Welcome to the third and final installment of Training Camp Preview. Be sure to review my previous two articles involved in this trilogy. Training camp begins today in Lehigh for the Philadelphia Eagles with more question marks than at any time over the past 12 years. Among these questions would be Kevin Kolb at QB, signing of first round pick Brandon Graham and second round pick Nate Allen (“the McNabb pick”), doubters of Howie Roseman’s qualifications to be GM of an NFL team (see previous article), the Michael Vick Situation, Sean McDermott & the Defense, the offensive line, the secondary, Andy Reid’s effectiveness and the price of cheesesteaks! Let’s get started so as not to overlap Flight Night!
OFFENSIVE LINE NEEDS TO BE LESS… OFFENSIVE!
The Eagles’ offensive line was exposed at the DUAL Debacles in Dallas. Starting C Jamaal Jackson was out with a torn ACL, so Dallas embarrassed the Birds’ front five, pursuing and pounding embattled – and now exiled – quarterback Donovan McNabb with staggering regularity and ease. This left a terrible taste is the mouths of Eagles fans for the entire offseason. It wasn’t all (fill-in center) Nick Cole’s fault, as it was more of a collective failure. Every Eagles offensive lineman on the field was thoroughly dominated, looking smaller and weaker than Max Jean-Gilles, post-lap band surgery. The running game was shut down, the offense was shut down and the Eagles were lit up. As the offensive line goes, so go the Eagles…LITERALLY!
Naturally, the Eagles plan to enter this season with only one change to that playoff starting five – adding Stacy Andrews, the half-brother of Shawn who couldn’t get on the field in his first year with the Eagles, doesn’t inspire much confidence. Stacy, slated to start at right guard in 2009, signed with the Eagles last offseason, but never fully recovered from a torn ACL suffered late in the ’08 campaign. The hope is that he’s finally back at 100 percent. The Eagles believe that is the case. They did not draft or really even approach an offensive lineman during free agency.
The other guard spot is not a problem – so long as Todd Herremans’ left foot is healthy. Herremans missed the first five games last season with a stress fracture in the foot. He returned to help stabilize the line, but the foot apparently was not 100 percent. Herremans missed OTAs this spring with soreness in that same foot. Same story different year or is this rough-and-tumble veteran finally able to contribute? Desire has never been lacking for Herremans, but while the spirit is willing the flesh so far has been weak (or wounded).
The tackle positions are the anchors of this rebuilt line. Winston Justice surprisingly emerged as a steady right tackle after a rocky start to his career while Jason Peters is a Pro Bowler, despite occasional mental lapses. Still, that’s the least of the Eagles’ worries entering the start of the season.
There may be no bigger concern heading into camp than at center, where Cole holds the advantage – even after Head Coach Andy Reid (never one to criticize any player publicly) admitted Cole was borderline horrific against the Cowboys. Despite this, the Eagles still believe Cole can be their starting center Week 1 (oh Jamal Jackson, come back soon), otherwise they wouldn’t have kept him at the position for all of minicamp. Mike McGlynn, a third-year product out Pittsburgh, and A.Q. Shipley, a second-year Penn State alum, could enter the offensive line picture. McGlynn will get the first chance pending training camp with the short-armed Shipley next in line.
Jamal Jackson will not be ready for the start of training camp (PUP list), but could be back by mid-season as all signs point to his rehab going well. That would be a big boost to an offensive line that enters training camp with loads of question marks (and exclamation points).
OL Question Marks
• Who will start at center? Nick Cole is the frontrunner, but must prove to be better. Is McGlynn an NFL talent? He will get the next crack at the position, but hasn’t even been able to make the Eagles’ gameday roster for much of his first two seasons. Are Shipley’s arms long enough to play in the NFL (can we find a rack and stretch his arms every day during camp)? The Steelers liked him enough to stash him on their practice squad last year. The Eagles like him enough to give him a chance to play this year.
• IF Jackson returns, can and will he be effective? Oftentimes, it takes until the second year (see Stacy Andrews) before a player comes close to returning to his previous form.
• IF Herremans’ foot can hold up for 16 games? It’s not a good sign that almost a year after the surgery he’s still having problems. It’s even more worrisome when you’re talking about a 300-plus-pound athlete pounding relentlessly on the affected foot.
• IF Stacy Andrews is a healthy player? A useful player? Any type of player? Even when he said he was at full strength at the end of last season, the Eagles elected to start Jean-Gilles in the two Cowboys losses. We saw how that turned out, and it wasn’t pretty for MJG… Gotta get Stacy Andrews on the field at camp as though he is a rookie. IF Andrews lasts through camp, keep him on the roster. IF not, he is taking someone’s spot.
• IF Jason Peters can concentrate for 60 minutes? He was a false start machine early last season. After that problem was remedied, he completely whiffed on a block on average once per game. That can’t happen at left tackle, especially for a highly compensated Pro Bowl left tackle.
• IF the Eagles have enough depth? What if Andrews doesn’t pan out? Is MJG any good? He wasn’t last year before medically reducing his weight with the lap-band surgery. Now, even the Eagles don’t know. Is there a young tackle that can even make the final roster and provide insurance? Right now, the Eagles’ backup tackles are their two starting guards. This doesn’t bode well even IF all these questions work out!
IF only …
Peters didn’t fall into one or two defensive-end induced comas each game. Then there would be a little less concern that first-year starter Kevin Kolb is going to get pummeled behind this line and Peters should be a perennial All Pro. One or two plays a game can change a season – in a very bad way. They can’t happen. It’s better to get a penalty than to allow free hits on the QB. Life would be a lot easier if the Eagles didn’t have to worry at all about one of the highest-paid offensive linemen in football. At least then the left side of the line (IF Herremans is healthy) would be dominant.
The spotlight will be on the centers. Nick Cole will get most, if not all, the first-team snaps. Mike McGlynn will work with the first team once in a while. A.Q.Shipley will have to earn his opportunity by impressing with the second team. … Peters and Justice are locked in at their respective tackle spots. Last year, the starters never played together in camp. If that occurs again, they will be using the time to form bonds with their respective guards. … Andrews needs to prove he can sufficiently plant his leg. He will get plenty of work, and the coaches will be watching him closely. … Herremans will be used cautiously. The Eagles can’t afford to lose him in camp. … MJG will again get plenty of first-team snaps as a result. He will try once more to prove he’s a starting-caliber lineman, and at a much lighter weight. … Fenuki Tupou will get his chance to impress at guard as well. He will receive plenty of second-team (and probably even some first-team) snaps. … King Dunlap will get his shot at right tackle this year in camp instead of left. … Dallas Reynolds will be playing guard, not center. … Jerail McCuller, Austin Howard, Greg Isdaner and Zipp Duncan will have to impress on the third-string line. They’re fighting for practice squad spots. Jackson isn’t back until midseason and by then the slope could be too slippery to recover a patchwork line.
Wide Receiver Talent Pool Runs Deep
Donovan McNabb circa 2002 would be jealous. The Eagles currently have more skill, speed and depth at wide receiver than at any other time during the Andy Reid era. Thank the Powers That Be (Roseman, Reid, Austin Powers, etc.) and whoever else was responsible for the eventual epiphany that wide receiver talent was necessary (Todd Pinkston and James Thrash are turning in their graves… or the graves of their careers)!!!! Hell it only took 9 years to come to this realization! The 2010 crew has a little bit of everything, from DeSean Jackson’s ridiculous speed to Jason Avant’s blocking and hands to Riley Cooper’s and Hank Baskett’s size. Throw in second-year pro (last year’s first pick and thorny holdout) Jeremy Maclin with his impressive all-around game and the Eagles have the perfect supplement for a first-year starting quarterback – an excellent wide receiving corps. Jackson made the Pro Bowl last season with 1,167 yards receiving and 9 TD. “Action” Jackson recorded five 100-yard receiving games and led the NFL by averaging 18.6 YPC.
Clearly, Jackson is a lethal weapon, one that demands full attention from opposing coordinators and embarrasses even some of the best cornerbacks. What’s the scariest part of it all? He’s still improving and learning how to be a complete receiver. The 23-year-old went from being a diminutive Todd Pinkston clone his rookie year to a mini-Randy Moss last season. If the growth continues, there isn’t even a commensurate comparison, especially one his size – which apparently doesn’t matter!!
Maclin, the Eagles’ first-round pick last year, was tabbed the most surprising player by his teammates in an informal poll taken by Eagle Eye at the conclusion of last season. That’s because of the improvement Maclin made from the first day of practice (his teammates weren’t that impressed especially with his contract snag) to the final game of the season, a playoff loss where he was the only Eagle who did anything useful (7 catches for 146 yards and a TD in the final debacle in Dallas). The Missouri product had 56 catches for 773 yards and 4 TDs his rookie season, numbers almost comparable to DeSean’s rookie campaign. The potential is there for the second-year jump as Maclin could DOUBLE those stats.
Jason Avant, who brings a newly minted five-year, $18 million deal to Lehigh, serves as the veteran of the group and the ideal complement to the Eagles’ two outside burners. Barely blessed with tight end speed, Avant does all the modest stuff from the slot. He blocks like a tight end. He catches the ball in traffic. He hauls in anything and everything, no matter the velocity or location. He the ideal complimentary piece to the Eagles’ wide receiving trio, and even contributes on special teams.
After the top three, there is a question as to who will consume playing time, who will a battle for roster spots and red zone packages. Hank Baskett is back after being squeezed off the roster early last season. The former starter has proven to be a useful possession receiver and solid special teamer. Rookies Riley Cooper and Chad Hall are eager to bring their potential to the Eagles Nest. Hall (a shifty player who can thrive in the slot) is a converted college running back who spent the past couple years in the Air Force.. Riley Cooper is a big, powerful receiver who can go up and get the ball, a skill the Eagles’ receiving corps has been lacking ever since the T.O. experience blew up. Cooper may be the big surprise for 2010.
WR Question Marks
* Will DeSean Jackson’s desire for a new contract affect his play? The Pro Bowler at two different positions (WR and PR) is making just $816,000 this season. He knows he’s worth more on the open market. We know he’s worth more as do the Eagles but he is still under contract and needs to honor that.
* Can Jeremy Maclin make the same second-year jump as DeSean? Does he have the skills to become an elite NFL receiver? All signs point to yes, but Maclin still has to prove it on the field. There were times last year when he shied away from contact and catches. That can’t happen if he’s going to be a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver. This guy has all the physical tools and talent but does he have the desire?
* Who will step up if something happens to one of the top three WRs? Is Riley Cooper ready to contribute immediately? He did look comfortable and effective in OTAs. So did Hall. Does that leave Baskett as the odd man out, again?
If only …
Cooper can make an immediate impact in the red zone. That’s been a problem for the Eagles for years. Jackson, Maclin and Avant don’t have great size, which makes it more difficult for the offense to function seamlessly in tight spaces. But if Cooper can use his size (6-foot-3, 222 pounds) effectively near the goal line, the Eagles offense will put points on the scoreboard at a faster pace than their record-setting performances the past couple seasons.
WR Camp Expectation
DeSean is expected to arrive on time for the start of camp despite displeasure with his contract. The situation, however, will be the second-most talked about topic during camp, second only to the new starting quarterback. DeSean likely will remain uncharacteristically quiet for most of camp. … Maclin’s role as the other starter is set. He will be attempting to avoid injury in his first full camp – an especially long camp – after missing some time last year to get his rookie contract finalized. … Avant has been a closet leader on offense for a few seasons now. This year his role will become more evident in Lehigh. … Riley Cooper and Baskett will battle for the fourth wide receiver spot, with Hall likely making a push as well. … Norwood and Dobson Collins have an outside chance to make a splash. They will get their chances to shine but need standout camps to garner serious consideration. … Blue Cooper and Kevin Jurovich start at the bottom of the totem poll. Their snaps will be limited and at best will land on the practice squad.
Tight Ends Overview
If you think back one year ago, tight end was one of the biggest concerns among fans and experts. Everyone wanted the Eagles to land perennial All-Pro Tony Gonzalez – no matter the cost. But the Birds stood pat, knowing they might already have something special on their roster. Turns out, in this instance, they were right. Brent Celek emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end in his third NFL season. He caught 76 passes for 971 yards and eight touchdowns, just missing out on the Pro Bowl. Much of the same is expected this year, especially with Celek’s close friend Kevin Kolb now the starting QB. In the two games Kolb started last season, Celek had 16 catches for 208 yards and a TD.
Explosiveness out of the tight end position is not a problem for the Eagles this season. Not with Celek, Cornelius Ingram, Clay Harbor and Martin Rucker in Lehigh for training camp. All four are known for their pass-catching skills.
Cornelius Ingram, however, is returning from his second ACL injury in as many years. But before his knee went out last season during training camp, the Florida product stood out like Joe Banner standing next to Andy Reid in a Big and Tall men’s shop. The Eagles hope that finally Ingram is back. Ingram is another year older after rehab, seemingly healthy and ready to contribute in the passing game as was envisioned when he was drafted him in ‘09. Ingram should be the Brent Celek of 2010 (2 years late).
Clay Harbor was the Eagles’ fourth-round pick out of Missouri State this year as an insurance policy for Ingram’s knee. He’s another exceptional athlete who impressed with his strength and leaping ability at the NFL Combine. Even if Ingram is healthy, Harbor should still bring something to the table as a blocking tight end. Martin Rucker is also an intriguing talent (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) with size and agility. A fourth-round pick by the Browns in ’08, Rucker spent part of last year on the Eagles’ practice squad and roster. The Big 12’s all-time leader in receptions is another quality pass-catching tight end. What was once considered a lack of depth could now be an embarrassment of riches.
TE Question Marks
* Can Celek duplicate last season’s breakout year? Nearly 1,000 yards receiving and 8 TD is not easy. Having Kevin Kolb at the helm means that Celek will now be a primary target to compliment the Jackson/Maclin track stars at WR. This also means he will be a target for NFL defenses. If defenses try to shut down Celek, the receivers will burn them, if corners shut down the receivers, Celek will kill defenses over the middle. So this is what it feels like to have multiple offensive weapons?
* Can Ingram stay healthy? Will his knee hold up? At least this time the surgery was done correctly (as opposed to using a hack saw and a nail gun?) so Ingram’s knee is considered stable. Last year, it was only a matter of time before the “dental floss” in his knee shredded. Still, it’s not easy to return from one torn ACL, nevertheless two in two years. Returning at the same level is not likely. During OTAs, Ingram didn’t quite stand out or move like he did last year but 90% of Ingram should be enough.
* Clay Harbor has the size and strength, but can he block Pro Bowl defensive ends in the NFL? It’s a big jump from opponents of Missouri State to DeMarcus Ware et al. On a bigger note, do the Eagles have a sufficient second tight end to bring in on short-yardage situations? Possibly this is where Rucker fits in with this already deep group? There were reasons the Browns gave up on him, such as blocking.
If only …
Ingram returned to the pass-catching machine he was last year in practice before he blew out his knee the Eagles would have the most dynamic 1-2 punch at tight end in the NFL. Just imagine the possibilities with Celek and a healthy Ingram lined up alongside Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson for, say, the next 5-10 years. Scary but LOTS of fun!
TE Camp Expectation
Celek and Kolb will look as if they’ve played together forever. They came in together, worked on the side together since the start and worked hard together this offseason. There will be no getting-to-know-you period here. … Ingram will be brought back slowly, even though he was on the field for OTAs. The Eagles know it may take him time considering he hasn’t played in any type of game in two years. He will even look rusty at times. … With Ingram being brought along slowly, Harbor and Rucker will get plenty of snaps. They will have their chance to prove if they’re capable blockers and earn a roster spot at a position where the competition will be fierce throughout training camp.
The Eagles acquired Leonard Weaver on the cheap last year and were pleasantly surprised with his vast array of skills. Weaver could run, block and – maybe most importantly in the Eagles’ offense – catch. For his efforts, the veteran was named to the Pro Bowl and this offseason signed one of the most lucrative contracts for a fullback in NFL history. Finally, Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg undoubtedly have the versatile fullback they so long desired (another weapon on offense!).
Meanwhile, Dwayne Wright is a fourth-round pick of the Bills in 2007. He spent one year in Buffalo before bouncing around training camps the last couple years. A former running back, the Eagles have converted Wright (6-0, 234) to fullback.
FB Question Marks
• When the Eagles were shorthanded last season at tailback, Weaver filled in admirably. He finished with a career high 70 carries, 303 yards and 2 TD. Now that Mike Bell (a bigger, harder-running tailback than the Eagles are accustomed to having on the roster) is part of the mix, how much – if any – will Weaver’s role be reduced? Which of the bigger backs will the Eagles use in some of their one-back sets?
• Wright has been a running back his whole career. Is he big enough to play fullback in the NFL? Can he block well enough? Does the versatility for Eagles fullbacks constitute a benefit or detriment?
If only …
The Eagles used more two-back sets Weaver’s talents could be optimized. Weaver’s pass-blocking and short-yardage running ability serves as a perfect complement to halfback LeSean McCoy’s skills. Together they strike more fear into opposing defenses than they do with an extra WR or TE on the field.
FB Camp Expectation
Weaver has little to worry about in regards to his starting spot. He will just have to prove a little more reliable with his hands to make sure Bell doesn’t take some of his snaps. Weaver will also remain one of the locker room leaders and strong influences on the Eagles’ young skill players. He’s especially valuable chirping in the uber-confident ears of sophomore McCoy. … Wright will be playing to impress other teams. The Eagles have no room on their roster for more than one fullback.
2010 Overall Eagles Outlook
Kevin Kolb is the QB, LeSean McCoy is the starting halfback with DeSean Jackson & Jeremy Maclin at WR and a defense led by Stewart Bradley, Trent Cole and Asante Samuel. Sean McDermott (Jim Johnson apostle) seems eager and willing to put his own stamp on a much younger (and hopefully much improved) defense. Aside from David Akers, Andy Reid himself is one of the few holdovers from his Original Guard in 1999. Brad Childress (Head Coach-Minnesota), Jim Johnson, John Harbaugh (Head Coach Baltimore), Donovan McNabb, Sheldon Brown, Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook, Duce Staley, Chad Lewis, Doug Pederson, Lito Shepard, Bobby Taylor and a plethora of other names have come and gone. Year Twelve might incite the moniker “Eagles: The Next Generation” as the fourth-youngest team in the league may breed even younger before the season begins.
Rookies Brandon Graham and Nate Allen need to sign contracts and get into camp if they want to compete for starting spots. A total of 13 draft picks (most in modern Eagles history) will descend on Training Camp and hope to make this team. Stewart Bradley returns from injury, but aside from Cole and Samuel, good luck finding half a dozen grizzled veterans on defense. This bunch will be FAST and VERY green but McDermott is astoundingly optimistic. Second year defensive coordinator says that he fully expects to get this bunch into camp, into the scheme and NFL ready by season’s kickoff.
On offense, Reid should feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Kolb (quick release, strong & accurate short passer) is the system QB suited for the West Coast Offense and he has a lot of weapons at his disposal. Reid’s arsenal includes DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy, Brent Celek, Mike Bell, Leonard Weaver – almost all of whom are 25 or younger! Might want to start timing these guys in light years rather than with a stopwatch!
The questions are obvious. Can the Eagles offense outscore the points their defense could give up? Can such a young defense come together? Is Michael Vick a reliable NFL backup? Can the offensive line provide any protection for Kolb & Co? This … is… why … they… play… the … games!!!! Strap yourselves in and watch while the circus unfolds before our eyes! This season could win up 6-10, 8-8 or 12-4. Never before has there been so much uncertainty or so much excitement heading into a new season. If you are a true fan of the game football (as opposed to the business of the NFL), this could potentially be the most intriguing season in Eagles history.
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org