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.

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

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.

Tonight's lineup: After benching, Odubel Herrera back in leadoff spot

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Tonight's lineup: After benching, Odubel Herrera back in leadoff spot

It seems like Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has decided pulling Odubel Herrera in the 7th inning of a tied game on Monday is enough punishment for failing to run out a ground ball.

The centerfielder will be back in his customary leadoff spot when the Phillies take on Justin Verlander and the Tigers tonight at Comerica Park (see game notes).

Much of the talk surrounding the Phillies in the last 24 hours has centered on Herrera after Mackanin yanked him from the game Monday (see story). After all, Herrera's .335 batting average leads an offense-starved team that averages just 3.24 runs per game, second-worst in the majors. Before he was pulled on Monday, Herrera was 3 for 4 with an RBI and had a 15-pitch at-bat against starter Mike Pelfrey to start the game.

Tommy Joseph will start again at first base after clobbering his second homer of the season on Monday. Despite another night of immense struggles (see story), Ryan Howard is again in the lineup as the designated hitter in the American League park.

The only change to to the lineup from Monday see Carlos Ruiz starting behind the plate to catch Jeremy Hellickson.

Star outfielder Justin Upton will sit again for Detroit as he nurses a quad injury. Mike Aviles will start in his place in left.

Both teams' lineups can be found below.

Phillies
1. Odubel Herrera CF
2. Freddy Galvis SS
3. Maikel Franco 3B
4. Tommy Joseph 1B
5. Ryan Howard DH
6. Carlos Ruiz C
7. Cesar Hernandez 2B
8. Tyler Goedell LF
9. Peter Bourjos RF

Tigers
1. Ian Kinsler 2B
2. J.D. Martinez RF
3. Miguel Cabrera 1B
4. Victor Martinez RF
5. Nick Castellanos 3B
6. Cameron Maybin CF
7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia C
8. Mike Aviles LF
9. Jose Iglesias SS 

Jim Schwartz already gushing about Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod

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Jim Schwartz already gushing about Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod

Anyone who follows the NFL knows to avoid reading too much into spring workouts. You don't gain valuable insight into a player's game-day ability by observing his speed in shorts or run-stuffing technique when tackles aren't being made.

First-year Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz sidestepped several questions after Tuesday's OTA about how specific players are fitting into his defensive scheme, but he made an exception for one position group in particular: his starting safeties.

The Eagles this offseason spent $35 million apiece to extend Malcolm Jenkins and sign Rodney McLeod away from the Rams. Jenkins got $21 million guaranteed, McLeod got $17 million, and they rank fifth and ninth among NFL safeties, respectively, in annual average salary.

"That was money well spent," Schwartz said Tuesday. "I'm sort of violating my rule of judging too much into this time of year — saying linemen need the pads on before we can judge, rookies let's not judge yet — but both [Jenkins and McLeod] are veteran players. And you can see that right away that both are multi-dimensional. They communicate very well, cover a lot of ground. They can blitz, they can play man (coverage), they can play zone. I'd be very surprised as the year went along if they're not one of the better safety tandems in the NFL. They've been very impressive so far."

Jenkins, who has emerged as the Eagles' most vocal leader, is coming off two terrific seasons. He set career-highs last year in tackles (109) and forced fumbles (three), intercepted two passes and returned one 99 yards for a touchdown. He graded out as the best safety in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. 

McLeod ranked 10th, eight spots ahead of Walter Thurmond, Jenkins' partner last season.

"I think we all believe that," Jenkins said when asked about the safety duo's chances of being one of the NFL's best. "The way that practice has been going so far and just what Rodney adds to the secondary, I think we're real excited about that tandem and what we'll be able to do. Both of us are very versatile, both of us know the defense and can get guys lined up and can problem-solve. All the rest of it we can do, but when you have guys that can quarterback the defense and problem-solve, it gets you out of a lot of bad looks."

Jenkins had watched McLeod on tape so he knew the type of player the Eagles were adding. What stood out most to him was how "violent" McLeod played in St. Louis, how he played much bigger than his 5-10/195-pound frame. But what's impressed Jenkins most in OTAs with McLeod is how he sees the field and reads situations. Those instincts are what Jenkins thinks can make the pairing special.

"Now playing next to him, you really start to see the smarts and his football IQ, knowing different defenses, ways to adjust things, having the ability to use tools for different situations," Jenkins said of McLeod. "He's an extension of a coach on the field. Talk about a guy being able to quarterback your defense on the field, he's somebody who understands the totality of the defense and has that ability to communicate and get guys lined up. It's just good to have two guys back there now that can do that.

"I think from what he brings to the table and what I bring to the table from a football standpoint, I think our talent level can put us in that conversation (of the NFL's top safety tandems). But once we really get in tune with each other as far as calls, tools that we can use ... when you got two guys with high football IQs, you can really be special."

Jenkins and McLeod have been playing left and right safety interchangeably so far in practice. McLeod says that this voluntary workout period for the safeties has been about figuring out which of them does what better. He'll have a better idea of their specific roles once training camp comes.

Jenkins and McLeod were in constant communication on the sidelines after coming off the field for certain plays at Tuesday's practice. Jenkins was doing a lot of the talking and McLeod a lot of the listening. McLeod would explain what he saw and why he broke the way he did, and Jenkins would coach him up and advise him what to do next time they see a certain look. 

"Big competitor, man. Just from Day 1, offseason drills and things like that when we compete, even in the weight room you can just see how he gets after it," McLeod said of Jenkins. "It carries over into the field, big trash talker. He carries a swagger about him. Very smart and instinctive player.

"Me and Malcolm, I think we're gonna build something great here and you can see glimpses of it in practice now."

Sixers reportedly covet additional high first-round pick in 2016

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Sixers reportedly covet additional high first-round pick in 2016

The Philadelphia 76ers haven't found themselves in a position of power much on the hardwood over the past few seasons, but when it comes to the 2016 NBA Draft, the Sixers are in the driver's seat.

As longtime NBA reporter David Aldridge put it in a column on Monday, the Sixers are one of four teams that will "run the show" on draft night. The Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, and Phoenix Suns are all poised for a big draft night as well.

Not only do the Sixers have the first gigantic decision of the evening but they have a handful of assets, in the form of additional picks as well as moveable players, to make another big splash on draft night (Thanks, Sam Hinkie).

The first debate in Philly will clearly be Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. Once that decision is made though, things could still be very interesting for Bryan Colangelo.

Aldridge goes on to discuss the logjam in the Sixers frontcourt that Sixers' observers have been talking about forever, but he also adds that, "There is strong support within the organization for Nerlens Noel, who provides defense and rebounding that none of Philly's other bigs provide."

Not only does Aldridge state that there is strong support for Noel, he also says that the team would like to get back up into the early portion of the draft.

Yet the Sixers already have Okafor at the four, and possibly Saric next year. Taking Simmons wouldn't make sense unless they were determined to trade Okafor, whose up and down rookie season hasn't adversely affected his value around the league. And trading Okafor would be the easiest and best way for Philly to get another high first-round pick, which the Sixers covet.

Coveting another high first-round pick and actually obtaining it are clearly different things. Unless the front office finds a way to put a package together involving the 24th or 26th picks this year and some sort of future considerations, the player who can certainly get you back near the front of this year's draft is clearly Jahlil Okafor.

The Sixers fan base is mixed on the idea of trading Jahlil Okafor. Boston seems like an obvious fit with their No. 3 overall pick being the prized target.

June 23rd will be a very interesting night to see how Bryan Colangelo, his father, Josh Harris, and his co-owners feel about such a deal.