Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Quarterback

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Quarterback

After 14 years under Andy Reid, you might say it’s been awhile since there was so much intrigue heading into an Eagles training camp. College football’s Chip Kelly is the head coach now, and for the first time in over a decade the team is a total mystery – which certainly isn’t a bad thing.

With rookies and selected veterans reporting to camp at the NovaCare Complex on July 22 – and the full squad due on July 25 – business is about to pick up, but there are still millions of questions left unanswered. We don’t have time for all of them, but we can take five *at each position* as we lead up to the most anticipated football season in Philly in nearly a decade. Up first, naturally, are the quarterbacks.

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

Could Mike Vick make the team as a backup?

Absolutely. There seem to be some preconceived notions about how Vick would react to being named Nick Foles’ backup, the inference being the four-time Pro Bowler will automatically want out of Philadelphia the instant it looks like he could actually lose the Eagles’ starting quarterback competition. We can’t deny that is one of several distinct possibilities… although this thought process does require some serious jumping to conclusions.

For one thing, Vick has given no indication – none – that he would be a malcontent if relegated to the bench. He accepted the same news last season after he was cleared to return from his concussion. He restructured his contract knowing full well there was an open competition for the job. And those comments of his we parsed and dissected until they equated to demanding Chip Kelly name a starter ahead of training camp? 24 hours earlier, Vick sounded determined to contribute in 2013 no matter the outcome.

“Always going to be a leader on this team, regardless of what my place is,” Vick said.  “I am confident that I continue to be a guy that is looked up to on this team and continue to play my role.”

How exactly is it even beneficial for Vick to demand a trade or his outright release? Any team that is looking for a signal caller in August is typically screwed, and at 33 years of age, Vick’s next chance to start could conceivably be his last. Does he really want to quarterback some directionless franchise while trying to learn a new system and mesh with unfamiliar personnel, or would he prefer to bide his time in Philly, make the most of whatever action he sees, and handpick his next opportunity during the offseason?

It honestly might be more of a difficult decision for the Eagles if the organization is unwilling to pay Vick to languish on the bench. Then again, they already gave him a $3.5 million signing bonus, matching the $3.5 million in base salary on his one-year deal. Think of it as a deposit. With half down, the club might as well keep a veteran backup like Vick around, because if nothing else he provides the coaching staff another option besides the largely unproven Foles and completely unproven Matt Barkley.

Can Nick Foles develop into a franchise quarterback?

Sure, why not? People want to read too much into the Eagles’ moves at the position this offseason. Foles was supposed to be traded after Chip Kelly was hired as the head coach because he didn’t fit the magic system. Foles was supposed to yield to Vick’s superior athletic ability in what would surely be a skewed quarterback competition.  Foles was supposed to be collecting dust in some corner of the NovaCare Complex once Chip got his shiny new quarterback of the future, Matt Barkley.

The reality is Foles is still here, and very much entrenched in an open quarterback competition – one some reporters would argue he is winning. I wouldn’t write him off just yet.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s franchise-quarterback material, but Foles has yet to prove otherwise. The 24 year old progressed steadily week-by-week during his rookie season despite the absences of LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, and 60 percent of the  starting offensive linemen – not to mention a defense that constantly put the Birds in the hole. And while it was only seven games, Foles demonstrated many of the skills we associate with elite passers: leadership, toughness, accuracy, a quick release, and excellent pocket presence.

Foles has the size, arm strength, and intelligence to make it in the NFL. The jury is out on whether he can put it all together and do the one thing that ultimately defines a quarterback – win. There is a chance though that with a healthy supporting cast Foles can become the foundation of the Philadelphia Eagles before our very eyes. Why not?

Will Matt Barkley be a factor in his rookie season?

My guess is no, assuming Vick is on the roster. Full disclaimer, I’m not as enthusiastic about Barkley as many fans or folks in the media, which we’ll delve into momentarily. First let’s consider what we know, and that is Chip Kelly’s “open” quarterback competition thus far has been almost exclusively between Vick and Foles.

It’s early yet, but the idea a rookie QB will go from seeing a fraction of the first-team reps during mini-camps and OTAs to playing in meaningful football games in the near future, while not impossible, seems a little farfetched no matter what Chip says about the depth chart (there is none). And unless either Vick or Foles is injured or really stinks up the joint during the preseason, it’s hard to envision when and how exactly Barkley can move up the ladder this summer.

Which is not to rule out Barkley seeing action in 2013. If things break down as the year progresses, he might be preparing for some starts by December, when the Eagles are well out of the playoff race and Vick and Foles have run their course. If injuries pile up, that could even speed up the process. Otherwise there is no reason Barkley needs to be on the fast track.

Listen, maybe the Eagles did steal the second coming of Tom Brady in the fourth round of this year’s draft. Barkley was a four-year starter at USC. They say he’s been groomed to play quarterback in the NFL his whole life. But even Brady spent a full season under Drew Bledsoe. At the end of the day, Barkley was a fourth-round pick, and the most successful fourth rounders of the last 25 years are Scott Mitchell, Aaron Brooks, David Garrard, and Kyle Orton. So, no, I do not think the kid is a factor right now.

Is Dennis Dixon even an option?

It would not appear so. Dixon was likely always headed for a role of third-string quarterback at best, but so far he’s been testing the limits of Chip’s “open” quarterback competition by not even showing up on the radar. Seriously, something called G.J. Kinne probably has about as much of a shot at making the 53-man roster as Dixon.

What is he doing here then? Having played under Coach Kelly for one year at Oregon, Dixon’s knowledge could have aided the other quarterbacks’ transitions to a foreign system.

Dixon actually may have been a first-round pick back in 2008 had he not suffered a torn ACL as a senior in college. He also performed reasonably well in four career NFL appearances. However, at age 28 and having spent last season on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad, Dixon will only be an afterthought for any openings at quarterback – now and in the future.

Who will start the first preseason game?

Age before goofy. The very first concrete benchmark in Chip Kelly’s quarterback derby will be who is named starter for the Eagles’ August 9th showdown versus the New England Patriots – although don’t expect the announcement to mean a whole lot. As the veteran and a leader in the locker room, it would not be surprising at all if Vick were the de facto starter for the first preseason game ahead of Foles.

Chances are both Vick and Foles will get a couple of series with the first-string offense regardless, as this will be unlike any Week 1 preseason game we’ve seen this millennium. The last time there was any doubt over who would open the regular season under center for the Eagles was 1999. It’s almost profound to think about how much of an impact these glorified scrimmages will have on the competition. Jobs are always on the line in the preseason, but seldom at quarterback, and not in Philadelphia for a very long time.

Vick may start in August, but it’s all building toward a larger question: who will start come September? I don’t know, but one thing is for certain: the journey is going to be incredibly interesting.

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

Stay or Go Part 9: Jalen Mills to Wendell Smallwood

Stay or Go Part 9: Jalen Mills to Wendell Smallwood

In the ninth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — part 9 is Mills to Smallwood.

Jalen Mills
Cap hit: $559K

Roob: Mills has all the tools to be a capable cornerback except world-class speed. He’s fearless, he’s cocky, he’s smart, he’s a hard worker. He just doesn’t have that make-up speed you want your top outside corners to have. I’ve seen enough positives from Mills that I definitely want him on my team. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a starter, but I definitely want him around.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Mills really got thrown into the fire as a seventh-round rookie, didn’t he? It wasn’t all good, but it wasn’t all bad either. It’s pretty obvious defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s loves Mills’ competitiveness. He doesn’t have top-end speed and that’s probably going to prevent him from ever becoming a top-of-the-line corner in the league. But there’s no reason he can’t stick around for a long time. He certainly has the right mindset to be a corner in the NFL and that’s a part of the battle. The Eagles really need to upgrade the corner position, which could greatly reduce Mills’ role, but he should still have one. 

Verdict: STAYS

Aaron Neary

Roob: Neary is a guard who spent the year on the Eagles’ practice squad.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: I’d say there’s a fair to good chance most of you have never heard of Aaron Neary. He’s an undrafted O-lineman out of Eastern Washington who was on the practice squad in 2016. I’d be lying if I told you I knew a lot about him. 

Verdict: GOES

Jason Peters
Cap hit: $11.7M

Roob: Cut Jason Peters at your own risk. You want the $9.2 million cap savings that the Eagles would gain by releasing the perennial Pro Bowler? Find it somewhere else. Because some guys simply should never be released. Peters is an all-time great Eagle and unless his level of play drops off dramatically, he should be allowed to decide when it’s time to go. Only Chuck Bednarik has been picked to more Pro Bowls than Peters in Eagles history. Peters rebounded from a subpar 2015 with a vintage Peters season this past year. Considering that the Eagles have a promising young quarterback who has to be protected and considering that Lane Johnson is one more positive test from a two-year suspension, Peters has to stay. I don’t care what the cap savings would be by getting rid of him. He’s too good and means too much to cut him. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Sure, the Eagles could save over $9 million in cap room if they cut Peters, but who would they get to play? While they’d be fine moving Lane Johnson to left tackle, they’d then be relying on Halapoulivaati Vaitai to play right tackle. And while that might be the plan in coming years, it would weaken the team in 2017. Peters might not be the dominant force he once was, but he had a very good season and he was able to play 97 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, which is huge. He gets paid a lot, but he’s still worth it. 

Verdict: STAYS

Isaac Seumalo
Cap hit: $764K

Roob: I asked Jason Kelce about Seumalo back in training camp and Kelce said he thinks the third-round pick will one day be a Pro Bowl center. Pretty clear Seumalo is the heir apparent to Kelce, it’s just a matter of when the transition occurs. Kelce wasn’t as awful as some people seem to think. He actually finished the season strong. But I think Kelce goes this offseason and Seumalo is your opening-day center in 2017. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Seumalo’s rookie year was a really interesting one. It started with a pec strain in training camp that slowed him down, but eventually ended with his getting some real experience. In all, Seumalo played six different positions in 2016: right tackle, right guard, left guard, left tackle, fullback and tight end. He didn’t even play center, which might be his most natural spot. I think he’ll have a real shot to be the team’s opening-day starter at left guard. 

Verdict: STAYS

Aziz Shittu

Roob: Rookie defensive tackle spent the year on the practice squad. Depending on what happens with Bennie Logan in free agency, the Eagles could be on the prowl for defensive tackle depth this offseason, and Shittu is an interesting guy. He had a good training camp last year coming off a solid career at Stanford and it’s fair to say he has a chance, depending on what the Eagles do in the draft and free agency. Going with my instincts on this one.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: I actually really liked Shittu coming out of Stanford and not just because I giggle like a schoolgirl every time I hear his name. For an interior defensive lineman, he has some real pass rushing potential. I think he would have been the undrafted guy to make the team over Destiny Vaeao had he not missed the spring because of the silly college graduation/quarters rule. I’d like to see him get a legitimate shot to stick here. It’s a longshot, but I’m going to take a chance with this one. I think he can make the roster. 

Verdict: STAYS

Wendell Smallwood
Cap hit: $601K

Roob: We spend so much time talking about the Eagles’ desperate needs at cornerback and wide receiver that it’s easy to forget they're just as desperate at running back. Assuming Ryan Mathews isn’t back, the Eagles will have a real need for a No. 1 back. You can’t draft or sign every position. So Smallwood could get a real shot at the lead back role. Can he handle the role or is he best suited to be a No. 2? Not sure yet. I like how Smallwood responded when he got double-digit carries against the Steelers, Falcons and Seahawks. Averaged 4.2 yards in those three games. And he had nine runs of 10 yards or more out of just 77 carries. I know Smallwood is a player. I’m just not sure where he’ll fit in. Maybe it’s the No. 28 jersey, but at worst I see him as a Correll Buckhalter-type, a solid No. 2 back who can fill in once in a while as a lead guy. At best? We’ll see. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Smallwood might not be the true answer at the running back position, but he proved enough to earn a roster spot next year and a role in the offense. I’m not sure if his ceiling is very high, but he got better throughout the year, specifically as a blocker. He’ll be back for Year 2. 

Verdict: STAYS

Flyers in familiar spot in standings as critical games before break await

Flyers in familiar spot in standings as critical games before break await

While many people believe the Flyers are in far better shape right now than where they were a year ago, the fact is, they are pretty much the same.
 
After 48 games played, the Flyers have the same number of points now as they did last season – 52.
 
The critical difference – and this is why fans say they’re better off – is that a year ago at this juncture, the Flyers were five points behind Pittsburgh in the wild-card chase.
 
Right now, they own the second wild-card spot, but there are five teams behind them within four points or less of catching them, two of which have games in hand.
 
Earlier this week, Toronto was ahead of them and the Maple Leafs have three games in hand, which makes Thursday’s showdown against the upstart Leafs at Wells Fargo Center a very critical game.
 
That game represents the back end of the Flyers' 13th back-to-back set, which starts Wednesday with a date at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.
 
If ever two games in a short week prior to the All-Star break were of prime significance, these next two seem to qualify.
 
“A hundred percent,” said Jakub Voracek, the Flyers' leading scorer with 42 points. “It’s the same for every game. Practice and come to the rink with a win in your head.”
 
To a man, the Flyers go into the nationally televised showdown with the Rangers feeling great about themselves because of the extraordinary effort they showed in Sunday’s 3-2 comeback victory against the Islanders in OT.
 
“I felt like we won the Stanley Cup with that overtime goal,” Voracek kidded. “That’s how happy we were. There was a lot of relief. Now we have to keep going.”
 
Just five points separate nine teams from the second wild-card position right now. The Eastern Conference is just as tight as it’s always been. Within the Metropolitan Division, just five points separate the Flyers from the three times tied for last in the conference - the Islanders, Sabres and Lightning.  
 
“It’s been that way,” said coach Dave Hakstol. “Right from the drop of the puck in October, it was going to be a battle. You can’t get too distracted by it. You worry about the job in hand and that’s tomorrow.”
 
The focus this week is rather narrow: two games left before the All-Star break begins on Friday.
 
“Yeah, both these games have implications directed to us in the standings,” said goalie Steve Mason, who will start against the Rangers. “Both being Eastern Conference teams and they are right with one another.
 
“We have to have a short mindset. We have the Rangers and that’s going to be a tough game going into MSG. Once that game is over, we focus on the Leafs.”
 
The Rangers have beaten the Flyers twice this season already – both in South Philly. While the games were mostly competitive, there remains a huge disparity in one critical area for both teams this season: goal differential.
 
The Rangers have a plus-40 differential while the Flyers check in at minus-18. As poor as Henrik Lundqvist (2.75 goals against average) has been this season – although his recent performances are trending upward – he still owns the Flyers.
 
In his last 15 games against the Flyers, going back to Jan. 1, 2013, Lundqvist is 11-3-0 with a 1.91 GAA and .938 save percentage.
 
“This is huge, especially in MSG,” Voracek said. “We lost two games in a row to them at home. Hopefully, we get points.”
 
In his last three starts this month, Lundqvist is 3-0, with a 1.32 GAA and .952 save percentage. In other words, the “old” King Henrik appears to have regained his throne just in time to face the Flyers.
 
“Their goaltender has been outstanding over this past stretch for them,” Hakstol said. “Their team is playing well.
 
“We have to worry more about our team. We’re not going to control what their side is going to do. We can control what we do.”