Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Wide Receiver

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Wide Receiver

We continue our training camp preview by examining the Eagles’ wide receivers, where several high-profile players are fighting for jobs, and all of them are trying to find their way in a new offense.

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Does Jeremy Maclin deserve a contract extension?

Not yet he doesn’t. Let’s not put Jeremy Maclin on the first train out of town or anything, but he hasn’t exactly lived up the hype as one of the top receivers in the ’09 NFL Draft.

Maclin dropped to the Birds, who traded up to 19 to get him when many draftniks felt he was a top-10 pick. Now entering his fifth season however, we’re still waiting on the 25 year old to reach the next level. Maclin has never gone over 1,000 yards receiving for a season in his career, he’s only played all 16 games once, and quite simply he has done little to establish himself as more than a viable No. 2 to DJacc’s star.

At this point it’s probably fair to acknowledge some strange illness caused Maclin to lose body mass and miss a significant amount of practice time in the lead up to 2011, which just happened to come right on the heels of his best, almost Pro Bowl-caliber season – 70 receptions, 964 yards, and 10 touchdowns. To top it off the Eagles have been dysfunctional ever since, so it’s hard to tell if he ever made it all the way back.

Regardless, Maclin must approach this season as a lame duck, as he is deservedly on the final year of his rookie contract. Even if he actually is worth a big-money extension, the Eagles have a bit of an unknown situation at quarterback already, and unless one of them steps up this season, the franchise is likely several years away from contending anyway.

Without a doubt, Maclin will be monitored closely this season. If free agency started tomorrow though, it’s tough to say how much the Birds would be willing to invest the next time around. And if it's still unclear after this season, the franchise tag is always in play.

Can DeSean Jackson regain his All-Pro form from 2009?

This season may well present his best opportunity. When Jackson burst on to the scene as a rookie in 2008, opponents were devastated. But by the time he was finished racking up 1,146 yards and nine touchdowns receiving in ’09, defensive backs had seemingly seen all DJacc had to offer. Push the safeties back and take away the deep ball = problem solved.

That is somewhat of a simplistic way of looking at things. It’s not like 2010 was a lost season, as Jackson eclipsed 1,000 yards again, and very nearly did so again in ’11 even while he sulked over his contract. The big plays have stopped coming in bunches though, and the once-explosive receiver looks increasingly like a one-trick pony. By the time the 26 year old got his mind right and his contract situation settled, the Eagles’ offense was going extinct under Andy Reid.

Part of the problem is Jackson has a limited skill set compared to most wide receivers being that he’s only 5-10, 175 lbs. He’s not winning jump balls, and he’s not overpowering the coverage.

Yet this is where Chip Kelly comes in and potentially rejuvenates DeSean’s career. No longer will Jackson be relegated to the role of decoy, running sprints down the field on seemingly every play. Jackson can still go deep, but in the new scheme he’ll be put into situations where he can get the ball in space. There are said to be a higher number of short and intermediate routes, and he’ll even be lining up in the backfield with some frequency apparently.

If opponents are worrying about Jackson doing more underneath, it should make him more dangerous when he does go over the top, as safeties start creeping up toward the line of scrimmage again. No matter where he is getting the ball in his hands though, expect it to come his way in higher volumes.

What can we expect from Arrelious Benn?

Hard to predict. It’s fair to presume he will probably show up in the box score every week at least. Let’s not put an actual projection on it, but general manager Howie Roseman traded for Benn from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then immediately gave him a new contract. This is somebody who will likely be part of the game plan on Sundays.

In 2011, Benn had 30 catches for 441 yards and three touchdowns (roughly two receptions, 27 yards, 0.2 touchdowns per game), numbers he could at least match. Aside from Riley Cooper, the Eagles don’t really have many receivers with Benn’s size – 6-2, 225 – so it’s possible Chip Kelly sees him as a red zone weapon as well, perhaps more. No matter the details, his presence on the roster could spell trouble for the rest of the depth at wideout – one mainstay and another prospect in particular.

Is Jason Avant a lock to make the team?

I’m not so sure. Avant’s situation is something we may not have thought twice about before Chip Kelly started giving the seven-year veteran looks at the safety position. Sure, the head coach will chalk it up as just trying something different, but it’s not like we heard about LeSean McCoy lining up at middle linebacker, either.

At this point we can only surmise Avant’s job is very much in jeopardy. Besides the rather random tryout on defense, the Eagles did trade for Arrelious Benn during the offseason, even if it was only a sixth-round selection. They already have Damaris Johnson, who is younger, cheaper, and seems like the dynamic/athletic type that could be better suited for the slot role in an up-tempo offense. After Jackson and Maclin that leaves one roster spot remaining, and Riley Cooper also happens to play special teams – they could keep him.

Face it, Avant (30) is a dinosaur compared to the rest of the Eagles’ skill players. The club could do worse than somebody who’s hauled in no fewer than 587 yards in a season over the past four. Then again, those numbers aren’t exactly impossible to duplicate, either.

Does Ifeanyi Momah stand any chance at making the 53-man roster?

Minimal to zero. If six-foot-seven with a 4.45 40 time sounds too good to be true, well that’s because it almost certainly is.

If Jason Avant might be caught up in a numbers game, imagine what Momah has to overcome. Jackson and Maclin are mortal locks. Riley Cooper and Damaris Johnson (punt returns) contribute on special teams. The Eagles traded for Arrelious Benn during the offseason and immediately gave him a contract extension, so that looks fairly secure. Between those six players, at least two may have to disappear for Momah to pull down a job – and that's not even considering the rest of the competition.

Momah suffered a torn ACL at Boston College in 2011, causing him to go undrafted and largely overlooked for a full year until the Birds signed him as a free agent this winter. He seems to be healthy, but is also extremely raw, posting just 39 receptions during his collegiate career – so while the incredible size and speed make fans take notice, those qualities do not guarantee a quality wide receiver.

Best case scenario is the Eagles can stash Momah on their practice squad for a year, and he eventually becomes a weapon in Chip Kelly’s offense. However, the odds that he ever develops into an NFL player might be slim.

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).