Setting Realistic Expectations for Each Philadelphia Eagles Rookie
After winning 10 games and the NFC East crown as a rookie head coach, Chip Kelly has set the bar high. The Philadelphia Eagles return an immensely talented team—minus DeSean Jackson—and the rest of the division doesn't seem to pose much of a threat.
The team's main goal during training camp and the preseason should be avoiding injuries. In 2012, All-Pro offensive tackle Jason Peters tore his Achilles tendon, and the Eagles never recovered. Last year, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin tore his ACL and missed the entire season.
This summer, Philadelphia has been remarkably healthy. The recent suspension of first-round right tackle Lane Johnson, first reported by Paul Domowitch of The Daily News, doesn't help, but the injury report has been nearly bare.
Getting strong performances from the rookies will be key for Kelly. The recent draft classes have been spectacular. The 2012 draft yielded four standout players in Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Nick Foles and Brandon Boykin. Last year looks to be promising as well, highlighted by Johnson, Zach Ertz and Bennie Logan in the first three rounds.
For the 2014 Eagles to advance far in the postseason, they will need contributions from their rookie class as well. Here is a breakdown of what each draft pick should be aiming for in both training camp and the regular season. Not every undrafted rookie is included, but a few who could play significant roles are on the list.
Round 1: Marcus Smith, OLB, Louisville
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman reached a bit for Louisville outside linebacker Marcus Smith, a projected second or third-round pick, with the No. 26 overall pick. Smith is currently buried behind Trent Cole and Connor Barwin, two veteran linebackers who played very well in 2013.
Cole transitioned to a stand-up linebacker role for the first time in his career. After a slow start, he picked up eight sacks in the second half of the season. For the season, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated Cole as the second-best player at his position in stopping the run and seventh-best overall.
Barwin was the jack-of-all-trades linebacker who picked up five sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and 32 quarterback hurries. His pass knockdown in Week 17 against Dallas helped save the season.
The pair is set to make $6.6 million and $6.4 million against the salary cap in 2014, which makes them the fourth and fifth-highest paid players on the roster. By sheer virtue of their contracts, both should enter the season as starters and team leaders on the defensive side of the ball.
That’s why it is a long shot that Smith beats out Cole for the starting spot, but it should be his goal in training camp. Smith was a first-round pick, and that comes with high expectations. Even if Smith doesn’t fully supplant Cole as the other 3-4 linebacker—which could make Cole a veteran cut—it would be ideal if Smith can prove to be an asset on pass-rushing downs.
Training Camp Goal: Beat Out Veteran Trent Cole for Starting Outside Linebacker Spot
Season Goal: Play Over 50 Percent of Defensive Snaps
Round 2: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Jordan Matthews has nothing to worry about in terms of making the roster; his spot is assured. Chip Kelly had already announced that Matthews will begin in the slot, where his 6'3" frame will cause mismatch problems for opposing defenses.
Expectations are high for Matthews, though, and it's not unreasonable to think that Matthews could outright beat out newly-extended Riley Cooper for the No. 2 spot. Cooper was rewarded with a five-year, $25 million deal after a breakout 2013 campaign, but he may have a difficult time fending off the athletic Matthews.
In terms of sheer physical ability, Cooper doesn't have much on Matthews; Cooper is 6'4", 220 pounds, while Matthews was 6'3", 212 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. But Matthews' 4.46 speed in the 40-yard dash is significantly faster than Cooper's, and Matthews led all receivers with 23 repetitions of the bench press.
Simply put, Matthews is almost the same size as Cooper, and he's both faster and stronger. Matthews has been a sensation so far in camp, drawing rave reviews from all the beat writers. Expectations will be high that Matthews can become a star in this league very soon.
Rookie wide receivers historically have a difficult time adjusting to the NFL level. It took physical freak Calvin Johnson until his third season to break the 1,000-yard plateau. Rarely do receivers come in right away and produce at a near-Pro Bowl level, such as A.J. Green in 2011 or Keenan Allen in 2013.
But Matthews appears to be special. He's in a system that brought out the best in both DeSean Jackson and Cooper a year ago. His quarterback, Nick Foles, played at a record-setting pace last season, and All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy will certainly keep defenses honest.
Winning the slot receiver job will be easy for Matthews; he's all but been appointed the starter by Kelly, and holding off third-round receiver Josh Huff shouldn't be too much of a challenge. If Matthews puts together a phenomenal camp and plays very well in the preseason contests, he has a shot to take some of Cooper's snaps as an outside receiver.
Factor in that veteran wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is rehabbing from a torn ACL, and Matthews could very well lead this team in receiving yards right away.
Training Camp Goal: Beat Out Riley Cooper to Be the No. 2 Target Among Wide Receivers
Season Goal: Lead Team in Receiving Yards
Round 3: Josh Huff, WR, Oregon
Josh Huff was the second wide receiver the Philadelphia Eagles picked, and he will likely be the fourth player on the depth chart at his position. It’s highly unlikely that Huff beats out Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper or Jordan Matthews, but he should have no problem holding off players like Brad Smith or Arrelious Benn.
Huff is 5’11”, 200 pounds, and should fill the slot receiver role nicely. Matthews will play the majority of the snaps at this spot, but should Maclin or Cooper get hurt, Huff will play full-time in the slot, with Matthews moving to the outside.
Huff’s main goal, though, should be to win the punt returner job. This is a wide-open camp battle that has seen everyone from Cooper to fourth-round pick Jaylen Watkins to Huff battling for the duties. Huff never returned punts in college, but he was a fairly effective kick returner, running back 43 kicks for the Oregon Ducks at a 23.0 yard average.
During the season, Huff probably won’t push the top three receivers for playing time. There’s also LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, Brent Celek and Zach Ertz in the mix. That means the Eagles have eight players pushing for viable time catching passes; if Huff can finish in the top six in receptions, that would be a definite success.
Training Camp Goal: Win Punt Returning Job
Season Goal: Finish Top Six on Team in Receptions
Round 4: Jaylen Watkins, CB, Florida
The Philadelphia Eagles added another defensive back to their collection when they drafted Florida’s Jaylen Watkins in the fourth round. Watkins should be a lock to make the official 53-man roster, especially because he has the versatility to play safety as well as cornerback.
He will battle a handful of players for a cornerback spot. There’s Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, the 2013 starters. Brandon Boykin was a borderline star as a nickelback, recording six interceptions—including the division-clinching pick in Week 17 against Dallas. And free-agent corner Nolan Carroll came over from Miami, where he had an underrated ’13 campaign.
Right now, Watkins is the fifth cornerback on a crowded depth chart. He’s substantially ahead of the sixth and seventh corners, Roc Carmichael and Curtis Marsh. There’s really no chance either of them beats out Watkins.
What Watkins should be hoping for is that he plays well enough in training camp that Fletcher is a veteran release in August. Fletcher is due to make $3.6 million in the final year of his contract, and it’s doubtful he will be re-signed after the campaign. If Watkins can make enough plays in camp and preseason games, he could potentially spell the end of Fletcher’s time in Philly.
Training Camp Goal: Play Well Enough That Bradley Fletcher is Released
Season Goal: Play Regularly as a Dime Cornerback or Extra Safety
Round 5: Taylor Hart, DE, Oregon
The Philadelphia Eagles added depth to their defensive line when they added 5-technique end Taylor Hart, an Oregon product who played college football under Chip Kelly.
Hart joins a crowded positional group that will be led by 2013 standout players Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton. There's 2012 second-round pick Vinny Curry, who played well in passing situations. That means Hart is up against Damion Square and Joe Kruger for the main depth spots.
Hart should be able to make the 53-man roster and see action on plays. An injury to another end will dramatically help his chances.
Training Camp Goal: Play Well Enough to Make 53-Man Roster
Season Goal: Earn Solid Playing Time as Depth Piece
Round 5: Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
The Philadelphia Eagles’ half-hearted attempts at filling the safety position continued with fifth-round pick Ed Reynolds in 2014. Since allowing Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell to walk in free agency, the organization has tried everything possible at safety without spending a lot of money or a first-round pick.
Nate Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett were second-round picks. Late-round selections Kurt Coleman and Macho Harris were forced into playing time. Patrick Chung, Marlin Jackson and Kenny Phillips were failed free-agent additions.
Earl Wolff still has a chance to be a good player. After all, he performed well as a rookie in limited snaps. Right now, the depth chart has Malcolm Jenkins and Allen at the top, with Wolff as the primary backup. Reynolds’ goal should be to beat out Wolff (or even Jenkins or Allen) to be one of the top three safeties on the roster.
It will be a difficult task for Reynolds, who was a late-round pick for a reason. Still, it would be difficult to see him missing the 53-man roster entirely; at the very least, he should be the fourth safety.
Training Camp Goal: Enter Week 1 as Primary Backup
Season Goal: Beat Out Malcolm Jenkins, Nate Allen or Earl Wolff for Regular Playing Time
Round 7: Beau Allen, NT, Wisconsin
The Philadelphia Eagles must really like last year’s third-round nose tackle, Bennie Logan. After all, Notre Dame lineman Louis Nix III was on the board in both the second and third rounds of this May’s draft, and Howie Roseman passed both times.
The Eagles did add Wisconsin nose tackle Beau Allen in the seventh round, giving the defensive line a 350-pound player who can plug the middle of the three-man front. Allen was a good college player, seeing action in all 54 of his games with the Badgers.
Allen offers very little as a pass-rusher, so he will have to make the team as a player that can require double teams in running situations. Last season, the Eagles used undrafted rookie Damion Square as the backup nose tackle after they traded away Isaac Sopoaga. Square’s spot is in no way guaranteed—but then again, neither is Allen’s.
If Allen can make the roster, training camp has to be considered a success. Making the roster likely means he’s the backup nose tackle, so from there, he would just have to keep his spot.
Training Camp Goal: Make 53-Man Roster
Season Goal: Play as Primary Backup at Nose Tackle
Undrafted Rookies: Henry Josey, RB, Missouri / David Fluellen, RB, Toledo
Behind LeSean McCoy, the Philadelphia Eagles don’t have a lot of depth at the running back position. Darren Sproles was brought over via a trade, but he’s more of a slot receiver at this point in his career.
Chris Polk would handle the running duties if McCoy got hurt. Polk played well in extremely limited action in 2013, averaging 8.9 carries on his 11 carries. But that’s completely different than playing regularly, which is what would happen should McCoy suffer any sort of an injury.
Undrafted rookies Henry Josey and David Fluellen will be competing for the fourth running back spot along with second-year back Matthew Tucker. Tucker was briefly on the roster in 2013, but he hasn’t shown anything to establish himself ahead of Josey or Fluellen.
Consider this a wide-open camp battle. Performing well on special teams is how Josey or Fluellen can make the roster. Should one of them make it, he may need an injury to a player ahead of him.
Training Camp Goal: Make 53-Man Roster
Season Goal: Earn Several Carries and Impress Enough to be No. 3 RB for 2015
Undrafted Rookie: Quron Pratt, WR, Rutgers
The Philadelphia Eagles have a crowded depth chart at the wide receiver position. Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff are all locks to make the 53-man roster. Brad Smith, Arrelious Benn, Jeff Maehl and Damaris Johnson all have NFL experience.
That means undrafted rookie Quron Pratt is competing with 2013 camp favorite Ifeanyi Momah, former Oregon receiver Will Murphy, 2012 sixth-round pick B.J. Cunningham, and fellow undrafted rookies Trey Burton and Kadron Boone for a spot. And realistically, Pratt would have to play better than one of the aforementioned players: Smith, Benn, Maehl or Johnson.
It’s a very long shot that Pratt makes it. Chip Kelly will probably keep five receivers, which would likely make Smith the fifth player. If he keeps six receivers, the final guy will likely be Benn or Maehl—unless Johnson wins the punt return duties.
Pratt will need an injury and a strong camp, but his best bet is that he catches Kelly’s eye enough to stick around on the practice squad.
Training Camp Goal: Earn Spot on Practice Squad
Season Goal: Appear in Regular-Season Game
Undrafted Rookie: Carey Spear, K, Vanderbilt
Expecting Carey Spear to actually beat out Alex Henery may be unrealistic. Reports so far out of camp say Henery has vastly outperformed Spear.
Henery is also still in his rookie contract—he's set to make just $780,000 in 2014—so money isn't an issue. While Henery has become a punching bag with the fanbase as of late, particularly after his crucial miss in last year's NFC Wild Card loss, he's still the sixth-most accurate kicker in league history.
As a rookie in 2011, Henery set the single-season record by converting nearly 90 percent of his field goals. Leg strength has always been the problem for Henery, who has just two career field goals of over 50 yards. Last year, Henery was rated 28th by Pro Football Focus in average yards per kickoff (64.7).
His deficiencies as a kicker were never more evident than in the Minnesota game, when Chip Kelly called for shorter kickoffs to compensate for Cordarrelle Patterson's dangerous return skills and Henery's inability to kick the ball out of the end zone.
But Spear is just an undrafted rookie, and he's competing against a four-year NFL veteran. For the Eagles to contend in 2014, they will need the most experienced kicker. That's Henery.
Spear's goal should be that he can kick well enough that another team signs him either as a kickoff specialist—a rarity in today's game—or as a short-term option if its regular kicker is injured. This year, Spear's best bet is that he becomes one of the kickers teams call when their kicker is injured (or ineffective), and eventually locks on with a team for the 2015 campaign.
Training Camp Goal: Kick Well Enough That Another NFL Team Signs Him After Their Kicker Gets Injured
Season Goal: Serve as One of the Top Go-to Free-Agent Kickers Around the NFL