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.

Doug Pederson: Jordan Hicks had hand 'procedure,' shouldn't miss any time

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Doug Pederson: Jordan Hicks had hand 'procedure,' shouldn't miss any time

A few days from the first full-team practice of training camp, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson revealed starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks needed a "minor procedure" to fix his injured hand.

Although Pederson downplayed its significance.

“He injured his hand and he needed a minor procedure to fix that," Pederson said to the team website. "He shouldn’t miss any time. We’re going to keep on top of it and take it day by day with him. We may limit him a little bit, but he should be out there every day.”

In late June, CSNPhilly's Reuben Frank confirmed a PhillyVoice.com report about the injury. Hicks injured his hand getting out of a pool while on his honeymoon in Greece.

Hicks is obviously a very important piece of the Eagles' defense. He's the team's best linebacker and one of its biggest playmakers on that side of the ball. The more troubling thing is there isn't a ton of depth at LB. After the starters (Hicks, Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks), the unit is extremely inexperienced.

In addition to Hicks, Pederson also gave the Eagles' website several other updates on players.

• Ryan Mathews, while still on the roster, has been excused from the team to rehab elsewhere. That hasn't changed since the end of the spring workouts.

• Jordan Matthews might be limited during training camp after dealing with a knee injury in the spring. Matthews did travel with his fellow receivers to work out in North Dakota with Carson Wentz earlier this month.

• Jason Peters will be managed during training camp to keep him fresh. That's not a surprise considering the starting left tackle is 35 and managing his reps last year allowed him to stay healthy.

Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

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Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

BOX SCORE

Though they still have the worst record in the majors by 3½ games, the 34-62 Phillies aren't playing like the worst team in baseball right now.

Not from an offensive standpoint, not from a starting pitching standpoint, not from a bullpen standpoint.

The Phils' offense stayed hot Sunday afternoon in a 6-3 win over the Brewers, their fourth win in five games and sixth in the last 10 (see Instant Replay).

Nick Williams homered again, Howie Kendrick had a very Howie Kendrick-like at-bat with the bases loaded, Jerad Eickhoff spun a quality start and the trio of Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit and Luis Garcia sealed the win.

The Phillies have scored at least five runs in seven straight games, which is something none of their recent division-winning teams did in a single season. It's their longest such streak since May 31-June 7, 2005.

Their starting pitchers have allowed three runs or less in six of the last eight games.

And the Phils' bullpen has the lowest ERA in the majors since June 26 at 2.19.

A lot of things are clicking right now for a team that probably can't play worse than it did in the first half. The Phils' record remains hideous, but there are actually four teams with worse run differentials: the Reds, Blue Jays, Giants and Padres.

"My first year here as a coach was '09, and in no way am I comparing ourselves to that team, but it was reminiscent the way we've been swinging the bats of us coming back and coming from behind and catching up and beating other teams," Pete Mackanin said. "It reminds me to a certain degree."

For much of the season, Mackanin has walked into the Phillies' media room after a loss and said that his hitters aren't living up to their standard. For much of the season, the Phillies have made quick outs and life easy for the opposing pitcher. 

But with Kendrick and Cesar Hernandez back from the DL, with Odubel Herrera hitting .331 since June 1, with Maikel Franco walking as much as he's struck out the last 35 games, and with Williams' power and energy rubbing off on the rest of the team, many different Phillies are playing like they have something to prove.

"Everybody is playing for a job next year," Mackanin said. "Everybody is playing to be part of our future and I think the guys are competing among themselves. It's good to see. Everybody's more aggressive. They're into the games."

The energy added by Williams' arrival on June 30 has been impossible to ignore, though it's kind of a chicken-or-egg thing. Is there added energy because he and so many other guys started hitting, or are they hitting because there's a more positive vibe in the clubhouse and dugout?

"I like to do whatever I can to start the momentum or get guys going," Williams said. "If I do something exciting, they're like, 'Oh, he's playing hard.' But everyone's been hitting and everyone's been just playing the game right and just doing all the little things and that's how we've been able to come out with some victories.

"In close spots with the hitting, we've been able to knock a lot of guys in. It's just that hitting's contagious. I always say when one guy does it, why can't the next? That's how I think of it."

The biggest spot in Sunday's game came with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth inning. With the game tied, the Brewers switched pitchers and Kendrick quickly found himself down 0-2 before singling up the middle to score two runs.

Kendrick has missed 60 games this season and it's been frustrating for him because he's been so locked-in when he's played. After picking up two more hits Sunday, he's up to .353 with an .873 OPS. His numbers are rarely sexy because he averages about 10 home runs per season, but a versatile, perennial .290 hitter has value. It's why the Phillies' offseason acquisition of Kendrick made sense and it's why he figures to have some trade value even though Sunday was just his 36th game of the year.

"Not only is he a good hitter but he plays solid defense out there," Mackanin said. "He doesn't have the greatest range but it's not bad. He's average to maybe a tick above average. 

"I'm sure there's a lot of interest in a lot of our guys, (Pat) Neshek, [Kendrick], even (Joaquin) Benoit, (Daniel) Nava. We'll wait and see."

The non-waiver trade deadline is just eight days away and general manager Matt Klentak expects there to be some movement. The Phils' two best trade chips are Kendrick and Neshek and both had productive weekends. Neshek pitched a scoreless seventh inning to lower his ERA to 1.12. He's allowed runs in just two of 43 appearances.

And Kendrick has picked up right where he left off, going 4 for 10 since returning Friday from a hamstring strain.

"If I were scouting for another organization I'd recommend him," Mackanin said of Kendrick. "I'd put an acquire (label) on him."

We'll soon see what that acquire label nets the Phillies. The return won't be huge, but trading Kendrick will allow the Phils to add another young player with upside and open a spot back up for Aaron Altherr, who could return from the DL as early as Wednesday.