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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Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

In the sixth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — part 6 is Hart to Jones.

Taylor Hart

Roob: No matter how hard the Eagles try, they just can't get rid of Taylor Hart. Chip Kelly drafted Hart in the fifth round in 2014 and then Hart began last season with Kelly in San Francisco before reappearing here later in the season. Hart is going into his fourth NFL season and has 15 games, 12 tackles and no sacks to show for it. He turns 26 next month and has never shown any signs of being a guy who can contribute in a 4-3 defense. I’m going to say he goes, but don't be surprised if he finds his way back onto the roster at some point. 

Verdict: GOES

Dave: Hart was with the Eagles last training camp but cut him on Sept. 4 and he was claimed by the 49ers and Chip Kelly. Then when the Niners cut him, the Eagles claimed him back and he spent the rest of the season watching the Eagles play football. He was inactive in all but the last game and in that one he didn’t play. Hart is a former fifth-round pick who just fits better in a 3-4. The Eagles already played undrafted rookie Destiny Vaeao over him, so it’s time to set him free. 

Verdict: GOES

Jordan Hicks
Cap hit: $796K

Roob: Whenever you blast Chip for getting rid of Shady, DeSean and Jeremy Maclin, you have to mention that he did draft Jordan Hicks in the third round. Hicks, in just 24 games, has become one of the most productive playmaking linebackers in Eagles history. With seven interceptions, he already has the 11th-most interceptions in franchise history by a linebacker, and he led all NFL linebackers with five INTs this past season. Only four linebackers in NFL history have had more interceptions in their first two seasons – Hall of Famer Jack Ham is one of them. But Hicks is more than a ballhawk. He’s a smart, heady linebacker who is stout at the point of attack and is already developing into a terrific locker room leader as well. The future is certainly bright for Hicks.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: He just finished his second year in the NFL, but Hicks is quickly becoming one of the biggest playmaking linebackers in the league. Through the first 24 games of his career, he has seven interceptions. In his first two years, he has 7 INTs, 4 FRs, 1 FF. He’s the fifth player in NFL history to do that in his first two seasons and he’s the only linebacker. That said, Hicks needs to get better against the run and he knows it. Now that he won’t have an injury to heal from this offseason, he plans on hitting the weight room to get stronger and better at stopping the run. He looks like a cornerstone of the franchise. 

Verdict: STAYS

Malcolm Jenkins
Cap hit: $7.5M

Roob: Jenkins had another good year in his third season with the Eagles, although not quite up to his Pro Bowl level of 2015. Jenkins, who turns 30 late next season, is on the books for another four years with some pretty high cap figures — $7.5 million in 2017, then $10 million, $9.75 million and $9.25 million. But as long as Jenkins continues to play at a high level, I don’t see him going anywhere until after the 2018 season at the earliest, when he would count just $3 million in dead money if he’s released. But Jenkins is a guy you'd like to see finish his career in Philly. Hope that happens. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: It’s hard to quantify just how much Jenkins means to the Eagles or how much he’s worth. But it’s a lot. The last two seasons have been the best of his career and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. The best Jenkins stat is this: He’s missed just eight defensive snaps since arriving in 2013. Unreal. If the Eagles chose to play him at cornerback last year, he would have probably been their best one. 

Verdict: STAYS

Lane Johnson
Cap hit: $10M

Roob: If he goes, it’ll be because of a third positive drug test. Johnson’s play in the six games he was available to the Eagles was at an All-Pro level. But after two positive tests for banned substances and suspensions of four games in 2014 and 10 games in 2016, he’s now one positive test away from a two-year ban that would essentially end his Eagles career. My gut feeling is Johnson has learned his lesson and won’t take any more chances. That he understands what’s at stake here and isn’t going to risk his career by taking a supplement that hasn’t been pre-tested and cleared. Obviously there are other reasons the Eagles were 5-1 when Johnson played. Those five wins included games against the hapless Browns and Bears and a win against a Cowboys team that wasn’t trying to win. But that said, Johnson’s value is clear. He's a beast. It’s up to Johnson whether he becomes a Pro Bowl offensive tackle or a casualty of the NFL’s substance abuse regulations. I can’t imagine he’ll make the same mistake again.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: A lot was made about Johnson’s suspension voiding the guaranteed portion of his contract. And for a week or so, a bunch of fans were calling into talk radio saying the Eagles should cut him. That was laughable. Johnson is still the Eagles’ best offensive player and as long as he stays on the field and plays the way he did in 2016, he’s going to make most of the money in his contract. He obviously deserves plenty of blame for the way last season went, but he’s a big piece of the future. One more suspension and his career is basically over, so the Eagles just have to hope he doesn’t ruin everything.  

Verdict: STAYS

Marcus Johnson

Roob: Johnson is an interesting guy. Ran a 4.37 so he has wheels, but he didn’t have much of a career at Texas. Then again, Texas didn’t have a legit quarterback while he was there so maybe there’s a lot of untapped potential. The Eagles are so desperate for help at wide receiver they’ll take a good long look at everybody on the roster, even a guy who bounced off and on the practice squad last year. This Longhorn is a longshot to make the roster, but then again, if he catches the football consistently in training camp he’ll give himself a fighting chance.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: The receiver was with the Eagles during training camp and flashed some before getting hurt. He joined the practice squad during the season and was there at season’s end. He’ll be brought to camp but is a longshot to make the roster. 

Verdict: GOES

Donnie Jones
Cap hit: $1.25M

Roob: At 36 years old, the greatest punter in Eagles history (sorry Mat McBriar) showed no signs of slowing down. In his 13th NFL season, Jones averaged 45.8 yards per punt with a 40.7 net – both above his career highs. The most amazing thing about Jones is his knack for dropping punts inside the 20 without hitting very many touchbacks. He had 21 inside the 20 this year with just six touchbacks, and in four seasons with the Eagles he has 117 inside the 20 with just 26 touchbacks. When you don’t have an explosive offense, field position is critical, and Jones is a human field position flipping machine. The Eagles signed him to a three-year extension this year, and he’s now under contract through 2019.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: At times during the last two seasons, Jones has looked like the offense’s best weapon. That’s not a good sign for the offense, but it is for Jones. He’s already the best punter in team history. He’ll be 37 by the time the 2017 season starts, but he just signed a contract and will be the team’s punter for at least a couple more years if everything goes to plan. 

Verdict: STAYS