Rounding Up the Latest Philadelphia Eagles Offseason Buzz
NFL offseason workouts are reaching their peak as the Philadelphia Eagles get set to hold a three-day mandatory minicamp beginning on Tuesday. It's the final stage of preparations for the 2014 season until training camp opens in July.
There will be much more news to come in the days ahead, but even as we approach minicamp, plenty of players are already creating a palpable buzz. In our latest look at those who have been turning heads at OTAs, a bunch of first-, second- and third-year players are in the spotlight.
Lane Johnson experienced his share of welcome-to-the-NFL moments in 2013. As the season wore on, though, it was easy to forget the Eagles were going with a rookie right tackle, a credit to Johnson’s gradual improvement.
Now, as Johnson prepares for his second campaign, the previous year's fourth overall pick is feeling confident in his ability to do the job.
"This is the first year I've been able to play the same position for consecutive years, so playing back-to-back [years] at right tackle will be good for me," said Johnson, per Matt Allibone for CSNPhilly.com. "In the pass set, I feel a lot more comfortable on the right side than I did last year."
Johnson isn't the only one confident in his abilities. His head coach, Chip Kelly, sees the difference as well, per Allibone.
"He's not a first-year player now and he’s not relying on Todd Herremans to make the calls for him," Kelly said. "Last year, Lane made decisions by saying, 'Todd, tell me what to do,' and then executing it. Now he knows what to do and is communicating a little better with those guys."
Johnson was a plus run-blocker from the moment he arrived in Philadelphia, helping pave the way for LeSean McCoy's first rushing championship. It was in pass protection where Johnson's flaws became clearly visible.
However, game-charting numbers by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) reflect Johnson's progress in that department during the second half of the season. Through the first eight games, the right tackled was charged with seven sacks and 29 hurries. The rest of the way, he limited the damage to four sacks and 12 hurries—playoffs included.
Clearly, Johnson and the Eagles coaching staff believe the right tackle will be able to pick up where he left off in '13. The hope is that his development only continues and Johnson turns into a dominant force on the offensive line by season's end.
Since Philadelphia used a second-round pick on Vinny Curry in 2012, the defensive end has been something of an enigma. Curry is a dangerous pass-rusher whenever he gets on the field. The only problem is finding playing time.
Curry was inactive for all but six of his first 18 games on the Eagles roster, including the first two last season. He had to admit to Paul Domowitch for the Philadelphia Daily News that the lack of opportunities sapped his confidence at first. But once Curry started getting into the action, he proved to himself—and the Birds coaching staff—that he has what it takes.
The one thing I learned in college was competitive excellence. When your number's called, you've got to be ready to go and take advantage of your opportunity. That's what I'm doing. Just working hard. I'm doing everything that's asked of me. Keeping motivated. Motivating my teammates. The picture is bigger than me.
In the piece, Domowitch wrote, "Despite playing only 322 snaps, Curry finished third on the team with four sacks. His 22 hurries were fourth on the team behind Fletcher Cox's 39, Connor Barwin's 32 and Trent Cole's 28. It should be noted that Cox, Barwin and Cole all played three times as many snaps as Curry."
Domowitch notes the Eagles primarily used Curry as an inside pass-rusher in nickel packages, a role he's expected to resume in '14. However, the staff may want to consider utilizing him even more moving forward.
According to metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Curry ranked second only to Houston Texans All-Pro J.J. Watt among 3-4 defensive ends in pass rush productivity last season. The formula combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times a player rushes the passer.
That's some fine company to be in. Curry, a natural 4-3 end, is still learning Philly's scheme, which is why he'll remain in a situational role for now. That being said, it might be about time the coaches create a few more situations in which to utilize him.
Last year, second-round pick Zach Ertz missed all of OTAs as he was wrapping up his classes at Stanford. An obscure NFL rule prevents rookies from participating in most workouts and practices until after graduation.
So when Ertz's career in midnight green got off to a bit of a slow start, it wasn't all that surprising. As Zach Berman for The Philadelphia Inquirer points out, once Ertz caught up to the rest of his teammates, he became one of the driving forces in the Eagles offense.
General manager Howie Roseman talked last month about how that missed month affected Ertz's development. His production came mostly in the second half of the 2013 season. He had 22 of his 36 catches, 268 of his 469 yards, and all four of his touchdowns in the final eight games of the season.
The spike corresponded with quarterback Nick Foles' emergence and a five-game winning streak. There was more of an understanding of how Ertz would fit into Kelly's scheme, and the coaching staff had a better sense of how to use him.
Now that he's enjoyed the benefits of a full offseason in Philadelphia, and based on his performance down the stretch in '13, Ertz's growth in the offense can only be expected to continue. He could wind up usurping Brent Celek as the starter at tight end or even reaching the Pro Bowl.
That's not a stretch at all if last season was any indication. Statistically speaking, Ertz's rookie campaign was better than the likes of Pro Bowl tight ends Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis, to name a few.
Obviously, there's no way to predict with any certainty that Ertz's career trajectory will follow the careers of those players, but he's clearly shown a great deal of promise in a short amount of time. If he does follow in their footsteps, though, a huge season is likely on the horizon.
The player who has undoubtedly garnered the most attention during OTAs to this point is second-round pick Jordan Matthews out of Vanderbilt. Jimmy Kempski for Philly.com even went so far as to suggest Matthews has been the best wide receiver on the field—and it's not even close.
Perhaps that shouldn't come as much of a surprise, beings that Matthews is 6'3", 212 pounds and clocked a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, according to NFL.com. Yet in talking to NFL Network analyst and former Eagles offensive lineman Brian Baldinger, Les Bowen for the Philadelphia Daily News learned there's a lot more to this kid than measureables.
I think you just have to look at everything about him - the size, the character, the person. You can see him being successful here. There's something special about the kid . . . I think what we've seen this offseason is that divas don't win championships, and this kid I think is about as far away from a diva as there is.
It's just a matter of time before the rhythm, the groove, the game-planning just falls his way . . . He couldn't have gone to a better place. The quarterback, the structure, the stability here . . . He's going to get a chance to catch a lot of passes in the next 4 years.
The Eagles obviously seemed to see something special in Matthews as well, trading up 12 spots to No. 42 overall to land the wideout. It's also not too difficult to project what the highly productive pass-catcher could do in Philly's high-octane offense.
Over his junior and senior seasons, Matthews recorded 206 catches, 2,800 yards and 15 touchdowns while playing in the notoriously tough SEC no less. The talent is there.
Yet oftentimes, elite players contain something extra that goes beyond raw ability. Baldinger thinks Matthews is one of the guys who not only possesses the intangibles, but just happens to be in the right place at the right time.
Time will tell, but one thing is for sure: Reporters who have attended OTAs can't stop raving about Matthews. Take that for whatever it's worth, but it can't hurt.
Some observers couldn't understand why the Eagles waited until the seventh round of May's draft to take a nose tackle. Clearly, there isn't a lot of faith in Bennie Logan outside of the organization.
One common presumption is that a good 3-4 defense ought to have a blimp-sized human to anchor the defensive line. As Logan explains to Zach Berman for the Philadelphia Daily News, however, not only is he plenty big enough to play the nose—he's actually the perfect size.
Most people, when they picture a nose tackle, they picture a 330-plus guy, just clogging up the middle. But the way we play our defense, you've got to be able to run. And I don't feel I'd be able to run or do the things our coaches, in our scheme, require us to do. That's why I'm not 330, or put on that much weight.
Berman goes on to write, "Logan entered the starting lineup in Week 9, and the Eagles went on a five-game winning streak. He averaged 20 snaps in the first eight games of the season and 41.5 snaps in the last eight. The winning did not begin because of Logan, but the Eagles liked what they saw."
Not only did the Eagles like what they saw last season, but they obviously liked what they saw in the 2013 draft. The Birds used a third-round pick on Logan—not exactly a throwaway selection.
Plus, as Berman notes, Logan gained around 10 pounds in the offseason, putting him in the 317-319 range. That's really not very far off from 330.
And the fact is that Logan performed well after taking over the role from Isaac Sopoaga midway through last season. Defensive line was actually an area of strength for the Eagles last season, especially after Logan entered the starting lineup. Now bulked up and having the job to himself, the fact that there was ever any doubt at all about Logan might seem quite silly a year from now.