Philadelphia Eagles: First Impressions from Training Camp
The first weekend of Philadelphia Eagles training camp is officially in the books, although you might’ve thought it was the dog days at the NovaCare Complex on Sunday. The pads haven’t even gone on yet, but we've already been treated to our first fight of the summer.
LeSean McCoy took exception to the amount of contact Trent Cole was making in coverage, and before spectators knew it, the two were involved in a very spirited scrum that took multiple teammates to separate. Neither McCoy nor Cole really wanted to talk about the dust-up after practice, both willing to let bygones be bygones.
While fights at training camp are no big deal and happen to literally every team, it does lead into one of my initial impressions from camp: Maybe it’s me, but it seems like there has been more contact overall between offense and defense than there was this time last year.
One of the major departures under Eagles head coach Chip Kelly in 2013, compared to predecessor Andy Reid, was the lack of tackling to the ground during live team sessions. That lent a feeling that camp was more easygoing under Kelly, and we saw very few fights or even skirmishes, partially as a result.
So far, whether it’s coincidence or my imagination, there have been a lot more bodies hitting the deck as a result of collisions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. If nothing else, it means these guys are amped up and ready to start hitting some people.
Granted, nobody wants to see two of the Eagles’ top stars going at it. My first impression based on that scrum, though, is all of these guys—from made veterans to players fighting for the final roster spot—are ready and raring to go.
Quarterbacks Pushing One Another
The Eagles have to be ecstatic about what they’ve seen from their entire fleet of quarterbacks over the first two days of training camp. Nick Foles appears confident and comfortable heading into his first season as the starter, which is a positive sign—and also not much of a surprise. It’s the reserves, though, who have really impressed by stepping up their games during the early proceedings.
Saturday belonged to Mark Sanchez, front-runner for the No. 2 job. Eliot Shorr-Parks for NJ.com had the sixth-year veteran completing 17 of 21 passes in 7-on-7 and team drills during the first official practice of the summer, which included some quality looks down the field.
Matt Barkley fired back in the battle to be Foles’ understudy with his performance on Sunday, throwing two of the more impressive deep passes any quarterback has completed so far at camp—including Foles. One thing that’s immediately evident about Barkley is his arm strength has vastly improved since last summer, when he was still recovering from the broken collarbone that shortened his senior season at USC.
Even fourth-string signal-caller G.J. Kinne is garnering attention for his play. While the possibility seems remote, some are suggesting Kinne could potentially beat out Barkley for a roster spot, such as Reuben Frank for CSNPhilly.com.
Of course, quarterbacks should look good in training camp, backup or otherwise. Without a live pass rush to put the pressure on, passers only need concern themselves with finding the hole in the coverage.
As Chip Kelly once said, "quarterbacks are like teabags" in that you don’t know what you have until you put them in hot water. That may be, but it’s still nice to see all four looking sharp. It should make for a lively competition all the way through to September.
Running Backs Featured Heavily in Passing Game
The biggest threats in the passing attack aren’t always wide receivers, and that’s certainly been the case at training camp. No, not necessarily tight ends, either. As Jimmy Kempski for Philly.com notes, it’s actually the Eagles’ running backs who are catching an inordinate number of passes in South Philly.
Eagles running backs are dominating in the passing game in camp so far. Nobody can cover them, and they're racking up an absurd number of receptions. The question then becomes, are they dominating because they're just really good, or because the Eagles' linebackers don't have the ability to stick with them? It's probably a combination of both. Even Matthew Tucker, who has ability, has looked good as a receiver.
On top of backs catching balls out of the backfield on various wheel routes and what have you, we’ve seen some interesting formations as well. On the play where LeSean McCoy got into a scuffle with Cole, Shady was split out wide. There was another personnel grouping where McCoy lined up in the backfield and Darren Sproles was in the slot.
Not that it should come as much surprise from those two. McCoy has always been effective as a receiver, while Sproles has made a career out of it.
However, I did have a slightly different take from Kempski as I was watching this unfold. Yes, the backs were getting open with some frequency, but it also seemed as though the quarterbacks were either forced or maybe on occasion prematurely decided to check down for what would’ve been minimal gains in a numbers of instances.
Then again, when you have safety blankets like McCoy and Sproles, not to mention talented backs such as Chris Polk, Henry Josey and David Fluellen gunning for roster spots, checking down isn’t the worst thing. The quarterback’s job is to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers, and they are certainly doing that.
Lane Johnson Demoted
Last week, I wondered aloud what the Eagles’ contingency plan at right tackle would be once the league handed down the reported four-game suspension for Lane Johnson. Mystery solved.
Chip Kelly addressed the situation in a press conference just prior to the inaugural practice of training camp on Saturday. First, the second-year head coach confirmed what we already assumed, that Allen Barbre would indeed start in place of Johnson. Kelly then went on to reveal Barbre would be taking the bulk of the first-team snaps, with Johnson mixing in occasionally.
Early indications are Johnson will mix in very occasionally.
Look, you can’t argue with the logic behind the decision. If Barbre is going to be starting the first quarter of the season at tackle, it makes sense for him to build a rapport with right guard Todd Herremans. Getting Johnson some reps would be wise as well, but he has an entire year’s worth of experience playing alongside Herremans, so you would hope some of that continuity carries over upon his return.
Of course, that’s if Johnson returns to the starting lineup at all. Kelly left the door open for Barbre to retain the job. The journeyman veteran more than held his own in relief appearances last season, and his momentum continued through the offseason, when he signed a three-year contract extension in June.
Provided Johnson can stay in shape, though, and is prepared to come back in Week 5, I seriously doubt that’s how the situation will play out. There’s a reason Barbre, heading into his eighth NFL season, spent time on four different teams before landing in the Birds’ nest. The fourth overall pick in last year’s draft, Johnson is one of the building blocks of the franchise’s future and is easily the best option at right tackle—once he’s eligible to return.
What Kicking Competition?
One position battle I was anxious to judge for myself was at kicker, where incumbent Alex Henery is trying to fend off rookie free agent Carey Spear. I made some unflattering comments about Henery over the offseason, and still wholeheartedly believe the Eagles need to upgrade, but based on reports, Spear struggled mightily during spring practices.
Jeff McLane for The Philadelphia Inquirer went so far as to describe the competition as a “façade.”
While I’m not prepared to reach a final verdict myself quite yet, it’s plain to all in attendance what McLane is getting at. Henery and Spear went head-to-head during practice on Saturday, a skirmish that Henery won with ease.
Actually, both players were 4-of-5 on field goal attempts, so it’s hard to say anybody distinguished themselves one way or the other in that respect. Where Spear was very visibly defeated, however, was on kickoffs. While Henery’s lack of leg strength has been well documented, at least he’s consistent. A few of Spear’s kicks were low line drives that had neither the distance nor the hang time to be effective. Even the kicks he struck true didn’t go any further than Henery’s.
The main reason I’m not ready to call the competition one way or the other is the possibility that coaches are making adjustments to Spear’s technique. Something as simple as changing his strike point or footwork could have a learning curve. We’re also dealing with a fairly limited sample size here.
Clearly, Henery holds a distinct advantage, a view that’s based on more than a first impression. Spear would have to improve dramatically over the next few weeks to pull even again.
Top Rookies on Opposite Ends of Spectrum
As long as we’re talking first impressions, where better to turn than the Eagles’ top two draft picks. So far, the difference in readiness between first-round pick Marcus Smith and second-round pick Jordan Matthews appears to be night and day.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say Smith has gone unnoticed; at 6’3”, 251 pounds with 34-inch arms and sub-4.7 speed, per NFL.com, the Louisville product tends to stand out. His size and athleticism are impressive.
Smith hasn’t really done anything of note in terms of his actions on the field, though. I’m not sure how much we’re going to see, either. When asked on Sunday what has impressed him the most about Smith, defensive coordinator Bill Davis mostly mostly rattled on about the young man's college experience or work ethic.
Smith is splitting time between the second- and third-team defenses and doesn’t seem close to contributing in an actual game if one were being played, say, tomorrow.
On the flip side, Matthews—selected 16 picks after Smith—has lived up to the hype, as much as one can in shorts and shells anyway. Like Smith, Matthews is a physical specimen, and he’s received a lot of attention for his effort as well.
Matthews is making some things happen on the football field, too. He’s hauled in a few passes, and when Brad Smith was shaken up briefly on Sunday, Matthews finally got a chance to run with the ones. The kid is even trying out at punt returner, and he produced a nifty little runback on one opportunity on Sunday.
None of this is very surprising. Matthews is expected to serve as the primary slot receiver come September, while Smith is trying to carve out more of a situational role behind established starters. Regardless, the difference in the first impressions both rookies made was striking.