Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Safety

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Safety

We pick up our training camp preview at safety, where it appears the Eagles have an even more wide-open competition than at quarterback. It's anybody's guess who will be starting come Week 1.

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

Is Nate Allen a draft bust?

He’s got one last chance to prove otherwise, but it's looking that way so far. We can be a little quick to judge athletes in this town, however nobody would blame you for being down on Allen. He was enjoying a promising rookie season in 2010 until it was interrupted by a ruptured patellar tendon, and he never quite looked the same the following year, remaining inconsistent up to present day. At best, Allen was essentially invisible in 15 games last season, defending just four passes while creating zero turnovers.

Then again, who didn’t look inconsistent amid the Eagles’ dysfunction in the waning days under Andy Reid, particularly on one of the league’s worst defenses? The secondary especially was a joke, as opposing quarterbacks posted a 99.6 passer rating against Philly – second-highest in the NFL. Sure, that would seem to reflect poorly on Allen, but the cornerbacks were frequently leaving the safeties to fend for themselves, and the safeties were often scratching their heads and looking confused after the fact. It was chaos.

The Birds’ defense probably won’t be an elite unit in their first year under Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis, but that should be because they’re a little short on talent, not for a lack of understanding the scheme. Whatever was going on with Juan Castillo/Todd Bowles/Jim Washburn on the coaching staff over the last two seasons, the secondary appeared to be hung out to dry as a result.

In other words, maybe Allen’s struggles are not all his own fault. Maybe in a less-complex scheme (with a true defensive coordinator), where the other guys in the huddle are in it for more than themselves, he’ll improve. Or maybe the one dubbed “the McNabb Pick” is a bust, and he’ll be exposed no matter where he is or who’s around him. The clock is ticking.

What should we expect from Patrick Chung?

A flawed-but-starting-material player. Chung burst on to the scene during his second season for the Patriots in 2010, but he’s been unable to stay healthy ever since. Then last year not only was he hurt, but his play really dropped off. He took bad angles to the ball, and generally was not as dangerous or effective. The ‘09 second-round pick lost his starting job before the year was out, and New England let him walk in the offseason.

The Eagles scooped him up for three years, $10 million, and penciled him in at one of the safety spots. It’s not simply a case where Chip Kelly is familiar with Chung from their Oregon days, either. The club is hoping they got a genuine inside-the-box presence, somebody who can help out against the run and blitz, plus make the occasional big play in coverage as well.

Chung probably isn’t going to become Brian Dawkins all of a sudden, but safety has been a huge mess for the Eagles ever since Weapon X left. Admittedly this addition looks more like another band-aid than a permanent solution, but having a player who was good enough to start in the Super Bowl a couple years ago means the Birds can finally move on from the likes of Kurt Coleman this summer. That can’t be a bad thing.

Is Kenny Phillips healthy?

That of course is the catch-22 with Phillips. He has a long injury of knee histories, missing almost all of the ’09 campaign after having microfracture surgery on the left, and appearing in just seven games due to a sprained MCL in the left last season. After signing with the Eagles as a free agent in the offseason, already this spring Phillips was held out of practice due to his knee issues.

If the former first-round pick were healthy, the Birds would be getting one of the best cover safeties in the NFL. In 2011, his last full season, he hauled down four interceptions, defended 11 passes, and forced a fumble. There’s a reason the New York Giants let him walk though, the same reason why Philadelphia was able to sign him for one year at just north of the league minimum – those knees.

If Phillips can survive training camp, he has a great chance to be one of the two starters. At this point that might seem like a big “if,” but who can predict these things?

Does Earl Wolff have a chance to start in his rookie season?

Absolutely. I mean, I don’t see anybody definitely holding him back, do you? A fifth-round pick out of North Carolina State, Wolff’s athleticism stands out. He’s not particularly huge at 5-11, 209, but he is strong, and people tend to take notice of players with 4.44 speed and a 39-inch vertical. Watch him jump on to a shelf that’s nearly as tall as he is.

Raw athletic talent won’t win a job alone for Wolff, but with so many question marks above him on the depth chart, he’s got a legit chance at earning playing time. Reporters noted the rookie did get some first-team reps at practices this spring, and while Chip says we can’t read into that stuff too much, this one seems fairly telling given the circumstances.

Allen, Chung, and Phillips are all injury prone and/or are not necessarily going to cut it. Kurt Coleman, Colt Anderson, and David Sims don’t look like threats at the moment. Wolff’s path to the field is fairly clear.

Who will ultimately start at safety for the Eagles?

Chung almost certainly, then either Allen or Phillips in the second spot.

Based on the contract he signed, it appears Chung was brought in to start for at least this upcoming season, although obviously plans can change. On the opposite side Allen has the inside track, but if Phillips can go, he is probably the best – not to mention most-experienced – safety on the roster.

As was mentioned above, don’t sleep on Earl Wolff, either. Either way, just be glad Kurt Coleman could be out of the picture finally.

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

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

The benching of Maikel Franco lasted for a second day Wednesday.

When will it end?

"It's a day-to-day thing," Pete Mackanin said. "No specific plan."

Franco is hitting just .221 with a .281 on-base percentage and a .377 slugging percentage.

Mackanin first benched his third baseman/cleanup hitter on Tuesday. At the time, the manager said he was trying to take some heat off the slumping Franco and let him clear his mind, but the overriding reason for the benching is simple: Mackanin is looking for Franco to make the fundamental adjustments in his swing that will lead to more production.

"At this level you've got to produce," Mackanin said Tuesday. "You want to play, you've got to hit and they have to understand that. Nobody is here on scholarship.

"As much as he works in the cage and on the field in batting practice and does it right, when he gets in the game his head is still flying and his bat is coming out of the zone.

"I can't teach you to keep your head in there. I can tell you to do it, but you have to do it on your own and he's got to figure it out. … If you make outs the same way over and over, it's not going to change."

Franco on Wednesday said he understands the benching. He is disappointed in his production.

"Yes, I'm disappointed," he said. "I know I can produce better and help the team more. Nobody wants to be in this situation, hitting .220. The only thing to do is try to get better.

"I think any good hitter hitting .220 is going to be disappointed. I will not stop working and doing what I have to to get better."

Typically, a manager, especially one such as Mackanin, whose strength is communication, would speak to a player and lay out the reasons for an extended benching.

But Mackanin has chosen to let the lineup card do the talking on this one. He'd like to speak with Franco about the situation, but wants the player to come to him.

It doesn't sound like that's going to happen.

"They understand and I understand, you know?" Franco said. "I'm not the guy to go into the manager's office and say, 'Why am I not in the lineup?' I want to play. He knows what he's doing and I know what I'm capable of doing. Every single day when I come in, I'm 100 percent mentally ready to be in the lineup and I'm ready to play. If I'm not in the lineup, I have to get relaxed and just try to do everything I can to make an adjustment so when I'm in the lineup, I'll do my job."

Andres Blanco played third base in place of Franco on Tuesday and Wednesday. If Franco doesn't improve when he gets back in the lineup — whenever that may be — there could soon be another player in the mix at third base.

Howie Kendrick began a minor-league rehab assignment at Lehigh Valley on Wednesday night. He played left field in that game. Mackanin said the rehab stint would last four games and that Kendrick would also play first and third base.

Do the math on that one.

Franco can be optioned to the minors so that could also be a possibility if his problems persist.

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

PITTSBURGH -- Craig Anderson is a realist, the byproduct of 15 years playing the most demanding position in the NHL.

The Ottawa goaltender would like to chalk his 45-save masterpiece in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh up to his own brilliance. He knows that's not exactly the case.

"I think you need to be a little bit lucky to be good at times," Anderson said.

Ottawa has relied on a bit of both during its deepest playoff run in a decade and Anderson helped force Game 7 Thursday night. Yet here the Senators are, alive and still skating with a chance to eliminate the deeper, more experienced and more explosive Stanley Cup champions.

So much for the series being over after the Penguins destroyed Ottawa 7-0 in Game 5.

"I think, if you believe you're beaten, you're done already," Anderson said. "If you believe that you can win, there's always a chance."

All the Senators have to do to reach the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history is take down one of the league's marquee franchises on the road in a building where they were beaten by a touchdown last time out.

No pressure or anything. Really. The Senators weren't supposed to be here. Then again, in a way neither were the Penguins. No team has repeated in nearly two decades and at times during the season and even during the playoffs this group was too beat up. Too tired from last spring's Cup run. The bullseye on their backs too big.

Yet they've survived behind the brilliance of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, coach Mike Sullivan's impeccable decisions and a resiliency that has them one game from being the first Cup champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009.

Those Red Wings, by the way, fell to the Penguins in seven games. There have been several Game 7s for Pittsburgh in the interim on both sides of the ledger, though the Penguins are 2-0 in Game 7s under Sullivan. They edged Tampa Bay in Game 7 of last year's East finals and clinically disposed of Presidents' Trophy winner Washington in Game 7 of the second round earlier this month (see full story).

Predators: Goalie Rinne on smothering run
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne's face right now is nearly impossible.

The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34-year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup Final in his ninth full NHL season.

"As a player, I feel like I've had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity," Rinne said. "So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have."

Teammates call the 6-foot-5 Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he's probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenseman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.

Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single postseason behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne's 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one postseason.

"What he does every night, you can't put into words," Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said (see full story).

Blues: Sydor returns to Blues as assistant
ST. LOUIS -- Darryl Sydor has returned to the St. Louis Blues as an assistant coach under mentor Mike Yeo.

Sydor agreed to a three-year deal Wednesday.

The 45-year-old Sydor finished his 18-year NHL playing career with the Blues in 2009-10, then broke into coaching as Yeo's assistant the next season with the American Hockey League's Houston Aeros. Sydor went with Yeo to Minnesota and spent five years with the Wild before working as an assistant last season with the Blues' then-Chicago affiliate in the AHL.

Sydor was a defenseman for Los Angeles, Dallas, Columbus, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, winning Stanley Cup titles with Dallas and Tampa Bay.

Coyotes: Cunningham hired as pro scout
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Coyotes have hired Craig Cunningham as a pro scout and say he will assist with player development.

General manager John Chayka announced the two-year contract Wednesday that allows Cunningham to remain in hockey.

Cunningham collapsed on the ice with a cardiac disturbance prior to a game Nov. 19 while playing for the American Hockey League's Tucson Roadrunners and required emergency life-saving care. He had part of his left leg amputated and saw his playing career end.

But the 26-year-old who was captain of the Roadrunners last season says he's excited to start the next chapter of his hockey career in the Coyotes' front office. Chayka called Cunningham a "smart, hard-working player with an incredible passion for the game" that he believes will translate to his new job.