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.

Instant Replay: Rockies 8, Phillies 2

Instant Replay: Rockies 8, Phillies 2

BOX SCORE

The Colorado Rockies laid the wood to the Phillies again Tuesday night. The Rockies hit three home runs en route to an 8-2 win at Citizens Bank Park. The Rockies beat the Phillies, 8-1, on Monday night.

The Phillies have lost four in a row, eight of their last nine and 19 of their last 23 to fall to 15-28.

Two games into this four-game series, the Phillies have been held to just two runs in 13 innings against a pair of rookie Colorado starting pitchers.

Starting pitching report
Zach Eflin had his second straight poor outing. He was tagged for 10 hits and eight runs in six innings. He gave up three home runs.

Eflin has given up 21 hits and 15 runs in his last two starts.

The Rockies got another good start from a rookie. This time it was German Marquez, who held the Phillies to a run over six innings. Rookie Jeff Hoffman held the Phillies to a run over seven innings in the series opener on Monday night.

Bullpen report
Mark Leiter Jr. stopped the bleeding with two scoreless innings.

The Rockies' bullpen has given up just one run in five innings in the series.

At the plate
The Phillies scored their first run on a bases-loaded walk in the third inning. Andrew Knapp homered in the ninth to make it a six-run game.

Rockies leadoff man Charlie Blackmon hit a pair of two-run homers against Eflin. He leads the majors with 62 hits. Blackmon has seven home runs in his last five games at Citizens Bank Park. He hit five in a three-game series last season.

Gerardo Parra also homered for the Rockies, who have the best record in the National League at 30-17.

Transactions
The Phillies placed outfielder Daniel Nava on the 10-day disabled list with a slight hamstring strain. He is expected to return sometime next week. The team opted for an extra bullpen arm and recalled reliever Adam Morgan from Triple A to take Nava's roster spot.

Health check
Howie Kendrick took outdoor batting practice Tuesday for the first time since suffering an abdominal strain on April 15. He could head out on minor-league rehab later this week and be ready to return sometime next week. Kendrick can play corner infield and corner outfield, so he could take away at-bats from Maikel Franco and Michael Saunders if they don't get going. Both were benched Tuesday night (see story).

Up next
The series continues Wednesday night. Jeremy Hellickson (5-1, 3.44) will pitch against Colorado right-hander Tyler Chatwood (3-6. 5.09).

More WRs, more buzz, but Jordan Matthews unfazed with Eagles

More WRs, more buzz, but Jordan Matthews unfazed with Eagles

After leading the Eagles in passing targets for the past two seasons, Jordan Matthews suddenly became an afterthought when the club signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency. There's even speculation Matthews might be available in a trade if a solid offer comes along.

The Eagles' investments at the wide receiver position this offseason would certainly appear to put Matthews' future with the team in question. In addition to Jeffery and Smith, Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson were brought aboard in the draft, all as Matthews enters the final year of his rookie contract.

None of which seems to concern Matthews, who described the trade rumors as "fake news" on Tuesday at the NovaCare Complex, where Phase 3 of Eagles OTAs was underway.

"I don't care about any of that stuff," Matthews said. "I feel like it's the NFL, if you think about it, everybody has a price. Those talks, they happen, so it really doesn't faze me."

To be clear, there has been very little noise to suggest the Eagles were at any point actively shopping Matthews or the fourth-year veteran is on the trade block. A reporter merely stated a belief the Eagles would be open to moving Matthews in the right deal. It was enough to get people talking, and once Jeffery and Smith signed days later, the rumors weren't going away.

Matthews' contract situation has a lot do with the reaction. Apart from all the new faces in the receivers room, this offseason was the first he was eligible to sign a contract extension.

There is absolutely nothing to report on that front. Instead, the Eagles directed funds toward Jeffery and Smith — who are viewed by some as his potential replacements.

"I haven't really talked to anybody about that," Matthews said. "I really don't focus on that too much, to be honest.

"I think you all know me by now. That's not really what fuels me, so it's like one of the last things I actually really think about. Whatever is going to happen is going to end up happening, so I just try to come out here and play hard and do what I need to do for my team."

Matthews turns 25 in July and has impressive numbers for the Eagles, recording 225 receptions for 2,673 yards and 19 touchdowns. Only six players in NFL history amassed more in all three categories their first three seasons.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Matthews will reprise his role as the Eagles' primary slot receiver in 2017, downplaying the possibility of a reduced role. Pederson also noted Matthews' tight bond with quarterback Carson Wentz.

Pederson also declined to make mention of Matthews' standing with the club beyond '17, nor is it really this coach's place to say.

"Jordan has been a big part of this offense, and he is still a big part of this offense," Pederson said on Tuesday. "He's got a great relationship and a great rapport with Carson, and Carson feels very comfortable with him."

Despite trade rumors, his contract situation and the simple fact the Eagles brought in a bunch of players who would gladly take his targets and his job, Matthews remains positive. In fact, he sees Jeffery and Smith making life easier for the rest of the offense.

"I'm glad, to be honest," Matthews said. "I'm glad to have Torrey, glad to have Alshon, the rookies.

"Obviously, having more guys on the field that have that type of production over a long period of time, they're going to garner attention. That's going to help me get free."

Matthews is coming off of his worst season, posting 73 receptions for 804 yards and three touchdowns. Much of his problems seemed to stem from the lack of options in the passing attack, particularly at receiver, allowing defenses to hone in on Matthews.

Furthermore, Matthews was plagued by an ankle injury for much of the season, from which he is still recovering.

"Still getting there," Matthews said. "An ankle messes up the whole chain. It's not like an upper-body extremity injury. When you're dealing with an ankle, there's a lot more stuff that you have to continue to get right from the back down."

Despite the increasing competition at the Eagles' receiver position, Matthews doesn't sound very worried about his ankle, either. Like trade rumors and concerns about his contract, that too will pass in time.

"We've got a lot of time," Matthews said. "I know I'll be good when it's time to roll."