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 MLB: Indians rally off Papelbon, stun Nationals, 7-6

Best of MLB: Indians rally off Papelbon, stun Nationals, 7-6

CLEVELAND -- Francisco Lindor pushed an RBI single through Washington's drawn-in infield with one out in the ninth inning, and the Cleveland Indians rallied for three runs in their final at-bat to stun the Washington Nationals 7-6 on Tuesday night in a matchup of two first-place teams with sights on October.

Down two runs and three outs from their losing streak reaching a season-high four games, the Indians rallied against Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon (2-4), who did not get an out before he was pulled by manager Dusty Baker.

With the bases loaded, Lindor fisted his base hit into right field and danced his way up the first-base line as the Indians celebrated an improbable victory.

Bryan Shaw (2-4) got two outs in the ninth and picked up the win as Cleveland won its first home game since July 10 (see full recap).

Cardinals take first game of doubleheader with Mets, 3-2
NEW YORK -- Jedd Gyorko homered again, hitting a two-run drive off Noah Syndergaard that sent the St. Louis Cardinals over the New York Mets 3-2 Tuesday in the first game of a doubleheader.

Gyorko connected for the sixth time in eight games, giving him 13 this season. The Cardinals lead the NL in home runs with 137, matching last year's total.

The Mets played at home for the first time since the All-Star break and lost in a matchup of NL wild-card contenders. Citi Field was nearly empty at the start, a day after a rainout forced the twinbill.

Carlos Martinez (10-6) gave up a two-run homer to Rene Rivera and left after the fifth inning with a 3-2 lead. Three relievers finished, with Seung Hwan Oh getting his fifth save in six chances.

Syndergaard (9-5) has won only one of his last five starts (see full recap).

Colon, Mets top Cards, 3-1, for doubleheader split
NEW YORK -- Bartolo Colon pitched three-hit ball for seven sharp innings and the New York Mets overcame another home run by Jedd Gyorko to beat the St. Louis Cardinals 3-1 Tuesday night for a doubleheader split.

Gyorko homered in both ends and has connected seven times in nine games. His two-run shot helped St. Louis win the opener 3-2.

Colon (9-5) struck out eight and walked none. After Gyorko homered in the second and Alberto Rosario doubled in the third, Colon set down 14 of his final 15 batters.

Addison Reed worked the eighth and Jeurys Familia closed for his 36th save this year and 52nd in a row during the regular season.

White Sox avoid Chapman, down Cubs 3-0 behind Shields
CHICAGO -- James Shields allowed four singles in 7 2/3 innings, Adam Eaton homered and the White Sox stayed unbeaten since Chris Sale's suspension by beating the Cubs 3-0 Tuesday night in Chicago's crosstown rivalry.

The Cubs lost their second straight and never got to use new closer Aroldis Chapman hours after he joined the team and struggled answering questions related to an altercation last year with his girlfriend.

Shields (5-12) struck out five and continued an impressive turnaround from a terrible first three starts after being acquired from San Diego last month. Nate Jones finished the eighth and David Robertson worked the ninth for his 24th save in the White Sox's fourth straight win since their ace was sent home for destroying throwback jerseys.

Jose Abreu had two hits, including an RBI single in the first off Kyle Hendricks (9-7) that ended his streak of 22 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run (see full story).

Jerad Eickhoff's 'outstanding' start wasted by Phillies in shutout loss to Marlins

Jerad Eickhoff's 'outstanding' start wasted by Phillies in shutout loss to Marlins

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — The Phillies enjoyed a three-week stretch before the All-Star break when they were the best hitting team in baseball.

In the final 19 games before the break, they hit .308 with a .871 OPS. Both marks were tops in the majors over that span. They averaged 5.63 runs per game in that stretch.

The run of sturdy offense created some excitement and anticipation heading into the second half of the season. But that excitement and anticipation has now dissipated. Since coming back from the break, the Phillies’ offense has retreated back to invisibility.

The Phils were blanked, 5-0, by the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night, wasting a terrific start from Jerad Eickhoff (see Instant Replay).

After the game, manager Pete Mackanin was peeved.

“The only thing positive I can say about this game is Eickhoff,” Mackanin said. “He was outstanding. He had a great curveball, hit his spots, pitched well. It was a pitchers' duel up until the end. I’m real happy about that. 

"But that’s about all I’m happy about.”

Marlins starter Tom Koehler and a trio of relievers held the Phillies to just four singles.

Phillies hitters struck out 10 times. They have averaged 9.5 strikeouts in 12 games since coming back from the break and hit just .208. They are averaging just 2.75 runs in the 12 games since the break and carrying a 4-8 record.

“Poor plate discipline,” Mackanin said. “Poor plate discipline. Swinging at too many bad pitches. We get ourselves out too often. That’s about all I can think of.

“Koehler pitched well. But we helped him out a lot. We didn’t give him a chance to walk us. We swung at too many bad pitches. That’s our problem. We just get ourselves out too often. That’s what it boils down to.

“If you’re a free swinger who’s going to hit 30-plus home runs and drive in 100 runs, that’s acceptable to me. But if you’re not a power hitter, it’s unacceptable. You’ve got to make adjustments. You’ve got improve on it. You’ve got to work on it.”

Peter Bourjos offered his thoughts on the Phillies’ offensive struggles since the All-Star break.

“It's almost like it was probably bad timing for that break,” he said. “Everything was rolling. We were swinging the bats really well. Everyone looked comfortable in the box and feeling good and it's tough right now. You can see what there was with the offense. I think it's going to come back. We just need to get back into the rhythm that we had and everything's going to be all right.”

Eickhoff scattered five hits and a run over seven innings. He walked one and struck out eight, a big improvement over his previous start when these same Marlins tagged him for nine hits and six runs in five innings.

“I was more aggressive,” Eickhoff said. “It’s amazing what being aggressive will do for your game and how hitters will react. I threw my fastball inside and that set up my curveball so much more.”

The poor run support was nothing new for Eickhoff. He entered the game receiving an average of just 3.53 runs per game, 10th worst in the majors.

It was a scoreless game until there were two outs in the sixth. That’s when Giancarlo Stanton swatted a two-out RBI single to right, scoring Martin Prado from second. Stanton’s hit rolled untouched through the second base area because the Phillies’ defense was shifted to the pull side.

“We’ve got to play a shift on him,” Mackanin said of baseball's most fearsome power bat.

The game got out of hand when the bullpen was tagged for four runs in the eighth. Ichiro Suzuki stroked career hit No. 2,997 to get the Marlins’ late rally started.

In the first inning, Suzuki launched a long drive to the gap in right-center. Rightfielder Bourjos ran the ball down and made a terrific catch while crashing into the wall. He left the game with a jammed right shoulder and could miss some time (see story).

Instant Replay: Marlins 5, Phillies 0

Instant Replay: Marlins 5, Phillies 0

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jerad Eickhoff pitched seven innings of one-run ball, but still came away with a loss as the Phillies were shut out, 5-0, by the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night.

Giancarlo Stanton drove in the Marlins’ first two runs with a single and a double.

Stanton gave the Marlins a 1-0 lead with a two-out base hit to right field against Eickhoff in the sixth inning. Stanton’s groundball hit rolled through the second base area, which had been vacated by the shift.

The Marlins blew the game open with four runs against the Phillies’ bullpen in the eighth.

The Phillies are 4-8 since the All-Star break and 46-56 overall.

Starting pithing report
Eickhoff scattered five hits and a run over seven innings. He walked one and struck out eight.

Miami manager Don Mattingly pulled Tom Koehler after the right-hander pitched six shutout innings and had allowed just three hits. Koehler walked one, struck out five and threw just 73 pitches. He exited with a 1-0 lead.

Koehler pitched eight innings of two-run ball in a win over the Phillies last week.

Bullpen report 
Andrew Bailey was charged with three runs in the eighth.

Mike Dunn, David Phelps and Nick Wittgren completed the shutout for the Marlins. 

At the plate
The Phillies had just four hits, all singles, and struck out 10 times. They were 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position and are 1 for 13 the last two nights.

Stanton had been just 3 for 35 against the Phils this season before his shift-beating RBI hit in the sixth. He hit the ball much harder in the eighth inning when he clouted an RBI double to right-center against Bailey.

Adeiny Hechavarria padded the Marlins’ lead with a two-run single in their four-run eighth inning.

Ichiro Suzuki’s eighth-inning single left him three hits shy of 3,000 in his big-league career.

Health check
Rightfielder Peter Bourjos injured his right shoulder making a catch against the wall in the first inning and left the game (see story).

Minor matters
Ranger Suarez, a 20-year-old left-hander from Venezuela, pitched a seven-inning no-hitter for the Phillies’ Single A Williamsport club on Tuesday night.

Up next
The series concludes on Wednesday afternoon. Zach Eflin (3-3, 3.40) pitches against Miami lefty Adam Conley (6-5, 3.58).