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.

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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.

My 2012 Eagles Draft Predictions

Danny Watkins Eagles NFL Draft

Last year at this time I made eight predictions about what the Eagles would do in the draft. Some of them were more conservative than others, and I missed on one of my biggest guesses — saying that the team wouldn’t draft at their assigned first round spot. Still, I managed to get six of eight correct, and predicted the general thrust of the draft rather well (linebacker and offensive line, not defensive line).

So I’m back again for another round of likely folly. Here are my predictions for what we will see over the next few days.

  1. Carpet-bombing the defense: early and often. Big picture: all the talented young players are on offense. You can quibble with this if you want, since there’s no reason to give up already on guys like Brandon Graham or Nate Allen. Still, the defense needs more playmakers going forward, and the only way to do that is to spend at least three out of the Eagles first four picks on defensive players. I expect the team to come out of the draft with as many as half their picks going toward the front seven.

  2. No rookie running back, no safety. Unless the Eagles fall in love with one prospect, I just don’t see much benefit in adding another young running back or safety. Both positions have a single open back up job and that spot really needs to be filled with a veteran whose only responsibility is to fill in this year if something goes wrong. Instead, watch out for an Ellis Hobbs-type trade for a marginalized veteran player.

  3. One offensive lineman, maximum. Last year the Eagles snatched up three interior linemen to build out Howard Mudd’s new blocking scheme. If not for Jason Peters’s injury, I’m not sure they would have bothered drafting even one this year, but a long term project at tackle now makes sense.

  4. Chad Hall 2.0. Andy Reid loves the multidimensional ability that Hall brings to the offense so much that he’s willing to overlook his complete lack of NFL-caliber skills. I think the Eagles will draft someone like Florida’s Chris Rainey to return kicks and serve as a speedier x-factor on offense. Best case scenario, the team also gets its long-term replacement for Jason Avant with this guy.

  5. Choir boys. Howie Roseman made some comments to reporters recently in which he seemed to flirt with the idea of taking more character risks. His actions over the last two drafts say otherwise. I expect the Eagles’ fascination with captains, seniors, and consistent, big-school performers to continue (e.g. no Vontaze Burfict).

  6. Michael Vick is still safe. With few good quarterback options in this draft and the whole organization focused on getting Vick back on track in 2012, there’s no good case to reach for a quarterback of the future. Trent Edwards is tremendously uninspiring, but his competition is likely to be either a late round flier (Russell Wilson, Kellen Moore) or a veteran to be pursued later.

  7. Surprise neglect of cornerback early on. With Asante Samuel gone, there’s plenty of room to go after Dre Kirkpartrick or another cover guy in the first round. But of the Eagles defensive spots, cornerback still has the most options. The team is heavily committed to Nnamdi Asomugha over the next few years and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a likely candidate for a contract extension. Curtis Marsh is the wildcard. He made no impact in 2011, but was always considered a project with all the skills. Todd Bowles may not need another youngster.

  8. At least ten rookies. Last year one of my failed predictions was that the Eagles wouldn’t use all of their picks. But of course, they love drafting players and will probably end up trading back to add picks at least once.

I’m not making a prediction for the first round, although I already laid out what I think the Eagles are thinking (Peter King shoutout). Fletcher Cox is the potential trade-up candidate, Luke Kuechly the likely front-runner if they stay at 15 overall. Barring that I’m less sure, although a versatile pass rusher like Melvin Ingram makes the most sense of the remaining players.

Photo from Getty.

Examining Punter Chas Henry’s Rookie Start

Chas Henry Eagles Punter

It’s common knowledge that the transition from David Akers to Alex Henery hasn’t gone smoothly. After all, Henery’s two missed field goals against San Francisco were a big reason for that loss.

But much less ink has been shed over the change at punter, where Chas Henry replaced veteran Sav Rocca. Back in August I crunched the numbers on Rocca and the rest of the punters in the NFL in 2011, going beyond simple net punting averages to factor in situational field position.

That study showed that Rocca wasn’t elite, but he placed above average among his peers in almost every category. Using the same parameters as last time (please read that one for an explanation), I scored Henry’s punts through his first six games.

Chas Henry 2011 Punting Stats Weeks 1 to 6 At right you can see all of Henry’s punts, with punt distance, return yardage (including touch backs), and the difference between the actual and optimal results. It’s a small sample, but we can start to draw conclusions.

For starters, although this isn’t shown in the table, 16 punts is an exceptionally low number. The Eagles offense has actually punted fewer times than any other team in the league. Leading the NFL in turnovers helps with that.

Second, Henry’s punts have not had the distance of a league average punter. Among players with at least 10 punts, Henery is 27th with a 41.8 yard raw average. That has been his biggest problem so far. Despite allowing fewer big returns, Henry’s average difference from optimal is almost exactly the same as a rookie punter from last season: the Giants’ infamous Matt Dodge, who ranked 33rd among punters.

There is some cause for optimism, however, if you are inclined to grant Henry the benefit of the doubt on his very first NFL start. Of his five worst punts this year, three came in that first game. Since then, Henry hasn’t been good (or even average), but his -8.8 yard difference from optimal would put him closer to 20th in the league.

Hopefully Henry can continue to improve, before he becomes a liability like his fellow rookie specialist.

Photo from Getty

The Pessimist’s Guide to the 2011 Eagles

At the start of every season there is a split between the optimist and the pessimist Eagles fans. Some are asking about Super Bowl tickets and others are nursing another drink. Today’s post is for the worriers and the cynics. If you’re going to complain, at least do it right. Here’s what to be unhappy about:

  • Have the Eagles not learned the lesson of their division rival, the Washington Redskins? When was the last time a team bought its way to a Super Bowl? Sure, it’s great that the team is willing to spend. But a few free agent additions on the wrong side of 30 won’t be enough to get the Eagles over the hump.

  • Nor is it clear that these newcomers will fit in well. The addition of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie look good on paper, but they’ve also alienated one of the Eagles leaders, Asante Samuel. That situation isn’t destined to end well. Jason Babin was here just a short while ago and couldn’t buy playing time. Are we sure that the longtime bust has finally turned a corner, or might he just have had one lucky season? And Vince Young? Whatever talent he has doesn’t make up for the boneheaded “Dream Team” comment.

  • Even worse, how can the front office spend so much money and still have no reasonable answer at middle linebacker or on the interior offensive line? The cornerback and defensive ends holes may have been plugged, but the team has let new leaks spring up without even a back up plan. Starting three “overwhelmed” rookies isn’t a sound strategy for a team that supposedly wants to compete for a Super Bowl. Oh, not to forget the rookies at kicker and punter. Nothing could possibly go wrong there (see Dodge, Matt).

  • If you don’t find fault in the players, what about the coaching? New defensive coordinator Juan Castillo is ill-prepared for his job and may be substituting a willingness to headbutt helmeted players for any actual aptitude. Meanwhile, his replacement Howard Mudd has torn up the only parts of the offensive line that worked last year and wants to rush the wrong players headlong into a new scheme that doesn’t fit them. It’s never a good sign when your coach is starting inexperienced linemen (Kelce) over better veterans (Jackson). Isn’t the goal to keep Michael Vick healthy?

  • Speaking of Vick, is anyone really sure that the offense can be as explosive as it was in 2010? Teams have now had a full offseason in which they had little else to do but scheme to stop Vick, and the end of last year gave a few clues. With DeSean Jackson unhappy about his contract and Jeremy Maclin recovering from his cancer scare, things aren’t exactly settled on offense.

There you have it, your 2011 hater’s guide. Use it in good health.

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.

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.

The 5 Eagles Most Likely to Lose Their Jobs

Jamaal Jackson Philadelphia Eagles 2011 Veterans

With the influx of yet another large class of incoming rookies from the NFL draft, current Eagles have to be worried. Each year more veterans lose their jobs as the team turns to younger and cheaper replacements. Here are the five veterans hurt most by the 2011 class of rookies:

David Akers — Might as well start with the obvious. Akers’s time with the Eagles is at an end. Truthfully, we all should have seen the writing on the wall. Akers’s kickoffs were only average, and his field goal kicking has actually declined relative to the rest of the league. His refusal to sign the transition tag was only the final straw, and the Eagles will have to hope that rookie Alex Henery can give them better results.

Quintin Mikell — About a month ago I made the case for re-signing Quintin Mikell. I still think it would be beneficial for the Eagles to do so, but the draft only made it more clear how remote that possibility is for the team. Even after the promising play of two rookies in 2010 (Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman), the front office added another young safety to the mix — second round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett. Presumably the plan is to let those players compete for the starting job in 2011 and beyond, with no more room for aging veterans.

Jamaal Jackson — What was the biggest lesson from the 2011 draft? That new offensive line coach Howard Mudd is ready to blow up the interior of the Eagles o-line and institute a whole new philosophy. Under his guidance the team drafted three interior linemen: guards Danny Watkins and Julian Vandervelde, and center Jason Kelce. All three are smaller than the massive converted tackles the Eagles consistently brought in under Juan Castillo. This new focus on agility rather than bulk makes Jackson (as well as Max Jean-Gilles) the odd man out. In returning from two season-ending injuries and soon-to-be 31 years old, Jackson was already facing an uphill battle. Having to fend off challenges from Kelce, McGlynn, and A.Q. Shipley while learning Mudd’s new technique may be too much for Jackson to overcome.

Leonard Weaver — Many experts already questioned whether Weaver would be able to return from the severe ACL tear he suffered in game one of the 2010 season. Now that the Eagles have drafted another fullback, USC’s Stanley Havili, to compete with last year’s replacement Owen Schmitt, it seems obvious that they don’t expect Weaver to come back. Factor in that Weaver is owed $2.6 million next year — five times as much as Schmitt — and you see the problem.

Stewart Bradley — An emerging star in 2008, Bradley was next in line for a big contract extension before he blew out his knee in the 2009 Eagles Flight Night practice. He hasn’t showed that same talent since, and missed the final three games of last season due to injury. I think the Eagles want Bradley back in 2011, but there’s a lot of younger competition now. Moise Fokou, Jamar Chaney, Keenan Clayton from the last two drafts. Casey Matthews, Brian Rolle, and Greg Lloyd this year. That’s an entire linebacker corps in three drafts. Even if the team resigns Bradley for 2011, are they willing to commit to him long term at the expense of the growth of other players? I’m starting to think not.

Care to disagree? Or just think I’m always right? All responses welcome in the comments.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.