Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Defensive Line

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Defensive Line

We pick up our training camp preview on the other side of the ball, where Chip Kelly selected long-time NFL assistant Billy Davis to be the defensive coordinator, and the Eagles are widely expected to transition to a 3-4 defense of sorts. Up first we examine the defensive line, an area of great change with multiple players switching positions or learning new roles, not to mention a couple of new names and faces.

[ Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp:
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Offensive Line
Linebackers | Cornerback | Safety ]

What should we expect from Isaac Sopoaga?

Not a whole lot. Sopoaga makes sense for the Eagles, who lacked a true nose tackle, much less anybody who so much as plays nose tackle – something they need with the shift to more three-man fronts. The nine-year veteran comes relatively cheap (three years, $11 million, no guarantee beyond 2013), and the team knows exactly what they are getting with vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble joining Sopoaga on the exodus from San Francisco.

Unfortunately, exactly what they are getting is a two-down run stuffer who isn’t particularly adept at stuffing the run. Sopoaga was only on the field for about a quarter of the defensive snaps with the 49ers last season, and run or pass, he didn’t chart very well according to Pro Football Focus. The site ranked him 82 out of 85 interior linemen in the NFL in 2012.

The problem the Eagles ran into this offseason is nose tackle is not an easy position to fill. There tends to be a premium on huge space eaters that command constant double teams at the point of attack, especially in 3-4 alignments where a dominant force on the nose is arguably the most important piece of the defense. Sopoaga is not that. He’s a stopgap at best. At worst, he’s Antonio Dixon’s backup.

Is Fletcher Cox headed for a breakout year?

The sky seems like it’s the limit for last year’s first-round pick, but whether or not Cox is going to take the proverbial next step is tricky/borderline impossible to predict. What’s considered a breakout? Does it have to be reflected by an increase in numbers? Cox had a very solid rookie season with 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble – that may not seem like a lot, but those aren’t bad totals at all for an interior lineman.

Is the benchmark an invite to the Pro Bowl? From what we’ve seen of Cox, a trip to Honolulu some day may not be a stretch. For right now though, we don’t even know exactly how he’ll be utilized in defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ scheme. If he’s playing end in a traditional 3-4 alignment as anticipated, he’s not necessarily going to post the numbers or earn the national recognition unless he’s an absolutely dominant force. It’s simply not a flashy position.

When teams select a player No. 12 overall though, Pro Bowls are sort of what you start to expect around year two or three. Right now it might be less a matter of if than it is when. Projecting numbers and other accolades isn’t easy, but we’ll all know it when Cox has arrived. The truth is he may not have very far to go to get there.

Will Bennie Logan make an impact in his rookie season?

He could see the field quite a bit, especially given the mess the Eagles have up front, but I’m not entirely sure Logan was an incredibly impactful player per se at the collegiate level. The third-round pick only recorded five sacks and 12 tackles for loss over 27 games his last two seasons at LSU – not exactly lighting the world on fire.

That said, Logan will almost certainly be contributing as a rookie. The main attribute his NFL.com scouting report stresses is that all-important versatility. He could play interior lineman in a 4-3, or end in a 3-4. At 6-2, 309 lbs. Logan seems a little undersized for nose, but it’s not always about how much space a player takes up, either. How much worse can he be than Sopoaga, apparently?

Best guess is we’ll see him line up all over the place with some regularity, and one can only hope perform adequately. Logan will almost certainly have an impact in that sense, but in terms of big plays or on the box score, we may not take much notice.

Is Vinny Curry still in the Eagles’ plans?

You would have to think so. The Eagles used a second-round pick on Curry last April, and then Andy Reid’s staff promptly forgot about him. At first it was to be expected. With two Pro Bowlers at end in Trent Cole and Jason Babin, plus Brandon Graham, Darryl Tapp, and Phillip Hunt all vying for playing time, there was quite literally a ton of competition to climb over. But Babin was released mid-season, Cole endured a sack drought that lasted for months, and the rookie still wasn’t getting many looks. Curry appeared in just six games, and was on the field for 89 snaps total (via PFF).

Now the Eagles will utilize more three-man fronts, and as a result Curry looks like one of several front-seven players without a defined role. He was a pass rusher at Marshall, but unlike Cole and Graham, he doesn’t expect to line up at outside linebacker. Curry bulked up in the offseason, up to 279 lbs. during the offseason according to the team web site, which makes him better suited for end. Ends in 3-4 alignments traditionally are not known as much for getting after the QB.

So what’s the story? Is he a fit? We have no way of knowing until the pads go on, but something to keep in mind is general manager Howie Roseman was credited with running the 2012 draft – not Reid – and Roseman had to have a sense that a head coaching change at the end of the season was possible if not probable. And with more and more defenses utilizing the 3-4, scheme versatility should have been part of the approach in the draft. If we can assume two plus two equals four in the Birds’ front office, the Curry selection was only logical if they felt he could make the transition.

(If that last sentence doesn’t bring Death From Above back, I don’t know what will.)

Does Clifton Geathers stand a chance of making the 53-man roster?

It sure sounds like it. Geathers was acquired from the Colts for fullback Stanley Havili in the offseason, which seemed like a bit of a nothing trade at the time. A sixth-round pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2010, Geathers is already with his sixth organization. He’s hardly played though, seeing fewer than 200 snaps in three NFL seasons.

So why would it be any different for Geathers in Philadelphia? Again, with a massive scheme overhaul, it’s unclear who will or will not be a fit. Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton were tackles in a 4-3; now they’re probably ends. Cole, Graham, and Hunt were ends in a 4-3; now they’re linebackers, while somebody like Curry is staying put. It looks a little chaotic to an outsider, which makes it easier for an anonymous player like Geathers to rise to the top.

In fact, Geathers reportedly got to run with the first-team defense during some of the spring practices, which may or may not mean anything if you listen to Chip Kelly. His size – 6-8, 340 lbs. – certainly makes him an intriguing prospect as well even if his resume does not. I’m not sold yet on the 25 year old as a lock to make the squad or anything like that, but the Eagles are going to give him a long look at the very least.

Andrew Kulp is a freelance writer covering Philadelphia sports for The700Level.com. E-mail him at andrewkulp@comcast.net or follow him on Twitter.

Aaron Altherr provides major spark in season debut to lead Phillies past Braves

Aaron Altherr provides major spark in season debut to lead Phillies past Braves

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies are still looking for the real Aaron Nola, but they may have found a useful bat Thursday night.

Aaron Altherr had the kind of season debut he’d dreamed about for the four months he was on the disabled list as he helped the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves, 7-5, at Turner Field (see Instant Replay).

Altherr was one of three Phillies to hit home runs on a night when the offense awakened after generating just one run the previous two days in Miami. Altherr, who came off the disabled list earlier in the day after missing four months with a wrist injury that required surgery (see story), drove a two-run homer to left in the fifth inning. Earlier in the game, Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph had back-to-back homers to headline a five-run first inning.

Franco leads the team with 19 homers and Joseph, hitting .375 with six homers in his last 17 games, has 14 in just 57 games with the club.

Altherr, who batted fifth behind Franco and Joseph, also had two hard singles in the game.

“He had a really good night in his debut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He provided a spark for us. He added to the offense. So I'm happy for that. It's good to get a win. We scored some runs, finally.”

Altherr was projected to be a starter in the Phillies’ opening day outfield until he suffered the wrist injury in spring training. He spent the last four months in Clearwater, rehabbing and, well, dreaming of a night like this.

“Definitely, especially sitting around thinking about how that first game's going to be being back,” he said. “For it to be like this, it was definitely special and I have to thank the Lord above for getting me back here as fast as He could.

“I was hoping to get a home run in the first game, but I definitely wasn't expecting it. Just hopeful. To have it happen like that was definitely awesome.

“It definitely surprised me a little bit because I hadn't really been driving the ball like I had wanted to down in my rehab stints. I'm just glad to know I've got [the power] in there somewhere.”

The Phillies hit all three of their home runs and scored all their runs against Atlanta right-hander Matt Wisler. He received a ticket to Triple A after the game.

The Phillies batted around against Wisler and scored five runs in the first inning. That was a welcome cushion for Nola, who desperately needed a win after failing to get one in his previous seven starts. The right-hander did manage to earn his first win since June 5, but it wasn’t exactly pretty. He lasted just five innings and threw a whopping 95 pitches as he continued to experience command issues that have been plaguing him in recent weeks.

Nola gave up eight hits and three runs. He walked three and hit a batter. That’s not Aaron Nola’s game. At least it wasn’t in his first 12 starts this season. He recorded a 2.65 ERA over that span and walked just 15 while striking out 85. He has walked 14 in his last eight starts.

“He's not the same guy,” Mackanin said. “He's just struggling with command once again. He's not dotting his fastball like he normally does. His curveball is erratic. He needs to get back on track.

“Sometimes it's harder to pitch when you have a big lead. You know you don't want to blow it. That can affect a pitcher as well. You have to have that mental toughness either way, whether it's a one-run game or an 8-0 game. You don't want to pitch poorly. There's a tendency, well, you have a five-run lead, should I throw more fastballs and challenge? But it was good to see he got a win. I'm happy for that. That should help him. He just needs to get to where he was. He's not there yet.”

Nola described his outing as “fairly OK,” which was probably right on. He got the win, but overall was not sharp. He allowed three runs in the fifth inning.

“I ran into some jams there,” he said. “I left some balls over the plate for them to hit. They took them the other way. The plan was to try to hit the outside part of the plate and they took it away.

“I feel like I have the command for the most part, but there’s some areas I still need to get better at and work to get better at.”

The Phillies used four relievers to close out the game. Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris pitched well. David Hernandez and Jeanmar Gomez did not. Gomez allowed three base runners and a run, but still managed to get the save. Hernandez allowed a hit and a pair of two-out walks before giving up an RBI double. A number of scouts from teams looking for bullpen help were on hand. Hernandez and Gomez probably did not help their trade value. Four days before the deadline, starter Jeremy Hellickson is still the Phillie most likely to be dealt.

Best of MLB: Sale loses in White Sox return, Chapman saves Cubs' 3-1 win

Best of MLB: Sale loses in White Sox return, Chapman saves Cubs' 3-1 win

CHICAGO -- Chris Sale returned from his jersey-trashing suspension and threw six effective innings, but John Lackey outpitched him and Aroldis Chapman got the final four outs to save the Cubs' 3-1 victory over the White Sox in Chicago's rivalry series Thursday night.

Sale (14-4) was greeted with smiles and hugs from his teammates following a five-day ban for tearing up 1976-style uniforms he didn't want to wear before his previous scheduled start. He had command issues, but worked out of trouble while allowing two runs and six hits.

Lackey (8-7) allowed one run in six innings for his first win since June 8. Chapman, in his second appearance since being acquired from the Yankees, struck out two and consistently hit 102 mph in his first save for his new team.

Kris Bryant, who homered against Sale in the All-Star Game, hit an RBI double off the center field wall in the first inning (see full recap). 

Diaz's homer helps Cardinals beat Marlins and Fernandez, 5-4
MIAMI -- Aledmys Diaz homered, doubled and drove in three runs against childhood pal Jose Fernandez, helping the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Miami Marlins 5-4 Thursday.

Fernandez gave up five runs in five innings and fell to 26-2 at Marlins Park.

Miami's Dee Gordon, the 2015 NL batting and stolen bases champion, returned from an 80-game suspension for failing a drug test and went 0 for 4. Ichiro Suzuki doubled as a pinch hitter in the seventh for Miami and needs two hits for 3,000.

Diaz and Matt Holliday homered in the third inning against Fernandez (12-5), who had never previously given up more than one homer in a home game. His only other loss at Marlins Park came on opening day this year against Detroit.

Michael Wacha (6-7) allowed three runs in six innings, and three relievers completed an eight-hitter. Seung Hwan Oh pitched around a one-out single in the ninth for his seventh save (see full recap). 

Familia falters again, Rockies rally for 2-1 win over Mets
NEW YORK -- Mets steady closer Jeurys Familia stumbled for a second straight game, allowing two runs in the ninth inning as the Colorado Rockies beat New York 2-1 Thursday for their seventh win in eight games.

Less than 24 hours after Familia's streak of 52 consecutive regular-season saves was snapped, the right-hander entered in the top of the ninth with a 1-0 lead, and couldn't hold it.

Trevor Story had a leadoff single and stole second. After fellow rookie David Dahl walked, Daniel Descalso bunted up the first base line. Mets catcher Rene Rivera watched as the ball spun toward foul territory but it stopped fair, loading the bases with no out.

With one out, Familia (2-3) got pinch-hitter Cristhian Adames to hit a slow grounder to the right side. First baseman James Loney booted the ball and Story scored to make it 1-all. Familia then threw a wild pitch, allowing Dahl to cross the plate with the go-ahead run (see full recap).

Instant Replay: Phillies 7, Braves 5

Instant Replay: Phillies 7, Braves 5

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Aaron Nola picked up his first win since June 5 as the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves, 7-5, at Turner Field on Thursday night.

Nola was supported by some strong offense. After scoring just one run in losing the previous two games in Miami, the Phils erupted for five runs in the first inning. They hit three homers in the game.

The Phillies had been winless in Nola’s previous seven starts.

The Phillies are 47-57.

The Braves have the worst record in the majors at 35-67.

Starting pitching report
Despite leaving with a 7-3 lead after five innings, Nola was not particularly sharp. He gave up eight hits (one was a fly ball that was lost in the twilight sky), walked three and hit a batter. He needed 95 pitches to get through the five innings.

Nola is 6-9 with a 4.78 ERA in 20 starts.

Atlanta’s Matt Wisler gave up seven hits and seven runs in five innings. Five of the runs came in the first inning when the Phillies batted around. Wisler allowed two homers, two singles and walked two in the inning.

Bullpen report
David Hernandez was the first Phillies reliever out of the bullpen. He struggled. But Edubray Ramos, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez combined to close it out.

Gomez allowed two hits, a walk and a run in the ninth, but earned his 27th save.

At the plate
Aaron Altherr, activated off the disabled list earlier in the day (see story), had a big night in his first game of the season with the big club. He hit the ball hard all night and had three hits, including a two-run homer in the fifth.

Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph hit back-to-back homers in the first inning. Franco’s was a three-run shot. He leads the club with 19 homers. Joseph has 14 homers in 57 games.

Adonis Garcia had two hits and two RBIs for the Braves.

Transaction 
Peter Bourjos was placed on the disabled list and Altherr was activated (see story).

Up next
The series continues Friday night. Vince Velasquez (8-2, 3.34) pitches against Atlanta right-hander Tyrell Jenkins (0-2, 6.17).