Philadelphia Eagles: 10 Players Drawing Rave Reviews Heading into OTAs

Randy JobstSenior Analyst IMay 22, 2012

Philadelphia Eagles: 10 Players Drawing Rave Reviews Heading into OTAs

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    The Philadelphia Eagles coaching staff will get their first look at the 2012 team as organized team activities (OTAs) begin on May 22. The full-team minicamp is three weeks later on June 12.

    The next few weeks will give us a much better look at how some of the younger players have progressed and what kind of shape the veterans are in.

    There is always a handful of players in the NFL who come into camp and OTAs out of shape. How hard players have been working in the offseason is a good indication for how committed they are to the team and what kind of a season we can expect. For example, Brandon Graham came in a bit heavier last summer, and it really affected his season.

    Players who have hit the weight room hard and added bulk during the offseason usually set themselves up for breakout years, while players who have slacked off in the last five months are putting themselves in the coaches' doghouse already.

    This is where championship seasons begin to take shape, as the work you put in during the offseason is everything.

    Several Eagles are setting themselves up for big 2012 seasons. There 10 players especially who have put in the work this spring and should continue to impress this summer.

1. Michael Vick

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    Michael Vick is a dedicated quarterback. He has spent a lot of time this offseason trying to get better and take that next step in his career. Vick became the full-time starting quarterback early in the 2010 season and hasn't looked back.

    In 2010, when Vick had a full offseason to work on his mechanics and get ready for the upcoming season, he threw for more than 3,100 yards in 12 games (11 starts), with 30 total touchdowns and just six interceptions. He followed that up in 2011 with more than 3,300 yards in 13 games, but his interceptions rose to 14, and his completion percentage sunk below 60 percent.

    Did defenses figure out how to contain Vick after a full season as a starter, or did the lack of a full offseason really affect his game? We won't know until we get underway with the 2012 regular season.

    Vick has the dedication you want in a quarterback. He won't be happy until he wins a Super Bowl, and that's the attitude you have to have to become an elite quarterback, or even starting quarterback.

    According to Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist Les Bowen, Vick has been working with his quarterback coach, Doug Pederson, on his mistakes from last year, including the turnovers and 19 tipped passes. If he improves in both areas and can stay healthy for most of the year, he will make the jump from really good to elite quarterback.

2. Bryce Brown

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    Bryce Brown was the Eagles' seventh-round draft pick, but he has the talent of a first-rounder—or at least he did coming out of high school.

    Brown was one of the top-rated high school recruits in 2008, but he never fully committed to Tennessee, where he played one season in 2009, and he had just three carries in 2011 at Kansas State.

    Brown is a big back at 220 pounds, but he runs like a pure speed back. He ran as fast as 4.37 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day. He is that rare breed of running back, similar to Adrian Peterson and Trent Richardson, who are bigger backs but who run extremely well. Brown also catches the ball really well out of the backfield, too.

    The Eagles will be looking for a back who can take on about 5-10 carries a game in an effort to keep LeSean McCoy fresh and healthy all season long. Brown can easily do that based on his potential. The questions with him will be how rusty and unpolished his game is, with little playing experience since high school, and his level of commitment.

    Brown has already received high praise from Andy Reid, who said he was impressed with Brown, along with Brandon Boykin and Mychal Kendricks, who are both expected to get big roles as rookies.

    If Brown continues to take well to coaching and continues to be a solid team player, he will earn a roster spot and become the Eagles' No. 2 back. It will be exciting to see what he can do in preseason.

3. Jeremy Maclin

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    At this time last season, Jeremy Maclin was getting tested for a mystery illness that he couldn't get over. It turned out he had inflamed lymph nodes, which doctors thought at one point could have been because of lymphoma.

    Maclin never really got closure on what was wrong with him, but he is now 100 percent healthy heading into the summer.

    Maclin has actually bulked up since last season, now weighing in at 205 pounds (up from 198 last season). He was once on pace for more than 80 receptions and more than 1,200 yards last season before shoulder and hamstring injuries slowed him down. He still finished with 63 catches for 859 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games.

    Maclin has become the Eagles' most consistent receiving option. He had 10 touchdowns in 2010 and should see similar numbers this season now that he is healthy and stronger than ever.

4. Jason Kelce

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    Jason Kelce went from a late-round draft pick whom most teams didn't have any interest in to becoming one of the best young centers in the NFL.

    This season should be an ever better one for Kelce, who is now up to 305 pounds (up 20 pounds from last season), according to the Eagles website.

    This is great news for Philadelphia. Kelce was one of the most athletic offensive linemen last season, as getting upfield and setting key blocks were his strengths. He was one of the best in the screen game last year as well. 

    Kelce's biggest concern is his ability to push back blockers on side running plays and quarterback sneaks. Adding 20 pounds to his frame will help him improve in that area, though.

    The Eagles need to get better at converting short-yardage downs. A more physical Kelce will get that extra push needed on 3rd-and-1 type of situations.

5. Phillip Hunt

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    Phillip Hunt is a key player to keep an eye on this summer, as he is entering his second season removed from the Canadian Football League. He isn't a starting-caliber defensive end at this point in his career; he is more of a pass-rushing specialist, which fits in perfectly with what Jim Washburn needs from his backup defensive ends.

    According to Adam Caplan's Twitter account, Hunt looked "fast as hell" on the first day of OTAs. Speed off the edge will be key for Hunt making a bigger impact in 2012. In nine games, he had two sacks and a safety, and he should see those numbers increase a little bit this year after a full season in the NFL under his belt.

    Hunt will be a rotational defensive end in Washburn's Wide-9 scheme. He will be fighting rookie Vinny Curry and veteran Brandon Graham for playing time, and more than likely, only four defensive ends will be active on game day.

    It's unclear if Hunt will see much time this season with so much talent around him at the position. It's promising to see him looking this good in OTAs, though.

    The Eagles will have a lot of competition at defensive end this summer. Graham, Hunt and Curry don't have much of a track record, and the two best players in practice are going to earn spots on the active roster—it won't matter what round Curry or Graham was drafted in.

    The best player right now will get more time on the Eagles rotation.

6. Brandon Graham

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    Brandon Graham is a bust. That's not my opinion, it's actually Graham's.

    The Eagles traded up to draft him in the 2010 draft two picks ahead of Jason Pierre-Paul, who has 21 career sacks compared to Graham's measly three.

    It's a make-it-or-break-it season for Graham.

    Graham had a good start to his career in 2010 before he tore his ACL very late in the season. The lockout kept him from rehabbing with the team and really set him back in 2011. He played just three games last year, made four tackles and had zero sacks.

    Graham should get back on track in 2012 with an excellent position coach in Jim Washburn. Graham is the type of player who usually flourishes under Washburn, similar to Jevon Kearse. Both players played in the 260-pound range and had outstanding pass-rushing skills.

    Eagles fans should see those skills on the football field this season if Graham can stay on the field.

    He is down to about 265 pounds this year, compared to coming to camp at about 285 last summer. It's much more difficult for a player rehabbing a major injury to keep the weight down. They can't work out as hard as they are accustomed to, so they have to maintain a strict diet to keep the weight down.

    Graham failed at that last season, but is back in top shape this summer.

7. Fletcher Cox

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    Fletcher Cox hasn't signed his rookie contract yet, but he is already impressing coaches at the rookie minicamp and at OTAs. The fact that he is participating in all the offseason activities while his agent is still negotiating his contract says a lot about his character.

    The rookie defensive tackle from Mississippi State has already been lined up at defensive end and has looked even better than he was hyped up to be coming out of college. There hasn't been much contact in the offseason thus far, so it's hard to really judge how good Cox can be, but he hasn't disappointed in camp and OTAs yet.

    Cox will be a key factor in determining how great this defensive line can be. His ability to both clog the middle and penetrate into the backfield will open things up for everyone around him. Offenses will have to make tough decisions on who to double-team. Trent Cole and Jason Babin are Pro Bowl players who could see a lot of one-on-one match-ups, with Cox being a force in the middle.

    The better Cox is, the better this defense will be. The defensive line alone had 46 sacks last season without an elite player at defensive tackle. Common sense tells you that a player like Cox should help increase that number.

    And seeing Cox say the right things and impress the coaches this early is a really good sign.

8. Mychal Kendricks

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    Mychal Kendricks will be the Eagles' starting SAM linebacker this season. It's not official, but it would take a lot from another linebacker to steal the starting spot from the rookie out of Cal.

    Kendricks already impressed coaches at the rookie minicamp. He was staying with receivers down the field in pass coverage and intercepted a pass that was intended for tight end Brett Brackett at minicamp.

    Kendricks was drafted 46th overall in last April's draft to be the Eagles' every-down outside linebacker—and he looks the part already.

    His biggest concern isn't his lack of experience nor the fact that he came from a 3-4 defense in college—it's his lack of height. At 5'11", there is a major concern from some that Kendricks won't be able to cover tight ends who range anywhere from 6'4" to 6'6".

    One thing that will work in his favor is his leaping ability. He had a 39.5-inch vertical leap at the NFL Combine.

    Kendricks is a complete linebacker. He is physical, polished, athletic and instinctive. Height is the only concern with him. If he proves athletic enough to overcome it, then he should be one of the best outside linebackers in the game in a couple years.

9. Casey Matthews

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    To be a quality, starting 4-3 MIKE linebacker you have to have two of three things:

    You have to be able to shed blocks, possess great instincts and have good speed for the position.

    Matthews has good football instincts—that's what made him so successful in college.

    What he doesn't have is elite speed. He didn't have good strength last season, either. He played at about 235 pounds, which is actually light for a weak-side linebacker.

    Matthews is now at 250 pounds, up about 15 pounds from last season. Sometimes rookies will play a lot lighter than where they should be because they lose bulk to gain speed for the NFL Combine. I believe that may have been the case with Matthews.

    Matthews will never have elite speed. He isn't a slow linebacker, but his speed will never be his strength. His high football I.Q. will be, and now his physicality can be as well. Matthews will be much more adapt to shedding blocks with a lot more upper body strength.

    More than likely, Matthews will lose about five pounds in training camp. Practicing every day in full-contact drills in the hot sun will do that to players. He should play close to 245 pounds this season.

    It's promising to see Matthews bulk up this offseason. He was forced into a tough situation as the team's starting MIKE linebacker in a very short offseason program last year; he was undersized and overwhelmed.

    Neither will be the case in 2012.

    Matthews is most likely being moved to middle linebacker to serve as a quality backup for DeMeco Ryans and possibly to be his future replacement. He won't see much time on defense this year unless Ryans gets hurt, though, so Matthews can focus his energy on making an impact on special teams and just getting better this season.

10. Nate Allen

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    Like so many other players on the Eagles roster, Nate Allen has also added some major bulk, as he is up about 10 pounds this year.

    Allen had an outstanding start to his rookie season before tearing his patellar tendon late in his rookie season. His knee wasn't fully recovered until late in the 2011 season, but he should take that next step in 2012 as a Pro Bowl-caliber free safety.

    Allen has everything you want in a safety. He is a solid tackler, has good field awareness and has exceptional coverage skills. A full offseason to work with defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and defensive backs coach Todd Bowles should greatly benefit him.

    The uncertainty at strong safety, with Kurt Coleman and Jaiquawn Jarrett battling for the starting gig, will be a non-issue if Allen plays up to his ability.

    Like Brandon Graham, Allen is in a make-it-or-break-it type of season. Both players suffered season-ending injuries late in 2010 and weren't healthy to start the 2011 season.

    Now, Allen has a chance to get back to where he was early in his rookie campaign.