Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Offensive Line

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Offensive Line

We continue our training camp preview by breaking down the Eagles at offensive line, which is primed to go from rags to riches with three starters returning from injury and the fourth-overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft joining the unit.

[ Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp:
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End
Defensive Line | Linebackers | Cornerback | Safety ]

Can Jason Peters make a full recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon?

That, my friends, is the million dollar question. The 2012 campaign was effectively over before it ever began for the Eagles once Peters ruptured his Achilles during a private offseason workout, then again some weeks later while trying to roll-a-bout his home. Without an elite left tackle to anchor the offensive line, it made everyone’s job more difficult, to the degree where even if center Jason Kelce and right tackle Todd Herremans hadn’t followed suit with season-ending injuries of their own, the unit probably would not have been a strong one.

The good news is Peters was back participating in practices with the rest of the team this year, and he certainly sounds healthy. We hear you would never even be able to tell he had been so seriously hurt if you weren't already aware in the first place.

But that’s understandably a little hard for some to believe. Achilles injuries are among the worst in sports, at least as far as what could be considered commonplace. It’s even harder on a man as large as Peters (6-4, 340). Philly fans are getting a taste of that with Ryan Howard, who weighs somewhere around 100 lbs. less, and continues to experience other foot and knee problems in the same leg since his blew up nearly two years ago. Peters has to rely much more on athleticism and at least as much on leverage – and he’s had two procedures on it now.

Ultimately the answer here is who knows. We won’t truly find out until he is trying to get to the second and third level to set blocks down the field for LeSean McCoy, or when he’s going one-on-one with a Hall-of-Fame pass rusher the likes of DeMarcus Ware. If there are any positives here, it’s that Peters will be roughly a year-and-a-half removed from surgery by the time he plays his first meaningful game. Regardless, we have to be skeptical whether at 31 years old he’ll ever be one of the most dominant players in the NFL again.

Will Lane Johnson stand out during his rookie season?

I kind of hope not. Notice the choice of language in the question – or lack thereof in this case. An offensive lineman can stand out in a positive way, like Peters in ’11 when he was rounding into what many believed was the best left tackle in football. Or he can stand out in a negative way, like Danny Watkins has for the Eagles, when he wasn’t ready to start on opening day of his rookie season, and has been something of a turnstile ever since.

There’s a chance Lane Johnson, the fourth-overall pick of the draft, just “gets it.” Described as a perfect fit for Chip Kelly’s offense due to his athleticism, maybe he comes in and immediately sets a tone, showcasing the rare ability to bookend the Birds’ offensive line for the next decade.

Then again, that might be a fairy tale of sorts. Like Watkins before him, Johnson is extremely inexperienced, playing just two seasons of college ball on Oklahoma's line. Clearly he has the tools to develop into a cornerstone of the O-line, if not a Pro Bowler someday, but he is incredibly raw. As a rookie, you more or less have to hope he can just blend in with the rest of group, because chances are "standing out" could mean he’s having trouble adapting.

One thing I really like about Johnson that has been undersold is his football IQ. He’s played all over the field, from quarterback, to tight end, to defensive end, so he understands the game from a variety of perspectives. Those experiences should only aid his learning and development. That said, we shouldn’t be disappointed if he has a quiet rookie season – it may even be for the best.

How easily can Todd Herremans transition to right guard?

It shouldn’t be a problem for Herremans. This will be his third full-time position along the Eagles’ offensive line, and he’s held up no matter where the club has moved him to. Sliding back inside where he played for six of his eight NFL seasons should actually be an improvement, as Herremans struggled a bit at right tackle in his second year there with Peters out of the picture and the resulting increase in responsibilities.

And while Herremans previously played guard almost entirely on the left side for the Birds, lining up on the right isn’t exactly like taking a trip Mars or something. The broken bone in his foot has healed, so he should be good to go. There’s no real reason to anticipate any major issues as a result of this change.

Will Danny Watkins make the team?

You would have to think his spot on the roster is up for grabs, although it’s incredibly difficult to get a read on what’s going on with Watkins. Last season it was is he or isn’t he hurt. A supposed chronic ankle injury was the reason Andy Reid gave for removing the Watkins from the starting lineup, but that claim was often disputed, and hardly made sense given the 28 year old would dress most Sundays. Seems he was simply demoted.

Then the new coaching staff came in and was probably hoping to salvage Watkins for depth at least. Before mini-camps and OTAs were over though, Watkins was passed by the likes of journeyman Allen Barbre for first-team reps. Granted Chip Kelly has said not to make much of the depth chart, and star players such as DeSean Jackson have been known to run with the threes, but it still isn’t a good sign when a relative unknown such Barbre is out in front of a recent first-round pick.

I wouldn’t say that’s a necessarily sign Watkins’ time is running out, but I wouldn’t ignore it, either. There is plenty of other competition for those backup spots, too – Dennis Kelly did okay at tackle and pitched in at guard (less successfully) in his first year, 2011 fifth rounder Julian Vandervelde is still in the picture, as are Nate Menkin and Matt Tennant, a pair of players the Birds picked up off the scrap heap last season from Houston and New England respectively.

Little more than two years ago, Watkins was projected to be better than any of them, so you have to think the talent is there. Maybe he wasn’t a fit for departed offensive line coach Howard Mudd’s scheme, and will flourish under Jeff Stoutland. Mayve he simply doesn't have the heart. Whatever the case, the clock is ticking, and it might not be much of a stretch to imagine Watkins hanging off the back of a fire truck rather than standing on a football field come September.

Is Evan Mathis the best player on the Eagles’ roster right now?

You could make that argument. In fact, I believe we just did. Mathis isn’t even the best player on the offensive line if Peters is completely healthy and can regain his All-Pro form, but that’s far from a given. Based on last season, LeSean McCoy is somewhat dependent on the strength of the linemen in front of him. DeSean Jackson, Trent Cole… virtually anybody we can think of who might be in the conversation is coming off of one or multiple down years.

Except Mathis that is. He was probably the Eagles’ most valuable player last season, which isn’t saying much on a 4-12 team, but hey. He was their only lineman who started all 16 games, and he’s their only lineman period who actually played at a high level consistently. You probably couldn’t tell while defenders were constantly running free into the backfield, but he continued to be a rock at left guard.

For the second consecutive season Mathis ranked near the top of Pro Football Focus’ scoring for guards, while the site said he had the sixth-best year of any player in the NFL – up from 18 in 2011.

Hard as it may be to believe, Pro Bowl snubs or no, but a former journeyman lineman perhaps the only sure thing the Eagles have on their roster right now. Considering he signed a five-year contract worth $25 million last offseason, maybe you should pick up a No. 69 if you're in the market for a new jersey this summer.

Andrew Kulp is a freelance writer covering Philadelphia sports for The700Level.com. E-mail him at andrewkulp@comcast.net or follow him on Twitter.

Another struggling pitcher gets well against the Phillies' feeble hitters

Another struggling pitcher gets well against the Phillies' feeble hitters

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MIAMI -- For struggling pitchers, facing the Phillies has become like a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
 
Another rival pitcher searching for a cure got it Monday night when the Phillies suffered their 23rd loss in the last 29 games. This time it was Miami Marlins right-hander Edinson Volquez. He pitched six shutout innings and allowed just three hits in leading his club to a 4-1 win over the Phillies, who fell to 6-20 in May (see Instant Replay).

Volquez had gone 16 starts between wins.
 
"Every loss stings, I don’t care who's pitching," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We're just in a rut. We've got to battle our way out of it. We have to show up tomorrow and get after it. We've got to get more than three or four hits in the game."
 
The Phillies had just four hits in the game. It was the fifth time in the last nine games that they've had four or fewer hits. Only one of the hits was for extra bases and one of the singles was an infield hit.
 
"Once again, we need more offense," Mackanin said.
 
Phillies starter Jeremy Hellickson completed a difficult month of May by allowing six hits, including a two-run homer, and four runs over six innings.
 
Hellickson surrendered a two-run homer to Derek Dietrich with two outs in the sixth and that was basically the ball game. Dietrich hit a high changeup. Back in April, that pitch would have been at the knees. But Hellickson has misplaced the pitch command that he needs to succeed.
 
Hellickson went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts in April. In May, however, he went 1-3 with a 7.04 ERA in six starts. He was tagged for 35 hits, including nine homers, in 30 2/3 innings.
 
"Command in general," said Hellickson, describing his problem this month. "The biggest thing is not getting strike one, falling behind too much. I'm not getting the quick easy outs I was getting early in the season. I'm trying to get ahead, just missing."
 
Volquez signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the Marlins over the winter, but it wasn't until this game that he delivered his first win. He entered the game 0-7 with a 4.82 ERA in nine starts.
 
The win was Volquez's first since Aug. 25, 2016, when he was a member of the Kansas City Royals.

Volquez isn't the first struggling pitcher to shine against the Phils recently. Eight days earlier, Pittsburgh's Chad Kuhl took a 6.69 ERA into a start against the Phils and pitched five shutout innings. In the series against Colorado, the Phillies were dominated by a pair of rookies. In the only game they won (in a late rally), they were held to one run over six innings by Tyler Anderson, who had entered that game with an ERA of 6.00. On Friday night, Cincinnati Reds right-hander Tim Adleman pitched eight shutout innings against the Phils and gave up just one hit in the best start of his life. He had come into that game with an ERA of 6.19.
 
So Volquez had to be heartened when he saw the Phillies on the schedule.
 
They are the get-well team for pitchers in need of a pick-me-up.
 
It's actually kind of sad.
 
With Odubel Herrera locked in the throes of the worst slump of his life and on the bench and Maikel Franco mired in a 2 for 21 slump and hitting .209, Mackanin is trying to push things a little. He gave Aaron Altherr the green light to steal with one out and runners on the corners in a one-run game in the sixth inning. Altherr was out at second on a close play and Tommy Joseph struck out to leave the runner at third.
 
The Marlins salted the game away in the bottom of the inning on Dietrich's homer.
 
"With our offense, I have to take chances," Mackanin said. "I can't sit around and wait for three hits in a row. We haven't been doing that."
 
The Phils have the worst record in the majors at 17-32.
 
They have lost eight of their last 10 and scored just 15 runs in the losses.
 
"It sucks," catcher Cameron Rupp said. "There's really no other way to put it. It's frustrating. But the only people that are going to help us are ourselves. Nobody's going to go out there and play for us, swing the bats, pitch, play defense. That's on us and we have to do a better job all around.
 
"We all want to be successful and get the job done. We just haven't been hitting the ball. There's no other way to put it. But the good thing about baseball is we play every day so we turn the page and come back tomorrow and try to get it done."

Stanley Cup Final: Penguins come alive late in third to steal Game 1 vs. Predators

Stanley Cup Final: Penguins come alive late in third to steal Game 1 vs. Predators

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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins rarely tested the hottest goaltender in the playoffs in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Nashville.

They beat Pekka Rinne anyway.

Rookie Jake Guentzel fired the puck past Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a back-and-forth 5-3 victory on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Matt Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in Final history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37 minutes at one point without a shot.

"I think at the end of the day we're up 1-0," Bonino said. "We had a good first, we had a terrible second and we were terrible in the third. I don't think it's Xs and Os. We've got to work harder, compete a little harder, but we got some timely goals."

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions, trying to become the first repeat winner since Detroit in 1998.

All the guys from "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

"The impact of that moment and then the chain of events that happened after that with the penalty kills I think changed the course of the game," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said.

The decision gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge. Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead, they rallied and took over the game.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second and Nashville kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history -- and the first such period by any team in a Final game since the NHL began tracking shots on goal in 1958.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

"We didn't do a great job of (shooting), but we made them count," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "But it was a good finish there to get that one from Jake."