Evaluating Bryce Brown

Evaluating Bryce Brown

He’s eclipsed 160 yards rushing in each of the last two
games. He’s drawn comparisons to the explosive Bo Jackson. Suddenly the Eagles
have options with respect to their backfield, specifically LeSean McCoy, who
signed a five-year contract worth $45 million over the summer.

There is no doubt rookie runner Bryce Brown is bursting with
talent. That’s why the front office took a seventh-round flyer on a kid who
carried the ball just 104 times during a tumultuous collegiate career. But is
Brown really a star in the making, a silver lining in this darkest of seasons,
or are we seriously overreacting after two NFL starts?

Here’s what we know right now: Brown is a naturally-gifted
running back that possesses 4.4 speed in a six-foot, 223-lb. frame, making him
both difficult to catch and to bring down. He can catch the ball out of the
backfield. He is a willing blocker. In many respects, Brown looks like the
total package.

Where I draw the line is that we already know definitively
that this kid is the real deal. As impressive as these recent performances have
been, it is far too early to anoint Brown the next big thing. He certainly has raw
ability, but at this point, there are still more questions than answers.

Small sample size

Two games. Two outstanding games, but only two games
nonetheless. I’m not sure what the exact number of carries is before I become completely
convinced, but I’m not there yet. My apprehension probably has a lot to do with
a specific black mark on these breakthrough performances.

Ball security

As has been well documented, Brown has put the ball on the
turf three times in these last two games, which in my mind overshadows – if not
erases – a great deal of what he accomplished. He lost two against the Panthers
last week, which were converted for three points, but also ended a drive in
Carolina territory, and of course the fumbles against the Cowboys was returned
for the decisive touchdown.

In no way are we laying the blame for either loss on a
rookie running back, but we can all count. Those points would’ve helped. Look
no further than the Eagles’ last two seasons to see how closely turnovers
correlate to wins and losses. The fact is, Brown can run for 6.5 yards per
carry for the rest of his life, but if he coughs up the rock once every 14
carries, he can’t be a primary back in the NFL, or at any level.

We’ve seen notable backs Tiki Barber and Ahman Green get
over their fumbling issues, but in both cases it took years. Brown might be
worth the wait, but a lot can happen between now and whenever he learns to hold
on to the football.

Competition

Another reason I’m not getting too amped up over the last
two games: consider who they have played. Carolina is ranked 25th in
the NFL against the run, and Dallas tumbled all the way to 18th
after Sunday night – plus the Cowboys have been hammered by injuries.

Does that detract from Brown’s efforts? No, but the
information is relevant. Most backs are experiencing greater success against
the Panthers, and increasingly the Cowboys as well. Let’s see what Brown can do
against even an average run defense, let alone a good one.

Improved offensive
line?

It is worth noting that before Brown relieved McCoy, who is
out with a concussion, the All-Pro back was not having his best season. Shady
was averaging 4.2 yards per carry, and managed to cross the goal line just
twice through 10 games. Much of the blame can be heaped on the offensive line,
which has been decimated by injuries, none more integral to the running game
than the loss of left tackle Jason Peters. Philadelphia averaged over seven
yards per attempt on off-tackle runs to the left in 2011.

Yet all of a sudden, Brown is running wild, averaging 6.5
yards per carry, and scoring four touchdowns. McCoy’s long run on the season is
34 yards, Brown’s is 65. So if the line is so terrible, how is it the new guy
is able to find so much space?

Believe it or not, one of the answers might be the offensive
line has been improving. They’re not at the point where anybody should get
excited, but some recent changes are starting to pan out, particularly on the
right side. Fifth-rounder Dennis Kelly moved to tackle after the injury to Todd
Herremans, and looks more competent there than he did at guard. Veteran Jake
Scott was signed off the street a month ago and quickly pushed Danny Watkins
out of his job, whether he was injured or whatever.

The combination is working, so who knows, perhaps McCoy
would have or will look better behind the new look as well. Brown might be
benefitting from good timing.

Character

My concerns extend beyond what Brown has done on the field
the last couple weeks. How did the Eagles come to find this gem of a player in
the seventh round of the draft?

The short answer is he left Tennessee for some reason after
one season, and then quit the team at Kansas State apparently after a dispute
over playing time. He was involved with several NCAA investigations during his
time in college football. Lots of question marks there. I haven’t seen or heard
anything during his time in Philadelphia that would lead me to believe the kid
has a bad attitude or is a problem of any kind, but his strange past ought to
make you wonder.

Putting it all
together

Everything I’ve seen of Brown dating back to the preseason
tells me he has the ability to be a number one back in the NFL, but let’s slow
down. There are enough potential issues here to be worried what we are seeing
could be a flash in the pan.

Plus, how quickly we forget the Eagles already have a star
running back in their employ. Lest you forget, here are the numbers Shady McCoy
piled up just a season ago: 1,309 rushing yards (4th), 5.2 yards per
attempt (4th), 1,674 yards from scrimmage (4th), 20 total
TD (1st).  Obviously that’s
not a knock on Brown, nor does it mean he can’t be useful, but the Eagles are
paying McCoy a ton of money to carry the load, so I suspect he will resume his
role whenever he’s ready to go.

It’s a good problem to have. McCoy is locked up, Brown is
under contract through 2015, and he can’t even receive an extension until the
final year of his rookie deal, so there is plenty of time to let Brown’s
trajectory play out. He’s off to an amazing start, but there is much work still
to be done.

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Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Adam Morgan, Phils vie to avoid sweep

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Adam Morgan, Phils vie to avoid sweep

Phillies (60-72) vs. Nationals (77-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

For the second time in less than a week, the Phillies try to avoid a sweep by winning the final game of a series against a division opponent. Adam Morgan will try to overcome the Phillies struggles as well as his own while the Nationals toss out veteran lefty Gio Gonzalez. 

Here are five things to know for Wednesday night.

1. Close to quality
For just the fifth time this year, Morgan put together a quality start for the Phillies on Aug. 19 against the Cardinals. In his follow up start against the Mets on Friday, he came quite close to another one.

If it wasn't obvious from his 1-8 record and his 6.50 ERA, Morgan has been pretty absymal this season. He's shown glimpses of his talent, such as his strong start vs. the Cards or his seven innings of one-run ball on May 10 in Atlanta. Yet for the most part, his outings have been filled with hits and home runs.

Back to Friday. He had gotten through the Mets lineup with just two runs in five innings, keeping the Phillies in the game while Bartolo Colon held them at bay. But a grand slam ended his night and gave him an ugly six-run, eight-hit line in five innings of play. While he tied a career-high with eight strikeouts, he allowed three home runs. That simply won't get it down.

In his final start of the month, he needs to put together a strong outing to prove that he's worthy of a rotation spot even after rosters expand in September. If he keeps allowing more runs than innings pitched, it'd be tough to keep handing him the ball.

2. Lefty in decline
In the first two games of the series, the Phillies saw two starters that they will see plenty of in the future: Tanner Roark and Max Scherzer. Now they face a man who headed their rotations of the past.

Gonzalez was traded to the Nationals in 2012 for his age-26 season after becoming an All Star for the first time. Not only did he come up with another All Star appearance in 2012, he won a league-high 21 games and finished third in the Cy Young vote.

However, that was pretty clearly Gonzalez's peak. His ERA has declined every season since 2012 and he no longer strikes out more than a batter an inning. When he was truly at his best, he was able to keep the ball in the ballpark at a very solid rate (0.4 home runs per nine innings in 2012). He was able to match that mark in 2015, but he's given up his most home runs per nine innings (1.0) since his rookie season in 2009. 

The bad news for the Phillies is that Gonzalez has a solid track record against the Phillies. He's 8-6 in 18 starts against them with a 2.82 ERA. He strikes out almost exactly a batter an inning in those games while not walking as many batters as he usually does. He's even better at Citizens Bank with a 2.52 ERA in 11 starts. 

Despite giving up just two earned runs over 13 ⅓ innings against the Phillies in April, he did not earn a win in his two starts. In fact, he lost his second start against them while the Nationals lost both games. 

3. Outperforming expectations
The Phillies are nowhere close to their 14-10 start, but that was to be expected. Very few thought the Phils could begin the season on such a strong run, which lasted into mid-May. 

Right now, they have a 60-72 record. However, their pythagorean record (which uses their runs scored and runs allowed to project what their record should be) is 51-81, nine games worse. 

Meanwhile, the Nationals are 77-55, comfortably in first place in the NL East. But their pythagorean record is 81-51, four games better than their current pace. 

There are plenty of reasons why teams can outperform or underperform compared to their pythagorean record. A team that outperforms can have a series of blowout wins that inflate their runs scored despite a 10-run outburst only contributes to one win. Teams that underperform tend to have lot of success in close games (or have suffered a few blowout losses), yet they also usually regress and start playing more towards their projected record.

The easiest way to explain why the Phillies and Nationals would have the out or underperformed is their bullpens. The Phils have had a strong backend of their bullpen with Jeanmar Gomez and Hector Neris, who have been able to close out many close Phillies wins. Meanwhile, the Nationals had Jonathan Papelbon closing for them. Papelbon had a poor enough season to be designated for assignment after blowing a few games this summer. 

The other reasons are the ones listed above: the Nationals offense has produced some big outbursts thanks to hitters like Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper and the Phillies have had some blowout losses (that Mets series last week was a great example). 

However, the main takeaway from this may be the surplus wins that the Phillies have produced thanks to their bullpen. Without Neris or Gomez, the team would not be where they are because close leads wouldn't have been as safe as they've been. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: With the news that Ryan Howard will be getting less playing time, Tommy Joseph is the man who will benefit. He takes on a lefty tonight, although he hasn't faced Gonzalez before because he was not in the majors in April.

Nationals: Despite going 0 for 4 on Tuesday, former Phillie Jayson Werth has been on a tear this month. He's hit seven home runs, including one on Monday. He also has a .346 average against lefties.

5. This and that
• The Phillies are 1-7 against the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park this year. That includes a sweep by the Nationals from May 30-June 1, the first sweep by the Nationals at CBP since Sept. 20-22, 2011 (a four-game series).

• Freddy Galvis has the most at-bats of any current Phillie against Gonzalez. He's 8 for 31 with a home run, two doubles and a walk. Currently in Triple A, Darin Ruf is 10 for 28 against Gonzalez with three homers and eight walks. 

• Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa is 2 for 6 against Morgan with two home runs. Nats catcher Wilson Ramos is 3 for 5 with a home run and five RBI. 

• The Phillies are 12-13 in August despite have allowed 150 runs and scored just 111. The Nationals are 16-11 this month. 

Undrafted CB C.J. Smith still has 'a lot of room for improvement'

Undrafted CB C.J. Smith still has 'a lot of room for improvement'

Covering Colts receivers T.Y. Hilton or Donte Moncrief is a daunting task for just about every cornerback in the NFL, let alone an undrafted rookie. That's precisely what the Eagles were asking of C.J. Smith on Saturday when they plugged the North Dakota State product into the game with the first-string defense.

And the results weren't bad. Hilton and Moncrief made some catches, but each time, Smith was right there to challenge them, wrap them up and get them to the ground. No busted coverages. No missed tackles. No backing down.

"I think I did all right, but I think I have a lot of things to improve on," Smith said of his performance Saturday. "The game was a little faster than when I played in the preseason before, so I definitely think I have a lot of room for improvement."

All right would be a fair assessment. Smith wound up finishing with a team-high seven tackles, which is not a great stat for a corner because it usually means passes were being completed. Although once again, consider his background and the opponent. This 23-year-old hasn't even been practicing with the first-team defense, then one day all of a sudden Andrew Luck is throwing in his direction.

"Coaches gave me a little heads up," Smith said. "They didn't give me too many reps in practice with the ones, but I think they just wanted to see if I could handle being out there, thrown in the fire in my situation."

Nobody could've blamed him if he was nervous, if he would've made a mistake or got beat.

"A little nerve-racking at first, but things started to settle in," Smith said of facing a dangerous Colts passing attack. "My teammates had my back, so that was the biggest thing. And then the coaches said everything translates from practice to the game, you just have to trust it."

Seeing Smith out there with the first-team defense was something of a surprise. There's already a logjam at cornerback, where Nolan Carroll, Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, Eric Rowe and Jalen Mills are jockeying for position. Smith getting a shot might mean the Eagles are considering keeping six corners, or that one of the others could be on the move.

The 5-foot-11, 189-pound defensive back impressed throughout training camp as well as in the Eagles' preseason opener, where he recorded three pass breakups and an interception. Smith also notes he played a lot of man coverage in college, a skillset he believes is attractive to this coaching staff.

Perhaps Smith getting a shot with the ones shouldn't have been a surprise based on the summer he's had. He's starting to build the case he shouldn't have gone overlooked in the draft either.

"I was hurt going into my senior year with a pretty bad knee injury, so I had to overcome that," Smith said of going undrafted. "And then I still think playing at the FCS level, it's tough to overcome that too."

Smith will have at least one more opportunity to show the Eagles what he can bring to the table Thursday when the preseason schedule wraps up against the Jets. Now that he's gone up against Pro Bowl-caliber talent, he should really shine in a game typically reserved for backups and fringe NFL talents.

Maybe that's expecting too much, but Smith probably won't mind.

"You try to expect a lot of yourself," Smith said. "I'm just taking things day by day, trying to get better every day, trying to control the things I can control."

Jake Metz enjoying 'amazing' ride, ready for dream audition with Eagles

Jake Metz enjoying 'amazing' ride, ready for dream audition with Eagles

As Monday turned into Tuesday, Jake Metz laid awake in his bed. The 25-year-old Souderton Area High School graduate knew he needed a good night’s sleep before starting his new job in the morning, but he just couldn’t shut down. 

After a crazy few days, all he could do was stare at the ceiling. 

“I’m in shock,” Metz said Tuesday afternoon. “I’m just trying to do the best I can.”

On Friday night, Metz was in Glendale, Arizona, playing a key role in the Soul’s ArenaBowl XXIX championship (see story). On Monday afternoon, he and a teammate (wideout Darius Reynolds) worked out at the NovaCare Complex. Several hours later, at 9 p.m., the phone call came. 

He showed up to his new job the next morning, and was given a new uniform: a No. 74 Eagles jersey. 

It’s not hard to figure out why the 6-foot-6, 265-pound defensive end couldn’t sleep. It really has been a crazy few days. 

“It’s amazing,” said Metz, who played his college ball at Shippensburg and played for the Soul the last two seasons. “I grew up here in Philadelphia, so to win a ring with the Soul and to be able to play with the team of my dreams the next couple days is amazing. I’m on cloud nine right now. It’s awesome.”

There’s not too much time to sit in awe, though. Metz practiced Tuesday for the first time as an Eagle and expects to play “a good amount” in the team’s fourth and final preseason game on Thursday night. 

That leaves just two days to prepare for what could be the biggest and most important audition of his life. How much can he learn in a couple days? 

“We’re going to find out,” Metz said. “I’m going to do everything I can. I’m going to be first guy here, last one to leave, do everything I can to take in as much as I can to make this team.”

Making the team doesn’t seem likely. The Eagles will only get to keep 53 players on their final roster and there’s a logjam of sorts at defensive end. It’s possible Marcus Smith or Steven Means could be left off the roster, so don’t expect Metz to jump both of them in a week’s time. 

But the Eagles saw enough in the AFL’s Defensive Linemen of the Year to sign Metz and at least allow him to play in one game. 

“I tell you what: I love his length and size,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “He's got good athleticism. He's coming right off of a championship season, so he's in shape and ready to go. With Alex McCalister going down, we needed some depth there and he gives us that rotation that we're looking for up front. And it gives him an opportunity to get himself on film.”

The young defensive end said the Eagles coaches and players have been very helpful upon his arrival. A few players in particular — he named Brandon Graham, Connor Barwin and Bryan Braman — have been helping him even as plays were going on in practice. With such a short time to get ready for game action, coaches and players have told him to worry less about scheme and more about just playing to his athleticism. 

Getting some NFL film from Thursday’s game could be huge for Metz. While a roster spot isn’t going to open up along the Eagles’ defensive line anytime soon, 31 other teams will get a chance to see Metz showcase his skills in an NFL game. 

Plenty of other folks are going to be watching him too: his family and friends in the area. 

“Oh, you have no idea,” Metz said. “I have so many friends and family that have already said they’re getting tickets to the game. They’re gonna be there. You’ll see them for sure.”