I’m not sure if that’s positive or depressing. Final Mudd note: I discount every positive thing he says about Demetress Bell by half. There’s only one Jason Peters, and unfortunately he couldn’t keep his balance on a Roll-A-Bout.

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In other meta-reportage, Jimmy needs to stop wasting his time talking to guys like Keenan Clayton after practice. Clayton’s competing with Moise Fokou for the coveted “last linebacker cut” trophy. Then again, at least our favorite NFC bEast blogger didn’t get stiffed like ol’ timer Paul Domowitch.

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Rampant Tight End Speculation! The Eagles have now been linked to Visanthe Shiancoe and (gag) Jeremy Shockey. Raise your hand if you’re shocked that the Brett Brackett hype was purely media-driven. No one? Good.

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Andy Reid Weight Loss Watch. He totally walked home from practice, guys.

Throwing Cold Water on Dubious Roster Battles

Reuben Frank put out a list of the top ten roster battles heading into training camp. He hits on some of the biggest ones: Atogwe vs. Coleman, Rolle vs. Chaney, Hanson vs. Boykin. But he also lists a bunch of questionable ones:

  • Dion Lewis vs. Bryce Brown? I’m excited to see if Brown can make the transition to the NFL. He clearly has 5x the physical potential of Lewis. But I’m not really seeing the competition for backup running back. There’s just no way Brown is going to come in after sitting out nearly all of college and immediately pick up the complexity of the Eagles offense and the intricacies of pass blocking, other essential bits. Then again, don’t read this as an endorsement of Lewis, who seems like a poor backup to one of the best players on the roster.
  • Riley Cooper vs. Damaris Johnson? It’s unclear whether the Eagles will keep five or six wide receivers, but I don’t really see the big receivers competing against the smaller ones. Cooper and Marvin McNutt would serve similar roles on the roster, as would Johnson and Chad Hall. Those are the real one-on-one battles. Winners of each competition will be guaranteed a spot on the roster. After that, all they can do is hope the Eagles keep six guys.
  • Clay Harbor vs. Brett Brackett? With the Eagles using more two tight end sets, the question is really whether Brackett can play his way onto the roster — not whether he can beat out Harbor, a more experienced player and much better blocker.
  • Mike Kafka vs. Nick Foles? As with Lewis/Brown, this isn’t a ringing endorsement of Kafka. But Frank is the first person to suggest that Foles even has a shot to replace him in his rookie year.

Ahead of all of the above, I’d rate these battles: Demetress Bell vs. King Dunlap, Jaiquawn Jarrett vs. the Chopping Block, Derek Landri vs. Antonio Dixon vs. Cedric Thornton.

Small Fish in a Big Pond

Tommy Lawlor on UDFA Damaris Johnson:

Damaris is very quick and he has a good burst. He is able to gain initial separation. He just lacks the long speed you would ideally prefer. One thing I really like about him is that he plays fast. There is very little dancing and hesitation when Johnson gets the ball. That’s partly why he’s such a good KOR. He gets it and goes. That style of play actually makes him look faster than he is. One other thing about that…Johnson is able to make cuts at close to full speed. This is where his size is a benefit. He’s got good body control and is able to stop/start quickly and change directions on the move.

Damaris does look much faster on tape than his 40 time indicates — and he better be, considering his tiny stature. On a broader note, when was the last time the Eagles had so many potential contributors who were small in stature? I’m not sure anyone other than Barry Sanders did as much as Brian Westbrook at 5’8”, but this team has DeSean Jackson, Dion Lewis, and whoever emerges from the Johnson-Chad Hall roster battle. And that’s just on offense. Brian Rolle is one of the smallest linebackers in the NFL, and the slot corner competition is between two 5’9” players.

On LeSean McCoy's Workload

Jimmy Kempski has a post up that shows LeSean McCoy’s total snap count in 2011 — 894, which is the most of any running back, 50 more than Ray Rice and 100 more than Maurice Jones-Drew.

The data is interesting, but ultimately incomplete. After all, just because he was on the field more than other backs doesn’t mean he took a pounding on every one of those snaps. In fact, if you dig a little bit deeper, you see that despite McCoy’s vast lead in total plays, he was only seventh in total carries and fourth in total touches (rushing attempts plus receptions). Shady was on the field a lot, but his usage rate (percent of touches per total snaps) placed him 21st among the top 25 most used backs. He saw the ball 36 percent of all plays he was in, compared to 54.5 percent for Marshawn Lynch and 53.2 percent for Michael Turner.

Certainly every snap carries some amount of wear and tear, especially pass blocking. One could disagree with me on this, but I don’t think those other snaps hold a candle to the repeated and unforeseen hits a player takes with the ball in his hands. That said, I agree with Jimmy’s (and Andy Reid’s) overall point: they need to find a reliable backup who can spell Shady from time to time. This makes it puzzling that the Eagles would trust three inexperienced players to compete for the number two spot.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Running Back

Dion Lewis Eagles

What the Eagles did: The Eagles now have five running backs and three fullbacks on the roster, yet 23-year-old LeSean McCoy is the veteran of the group. The other seven have exactly 42 regular season snaps between them — and all of them from second-year running back Dion Lewis.

Let me just reiterate: that is a staggering level of inexperience. As of this moment, the Eagles still have two open roster spots, so adding a veteran like Joseph Addai or Justin Forsett is still possible. But so far it the front office has intimated that it is comfortable with a youth movement.

There’s no player behind McCoy that you can look at with confidence. Dion Lewis is the only one with NFL experience, and barely so. His kickoffs were a disaster and in limited playing time he showed some burst, but no indication he can take over full time in an emergency. Instead of giving their 5’7”, 2011 fifth-round pick some much needed veteran competition, the Eagles shopped at the discount store, picking up two high-profile rookies with promise as well as major reservations.

Paul Domowitch has a story today about seventh-rounder Bryce Brown’s college meanderings, and it can be summed up with one word: immaturity. Brown never had any legal problems, but he managed to quit on not one, but two football teams in three years. The physical tools on the 5’11”, 225 lb., sub-4.4 40 back are incredible, but he’s nothing more an interesting athlete without his mind in the right place.

The other guy fans are high on is Chris Polk, undrafted free agent out of Washington. Unlike Brown, Polk was tremendously productive in college, rushing for over 4,000 yards. However, his has a huge injury question mark. Despite a draft grade as high as the second round according to some experts, Polk was clearly taken off of all 32 teams boards. That’s not good.

As to fullback, Stanley Havili is the frontrunner, having rode the practice squad all 2012. The Eagles brought in two undrafted free agents to compete with Havili, Stanford fullback Jeremy Stewart and Massachusetts fullback/tight end/linebacker Emil Igwenagu.

What I would have done: The fliers on talented running backs are never a problem, per se. However, those players are like lottery tickets, great if you win but much more likely to end up discarded in the trash. There aren’t many exciting veterans available in free agency, but I would still try to grab one for insurance — at least until Lewis or one of the other backs look ready to step in for McCoy in a pinch. If I could do it all over I might have tried to nab Peyton Hillis as McCoy’s back up back in March. After a disastrous season last year, the multi-dimensional Hillis went to the Chiefs on a cheap deal.

I also would have tried to upgrade at fullback, but that’s a losing argument with this front office.

Way-too-early prediction: I’m not convinced the Eagles are sold on Lewis enough to make him the primary backup. The Ronnie Brown signing never worked, but that doesn’t mean the logic behind that deal doesn’t still apply. Addai or another back could still be in the cards.

Of the rest, Polk’s injury concerns must be worse than we know. Don’t expect anything more than injured reserve for him. There’s probably not a better candidate on the roster right now for training camp darling than Brown. Graig Cooper, an undrafted pick up last offseason, will compete but no one’s given any indication he’s more than a camp body. Havili will probably be the starting fullback and the Eagles will stash one of the others on the practice squad.

Photo from Getty.

Dion Lewis and the Eagles Kickoff Return Futility

Dion Lewis Eagles Kickoff Return

When you looked at the 2011 Eagles roster as a whole, it was plain that the team had enough overall talent to win more than eight games. But over and over again they demonstrated that they were less than the sum of their parts, failing at all the little parts of the game, like tackling and holding on to the ball.

Another one of these factors was kickoff returns. Dion Lewis, the rookie running back who didn’t return kicks in college, took nearly all of the Eagles returns. And he was (predictably) dreadful at it.

2011 Average Kickoff Returns

As you can see above, out of 47 players who returned at least 10 kickoffs, Lewis ranked 43rd. His 21.7 yards per return was 3.3 yards from the median, which cost the Eagles an extra 100 yards (over 30 returns) they surely could have used.

2011 Longest Kickoff Returns

Lewis’s longest kickoff return was a mere 33 yards, again 43rd in the NFL. Whatever vision or explosiveness or speed that an kick returner needs to break through for a big gain, he didn’t show it last year.

Note: Long returns do skew the average kick return results, obviously. In some ways that’s good — achieving that is part of what makes a good returner. However, a returner could be overall below average but have one big return that skews everything upward. For the record, taking out the top return does little to improve Lewis’s numbers relative to everyone else.

Eagles Kickoff ReturnersIt’s worth pointing out that this isn’t a problem solely related to the rookie from Pitt. Lewis is only the latest in a string of poor kick returners, who you can see at right. He was actually better than Jorrick Calvin. Quintin Demps, back in 2008, was the last above-average returner the Eagles employed. It would be nice to see the Eagles try to correct that in 2012, although I won’t be holding my breath.

Photo from Getty.

The Eagles Future at Fullback

Only five teams in the NFL gave fewer snaps to their fullbacks in 2011 than the Eagles. Owen Schmitt had almost no impact on the offense, registering only 173 snaps — almost half the snaps of fourth/fifth wide receiver Riley Cooper. That’s a sharp decline from 2010, when Schmitt took over for Leonard Weaver after the first game and played in 352 snaps.

Moreover, Schmitt’s contribution on the field was limited. He carried the ball four times, ran passing routes 73 times, and pass blocked 25 times — all tasks that could have been better performed by other players. Even his 71 run blocking attempts, just over 4 per game, were at best at replacement level.

Overall, Schmitt is entirely expendable. Either through free agency or the draft, it wouldn’t be difficult to upgrade the fullback position.

However, the Eagles have long been uninterested in investing even moderate resources at fullback. Leonard Weaver was an exception, but he was also a great change-of-pace running threat. Without him, the Andy Reid has reverted back to ignoring the position. And even more so this year, as he often utilized two tight end formations with Clay Harbor instead of employing Schmitt.

The question is what to do going forward. I have no interest in retaining Schmitt or another player of his caliber. It’s a wasted roster spot that provides special teams snaps and poor offensive return.

Instead, I’d like to see the Eagles turn their diminished use of the fullback spot into an asset, by converting the position into something worthwile. How so? I can think of two ways.

The first would be to find a new version of Weaver, the RB-FB hybrid. Dion Lewis looked like he may be capable of holding down LeSean McCoy’s back up spot next year. However, his running style isn’t exactly bruising. If the Eagles signed someone like the Chiefs Le’Ron McClain, he could fill that dual role of FB-RB, and potentially free up a roster spot somewhere else. Stanley Havili — anyone remember him? — had a redshirt year on the Eagles practice squad. A draft option (taken as the most speculative of recommendations) might be Baylor RB Terrance Ganaway, who happens to be the Jeremiah Trotter’s nephew.

The second option would be to look for a more versatile H-Back. Harbor is already filling this hybrid role somewhat for the Eagles, although he’s more likely to line up as a wide receiver than as a fullback. With the offense going to more and more two tight end sets, it would be nice to keep a third guy on the roster. Having him do double duty as a part-time fullback could be a great way to get value out of the roster spot. National Football Post’s Wes Bunting projects Evan Rodriguez, tight end for Temple, as a late-round H-Back option.

The point is that keeping things as they are wastes a roster spot on a replacement-level player who is outclassed at basically every function he’s asked to perform. Even Schmitt’s role in the run game is being eclipsed. Why not try something new?

Photo from Getty.

Time to Cage LeSean McCoy

LeSean McCoy

A month ago I wrote that the Eagles needed to unleash LeSean McCoy. Amazingly, over the two games that followed, Andy Reid did just that.

Reid and Marty Mornhinweg let McCoy carry the ball 58 times in weeks six and eight. He rewarded them with 311 rushing yards, three touchdowns, and — most important — two victories. None of that was meant to last, of course.

In the last two weeks McCoy has only seen the ball 30 times total, a reversion to the subpar. And, surprise, the Eagles lost both games.

The logical answer would be to again exhort Reid to put the game on McCoy’s shoulders. He still provides the Eagles with the best chance to win and, after all, it worked the first time.

But sitting at 3-6 with seven games left, the Eagles don’t need wins any more. There’s nothing left to win. The 2011 season is already over.

Instead of giving the ball to McCoy, I suggest the Eagles coaches continue to do what they do best: protect their running back by absurdly limiting his carries. With a contract extension, McCoy hopefully will be a centerpiece of the Eagles offense for at least the next five years. His talents will be important to reviving the team’s hopes in 2012.

So why risk serious injury over these last few meaningless contests? Let Dion Lewis carry the ball and gain experience. See if he can be an adequate back up going forward. And, while you’re at it, don’t worry about rushing Michael Vick back from his broken ribs. Vick needs to iron out his accuracy issues, but maybe some rest on the bench would do him some good.

There are some other positions where it would be nice to rest a player or give a younger guy a shot during this extended 2012 preseason tryout. Brandon Graham could use more action, and Curtis Marsh should get a chance to prove he was worth a third round pick.

But there’s no one I want bubble-wrapped more than McCoy, and the Eagles coaches have been plenty willing to protect him when the games counted. It would be a shame to change course and wear him out now, to no positive end.

Photo from Getty.

How Many Roster Battles Remain for the Birds?

With the Eagles breaking camp on Tuesday, the countdown begins in earnest to the start of the season. I was going to take this opportunity to take stock of the latest depth chart battles. However, glancing over the Eagles roster today, I don’t see many competitions left, and those that remain are for the final few spots.

Let’s run through the positions.

Quarterback: The namesakes have departed, leaving Vick, Young, And Kafka. No drama here.

Running Back: Owen Schmitt has gotten no real competition for the lone fullback spot. Supposedly there’s a competition underway for the 3rd RB, but I’d be surprised if fifth round pick Dion Lewis didn’t win that job.

Tight End: Anyone who tells you Green Bay castoff Donald Lee is going to make the team, barring unforeseen injury, is crazy.

Wide Receiver: If Steve Smith really comes off the PUP list before the season starts, Chad Hall is the only guy the team might stretch to keep.

Offensive Line: Lots of dead weight here I wouldn’t mind showing the door. McGlynn and either Austin Howard or King Dunlap will be gone, along with the rest of the camp bodies.

Defensive Line: The tackles are a mess due to injuries, but at the end of the day it comes down to Laws or Hargrove. Defensive end is just a matter of keeping CFL star Philip Hunt or not.

Linebackers: I actually still think a veteran backup middle linebacker makes sense here. Both Greg Lloyd and Brian Rolle can probably be stashed on the practice squad.

Cornerback: If the Eagles still have high hopes for both Hughes and Lindley, they will find a suitor for Hanson.

Safety: Allen, Coleman, Jarrett compete for starting jobs. Colt Anderson makes the team as special teams maven.

Special Teams: Hope you like rookies.

The Eagles free agent binge has filled in a lot of spots we thought might have been contested. There will probably be a good deal of talk about the final roster, but about 90% of it already looks complete.

Questioning the Eagles Draft Strategy

DeSean Jackson Eagles Draft Strategy

Over the years, the Eagles have often been lauded for their overall draft strategy of trading back and picking up lots of extra draft picks. Unlike a lot of teams that put all of their eggs in a few baskets, the Eagles understand that the draft is just a giant gamble, and the more times you play the more likely you are to win.

Rubeun Frank over at CSN Philly is the most recent to praise this style of drafting. He noted that (after four trades) Howie Roseman turned a second round pick from last year into six players: Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, Mike Kafka, Clay Harbor, Ricky Sapp, Riley Cooper and Dion Lewis. That’s certainly impressive considering the team could have had only one player and instead were able to draft six. But, to play devil’s advocate for a minute, might that have been the wrong move?

It’s too early too tell for sure, but right now none of those six players look like starters, at least yet. Te’o-Nesheim barely got on the field, Kafka was mostly inactive, Harbor got some minutes but only as back up, Sapp missed the year with a knee injury, Cooper is fourth-string, and Lewis was just drafted. That’s six players who might contribute down the road, but none of them look like potential stars, or even starters this coming season. It’s tough to isolate even one of them who’s sure to be a big contributor with the team.

Instead, the team could have picked a second round player, like Dallas did in the spot the Eagles traded out of last year, number 55 overall: linebacker Sean Lee. Obviously, Lee isn’t a guaranteed long-term starter, let alone star, but he showed more potential last season in limited play than any of the six players the Eagles received in return. Lee was named NFC defensive player of the week for his performance in week 13 against the Colts, in which he made nine tackles, broke up two passes, and made two key interceptions — including one that he returned for a touchdown. Again, the future is still murky for all of these players. But, while you might disagree with me, I hesitate to name a single player of those six the Eagles drafted who has the potential to be as good as Lee.

NFL Draft Picks by Round, 2008-2011 Philadelphia EaglesThe truth about the Eagles draft strategy is that it amasses lots of extra draft picks, but most of these picks come in the later rounds when many of the players won’t even make the team long term. Look at the table at right. Yes, over the last four drafts the Eagles have made 10 more selections than the average team — but all them came in the second half of the draft. In fact, despite their numerous picks, the team has actually drafted fewer players in the first three rounds than average.

Sure, there are tradeoffs involved either way. But would you rather make 11 early picks and 31 late-round selections like the Eagles did, or go the Patriots route — 19 picks in 1st-3rd rounds and 18 after that? Look at the rising stars on the team, and consider where they were drafted: Jeremy Maclin (1st round), DeSean Jackson (2nd), LeSean McCoy (2nd), Nate Allen (2nd), Brandon Graham (1st).

The Eagles give themselves a lot of chances to succeed by gathering draft picks the way a kid runs house to house for candy on Halloween. But at the end of the night the danger is that they end up with lots of raisin boxes and mysterious hard candies rather than one or two big Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or Snickers bars that they really crave.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.