Is Nate Allen good now, part of the Eagles’ future beyond this season?

Is Nate Allen good now, part of the Eagles’ future beyond this season?

One of the more incredible developments this season has been the emergence of the Eagles’ bend-don’t-break defense, which has now made it eight straight games holding opponents to 21 points or less. It’s quite the reversal from a year ago, when the Birds’ D did not allow fewer than 21 over their final 11.

What’s maybe most amazing of all—besides the fact that this is taking place in the first season of a transition from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4—is it’s a lot of the same personnel. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis has done an amazing job making what he was told were square pegs in Trent Cole and DeMeco Ryans fit into round holes, while the development of several second-year players has been top notch.

Cole and Ryans are football players though, we really shouldn’t be surprised to see them excel regardless of scheme or position, and young players are supposed to improve. Davis’ most impressive work to date might be turning Nate Allen into a competent safety when it appeared all hope was lost.

The consensus opinion on Allen entering this season was that of a well-established second-round bust, but the Eagles didn’t really have any choice but to give him one last look. He was under contract, and after all, there are only so many holes a 4-12 team can plug in one offseason.

Safety wasn’t one of the priorities. The front office signed low-level free agents Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips and used a fifth-round pick on Earl Wolff. Allen emerged from training camp as one of the starters by default, the last remaining link to a secondary that surrendered 11 passing plays over 40 yards and a 99.6 opponents’ passer rating in 2012.

Truth be told, Allen’s 2013 didn’t get off to a much better start when he was exposed in Week 2 by the San Diego Chargers. The fourth-year veteran was directly on the hook for two of Philip Rivers’ three touchdown passes, as he was picked on throughout the quarterback’s 419-yard performance. The Birds lost by a field goal in the closing seconds when the defense couldn’t put together a stop on the final three drives.

Allen rebounded from that nauseating experience though. In a matter of months, the former 37th-overall pick has transformed from complete liability to solid hand. He’s become one of the most efficient tacklers at safety in the NFL this season—ranked fourth by Pro Football Focus—and you don’t see the Eagles’ defense getting beat over the top for big passing plays too often, so he must be playing a good centerfield.

Philadelphia was finally rewarded for its patience on Sunday when Allen undercut Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd to intercept an errant Carson Palmer pass, which he then got up and returned for 43 yards. It was the 26-year-old’s first pick since 2011.

So is Nate Allen supposed to be good now? He certainly hasn’t been bad, and at the very least is playing at an above-average level over the past couple months. No. 29 was everywhere against Arizona, often the first man on to the scene anytime a receiver caught the ball in the Birds’ secondary.

Allen finished the game with eight tackles, giving him 71 on the year—two shy of his career high. He also has six pass breakups, a sack and a forced fumble this season.

Why such drastic and sudden improvement? It may be as simple as Allen has been put in a better position to succeed. Back in the offseason, Davis discussed how the previous regime's scheme put a lot on the safeties' plates. They were had serious responsibility in run defense due to the Wide-9 front, yet somehow were simultaneously asked to serve as the last line of defense.

"It's a completely different scheme with some of the same players," Davis said. "We're trying to maximize the part of what they do best. In the secondary, any time you ask the secondary to be primary B or A-gap run defenders, you're asking for trouble on play-action and deep balls.

Whatever the reason, the bigger question is becoming what happens to Allen after this season when he’ll be a free agent? Wolff has played well and appears to be the immediate future at one of the safety spots, but that still leaves a hole to fill if Allen departs. Chung has been downright awful in relief of the injured Wolff, and the coaching staff won’t replace him with Kurt Coleman or Colt Anderson—also free agents—which tells you all you need to know right there.

The Eagles can probably test the market for themselves. It could be a deep free-agent class with Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd and Cleveland’s T.J. Ward among the top names who could be available. The front office will no doubt look to the draft for another body as well, although that doesn’t necessarily mean a prospect in the first round.

Then there’s Allen, who knows the scheme and is undeniably improving right now. If nothing else, he’s certainly putting himself in the mix for consideration. Who would’ve imagined that at the beginning of the year?

Phillies prospect Rhys Hoskins looking to steadily advance through minors

052716-appel-slife.jpg

Phillies prospect Rhys Hoskins looking to steadily advance through minors

READING, Pa. – There is a photo atop Rhys Hoskins’ Twitter page that shows the Reading Fightin Phils first baseman, a Sacramento native, seated on a rock and looking out over Lake Tahoe, as well as the horizon beyond.

“Just keep livin’,” it says elsewhere on the page.

“As clichéd as it sounds, I try to stay where I am, day to day – take care of what I have to do that day,” he said Thursday, after hitting a solo homer in Reading’s 7-4 victory over Erie. “Life’s going to throw a lot of stuff at you, so just keep on going.”

The 23-year-old Hoskins, a fifth-round pick of the Phillies in 2014, as a result has managed to remain in the moment, but not without expanding his horizons – all the way to Australia, where he played winter ball this past offseason, and one day, he can only hope, Citizens Bank Park.

“I set a goal with my dad, as soon as I got drafted – a (minor-league) level a year, as long as I kept on progressing,” he said. “Try not to get caught somewhere.”

So far, so good. He spent 2014 at Williamsport, the short-season A-ball affiliate, and tore it up while splitting last season between two other Class A clubs, Lakewood and Clearwater. And recently he has begun to rake for the Double-A Fightins, a team featuring such other prospects as catcher Jorge Alfaro, rightfielder Dylan Cozens and pitcher Ben Lively.

Hoskins hit .450 while being named the Phillies Minor League Review Player of the Week for the week of May 16-22, and followed that up by hitting a walk-off grand slam Tuesday against Erie, in addition to his blast Thursday.

Overall, his stat line will not overwhelm – he was hitting .269 with nine homers and 32 RBIs in 45 games through Friday – but the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder is at least another name to consider going forward, as the big-league club continues its rebuild.

As for the others: Alfaro, the jewel of the Cole Hamels trade last year with Texas, was hitting .339 entering Saturday's games, and Cozens, a second-round pick in 2012, was leading the Eastern League with 13 homers and second in RBIs with 40. Lively, acquired from Cincinnati for Marlon Byrd in December 2014, was 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA in nine starts.

Certainly Hoskins understands the first-base pecking order, with Ryan Howard in obvious decline. Tommy Joseph is off to a promising start for the big-league club, and Darin Ruf is at Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

At the same time, Hoskins tries not to dwell too much on such things.

“If you get caught looking ahead,” he said, “you probably miss some stuff, where you’re at right now.”

All told he hit .319 with 19 homers and 90 RBIs in his two stops last season, then asked the Phillies to arrange a winter-ball destination. They sent him to Sydney, and he excelled there, too – .323 with eight homers and 38 RBIs, in 42 games.

“The baseball was fun, a lot of fun,” he said. “I was able to get some more work in, but I think more than anything it’s a life experience. … Not too many people get to spend three months in a country on the other side of the world, especially when someone else is paying for it.”

The season ran from October to January – part of Australia’s summer – and he remained for a few weeks afterward, touring not only that country but nearby New Zealand.

No telling when he might ever be back there. 

He does have some idea of where he’d like to be, baseball-wise, but everything in its time. He’s just going to keep livin’ and continue to focus on the task at hand.

NBA draft profile: G/F Jaylen Brown

052716_okafor_noel_slide.jpg

NBA draft profile: G/F Jaylen Brown

Jaylen Brown

Position: Shooting guard/small forward
Height: 6-7
Weight: 223
School: Cal

Aside from Ben Simmons, Brown may be the most scrutinized lottery pick in the draft. A blue chip recruit, the Mariettam, Georgia, native chose to attend Cal, spurning schools like Kansas and Kentucky. That decision didn't appear to be a wise one, as Brown struggled with inconsistency playing in a system that really didn't suit his skill set. A slasher with crazy athleticism, Brown averaged 14.6 points in his lone season with the Golden Bears. 

Strengths
Brown can play above the rim and then some. He's a strong finisher and would be an excellent candidate for next year's dunk contest. He's an explosive athlete with a tremendous first step. There were games in which he lived at the free throw line. With his ability to blow by people and willingness to take on all comers at the basket, he had 12 games this season in which he attempted eight or more free throws.

His 7-foot wingspan coupled with his quickness could make him an elite defender. He's also very strong. He averaged 5.4 rebounds as a wing.

Weaknesses
Two pretty big ones: his jump shot and his instincts. Brown shot 29 percent from three. That's not good for a wing player. He also shot just 65 percent from the line. Again, not good for a wing player with a propensity to get fouled. He flashed the ability to hit shots, hitting 42 percent (10 of 24) from three in seven February games. There's inconsistency with his mechanics, which good coaching should be able to iron out.

His feel for the game is just not very good. He doesn't seem to understand what defenses are trying to do to him. Again, good coaching could go a long way in helping Brown here. He also had a tendency to be a little loose with his handle. He averaged more turnovers (3.1) than assists (2) per game. 

How he'd fit with the Sixers
Horribly. With the way the Sixers are currently constructed, Brown would struggle with the same issues he had at Cal. With all of the big men clogging the paint, Brown's slashing ability would be useless. If the Sixers were to deal a big man and get more shooters, Brown would be fun to watch with head coach Brett Brown's desire to push the basketball. This kid is worth the price of admission in the open floor.

NBA comparison
Andrew Wiggins but with a lot further to go. Wiggins was a much more polished prospect coming out of Kansas than Brown is now. But the size profile and athleticism are very similar (although Brown is stronger physically than Wiggins). Wiggins was also much further along with the development of his jumper. 

The moral of the story: when you're an elite prospect, go to a big-time school with a big-time coach if you want to properly develop your game.

Draft projection
He's probably a top-5 pick based on upside alone (I can't see him getting past the Pelicans at No. 6), although the weaknesses could scare off teams looking for a "safe pick."

Union-Rapids 5 things: Clash of conference leaders

union-rapids-matchup.png

Union-Rapids 5 things: Clash of conference leaders

Union vs. Colorado Rapids
9 p.m. on TCN

From one rough road town to another, the Union (5-3-4) look to continue their six-game unbeaten streak in a battle of conference leaders when they visit Zac MacMath and the Western Conference-leading Colorado Rapids (8-2-3) Saturday night (9 p.m./TCN) at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. 

Here are five things to know:

1. Battle of conference titans
What may have seemed like an impossibility late last season is reality in 2016. The Rapids and Union, who combined for 74 total points last season (both conference leaders finished with 60), are leading their conferences at the quarter mark of the season.

“The table doesn’t lie,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “[Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni] has done a heck of job with his team. You don’t want to get too ahead of yourself, but it’s first place in the East vs. first play in the West, so there’s something more there.”

Curtin also mentioned a little extra buzz, considering where the two teams are located. It isn’t just a road game in May for the Union, it’s a chance to prove themselves against the league’s best.

“We’re both in decent form and they are very good at home, so it’ll be a real challenge for our guys,” Curtin said. “It’s not just another game, that’s for sure. You want to test yourself against top teams and they are the top team in the league right now.”

2. Yaro’s shoulder
Just 45 minutes into Wednesday’s match, Union central defender Josh Yaro needed to leave the game with a shoulder injury. The Union held their breath. 

“He can’t really give an answer whether it did pop out or not, but our staff didn’t have to put it back in,” said Curtin, who mentioned Yaro’s history of shoulder separations. “Sounds like it’s sore and it hurts, but not something that will prevent him from playing. We’ll assess where he’s at.”

If Yaro can’t go against the Rapids, the Union will be in good hands. Ken Tribbett will step in next to Richie Marquez, just like he did Wednesday by contributing a goal and assist. 

“Credit to our depth at center back,” Curtin said. “Ken Tribbett comes in and does a good job.”

3. Rapids riding success
There are two standout reasons for the Rapids' incredible success to start the 2016 season – incredible defense and league-best home record. 

“They don’t have a lot of big names,” Curtin said. “They’re doing it with some guys that’ve been in and out of other teams and on different rosters in MLS. But Pablo’s getting the most out of his group right now and they’re playing some good soccer.”

Good soccer may be an understatement. The Rapids have only allowed a league-best nine goals in 13 games and are 6-0-0 at home. 

“They know how to win the 1-0 game,” Curtin said. “And they can also keep better possession and can beat you in a couple of different ways.”

Helping the Union will be the absence of two of the Rapids' higher-priced stars, Jermaine Jones and Shkelzen Gashi, who are away on international duty.

“It helps us, for sure,” Curtin said. “Jermaine is a winner. He’s a driving force for the way they press, get after you, compete and fight. Jermaine has been their leader. For him not to be there is fortunate for us.” 

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Each game the uber-talented Ilsinho remains sidelined with an injury, the more his legend grows. And while he’s only expected to, at most, make a brief appearance this weekend, there’s still a chance the Brazilian makes an impact. “He’ll be available for selection this weekend,” Curtin said. “How long he can go is up in the air. Do you want to start him in altitude, when he hasn’t been in a match in a little while? It’s a tough decision. I’m tempted because he’s that talented.”

Rapids: MacMath, the former Union goalkeeper, started 102 games for the club before moving on to the Rapids in 2015. Now, he’s leading the league in goals-against average with 0.69 and seems to have turned the corner as one of the premier goalkeepers in MLS. But is MacMath excited about facing his former club? “It’ll be weird leading up to it, but once the whistle blows it’s just a normal game,” he said. “I’m trying to keep the shutout at home.”

5. This and that
• Union backup goalkeeper Matt Jones left the team in Colorado this week to witness the birth of his first-born child, Jackson. Curtin couldn’t have been happier. “There’s things a lot bigger than soccer and I’m a believer in family first,” the manager said.

• Union midfield catalyst, Vincent Nogueira, is continuing his progress from an oblique injury that saw him miss the last two games and will very likely keep him out for Saturday. “He’s been running,” Curtin said. “We’re better with the ball when Vincent is on the field. He’s great in possession. It’ll be close for Vincent for this weekend. He’s moving along, getting better.” 

• The Union are 1-3-4 all time against the Rapids and 1-1-1 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.