Almost there: Philadelphia Eagles training camp preview

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We’re almost there. Rookies report to Philadelphia Eagles training camp today, and the rest of the team will join the newbies at the end of the week.

With a new coaching staff and new philosophies, intense scrutiny is on this year’s training camp. Not just who will make the cut, but how is Chip Kelly seeking to utilize his players?

To help examine some of the most pressing questions entering camp, Brandon Pemberton of Sports Trap Radio visits Philly Sports Muse with a training camp preview.

The Chip Kelly era as Philadelphia Eagles head coach officially starts when rookies report for camp on Monday, July 22.  He is taking over a 4-12 team, who quit on the coach last year, the talent was overvalued, and was a flat out disgrace. Their are plenty of questions and unknowns going into training camp and the 2013 season. Everyone is wondering what style of offense the Eagles will run under Kelly, who will win the quarterback battle, and how much better can the defense be with the switch the the 3-4? I will give you my outlook and opinion on each position, on both sides of the field.

Offense

Quarterback: Chip Kelly brought Vick back, a move that I seriously questioned, but obviously he like other coaches before him, he’s intrigued with Vick’s physical talents. I’ve already seen enough of Vick over the last 2 seasons, and I already know what he is. He turns the ball over too much, holds the ball too long, and doesn’t see the blitz via pre-snap reads. The Eagles offensive line dealt with injuries last season, and was scrutinized while Vick was under center, but when Foles took over the complaints stopped.

Nick Foles started six games for the Eagles and played in seven overall, and had some good moments while playing. He was accurate, especially in the short, quick passing game. When I went back and watched the coaches tape, Foles showed an understanding of the offense, protection schemes, blitzes, and hot reads. He got the ball out of his hands quickly and to the right WR, switched protection pre-play, and uses audibles to a better play to beat the defense. He didn’t complete passes down field with great accuracy, on passes thrown 21-30 yards, he completed 3 of 16 for 18%. I compared those numbers to RGIII, who completed 11-18 for 61% 306 yards 3 TD’s and a passer rating of 144.7. I really think Foles in his second year in the league, has a legit shot at winning this job.

Matt Barkley went from a possible top ten pick in the 2012 draft to dropping to the 4th round and being selected by the Eagles. Barkley is smart, made good decisions with the football, his a arm good enough to make all the throws, and has experience in playing in a pro style offense while at USC. If this is a true QB competition as Kelly has said, don’t be surprised if Barkley puts himself in the mix for the starting job.

Running Back: Obviously Shady McCoy is the man, and I expect him to have a big time season this year. The one thing I do know from watching Oregon play, the running backs are setup to succeed. The blocking schemes they used in college will be much different as the Eagles hired Alabama offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, where they ran a pro style offense. When McCoy went down with the concussion, Bryce Brown stepped in and had back to back 100 yard games, showing the potential that everyone seen when he was ranked the #1 running back prospect coming out of high school. The Eagles also added the talented, but often injured Felix Jones. He is a legit home run threat, can help in the return game, and has good hands as a receiver out of the backfield but can he stay healthy enough to make the team? Chris Polk is in his 2nd year with the team and had a good preseason in 2012, but didn’t factor in during the season. Matthew Tucker, a undrafted free agent from TCU is also on the training camp roster.

Tight End/H-Back/Fullback: Look at how the Patriots used the tight end combo of Gronk and Hernandez after they went and studied Kelly’s passing offense and now envision the same for Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, and James Casey. Zach Ertz is big, strong, fast, runs great routes and has great hands. He is a mismatch for linebackers and safeties. While I think Celek’s body is damn near finished, he’s been banged up plenty over the last two seasons, he if healthy could flourish in this system as well. James Casey is an do it all type of player, the Texans lined him up all over last season. He can block inline, at fullback, line up in the slot, play H-back and traditional tight end. Clay Harbor will be fighting for his NFL life and at Fullback,  Emil Igwenagu is currently the only one on the roster at the time.

Wide Receiver: Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson haven’t had one of those 80-90 catch, 1200-1300 yard, 10 TD+ seasons, but in this offense, one of them could, and I think Maclin is that guy. Chip Kelly is a coach who will spread the field out to exploit mismatches, loves speed, and uses the strengths of his players. Maclin could shine in the Eagles quick passing game and also be able to make plays downfield via play action as I expect the Eagles to run the ball plenty. DeSean Jackson should get the ball more often, in non conventional ways: Screens, Reverses, trick plays, and I expect him to be used on punt returns again.

Jason Avant, Arrelious Benn, and the little known Greg Salas will fight for the slot position. I personally have seen enough of Avant and think his time is up, but he’s a vet and will come to play. I also believe this is a make or break camp for Riley Cooper as well, its time for him to show up and prove that he has value as WR and not just on special teams. B.J. Cunningham a 2nd year player from Michigan St, was a player I liked in the 2012 draft and is on the roster. LSU WR/KR/RB Russell Shepard has a legit chance to make this roster with his versatility, speed, and athleticism.

Offensive Line: Jason Peters is returning to the field after not one, but two surgeries on his Achilles tendon. Before the injury he was the best left tackle in football and anchored a offensive line the was pretty damn good. Peters is 31 years old, in his tenth season, and I’m really worried about how he comes back, and what level can he play at. Jason Kelce was developing into one of the league’s top centers before tearing his MCL & ACL in week two vs. the Baltimore Ravens. His return to the team is just as important as Jason Peters. We are talking about two of the league’s best at their positions. The Eagles drafted Oklahoma tackle Lane Johnson with the 4th pick, which means veteran Todd Herremans slides to right guard to pair with the solid Evan Mathis. Dallas Reynolds, Dennis Kelly, and Julian Vandervelde all seen significant time last year and are valuable backups for this team.

Defense

Defensive Line: The Eagles are making the transition to the 3-4 defense, which they say they plan to use a hybrid version of and at times they will use a even front(4 down lineman) as well. Bottom line is Kelly said he wanted to get bigger, stronger, tougher, and more physical. The signing of former 49ers Nose Tackle Isaac Sopoaga was key, and a telling sign to me. He is the classic 0 technique player with the girth and strength to man the point of attack in a odd man front. Antonio Dixon at 6-4 330lbs has always been a good run stopper when healthy, and is also a good fit as a nose tackle and could play the 5 technique as well. Fletcher Cox has a good rookie year, and I expect a big season inside from him. The move to the 5 technique should be an easy one as he played in odd man fronts during his final season at Miss St. Cedric Thortnon made the team in 2012 and was a pleasant surprise who showed good production in a limited role. At 6’4 309lbs, he is big, strong, and sturdy enough to play as a 5 technique defensive end. 3rd round pick Bennie Logan was a force in the SEC playing for LSU, and while not a traditional 3-4 lineman, he gives the team a DT that gets up the field and will push the pocket vs. the pass. He will be very effective on passing downs.  The Eagles have also brought in a medley of defensive lineman who are huge, guys who will fight for a roster spot in camp.

If an when the Eagles use a traditional even man front, Trent Cole will be right at home. It’s yet to be seen how much 3-4 the team will run, but we have no clue if he can play OLB in that scheme. Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham, and Phillip Hunt are all in the same boat. I won’t know what they can do as a OLB until camp starts and I see them in practice and game action.

Linebackers: The Eagles situation at the linebacker position is up in the air in my opinion, the only player with experience playing in the 3-4 defense is newly acquired OLB Conner Barwin. He will line up on the strong side, but there is a hole on the weak side. Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, and Phillip Hunt will all battle for that spot. In the 3-4 scheme, the OLB’s will be called upon at times the drop into pass coverage, man and zone, and be expected to make plays. Vinny Curry is more of a fit on the strong side, but he as well has no experience in this defense.

DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks seem to be the Inside Linebackers going into camp. The problem is Ryans struggled in the 3-4 in Houston and Kendricks isn’t a fit in my opinion. Kendricks had issues at the point of attack last year when the Eagles had him playing out of position at the Sam backer in the 4-3. Kendricks is at his best when in space, where he can use his speed and athleticism. The Eagles don’t have the ideal ILB’s for the 3-4 defense, so they might be forced to play for 4-3.

Cornerbacks: Out the door is Nnamdi and DRC, and in comes Super Bowl champion Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, and rookie Jordan Poyer. The Eagles have clearly went towards bigger, more physical corners, not big names, but guys who will tackle and give maximum effort. Cary Williams might have rubbed the city wrong when he missed OTA’s for personal reasons, and because of his response during a local radio interview, but he was really good for the Ravens over the last half of the season and in the playoffs. Jordan Poyer was a consensus All-American, and I had him as a 2nd-3rd round pick. Why he slipped all of the way to the 7th round, I don’t know, but I really think he was a steal. He could be the perfect fit as the nickel corner and also gives the Eagles value in the return games as well. Brandon Boykin struggled playing inside last season, but I think he will be given a legit chance to win a job playing outside where I think it’s more of a natural fit with his size and athleticism. Trevard Lindley and Curtis Marsh are also in the mix for roster spots.

Safeties:  The Safety position has been a huge issue over the past two seasons. Nate Allen showed promise before injuring his knee two years ago, but has never recovered since. Kurt Coleman has started during that two year period and he clearly was in above his head. He’s a special teams player forced into the starting lineup because the Eagles didn’t properly address the position. Colt Anderson is the team’s best special teams player and will make the team because of it. The Eagles signed Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips, both who have had success in this league. Phillips when healthy is really good, problem is he’s dealt with issues with his knees lately. Chung has had flashes in this league, but was benched last season while playing for the Patriots. Both are playing on one year deals and the Eagles could get their best efforts, which is clearly better then what they had in 2012. Earl Wolff is a 5th round pick out of N.C. State who was decent making plays in the box when I scouted him, but struggled making plays in space.

Special Teams: Kicker Alex Henery was 27-31 on his field goal attempts in 2012, proving to be really reliable at this point in his career. There will be a battle for the punter job between veteran Donnie Jones and the talented rookie Brad Wing from LSU and Australia. Damaris Johnson returned punts last season for the Eagles, but I think that Kelly will put DeSean Jackson back their again. Brandon Boykin, who was one of the best return guys in the 2012 draft, had an okay 2012 as a kick returner. Felix Jones has had success has a KR, and rookies Jordan Poyer and Russell Shepard will also be in the mix in the return game.

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