Eagles Opposition Report: Bears Defense

Eagles Opposition Report: Bears Defense

Chicago has a reputation
for having one of the better defenses in the NFL, but that's not exactly
the case. In fact, they are pretty ordinary. The Bears are 19th in
points per game, and 25th in yards. They don't do anything particularly
well, and are especially prone to the passing attack, entering Monday
night ranked 28th in the league.

The reason is quite simple: they
are a unit anchored by three aging playmakers who are surrounded by
otherwise pedestrian talent.

RDE Julius Peppers
One of the few
gems from 2010's free agent class, Peppers migrated north from Carolina
last spring and enjoyed a fine first season in his new uniform. His
eight sacks were a little deceptive, as he was still disruptive and
commanded extra attention from time to time. Plus, he forced three
fumbles and intercepted two passes. Even at 31, there aren't many
defensive ends who can wreak havoc in such a variety of manners.

There
are signs he is finally slowing down in his tenth season though.
Peppers has just four sacks so far, and he's created zero turnovers. To
be fair, he was fighting through a sprained MCL at one point, and he's
still on pace to match last year's sack total. He's also a 6-7, 287 lbs.
monster-man, so that should probably be noted as well. But Peppers is
not quite the dominant force he was the previous decade either, and
that's good news for Michael Vick and Jason Peters at least.

MLB Brian Urlacher
The
middle of the field still belongs to Urlacher, who at 33 still has the
range to patrol huge chunks of turf in Lovie Smith's Cover-2 defense.
Last season was his first trip to the Pro Bowl since 2006, and he's
working on what would be his eighth selection in 2011, already racking
up three interceptions on the year. He can blitz too, but hasn't visited
the quarterback yet this season. A genetic freak like Peppers, Urlacher
always was one of the few linebackers in the league who could almost
match athletic ability with Vick, and he can quickly turn a
highlight-reel scramble into a costly mistake.

CB Charles "Peanut" Tillman
One
of the underrated playmakers in all of football, Tillman has been
remarkably consistent throughout his nine-year career. Only twice has he
intercepted fewer than three passes, and he is one of the game's great
strip artists, punching 27 balls free and three or more in five of the
past six seasons. Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant should take note, as
they've each experienced spells of critical ball control issues.

Like
the rest of Chicago's core, Tillman's best days are likely behind him.
He hasn't done a whole lot in 2011 -- zero picks, and two forced
fumbles. And when a cornerback is knocking all those balls loose, that
means wide receivers are making catches. Protect the ball, and you've
beaten Peanut.

And now the rest...

OLB Lance Briggs
Don't
get me wrong, Briggs is a fine player, quite possibly the best 4-3
outside linebacker in the NFL since Derrick Brooks. He's a sound
tackler, fits well in the Bears' system, and constantly wants a new
contract, so we've no doubt all heard of him. He's also yet another
30-year-old -- 31 this Saturday -- and doesn't come up with many
game-changing plays. Briggs has 10.5 sacks and 13 INTs in nine seasons.
A sound veteran player, a perfect fit for their system... and possibly a
tad overrated.

LDE Israel Idonije
Not one to buck the trend,
Idonije is also going on 31, but last season was his first as a
full-time starter. He benefited greatly from the presence of Peppers on
the opposite side, doubling his career sack total with eight. He's
having another decent year at three so far, but the Niegerian-Canadian
won't overwhelm linemen, and isn't anything Todd Herremans shouldn't be
able to handle.

DT Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina
Believe it or
not, there is some youth on this defense, including the two starters
along the interior defensive line. A fourth round pick out of Texas last
year, Melton is in his first season as a starter, and has three sacks
thus far. The 27-year-old Toeaina finally stuck as a starter last year.
The former sixth-round pick by Cincinnati missed the last two games due
to injury, and figures to give the run defense a bit of a boost with his
return.

The rotation also features former Texans first round
pick Amobi Okoye, who remarkably is still only 24 in his fifth NFL
season, and Stephen Paea, this year's second rounder who appeared in two
games so far.

S Chris Conte and Major Wright
Chicago also has
a pair of young safeties. Conte is a rookie free safety out of Cal. The
third round pick has seen increased play time lately, taking over as
starter for the disappointing Brandon Meriweather over the last two
weeks, and recording his first interception last week. Wright was a
third round pick last season, and on the heels of the recent release of
Chris Harris, he's pretty much the man at strong safety.

The
Bears don't ask too much of their safeties in their Cover-2. They are
mostly there to prevent big plays down the field, which is why they can
get away with such inexperienced players. Just don't be surprised to see
a gameplan that attacks them.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.