Philadelphia Eagles Who've Turned Heads in Offseason Workouts
As the Philadelphia Eagles head into the final two weeks of the offseason program before training camp, we’ve gotten a sense of which players have been making the most of OTAs. Despite being limited to non-contact drills in shorts and T-shirts, quite a few players have managed to turn heads.
Naturally, most are making their presence felt on the practice field. Some players, however, have been drawing attention to themselves because of what they’re doing in meetings or the film room or what they’re saying to reporters.
Whatever the reasons, good or bad, here’s the latest on the players making news at the NovaCare Complex this offseason.
Perhaps the offseason’s most surprising addition will also turn out to be its best. Acquired from the New Orleans Saints for the bargain price of a fifth-round pick, diminutive running back Darren Sproles is head coach Chip Kelly’s new toy on offense, and he’s only just begun to take him out of the package.
Eagles beat writers Bob Grotz and Ed Kracz report that Sproles has been among the most impressive performers at OTAs. Plus, Kelly gushes about what a weapon the 30-year-old back is every time he gets the opportunity, as Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News notes:
At the NFL meetings, when Kelly spoke with reporters about the addition of Sproles, he seemed to feel Sproles would make it harder for opponents to play the man-press coverage the Eagles struggled against in 2013.
"The addition of Sproles, are you gonna play us in man?" Kelly asked then. "Now you have to have a linebacker cover him if he's the back. That's kind of a huge addition, when we thought about bringing him in."
Bowen surmises that Sproles will get between six and eight touches a game in Philly’s offense, but it could wind up being even more than that. Reigning NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy tells Matt Lombardo of NJ.com that Sproles will keep him fresh:
"I think that [Darren] Sproles will really help me out. It's just another option, another look and formation that defenses will have to worry about. Also, he'll keep me fresh," McCoy said Monday after the team's OTA practice at the Novacare Complex. "Just being productive, if he takes some of the load off and in that fourth quarter I'm fresh, you know defenses won't like to see that.
As Bowen explains, the Eagles are still only scratching the surface with Sproles in the offense. However, based on impressions from reporters in attendance at OTAs, it’s only a matter of time before Sproles is fully integrated into the NFL’s No. 2 offense.
The rest of the league is officially put on notice.
Sproles isn’t the only exiled New Orleans Saint garnering attention at Eagles OTAs. The team targeted free-agent safety Malcolm Jenkins over more decorated options, such as Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward, and without having played a down of football, Jenkins is revealing why.
It’s not just what the player brings to the field that was appealing to the Birds in this case. Jenkins is already demonstrating tremendous leadership qualities, as second-year safety Earl Wolff explained to Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com:
“He’s making me a better player,” Wolff said. “I meet with him every morning at 7:30 in the morning before everybody gets here. I work out with him in the weight room. His work ethic is crazy. He deserves everything he has. I just met the guy. I just think he can elevate my game as well as elevate the guys around him.” [...]
“Little thing things, man,” Wolff said. “Stuff that sometimes the coach doesn’t bring up in the meeting. For example [Thursday], we were in Cover 3, I was the middle safety. He said, ‘Earl, every time the quarterback stares you down he’s throwing it at the X (receiver). Every single time.’ And I noticed it as I went on. It’s just those little things. He tells me something like that every day, gives me a tip. So it’s a blessing to have him here, a blessing to have him on this team.”
Jenkins is no slouch on the field, either. While advanced metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him among the worst safeties in the league in categories such as tackling and coverage in 2013, the Saints typically got results with him in the defensive backfield. The New Orleans pass defense ranked second in the NFL last season, and the team won the Super Bowl with Jenkins in 2009.
He may not have the All-Pros or Pro Bowls that Byrd and Ward boast on their resumes, but Jenkins is making it clear why the Eagles signed him to a contract less than an hour into free agency. So far, he sounds impressive.
The fact that Jordan Matthews stands out at practice is not altogether surprising. Few wide receivers on the roster boast a combination of size and speed similar to that of the second-round pick. That’s one of the reasons the front office traded up 12 spots to grab him in the 2014 NFL draft.
Some of the other reasons have nothing to do with Matthews’ natural athleticism, though. As Alex Smith of the Philadelphia Eagles' official website explains, this young man's work ethic set him apart from other talented receivers in the draft class:
Matthews' impressive blend of speed, size and athleticism was on full display, but there was something else that Matthews did that garnered some attention. Every time he caught the ball in a team drill, he didn’t slow down and come to a stop after making the catch. Instead, he finished the play, running to the end zone full speed, no matter how many yards away he was from the goal line. [...]
The 6-foot-3, 212-pound receiver’s intense work ethic, both on and off of the field, has been well-documented since his arrival in Philadelphia. After selecting the Vanderbilt receiver in the second round of the 2014 draft, general manager Howie Roseman told a story of Matthews having already studied Eagles game tape prior to coming in for a pre-draft visit with the team.
At 6’3” and 212 pounds, and with the 4.46 seconds he clocked in the 40-yard dash and the 21 reps he posted in the bench press at the scouting combine, Matthews has all the makings of a future No. 1 receiver. The fact that he’s willing to work harder than everybody else almost makes it inevitable.
Of all of this year’s rookies, Matthews has the chance to make the biggest impact for the Eagles. He’s already making his presence felt on the practice field. In his case, that should translate to success on the gridiron.
There is one guy who can give Matthews a run for his money as the most impactful rookie this season—if he makes the team. Assuming Carey Spear beats out Alex Henery at training camp this summer, though, he’ll be tasked with all of the team’s place-kicking duties. That’s a lot of work.
The good news is that Spear is turning heads at OTAs. The bad news is that it’s not always for the right reasons.
Mostly, the buzz on “Murderleg” is positive. Spear is already showing off tremendous leg strength, according to Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com, which may give the undrafted kicker out of Vanderbilt a distinct advantage over Henery in this competition:
Kicking off to the side as the Eagles' offense and defense participated in 11-on-11 drills, Spear showed the leg strength that led to his fame. He drilled field goals from 40 yards and beyond, with plenty of room to spare. When the team practiced kickoffs, Spear put the ball into the end zone.
"I'll kick whenever they send me out there," said Cary, who said his range is 66 yards.
That leg strength is the reason many believe Spear could win the job over last year's starter, Alex Henery.
On the other hand, Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer views things a tad differently. The report notes that Spear’s accuracy on field goals could be a factor:
I’d hate to kill “Murderleg” after just one bad kick, but his pull hook of a chip shot field goal during 11 on 11s makes me wonder if he has any legit shot to push Alex Henery. It was always going to be a long shot for the undrafted rookie to unseat a three-year veteran, but he hasn’t done anything during the two practices I’ve witnessed that has made me go, ‘Wow.’ Last spring, when punter Donnie Jones starting booting sky-high punts, it was evident that undrafted rookie Brad Wing had no chance to win that job. Carey Spear deserves more time and the Eagles will surely give it to him, but the whole kicker competition seems like a façade right know. Spear’s field goal was from about 30 yards out. He hooked it at least ten yards wide left, missed the building that’s behind that field goal and sailed the ball into the parking lot.
McLane might be going a bit overboard when he describes Spear defeating Henery as a long shot. The three-year veteran did not look like an NFL kicker last year, kicking away from dangerous return men because he couldn’t hit a touchback and missing a 48-yard field goal in a playoff loss.
Accuracy issues or no, at least Spear can kick one into the parking lot. There’s a reason the Eagles felt the need to use a roster spot on competition for Henery. Kicker just might be the most hotly contested job on the roster.
At least one member of the Eagles is turning heads at OTAs not so much for what he’s done on the field but for what he’s said to reporters. On the first day full-squad practices were open to the media, Brandon Graham initially declined to speak to reporters but eventually relented.
What was on the former first-round pick’s mind, you ask? An offseason full of trade rumors, most likely. Clearly, that weighed heavily on Graham’s mind as he spoke to Martin Frank of the Delaware News Journal:
"I'm controlling what I can," Graham said. "Whatever the rumors were, I really didn't pay attention to it. I have a role to play and that's play my part and try to win games." [...]
"I feel like they want me here because, shoot, I'm still here," he said. "All the rumors, whatever it is, it's just rumors. I feel like if there was something they wanted to do, I would already be gone … I know the defense, and I want to show them I really want to be here, because I love Philadelphia, I made it my home and I would be sad if I had to leave."
Graham’s first four years in the league have been star-crossed, to say the least. A torn ACL ended a promising rookie season in 2010, while a complicated microfracture surgery stemming from the injury all but erased his 2011 campaign.
By the time Graham was finally healthy in 2012, he was blocked on the depth chart by Trent Cole and Jason Babin. Then, the Eagles switched to a 3-4 defense under new head coach Chip Kelly in 2013 and signed Connor Barwin to play opposite Cole at outside linebacker.
This May, the club used a first-round pick on Marcus Smith, further indicating Graham isn’t part of the plan in Philly.
Graham really isn’t a great fit for the Birds’ scheme, which is why the rumors began swirling in the first place. He’s still there, though, so everybody has to make the best of it for now. To Graham’s credit, he’s trying to do just that, but it can’t be easy when the writing is on the wall.