By Michael McCarthy
Training camp begins officially today for the Eagles, and you will read on FASTPHILLYSPORTS.COM and elsewhere about all the nuances and hiccups and every other micro issue that comes up in the heat of July and August.
But it more important to take the macro view. That is, what does this training camp have to do with the 2014 Eagles regular season?
This camp will be considerably different than in the past. That’s because the team will spend Aug. 12-15 in New England practicing with the Patriots before a preseason game Aug. 15.
Chip Kelly’s second NFL training camp will be much more familiar to his returning players and most newcomers are used to Kelly’s music-blaring, up-tempo style from minicamps and OTAs. While expectations were low in 2013’s preseason, the Birds, coming off an NFC East title and a 10-6 season that featured the transformation of quarterback Nick Foles into a star, enter 2014 being considered Super Bowl contenders by many.
Virtually every position offers its own intrigue during camp, even if most positions are set and Kelly could probably, right now, name at least 47 of the players who will be on the 53-man roster when the Jaguars come calling.
But here are key spots or situations for fans to turn their focus to during camp:
• Last year Foles was a inexperienced quarterback with a less-than-impressive resume, on a team with a coach who did not draft him, locked in a quarterback battle with a veteran who had much of the locker room on his side. Predicting stardom for Foles last August would have anyone so bold as to suggest it would have been laughed out of any room that wasn’t Foles’ kitchen. But Foles, having taken to Kelly’s system like an otter to a water park, enters 2014 as the undisputed starter and unquestioned team leader; he is driving the bus and how well he fulfills the off-field requirements that go with all that entails may largely tell the story of how far the Birds go.
• It didn’t take long for Foles and his wide receivers and running backs to become pretty well accustomed to each other last fall once he took over the starting role, so it probably will work the same way with wide receiver Jeremy Maclin on his return from injury, new free agent signing Darren Sproles and rookies such as wideout Jordan Matthews. Still, Maclin is in a role he never had to be in before when DeSean Jackson was still around and Sproles is adjusting to a new team and system. All this is what training camp is for.
Lane Johnson can do everything but play during the four-game suspension he got for PED use, and he has no limits on what he can do in training camp, so you’ll see a lot of him. But Alan Barbre (76 in above photo), a 30-year-old seven-year veteran, can fill in just fine and while he’s not Johnson, he’s a whole lot better than most other options.
• No Eagles rookie has ever experienced real NFL contact, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement. That will change pretty quickly and it is one of the bigger adjustments inexperienced players have to make. There’s no one quite like Trent Cole or Jeremy Peters in college. Kelly doesn’t focus on live hitting as much as Andy Reid did and his teams may well be better off in the long run because of it, but you can bet the coaching staff will be focusing on how the young players respond to contact.
• Here’s who probably won’t make it the final cut: 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham, linebacker Casey Matthews, wide receiver Damaris Johnson, cornerback Roc Carmichael, 2013 draft pick Earl Wolff, and tight end James Casey. The Reid survivors may well get thinned out as Kelly goes with his own.
• There’s always one of the rookie free agents or retread veterans who really stands out in camp and earns a spot on the team, usually as a special-teams specialist. We’ll take a chance on rookie free agent safety Daytawion Lowe from Oklahoma State, who has a real nose for the football and is one smart kid.
• With Kelly in his second year, the depth chart is more set than it was in 2013 and the Eagles’ coach intensely dislikes the focus placed on “starting” spots versus who gets to play more. That said, the key battle is likely at safety, where Malcolm Jenkins would really have to be poor not to start, and where Nate Allen may hold onto the other spot for now due to lack of competition. Can first-round pick Marcus Smith beat out Graham at outside linebacker? Perhaps but that is a very tough position to learn.