Philadelphia Eagles: What We've Learned Through Week 2 of Preseason

Andrew Kulp@@KulpSaysContributor IAugust 18, 2014

Philadelphia Eagles: What We've Learned Through Week 2 of Preseason

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    The Philadelphia Eagles entered training camp with only one starting job seemingly at stake. That would be at safety, where veteran Nate Allen was set to battle 2013 fifth-round pick Earl Wolff for the second summer in a row.

    Now that the Birds have a couple of preseason games in the books, though, we know quite a bit more about the roster than we did back in July. And while the competition between Allen and Wolff is not over, the depth chart is certainly beginning to take shape.

    From the looks of things today, Allen is the likely Week 1 starter barring a major reversal in Philadelphia’s third exhibition game. That’s the big “dress rehearsal,” as it’s often referred to around the league, and the last time key players will hit the field until the regular season gets underway.

    Simply put, Allen has been around the ball a lot more this summer. Officially, the fifth-year veteran has seven tackles to Wolff’s three. Allen also recorded an interception, which has probably been the biggest difference-maker up to this point.

    When the Eagles host the Jacksonville Jaguars on September 7, expect Allen to be lined up in the secondary opposite Malcolm Jenkins. With that out of the way, here’s what else we’ve learned halfway through the preseason.

Mark Sanchez Is a High-Level Backup Quarterback

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    His career totals are cringe-worthy. A 55.1 completion percentage, 6.5 yards per attempt, 68 touchdowns to 69 interceptions and a 71.7 passer rating aren’t merely pedestrian; they’re downright awful.

    Yet despite his reputation, Mark Sanchez is proving he was well-worth the investment by the Eagles. Sanchez has been nearly flawless through two preseason appearances for the Birds, completing 18 of 22 passes for 196 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

    Sure, he’s carving up second- and third-string defenses, but that’s what a sixth-year veteran quarterback with 68 regular-season and playoff starts under his belt should be doing to inferior competition.

    Philadelphia swooped in quickly following Sanchez’s release from the New York Jets in March. The thinking at the time was the club wanted an experienced signal-caller to push 2013 fourth-round pick Matt Barkley for the backup job.

    It hasn’t been much of a competition. Sanchez looks better than ever.

    Of course, that isn’t really saying much. Then again, the Jets never surrounded Sanchez with as much offensive talent as the Eagles boast. Running back Darren Sproles, tight end Zach Ertz and even rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews are probably among the most dangerous weapons the former fifth overall pick has ever had.

    Say what you want about Sanchez, but he managed to post a 37-31 record in New York, including 4-2 during the playoffs. Should the Eagles be forced to call his number this season, Sanchez appears poised to be much more than a game manager. He just may be able to put this team on his back.

The Eagles Have an Embarrassment of Riches at Running Back

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    LeSean McCoy is the NFL’s reigning rushing champion and a two-time All-Pro. Darren Sproles is the active career leader in receiving touchdowns at running back. They are household names who form arguably the best backfield tandem in the league.

    The Eagles’ talent at running back runs a lot deeper than two players, though. Second-year player Matthew Tucker along with undrafted rookies David Fluellen and Henry Josey are showing Philadelphia has plenty of options to tote the rock

    Tucker, Fluellen and Josey have combined to carry the football 22 times this preseason for 121 yards with an impressive 5.5 average and two touchdowns. They also added four receptions for 60 yards and two more scores.

    That’s not even including Chris Polk, who’s been sidelined the past few weeks with a hamstring injury. In 2013, Polk became the first back in NFL history to rush for three touchdowns in a season on only 11 carries—from five, 10 and 38 yards out.

    Polk’s spot as the Eagles’ third running back seemed all but assured when camp opened, but his inability to get on the field has created opportunities for some very talented competition. Regardless of which player or players the club keeps, the production should be there.

Wide Receiver Depth Is a Serious Concern

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    You could make the case Jeremy Maclin is the most important player on the Eagles this season. If Maclin was unavailable to play for any reason, like he was for the club’s Week 2 preseason game against the New England Patriots, who would take his place as the offense’s No. 1 wide receiver?

    Riley Cooper? He’s a complementary receiver at best. Following his breakthrough performances during Weeks 5 through 10 last season, Cooper went on to average 3.6 receptions and 4.97 yards with two touchdowns over the Birds’ final seven games, including their postseason loss to the New Orleans Saints.

    Jordan Matthews? The second-round pick out of Vanderbilt has the skill set to develop into a feature receiver down the road, but the fact of the matter is rookie receivers seldom produce big numbers. For example, only four active players recorded 1,000 yards through the air during their first NFL season.

    Josh Huff? It appears the third-round selection’s biggest contributions this season will come on special teams.

    Brad Smith? The 30-year-old has more rushing attempts than receptions in his nine-year NFL career.

    Jeff Maehl? Arrelious Benn? Ifeanyi Momah? Assuming any one of them even makes the team?

    Matthews would seem to be the best option out of the bunch to replace Maclin if the need arises, but there are no ideal options. Granted, the Eagles can supplement some receiver production with dynamic backs like McCoy and Sproles and tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz.

    That being said, the offense still needs a player who can keep defenses honest on the outside, and the only player on the roster with a track record of doing that at this level is Maclin.

    For that matter, any injury to either Matthews or Cooper could be limiting as well, considering the crew behind them. The lack of established depth at wide receiver is a situation to monitor to say the very least.

Zach Ertz Is on the Cusp of a Breakout Season

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    One player who figures to take some of the pressure off the wide receivers is second-year tight end Zach Ertz, who has carried over momentum from a strong December and January into the summer.

    Ertz started becoming a focus of Philadelphia’s offense down the stretch in 2013, particularly inside the red zone. The 35th overall selection out of Stanford pulled down four touchdown catches over the Eagles’ final six games last season, including the playoffs.

    Ertz has certainly made the most of the 36 snaps he’s played thus far in the preseason, according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The 6’5”, 250-pound matchup nightmare has six receptions for 76 yards and a score through two games.

    The development should come as no surprise to Eagles fans who caught a glimpse of what the 23-year-old could do last season. Ertz is a tight end who runs routes as fluidly as most wideouts. He could easily be the next in the mold of Jimmy Graham for the New Orleans Saints and Rob Gronkowski for the New England Patriots.

The Offensive Line Is a Bit of a Question Mark

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    The Eagles are already trying to overcome a four-game suspension to right tackle Lane Johnson. Journeyman Allen Barbre has been promoted to starter at least until Johnson is eligible to return, perhaps longer.

    That’s not the only issue the unit is facing, though. Three of the five starters—four if you include Barbre—are on the wrong side of 30, when decline can be swift and unexpected. And if the first two preseason games are any indication, maybe it shouldn’t be unexpected at all.

    All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters, All-Pro left guard Evan Mathis and right guard Todd Herremans have struggled to an extent in their first action since January.

    Peters was called for a holding penalty and one game and bowled over for a sack in another. Mathis committed two holds in Week 1 and has not dominated in the running attack the way we’ve become accustomed. Herremans has whiffed on several second-level blocks in the running game, particularly when pulling.

    Barbre has taken his lumps as well, which is no surprise. While there is some confidence in the eighth-year veteran coming off some quality relief appearances in 2013—be warned, the sample size was small—Barbre has very limited experience both at right tackle or performing at a high level.

    As far as Peters, Mathis and Herremans are concerned, it’s too early to panic. These are veteran players, so we know what to expect regardless of what we’ve seen in limited preseason encounters.

    Still, you can’t ignore their collective age and the universal fact that older athletes decline. For all his honors, Peters wasn’t as good in ‘13 as he was in ‘11, prior to undergoing two surgeries to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon. Herremans rebounded after a poor first half last season, but he wasn’t exactly a force out there.

    The writing is on the wall. Sooner or later, this group has to go downhill. The Eagles are hoping they can get at least one more quality year before one or all of these guys fall off a cliff.

The Defensive Line Is Much Deeper

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    This time one year ago, Vinny Curry was essentially learning a new position despite the fact that his designation of “defensive end” never changed. Now, with a season under his belt in Philadelphia’s 3-4 defense, the 2012 second-round pick is ready to wreak havoc on a more consistent basis.

    Curry’s continued development as a two-gapping end should equate to more playing time, which is good considering he was tied for second on the team with five sacks in ’13 despite limited playing time. At the very least, though, he figures to substitute for starter Cedric Thornton on obvious passing downs.

    However, Curry is just one reason why the unit should be improved as a whole.

    Seventh-round pick Beau Allen has been generating a lot of buzz as well. The Wisconsin product has been one of the genuine surprises of the preseason, getting in on five tackles and generally being a load for offensive linemen to handle.

    At 333 pounds, Allen is already the heaviest defensive lineman on the team. With starter Bennie Logan nursing a hamstring injury for much of camp, the rookie has been getting plenty of reps, including some with the first unit. And considering Damion Square gave the Eagles very little as a backup last year, Allen appears to offer something in that capacity—if he doesn’t wind up taking Logan’s job.

    There’s also a ton of competition at end. Fifth-round pick Taylor Hart out of Oregon figures to have one roster spot locked up. 2013 seventh-rounder Joe Kruger was placed on injured reserve coming out of last year’s camp, but he’s back, while surprising 29-year-old Brandon Bair has really stood out in preseason games. My guess is Bair makes the squad.

    Throw Fletcher Cox’s name in there, and suddenly this is shaping up to be a heck of a deep and talented group from starters to bench.

Marcus Smith Will Be Limited as a Rookie

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    You hate to hear this about a first-round pick, but at this point, outside linebacker Marcus Smith appears to be a bit more of a project than the Eagles are letting on.

    Smith was perhaps best known by draftniks for his pass-rushing prowess at Louisville. The 2013 AAC Defensive Player of the Year racked up 14.5 sacks as a senior, good for second in the nation. However, so far he’s been stonewalled by NFL pass protectors at almost every turn, unable to generate much pressure on opposing passers.

    In all honesty, it’s not that huge of a surprise. A converted quarterback, Smith was a bit of a late-bloomer in college. He only had the one standout season, and even then, that was playing against the likes of Temple, Rutgers and Connecticut and their ilk—not exactly a bunch of powerhouse programs.

    That’s not to say Smith hasn’t flashed potential, but mostly it’s been in other phases. The 22-year-old understands setting the edge versus the run and knows how to use his 34-inch arms to keep blockers at bay.

    Perhaps where Smith is best suited to help the club right away, though, is dropping into coverage. He’s surprisingly fluid and agile when backpedaling, sticks to his assignment and uses his speed and length to cover a lot of ground. He even makes solid open-field tackles.

    In my opinion, the best way for defensive coordinator Bill Davis to utilize Smith now is situationally, largely on third downs. He’s ready to help in coverage immediately, and maybe as part of more complicated blitz packages, Smith can be an effective pass-rusher as well.

    With Trent Cole and Connor Barwin holding down the starting outside linebacker jobs, just don’t expect Smith to play an enormous amount of snaps.

Nolan Carroll Was a Hugely Important Offseason Addition

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    Watching cornerbacks Roc Carmichael and Curtis Marsh getting burned repeatedly the past two weeks was disconcerting. … That is, until you remember both are long shots to make the team.

    Nolan Carroll has yet to don an Eagles uniform, but with Carmichael and Marsh’s nightmare performances, the offseason acquisition has already managed to demonstrate immense value. Signed to a two-year deal during free agency, Carroll started 22 games at corner for the Miami Dolphins over the past two seasons, whereas Carmichael and Marsh have combined to start two over seven NFL seasons.

    We haven’t had a chance to watch Carroll in the preseason yet due to a groin injury. However, prior to coming down with that, he was pushing for a larger role in the defense with a strong training camp. Stealing a starting job from either Cary Williams or Bradley Fletcher wasn’t out of the question.

    Given all of the missed time, Carroll’s chances of starting are probably off the table for now at least. However, even as a backup, Carroll is vital to this team’s chances.

    Look no further than the playoff loss to the Saints. Williams had to come out for a play with an injury, leaving Carmichael to enter the game on a crucial 3rd-and-12. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees went right after Williams’ replacement, completing a 14-yard pass to wide receiver Kenny Stills to move the sticks. New Orleans went on to score on the drive and went on to win by two.

    Whether it’s as an injury replacement, in the defense’s dime package or as a full-time starter, Carroll clearly has an important role in Philadelphia. That much couldn’t have been made any more obvious based on the performances by Marsh and Carmichael.

There Is No Kicking Competition

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Alex Henery missed a 47-yard field goal wide for the Eagles during their Week 2 preseason contest. One would’ve thought this might be the perfect opening for Carey Spear to make a statement.

    Much like the previous week’s game, however, Spear was neither seen nor heard. The undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt remained glued to the bench, not getting the chance to attempt a single field goal, extra point or kickoff in a game situation himself.

    Kicking competition? There is no kicking competition.

    As disappointing as it will be to go into another season with Henery on the roster, Spear never truly challenged for his job. The kid’s kickoffs were shorter. He was less accurate on field-goal attempts. In short, Spear is not a better option or really even an option at all.

Special Teams Are Improved Anyway

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    Barring a quality kicker becoming available after cuts, Philadelphia will be forced to endure another year of Henery. That’s another year of a below-average touchback rate, another year of head coach Chip Kelly being unwilling to attempt field goals from 50-plus yards.

    At least the Eagles appear to be vastly improved in other aspects of special teams if the preseason has been any indication.

    Already in two short weeks, the Birds’ third unit has produced more impact plays than the team did in Kelly’s entire first season as head coach. Thus far, we’ve seen Huff return a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown, we’ve seen Bair block a field goal and we’ve seen Benn block a punt.

    Think special teams aren’t important? In all, those plays have created a 17-point swing for Philly in two games—and it easily could’ve been more.

    As much as Henery’s miss from 48 yards cost the Eagles in their 26-24 playoff loss to the Saints, it was a big kick return that set up the game-winning score. No kicker puts the ball into the end zone 100 percent of the time. The coverage unit needs to be able to shut those plays down.

    So far this preseason, there haven’t been any big kick or punt returns going against the Eagles. Based on the improvements in the other phases, perhaps there’s reason to be optimistic that, by and large, Philadelphia’s long-running issues on special teams are finally solved.

    Any observations from Eagles training camp were witnessed firsthand by the author, except where otherwise attributed.