Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Running Back

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Running Back

We continue our training camp preview by examining the Eagles’ running backs, who figure to get far more work under Chip Kelly than they ever did under Andy Reid.

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

Can Bryce Brown quit fumbling?

It could take some time. Brown fumbled four times in 128 touches last season, and it easily would have been more if one or two botched handoffs weren’t charged to the quarterback.

Many observers were quick to trace this case of the dropsies to the 22-year-old’s practically non-existent college career. Prior to his rookie season in the NFL, Brown hardly even looked at a football the previous two years at Kansas State (three total carries), so best case scenario the seventh rounder just has to get used to contact again.

This seems like an extremely simplistic way of looking at the situation. It’s plausible with more experience and proper tutelage Brown can clean up his game, perhaps relatively quickly. However, some ball carriers in the past who struggled with holding on to the pigskin – Pro Bowlers even – took years to overcome these issues. The best example Birds fans would probably be most with is former New York Giants back Tiki Barber, who at one point put the rock on the carpet eight or more times for four consecutive seasons. It was a serious problem. You know, for the Giants.

The hope is Bryce will be able to figure it out this season, because with his rare combination of size and speed, he might be the best pure runner on the Eagles’ roster. Yes, better than Shady – Brown’s 4.9 yards per carry were seventh in the NFL, behind the same beat O-line by the way. Regardless, if this curse continues to follow him around, Chip Kelly will have no choice but to strip Brown… of his touches.

Will LeSean McCoy regain his All-Pro form from 2011?

Maybe. Shady certainly has a bunch going for him heading into 2013. He’s healthy. The Eagles’ offensive line returns three starters from injuries. Most of all, Chip Kelly’s system promises to usher in a renewed dedication to running the football in Philadelphia. At the very least McCoy should be able to improve upon last year’s numbers – specifically his pedestrian 4.2 yards per carry and two rushing touchdowns.

This doesn't appear to be all about McCoy though. He’s a fantastic back to be sure, but not quite a freak of nature in the manner of an Adrian Peterson or Barry Sanders in his prime – backs who can do it all by themselves if need be. McCoy’s success could be dependent to an extent on the recovery of Jason Peters, who paved the way for that incredible ’13 season.

How important is Peters? According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles averaged almost a full yard more than any other team in the league on carries off of the left tackle’s outside shoulder in ’11. That is a rather significant margin.

Even if Peters is fully recovered from a twice-ruptured Achilles tendon, there are issues. Howard Mudd is out as the offensive line coach, replaced by Jeff Stoutland from the University of Alabama, which means all five linemen are thrusted into something a little new. The right side in particular is completely rebuilt with Todd Herremans moving back to guard, and fourth-overall pick Lane Johnson taking over at tackle.

And some of Shady’s 2011 numbers are plain not easy to replicate, either, namely the 5.2 yards per carry and 20 touchdowns overall. The Eagles are fortunate to have found a high-end back like McCoy, who will only be 25 this season and undoubtedly has many stellar years ahead, but All-Pro campaigns aren’t necessarily going to become the norm.

What is Felix Jones doing here?

Maybe nothing. There may only be roughly a coin-flip's chance the Dallas Cowboys’ ’08 first-round pick makes Philly’s 53-man roster. At this stage of his career, Jones’ name is bigger than anything he’s managed to accomplish in the NFL.

That doesn’t mean he's useless. With as much as some experts are speculating the Eagles will run the ball under Chip Kelly, Jones could be an excellent change-of-pace back for a handful of carries every week. If Bryce Brown can’t hold on to the ball, Jones could be the primary spell for Shady McCoy. And in addition to carrying the ball, Jones can return kicks, quite possibly his most valuable asset at all.

While Jones may fit the description of a draft bust to a tee – having never eclipsed so much as 800 yards in a season throughout his career – there should be some fuel left in the tank. He’s only 26 years old after all, and has touched the ball more than 200 times just once in five seasons. Injuries have been an issue, but have only caused him to miss four games since 2010.

If healthy – albeit a huge if – Jones is an effective runner/receiver/returner, one who on his best days has home-run capability. That kind of talent is worth a look at least, and don’t be surprised if Felix is a Bird in ’13.

Could Chris Polk Make the Team?

He’s got a shot. The University of Washington product made the team as an undrafted free agent last summer, grinding out seven games before finally succumbing to a toe injury. Now Polk is healthy, has a season under his belt as a professional special teamer, and remains an untapped resource as a potential workhorse back.

Polk – 5-11, 222 – rushed for over 4,000 yards over his final three collegiate seasons. The 23 year old could be a real bruiser if given the opportunity, and having coached in the Pac-12, Chip Kelly undoubtedly is aware of this.

The fact of the matter is Polk probably won’t be seeing huge numbers of carries, but he is the likely third back if Felix Jones doesn’t make the cut. Even if Jones sticks, there is a chance Chip keeps four backs should Polk’s special teams contributions warrant a roster spot. He might have some ability as a runner, but his versatility is what will ultimately win him a job.

Who is the fullback?

There is none! The great tradition of Cecil Martin, Jon Ritchie, Leonard Weaver, and the other (mostly unremarkable) fullbacks of the Andy Reid era goes on an indefinite hiatus under Chip Kelly. The last remaining remnant of that time period is Emil Igwenagu, who mostly works out at tight end and has essentially no chance of making the roster.

So who is the lead blocker if the Eagles were to use a heavy package, say on 3rd down and goal to go from the one-yard line? Well in that particular instance, perhaps nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. But in virtually any other circumstance that might call for a fullback, it would be tight end/H-back James Casey.

Casey blocked for 17 of the Houston Texans’ 19 rushing touchdowns in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus, so maybe Sopoaga won’t be getting the call at the goal line after all. PFF notes Casey had a negative grade as a run blocker overall, but it shouldn’t matter as this figures to represent an extremely limited portion of the offense moving forward. The changes to the offense in the backfield alone are already sweeping to say the 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.

Wideouts Rueben Randle, Chris Givens among 8 players cut by Eagles Sunday

Wideouts Rueben Randle, Chris Givens among 8 players cut by Eagles Sunday

The Eagles released Rueben Randle and Chris Givens on Sunday, ending the brief and disappointing Eagles careers of both veteran wide receivers.

The two receivers were among eight players released by the team on Sunday evening.

Randle caught five passes for 26 yards in the preseason and Givens caught one for 19 yards.

The Eagles tried to bolster their receiver corps by adding the two receivers this offseason, signing Randle to a one-year, $1,025,000 contract and Givens to a one-year $760,000 deal.

Randle got $500,000 guaranteed and Givens $180,000 guaranteed, so the two moves will count $680,000 against the Eagles’ 2016 adjusted salary cap of $161,570,362.

The moves leave the Eagles with eight wide receivers: Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham, Josh Huff, Paul Turner, Marcus Johnson, Cayleb Jones and David Watford.

Barring any other personnel moves, Matthews, Agholor, Green-Beckham, Huff and Turner appear headed for the final 53-man roster.

Randle’s decline is fairly astonishing.

Two years ago with the Giants, he caught 71 passes for 938 yards, and last year he caught 57 passes for 797 yards and eight touchdowns. He had four catches of 40 yards or more in 2015, fourth-most in the NFL. In four seasons in New York, he caught 188 passes for 2,644 yards and 20 TDs.

Yet the Giants had no interest in re-signing him. Now the former second-round pick’s career is in jeopardy at the age of 25.

Givens, a fourth-round pick of the Rams in 2012, was with his third team in two years this summer. His once-promising career could be over at the age of 26.

Most notable among the six other players released was offensive tackle Andrew Gardner, who started 11 games in an Eagles uniform.

Gardner, who had also spent time with the Dolphins and Texans, started eight games at right guard and right tackle for the Eagles in 2014 and was the Eagles’ opening-day starter last year at right guard. He suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot during a Week 3 game against the Jets at the Meadowlands and missed the rest of the season.

Also released was a member of last year’s draft class, sixth-round pick Randall Evans out of Kansas State. Evans spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad but was activated for the Pat Shurmur season finale against the Giants at the Meadowlands and got into the game on special teams.

The Eagles also released veteran defensive tackle Mike Martin, who played in 46 games for the Titans the last four years, including five starts. Also released were long snapper John DePalma and cornerback Denzel Rice, the latter of who played in five games last year and got 20 defensive snaps in the season finale against the Giants last year.

The Eagles also placed linebacker Joe Walker (knee) and defensive end Alex McCalister (calf), two rookie seventh-round picks, on season-ending Injured Reserve.

Teams have until Tuesday to reduce rosters to 75. The Eagles’ roster is currently at 73, and they have to reduce it to 53 by 4 p.m. next Sunday.

The Eagles finish the preseason on Thursday night at the Linc against the Jets.

Best of MLB: Donaldson hits three HRs, Blue Jays beat Twins 9-6

Best of MLB: Donaldson hits three HRs, Blue Jays beat Twins 9-6

TORONTO -- Josh Donaldson had his first career three-homer game, Troy Tulowitzki also went deep and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Minnesota Twins 9-6 on Sunday to complete a three-game sweep.

Donaldson hit a solo homer off Kyle Gibson in the second, then delivered a go-ahead, two-run blast off Pat Light (0-1) in the seventh.

Dozens of fans tossed hats onto the field to celebrate the home run hat trick after Donaldson, the AL MVP in 2015, hit a solo shot off Alex Wimmers in the eighth. Groundskeepers and even the Blue Jays mascot helped clear the hats away.

Donaldson's fourth multi-homer game this season and the 10th of his career also marked the 17th three-homer game in the majors this season.

Jose Bautista had his first three-hit game of the season for the AL East-leading Blue Jays.

Minnesota lost its season-worst 10th straight. The Twins have lost seven straight in Toronto.

Scott Feldman (7-4) earned the win by getting two outs in the seventh. Jason Grilli worked the eighth and Roberto Osuna finished (see full recap). 

Pirates win 8th straight on road, sweep Brewers 3-1
MILWAUKEE -- Ivan Nova threw six sharp innings before leaving early because of a hurting left hamstring and the Pittsburgh Pirates hit three solo homers to rally past the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1 on Sunday for their eighth straight road victory.

John Jaso and Gregory Polanco each homered in the sixth off Brewers starter Chase Anderson (7-11) to complete Pittsburgh's first sweep at Miller Park since 2004. Starling Marte added a solo shot in the eighth.

Nova (4-0) retired 10 of his final 11 batters after allowing Jonathan Villar's solo homer in the third. He scattered three hits and struck out four before being pinch hit for in the seventh.

Tony Watson pitched a clean ninth for his 10th save in 13 opportunities (see full recap).

Archer strikes out 10, Rays hit 3 HRs in 10-4 win vs Astros
HOUSTON -- Chris Archer struck out 10 in seven innings, Corey Dickerson hit a three-run homer and the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Houston Astros 10-4 on Sunday.

Matt Duffy and Nick Franklin also went deep for the last-place Rays, who have homered in 21 of their last 24 games.

Houston, in the hunt for an AL wild card, had won three straight.

Archer (8-17) gave up three runs and four hits with two walks. With his strikeout of A.J. Reed in the sixth, the right-hander joined David Price and James Shields as the only Tampa Bay pitchers with multiple 200-strikeout seasons.

The Rays jumped out early against Doug Fister.

Fister (12-9) allowed four runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings, the fourth time in his past seven starts he has permitted four or more runs (see full recap). 

Calming presence behind plate, A.J. Ellis provides offensive spark in Phillies' win over Mets

Calming presence behind plate, A.J. Ellis provides offensive spark in Phillies' win over Mets

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- A.J. Ellis’ first game as a Phillie certainly went a lot better than Carlos Ruiz’s first game as a Dodger.

Ellis’ first hit with his new club helped the Phils salvage one game of a weekend series with the New York Mets on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies won it, 5-1 (see Instant Replay), behind a solid start from Vince Velasquez, excellent bullpen work and Ellis’ big hit, a tie-breaking, two-run double in the top of the seventh.

The Phillies had lost the first two games of the series by a combined score of 21-5. Their pitchers gave up eight homers in the first two games.

On Sunday, Velasquez and a quartet of relievers held the Mets to seven hits, all singles.

Ellis joined the Phillies just 24 hours earlier after being traded from the Dodgers on Thursday. He had been with that club his whole career.

Ruiz, of course, had been with the Phillies his whole career.

Ruiz’s first game with the Dodgers did not go nearly as smooth. The veteran catcher had trouble handling the pitches of closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning Friday night and that contributed to the Dodgers blowing a one-run lead and losing to the Chicago Cubs in 10 innings.

Leaving the Dodgers was difficult and emotional for Ellis. He was able to bury himself in the game Sunday and came away feeling pretty good.

“It’s just great to be playing baseball again,” he said, standing in front of his locker, a blue Dodgers equipment bag (that will soon be swapped out for a Phillies bag) at his feet. “You kind of lose yourself in the competition and then just play again.

“Regardless of what’s happened in the last four days, it feels good to drive in runs, feels good to help put your team ahead and help contribute to a team win.”

During his 24 or so hours with the Phillies, Ellis has immersed himself in learning a new staff of pitchers. He caught starters Jerad Eickhoff and Jake Thompson in the bullpen before Saturday’s game and warmed up several relievers during that game.

On Sunday morning, he arrived at Citi Field, saw his name in the lineup and immediately began prepping to catch Velasquez, the hardest-thrower on the Phillies’ starting staff.

Velasquez bounced back from three poor outings in which he gave up 19 runs in 17 1/3 innings and held a hot Mets lineup to a run over five innings. The only negative was that Velasquez could not pitch deeper into the game because his command was poor and needed 103 pitches to complete the five innings.

Nonetheless, Ellis, who was the personal catcher for Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles, liked what he saw of Velasquez.

“His pitch count got elevated the first two innings and he was able to grind through the last three,” Ellis said. “The stuff is electric. He has so many weapons, so many options. When he keeps growing and keeps polishing that gift up, it’s going to be really, really special.

“So I’m excited to be able to continue to work with him, excited to work with him and (pitching coach) Bob McClure and (No. 1 catcher) Cameron Rupp, kind of talk to them about things, things he sees, things we see, and together we can build a plan for him going forward in his career.”

Two things are going to help the 24-year-old Velasquez reach his potential.

First is good health. He’s had arm problems in the past and there remain concerns about his long-term durability. That’s why the Phillies are closely monitoring his workload as this season winds down.

Second is command, control, economy of pitches – whatever you want to call it. Velasquez needs to be more efficient. Too many times he’s left games in the middle innings because of a high pitch count.

“Definitely,” he responded when asked if lowering his pitch counts and working deeper into games was the key to his improvement. “It’s going to help the longevity, it saves the bullpen, it helps out everybody. Not just on my end, but the whole team in general.

“And,” he joked, “then I can also work on my swing by getting some more at-bats.”

Despite the high pitch count, Velasquez walked just one. He struck out seven. He is up to 129 innings for the season. That includes five innings in a rehab game at Double A Reading. The Phillies will look to keep him at about 150 innings for the season. That could be three, four or five more starts, depending on how long the right-hander lasts. He’s averaged just over five innings in his starts this season.

“I think that would be the right move,” Velasquez said of the 150-inning target.