Philadelphia Eagles Biggest Preseason Disappointments So Far
Like most NFL franchises, the Philadelphia Eagles have their eyes trained on the Super Bowl this season. Coming off a 10-6 season and an NFC East title in Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach, the vibe surrounding the team is largely optimistic, from the players inside the locker room to talk-radio callers and internet commentators.
The positive energy is only natural this time of year for all but the most hopeless teams and their faithful followers, but let’s be real. Every squad has been trying to plug a few leaks this summer—and the Eagles are no different.
I know a lot of folks are feeling good about the Birds after their starters and backups ran up a 24-0 lead on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top units in the third exhibition game, considered the final tune-up for the regular season. However, it hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows for Philly during the preseason. The team has experienced its share of disappointments.
Luckily, it's not been too many, and even some of the so-called disappointments are more of a testament to the kind of depth the front office has built up in the short period of time since Kelly’s arrival. Then again, if you’re going to talk about the Eagles’ chances to finally hoist the Lombardi Trophy come February, it all starts with an honest assessment of what could be better.
DeMeco Ryans’ 2013 campaign garnered mixed reviews.
For instance, defensive coordinator Bill Davis described the ninth-year veteran as “the heart and soul” of Philadelphia’s defense during a press conference last season as Ryans was on his way to topping all NFL defenders in snaps played. The two-time Pro Bowler set career highs with four sacks and two interceptions while leading the club with 127 tackles.
On the other hand, there is little debate a 30-year-old Ryans is overextended as an every-down linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Even Davis had to admit (via Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly.com) back in June that the plan is to reduce Ryans’ snap count in 2014.
The preseason has only reinforced the notion that Ryans isn’t an ideal fit in his current role or has begun to decline or both. He remains a liability in coverage, which was never really a strong suit. But more worrisome and somewhat uncharacteristically, Ryans has come across a number of plays this summer that he just wasn’t able to finish.
The game-charters at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) have Ryans down for two missed tackles in 52 total snaps this preseason, which I thought might be a tad generous.
Obviously, you don’t expect improvement out of a player at this stage of Ryans’ career. What you don’t want to see, though, are signs that he might be falling apart. No matter how much Davis wants to limit his snaps, the fact of the matter is there is no established depth behind Ryans, no high draft pick waiting in the wings to take his place.
Ryans’s decline is inevitable. Unfortunately, the Eagles are stuck hoping for another year of mixed reviews.
Sticking with linebackers for a moment, let’s talk about Philadelphia first-round pick Marcus Smith. While he hasn’t looked completely overmatched defending against the run or dropping into coverage, Smith’s inability to generate pressure against opposing quarterbacks is striking.
Popular thinking had the Eagles taking the 2013 AAC Defensive Player of the Year to do just that coming off a senior season in which he finished second in the nation with 14.5 sacks. Now, as Smith struggles to find his way in the NFL, Bill Davis is already looking forward to “year two” of the 22-year-old’s development based on a conversation with Tim McManus for Philadelphia Magazine.
Of course, none of this should come as an especially huge surprise.
Smith’s role was always going to be limited as long as Trent Cole and Connor Barwin are still holding down the fort at outside linebacker. Furthermore, as depicted by CBSSports.com, scouting reports warned Smith—a converted quarterback—was raw as a pass-rusher, as evidenced by the fact that he only produced one standout season at Louisville.
That, by the way, came at the hands of a weak conference. You didn’t think Smith was going to rely on pure athleticism to run around NFL protections the way he did to Temple, Rutgers and Connecticut, did you?
That being said, it is disappointing whenever a first-round pick doesn’t make an impact right away. Sure, No. 26 overall is going deep, and in the interest of fairness, there are probably a lot of guys in that area of the draft who will be riding the pine this year.
Regardless, Smith isn’t as far along in his development as many observers would’ve liked. While I don’t happen to agree with the expectations, there’s no denying he hasn’t lived up to them.
Earl Wolff looked surprisingly competent last season for a fifth-round pick at safety, one of the more cerebral positions on defense, if not the entire NFL. The North Carolina State product appeared in 11 games in 2013, starting six, and while impact plays were lacking—just five pass breakups and an interception—he was only a hair away from making several others.
The hope for year two was Wolff’s instincts would improve significantly as he became more comfortable in the defense, then the 24-year-old could unseat eternally lackluster veteran Nate Allen for a starting job.
That hasn’t happened yet.
While we were promised a competition at safety, it has seldom appeared that way this summer. Allen has taken the bulk of the first-team reps opposite Malcolm Jenkins, both during practice and in preseason games.
Wolff hasn’t exactly made the most of his opportunities, failing to register so much as a tackle in two of Philadelphia’s three games this summer. He did post a healthy line in Week 2 against the New England Patriots with three tackles, a pass breakup and a forced fumble. Otherwise, it’s been a quiet summer.
That’s not to say Wolff has been written off from eventually ascending to starter or even contributing in 2014. He simply never pushed Allen to the brink, which there’s not even any shame in that.
For all the grief Allen takes from the fanbase, he’s coming off of a very solid season.
Perhaps Wolff just needs more reps in a game situation, which he’s expected to get in Thursday’s final exhibition game against the New York Jets, according to Ed Kracz for the Bucks County Courier Times.
After all, we’re talking about a raw second-year player at a difficult position to master. Yet the fact that Wolff wasn’t able to beat out Allen for the job is sure to annoy anybody who’s waiting on the next Brian Dawkins to emerge.
In all honesty, Allen Barbre hasn’t been awful—a ringing endorsement, I know. He struggled at moments in all three preseason games, but always settled down and managed to be effective. And in the interest of fairness, Barbre taking some lumps is only natural, as the journeyman lineman has limited NFL experience at right tackle.
My gut feeling after watching him closely this summer is the Eagles will be fine in the short term.
However, you can’t talk about the great disappointments of the preseason without mentioning Lane Johnson and how much better and stronger the offensive line would be if he were playing. Johnson, of course, is demoted for the time being as he gets set to serve a four-game suspension for use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The fourth overall pick of the 2013 draft, Johnson helped pave the way for LeSean McCoy’s rushing title last season. In addition to his already impressive ability as a run-blocker, Johnson was becoming increasingly sound in pass protection. At 6’6”, 317 pounds and possessing elite athleticism for his size, they just don’t make many athletes like that.
Barbre did a nice job in a handful of relief appearances last year, but how he holds up over four full games—potentially longer at the discretion of the coaching staff—remains to be seen. There’s a reason the eighth-year veteran has been bouncing around the league since he was first released by the Green Bay Packers in 2010.
Again, the Eagles should be able to survive the loss of Johnson for a month or two. They can game-plan around Barbre by calling quick passes, using a tight end or running back to help or moving the pocket. No matter what kind of offense is implemented, though, expect some drop-off in performance overall from that right-tackle position.
Need I even continue?
It was disappointing the Eagles couldn’t find a replacement for Alex Henery during the offseason, but it was understandable. 2014 ushered in a weak free-agent market for kickers, and the club didn’t have draft picks to spare, so tapping into the pool of rookie free agents while keeping an eye on the waiver wire seemed like the best approach.
In the meantime, Henery has managed to plummet from “hopefully serviceable” to “totally unreliable.” He’s 1-of-3 on field-goal tries this summer, including what may have amounted to the final straw, a miss from 31 yards out.
This is coming off of a season in which Henery ranked outside the top 20 in both field-goal accuracy and touchback rate—not to mention his badly botched 48-yard field-goal attempt in a two-point loss during the playoffs.
Sadly, this drama may continue deeper into 2014. Amazingly, Carey Spear offered no legitimate competition, and the Vanderbilt rookie was released already. Philadelphia recently acquired Indianapolis Colts camp body Cody Parkey, and while the jury is out, the undrafted free agent out of Auburn is essentially a total unknown.
Of course, total unknown isn’t necessarily a bad thing compared to Henery. Still, it would come as a mild surprise if the club went in that direction and didn’t opt to wait and see which kickers become available in the coming weeks and months.
Regardless, there could be nothing more disappointing on the Eagles' roster right now than the state of the kicker position. It’s a total mess, one for which there are no obvious solutions in sight.