Eagles Linebackers Young, Not Necessarily Bad

Eagles Linebackers Young, Not Necessarily Bad

Such an obvious,
yet important distinction. There is understandably going to be some
concern when the most tenured starter at linebacker is only entering his
third season, and a rookie is penciled in at the middle. Take two
minutes to look around the league, heck, just a glance at the NFC East,
and you will find this is not typical of how most teams operate.

But
since the Eagles are the franchise in this predicament, it's worth
stating that while they are an inexperienced bunch, and lack any clear
cut stars or even players who are on the brink of such recognition, that
doesn't mean it's a terrible group. In fact, it doesn't even mean they
will automatically be a weakness once the games begin.

One of
life's great cliches is people fear the unknown, and in this case it's
true. While most fans are still celebrating this summer's great free
agent haul, the most cynical are quick to point out this club has "no
linebackers."

No linebackers... imagine that. Juan Castillo's
defensive strategy is suddenly very clear: four linemen, seven defensive
backs. Because he's an offensive line coach!

The matter is
further complicated by the fact that linebacker has become something of a
perennial weakness for the Birds. First the outside positions fell into
disrepair as capable performers such as Carlos Emmons and Shawn Barber
departed, and over the last few seasons, the production in the middle
has started to slip along with Jeremiah Trotter's ability. Some of that
is injuries or time taking its toll, and some of that is the front
office "doesn't value" linebackers.

Yes, that hollow complaint is
accurate to a degree, particularly on the outside. Then again, outside
linebackers in 4-3 defenses are fairly interchangeable around the NFL,
with standout players being in exceptionally short supply.

Whether
the Eagles are right or wrong about the value of linebackers still
misses the point though. What nobody seems to be talking about, or
apparently believe, is the group they have here now has the potential to
develop into a unit of strength.

Is Casey Matthews going to take
his lumps as a rookie starter in the middle? Absolutely. Is he going to
fall flat on his face? That possibility exists, but I would bank on the
Matthews bloodlines producing an acceptable pro at least. Before we
know it, he could become so much more than that, perhaps that
all-important anchor in the heart of the defense.

Will Jamar
Chaney have to make some adjustments in his move to strongside? Of
course. Will he be a disaster out there? Doubtful. In his albeit limited
playing time last season, Chaney showed both the instinct and
athleticism to play at this level. There will be a learning curve, but
he shouldn't suddenly be inept because he slid over one spot.

And
is Moise Fokou the answer on the weakside? Who knows. Is he their only
option? Not at all. The Eagles also have Keenan Clayton, a fourth round
pick out of Oklahoma last season, who can compete for, and perhaps win
that job. Akeem Jordan was also retained, giving the unit a veteran
option if all else fails.

I'm well aware of my reputation as
something of a homer, and I admittedly and frequently take the team's
side on issues some people would deem indefensible. That said, I'm not
here to promise you it will all work out according to some grand plan,
and you should just take my word for it that they will be great.

But I also don't think the situation is quite as grim as it's being painted.

We've
already gotten a taste of what Chaney brings to the table, and it was
enough that the Eagles refused to rush Stewart Bradley back from injury
for the playoffs last season, much less sign him to a contract extension
two weeks ago. Matthews and Clayton were both fourth round picks, which
doesn't assure a starting caliber player, but these are guys other
teams coveted in the past two drafts. And Fokou and Jordan aren't studs,
but you can't have stars at every position, sadly.

My motto for
this group, if nothing else, would be simply give them a shot. They are
surrounded by Pro Bowl talent on the defensive line and secondary. They
are young, athletic, and full of promise. In fact, their only definitive
weakness at all is their collective inexperience, and that alone
doesn't make them bad.

As always, the proof will be there on
Sundays. Until then, I'm not going to fear the unknown. I'll be the guy
hoping for the best.

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews is probably the only Eagles wide receiver you feel remotely good about right now.

Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff are draft picks who haven’t accomplished much yet. Rueben Randle and Chris Givens are veteran offseason pickups who’ve shown little this preseason (see story). Dorial Green-Beckham is a former second-round pick whose first team gave up on him after just one year.

It’s not a group that inspires a whole lot of confidence right now. 

Potential? Sure. But opening day is 16 days away, there’s only one preseason game left for the starters to play, Sam Bradford has two guys to throw to — Matthews and Zach Ertz — and potential is a scary word at this point.

Matthews isn’t a superstar at this point. He’s a solid pro who seems to be getting better. His 1,862 yards are 10th most in NFL history after two seasons. 

But compared to the Eagles’ other receivers, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

He's got credibility and because of that the 24-year-old Matthews has become a spokesman for the entire group. And this past week, two games into the preseason, he found himself in the position of having to defend this entire beleaguered bunch of wide receivers the Eagles have put together.

“The funniest thing is last year [the receivers] played extremely well in the preseason, got into the season, didn’t play well, and everybody’s like, 'Preseason doesn’t matter,'" Matthews said.

"Then the first preseason game we don’t play well, everybody’s like, 'The preseason matters, you guys suck!' Hold on … I thought it didn’t matter. You know what I’m saying?”

What he's saying is it's too early to write this group off. Maybe Huff and Agholor and Randle and Givens — or whichever among them makes the team — will turn it on once the regular season begins.

But going into the Colts game Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium, the numbers are not pretty.

Huff and Randle both have three catches for 13 yards. Agholor has two catches for 30 yards. Givens is 0 for 0.

Matthews hasn’t played yet in the preseason because of a knee injury, and the next four receivers have a combined 56 receiving yards in two preseason games.

Paul Turner, an undrafted rookie, leads the group with nine catches for 78 yards. 

Improvement? Matthews sees it.

“I take this approach,” Matthews said this week. “Every rep counts. And so if every rep counts, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to do better the next rep, and I felt like guys took steps forward for the next rep. And that’s the main thing you always want to see, that improvement.

“I understand it’s the NFL, I understand obviously people are going to say you get paid a lot of money to do one thing, but I’ll tell you what, I know the guys in that room, they want to do well. None of those guys went into that game wanting to mess up or not put their best foot forward.”

Probably no recent draft pick has infuriated Eagles fans as much as Agholor. Well, other than maybe Marcus Smith and Danny Watkins. And Lane Johnson maybe.

But it’s tough for some to be patient with Agholor when Jeremy Maclin had 773 yards as a rookie, DeSean Jackson had 912 and Matthews had 872.

Heck, even Reggie Brown (571 yards) and undrafted Hank Baskett (464) were factors as rookie wideouts.

Agholor’s 283 yards last season rank tied for 27th out of 32 wide receivers drafted in the first round over the past 10 years.

But he has a big-time supporter in Matthews.

“I felt like the jump he made from the first game to the second game [was significant]," Matthews said "Even the stuff you don’t see. Blocking? [Darren] Sproles caught a short pass and Nelson turned his route around … he ran a great route, got open, turned around, blocked and probably sprung Sproles for another 10, 15 yards.

“He had another bubble situation where he had to block for Josh and he did. Definitely better than the first game, and that’s what you want to see. That’s the biggest thing. And it gets lost in the shuffle.”

That Sproles play, a 21-yard gain, was called back because of a penalty on rookie guard Isaac Seumalo.

But Matthews is passionate when he talks about how Agholor’s lack of production as a rookie doesn’t mean anything moving forward.

“I don’t know if y’all know this, but I love Jordy Nelson (Packers Pro Bowl receiver),” Matthews said. “I love him. One of my favorite receivers. Jordy Nelson didn’t have 1,000 yards till Year 4.

“Let’s put it in perspective. Guys get better. And I feel like that’s what I want to see from my group. Are guys getting better?

“There’s two things that I really look for from my group — attitude and effort. And do Nelson and Chris and Josh and those guys bring great attitude and effort?

“Yes. That’s what I want to see, and I feel that’s what we’ve shown.”

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard batting cleanup, Cameron Rupp catching

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard batting cleanup, Cameron Rupp catching

Following a day off, the Phillies continue their roadtrip with the start of a three-game set with the New York Mets.

Ryan Howard will bat in the heart of the Phillies order with Cameron Rupp at catcher following the trade of Carlos Ruiz to the Dodgers. Meanwhile, the rest of the lineup remains mostly the same as it was prior to a brief two-game series with American League rules.

With Ruiz's trade, Howard is the last remaining member of the Phillies' 2008 World Series team. He'll try to throw back to that time against the ageless Bartolo Colon. 

Howard has good power numbers against Colon. He has just six hits in 28 at-bats, but has drawn three walks and has three home runs against the 43-year-old starter. There are only 18 pitchers he has faced more often than Colon.

At catcher, Rupp had already inherited the starting job from Ruiz, but he is now the backstop with more experience in Philadelphia. The Phillies called up prospect Jorge Alfaro for now, but he will likely remain on the bench and be sent down when A.J. Ellis reports this weekend. 

Rupp has five hits in 14 at-bats against Colon. He has faced only the Braves' Julio Teheran more times than Colon in his four-year career. The five hits are tied for his most against any one pitcher (Teheran).

Here's the full lineup that will oppose Colon and the Mets. 

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Aaron Altherr, LF
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Cameron Rupp, C
6. Odubel Herrera, CF
7. Freddy Galvis, SS
8. Peter Bourjos, RF
9. Adam Morgan, P

Awwwwe: Chooch leaves his Phillies teammates a love note on clubhouse whiteboard

Awwwwe: Chooch leaves his Phillies teammates a love note on clubhouse whiteboard

As if you didn't think you could love Carlos Ruiz any more...

Chooch was traded on Thursday afternoon and he's since departed for potentially playoff-bound pastures with his new-again teammate Chase Utley and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But not before he left his Phillies teammates a loving note written on the whiteboard in the clubhouse at Citi Field where the Phils play the Mets this evening.

Courtesy of CSNPhilly.com's Phillies beat reporter Jim Salisbury:

It reads:

"I will miss all of you guys. Good luck the rest of the season. Love you all, Chooch! (Gracias)"

Awwwwwwwwe.

Gestures like the above help explain why guys like Roy Halladay call Chooch their favorite baseball player ever.