Philadelphia Eagles Toss Up: 10 Hot Topics Debated on by Two B/R Writers
Training camp is underway across the NFL, which means there is a lot to talk about. Whether it's position battles, projecting the depth chart or regular season predictions, there is a lot to talk about. That is why I am pulling in a fellow Eagles writer here at Bleacher Report to help me break down the 10 hottest topics heading into training camp for the Eagles.
Alexander Onushco and I will debate on 10 Eagles related topics. We break down and discuss the biggest position battles at training camp, do a couple of over/under predictions on regular season stats and predict the Eagles' final regular season record.
Topic No. 1: Who Wins the Starting Weak-Side Linebacker Job?
This is clearly Brian Rolle's job to lose. His toughest challenge will come from Jamar Chaney. I like Chaney, and I know the coaches love him, but you can't argue with the play of Rolle last season. He made 13 starts and recorded 41 solo tackles, four pass deflections and one sack. The biggest knock on Rolle is his lack of height. He is barely 5'10", but he is still a very strong and very athletic outside linebacker.
I just don't see how Rolle loses this battle unless Chaney plays out of his mind or Rolle gets hurt. The thing to remember about the weak-side linebacker position is that it isn't an every-down position and they won't be covering wide receivers or tight ends. The position's main duty is to add more run support. That is Rolle's strength. He plays very physical and with a real men streak. He can avoid blockers or run right through them, and most importantly, he tackles well. Chaney does not. That is what the coaches will be looking for in the position, and that is why he will win the job.
Brian Rolle was one of several rookies who made a surprising impact last season and was arguably the team's best linebacker throughout the course of 2011.
He may not have the prototypical size to him, but Rolle plays with a toughness that Chaney simply does not. He is a better tackler and can also put pressure on the quarterback if need be.
I think the front office wants Chaney to win this battle, and so he might be a slight favorite heading into camp. However, Rolle will quickly remind them why he earned the spot last season to begin with. In the end, Rolle should come through victorious.
Injuries do happen, and Chaney is versatile enough to be the primary backup for all three linebacker positions, so he should not feel too bad about losing this particular battle, as he will still play an important role.
Topic #2: Who Will Back Up LeSean McCoy?
Dion Lewis will have every chance to win the job outright, and he should be the primary backup heading into Week 1. Lewis is smaller than McCoy, but offers a similar skill set and - despite his diminutive stature - is not afraid to run in between the tackles. He is fully capable of spelling Shady for a few plays every game to keep the stud RB fresh.
However, he is not built to be an every-down back, which means that if McCoy were to get injured, Lewis would need to be paired with a bigger back. Bryce Brown was drafted in the seventh round of April's draft, and has all the physical tools needed to be a three-down back. At 6-0, 223 pounds, Brown is rock solid. He did not play much of his college career and that raises some questions about his character and whether he still has a knack for the game, but it also means he has a fresh set of legs (unlike fellow running back Chris Polk, who was signed as an undrafted free agent and is Browns primary competition). So far, he has drawn positive reviews in team practices.
Ultimately, Brown intrigues me as a long-term backup and even a possible trade chip if he shows enough on tape. For now, Lewis will be a sufficient backup.
This is a tough call to make before we get to see the backs run in training camp. Bryce Brown has a world of talent. Chris Polk was once viewed as a top five back going into the 2012 NFL Draft before some serious injury concerns kept him out of the draft altogether. Dion Lewis is the favorite to win the job, but he really hurt himself with his latest stunt.
Two of these three players are really going to shine at camp. Those will be the players that make the team and the other will either be traded to a running back needy team for a seventh round pick or he will just be released during final cuts. Those two players will both serve as backups in 2012.
I believe Bryce Brown and Dion Lewis make the team. They both offer something different to the running game. Lewis has quick feet and a strong lower body. He is short, not over powering and doesn't possess great straight line speed, but he can make defenders miss in the open field and always fights for that extra yards. Brown is that rare breed of running back with great speed and strength. He is a 220 pound back with really good straight line speed. He didn't play a lot in college because of his own issues, but I believe he will be a really good back in this league.
I fully expect the Eagles to share carries with their top three running backs this season. They don't have a clear cut backup running back, so why not use both backups?
Topic #3: Will the Eagles Keep Both Joselio Hanson and Brandon Boykin?
I know I am in the minority on this, but Joselio Hanson and Brandon Boykin both should make the roster as slot corners. The slot corner position has greatly changed over the last decade. It had become a specific position, not just a spot reserved for the third string cornerback. You need a player with good quickness, ball skills and the ability to jam receivers. Joselio Hanson and Brandon Boykin were born to play the slot corner.
The expectation in camp is that Boykin, a rookie, will beat out Hanson for the nickel back job and that will be all she wrote for Hanson. I couldn't disagree more. First off, you see enough teams running plays out of four wide receiver sets to warrant keeping two really good slot corners. You also want to have an insurance policy for Boykin, who came into the draft injured.
To keep two slot corners, the Eagles wouldn't have to keep any more cornerbacks than they did last season when they kept six. Technically, they did keep two slot corners last season, Dominique Rodgers-Cromarite played in the slot in nickel packages and Hanson in the dime. Not every NFL team has one solid slot corner. The Eagles have two. Why give one away, especially since neither player will be a major cap hit.
Simply put, the Philadelphia Eagles do not have enough space on the roster to keep both Joselio Hanson and Brandon Boykin.
The Eagles are a team that is exceptionally deep at many positions, especially along the defensive line. Head coach Andy Reid loves his d-linemen and will likely stock up at the position in lieu of others. This means, at most, the Eagles will keep five or six cornerbacks heading into Week 1. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are the starters and are assured of roster spots. After that, the team figures to keep the likes of Brandon Hughes and Curtis Marsh, who both offer decent upside on the outside and should be in store for more playing time in 2012.
That narrows it down to one or two spots available. Brandon Boykin was drafted in the fourth round of this year's draft, which means he is safe as well. The team loves his upside in the slot and as a return man and think they have found a true hidden gem. With a strong training camp, he could win the slot position outright.
This leaves Hanson on the outside looking in. He has been a dependable player for the Eagles over the course of the last few years, but the team may decide to cut ties with him in order to keep other cornerbacks on the roster who offer much more upside. Don't feel too bad for Hanson, though, because he is bound to be picked up by another team in need of depth.
Topic #4: How Will the Depth Play out at Defensive End?
Of all the positions, the defensive end unit is easily the deepest and most talented group the Eagles have. While this is a blessing, it also makes it hard for the team to decide on who will make the team and who will be let go.
Obviously Trent Cole and Jason Babin aren't going anywhere, but behind them the team still has a very talented group. Most notably, the Eagles have Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Daryl Tapp and Philip Hunt.
The team also has depth at other positions, which means they cannot stack the defensive end position. It is a good bet that the team will keep five players, with two of those spots going to Cole and Babin. That leaves three spots for the remaining four on the list.
Brandon Graham will earn one of those spots, if only because the team is not yet ready to give up on the former first-round pick. His first two seasons did not go as expected and many fans are ready to label him a bust, but Graham flashed promising pass-rushing skills early on in his rookie season before getting hurt. Last season, he didn't look like himself as he struggled to come back from his knee injury. 2012 may be his last chance to prove himself to the team and to the fans. The talent is there, and if healthy Graham should push for more playing time this year.
Vinny Curry is also assured of a roster spot after the team spent a second-round pick on him in April's draft. Many analysts considered him a first-round talent and a steal in the second, and he has the requisite high-motor energy that head coach Andy Reid loves. He will be an interesting player to watch in training camp.
That leaves Daryl Tapp and Philip Hunt to fight for the last spot. Ultimately, I think Hunt has more pass-rushing potential, which may be enough for him to secure the final DE spot. Tapp is talented enough to earn playing time this season, but it may be with another organization.
The only thing we know for sure at defensive end is that Jason Babin and Trent Cole are the starters and at some point, Darryl Tapp will be the odd man out. Cole and Babin combined for 29 sacks in 2011. They are locked in as starters at this point.
Darryl Tapp has already reached his ceiling, and it isn't that high. At his best, he might give you five or six sacks a season. He will still be a quality reserve defensive end in 2012, just not in Philadelphia.
The Eagles will most likely keep five defensive ends, and use four on game day. Which two will rotate in with Cole and Babin is completely wide open. Brandon Graham has the most potential, Vinny Curry is the most natural pass rusher and Philly Hunt might actually have the most upside.
Graham had a nightmare of a 2011 season where he showed up to training camp about 20 pounds over weight and managed to play in just seven games. Curry was a monster in college, playing for lowly Marshall. He didn't get a lot of help around him on defense, but still managed to post back to back double digit sacks in 2010 and 2011. Hunt is in his second season removed from the CFL. He is still really raw, but during OTAs he looked both faster and stronger than he did last season.
You could draw two names out of a hat from these three players and be pretty happy with whoever rotates with the starters at defensive end. I predict that all three make the roster, while Graham and Hunt are active for week one. The great thing about the active roster is that it isn't set in stone for the whole season.
All three of these defensive ends will see action on game day at some point. It may come down to who is hot and who isn't injured or worn down from the previous week. This really is a great problem to have. The depth that the Eagles have at defensive end is something I don't think I have every seen before.
Topic #5: Over/Under Michael Vick- 18 Turnovers
Last season, Michael Vick had 18 turnovers in 13 starts. He threw 14 interceptions and lost four fumbles. I am going to take the under on this one, but not by much.
Vick is a play maker, no doubt about it. He is going to make plays that no other quarterback can even dream about. He is still the fastest starting quarterback in the league and can throw the football 50 yards down the field with a simple flick of the wrist. He will also try to do too much and throw a costly interception. That is who he is and that will never change.
What will change in 2012 will be Vick's maturation as a 16 game quarterback. What I mean by that is he will have a better understanding that the NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint. He will make less mistakes and take less hits in 2012, but he will never be a single digit interception quarterback.
What the Eagles need from Vick this season is for him to make the big plays when they are there but also just throw the ball away when the play is clearly dead and live for another down. That is why I expect his turnover number to be somewhere around 12 to 16 in 2012.
While I agree with my fellow Eagles FC that Michael Vick will play 15 or 16 games in 2012, I still fully expect him to commit more than 18 turnovers. In fact, it is for that very reason that Vick will have more turnovers.
Vick has promised to take better care of himself and not take as many vicious hits this season, which means that he will stay healthy for more of the season and should miss only one game rather than two or three. However, it is still safe to assume he will continue to commit turnovers.
Vick is a electrifying player with big-play ability, but with that comes the risk of a high number of turnovers. He tries to fit balls into impossible spaces and oftentimes holds onto the ball too long while in the pocket. Both of those are key ingredients to throwing interceptions and being stripped of the ball.
Playing more games this season - while a good thing - also means Vick has more opportunities to hand the ball over to the other team. It is unfair to expect an old dog to learn new tricks, and Vick is a man set in his ways and will likely never be a quarterback who is careful with the football.
If he plays 15 or 16 games this season, expect Vick to throw around 15 interceptions and commit 4 or 5 fumbles.
Topic #6: Are You Comfortable with Mike Kafka as the Backup Quarterback?
Head coach Andy Reid receives a lot of criticism for different reasons, but there is no denying that he knows how to groom a quarterback to play in his system.
The key phrase to remember is in his system. Current Arizona Cardinal starting quarterback Kevin Kolb had a couple of solid games during his time in Philadelphia. The team then used that to sell high to the Cardinals and get a nice haul in return. Now, Kolb looks like a bust in the desert.
Did Kolb suddenly become a bad quarterback? No. He simply was always an average talent who was groomed to thrive in Reid's offense, and once he was placed in a new scheme he struggled.
Mike Kafka is the backup to Vick this year, and while he is an average talent like Kolb, he has also been groomed to play in Reid's offense. He has had ample time to master the playbook, which means he has adequate control over the offense. If (or when) Vick goes down this season, Kafka should be more than capable of stepping in. At worst, he will keep the team competitive, and that is all any team can ask for from their backup QB.
At best? He puts together a string of solid games in place of Vick and is then used as a big trade chip.
I know I am more comfortable with Mike Kafka as the backup than just about anyone else outside of the Eagles coaching staff. He was really impressive in preseason last year. He showed great pocket presence, mobility, blitz recognition and accuracy on the short and intermediate routes. The problem for Kafka is his deep ball.
During the Eagles OTAs he threw a much better deep ball. He is using the power in his legs more then ever to drive the ball deeper and more accurately. This means nothing until we see it in a live game situation, but it is a good sign.
They key to Kafka's success is improving on his deep ball and for the coaching staff to properly manage him. They did a great job in his first relief stint last season in a Week 2 contest against the Atlanta Falcons. He completed seven out of nine passes with his only incompletions being a Jeremy Maclin drop and a failed Hail Mary attempt.
The following week he came in against the New York Giants when the Eagles were down in the fourth quarter 22-16. The first play call was a designed deep pass to DeSean Jackson. It was badly under thrown and Kafka didn't get a change to redeem himself until late in the fourth quarter when the Eagles were already down 29-16.
My point being is that Kafka can be a really good quarterback in this league with the right coach to manage him during the game. He has all the tools to win a couple of games in 2012 should Michael Vick miss some time.
Topic #7: Predicting the Team Leaders in Receptions, Receiving Yards and TDs
Who will lead the Eagles in receiving yards, catches and receiving yards? It's hard to say. I don't think anytime has this wide open of a receiving core. Usually a team has one go-to player or maybe two. The Eagles have three players they can go to in any situation.
DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek are all go-to guys for Michael Vick. Celek is the best possession receiver. He has the frame and the body control for it but he also is a very smooth route runner. The fact that he has never surpassed 1,000 yards in a season in this offense is astonishing. Jackson is the deep threat and the speedster. Every time he touches the ball he is a threat to take it to the house. Maclin is the best of both worlds. He is a good possession receiver but he is also a dangerous deep threat on the outside.
All three players offer something different in the passing game and all three players will lead a different statistical category. DeSean Jackson will surprise a lot of people by leading in catches. The Eagles have to get him the ball more often and they know it. Whether it's on a slant, a screen, a deep pass or just a dump off, the Eagles will look to get him as many touches as possible every single week.
Jeremy Maclin will lead in yards. I really like his ability to get yards after the catch. He can make you miss in the open field and has enough size, unlike Jackson, to go over the middle and absorb hits.
Brent Celek will lead in touchdowns. It makes sense, he is the best red zone target they have. He has the most size and the best body control of any receiver on the Eagles roster. If he doesn't lead the team in touchdowns it would be a major upset.
I agree that DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek will all have a chance to lead the team in the trio of receiving categories. However, I truly think this year is Maclin's year.
Fully healthy and with add muscle for better durability, Maclin is poised for a breakout campaign and will absolutely break the 1,000-yard mark that has eluded him this far. He is the most versatile option at receiver and will likely become Vick's go-to target from almost anywhere on the field. The fact that Vick has already praised Maclin this offseason speaks to how much he thinks of the young receiver. A 80-catch, 1,100-yard, 10-12 touchdown season is well within reach and will be enough to secure at least two of the receiving categories
Jackson's best chance to lead the team is in the receiving yards category. He is the leagues preeminent deep threat and will once again boast a ridiculous yards-per-catch average. He will easily eclipse 1,000 yards and could lead the team in that category. However, he has not shown yet that he is more than a one-trick pony, so his reception numbers will be limited.
Celek is absolutely an underrated pass-catcher and will get his fair share of targets. However, I do not think it will be enough to lead the team in any of the categories. With offensive tackle Jason Peters out for the season with an injury, Celek will once again be asked to stay in and block more, limiting the number of opportunities he has in the passing game. He will be a threat in the aerial attack - particularly in the red zone and middle of the field - but will play more of a complimentary role to Maclin and Jackson.
Topc #8: What Is the Eagles Biggest Weakness?
The team did well this offseason to upgrade the defense, especially up the middle. Where they fell short, however, is in address the secondary, in particular the safety position.
Yes, they signed O.J. Atogwe in the offseason and he will offer a veteran presence, but it remains to be seen how much he has left in the tank and if he can work his way into a starting position.
Nate Allen is the only lock at the position, with Atogwe battling incumbent starter Kurt Coleman and second-year man Jaiquawn Jarrett for the other starting position. Coleman is serviceable, but he has a tendency to miss tackles and is only average in coverage. If necessary, he could start this season and the team would still be good, but he will be a weak link in an otherwise improved defense.
Ultimately, the Eagles hope that Jarrett wins the job outright after they invested a second-round pick in him in 2011. However, he has failed to make any sort of impression and was looked over countless times when the Eagles were looking for a starter last season. He needs a strong training camp where he showcases his supposed tackling abilities if he is to have any chance of beating out the limited Coleman.
Perhaps a player like Philip Thomas- an undrafted rookie out of Syracuse - will surprise fans, but that seems unlikely. The position is a major concern for this team and will be scrutinized over the next few weeks at training camp.
Safety has become the popular answer to this question. At times last season it was pretty bad. Jarrad Page deserves more blame for that than anyone else. When Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman were on the field together last season, the defense played much better. They have good chemistry together. That is such an underrated aspect of being a starting safety. When you have a good feel for were the other safety is going to be, you can space the field so much easier.
So what is the Eagles biggest weakness? It's the same thing that has plagued the Eagles since Andy Reid has been here, minus the 2004 season. Red Zone play. Outside of one good season with Terrell Owens, the Eagles have never had a good red zone target under head coach Andy Reid.
It's not just the red zone offense that is a weakness anymore. Last season the red zone defense was really bad. This is something Eagles fans aren't used to. We saw how great their red zone defense was when Buddy Ryan was here and of course when Jim Johnson was the defensive coordinator.
The red zone struggles on defense weren't any more evident then they were in a Week 2 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta reached the red zone five times in that game and all five times they scored a touchdown. They Eagles lost to Atlanta by just four points. The next two weeks, both losses to the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers, it was the Eagles red zone offense that was at fault. In those two games the Eagles red zone offense drove inside the 20 12 times but came away with three touchdowns.
This is my biggest concern going into the 2012 season. Red zone offenses and defenses always decide close games. If you consistently struggle to score touchdowns inside the 20, you can't put your opponent away if your ahead and you make it tough to come from behind if you are losing. This is the area that has to be better in 2012 if this team is going to be an actual contender.
Topic #9: Who Is the Best Team in the NFC East?
The easy answer here should be the New York Giants. They are the defending NFC East and Super Bowl champs. But honestly, they got hot at the right time. Had they lost to the Jets in Week 16, the Eagles would have won the East and the Giants would have missed the playoffs. The Giants are still a good team, but they are still far from elite. The NFC East really is wide open.
I truly believe that the Eagles are the best team in the NFC East. They went 5-1 in this division in a season full of chaos and dysfunction. They beat the Giants once with Vince Young at quarterback, they blew out the Cowboys twice and they easily swept the Redskins.
The Redskins are a team that will take a couple more seasons before they will be ready to be a serious contender in the division. Just too many holes on defense. The Cowboys are a popular pick, but I just see too many holes at safety, offensive line and at linebacker.
The Eagles roster is the deepest in the East. They have depth everywhere. When you have a lot of depth, you can survive a lot of injuries. The last two Super Bowl winners, The Giants and Packers, were devastated by injuries. Teams that have good backups tend to win divisions. Injuries are just a part of the game. The Eagles staff knows this and has a pretty solid collection of second stringers.
With all due respect to the Philadelphia Eagles, they are not the NFC East team that just won a Super Bowl. That honor belongs to the New York Football Giants, which by default makes them the best team in the division.
Not only do they have arguably a better passing game (let the hate-filled comments flow) but they also had a much better defense than the Eagles did last year. The biggest difference between the two teams, however, is that the Giantsproved they could win a championship.
The Eagles, while an extremely talented team on paper, have yet to prove they are more than an above-average team. Yes, they did well to bring in quality talent in areas of weakness, but there is no telling how effective the team will be until they actually start playing and winning games. Perhaps once they have one a few games early we can say that they are the best team in the division, but for now the only team that can claim that title is the one wearing the Super Bowl rings.
The Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins have improved this offseason as well, which means there will once again be stiff competition for the division crown in 2012. Like the Eagles, the Cowboys have a talented yet underachieving team that could surprise people this year and secure the division title.
For now, the ranking in the NFC East should go Giants, Eagles, Cowboys and Redskins, but the Eagles have the best chance of proving they are the best team by the end of the season.
Topic #10: Predicting the Number of Wins for Eagles in Regular Season
I wrote a piece on this earlier in the offseason, and will stand by my original prediction of an 11-5 season for the Philadelphia Eagles.
On paper, the Eagles are an improved team from the 2011 squad that went 8-8. Not only did they ace the draft, but they also resigned key players like DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Evan Mathis while also bringing in DeMeco Ryans to fill the void at middle linebacker. The defense will also be better now that the corners are playing in a scheme that suits their strengths. All of that combined should be enough for the team to win at least two or three more games than last season.
The stumbling block, however, is that the Eagles face a tough schedule. Not only do they have to face NFC East teams that all improved over the offseason, but they face tough opponents in the AFC North and NFC South. They will have to earn every single one of their wins, because the teams they face will not simply hand them over.
Fans expecting a near perfect season will likely be disappointed, but 11 wins will be enough to make the playoffs and give the Eagles a shot at winning the Super Bowl.
Anytime you try and predict a team's regular season record you have to consider two things. What did the team do last season and how have they improved or if they have improved since last season. I get why everyone wants to breakdown the schedule when predicting final records. The problem with that is at least two teams on the schedule we think will be really good, won't be, and at least two more teams we think will stink it up this season, will surprise a lot of people.
I like this Eagles team a lot. There is depth everywhere. The offense is explosive and the defense is built to stop the pass with press man coverage and a dominant pass rush. Last season they finished 8-8. Everything that could have went wrong, did. DeSean Jackson was miserable without a new contract. Vick missed three games and was knocked out of two more. The defense looked lost and the offense couldn't stop giving the ball away. Having said all that, they still went 8-8. That was the worst case scenario for this team.
2012 should go a lot better. The team is even better than the over-hyped version we saw in 2011. They have a run stuffing middle linebacker in DeMeco Ryans. That will make a world of a difference on defense. Asante Samuel is gone. That means they can run press coverage and don't have a player on the outside who can't tackle or cover in the red zone. That will make a huge difference was well.
Depend how this team plays in close games, they should win somewhere between 10 and 14 games. 11 wins isn't a bad prediction, but I just have a special feeling about this season. There is just a different attitude and mindset this season. I am going to go out on a limb and predict 13 wins. Remember the Packers won 15 games in 2011 with a really bad defense and a very mediocre offensive line. The Eagles may not have Aaron Rodgers, but they have a top 5 defense and offensive line to go along with a very explosive offense. They should be in every singe game this season.
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