Biggest Questions Facing Philadelphia Eagles with Training Camp Underway
The Philadelphia Eagles have opened training camp as one of the most improved teams in the league, but their chances of success in 2017 depend on a number of positive developments taking place before Week 1.
From free agency and the draft to player development and roster moves, Philly has put itself in a position to emerge from last season's 7-9 campaign with a much better record and contend for the NFC East title.
Largely all of the weakest positions were addressed over the offseason, some enthusiastically and others in a more tepid fashion.
General manager Howie Roseman and second-year head coach Doug Pederson had a plan over the offseason as to where pieces would fit and how the 53-man roster would ideally be shaped. But training camp has a way of turning expectations on their heads.
Whether it's an important player struggling or unheralded names emerging as roster candidates, things could look a bit different than they do now when the Eagles head to Washington for Week 1.
With that in mind, let's target the biggest questions left to be answered throughout what's already becoming an enthralling training camp.
Who Will Start at Cornerback?
Let's start with the Eagles' most pressing question that has the most unclear answer: Who's going to start Week 1 at the cornerback position?
Tim McManus of ESPN reported that training camp began with the duo of Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson taking first-team reps, but that hardly means anything. Brandon Lee Gowton of BleedingGreen.com was quick to point out that Robinson split reps with rookie Rasul Douglas, noting that "both of them are getting burned a lot."
Gowton wasn't the only reporter on hand to note Robinson's struggles, as Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com also noticed that Robinson was "getting burned regularly."
It's important to acknowledge there's a night-and-day difference between the Eagles receiving corps this season as opposed to last, which is playing into the cornerback unit's struggles. Still, it's not ideal to hear the pessimism when the NFC East is peppered with top-caliber wideouts.
Second-round pick Sidney Jones may not play as a rookie while he recovers from Achilles surgery, putting the onus on Douglas to step up. It's encouraging, then, that safety Malcolm Jenkins speaks highly of the rookie, per Joseph Santoliquito of CBS Philly.
He said: "Rasul has been someone who's been showing up over and over, and it's still early, but we're definitely looking to see how consistent that can be. Rasul can start."
Given the early reports from training camp, the Eagles defense is counting on Douglas to make strides and force his way into the starting lineup. The question remains: can he do so before Week 1?
How Truly Improved Is Carson Wentz?
It's no secret that despite all of the improvements made to the Eagles' roster this offseason, Carson Wentz holds all the cards as to just how improved the team will be in 2017.
Wentz wasted no time proving to be worth the massive trade up to the No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft, leading the Eagles to a 3-0 start as a rookie and taking command of a complicated offense. It can even be argued that many of his struggles were more due to an incapable receiving unit and a shuffled offensive line protecting him than his own faults.
Still, it's obvious that Wentz hit somewhat of a rookie wall last season, only throwing 16 touchdowns (25th in the league) despite throwing the fourth-most passes among quarterbacks. Those numbers promise to improve in his second season given how well the Eagles did in restocking his offensive arsenal, but he'll still need to take the next step with his first full NFL offseason under his belt.
Dave Spadaro of PhiladelphiaEagles.com reported fantastic production from Wentz in Saturday's practice, noting he went 25-for-25 in the team's seven-on-seven drills. That doesn't mean he'd do the same in a game setting, but it does indicate his accuracy and cohesion with a new receiving unit is on point.
Everything about Wentz stipulates that he's taken every opportunity to become even better over the offseason, and that should come to fruition throughout the course of training camp.
Who Will Emerge at Linebacker?
There's good news regarding the Eagles' linebacker unit in that the duo of Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks have become one of the league's better pairings at the position. The bad news, however, lies in the lack of a third linebacker emerging to play alongside them on a regular basis.
That issue plagued the Eagles defense throughout 2016, with Mychal Kendricks falling out of favor due to his inconsistency in the coverage game. He played in less than 27 percent of defensive snaps, per Pro Football Reference, and revealed that he requested a trade in the offseason, per the team website.
While Kendricks' blitzing proficiency doesn't quite fit what the Eagles want from their weak-side linebacker, other candidates in the mix could fill that void if they step up in training camp. The most intriguing name is rookie Nate Gerry, a hybrid safety in college who has the size to make the transition to linebacker.
Najee Goode, Kamu Grugier-Hill and Don Cherry are other possible answers to the conundrum, but none other than Goode can boast much true experience defensively at this level.
However, if any of them stand out in training camp, it won't be hard for them to take snaps away from Kendricks, who already appears to be on the outs with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Is Nelson Agholor (Finally) Ready to Ascend?
It became obvious on the heels of last season that 2017 would prove to be a make-or-break year for Philadelphia wideout Nelson Agholor. But the Eagles decided to hammer that point home by signing two marquee free-agent receivers and drafting two more.
Now sporting a new No. 13, Agholor enters this season intent on putting his past struggles behind him and is already making fans take notice. Dave Zangaro of CSN Philly noted that fans cheered him on effusively after a nice catch, before asking "when's the last time Agholor got cheered here?"
After Sunday's practice, Matt Lombardo of NJ Advance Media noted: "Agholor was one of the most impressive players on the field."
Many fans will hold their praise for Agholor until he earns raucous applause in a regular-season game, and given his first-round selection in 2015, he still has a long way to go toward living up to his once-lofty expectations.
But, with little proven experience beyond Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, Agholor will have every ability to become a game-changer in Philly's multi-faceted offense if he continues to excel in camp.
Three years of poor play is typically when a team will sever ties with a high draft pick, meaning Agholor may be entering his last training camp with the Eagles if things don't go his way. Expect that to continue lighting a fire underneath him as it appears to be doing already.
Will Isaac Seumalo Lock Down His New Starting Spot?
The biggest outward development in training camp, while a somewhat expected one, came before it began when offensive coordinator Frank Reich told the team website that Isaac Seumalo would assume the starting left guard position.
Despite Barbre's exit, though, there's reason to believe Seumalo could be overtaken if things don't break his way throughout camp.
Recently re-signed Stefen Wisniewski is one of the better reserve linemen in the league, and the Eagles signed former Titans first-round pick Chance Warmack with the idea that he could contend for a starting spot at either guard position.
Plus, Gowton reported Pederson's assertion that Seumalo would also rotate in at center at times during camp behind starter Jason Kelce. It's hard to imagine that happening if Seumalo were a 100 percent lock to be the team's starter at left guard.
As a rookie in 2016, Seumalo impressed mightily and emerged so well throughout minicamp and OTAs that the Eagles felt it necessary to trade Barbre.
While that can't be overlooked, fans also can't overlook the fact the Eagles have an embarrassment of riches on the interior of the line, which could force Seumalo out if he happens to struggle in camp.
Just How Good Can Rookie Derek Barnett Be?
There's an argument that only so much can be concluded from a rookie's training camp, before he goes up against the best in regular-season games. But there's a pretty strong counter-argument in the case of Derek Barnett.
As far as Eagles fans are concerned, Barnett is already going up against the best at Eagles camp. It's not a secret that Jason Peters and Lane Johnson make up arguably the best pair of bookend tackles in the game.
Schwartz has liked what he's seen so far with Barnett lining up against a potential future Hall of Famer in Peters, per Dave Zangaro of CSN Philly.
"He's going to have the duty to meet every challenge that comes along," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "He's been up for it so far. He had a really good rush against [Peters] yesterday. It was maybe one out of four, but it still was there. We're excited about it."
Producing one out of four against one of the game's best left tackles is likely to mean Barnett will be getting to the quarterback plenty against mostly inferior tackles when the season starts.
An uber-talented rookie with a high motor and a developing set of skills, Barnett should push Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham for plenty of snaps this season.
But just how many will depend on how well he does throughout camp, and that should give Eagles fans an idea of whether they can expect a Defensive Rookie of the Year-caliber season or whether they should temper their expectations.
How Well Does Utility Weapon Donnel Pumphrey Fit the Offense?
Many Eagles fans wanted a more eye-popping running back from the draft than the one they got in Donnel Pumphrey, but the criticism waned when Philly landed LeGarrette Blount in free agency.
With Blount assumed to take the majority of carries and Wendell Smallwood as a potential change-of-pace backup, the playbook is thus opened up to line up Pumphrey all across the offense and especially in the slot.
Conventional wisdom would suggest Pumphrey's need to adjust to a newer role after being a feature back in college, but instead the Eagles defense is being left adjusting to him.
"You just treat him like he's the third wide receiver," Schwartz told Mike Murphy of USA Today. "There have been a lot of those guys in the past. You know you go in the way-back machine, [former NFL RB] Marshall Faulk you had to treat like he was a wide receiver. If you lined up in the back field, you had to defend the run, but you had to treat him like he was a wide receiver, and it puts some stress on the defense."
With Darren Sproles likely inching toward the end of his NFL career, Pumphrey is a suitable long-term replacement. But he'll need to carve out his own role to be effective in 2017. Playing the slot affords him that opportunity, with his unique shiftiness and tackle-breaking ability bringing something new to the Eagles' receiving corps.
Will that be enough to steal some of Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor's reps at receiver? A lot of that depends on how well he does in the role throughout training camp.