Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch
As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to open training camp on Friday, July 25, there is arguably no bigger storyline to watch than Chip Kelly’s evolution as an NFL head coach. Why, just the other day, Pat Kirwan of CBSSports.com named Kelly the fifth-most influential person in the entire league.
There’s no denying Kelly made an impact in 2013. His uptempo offense and sports science program are way ahead of the curve, and there’s little doubt both will be implemented to some degree by nearly all 32 franchises in the near future.
Not only that, Kelly has a sizeable chunk of the city of Philadelphia eating out of the palm of his hand. “In Chip we trust” is a common phrase on internet forums and talk radio, and you won’t find many fans who think the reigning NFC East champions aren’t bound to improve on last season’s 10-6 record.
But are the Eagles, in fact, a better team? That is what Kelly is truly out to prove, not that his offense is in vogue or whether his strength and conditioning programs are superior. It’s one of a handful of stories to follow as camp gets underway.
Welcome to Philadelphia’s summer of Nick Foles. If you write sports in the City of Brotherly Love, there’s a solid chance you will write or have written one or 10 articles about the Eagles’ signal-caller this summer as the 25-year-old heads into his first training camp as a starter.
As the narrative goes, Foles is out to prove his historic 2013 was no fluke. Last season, Foles shattered the NFL record for touchdown-to-interception ratio over a single season with 27 scores and two picks. In terms of passer efficiency, it was the third-best season of all-time. He even earned Offensive Player of the Month honors and was named MVP of the Pro Bowl along the way.
The narrative goes on to say that Foles is playing for a new contract this year. In particular, a long-term extension that signifies his status as the franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future. Until he has that, Foles could supposedly be cast aside if his follow-up campaign falls short of (likely unreasonable) expectations.
Oh, and in the meantime, we’ll be digging deep in Foles’ personal life. Who are the women in his life? What did college coaches think of him? Philadelphia Magazine will even dispatch Buzz Bissinger to Foles’ home state of Texas for…I don’t even know. Human-interest pieces aren’t for me.
The point is, if there’s an opinion about Foles, it will most assuredly wind up being expressed in writing at some point over the next few months. Come to think of it, could it be any clearer who the franchise quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles is?
Are the Wide Receivers Good Enough?
You can’t blame the Eagles for releasing DeSean Jackson. Even if only some of what we heard or know over the years was true—missing meetings, bickering with coaches, constantly wanting to renegotiate his contract, suspect effort, questionable off-field activities and associations, per Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com, and general me-first attitude—the organization was justified in reaching its decision.
By the same token, you can’t really blame anybody for feeling the situation was mishandled. How does the front office get nothing for a 27-year-old, three-time Pro Bowler coming off a career year? You mean to tell me the Eagles couldn’t get a conditional seventh-round pick from the Oakland Raiders?
Actually, accepting an uneven trade might set a bad precedent, but you get the idea.
So while it’s all well and good the Eagles got rid of a bad fit, Jackson was still the most productive receiver on the team last year by a long shot. Will the league’s No. 2 offense be able to compensate for that kind of loss?
Who knows, they might be better—at least, better suited for the coverages they’re facing. As Mike Sielski wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jackson’s release could’ve been motivated just as much by the diminutive wideout’s limitations against press coverage as it was the prima-donna attitude.
But the Eagles' preference for bigger receivers is also borne out of the measures that their opponents took last season to try to counteract the tempo and unpredictability of Kelly's offense. "It just seems like we're going to get press coverage more," wide receiver coach Bob Bicknell said. "That's what we got—single guy in the middle of the field, and they told both of our receivers, 'We're going to press you.' So it's simple. That's what we have to defeat. Now, they could try to change that, but they didn't last year."
Whatever the case, the unit has a lot to prove. Jeremy Maclin saw his 2013 erased by injury, while Riley Cooper looked like an adequate No. 2 at best in his stead. Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff are promising rookies, but they have accomplished nothing in the NFL. Time will tell whether this group can get it done.
DeMeco Ryans on the Field Less?
Since his arrival via trade in 2012, DeMeco Ryans has been heralded as the leader of Philadelphia’s defense. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis even described the two-time Pro Bowler as “the heart and soul” of the unit this past season, as transcribed by PhiladelphiaEagles.com.
Despite the fact that Ryans is about to turn 30 and is arguably miscast as a three-down linebacker in a 3-4 defense, he’ll hold on to his job at interior linebacker for now due to a lack of depth. However, that three-down part might be going by the wayside.
Davis told Reuben Frank for CSNPhilly.com that there will be a commitment from the coaching staff to lessen Ryans’ snaps in 2014. As opposed to last season, in which Frank mentioned Ryans played every defensive snap in 12 whole games.
It’s not that the Eagles are trying to replace Ryans—as I alluded to, they can’t. Clearly, the coaching staff realizes he has limitations, though, be that the result of age, the fact that he was never good in coverage or perhaps simply an understanding that Ryans is human.
Najee Goode probably stands to see more playing time if the Eagles commit to giving Ryans more breathers. The lack of depth on the interior is a potentially larger problem than giving guys breathers, though. Should something happen to Ryans and/or Mychal Kendricks beside him, could Philly’s defense survive such a loss?
Veterans in Danger of Losing Their Jobs?
The top of the depth chart may appear to be set at most positions, but Geoff Mosher for CSNPhilly.com suggested all things are not necessarily as concrete as we suspect. He suggested five veterans who could be in danger of not only losing their starting jobs, but their roster spots altogether.
Mosher ultimately concluded that right guard Todd Herremans, outside linebacker Trent Cole and tight end Brent Celek are likely safe. All three were beyond serviceable last year, and in Herremans’ and Coles’ case, there would be very little savings with the salary cap.
That leaves outside linebacker Brandon Graham and cornerback Bradley Fletcher.
I’m not of the mindset the Eagles would cut Graham. Sure, he isn’t an ideal fit for a 3-4 defense, but the former first-round pick still managed to apply pressure on opposing passers in limited opportunities last season. Given the lack of established depth at the position, Graham might wind up being the best pass-rusher on the entire defense if Cole happened to be out for any length of time.
If nothing else, I would expect Graham to command some value in a late-August/early-September trade—a late draft pick, at least.
Fletcher was the one that really got me thinking. At first, seeing his name on the list was a genuine surprise. I felt he was the better of the two starting corners last season, finishing tied for 17th with 15 pass breakups in 14 games in ’13. However, if a release was motivated by trying to save a couple of bucks, it might theoretically makes sense. Of course, that’s all contingent upon free-agent addition Nolan Carroll beating Fletcher out for a starting job.
Fletcher is scheduled to become a free agent in the offseason, so there’s no appearance of loyalty there. According to Spotrac, Philadelphia could save $3.65 million against the cap by releasing him now.
Then again, the Eagles knew full-well their cap situation—which is fine, by the way—when Carroll was signed. Meanwhile, while it wouldn’t make financial sense to release Cary Williams, his job opposite Fletcher feels as though it’s just as much if not more up for grabs. In conclusion, I personally am not anticipating any surprise cuts, but as you can clearly see, you never know.
Did the Eagles Get Better or Worse?
Technically, we won’t know the answer to the question “Did the Eagles get better or worse?” until the regular season gets underway. Having said that, expect a certain sense of doubt to permeate the narrative at training camp.
Can the Eagles overcome a more difficult schedule? Will the team be blessed with good health again? Did the front office spend enough money during free agency? Will the draft supply help for this year? Is Nick Foles the real deal? Will the rest of the league catch up to Chip Kelly?
I mean, honestly, where did the Eagles improve? A projected 20 of 22 starters are slated to return from a squad that won 10 games and bounced during the playoffs in 2013. Eight key contributors are already on the wrong side of 30 or will turn prior to Super Bowl XLIX. Tougher schedule, likely increase in major injuries and Foles’ practically inevitable regression toward the mean in turnovers are all factors.
You have to be quite the optimist to look at all the evidence and conclude the Birds will continue trending up in 2014.
Then again, it’s all about the journey. For the next five to six months, analysts will poke and prod at the Eagles, dissecting the organization’s every flaw, coming up with one reason or another why this just isn’t Philadelphia’s year. There’s only one way to find out what an NFL team is made of, though, and that’s on the gridiron.
Are the Eagles better or worse? That pretense will be at the heart of every question asked during training camp. Every player, coach and fan around the league must be anxious to learn the answer.