Philadelphia Eagles: 10 Training Camp Storylines to Keep an Eye on
Hey Eagles fans, training camp is just weeks away. It has been a long month and a half between the Eagles mini-camp and the day when training camp finally gets under way. This training camp is going to be one of the most compelling camps in recent memory.
The Eagles have that championship feel this summer. The roster has the perfect mix of talent and fit. They have brought in the right players that are both talented and fit the scheme. None of the projected starters look like a bad fit.
Another reason to check out Lehigh will be the fierce competition from both the starters and the backups. There is talent and depth everywhere. The battles in practicing will be worth the trip. These guys haven't been able to put on pads and hit each other since the season finale last January. These guys are amped and ready to do some serious hitting.
Besides the Super Bowl aspirations and the first live hitting since January, there are many storylines to keep an eye on at training camp. Here are the top 10.
10. Is Stanley Havili an NFL Full Back?
The Philadelphia Eagles were hit with a major blow when Leonard Weaver had that horrific knee injury during the first game of the 2010 season. They lost one of the top fullbacks in the game. They lost a great blocker and a good runner and receiver.
The Eagles signed Owen Schmitt after Weaver went down and he held the position through the 2011 season. Now they will see if last year's seventh-round draft pick Stanley Havili can be an NFL fullback.
He played the position in college at USC, but was more of a receiver and runner than he was a lead blocker. The Eagles aren't a power running team. They have most of their success in the running game coming out of single back formations. He doesn't have to be Lorenzo Neal, but he has to be able to take a defender out of the play on short yardage runs.
The Eagles drafted him because they liked what he did at USC as a dual threat back. They didn't get that from Schmitt, but they can with Havili. That isn't the concern. It's his ability as a blocker. This will be his first opportunity to show the coaches what he has learned as a lead blocker. If he shows growth from last year he earns a roster spot. If he struggles early in camp, Andy Reid will be giving some unemployed veteran lead blockers a call.
9. The Tight Ends
Brent Celek is the only sure thing at tight end for the Eagles this season. We know he is the man and should make a run at 80 catches and 1,000 yard receiving for the first time in his career. What we don't know is how many tight ends the Eagles will carry and who will be that extra tight end or ends.
The Eagles don't have a play maker like Aaron Hernandez behind Brent Celek. What they do have are three players that could realistically make the final roster. Clay Harbor has been a part of the roster the last two seasons but has done little to excite anyone. Brett Brackett spent most of the 2011 season on the Eagles practice squad and was a college wide receiver at Penn State back in 2010. Chase Ford is the wildcard in the tight end equation. He had just 16 receptions in two years in college at Miami.
Harbor has the advantage of spending the last two seasons in this offense. For him to lose his roster spot, it would take a really bad camp for him or a really special one from somebody else. The one thing working against him is also his past two seasons in this offense. He has just 22 catches in the past two seasons combined.
Brett Brackett has a good shot at pushing Harbor for the number two spot. He was a wide receiver in college and is still an outstanding route runner. He is comfortable making catches over the middle of the field. He weighed in around 245 pounds last season. He has the size to make it as a tight end in the NFL. The Eagles don't want blocking tight ends. They want athletic tight ends who can stretch the field and hold their own blocking. If he can prove to be an adequate blocker and a reliable receiver he might just beat out Celek and see a lot of time in two tight end sets this season.
Chase Ford should have no shot to make this roster. He had just nine receptions this past season for the Miami Hurricanes. He was impressive during the Eagles OTAs. At the very least he should earn a spot on the practice squad. If Harbor shows absolutely no growth we could see Ford sneak in as the third tight end and see Harbor get traded or cut, but that is probably the best case scenario even if Ford has an amazing summer.
If the Eagles intend to run a lot more two tight end sets this season, they will need to carry a third tight end for depth. That means at least two of these three reserve tight ends will make the roster. Should be a tight battle all summer long.
8. The Red Zone Role
The Eagles have lacked a true red zone target minus the one successful season Terrell Owens had in 2004. Any team with this much speed at wide receiver, that doesn't run a power running game, needs a reliable red zone target. This is where Riley Cooper and/or Marvin McNutt come in.
Cooper is entering his third season in the league while McNutt is a rookie. Neither player has that explosive speed but they are physical receivers that need to make their living in the red zone. Both Cooper and McNutt are in that 6'3, 215-220 range. They have a size advantage over any defensive back. One of these players is going to set themselves apart as the better short yardage and red zone receiver.
Cooper has the advantage of playing two seasons in the NFL over Mcnutt being a rookie trying to adjust to the game. He also has just 23 receptions and two touchdowns in his first two seasons. Because of that lack of production, McNutt will get his fair shot of earning both a red zone role and a key reserve outside receiver spot.
Both players should make the roster, depending on what the Eagles want out of their fifth wide receiver and if they want to keep five or six total wide outs. They also have a couple speedy receivers in Chad Hall and Damaris Johnson who can help out in the return game. If the Eagles want to keep just five wide receivers and want to keep either Hall or Johnson then one of these 6'3 wide outs will get cut this summer.
Hopefully the Eagles will keep both Cooper and McNutt. The Eagles could use both players as backups on the outside and keep Jason Avant in the slot full time.
7. The Really Fast UDFAs
The Eagles had a pretty special draft class and it didn't end after the draft was over. They also brought in several talented undrafted players including two that didn't play a down in college in 2011 because of off the field issues. Former Tulsa wide receiver Damaris Johnson and former Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris are both fighting for a roster spot.
Damaris Johnson did a lot to help himself during the OTAs. He worked well inside and on the outside and he showed a lot better hands than you usually see from a 5'8 receiver. He also showed a great deal of speed. He's no DeSean Jackson, but he isn't that much slower than he is. At the very least, he could be a very dangerous return man.
Cliff Harris is an intriguing undrafted free agent as well. He is listed as a corner, but at just 160 pounds, he is probably more of just a return man at this point. That usually isn't enough to earn a roster spot in the NFL, but Andy Reid might have to make an exception. Harris was a very dangerous return man in college.
Both players should get most, if not all, of the punt returns during preseason as the Eagles wouldn't want to risk an injury to DeSean Jackson on a punt return in preseason. If either player is as explosive in a live action game on punt returns as they were in college, they could earn a roster spot. You can never over estimate the importance of a dangerous return man.
6. Slot Corner
The slot corner position has become it's own specialized position. It takes a certain type of player to handle slot receivers for four quarters. Right now the Eagles have one proven veteran in Joselio Hanson and one very promising rookie, Brandon Boykin.
Both players have the quickness and ball skills you want in the position. Most people believe that one of these players will earn a slot corner spot and one will be handed their walking papers. I couldn't disagree more. Hanson is in the final year of his contract and won't be making much more than $1 million this season. Why would a team with $18 million in cap space need to cut Hanson?
Boykin isn't going anywhere either. You don't draft a player in the fourth round only to cut him five months later. Why not keep both players? It would give the Eagles four cornerbacks that you can fully trust in man coverage. No team would be more adept at defending four wide receiver packages. It would also give the Eagles an insurance policy at the slot corner spot if either player went down.
Boykin will be a player to watch in camp. Can he handle slot receivers right away as a rookie and can he be the explosive kick returner this team so desperately needed last season?
5. Can We Trust Mike Kafka in 2012?
Michael Vick has missed three starts in each of the last two seasons due to injury. If there was any team in the NFL that needs to have a reliable backup quarterback, it would be the Eagles.
Mike Kafka is the backup for now. Nick Foles is the rookie at third string. He wasn't drafted to be a backup right away. He is a project that will take two or three years to develop. He is already guaranteed to be the third string. Right now it's between Trent Edwards and Kafka for the backup role.
Edwards looked bad during the OTAs. Maybe he was pressing the issue or maybe he is done. We won't know until we see him in live action or if Reid cuts him before we even get to preseason.
I like Kafka as a quarterback a lot. He moves well in the pocket and throws an accurate ball. He is tough to sack because of his mobility, his quick release and his natural ability to read a blitz. His only real issue as a backup is his ability to throw the long ball. He struggled last season but looks stronger and has improved his throwing technique as well.
As long as he can throw a decent deep ball, he will be a solid backup for Michael Vick heading into the season. Remember, he rallied the Eagles back against Atlanta during a Week 2 matchup last season. It was Jeremy Maclin's dropped pass that cost the Eagles that one.
4. The Other Defensive Ends
Trent Cole and Jason Babin are the Eagles starting defensive ends. That much we know. They racked up a combined 29 sacks in 2011 and probably improve on that number this season. What we don't know is who there backups will be.
Eagles line coach Jim Washburn loves to rotate his defensive linemen in and out frequently. The backup defensive ends will see close to 35 or 40 percent of the snaps each week. The Eagles will most likely keep five defensive ends but only four will be active on game day.
There are four defensive ends battling for the final three roster spots. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are recent early-round draft picks. It would be foolish to cut either of them, Phillip Hunt was signed from the CFL last season and has shown a lot of potential in a limited amount of snaps. Darryl Tapp is the veteran who has seemed to hit his ceiling. He is going to be the odd man out.
It will be between Graham, Curry and Hunt as to which two defensive ends will be active on game day. Neither player has much of a leg up on the other. Curry is the rookie, Hunt has limited experience from last season and Graham played in just seven games last season while recovering from ACL surgery.
Curry is a pure pass rusher. That is what he was drafted to do and that is what he will primarily do this season. He will see most of his action on passing downs. Hunt has gotten stronger and faster since last season. He was a raw player. He should be a lot better in his second NFL season.
Graham is the player I am really excited to see. He is stronger and more motivated than ever. He has called himself a first round bust and wants to shake that label in a hurry. He has the potential to be a dominant pass rusher in this league. Remember he was drafted ahead of Jason Pierre-Paul. He can give the Eagles that same type of production.
Whoever the Eagles use on game day behind Cole and Babin, they are going to see little drop-off between their starters and their backups.
3. Bryce Brown
Bryce Brown is the one player to keep an eye on during training camp. He was the highest rated running back coming out of high school. He is built like a power back at 220 pounds but he ran a 4.37 40 at his pro day. He became a seventh-round draft pick three years after high school because he never fully committed to college football. He has a grand total of three carries in the last two years.
Brown has rare potential but has gotten little coaching since high school. We have to see commitment to the NFL and also see if he still has the skills to be an elite running back before we can get too excited about him.
The Eagles don't have a veteran running back behind LeSean McCoy. Dion Lewis is the backup right now but he had just 24 touches last season as a rookie. Brown doesn't have to beat out Lewis to earn a roster spot, but just has to beat out an undrafted rookie in Chris Polk.
How good can Brown be with such limited action in college? He has the potential to be a really good back in this league. Brown could have a similar season that Ben Tate had for the Houston Texans. He was a rookie backup to Arian Foster but still put up over 1,000 total yards. Tate was a lot more polished than Brown is but you have to admit, Brown's natural ability far exceeds that of Tate.
2. Jaiquawn Jarrett
Jaiquawn Jarrett was drafted in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft to be the Eagles starting strong safety. A very short offseason prevented that and Jarrett backed up Kurt Coleman for the majority of the season. This isn't about Jarrett taking over for Coleman. This is about Jarrett proving that he was worth the second-round pick.
He is already getting labeled a bust. There are concerns about his speed and his open field tackling. He has to answer those questions in training camp. Coleman isn't a Pro Bowl player but he is a quality starter. Jarrett has to show the potential to be a better player down the road.
The Eagles signed O.J. Atogwe during their break between OTAs and camp. He was brought in as a reserve safety who can play as a free safety and a strong safety. If the Eagles don't like what they see from Jarrett this summer, he could get the boot as the Eagles have a veteran safety who can backup both Coleman and Nate Allen. They could keep Colt Anderson, a special teams ace, to be a fill in at safety only if Atogwe and a starter go down.
I still think Jarrett can have a bright future in Philadelphia. He is a smart football player who was an outstanding tackler in college. Speed is the issue with him right now. Is he fast enough to play safety in the NFL? We shall find out at Lehigh.
1. Will Left Tackle Be an Issue?
Left tackle is a concern for some and rightfully so. When Jason Peters tore his Achilles tendon, it was a major concern. The Eagles didn't have a player that has started more than a couple games at the position. They went out and signed Demetress Bell, another former Buffalo Bill, to fill the void.
Bell never wowed anyone at Buffalo, but it was more a product of the scheme than it was about Bell's ability. He played in a blocking scheme that doesn't best utilize athletic linemen. He won't have that problem in Philly playing under line coach Howard Mudd.
Howard Mudd is already raving about Bell as the starting left tackle. According to Mudd, he believes that the Eagles "will win games with Bell." He is an ideal fit for Mudd's blocking scheme. He doesn't have to be the dominant player that Peters is and he won't be blocking Michael Vick's blind side either (Vick is a lefty). He just has to keep that left side protected.
He looked solid during OTAs. He has the summer to learn how to be an effective blocker in Mudd's blocking scheme. So far so good but we won't know if he can hold the position down until we see him with pads.