Exit Interviews: Evaluating the 2010-'11 Philadelphia 76ers

Exit Interviews: Evaluating the 2010-'11 Philadelphia 76ers

Well, it was certainly an unexpectedly emotional season for our Liberty Ballers. While we were all willing to write the boys off for the year after their 3-13 start and start hoping that they were out-and-out crappy enough to at least get themselves a good lottery slot, we started caring again when they proved to be far better than their initial record indicating, coming together as a team under Coach Doug Collins and fighting to get back over .500. Then they fell back down to 41-41 for the season, and after a game two blowout in Miami, we made peace with the Sixers going quietly into that good night. But then they fought back in game three and managed to steal game four, making us far more emotionally invested for their heartbreaking-but-encouraging Game Five loss than we probably should have been. All in all, I think it was a lot more fun than any of us anticipated.

But the season's over for the 2010-'11 Philadelphia 76ers, and it's time to start thinking about where we're at, and where we're going from here. Before we start considering what moves and adjustments need to be made for the team for them to go further than a first-round moral victory and real-life loss in years to come, let's do some grading of the individual performers of the team this year, to see who lived up to expectations, who has work to do, who was a pleasant surprise and who was a complete disappointment. In alphabetical order:

Tony Battie:

The 35-year-old journeyman out of Texas Tech was acquied to be our emergency center and probably provide something resembling veteran leadership in the locker room, like a poor man's Calvin Booth. The best thing we can say about Battie this year—and I don't mean this to be as backhanded as it probably sounds—is that we never had to play him more than absolutely necessary, with Spencer Hawes mostly staying healthy after some early back issues and Collins wisely opting to go small most of the time Hawes was on the bench. When called on to fill in minutes, Battie provided adequate defense, occasionally hit his jumper, and generally did a good job of being a tall guy. We didn't ask for much, and he didn't give us much. Fair enough.

Grade: C

For Next Year: His contract's up, and I doubt the Sixers will take the trouble to re-sign him. I wouldn't be surprised if he retires, personally.

Craig Brackins:

Acquired from New Orleans in the trade of Willie Green and Jason Smith (which was a brilliant move even if all we got back was a signed Hornets cheerleaders calendar), Brackins never really got his fair shake on the pro squad. After lighting p the D-League for the Springfield Armor, the 2010 first-rounder was shuttled back and forth between the amateurs and pros all year, riding the bench for the great majority of the time he was in the bigs. He only played a total of 33 minutes for the Sixers this season, shooting 4-16 with four rebounds. Not great, but not nearly enough to judge him on for the future.

Grade: N/A (Hate giving incompletes on report cards, but anything else would just be a meaningless projection)

For Next Year: Hopefully a good training camp that ensures Craig a spot on the 2012 twelve-man, and a battle with Marreese Speights for back-up minutes as a floor-stretching four.

Elton Brand:

One of the feel-good stories of this NBA season, EB had by far his best season as a Liberty Baller, averaging his best numbers in points (15.0), field goal percentage (51%), free throw percentage (78%) and PER (18.5) since signing on with Philadelphia. He also led the team in points, rebounds (8.3) and blocks (1.3), while averaging a career-low in turnovers (1.2). He was the Sixers' rock all year, on and off the court, and perhaps most importantly, he only missed one game all season, due to a single-game suspension from a bad foul in Washington. One year after seeming like a league washout, Brand proved that he was still a real factor in this league, and certainly no one is prouder of him than Coach Collins, who leaned on EB all year as a team leader. I'd like to rate him even higher than I have, but there's still the pesky matter of that $80 million contract—we signed him to that big money in the hopes that he would be able to take us beyond the first round, and as long as he fails to do that, we can't rightly grade him much higher than this.

Grade: B

For Next Year: Keep the conditioning up, stay a healthy, positive force, see if you can do it all over again.

Antonio Daniels:

Signed with just a couple weeks remaining in the season to fill in as the back up PG while Lou Williams missed time with a pulled hammy, AD played in four games, scored four points, handed out two assists, and helped the Sixers go 1-3. Meh.

Grade: C-

For Next Year: The 35-year-old Daniels toiled in the D-League all year for the chance to make it back to the pros. I legitimately hope he gets to stay in the NBA next season, but if it's with the Sixers, it probably means we screwed something up in the off-season.

Spencer Hawes:

Named the team's starting center after coming over from Sacramento in the Samuel Dalembert trade, Hawes did little to ensure his future as a starter in this league, averaging just 7 and 6 and providing weak interior defense. Though he showed off his vaunted passing ability with a couple highlight dishes, developing an especially nice chemistry with Brand towards the end of the year, his jumper proved unreliable and he was too often killed in the post and on the boards by bigger, more aggressive centers. I'm still infinitely grateful to Spence for saving us from another year of having to watch Sammy D, and at 23 he has room yet to grow, but is he a long-term solution? My dad thinks he still might be, and I usually trust him on stuff like this, but I'm not sure I saw enough this year to be convinced myself.

Grade: C-

For Next Year: Spence is a restricted free agent, so the Sixers can match any offer sheet he signs elsewhere. If I had to guess, I'd say he ends up back with the Sixers at something like four or five mil a year—which wouldn't be terrible, as long as they added size elsewhere on their roster as well, and continued to look for a true center to anchor their defense. I wouldn't be heartbroken if the team let him walk, either. 

Jrue Holiday:

We said before the season that the team' success this year would largely depend on whether or not Jrue elevated his game to an All-Star or near-All-Star level. While no one was listing The Damaja as an All-Star snub this year, and rightly so, he did raise his averages in nearly every meaningful stat, while cementing his status as the team's point guard of the future, starting all 82 games at the one. His increased numbers in points (8.0 to 14.0), assists (3.8 to 6.5) and free-throw shooting (76% to 82%) had some listing him as an honorable mention for Most Improved Player, but really, this is nothing we didn't expect from his stellar play at the end of last season. Still only 20 years old, Holiday remains the brightest part of the team's future, one who did a lot of growing this post-season, and who should only get more fun to watch as the year's progress.

Grade: B+

For Next Year: Work on that on-ball defense, Jrue. We know you have the potential to be lockdown, but we need to see it from you more consistently next year.

Andre Iguodala:

As always, it was a year of good and bad with 'Dre. Looking on the bright side, he was the team's primary playmaker and finest all-around player, picking his spots on offense, shutting down the opponent's best wing player on defense, and even posting triple-doubles in consecutive games in March (both wins). But he also posted his lowest ppg average (14.1) since 2006, and repeatedly came up short when relied upon to be the go-to guy in the game's waning minutes. I always thought 'Dre was at his best when he wasn't trying to score, but as the team's #1 guy (and for better or much worse, he was still that this season) there were times when we really could've used him taking over late, and aside from one game in Utah and Game Five in Miami—both of which the team still ended up losing anyway—he just never came through like that.We don't make the playoffs without Iguodala, but as we all know by now, we don't get further than the first round with him.

Grade: B-

For Next Year: Trade. Trade. Dear God, a trade. This team has gone as far as it can go with 'Dre at the helm, and the front office owes it to him and to us to at least try his damnedest to see if we can't find SOME team willing to give us a combination of (probably low) draft picks, (probably low-ceiling) young talent and expiring deals for him, as we continue to re-tool around our younger guys and free up minutes for players like Evan Turner and (possibly) Thaddeus Young. Andre Iguodala can help you if you're a contending team—honest, he can, he does so very, very much—but he can't help this group anymore, at least not in the way they need. Time to move on.

Jason Kapono:

Look, I didn't ask for much when Kapono came over from Toronto. I knew he wasn't a starter, I knew he wasn't a great defender, I knew we couldn't rely on him for much. As I've always said, I just wanted there to be two games a year that he absolutely stole for us with his hot three-point shooting—like "Dagger" Donyell Marshall did for us in limited bench minutes back in '08-'09. Though he failed to do it under Eddie Jordan, I figured that under Doug Collins, who raved about him all training camp and even named him as a starter for the beginning of the season, he'd get the opportunities he needed and finally come through. I could not have been more wrong. Not only did he not win us a single game with his three-point shooting, he didn't even shoot the three all that much—only eight attempts all year in 1111 minutes of game time, of which he made a resounding one. That's right: $6.6 million of the team's payroll this year went to a designated three-point gunner that made ONE F'ING THREE-POINTER ALL YEAR. Good lord.

Grade: F. Failure you are, Jason Kapono.

For Next Year: Have fun riding the bench as some contender's 13th man, jackass.

Jodie Meeks:

The seemingly negligible pick-up made by the Sixers at last year's trade deadline, Jodie Meeks ended up being an unexpected contributor—nay, starter—for Philly this season. It was once Coach Collins moved Meeks to our first five as the starting two-guard that the roster finally started making sense, saving the team from having to give extended minutes to horrorshows like Kapono and Andres Nocioni, and allowing them to bring Evan Turner along more slowly off the bench, as well as giving the team their first legitimate, reliable threat from deep since Kyle Korver was traded to Utah. Meeks knew his role on the team and played it willingly, shooting 61% of his field goal attempts from deep this year, and hitting on an impressive 40% of them. The question now is whether he can do more—be a legitimate all-around two guard, someone worth running off screens, designing plays for, instead of just parking behind the arc and shooting only when open.

Grade: B-

For Next Year: Attempt to diversify offensive game. But only if Grampa Collins says it's OK.

Andres Nocioni:

We knew he was ovepriced from the moment he came over in the Dalembert trade, and we just hoped he wouldn't be relied on to give us much more than depth. For the most part, that was the case, though we saw a little too much Noc early in the season with Iguodala gimpy and Turner not ready yet for extended minutes, and a little too much late as Coach Collins temporarily seemed to lose faith in Turner and relied on Noc for his toughnes, intangibles, and ability to help the team lose ballgames. Ultimately, six points and three rebounds on 43% shooting (36% from deep) sounds about right for Andres—it's only the 17 in the "GS" column that really bugs me about his season, and that's Coach's fault, not his. (Fun fact: For the 10 minutes he played in the Miami series, in which he went 0-3 with two boards and a turnover, Noc posted a -18.1 PER. I didn't even know that was possible.)

Grade: C

For Next Year: Perhaps we can use his $6.5 million expiring deal (he has a $7.5 option for next year that now team in their right mind would possibly pick up) as part of a larger trade, but if not, coming off the books at the end of the season is all we really should be asking Noc to do next year.

Darius Songaila:

Apart from becoming a folk hero over at Liberty Ballers, the Donger really did precious little for the Sixers this season after coming over from New Orleans, and frankly, we were more than OK with that. Somebody has to play those garbage time minutes, and Songaila was as good at playing out the string as anyone on this team.

Grade: C

For Next Year: Hope you saved some pennies from that $4.8 million you got from us for a rainy day, Dong—doubtful you'll be raking in seven digits again.

Marreese Speights:

Still one of the hardest-to-read players on this roster. After taking a huge step back under Eddie Jordan, Mo Speezy showed flashes of his stellar rookie season on occasion this year, most notably a 23-point explosion in Toronto, but failed to secure Coach Collins's trust (most likely due to his defensive deficiencies, which were hard to hide on this undersized team) and racked up double digits of DNP-CDs. It's hard to think that Speights will develop into a core piece at this point, but then again, when he's hitting his jumper—which unfortunately, he wasn't at all during his extended minutes in the first two games of the Miami series—he's one of the three or four most dangerous players on this team.

Grade: C-

For Next Year: Show us a little consistency, Marreese. At something besides towel-waving on the bench, anyway. We know you're already a three-time First-Team All-Pro (and perennial MVP candidate) at that.

Evan Turner:

I think we're all feeling a little more charitable towards the Extraterrestrial after he showed us a little something in the Miami series. Despite the 2-10 in Game Five, including that missed baseline runner that would've tied the game for them late, he really came through with his toughness, his rebounding, his defense, and in games two and four, his shooting, in which he looked more like a legit pro two-guard than ever before. ET's got the Bill Simmons seal of approval ("He's got a lot of stuff," says Simbo. "I'm not giving up on Evan Turner"), and he seems poised to be much more of a contributor next year, looking like he still might end up as a core piece of this team's future after all. Still, we can't forget how disappointing his rookie year was, as he came to us as the #2 pick, with a rep fo
r being the most pro-ready player in the draft, when in reality he was anything but—he struggled on both ends of the court, shooting under 40% for much of the year, turning the ball over and picking up countless bad fouls. He's improved dramatically, and we're not throwing around the "bust" word so much anymore, but we can't pretend like this was a dream season for the Villain, either.

Grade: C-

For Next Year: Continue to figure out how to use that skill set on the pro level. Evan knows by now that he can't blow by defenders like he did in college, but he's shown enough craftiness in the half-court that we know he can figure out how to be a scorer and play-maker in this league regardless. He's just gonna take longer to get there than we had previously anticipated.

Louis Williams:

It was a typical year for Sweet Lou: Some good games, some bad, some terrible shots, and some terrible shots that somehow went in, most notably his game-winner in Game Four of the Miami series, for which we should always be grateful. Personally, I was disappointed to see that the unexpected efficiency he showed last year—shooting a career-high 47%, handing out a career high 4.2 assists a game—vanished, as he reverted to his bench-gunner role of two-three years earlier, possibly on the direction of Doug Collins, who for some reason felt intent on pushing Lou towards Sixth Man of the Year honors and gave him the green light to do pretty much whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He helped justify this role by getting to the line 4.7 times a game, a team-high, and making 82% of his FTs once there, and he did post a team-high 18.9 PER (though I'm not really sure how, to be honest), but his ability to shoot this team out of games was unparalleled, and in the end, I'm not sure that he won us that many more games than he lost us.

Grade: C+

For Next Year: I'd like to see a trade, if possible. The minutes Lou's getting in crunch time should be going to Jrue and/or Evan, and it warmed my heart to see those two guys out there instead of Sweet'ums for the final minutes of the Miami series. Like 'Dre, Lou has been a big producer for this team for a long time, and though his service has been much-appreciated, his time here has passed. With a contract that's fairly manageable (two years, $12 mil), it shouldn't be impossible to find a trade partner. It wouldn't kill anyone to try, anyway.

Thaddeus Young:

Definitely one of the more reassuring parts of the Sixers season was that the huge step back Thaddeus Young took under Eddie Jordan—which Thad himself was never hesitant to place largely on Fast Eddie's shoulders—now appears to be just a statistical aberration, as Young reclaimed his status as one of the game's more exciting young players with his excellent play off the bench this season. With averages of 13 and 5 off the bench, on 54% shooting, Thad was actually far more of a deserving Sixth Man of the Year candidate than Sweet Lou, shredding weak second-unit defenses in the half-court and (especially) on the break. He eased off on his jumper significantly this year, shooting only 22 threes after launching a combined 300 the last two years, and though he's gonna need that jumper to take the next step as a player, in the short term, knowing his limitations improved his offensive efficiency dramatically, and he quickly (and justifiably) developed into one of Coach Collins's favorites, never starting but often finishing games.

Grade: B+

For Next Year: By far the hardest—and potentially the most pivotal–decision the Sixers will have in the off-season is to decide what to do with Young. A restricted free agent, Thad is expected to claim anywhere from four years, $32 mil to five years, $50 mil on the open market, and in a way, his comeback season was the worst thing that could have happened to the Sixers, as he may have priced himself out of the city fo Brotherly Love. But perhaps more concerning is the idea that the Sixers might match whatever ridiculous offer sheet he signs, tying up their little remaining cap space for a player who may never be more than a bench threat. Then again, if he walks, it could end up burning the Sixers, since if he ever does develop that jumper, there's no saying where his ceiling lies.

It's not gonna be an easy decision, and frankly, it's one I'm glad I don't have to make, but if anything, this demonstrates why trading Iguodala is absolutely crucial to the team's long-term planning. Not having 'Dre's contract on the ledger  long-term would give this team untold financial flexibility the next two years, allowing them to make mid-level moves like re-signing Young, while keeping long-term, big-fish space open for the summer of 2013, when Elton Brand's gargantuan contract comes off the books. But if I had to guess, I'd say Philly keeps 'Dre and re-signs Thad anyway, which...doesn't bode particularly well for the team's room for out-of-house improvement this off-season.

That's it for the players, but a couple more grades that need to be handed out before we wrap up:

Ed Stefanski / Rod Thorn:

Our new two-headed monster of a front office begs the question: How many people does it take to decide to do absolutely nothing? Even the simple act of buying out Jason Kapono (which might have saved the team a couple of bucks and saved us from having to watch him brick the final, potentially game-tying shot of the Sixers' regular season) proved too much for the duo to handle, as the trade deadline passed without the team making a single move. Aside from shuttling Craig Brackins back and forth from Springfield and calling up Anotnio Daniels for his half-an-hour's worth of scintillating mediocrity, Thorn and Stefanski basically sat on their hands all season, concluding that 41 wins and a certain first-round exit were basically good enough for 2011. Uh, guys? Not really doing it for us anymore. 

Grade: D

For Next Year: How many times do we need to say it. TRADE IGUODALA. You've been putting this off for two seasons now, Ed, but it's time to quit procrastinating. What we get for him isn't really that important at this point—it's a move that will (and arguably should) hurt the Sixers in the short-term, and they might miss the playoffs next year, but it's the team's long-term health that needs to be considered here, and for that, 'Dre just gots to go. I'd also like the team to jettison Lou, but that's both a harder sell to the team and fanbase, and a lot less financially pressing, so I don't want to push my luck here. But the 'Dre deal has to happen.

Beyond that, we need a big man. I'm crossing my fingers for being able to land one of the Tyson Chandler, Nene or Marc Gasol trio of free agents, but I don't think our chances are great. We'll likely have to suffice with some veteran patchwork job, and in all likelihood, another year of Spencer Hawes—still preferable to Dalembert, but once again, not a long-term solution. Wouldn't mind a back-up point guard either, but that's contingent on Lou Williams not being on the roster, which is likely wishful thinking. Otherwise, I think our roster is pretty much spoken for at this point.

Doug Collins:

And the true MVP of the Sixers' season is... We didn't know what to expect from Doug Collins when he was hired as the Sixers' fourth head coach in three seasons. Sure, he came with the reputation as a fixer-upper, someone who took lousy teams and got them a great first-year turnaround, but at his previous three stops he had Michael Jordan twice and Grant Hill once at his disposal—no one on this Sixers' roster was gonna be responsible for ten wins' worth of improvement on their own. After the t
eam's rough pre-season and 3-13 start, it looked like Dougie would've been better off sticking with doing color on TNT, and it looked like we might be looking for coach #5 in five years before long.

But instead, Collins grew this team up. As clichéd as it sounds, he believed in this team, and he got the team believing in themselves and in each other, tending to the boys with a caring, paternal hand that really showed how emotionally invested he was in the team's success, on and off the court. There were stories of him crying while telling Evan Turner how much he believed in him, there were press-conferences of him gushing over Thaddeus Young like a father talking about his kid's performance in his seventh-grade play. He wasn't soft or overly sentimental, and he was particularly hard on the young guys at times, but he never came off as overbearing, and the team never stopped responding to him.

More practically, he also helped this team out immeasurably by finding a rotation that made sense and sticking with it. Once he found a starting lineup that seemed to have balance and flow, cemented by Jodie Meeks sliding in at the two and Spencer Hawes getting healthy enough to hold on at the five, he resisted the urge to toy with it, keeping Thad and Evan on the bench (where they could best help the team) and realizing that going small only worked for the team for short stretches at a time. He also got the team playing defense, improving their league-worst opposing three-point percentage last year from 39% to 34%, and taking care of the ball, posting the league's lowest turnover rate at about 13 a game. Most importantly, he got the team playing like a team—not one with a hierarchy, but one in which everyone shared the ball and a whopping six different players ended up scoring over ten points a game.

People always ask whether coaching makes a discernible difference in the NBA. After what Doug Collins did for this team this year, I'm done wondering, anyway.

Grade: A

For Next Year: This is where it gets a little tricky. For all the wonderful things Dougie did in his first year as the Sixers' head coach, it's going to get much more challenging from here. What happens when Jrue gets fed up with 'Dre getting so much of the ball-handling responsibilities? What about when Evan decides his ready for 35 minutes a game, and Collins still disagrees? Or when Thad (if he's still around) gets sick of coming off the bench? Or when Elton breaks down and suddenly, Collins needs to deal with Marreese getting big minutes? The first year is easy, relatively speaking, but now Dougie has to prove that he can switch up his coaching style when the team invariably decides that they're ready to start making some decisions for themselves. Can he ease off a little, while still keeping the team's ear?

Just as it's noted that the Collins teams have always done better in their first year, it's similarly known that his teams tend to come back down to earth a little after that. Will the Sixers be the team to break the cycle? Just another reason to look forward to next year, but whatever happens from here, we should never forget how Collins changed the culture of this team, and helped get people excited—to an extent, anyway—about the Philadelphia 76ers again.

Today's Lineup: Rupp and Franco out, Howard, Ruiz in

Today's Lineup: Rupp and Franco out, Howard, Ruiz in

Going for the series win today, Pete Mackanin has shaken up the lineup.

Maikel Franco is still out. After taking a pitch off the wrist on Friday, Franco was listed as day to day with a sore wrist (see story). Andres Blanco will again hit and play third.

Both Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz crack the lineup today. Ruiz has caught Vince Velasquez just once this season, a five inning shutout with 10 strikeouts vs. the Marlins on May 17. 

Ruiz replaced Cameron Rupp in the third inning of Saturday's game as a precaution after Rupp took a pitch off the helmet. (see story)

After being on fire for much of the past month, Peter Bourjos has posted consecutive 0 for 5 nights in the leadoff spot. He will drop down to ninth today, allowing another hot hitter, Cesar Hernandez to hit leadoff.

Odubel Herrara will remain in the two-spot, where he has looked resurgent in this series, going 6 for 9 with four runs scored. 

Much like Bourjos, Cody Asche has not yet recorded a hit in this series and will be lowered to the seven-hole, while Freddy Galvis will hit sixth.

Velasquez takes the mound for the Phillies today. In his four starts since returning from a biceps injury in early June, Velasquez has been arguably the team's best pitcher. In those starts, the flamethrower has been going deeper into ball games than earlier this season, averaging six innings per start, while allowing just five runs during that span. 

Here is today's lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez 2B
2. Odubel Herrara CF
3. Andres Blanco 3B
4. Ryan Howard 1B
5. Carlos Ruiz C
6. Freddy Galvis SS
7. Coday Asche LF
8. Peter Bourjos RF
9. Vince Velasquez P

Reuben Frank's way-too-early 2016 Eagles predictions

Reuben Frank's way-too-early 2016 Eagles predictions

Will offensive linemen Jason Peters and Jason Kelce bounce back from disappointing seasons? Who will the Eagles’ top cornerback be? How many games will Carson Wentz start? Will the Eagles win a playoff game for the first time since 2008?

We take our best shot at these questions and many others facing the Eagles in our way-too-early 2016 predictions.

See you in the comments section!

1. I’ll start with Zach Ertz. He caught 75 passes for 853 yards last year, but I feel like he can do so much more. Sam Bradford and Ertz really clicked late last season, connecting 35 times for 450 yards the last four games of the year. Nobody can keep that up for an entire season, but I think this is finally the huge breakout season we’ve been expecting from Ertz since he got here in 2013.

THE PREDICTION: 90 catches for 1,089 yards.

2. Staying on offense, much has been made of Kelce’s sub-par season in 2015. It was strange to see Kelce, coming off a Pro Bowl season, apparently healthy and in the prime of his career, struggle the way he did. But I still think Kelce is an elite center. Yeah, he’s a little undersized, but he was undersized when he dominated in 2013 and made the Pro Bowl in 2014. He succeeds when he keeps his technique and uses his strength and leverage to overcome his lack of bulk. I think Kelce returns to form.

THE PREDICTION: A second Pro Bowl in three years for Kelce.

3. Sticking with the offensive line, I see Jason Peters also rebounding in 2016. Nobody benefited less than Peters from Chip Kelly’s full-speed, non-stop practices. His body broke down and when he was healthy enough to start, he often wasn’t healthy enough to finish. He made another Pro Bowl, but it was really a lost season for Peters. But with the hurry-up offense gone and a head coach who promises to take it easy on the older guys the way Reid did, there’s no reason Peters shouldn’t rebound.

THE PREDICTION: Peters returns to form and continues his late-career Hall of Fame push with his ninth Pro Bowl in 10 years, the only exception being the 2012 season he missed while rehabbing his torn Achilles.

4. I know he’s No. 3 now, but I’m just going on common sense, which says that if Sam Bradford gets hurt or gets benched, Carson Wentz and not Chase Daniel will replace him. Imagine if it’s Week 13 and Bradford hobbles off the field and Daniel – who has one career touchdown pass in six NFL seasons – jogs out to replace him? It would not be pretty. I say Wentz starts the last four games this year and plays fairly well.

THE PREDICTION: Wentz completes 61 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.

5. I think Jordan Matthews is a good, solid, functional NFL wide receiver, but I don’t think there is a star in this wide receiver group. The Eagles last year were the only NFL team with just one wide receiver with 30 receptions, the first time that’s happened in 26 years (Cris Carter was the only one in 1989). And honestly, I don’t see the situation improving that much. Maybe Nelson Agholor or Josh Huff or Rueben Randle will surprise me, but I just feel like this wide receiving corps doesn’t have the oomph it needs to really compete at a high level.

THE PREDICTION: Matthews catches another 80 to 90 passes but nobody else emerges as a big-time second wide receiving threat, and the Eagles once again go into the offseason desperate for an over-the-top threat like DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin.

6. Moving to defense, I think when all is said and done, Eric Rowe will emerge as the Eagles’ No. 1 cornerback. I wonder about Leodis McKelvin’s ability at 31 years old to run the way a corner has to in a division with DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Odell Beckham and Dez Bryant. Think of some Eagles corners who were 31 and older. Nnamdi. Charles Dimry. Roynell Young and Herm Edwards at the end. The only one who played at a high level at that age was Troy Vincent, and Leodis McKelvin is not Troy Vincent. I think Rowe will have his ups and downs, but, by the end of the year, he’ll be a solid NFL starter.

THE PREDICTION: Rowe leads the Eagles with five interceptions.

7. The Eagles have a lot of different guys who can rush the passer, and in Jim Schwartz’s scheme, there should be plenty of opportunities for them to attack the quarterback. Two years ago, Connor Barwin had 14 ½ sacks and Vinny Curry had 9 and last year Fletcher Cox had 9 ½ sacks and Brandon Graham had a career-high 6 ½. Now, this is a new world, with a 4-3 defense, and nobody is quite sure how all the pieces will fit together. But I do think the Eagles will be among the NFL leaders in sacks.

THE PREDICTION: The Eagles had 37 sacks last year and averaged just 41 during the Bill Davis Era, but I say they get 50 this year, which they’ve only done once since 2003 – in 2011 under defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

8. I’m less confident in the back seven, and I’m not convinced the Eagles have solved their pass defense issues. We’ve seen a lot of new faces come and go over the years – from DRC and Nnamdi to Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher – with nothing really changing. The Eagles are the only team in NFL history to allow 25 or more touchdown passes in seven straight years (after not allowing 25 passing TDs since 1989). Malcolm Jenkins is a beast, but a lot of question marks surround him in the defensive backfield.

THE PREDICTION: The Eagles extend their NFL record of allowing at least 25 touchdown passes to eight straight seasons.

9. This group of linebackers scares me. I feel like Mychal Kendricks has a ton of talent, but don’t think he’s ever put together the type of full season he’s capable of. I love what Jordan Hicks did the first half of last year, but I wonder if he can come close to repeating that or if he can stay healthy. Nigel Bradham? Not sure what he brings to the table. And behind that group there’s guys like Najee Goode, Deontae Skinner and Travis Long. There’s talent here, but it’s a precarious group.

THE PREDICTION: By the end of the season, only one of those three linebackers will still be in the starting lineup.

10. It’s silly to make a prediction for the season now, before we even know who’s on the team. But I’m going to do that anyway. I don’t think they’re that bad. But I don’t think they’re that good. I’m a Wentz guy and don’t think the Eagles are really going to accomplish anything substantial until Wentz is behind center. That said, I like Bradford more than most people. I think he’s an adequate NFL starter. But I don’t like his TD-INT ratio and don’t think he can generate enough points against good teams to get the Eagles beyond mediocre. I think the Eagles are missing the elite offensive weapons and defensive playmakers to be a playoff team. In this division, who knows? If the Eagles can go 4-2 in the division and scratch out five wins in their 10 games out of the gate, it could be enough to win the NFC East. But ultimately, I think they’ll fall short. Too many question marks. Too many areas that just aren’t good enough. Too many unknowns with Doug Pederson. The Eagles haven’t won a playoff game in seven years and I fear that number will increase to eight this year.

THE PREDICTION: Eagles go 7-9 this year and finish two games behind the Redskins in the NFC East.

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Young flamethrowers duel in rubber match

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Young flamethrowers duel in rubber match

Phillies (45-54) vs. Pirates (50-47)
1:35 p.m. on CSN

A poor start from Aaron Nola gave the Pirates the second game of this three-game set, so the series comes down to Sunday. Both teams will toss out one of their top young pitchers with Vince Velasquez going for the Phillies and Jameson Taillon for the Pirates. 

Five things to know before the Sunday afternoon tilt.

1. Re-examining the Phillies bullpen
With a week to go before the trade deadline, let's take a look at how the Phillies' bullpen has performed before it may lose a piece or two by Aug. 1. 

Over the last 30 days, the bullpen as a whole has been middle of the pack, ranking 17th in MLB with a 4.19 ERA but third in baseball with a 3.18 FIP (fielding-independent pitching). That indicates that the 'pen has done a good job of limiting walks and home runs while striking out enough batters and may just be the victim of bad batted ball luck.

In fact, the bullpen has the second-best walk rate (2.22 per nine innings) in MLB over the last month while it is sixth with a HR rate of 0.74 per nine inning. Could the bullpen be getting better and just need some better luck on balls in play? 

Now to the individual players. The three most intriguing players on the trade market are closer Jeanmar Gomez, set-up man Hector Neris and middle reliever David Hernandez. 

Gomez and Neris appear to have taken legitimate steps forward this year. Gomez has a 2.13 ERA over his last 12 games, spanning 12 2/3 innings. Neris meanwhile has a 2.31 ERA in his last 12 games and has struck out over one batter an inning during that span, continuing to excel with his splitter.

Hernandez, signed to possibly take the closer role in the offseason, hasn't quite hit the stride some would have hoped for. He has struck out 11 batters over his last 10 innings, but he has given up nine hits and six walks during that time, allowing more than 1.5 baserunners per inning. 

Edubray Ramos has been used a fair amount over the last four weeks, making 12 appearances. He has a high ERA to show for it (5.06) however despite showing good overall stuff.

2. Pitching duel of the future?
Both the Pirates and Phillies send two potential righty aces to the mound Sunday in hopes of taking the rubber match of the mid-July series. First, a look into Jameson Taillon, who the Pirates drafted 2nd overall in the 2010 MLB draft.

Once a top 10 prospect in all of baseball, Taillon missed all of 2014 and 2015 with Tommy John surgery and a sports hernia, respectively. The 24-year-old made his MLB debut in June and has become a solid part of the Pirates' rotation.

In his short time in the majors, he's made six starts, going 2-1 with a 3.44 ERA. He's walked just five batters in 34 innings. However, he's also given up four home runs and 35 hits. 

Similar to Saturday's starter, Tyler Glasnow, Taillon is a tall righty who can throw the ball in the upper 90s. At 6-foot-5, he's can be overpowering while bringing a strong curveball that he utilizes as his main off-speed pitch.

Opposing Taillon is arguably the Phillies' best starter this year. Velasquez was drafted in the second round of that same 2010 draft. As he has all season, he continues to overpower hitters with his velocity and repertoire, fanning 98 batters this year. His 3.15 ERA and eight wins are best among the Phillies' young starters.

His last start was his fourth since returning from the disabled list, and he has allowed two or fewer runs in each start. He allowed just one run to the Marlins on Tuesday, giving up three hits and four walks in seven innings. Pitching deep into games like he did vs. Miami is the next frontier for the 24-year-old flamethrower.

3. Appreciating Tommy Joseph's July
Since he was called up for his debut in May, Tommy Joseph has shown flashes of brilliance with the bat. 

However, June was rough for the rookie. He batted just .204 and walked just two times while striking out in 23 of his 96 plate appearances. Sure, he hit five home runs, but when he wasn't hitting for power, he was doing little else.

That has changed in his 15 games this July. He's already hit five homers in just over half the plate appearances and walked six times. The walks are key. He's never been one to draw all that many walks even in the minors, so it shows he may be taking another step in his development. 

In all, he has 17 hits and 10 runs scored in just 44 at-bats and 12 starts this month. He's raised his average to .264 and has a slugging percentage of .529.

He has not only shown that he can mash, which was already an assumption, but also that he can work at-bats and make things happen even when the ball isn't leaving the yard. He's looking more and more like building block.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Cesar Hernandez has quietly hit over .300 in June and July, hitting single after single near the bottom of the order. His two hits and two RBIs pushed the Phillies ahead early in Saturday's loss.

Pirates: Josh Harrison, the opposing second baseman, has had the opposite situation in the last two months. After batting over .325 in April and May, he's hit .218 or worse in the last two months. His season average is down to .270 and his OPS is just .673.

5. This and that
• David Freese has the only prior plate appearance against Velasquez. He's 0 for 1 against him. No Phillies, as one could guess, have at-bats against Taillon in the majors.

• The Phillies haven't won a series against the Pirates since 2013. 

• Pirates closer Mark Melancon has a 1.10 ERA against the Phillies in 15 career appearances. It's his second best ERA against a team he's faced at least 10 times. (He has a 0.63 ERA against the Marlins in 16 games).