Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Offensive Line

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Offensive Line

We continue our training camp preview by breaking down the Eagles at offensive line, which is primed to go from rags to riches with three starters returning from injury and the fourth-overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft joining the unit.

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

Can Jason Peters make a full recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon?

That, my friends, is the million dollar question. The 2012 campaign was effectively over before it ever began for the Eagles once Peters ruptured his Achilles during a private offseason workout, then again some weeks later while trying to roll-a-bout his home. Without an elite left tackle to anchor the offensive line, it made everyone’s job more difficult, to the degree where even if center Jason Kelce and right tackle Todd Herremans hadn’t followed suit with season-ending injuries of their own, the unit probably would not have been a strong one.

The good news is Peters was back participating in practices with the rest of the team this year, and he certainly sounds healthy. We hear you would never even be able to tell he had been so seriously hurt if you weren't already aware in the first place.

But that’s understandably a little hard for some to believe. Achilles injuries are among the worst in sports, at least as far as what could be considered commonplace. It’s even harder on a man as large as Peters (6-4, 340). Philly fans are getting a taste of that with Ryan Howard, who weighs somewhere around 100 lbs. less, and continues to experience other foot and knee problems in the same leg since his blew up nearly two years ago. Peters has to rely much more on athleticism and at least as much on leverage – and he’s had two procedures on it now.

Ultimately the answer here is who knows. We won’t truly find out until he is trying to get to the second and third level to set blocks down the field for LeSean McCoy, or when he’s going one-on-one with a Hall-of-Fame pass rusher the likes of DeMarcus Ware. If there are any positives here, it’s that Peters will be roughly a year-and-a-half removed from surgery by the time he plays his first meaningful game. Regardless, we have to be skeptical whether at 31 years old he’ll ever be one of the most dominant players in the NFL again.

Will Lane Johnson stand out during his rookie season?

I kind of hope not. Notice the choice of language in the question – or lack thereof in this case. An offensive lineman can stand out in a positive way, like Peters in ’11 when he was rounding into what many believed was the best left tackle in football. Or he can stand out in a negative way, like Danny Watkins has for the Eagles, when he wasn’t ready to start on opening day of his rookie season, and has been something of a turnstile ever since.

There’s a chance Lane Johnson, the fourth-overall pick of the draft, just “gets it.” Described as a perfect fit for Chip Kelly’s offense due to his athleticism, maybe he comes in and immediately sets a tone, showcasing the rare ability to bookend the Birds’ offensive line for the next decade.

Then again, that might be a fairy tale of sorts. Like Watkins before him, Johnson is extremely inexperienced, playing just two seasons of college ball on Oklahoma's line. Clearly he has the tools to develop into a cornerstone of the O-line, if not a Pro Bowler someday, but he is incredibly raw. As a rookie, you more or less have to hope he can just blend in with the rest of group, because chances are "standing out" could mean he’s having trouble adapting.

One thing I really like about Johnson that has been undersold is his football IQ. He’s played all over the field, from quarterback, to tight end, to defensive end, so he understands the game from a variety of perspectives. Those experiences should only aid his learning and development. That said, we shouldn’t be disappointed if he has a quiet rookie season – it may even be for the best.

How easily can Todd Herremans transition to right guard?

It shouldn’t be a problem for Herremans. This will be his third full-time position along the Eagles’ offensive line, and he’s held up no matter where the club has moved him to. Sliding back inside where he played for six of his eight NFL seasons should actually be an improvement, as Herremans struggled a bit at right tackle in his second year there with Peters out of the picture and the resulting increase in responsibilities.

And while Herremans previously played guard almost entirely on the left side for the Birds, lining up on the right isn’t exactly like taking a trip Mars or something. The broken bone in his foot has healed, so he should be good to go. There’s no real reason to anticipate any major issues as a result of this change.

Will Danny Watkins make the team?

You would have to think his spot on the roster is up for grabs, although it’s incredibly difficult to get a read on what’s going on with Watkins. Last season it was is he or isn’t he hurt. A supposed chronic ankle injury was the reason Andy Reid gave for removing the Watkins from the starting lineup, but that claim was often disputed, and hardly made sense given the 28 year old would dress most Sundays. Seems he was simply demoted.

Then the new coaching staff came in and was probably hoping to salvage Watkins for depth at least. Before mini-camps and OTAs were over though, Watkins was passed by the likes of journeyman Allen Barbre for first-team reps. Granted Chip Kelly has said not to make much of the depth chart, and star players such as DeSean Jackson have been known to run with the threes, but it still isn’t a good sign when a relative unknown such Barbre is out in front of a recent first-round pick.

I wouldn’t say that’s a necessarily sign Watkins’ time is running out, but I wouldn’t ignore it, either. There is plenty of other competition for those backup spots, too – Dennis Kelly did okay at tackle and pitched in at guard (less successfully) in his first year, 2011 fifth rounder Julian Vandervelde is still in the picture, as are Nate Menkin and Matt Tennant, a pair of players the Birds picked up off the scrap heap last season from Houston and New England respectively.

Little more than two years ago, Watkins was projected to be better than any of them, so you have to think the talent is there. Maybe he wasn’t a fit for departed offensive line coach Howard Mudd’s scheme, and will flourish under Jeff Stoutland. Mayve he simply doesn't have the heart. Whatever the case, the clock is ticking, and it might not be much of a stretch to imagine Watkins hanging off the back of a fire truck rather than standing on a football field come September.

Is Evan Mathis the best player on the Eagles’ roster right now?

You could make that argument. In fact, I believe we just did. Mathis isn’t even the best player on the offensive line if Peters is completely healthy and can regain his All-Pro form, but that’s far from a given. Based on last season, LeSean McCoy is somewhat dependent on the strength of the linemen in front of him. DeSean Jackson, Trent Cole… virtually anybody we can think of who might be in the conversation is coming off of one or multiple down years.

Except Mathis that is. He was probably the Eagles’ most valuable player last season, which isn’t saying much on a 4-12 team, but hey. He was their only lineman who started all 16 games, and he’s their only lineman period who actually played at a high level consistently. You probably couldn’t tell while defenders were constantly running free into the backfield, but he continued to be a rock at left guard.

For the second consecutive season Mathis ranked near the top of Pro Football Focus’ scoring for guards, while the site said he had the sixth-best year of any player in the NFL – up from 18 in 2011.

Hard as it may be to believe, Pro Bowl snubs or no, but a former journeyman lineman perhaps the only sure thing the Eagles have on their roster right now. Considering he signed a five-year contract worth $25 million last offseason, maybe you should pick up a No. 69 if you're in the market for a new jersey this summer.

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

Best of NBA: Bulls hand Spurs first road loss of season

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Best of NBA: Bulls hand Spurs first road loss of season

CHICAGO -- Dwyane Wade scored 20 points, and the Chicago Bulls handed San Antonio its first road loss after a 13-0 start, hanging on to beat the Spurs 95-91 on Thursday night.

San Antonio fell one win shy of matching the NBA's best road start set by the Golden State Warriors last season. The Spurs cut an 18-point deficit midway through the third quarter to four in the closing minutes, only to come up short.

Kawhi Leonard scored 24 for San Antonio. Patty Mills added 16 points, hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers. Former Bull Pau Gasol had 13 points and 10 rebounds in his first game in Chicago since signing with San Antonio in the summer, but the Spurs lost a road game for the first time since Oklahoma City knocked them out in the Western Conference semifinals last season.

Jimmy Butler scored all of his 13 points for Chicago in the second half. Rajon Rondo added 12 points, nine assists and 10 rebounds, and Chicago picked up the win after dropping three in a row and six of nine.

The Spurs hadn't dropped a regular-season road game since Denver beat them on April 8 (see full recap).

Scoreboard malfunction, quiet crowd don’t stop Wizards’ rally
WASHINGTON -- Overcoming a sluggish start in front of a sparse, silent crowd and with a malfunctioning scoreboard, the Washington Wizards came back to beat the Nuggets 92-85 on Thursday night, thanks mainly to Bradley Beal's 26 points and Denver's season-high 29 turnovers.

John Wall scored only 15 points one game after a career-best 52, but nine came in the fourth quarter for Washington, which trailed by as many as 14 in the first half.

With starting point guard Emmanuel Mudiay inactive because of what the team said was a sprained right ankle, the Nuggets went 5 1/2 minutes without a point in the fourth quarter.

In that final period, they had 10 of their turnovers and shot 1 for 14 on 3-pointers -- including 0 for 4 in one last-minute possession (see full recap).

Gasol, clutch free throws lift Grizzlies over
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Marc Gasol scored 36 points and Toney Douglas made two free throws with less than a second left to give the Memphis Grizzlies an 88-86 comeback victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.

Douglas finished with 11 points, scoring the game's final six points to seal Memphis' fifth straight victory.

Gasol was 13 of 24 from the field, including 4 of 6 from outside the arc. But Douglas, signed by Memphis this week because of injuries, took over down the stretch. The guard scored on a 19-footer with 34 seconds left, then converted two pairs of free throws in the last 20 seconds.

CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers with 24 points, and Damian Lillard had 19 on 6-of-18 shooting. Evan Turner had 15 points and 10 rebounds (see full recap).

Sixers beat Pelicans without Joel Embiid leading the way

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USA Today Images

Sixers beat Pelicans without Joel Embiid leading the way

BOX SCORE

NEW ORLEANS -- Joel Embiid shot just 5 for 15 from the field and the Sixers … wait … the Sixers won. 

Surprising? Actually, that’s just how the Sixers envision finding success.

It’s not about Embiid having a relatively quiet night on offense with 14 points, especially going 0 for 5 from three. It’s about other players getting involved and taking the burden off the rookie. Embiid has proved he can do a lot of things, but carrying a team each night in his first season isn’t what the Sixers have in mind. 

“I think that’s when we’re at our best,” Nik Stauskas said after the Sixers beat the Pelicans 99-88 (see Instant Replay). “Obviously there are a few guys in the NBA like a LeBron (James), KD (Kevin Durant) or Steph (Curry) that can single-handedly win a game throughout the entire season. But most of the teams are going to rely on bench players to step up and make shots and make plays. I think that’s when we’re most effective.”

Embiid entered Thursday night averaging 24.3 points and shooting 48.9 percent in Sixers wins (three games played). His 14 points against the Pelicans were his fewest in a victory this season. He also grabbed seven boards with four blocks and three steals. Embiid was a game-high plus-27, which Brett Brown called "massive."

Instead of being powered offensively by their centerpiece, the Sixers received solid efforts from the starters and reserves. Ersan Ilyasova scored 23 points (along with eight rebounds) for the second straight game. Sergio Rodriguez chipped in 16 points and eight assists. Off the bench,  Stauskas hit three treys en route to 14 points while Dario Saric scored 10 points with five rebounds as the team snapped an overall eight-game losing skid and a 23-game road losing streak. 

Embiid’s teammates attribute their success to the fact he is such a focal point of the opponents’ defense. In comparison to the beginning of the season when Embiid was getting stifled by double-teams, he has been learning how to pass out of them. Embiid expects to see two defenders every game and has been making adjustments to create opportunities for others to shoot rather than committing turnovers. 

“We’re not standing around a lot and just focusing on what Jo can do,” Robert Covington said. “Jo is making great moves to find guys that are open. He’s willing to pass. We’re starting to build the chemistry that everyone’s been looking for.”

Ilyasova has noticed a change in the flow of the offense and has capitalized on defensive mismatches when opponents swarm Embiid. 

“We just share the ball well,” Ilyasova said. “I find myself open. Obviously Joel does a great job of as far as when there is a double-team, just kicking out. When I see the open look, I try to knock that shot down.” 

This style of play is mutually beneficial for both Embiid and his teammates. Just because Embiid is passing out doesn't mean he's not getting his looks. Oftentimes, dishing out of a double-team allows him to get a better look on the next touch. 

“It’s a team effort," Covington said. "We’re doing so much as a unit that we’re not just focusing on just get Jo the ball and let him do his thing. He’s getting the ball, he’s surveying the floor and then he’s making his moves. He’s reading the defense really well. He’s doing a lot of [kicking out]. Then we find him a lot of re-posts and finding the open shot and making it easy for him to find the easy bucket.” 

Embiid is capable of scoring 20-plus in spite of his 28-minute restriction. The Sixers are making strides, though, by finding ways to win when he isn’t the running up the scoreboard. 

“I think there’s no doubt Jo is our best player and our offense is going to revolve around him most of the time,” Stauskas said. “But we’re playing our best when he’s posting up and kicking out to guys and they’re hitting threes or we’re taking pressure off him by making plays and the defense can’t just be solely focused on him. In a game like tonight, that’s kind of what you saw.”