The Most Intriguing Rookie Storylines at Philadelphia Eagles OTAs
Business is slowly picking up again for the Philadelphia Eagles as full-squad offseason team activities get underway this week at the NovaCare Complex. On Monday, we looked at some of the latest reports and analysis surrounding the Birds. Today, we’re focusing on the most intriguing storylines for the club’s 22 rookies.
One such story is what many of the young athletes the Eagles are targeting have in common. One look at the 2014 draft class and it’s very evident the front office had a very specific type of pedigree in mind when evaluating players.
Zach Berman for the Philadelphia Inquirer notes six of the Eagles seven draft picks will have earned their college degrees by the end of spring. Furthermore, three of the seven have or had a family member in the NFL.
So it’s not just college production and accolades the Eagles were scouting. It wasn’t just film and 40-yard dashes, either. The front office was after intelligent athletes with football backgrounds.
Ahead, we delve deeper into some of the cool stories surrounding a handful of players whose pro football careers are only in their infancy.
As Matt Lomardo of NJ.com points out, the initial reaction to the Eagles’ selection of Marcus Smith in the first round was a collective, “Who?” Most if not all supposed experts had the 2013 AAC Defensive Player of the Year listed as a second- or third-round pick, so when Smith’s name was called on Day 1, it was a surprise to say the least.
Of course, that led many observers to assume the Birds had just committed one of the cardinal sins of drafting by reaching for Smith. However, numerous reports after the fact indicate that is not the case.
If the Eagles had not chosen Smith at No. 26 overall, another team likely would have shortly thereafter. John Keim for ESPN.com suggests Washington intended to at No. 34. They traded the pick to the Dallas Cowboys, who selected Demarcus Lawrence, a fellow pass-rusher out of Boise State. Lombardo notes the Arizona Cardinals might’ve jumped on Smith at No. 27. Jimmy Kempski for Philly.com notes the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots—Nos. 28 and 29 respectively—both took close looks at Smith leading up to the draft.
Point being, the rankings were wrong. Because 2014 was a somewhat weak class for pass-rushers, and because there is always a premium on the position, Smith was always going earlier than anybody realized.
While it’s almost certainly true the Eagles could not have waited and picked up Smith later, it doesn’t change the reasons many analysts thought he would last much longer. He only had one outstanding season at Louisville, and in one of the worst conferences in college football no less.
Still, what determines whether a player was a reach or not is based on our perception of when they would’ve been chosen otherwise, and in this case, our perception was undoubtedly wrong. Then again, that changes nothing about our perceptions of what might one day constitute as a bust.
Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff
Of all the places on the Eagles roster where a rookie stands to have the best shot to make an impact, it’s at wide receiver where Philadelphia was perilously thin, aside from Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper.
With Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff in the fold, suddenly there’s a lot more talent and competition. As of now, Matthews is expected to operate as the offense’s primary slot receiver while Huff provides depth and contributes on special teams. Both players are incredibly confident though and don’t plan on settling for the small roles typically reserved for rookie receivers.
As far as Matthews is concerned, nobody on the roster—or in the NFL for that matter—can outwork him. Zach Berman for the Philadelphia Inquirer has more on the Vanderbilt product.
Matthews said he's too invested in adjusting to the Eagles to worry about the six receivers picked ahead of him. But he was not shy about discussing how competitive he is. If his actions back up his words, Matthews' drive could become well known around the NovaCare Complex.
"I want to be the first guy up, the first guy in the building, the last to leave," Matthews said. "I like to compete in everything I do. I'm going to try to eat healthier than you. I'm going to try to practice harder than you. I'm going to try to stretch longer."
While Huff is expected to take a back seat to Matthews for now both on the depth chart and in terms of hype, he actually does hold a distinct advantage. Having already played under head coach Chip Kelly at Oregon, Huff already possesses a deep understanding of the Eagles’ system. He told CSNPhilly.com at rookie camp last week:
There are things I know in the offense already. Just getting things separated from the Oregon offense to the Philly offense.
The play calls are different, the hand signals are different. I have to reboot my whole system and that's why each and every day I stay late and try to get things done and then go home and study and test myself.
Maybe Maclin and Cooper should be looking over their shoulders. It doesn’t sound like either Matthews or Huff is prepared to sit on the bench for very long.
For a fourth-round pick, Jaylen Watkins looks like one heck of a cornerback prospect, either outside or in the slot. Or is he a safety prospect? After all, he played all of the above at the University of Florida.
Watkins will begin his professional career at cornerback, but the Eagles aren’t willing to rule anything out at this point. After the draft, general manager Howie Roseman was absolutely gushing over Watkins’ versatility, explaining to ESPN.com's Andy Jasner the many reasons why the front office simply could not pass on the talented defensive back with the top pick on Day 3.
For us with [Watkins], when we weighed all the factors about moving down, we just thought he was a very valuable player for us. We thought he’s another one of those guys kind of like when we got Brandon Boykin, who if his ankle was 100 percent would have ran even faster and done even better in his testing. When you talk about the package of things he can do, he can play corner, he can play nickel, he can play safety. We think he’s got starting ability at all those three spots. He’s almost 6-feet tall. He’s as smart as you can be.
For now, Watkins' best chance to crack the starting lineup in the near future is probably at corner. While he’s currently blocked by Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher on the perimeters, Williams is about to turn 30 and could be a cap casualty next year, and Fletcher can become a free agent next offseason. Plus, the Eagles suddenly look fairly deep at safety.
The fact that Watkins can play anywhere in the secondary makes it more likely he will eventually play somewhere though. And given how high Roseman and the organization seem to be on Watkins, maybe it’s possible he can even push for playing time in his rookie year.
After breaking rookie minicamp last week, fifth-round safety Ed Reynolds will not return to the team until the second week of June. Don’t worry, though, it’s for a good reason. Reynolds is busy finishing up his degree at Stanford and, under league rules, is ineligible to participate in anymore offseason programs until the school year is complete.
Zach Berman for the Philadelphia Inquirer explains Reynolds will not be out of the loop though. The Eagles are finding ways to keep the soon-to-be graduate in the loop on all the latest developments back in Philadelphia.
"I'll be able to have the playbook with me, so [I'll be] having those mental reps now and also carrying them over when I'm gone," Reynolds said last week. "But all the physical reps, I can do [during rookie minicamp] and get as many as I can. It's muscle memory, doing my assignment, aligning correctly."
Reynolds still has classes to attend at Stanford. He has arranged with the Eagles coaches to Skype from Palo Alto, Calif., and he will listen to all the Eagles' meetings via podcast. Reynolds also must stay in shape while he's away from the team's regimented program at the NovaCare Complex.
As Berman notes, it’s not an altogether uncommon issue this time of year. Last spring, tight end and fellow Stanford alum Zach Ertz was one of several Eagles hindered by the rule.
In any event, Reynolds should be fine despite the absence. For one, he’s been around the game his entire life. John Gonzalez for CSNPhilly.com details Reynolds’ father’s 10-year playing career, subsequent time working in the league office and how that impacted his son’s road to the NFL.
And besides, those Stanford kids are pretty bright.
The time away may put a slight dent in Reynolds’ chances of competing with Nate Allen and Earl Wolff for the starting job, but that was always an unlikely prospect. For now, it’s just great to hear the young man is finishing up his education.
As soon as the Eagles signed Carey Spear after the draft, he instantly became a fan favorite. That’s not merely because the Vanderbilt product will be pushing the mediocre and wildly unpopular Alex Henery for the job at place-kicker, either.
Spear gained more attention than your average undrafted free agent for the alias “Murderleg.” It’s not just a nickname, it’s a persona—and it has nothing to do with how far he can kick the pigskin, believe it or not.
Spear gained notoriety for his willingness, nay, insistence on being a complete football player. That means after he kicks off to the opposing team, you’ll see No. 1 flying down the field, trying to make a tackle—perhaps even laying somebody out. Via Jake Kaplan of the Philadelphia Daily News:
Spear, a built 5-9, 194 pounds, prides himself on being a football player, more so than just a kicker. In his mind, on kickoffs he's supposed to react to what occurs in front of him and try to make a football play, and he won't hesitate to do so. Larry Pinto, his coach at Mayfield High in Ohio, said, "If he wasn't our kicker, he'd probably have been our starting strong safety." James Franklin, Spear's coach at Vanderbilt who's now at Penn State, last week described his former three-time captain as "a football player who happens to kick."
What really matters is whether Spear is a better option than Henery, but that seems likely. Henery finished tied for 20th in the NFL in 2013 with a 40.1 percent touchback rate on kickoffs, while Spear was hitting 64.4 percent as a senior in college.
He has the leg. He has the mentality. Spear is clearly both the fan and betting favorite to win the job this summer.