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.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Linebacker

Linebackers Eagles

What the Eagles did: I’m not sure I’ve seen a worse group of NFL linebackers than the ones the Eagles employed last year. The position was an incompetent game of musical chairs. If the defense has any hope of rebounding from that, they’ll have to get a major upgrade from their two newcomers.

DeMeco Ryans comes to the middle of the defense with lots of hype. He was a two-time Pro Bowler in a 4-3 defense in Houston, and will certainly be a huge upgrade. Simply having an experienced veteran leader and sure tackler in the middle will boost the Eagles defense significantly. The question of whether he can return to his elite pre-injury self does remain, though.

The second newcomer upon whom much relies is second round pick Mychal Kendricks. The former Cal star has already been slotted in at the strongside linebacker spot, and so far in minicamps the reports have been nothing but positive. There’s a definite danger in projecting Kendricks to start as a rookie, as Eagles fans know all too well. Still, his pedigree is significantly higher than Casey Matthews — and any other current linebacker on the squad not named Ryans.

After that, all we have is a host of unreliable youngsters — the same players who played so poorly last season. As long as the two newcomers work out, this won’t be too much of a problem. Surely one of the bunch can be adequate enough in the weakside job.

The frontrunner for that spot seems to be Jamar Chaney, a player the Eagles coaches must love, because he’s shown next to nothing on the field. Chaney has the athleticism to be a great linebacker, but he’s a poor tackler and worse at finding the ball-carrier in the first place. A strong coach might be able to get something out of him, but Mike Caldwell and Juan Castillo probably aren’t the men for that job.

Brian Rolle is the opposite of Chaney, smaller but smarter and a better tackler to boot. He held the weakside job last year and was the most consistent of any of the young players. Still, I don’t know that many people would hold Rolle’s overall performance in particularly high esteem. He didn’t embarrass himself, as some of the others did, but judging from his frame and rookie play, Rolle’s ceiling is not particularly high. In the long run, he would be best suited for a backup and special teams role.

Next comes Casey Matthews, who was unfairly thrown into the fire at middle linebacker last year. To my eyes, though, his play improved when he returned later in the season, and reports this year say he put on significant weight, from 230 lb. up to the 250 lb. range. That raises questions about whether he has become too big to compete on the weakside, although getting the best three linebackers on the field should always be the priority. Matthews, despite his disastrous rookie season, seems to have the most upside between him, Rolle, and Chaney.

Finally, there’s Keenan Clayton, Moise Fokou, and Akeem Jordan. Clayton, the LB-safety tweener, has shown nothing in two years that justifies keeping him around (plus he just had sports hernia surgery). Fokou played so poorly last year that he took only seven defensive snaps after week nine and none after week twelve. Jordan filled in at strongside linebacker in his place, proving that he could at least be an adequate stopgap. His best play comes out on special teams, though, as the latest Football Outsiders report details.

What I would have done: On paper, if everything goes right, this linebacker corps can be solid. The problem is, everything doesn’t always go as planned. With some luck, Kendricks will grab hold of the strongside job and prove his worth. But it’s just as likely the rookie will need time to adjust to the faster professional game. And while Ryans has all the talent, he’ll need to prove he can rebound from last season’s down year with the Texans. If anything goes wrong with either or both of the Eagles newcomers, you’re immediately back to where you were in 2011.

With that in mind, I would have been more aggressive in trying to add one or two more potential veterans and backups. Someone like Dan Connor would have made a nice Plan B, or even a lesser free agent. Chaney, Matthews, and Rolle should have to fight to make ther roster, let alone the starting 11.

Way-too-early prediction: I think Clayton gets cut, barring some miraculous display of talent we have so far missed. The fact that he barely found the field last year was not a good sign. Fokou’s fall from grace doesn’t bode well for him either. Greg Lloyd, the middle linebacker prospect drafted in the seventh round last year, and the other camp bodies are at best practice squad fodder. Unless one of the other guys can show their worth there, Jordan could retain his roster spot based solely on his special team play.

As to the rest, I’m optimistic but realistic about both newcomers. I don’t expect either to set the world on fire, just hopefully be above average. The trio of Rolle, Chaney, and Matthews will be where the competition lies during training camp. I’m anxious to see which, if any, can prove their worth.

Photo from Getty.

Wishing for a Plan B at Middle Linebacker

One of the most frustrating aspects of playing sports video games is process of allocating a certain arbitrary number of “skill points” to the entire team. 10 points to the offensive line. 10 to the wide receivers. 15 to the quarterbacks. 5 to the kicker?

The process is about as harrowing as fake team management can get. There are always just too few points to make the choices easy. Do I go short at wide receiver or running back? Safety or linebacker?

Of course, the truth is that this process is consistent, on a much simpler scale, with what real front offices have to deal with. No matter how much room under the salary cap you have to sign All Stars, you’ll never sign one to every position. You’ll always have to make compromises.

With that said, I still think there’s ample room to criticize Eagles management for their consistent neglect of one rotating position on the roster. Last year it was either right guard or right cornerback. In years prior we had punt returner, back up tight end, fullback. Where generally you would allot at least a modicum of points to a position, there’s always one spot it seems that the Eagles leave barren.

But let’s stop a moment here and go over all the ways you can fill a potential hole in your roster. Signing a Pro Bowler long term is probably the most consistent and most expensive path, and the Eagles have done plenty of that over the years. You could also grab a veteran starter on a short term deal or through a trade, a tactic the team has consistently employed with linebackers. The Nate Allen/Danny Watkins route means drafting a talented rookie and giving him every chance to win the job over the veteran insurance policy (Marlin Jackson/Evan Mathis). Perhaps you give the same chance to a lower round rookie like Jason Kelce, but having an alternate veteran starter in place already is more important.

The Eagles chose none of these normal options last season with regard to right guard and right cornerback. Who was surprised when injured Stacy Andrews and perennial back ups Nick Cole and Max Jean-Gilles couldn’t get the job done? Or when Ellis Hobbs, mediocre on his own, went down for the year and Dimitri Patterson proved woefully unprepared to take over?

And yet I look at the linebackers for this coming season and I see a unit that could blow up faster than either of last year’s problem spots. Even if you trust the supposed soon-to-be Pro Bowler Jamar Chaney and the consistently underwhelming Moise Fokou, how can you justify slotting in undersized, unprepared fourth round pick Casey Matthews at starting middle linebacker? Given how unlikely it is that he’ll succeed immediately, I’m surprised that there seems to be no back up plan. Akeem Jordan is a lesser version of Ike Reese. Maybe Jamar Chaney could slide over, but that just opens up another hole where similarly unproven players like Keenan Clayton would have to contribute.

I could at least see some logic in 2010 at guard. Throwing some veterans against the wall and hoping one sticks is a plan, albeit a weak one. But now at middle linebacker you have one mid-round rookie and basically nothing else.

The Eagles are a remarkably smart organization and I’m sympathetic to the herculean task of assembling a team that’s good at every position. But there’s a difference between having a couple of question marks (like the injury problems at right tackle) and announcing that you’ll be completely ignoring one of the holes in Whac-A-Mole. Problems are almost guaranteed to pop up. Why are there no contingencies in place?

Photo from Getty.

Eagles Draft Night: Playing the Predictions Game

Roger Goodell NFL Draft Eagles Predictions

Let me preface this post with a reference to last year, when I predicted that the Eagles would trade back out of the first round. Turned out the Eagles did the exact opposite and traded up 11 spots to grab defensive end Brandon Graham. Howie Roseman, Andy Reid, and the rest of the Eagles front office are pretty unpredictable. So why try? Because it’s fun.

Tonight the draft will kickoff with the first round in prime time. Before you sit down to watch, check out my predictions and sound off if you have other opinions:

  • The Eagles will not take Jimmy Smith. Despite his talent, Smith has a whole host of behavior issues. “Two abortions, aggravated assault, two minors in possession, three failed drug tests… that’s a little excessive,” an anonymous NFL personnel man told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The Eagles have never drafted a player with that much criminal history. Yes, they took a chance on Michael Vick, but only after weeks of due diligence and a very low-risk contract. I don’t see the front office taking that chance with their number one pick. Plus, I think if the team were interested in Smith, they wouldn’t have let all these rumors stand about him being their top interest. The media have largely anointed him as the Eagles pick, and I think the team is content to let that smokescreen stand.
  • But the Eagles will take a top cornerback in the top few rounds. I have my eye on the second round crop, where the team could draft a player of similar caliber to Nate Allen, who they snatched with the 37th overall pick last year. Virgina’s Ras-I Dowling sticks out as a possibility. Lots of talent, senior year lost to injury — he’s tailor-made for the Eagles.
  • The Eagles won’t pick at 23rd overall. They haven’t gone with their assigned spot since 2006, which not coincidentally was their highest pick in a long time. With the Eagles consistently drafting in the latter half of the first round  (26, 19,  21, 24 over the last four years), it makes sense to either move up to snatch a truly valued player (Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Graham) or drop back into the second round and get similarly value at a lower price (Kevin Kolb, DeSean Jackson).
  • At least two more linebackers in this year’s draft plans, after the team snatched Keenan Clayton and Jamar Chaney in 2010. As I wrote about last week, there are only three linebackers who will definitely be around in 2011 — Clayton, Chaney, and Moise Fokou. Even if you assume Stewart Bradley returns, that’s just four players for six or seven spots.
  • Less than 10 rookies. After taking 13 players last year and seeing three of those never take a single snap in 2010, the Eagles won’t use all of their selections this year. Some of those picks will be packaged to move up in this draft or get future picks in 2012.
  • No quarterback. Sorry conspiracy theorists, it just doesn’t make sense for the Eagles to add another quarterback this year with Mike Kafka in place as a back up and plenty of veterans on the market. Plus, drafting another quarterback before trading Kevin Kolb takes away some of that leverage the Eagles have by arguing that they could just keep him.
  • Correll Buckhalter 2.0. With Brian Westbrook admirably replaced by LeSean McCoy, the Eagles need a running back who they can develop to be the long term back up. Neither Jerome Harrison nor Eldra Buckley is that guy, but mid round prospects like Hawaii’s Alex Green, Cal’s Shane Vereen, Oklahoma’s DeMarco Murray, or Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter could be.
  • Ignoring the defensive line? After heavily targeting pass rushers in last year’s draft, the Eagles have a glut of young players along the defensive line. Outside of Trent Cole, none of them really stand out (especially with Graham’s ACL injury). But you can’t address every weakness and if the Eagles don’t add a top d-lineman early, I could see them passing entirely in favor of additions along the offensive line and elsewhere.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

2011 Eagles Offseason Guide: Linebacker

Stewart Bradley Philadelphia Eagles Linebackers 2011

This is the seventh in a series of posts breaking down the Eagles position by position in advance of the upcoming draft and (hopefully) free agency. We’ve already looked at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, and defensive line. Today we’ll examine the linebackers.

2010 Recap: Stewart Bradley returned to middle linebacker after missing all of 2009 with a knee injury, but didn’t display the same explosive form he showed in the NFC Championship Game run in 2008. Pro Football Focus grades showed that he improved as the year went on, but Bradley hurt his elbow in week 14 and missed the rest of the year. New addition Ernie Sims was highly touted after the Eagles traded a fifth round pick for the former Lion, but had more of an impact hitting his teammates too hard in practice than he ever had in a game. Moise Fokou took over for Akeem Jordan at strongside linebacker and did alright. He certainly wasn’t anything special, but there weren’t many problems either. The brightest spot was seventh round pick Jamar Chaney, who started in place of Bradley over the last few games and performed better than anyone expected. Jordan, Omar Gaither, and fourth round pick Keenan Clayton mostly contributed on special teams.

Who’s Leaving: The team declined to offer restricted free agent tenders to Sims, Gaither, or Jordan, signalling that they don’t want any of them back. Bradley, who has four years of experience, was tendered at the second-round level, meaning any team who wanted to sign him under the current rules would have to send the Eagles a pick in that round. Presumably Bradley will be back in midnight green next season. He deserves a shot to show he can improve in year two after his ACL tear.

2011 Depth Chart: The likely starters are Fokou at strongside, Bradley in the middle, and Chaney on the weak side. Clayton would need a big jump in year two to win a job over one of the other three. That leaves two or three more back up spots, which will likely be filled in the draft of free agency. The team already signed one competitor, Rashad Jeanty, a veteran back up and special teams player with the Bengals in 2009 before a fractured tibula caused him to miss all of last season.

Potential Additions: Eagles have never drafted a linebacker higher than the second round in the Andy Reid era, and both of those picks were busts. Furthermore, the team has only drafted one linebacker as high as the fourth round since 2007, despite constant turnover at the position. Thus, unless new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo has a completely opposite philosophy from his predecessors, I don’t expect the Eagles to draft any highly-ranked linebackers. They will likely draft one or two more in the mid-to-late rounds, along with a free agent or two who can give at least token competition to the starters.

Future Outlook: The Eagles don’t have any old linebackers. That means there’s a lot of potential, but not much guaranteed. Maybe Chaney, Fokou, and Clayton are the future of the Eagles linebacker corps, or maybe none of them have the talent to make it long term. Bradley’s been around for four seasons and is still a question mark. Most likely, until the front office changes priorities and chooses to focus more resources (money, high draft picks) on the position, it will remain a question mark every year.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

Quick Hit Analysis of Eagles' 2nd Preseason Game

How does the saying go: “The more things change, the more things look like the 2009 Eagles?” Something like that.

Last Friday night’s preseason debacle against the Cincinnati Bengals featured all of the troubles of last season, revisited upon these new-look Eagles: defensive front that can’t get pressure, offensive line with major protection issues, overmatched secondary, scrambling quarterback, failure to convert on third-and-short. Even special teams ineptitude.

Let’s take a closer look at my notes from the game…