Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Running Back

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Running Back

We continue our training camp preview by examining the Eagles’ running backs, who figure to get far more work under Chip Kelly than they ever did under Andy Reid.

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

Can Bryce Brown quit fumbling?

It could take some time. Brown fumbled four times in 128 touches last season, and it easily would have been more if one or two botched handoffs weren’t charged to the quarterback.

Many observers were quick to trace this case of the dropsies to the 22-year-old’s practically non-existent college career. Prior to his rookie season in the NFL, Brown hardly even looked at a football the previous two years at Kansas State (three total carries), so best case scenario the seventh rounder just has to get used to contact again.

This seems like an extremely simplistic way of looking at the situation. It’s plausible with more experience and proper tutelage Brown can clean up his game, perhaps relatively quickly. However, some ball carriers in the past who struggled with holding on to the pigskin – Pro Bowlers even – took years to overcome these issues. The best example Birds fans would probably be most with is former New York Giants back Tiki Barber, who at one point put the rock on the carpet eight or more times for four consecutive seasons. It was a serious problem. You know, for the Giants.

The hope is Bryce will be able to figure it out this season, because with his rare combination of size and speed, he might be the best pure runner on the Eagles’ roster. Yes, better than Shady – Brown’s 4.9 yards per carry were seventh in the NFL, behind the same beat O-line by the way. Regardless, if this curse continues to follow him around, Chip Kelly will have no choice but to strip Brown… of his touches.

Will LeSean McCoy regain his All-Pro form from 2011?

Maybe. Shady certainly has a bunch going for him heading into 2013. He’s healthy. The Eagles’ offensive line returns three starters from injuries. Most of all, Chip Kelly’s system promises to usher in a renewed dedication to running the football in Philadelphia. At the very least McCoy should be able to improve upon last year’s numbers – specifically his pedestrian 4.2 yards per carry and two rushing touchdowns.

This doesn't appear to be all about McCoy though. He’s a fantastic back to be sure, but not quite a freak of nature in the manner of an Adrian Peterson or Barry Sanders in his prime – backs who can do it all by themselves if need be. McCoy’s success could be dependent to an extent on the recovery of Jason Peters, who paved the way for that incredible ’13 season.

How important is Peters? According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles averaged almost a full yard more than any other team in the league on carries off of the left tackle’s outside shoulder in ’11. That is a rather significant margin.

Even if Peters is fully recovered from a twice-ruptured Achilles tendon, there are issues. Howard Mudd is out as the offensive line coach, replaced by Jeff Stoutland from the University of Alabama, which means all five linemen are thrusted into something a little new. The right side in particular is completely rebuilt with Todd Herremans moving back to guard, and fourth-overall pick Lane Johnson taking over at tackle.

And some of Shady’s 2011 numbers are plain not easy to replicate, either, namely the 5.2 yards per carry and 20 touchdowns overall. The Eagles are fortunate to have found a high-end back like McCoy, who will only be 25 this season and undoubtedly has many stellar years ahead, but All-Pro campaigns aren’t necessarily going to become the norm.

What is Felix Jones doing here?

Maybe nothing. There may only be roughly a coin-flip's chance the Dallas Cowboys’ ’08 first-round pick makes Philly’s 53-man roster. At this stage of his career, Jones’ name is bigger than anything he’s managed to accomplish in the NFL.

That doesn’t mean he's useless. With as much as some experts are speculating the Eagles will run the ball under Chip Kelly, Jones could be an excellent change-of-pace back for a handful of carries every week. If Bryce Brown can’t hold on to the ball, Jones could be the primary spell for Shady McCoy. And in addition to carrying the ball, Jones can return kicks, quite possibly his most valuable asset at all.

While Jones may fit the description of a draft bust to a tee – having never eclipsed so much as 800 yards in a season throughout his career – there should be some fuel left in the tank. He’s only 26 years old after all, and has touched the ball more than 200 times just once in five seasons. Injuries have been an issue, but have only caused him to miss four games since 2010.

If healthy – albeit a huge if – Jones is an effective runner/receiver/returner, one who on his best days has home-run capability. That kind of talent is worth a look at least, and don’t be surprised if Felix is a Bird in ’13.

Could Chris Polk Make the Team?

He’s got a shot. The University of Washington product made the team as an undrafted free agent last summer, grinding out seven games before finally succumbing to a toe injury. Now Polk is healthy, has a season under his belt as a professional special teamer, and remains an untapped resource as a potential workhorse back.

Polk – 5-11, 222 – rushed for over 4,000 yards over his final three collegiate seasons. The 23 year old could be a real bruiser if given the opportunity, and having coached in the Pac-12, Chip Kelly undoubtedly is aware of this.

The fact of the matter is Polk probably won’t be seeing huge numbers of carries, but he is the likely third back if Felix Jones doesn’t make the cut. Even if Jones sticks, there is a chance Chip keeps four backs should Polk’s special teams contributions warrant a roster spot. He might have some ability as a runner, but his versatility is what will ultimately win him a job.

Who is the fullback?

There is none! The great tradition of Cecil Martin, Jon Ritchie, Leonard Weaver, and the other (mostly unremarkable) fullbacks of the Andy Reid era goes on an indefinite hiatus under Chip Kelly. The last remaining remnant of that time period is Emil Igwenagu, who mostly works out at tight end and has essentially no chance of making the roster.

So who is the lead blocker if the Eagles were to use a heavy package, say on 3rd down and goal to go from the one-yard line? Well in that particular instance, perhaps nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. But in virtually any other circumstance that might call for a fullback, it would be tight end/H-back James Casey.

Casey blocked for 17 of the Houston Texans’ 19 rushing touchdowns in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus, so maybe Sopoaga won’t be getting the call at the goal line after all. PFF notes Casey had a negative grade as a run blocker overall, but it shouldn’t matter as this figures to represent an extremely limited portion of the offense moving forward. The changes to the offense in the backfield alone are already sweeping to say the least.

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

Give and Go: No. 3 pick or an impact free agent more important for Sixers?

Give and Go: No. 3 pick or an impact free agent more important for Sixers?

Before the offseason craziness starts, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are CSNPhilly.com Sixers Insider Jessica Camerato and producer/reporters Matt Haughton and Paul Hudrick.

In this edition, we analyze whether the No. 3 pick or adding an impact free agent is more important for the Sixers.

Camerato
The Sixers have the third pick in the 2017 draft. 
 
They also had the same pick in 2014. 
 
And 2015. 
 
And the number one pick in 2016.
 
The No. 3 is a nice addition of potential young talent, but how much further does *another* high lottery pick progress the Sixers?
 
The team is at a point where they need more experienced players to boost the development of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric … and basically everyone on the roster except Jerryd Bayless, who is the only player under contract for next season with more than four years of NBA experience.
 
Veterans make younger players around them better. This isn’t only being a voice in the locker room either. This season the Sixers could greatly benefit from a vet who is in game with them, not just on the bench. Look at what 35-year-old Joe Johnson did for the Jazz this season. 
 
Do the Sixers need to go out and sign a big name free agent to a max contract? No. They have the money to spend but also a lot of questions to answer about Simmons’ role and Embiid’s health before locking in someone long-term. 
 
Can adding experience develop them further than potential would at this point? Yes.

Haughton
There's always a delicate balance between blending homegrown talent and free agents. With this Sixers team, I think adding another young piece to the core with the No. 3 pick is far more important than luring someone on the free-agent market.

If we're being honest about the team's roster, there are only two real difference makers in Embiid and, in all likelihood, Simmons. In that third draft slot, the Sixers have an opportunity to select yet another top-tier talent and address an area of need (guard or wing) without spending a boatload of cash.

The Sixers' youthful makeup resembles a college team and makes it easier for rookies to mix into the group. That also means the draft pick has a chance to grow on the same track as his teammates and build for the long-term betterment of "The Process" instead of a free agent that is likely trying to speed things up to win now.

Speaking of FAs, there will be a nice pool of guys available for the Sixers. However, it's not like any of them are going to put the team over the top and in the conversation for any postseason hardware.

Stick to the script and focus on the draft. Whichever player hears his name called at No. 3 will have a far bigger fingerprint on where this franchise goes next than anyone acquired via free agency.

Hudrick
The Sixers have identified Embiid and Simmons as their franchise players. Embiid is 23 and Simmons will turn 21 in July. Embiid has played in 31 games and Simmons has yet to take the floor.

I mention this because this Sixers team is still very much building. They're nowhere near a finished product. The veteran additions of Gerald Henderson and Bayless (who was limited to mostly a mentoring role last season) no doubt helped the team last season. But what does signing a marquee free agent do? 

Looking at the market, the two most obvious choices are point guard Kyle Lowry (31) and two guard J.J. Redick (32). Lowry and Redick both fills needs and will make the Sixers better immediately. 

But this team won 28 games last year while only having Embiid for 31 games and not having Simmons at all. Add the No. 3 overall pick to that equation -- whether it's Josh Jackson, Malik Monk, Jayson Tatum or De'Aaron Fox -- and the Sixers should improve on that mark.

There will be a time to sign a big-name free agent. I'm just not sure this is the offseason to do it. They need to get their first-round pick in here and see how that player gels with the team's core. After you see how the team starts to take shape, that's when you need to add a free agent to put you over the top.

Tonight's lineup: Howie Kendrick returns, Odubel Herrera rides the pine

Tonight's lineup: Howie Kendrick returns, Odubel Herrera rides the pine

Updated: 4:33 p.m.

Howie Kendrick is back after a month and a half on the disabled list while Odubel Herrera is heading to the bench for a few days.

The Phillies reinstated Kendrick from the DL and he's in the lineup, batting second and playing left field vs. the Marlins (7:10/CSN and CSNPhilly.com). Meanwhile, manager Pete Mackanin said pregame slumping center fielder Odubel Herrera will be on the bench both today and tomorrow. Maikel Franco was moved down further in the lineup.

Kendrick batted a sterling .333 in his 39 at-bats in April, looking the part of a top-of-the-order hitter. The former infielder played only left field during his 10 games before going down with an oblique injury (see game notes). He gives the Phillies a chance to rest their outfielders or allow them a new look in the corner infield. 

Herrera is in the midst of a 1-for-22 slide that has brought his batting average down to .217. Mackanin said postgame on Sunday that he would move Herrera down in the lineup and would give him a few days off at some point with Kendrick back as an extra outfielder. Mackanin hoped time off would help lessen the pressure on the scuffling Herrera.

Mackanin also mentioned the inconsistent at-bats of Franco, who is down to seventh in the lineup. Catcher Cameron Rupp was moved ahead of him to sixth in the order with Franco batting .213 and going 2 for 18 since his eight-game hitting streak ended on Monday.

Jeremy Hellickson makes his first start since allowing a seven-run third inning to the Rockies on Wednesday. The good news for the righty is that he dominated the Marlins last season and was similiarly strong in a victory vs. the Fish in April.

Here's the full lineup that will oppose Edinson Volquez:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Howie Kendrick, LF
3. Aaron Altherr, CF
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Maikel Franco, 3B
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Jeremy Hellickson, P