Ever since the Eagles lost in the playoffs last January to the Saints and even more so since the Phillies fell out of the pennant race soon thereafter, the focus of Philly’s sports fans has been on this Saturday, July 26 — the beginning of the Birds’ training camp at the team’s NovaCare training complex in South Philly.
By Lewis Gould
Coach Chip Kelly is now armed with two versatile, big-play backs in LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles, which should give quarterback Nick Foles plenty of weaponry to fire at defenses in Kelly’s fast-paced offense.
One of the key issues the Eagles must deal with is outside linebacker, where veteran Trent Cole is being challenged by first-round draftee Marcus Smith. Cole led the Eagles in sacks last season with eight, all of them coming in the last eight games of the season. But he is 32 years old and spent all but last season as a 4-3 defensive end. The Eagles likely will use Smith initially as a third-down pass-rush specialist.
The defensive backs as a group are the biggest concern.
The Eagles finished last in the league in pass defense, yielding 289.8 yards per game. Starting corners Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams are adequate, but neither is a shutdown corner. The addition of ex-Dolphin Nolan Carroll gives Philly better corner depth than a year ago.
The Eagles probably improved at safety with the free-agent signing of versatile Malcolm Jenkins, but they passed on Jairus Byrd, the top safety in free agency. Neither Jenkins nor the Eagles’ other projected starting safety, Nate Allen, are very good tacklers.
On offense, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (photo above), who started 57 games his first four seasons and caught 258 passes with 26 touchdowns, still has a lot to prove, especially coming off an ACL tear that sidelined him all of last season.
The Eagles’ decision to get rid of DeSean Jackson and his 82 catches makes it imperative that Maclin bounce back in a big way in 2014.
Coaches and teammates had a scare in OTA workouts when Maclin collided with cornerback Bradley Fletcher and went down, holding his left knee. But Maclin eventually got up and ran off the field without a limp. “I’m good, I’m straight,” he said later.
Sproles was one of several players fielding punts and kickoffs during the Eagles’ minicamp.
Sproles, who was acquired in a March trade with New Orleans, is a dangerous returner who would upgrade a team that finished 27th in punt returns and 26th in kickoff returns last season.
But he is 31 and the Eagles must watch how they use him. He played 364 snaps with the Saints last year and had 165 touches, including 71 receptions.
How much he is used as a returner by the Eagles probably will depend on how much Kelly plans to use him on offense.
“We know Sproles is a dynamic returner,” special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said. “I don’t know that age is a limitation, but it’s certainly a factor. We have to be cautious about what we ask him to do and when we ask him to do it.”
During the minicamp, five players, including Sproles, fielded punts. The other four are Damaris Johnson who split the punt-return chores with the departed DeSean Jackson last year; Maclin, who is coming off a torn ACL; wide receiver Riley Cooper and second-round rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews.
Here is the entire list of those who returned kickoffs this spring: Sproles, Matthews, Johnson, Carroll, third-round rookie wide receiver Josh Huff, and cornerback Brandon Boykin, who has been the team’s primary kick returner the last two seasons.
“Right now, we’re just rolling guys through there, really working on the fundamentals of how to field the kick and how to catch a kickoff or punt and how to get up field a little bit,” Kelly said. “Who it’s going to end up being, it’s too early to say. But Darren is the one proven commodity that has had a lot of success in the league doing it.”
When the Eagles are doing the kicking, which Kelly hopes is often, Alex Henery can be a formidable weapon, but he is coming off a bad year and has something to prove and has some competition.
Henery was one of the league’s most accurate kickers in his first three NFL seasons, converting 86 percent of his field-goal attempts. But he is coming off a subpar year in which he missed five of 11 attempts from 45 yards or more, including a 48-yarder in the Eagles’ two-point playoff loss to the Saints.
He also finished 23rd in touchback percentage (42.5) on kickoffs, which was a big reason the Eagles had the third-worst opponent starting field position on kickoffs in the league.
“He’s got some strengths and weaknesses,” Fipp said. “He’s been extremely accurate as a field-goal kicker over the history of his career. But he has to get better at his kickoffs and long field goals.”
Henery didn’t kick off at Nebraska, handling only field-goal attempts and extra points. Last year, just 37 of his 87 kickoffs were not returned. The Eagles gave up eight returns of 35 yards or more, including two touchdowns.
“His kickoffs are not up to par,” Fipp said. “But he’s had a good offseason and I think he has gotten better.
“It’s an interesting dynamic. You’ve got a guy who’s really a very accurate field-goal kicker, but his kickoffs aren’t great. So, what are you willing to subtract? If you find a kicker that’s better than him at kicking field goals and (is) a better touchback guy, well, let me know where he is. Every team in the league wants him, you know what I’m saying? There’s not a lot of those guys floating around out there.”
Last year, the Eagles didn’t bring in another kicker to compete with Henery. This year, they did: undrafted rookie Carey Spear of Vanderbilt.
Free-agent rookie Trey Burton, from Florida, could be an interesting player to track in training camp. He was signed as a tight end, but the 6-foot-2, 224-pounder played quarterback, wide receiver, and finally, tight end at Florida. Kelly likes versatile players and Burton is as versatile as a Swiss army knife. He has the same traits as tight end/H-back James Casey. Burton could end up making the team. Worst-case scenario: he spends the year on the practice squad.
Tackle Lane Johnson, the fourth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, faces a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
Johnson started every game last season as a rookie, missing just one snap in 17 games. Johnson can appeal, but if he is suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season, the Eagles may go with Allen Barbre as their right tackle after signing him to an extension this offseason.
The Eagles also could move right guard Todd Herremans to right tackle, a position he played for eight games in 2012 before suffering a season-ending foot injury,
Here is a snapshot of the Eagles lineup heading into training camp:
QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Nick Foles. Backups – Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley, G.J. Kinne.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter – LeSean McCoy. Backups – Darren Sproles, Chris Polk, Matthew Tucker, Henry Josey, David Fluellen.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters – Brent Celek, Zach Ertz. Backups – James Casey, Emil Igwenagu, Trey Burton, Blake Annen.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper. Backups – Jordan Matthews, Brad Smith, Arrelious Benn, Josh Huff, Will Murphy, Jeff Maehl, Damaris Johnson, Ifeanyi Momah, B.J. Cunningham. Quron Pratt.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Jason Peters, LG Evan Mathis, C Jason Kelce, RG Todd Herremans, RT Lane Johnson. Backups – Allen Barbre, Matt Tobin, Denis Kelly, Michael Bamiro, Julian Vandervelde, Kevin Graf, David Molk, Andrew Gardner, Josh Andrews, Karim Bartin, Donald Hawkins.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LDE Cedric Thornton, NT Bennie Logan, RDE Fletcher Cox. Backups – Vinny Curry, Taylor Hart, Alejandro Villanueva, Damion Square, Joe Kruger, Beau Allen, Wade Keliikipi, Brandon Bair, Frances Mays.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Bradley Fletcher, RCB Cary Williams, FS Malcolm Jenkins, SS Nate Allen. Backups – Earl Wolff, Nolan Carroll, Brandon Boykin, Jaylen Watkins, Chris Maragos, Keelan Johnson, Davon Morgan, Roc Carmichael, Curtis Marsh, Daytawion Lowe.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters – K Alex Henery, K Cary Spear, P Donnie Jones, LS Jon Dorenbos, KR Darren Sproles, KR Brandon Boykin, KR Brad Smith, KR Jordan Matthews, KR Josh Huff, KR Damaris Johnson, PR Jordan Matthews, PR Darren Sproles, PR Jeremy Maclin, PR Josh Huff, PR Damaris Johnson.