Philadelphia Eagles: What We've Learned Through Week 1 of Training Camp
The Philadelphia Eagles are seven practices into training camp, which means enough time has passed for real trends to emerge. At this point, we may have even learned a thing or two despite not having an actual game against a real opponent to dissect.
Preseason contests are what will truly separate the talent on the Eagles’ roster. A week’s worth of training camp doesn’t always shed a ton of light on all of the top performers. The team isn’t tackling to the ground right now, nor is there a live pass rush.
That being said, a week’s worth of camp observations certainly leaves us with an impression of what the Eagles think of their own roster. So while a month’s worth of practices and exhibition games lie ahead, let’s look at what (we think) we know through the first week.
Mark Sanchez Firmly Entrenched as No. 2 Quarterback
If there is indeed a competition for the Eagles’ backup quarterback job, you wouldn’t know it from the distribution of practice reps. Mark Sanchez has worked ahead of Matt Barkley all camp up to this point, and there is no evidence that will change.
By and large, both Sanchez and Barkley have looked sharp. However, Sanchez continues to run with the twos, while from time to time, Barkley rotates with camp arm G.J. Kinne.
The development is not altogether surprising. The Eagles signed Sanchez to a one-year deal worth up to $4 million in March. Given that the sixth-year veteran has 68 career starts in the NFL, including six during the postseason, it was easy to conclude that the talk of competition with Barkley—a 2013 fourth-round pick with three relief appearances—was merely lip service.
There’s still time for Barkley to climb back into the race. Preseason performances will reveal how far apart the passers really are. As of this writing, though, Sanchez is the clear front-runner to serve as Nick Foles’ understudy.
Running Backs Heavily Featured in Passing Attack
Perhaps the most dominant players at Eagles training camp have been running backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. However, it’s not their ability as ball-carriers that’s getting noticed—it’s their prevalence in the passing game.
McCoy and Sproles have been by far the most popular targets of Philly’s quarterbacks, and it’s no wonder. The defense hasn’t had any answers for them. Wheel routes, swing routes, circle routes, you name it. They’ve been nearly unstoppable.
Perhaps most exciting of all is McCoy and Sproles have been on the field at the same time with some frequency. Sproles is often lined up in the slot with McCoy in the backfield, so much so that it almost seems like the offense’s base personnel. On occasion, they’re both in the backfield.
It’s become quickly apparent that the pass-catching abilities of McCoy and Sproles will be utilized to the fullest extent this season. And these two backs more than security blankets or checkdown options when running pass routes. They’re legitimate weapons.
Jordan Matthews Is One Impressive Individual
Believe the hype. Jordan Matthews looks every bit as impressive as you might imagine he would. Size, speed, strength, hands, intelligence, production, work ethic—the second-round receiver out of Vanderbilt has displayed it all in camp.
Matthews has been a nightmare to defend at every level of the defense, from shallow crossing patterns to deep posts. Perhaps the area where he’s looked deadliest, though, has been inside the red zone. During last Thursday’s practice, the rookie wideout effortlessly hauled in two touchdown passes on four reps down by the goal line, almost as easily as if he was left uncovered.
Matthews is still running almost exclusively with the second-string offense for now, but that is bound to change sooner rather than later. While it’s usually true that wide receivers don’t contribute much as rookies, this kid appears poised to break the mold.
The Lane Johnson Contingency Plan
Now, the Eagles must go about implementing the contingency plan.
Chip Kelly wasted little time laying out the blueprint. Before the first practice at camp, the head coach informed the assembled media that, as expected, journeyman Allen Barbre would replace Johnson at right tackle. It was also revealed that Barbre would take the bulk of the snaps with the first-team offense.
Then Kelly dropped a bombshell, leaving the door open for Barbre to potentially keep the gig even after Johnson is eligible to return. This, of course, is based on some combination of how well Barbre performs and whether Johnson is still in football shape come Week 5.
In all honesty, it all makes perfect sense. While Johnson was the fourth overall pick only a year ago and one of the building blocks of the franchise’s future, the team should not disrupt continuity along the offensive line if Barbre is playing well.
That being said, regardless of the plan’s specifics, it’s comforting just knowing Kelly has one.
Bigger Role Expected for Vinny Curry
For a second-round pick, Vinny Curry sure has been awfully quiet. He’s been a healthy inactive for three times as many games (12) as he has sacks (4.0) during his brief two-year career.
That could be about to change. From the looks of things at camp, Curry is going to see a lot more playing time in 2014. Chris McPherson and Bo Wulf for PhiladelphiaEagles.com noted Curry has replaced Cedric Thornton at left defensive end in the defense’s nickel package.
The tandem makes sense. While an excellent run defender, Thornton offers next to nothing in the way of a pass rush and needs to come off the field in obvious passing downs. And Curry, despite the limited opportunities, graded as the second-most productive pass-rusher per snap in the NFL behind only J.J. Watt for the Houston Texans among 3-4 ends last season according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Though he may not be a perfect fit for the scheme, at 6’3”, 279 pounds and with an explosive first step, Curry has the potential to be a dominant pass-rusher no matter where he lines up. It appears he’ll finally get the chance to prove it this year.
Eagles Committed to Reducing Reliance on DeMeco Ryans
Back in June, Reuben Frank for CSNPhilly.com reported that Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis wants to reduce the number of snaps interior linebacker DeMeco Ryans plays this year. One glance at the depth chart will tell you that could be easier said than done.
The challenge clearly hasn’t deterred them. Najee Goode has been mixing in with the first-team defense at camp. Kelly said it’s not so much about taking playing time from the veteran Ryans, who is absolutely the starter, but figuring out exactly what they have in the third-year player, as transcribed by PhiladelphiaEagles.com.
There's a lot of guys that look good but when you put them in with the first group, all of a sudden they don't look as strong and that's where we are just trying to get an idea of who is you obviously have two good linebackers in Mychal and DeMeco but where is our depth behind them and who is it going to be?
Still, it’s undeniable that part of the interest in Goode is due to a) Ryans’ limitations as an every-down player and b) the fact that Ryans is 30 and 2015 is the final year on his contract. The explanation that the Eagles want to see what Goode can do is all well and good, but however you want to dress it up, the team is looking for help.
Nolan Carroll Pushing for Playing Time
It’s beginning to look like the free-agent addition of Nolan Carroll might’ve been a tad underrated. He’s not necessarily in Philadelphia merely to provide depth. Carroll is pushing for a regular role in the defense.
The former Miami Dolphin is having a tremendous camp, breaking up passes on a daily basis, even coming up with a handful of interceptions. Carroll’s hard work paid off on Sunday, as he finally had the opportunity to run with the first-string defense at practice.
In retrospect, it shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Carroll started 22 games for the Dolphins over the past two seasons. He has ideal size at 6’1”, 205 pounds. The Eagles’ starting cornerbacks—Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher—rate somewhere between serviceable and decent, but neither is truly locked into his job.
On the other hand, one detail to keep in mind is Carroll has largely worked against backups throughout this camp. He’s having a fantastic camp, but let’s pump the brakes a bit before handing him Williams’ or Fletcher’s job.
That being said, there’s no denying Carroll has stood out regardless of the level of his competition. Plus, the Birds have a pretty good receiver battle going, so it’s not like he’s facing stiffs. Carroll is having a fantastic camp, no ifs, ands or buts about it, and he will have a role in the defense this season.
Malcolm Jenkins Is a Great Fit
The Eagles wasted little time filling the hole at safety, signing for Saint Malcolm Jenkins to a three-year contract less than an hour into free agency in March. However, in the process they passed over Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward, Pro Bowlers who went to the New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos respectively. Why?
So far, Jenkins is demonstrating exactly why. For one, the press can’t stop talking about all of the intangibles the sixth-year veteran brings to the table. He possesses a tremendous work ethic and football IQ, and has been described as “the quarterback of the defense” by reporters such as Matt Lombardo for NJ.com.
On the field, it’s Jenkins’ extraordinary coverage ability that’s stood out, particularly in man coverage. He’s been glued to everybody from running backs and tight ends to wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Jordan Matthews to running backs and tight ends.
Of course, it comes as no surprise being that the former first-round pick of the Saints actually played cornerback at Ohio State. Then again, it also explains why the Eagles signed him over Byrd or Ward. Philly’s defensive scheme puts its safeties in man-to-man coverage with some frequency.
With Jenkins, the Birds are getting not just a leader on and off the field, but a perfect fit for their system.
All observations from Eagles training camp were witnessed firsthand by the author, except where otherwise attributed.
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