With OTAs—or Organized Team Activities—beginning yesterday, the Philadelphia Eagles should be feeling really good about the position their offseason has put them in. Through signings, the draft and trades, this team has filled nearly every hole it had in 2011, including at kick returner, linebacker and wide receiver.
This team also has a lot of questions surrounding it, partially due to the nature of Philadelphia media and partially because of last year's colossal failure.
If the Eagles can find a positive answer to most of these questions, this team has one of its most exciting years ahead of it as Andy Reid and Michael Vick fight for their jobs in what has been dubbed the "Year of Reckoning".
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Many distraught fans, including me, pinned the struggles of the defense last season on the defensive coaches, especially Juan Castillo. I mean, it's tough not to pile on when the man was coaching the offensive line just a year before.
Juan, however, probably realizes the scheme mistakes he made during the 2011 campaign. Not only did he utilize incorrect coverage schemes which didn't suit his personnel, but he used a pass rush scheme while not tying up all loose ends. It's tough to justify running the Wide-9 when your middle linebacker is undersized and truly a strong-side, outside linebacker.
This year, fortunately, Asante is gone and the Eagles acquired Houston MLB DeMeco Ryans in a trade. Castillo used zone coverage because it fit Samuel's style of play; if he's learned anything so far, he'll know that his prized corner possessions, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha, are much better press, man-to-man shutdown corners than guys who have to back off and rely on safety help.
Secondly, Juan Castillo must realize that the Wide-9 scheme will work if he just sticks to the original blueprint—I've made that point before. The addition of Ryans means that the middle three—Mike Patterson, Antonio Dixon, and Ryans—is much more potent at stopping the run. In addition, allowing Jamar Chaney to move to the outside means a stronger force there as well.
The answer to the above question is interesting: if he has—which Andy Reid vehemently suggests—then the Eagles could make serious improvements on the defensive side of the ball. If he hasn't . . . well I'll let you sort that for yourself.
This question might be decided during the OTAs and training camp itself, but how the answer changes and evolves will become very important during the stretch run.
While Jamar Chaney will be taking over the strong side position with Akeem Jordan backing him up, the weak-side position is up in the air. Last year's starter, Brian Rolle, will have to contend with highly-touted second-round pick Mychal Kendricks out of California. Chaney has proven that he can defend the outside run and play bigger than his size, but what the team can get out of Kendricks or Rolle will be important as well.
The strong safety position isn't set in stone either. Temple product Jaiquawn Jarrett and hard-hitting, 2010 seventh-round selection Kurt Coleman will be battling it out during OTAs and training camp.
Coleman is coming off of a pleasantly surprising year in 2011, where he recorded 78 tackles and four interceptions as the starter. He showed much more consistency and savvy than his rookie year, staying contained on tackles and anticipating passes better as well. Jarrett didn't play much in his rookie season, only recording 17 tackles.
The starter at strong safety will have an important role in the defense as well; not only will he have to play downhill rush defense, but he'll also have to come over the top in coverage scenarios against guys like Hakeem Nicks, Dez Bryant, and Jimmy Graham.
When the Eagles traded for DeMeco Ryans, they were hoping to get a veteran leader who will rally the troops and stuff the run with the best of them. What he's done throughout his career would suggest that he is capable of doing all that.
What the Eagles aren't sure of, whoever, is how well Ryans will transition to the Eagles' defense. By "transition", I mean two things: first, his transition to the Wide-9 from a non-traditional 3-4 defense, and second, his transition to the Eagles in general and the fan base that comes with it.
If we're talking about scheme here, Eagles fans can be optimistic. Ryans flourished in his four healthy seasons playing in the 4-3, recording a record 519 tackles, sacking the quarterback 7.5 times, and forcing seven fumbles. The man was a machine, on par with guys like Ray Lewis, London Fletcher and Brian Urlacher. He plays the downhill style of run defense the Eagles need out of the position, so there isn't much to fear in terms of his scheme transition.
What might be concerning, however, is the mindset transition DeMeco must make as he goes from a medium-sized, relatively new football market to a much larger fan base with higher expectations and a knack for showing their displeasure. Plagued by injuries in 2010 and then struggling in the 3-4 last year, Ryans still enjoyed relative star power due to his years of excellence. In Philadelphia, he won't be so lucky. If Ryans starts struggling to cope with the media and/or expectations early in the season, the Eagles could find themselves with an inconsistent, wary linebacker. I doubt anything like that will happen due to Ryans' experience, but it would be a catastrophe if it did.
The question of, "How can the Eagles protect Vick?" is simply a useless question these days. Barring some sort of miracle, Vick is going to miss two or three games in 2012 with some injury or another. What is more important, however, is how to limit turnovers while he is one the field.
In only 13 games last season, Vick compiled 17 turnovers—14 interceptions and three fumbles lost. After posting a 100.2 passer rating in his first full year as an Eagle, Vick only recorded an 84.9 last season.
Some of them weren't his fault, where one of his receivers ran the wrong route or didn't make an effort on the ball. The majority, however, were a result of holding the ball too long or forcing throws down the field.
In a nutshell, Vick needs to be confident in the pocket, scan the field and zip it down to an open receiver when he sees the opportunity arise. If coverage is tight and his pocket starts to collapse, instead of taking the sack—which puts him in a fumbling situation—or forcing the ball into coverage, Michael needs to use his athleticism to escape the pocket and take off.
Even if he is forced into a tough situation where a pocket has collapsed and there is no chance of escape, Andy Reid needs to teach him how to take a sack correctly and how to throw the ball away. There's no shame in throwing the ball away, but there will be a lot of anger if he continues to give the other team extra possessions.
Second-round pick Mychal Kendricks at the Eagles' minicamp.
Heading into the OTAs and training camp themselves, the Eagles coaching staff will be focused on how much of an impact the newly-drafted youngsters will bring to the team.
The Eagles have already signed all but one of the rookies—first-round pick Fletcher Cox is still in the negotiating process—which means that all are ready to strut their stuff as they battle for jobs with incumbent veterans.
The names that come to mind right away are Cox, Kendricks, Brandon Boykin and sixth-round selection Marvin McNutt, a wide receiver out of Iowa.
I've already raved about Cox prior to the Eagles even drafting him, but I feel obliged to say it once again: he is a NFL-ready talent. Fletcher uses his quickness and agility to explode off of the line, avoid or disengage potential blockers quickly, and burst into the backfield to make plays all over the field. His size is somewhat of a limitation, seeing that double teams and seal-plays work effectively against him, but his motor and speed will help him handle the transition to the professional level very well.
The Eagles got quite the bargain by drafting Kendricks in the second round. Like Cox, he'll most likely play in a rotation for part of the season before taking over the job, and his addition completes a linebacking transformation that started with the acquisition of Ryans.
Kendricks is an athletic, hard-hitting, versatile outside linebacker who fits all the characteristics that the Eagles will need out of their weak-side position. He stuffs the run, plays downhill, and has the athletic ability to cover tight ends one-on-one, freeing up other players for more important tasks like rushing the passer and double-teaming the opponent's No. 1 receiver. He'll be jostling with Brian Rolle for positioning, but it doesn't seem likely that Rolle will hold his job for long.
The Eagles needed both a slot corner and a kick-return specialist—they ranked 32nd in yards per return in 2011—and they got both in Boykin. Even if he struggles at corner, the Eagles will get an impact player from the start who could help put their offense in better situations.
Philadelphia got another steal in the sixth-round with Marvin McNutt, one of the more polished receivers of the draft. He is exactly what the Eagles needed: A great route-running, possession receiver who will make the difficult catches inside the 20. He will be used a lot in that role alongside Jason Avant, and could end up becoming one of Vick's favorite targets by the end of the year.