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.

Even with Jordan Matthews' return, Paul Turner still in Eagles' plans

Even with Jordan Matthews' return, Paul Turner still in Eagles' plans

There were just two things on Paul Turner’s mind as he sprinted across the field early during the third quarter on Sunday, anticipating his first career NFL catch. 

Turner relayed them on Wednesday: 

1. “Make sure you get in [Carson Wentz’s] vision.” 

2. “You better catch this ball.” 

He did both. 

Turner, the 23-year-old undrafted receiver from Louisiana Tech, who has become a fan favorite since his stellar training camp and preseason, caught his first NFL pass during Sunday’s loss to the Bengals and it went for a big gain of 41 yards. 

On his first catch, the Eagles used the play-action to tilt the defense and Wentz threw a dart into a small window to hit Turner on an over route. Then, the rookie turned upfield with a ton of space in front of him. 

By the end of the afternoon, he caught six balls for 80 yards. It was the best receiving day for an Eagles rookie since Jordan Matthews in 2014 and was a better day than last year’s first-round pick, Nelson Agholor, has ever had. 

“It's always good to catch a few balls,” said Turner, who has been on the 53-man roster and active for just the past two games. “It gets your motor going and gets your confidence going. It just gets you more into the game and gets you excited. I think it does a lot for a person's confidence.”

Turner played 41 snaps against the Bengals in large part because Matthews was out with an ankle injury. Matthews predominantly plays in the slot, which is where head coach Doug Pederson and his coaching staff like Turner. 

“Honestly, that wasn't really my mindset going into the game,” Turner said when asked if he knew how much opportunity he’d have with Matthews out. “My mindset was to go in there and if my number was called, just go out there and make a play. Even if my number was called, just take care of my assignment and take care of the little details and I knew everything else would just take care of itself. I knew that if I got the ball, I'd be excited. But even if I didn't, just to go out there and just block, and give up myself for my teammates. That was my goal coming into the game and just try to stay focused on that.” 

It appears as though Turner has done enough to warrant keeping his playing time. As Matthews returned to practice on Wednesday — as a limited participant — Pederson said there will still be opportunities for Turner. 

“There are, there are,” Pederson said. “And these are things we talked about the last couple of days as a staff — getting Paul in there, even with Jordan coming back. I think it can be a benefit to the offense to have both of those guys ready to go.”

The Eagles still haven’t had more than four receivers active for any game this season. During the last two weeks when Turner has played, either Agholor or Matthews were out. 

“It means a lot that the coaching staff has confidence in me,” Turner said. “My biggest thing is just to come in here and just work each and every day in practice and just prepare in practice so I'm prepared when I go out there in the game.” 

MLB Notes: Aroldis Chapman rejoins Yankees on 5-year, $86 million deal

MLB Notes: Aroldis Chapman rejoins Yankees on 5-year, $86 million deal

OXON HILL, Md. -- Aroldis Chapman found a spot in a most familiar bullpen -- a very rich spot, too.

The hard-throwing closer reached agreement to return to the New York Yankees on Wednesday night with the highest-priced contract ever for a relief pitcher, an $86 million deal for five years.

A person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press that the contract was pending a physical. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal was not yet complete.

Once it's done, the 28-year-old lefty whose fastballs routinely top 100 mph would shatter the previous richest contract for a reliever -- that was the $62 million, four-year deal Mark Melancon signed with San Francisco just a couple days ago during the winter meetings.

Chapman was acquired by New York from the Cincinnati Reds last offseason, then missed the first 29 games of the season due to a domestic violence suspension from Major League Baseball. The Cuban was traded to the Chicago Cubs in late July and helped them win the World Series, becoming a free agent when it was over.

Chapman went 4-1 with 36 saves and a 1.55 ERA in a combined 59 games for the Yankees and Cubs. He struggled some in the postseason as the Cubs beat Cleveland for their first championship since 1908.

With the Yankees this season, Chapman teamed with Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances in one of the most dominant bullpens in baseball history. Miller was later traded to Cleveland, but Betances is still with New York.

Earlier this week, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said the team was interested in both Chapman and fellow free agent closer Kenley Jansen. The Yankees had already made one deal at these meetings, signing slugger Matt Holliday, before paying a lot more to bring Chapman back to the Bronx.

Fox Sports first reported the agreement.

Rangers: Gomez reaches deal to stay with team
OXON HILL, Md. -- Carlos Gomez is staying with the Texas Rangers.

The outfielder agreed to an $11.5 million, one-year contract, a deal subject to a successful physical.

"Many of the objectives of the Rangers for Carlos go beyond one year," his agent, Scott Boras, said Wednesday. "Certainly Carlos really enjoyed the team and the environment and feels he's got a great chance to win. So I think both parties' objectives were met by that deal."

Gomez, who turned 31 last weekend, figures to play center as general manager Jon Daniels structured an outfield that includes Shin-Soo Choo in right and Nomar Mazara in left. Ian Desmond left Wednesday for a $70 million, five-year deal with Colorado.

Gomez batted just .210 with five homers in 85 games this year for Houston and was released by the Astros in August. He signed with Texas and hit .284 with eight homers and 24 RBIs in 33 games. An All-Star in 2013 and '14 with Milwaukee, Gomez has a .257 average and 116 home runs in 10 big league seasons.

"J.D. was very clear from the onset about them wanting Carlos back, and we've had communication since the season's end to pursue that," Boras said. "So it was something in our minds and in their minds. It was just a constant dialogue."

AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.

Red Sox: Sale not worried about being ace
BOSTON -- New Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale says he isn't worried that he might not be the ace of the pitching staff after being traded from the White Sox to Boston.

The 27-year-old lefty told reporters on Wednesday, "We play for a trophy, not a tag."

Sale was traded to the Red Sox on Tuesday at the baseball winter meetings. He was the top starting pitcher on the market, and the Red Sox gave up touted prospect Yoan Moncada as part of a package to land him.

Sale has been an All-Star for five straight seasons and finished in the top six of the Cy Young Award voting each time. He joins a staff that already includes 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and '12 winner David Price (see full story).