Observations and Practice Notes from Week One at Eagles Training Camp

Observations and Practice Notes from Week One at Eagles Training Camp

When Chip Kelly says the depth chart is written in sand, that every player on the Eagles’ roster must compete for their spot on a daily basis, he’s not kidding. There are few positions where it’s obvious who will be the starter come September 9 in Washington based on practice reps.

LeSean McCoy is the primary running back. The projected offensive line from left to right consists of Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans, and Lane Johnson. The interior linebackers are DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks. Almost everything else is up for grabs, and Chip continues to stress that it’s still early in the evaluation process.

Every single day we're out here looking at them in terms of what they can do, what they can't do, how are they picking up what we are doing. It's an ongoing process. I believe the component of them being in a live situation is a huge part of it.

I feel we're better in practice five than we were in practice one. I think sometimes when you add new things, part of the install, those are the things that guys are making a little bit of mistakes on. It's just a matter of getting reps on those. The things that we added and we continue to repeat, they've done a nice job with. I'm pleased with where we are at this point. Again, we're not even in the month of August yet. We're still in July.

In other words, just because a player hasn’t looked particularly great these first few days, or somebody isn’t taking tons of reps with the first stringers, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re overly far behind. There will be plenty more opportunities to go around for another month here.

Quarterback

There is little if any distance between Mike Vick and Nick Foles for the Eagles’ starting quarterback job so far, but Chip Kelly reiterated it will be difficult to determine who is winning without some preseason work. There’s only so much one can glean from practice.

Again, if you don't put people in live situations, it's tough to see where they really are. I know I made the statement, everybody gets a big kick out of it, but a quarterback is like a tea bag. You don't know what you're going to get until the rush is live. Guys are jogging up, they have a red jersey on them, people can’t tag them. It's a little bit of a different game, especially from the quarterback standpoint. We'll see. We'd like to [name a starting QB] sooner. Again, we can't force it in terms of that.

On the other hand, it’s probably fair to categorize Matt Barkley as being a step behind both of them. That’s not meant as a knock on Barkley. The fourth-round pick is coming along and has been competent in his own right, but naturally he doesn’t look as polished as Vick or Foles. I’m not sure the distance between Barkley and the guys at the top of the food chain is that great – actually it could be erased rather quickly – but he remains the clear No. 3 for now.

Wide Receiver

Ifeanyi Momah (6-7) is almost a full foot taller than Damaris Johnson (5-8), yet Johnson is the one who has stood out at camp. He’s seemingly open all the time, and frequently in a position to pick up yards after the catch. The fact that he can line up in the slot, outside, or even in the backfield makes him very difficult to gameplan against. Damaris is definitely a player who stands to see his role expanded in the wake of Jeremy Maclin’s injury.

Despite his height and legendary 4.4 speed, Momah hasn’t done anything out of the ordinary by comparison. In terms of big plays, fellow longshot receivers Greg Salas and Russell Shepard have made more. It’s early, but let’s just say Momah isn’t exactly taking over.

Tight End

Get ready for those three tight-end sets we’ve heard so much about. The Eagles unveiled the look on Monday, with Brent Celek lined up as a traditional tight end, James Casey in the slot, and Zach Ertz split out wide. Not hard to envision how that might create matchup problems for a defense, although Chip did provide a bit of insight after practice.

If we were playing a game today, I would say Brent would be our tight end, our H back type guy would be Casey, and our outside guy would be Zach. That doesn't mean we can’t line up with three tight ends right next to each other and have three on the line of scrimmage. We ran one or two formations with those guys today. It was just an introduction.

Ertz has been the most impressive of the three. He plays faster than his 4.7 40 time suggests, and is as smooth a route-runner as advertised. The coaching staff certainly doesn’t appear to be bringing the second-round pick along slowly at all. He’ll have every opportunity to make an immediate impact.

Defensive Line/Linebacker

The Eagles are trying out a bunch of personnel combinations along the defensive line. It looked like Trent Cole took some reps as an end. Fletcher Cox flip-flops sides. 6’8” Clifton Geathers has lined up at nose tackle. It’s clear the coaching staff has no idea what their best configuration is yet. Chip isn’t even sure the defense will ultimately settle on a 3-4 alignment this season for that matter, a decision that will be dependent upon how Cole, Brandon Graham, and Philip Hunt adapt to playing outside linebacker.

It really goes from a wide-9 to a two-gap 3-4, and where we end, I don't really know. We're moving in that direction, but where we go really depends on us making a real thorough evaluation of how those guys at the outside linebacker are playing.

For what it’s worth, Connor Barwin has been excellent. Of course, he already has a grasp of what’s going on coming from a 3-4 defense in Houston, and is a definite starter at one of the outside linebacker spots. Reports on Cole and Graham have been far less favorable though, especially in coverage.

Couple of things to note about that. One drill the converted defensive ends were getting killed over had them covering tight ends one-on-one down the field – a situation that’s unlikely to occur in an actual game. For that matter, they likely would not be asked to drop into coverage nearly as often as they have during this camp. This is a case it seems where Chip is challenging his players so the coaching staff can figure out if they can handle it or not.

I think if you're a good teacher, you don't get frustrated early. If people could pick it up like that, then everybody would do it. It's not. It's a hard transition. We believe it's the best thing for us.

Like Kelly, we really need to see more before coming to any definitive conclusion one way or the other as to whether or not this experiment will work.

Secondary

Brandon Boykin is having one of the strongest camps out of anybody so far. With Cary Williams nursing a hamstring injury (maybe those OTAs were kind of important after all), Boykin is getting plenty of looks at outside corner, and he’s handled the responsibilities perfectly fine, whether that’s being asked to shadow DeSean Jackson deep down the field or blanket a towering presence like Momah. Boykin has dropped some potential interceptions, but otherwise is playing fantastic football. His head coach is taking notice, too.

Brandon is explosive. I thought he played really, really well yesterday. I haven't seen today's film, but yesterday he did a really nice job in the stadium. He showed up, made a play again, whether it was in special teams or in the team in seven-on-seven situation. I'm pleased with where he is so far.

It will be interesting to see what the Eagles do if in fact Boykin winds up being the best option on the outside – and he honestly could be. Chip did mention Boykin could play inside or out, so maybe he would slide into the slot in nickel formations. Eddie Whitley and Jordan Poyer were also mentioned as slot candidates.

Andrew Kulp is a freelance writer covering Philadelphia sports for The700Level.com. E-mail him at andrewkulp@comcast.net or follow him on Twitter.

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

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Photo: Dave Zeitlin

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

As Penn football players spread out around Franklin Field to take photos and do interviews for the program’s annual media day, Justin Watson hung by the track, playing a quick game of tag near the hurdles.

“Come and get me, J-Wat!” cried out Vhito DeCapria, the precocious 5-year-old cancer patient the team adopted last year through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation and who’s now back for his “sophomore” season.

Watson, known as “J-Wat” to most, smiled and played along. Being Vhito’s favorite player is just one of the many hats he wears. He’s also one of the team’s hardest-working, smartest and most versatile players — and he enters his junior season as perhaps the top wide receiver in the Ivy League, if not the entire FCS.

“Does he do anything to surprise me?” senior quarterback Alec Torgersen said from media day Monday. “Not anymore. He did at the beginning when he first got here. But now it’s just expected of him. I expect him to make those crazy one-handed grabs. I expect him to catch every ball I throw to him. When he doesn’t, I get disappointed.”

Torgersen has had plenty of opportunities to throw Watson passes — and not only last season when the star receiver caught 74 balls (fourth all-time at Penn) for 1,087 yards (second all-time) and nine touchdowns (third all-time). Throughout the summer, the two friends worked together at the same internship downtown. They ate lunch together every day and, at 5 p.m., they hopped on a subway back to Franklin Field, where they worked out in the weight room and practiced back-shoulder fades and option routes.

“A lot of college quarterbacks and receivers can’t have that type of chemistry but I think us being here all summer really helped,” Watson said. “It’s been cool doing that. It’s a special thing that’s definitely going to help us in the fall.”

In truth, Watson is actually more than just a receiver. Last season, he was also used on running plays, gaining 154 yards on the ground, including a 79-yard scamper that sealed Penn’s huge upset at Harvard. Watson finished with a staggering 249 all-purpose yards that day at Harvard Stadium, helping the Quakers win the game that effectively led to them sharing a piece of the Ivy League title. And he said he was all set to play another position by taking direct snaps in the team’s regular-season finale vs. Cornell before getting hurt.

“The uniqueness about Justin is not only his talent and skill on the field but his football IQ,” second-year head coach Ray Priore said. “During the course of the year, he in theory played every skill position on offense. And he didn’t even blink an eye doing it. That’s a special characteristic.”

Priore laughed when asked if he can find more ways to utilize Watson in 2016 but said he won’t put him back on kick returns, “which he probably could do.” He will, however, play safety when the Quakers line up in their “victory defense” at the end of games, “so you may see an interception.”

Watson says he’s ready for anything.

“That’s so much fun,” he said. “When you’re a kid in middle school, that’s what you do. It’s awesome to be back doing that. Anything I can do to help us win, I’ll do it, whether it’s running back or receiver. I don’t think they’ll let me throw it at quarterback after seeing my arm. But anything else I’m definitely willing and ready to do.”

In the end, though, playing receiver is what Watson loves most, saying that catching a deep ball — and hearing the crowd “hold their breath when the ball’s in the air and then erupt” — is his favorite thing as a football player. It’s also his skills as a receiver that has him earning so much attention heading into Penn’s opener vs. Lehigh on Sept. 17. Among his preseason accolades, the junior was named one of 22 players on the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List — the only Ivy Leaguer to receive such an honor.

But if all of his records and accolades leads to opposing defenses paying more attention to him, Watson isn’t worried. That’s because he knows the team’s other receivers like fifth-year senior Cam Countryman and sophomore Christian Pearson are more than capable of having big years too.

“If you put two guys on me, we’ve got a bunch of other great receivers who will be open and will kill you down the field,” Watson said. “If I’ve got to take two or three guys every game, we’ll be 10-0 because I know everyone else will be making plays.”

It’s that kind of selflessness that has endeared Watson to his teammates, who enjoy the energy he brings to practice and how he always seems to be the first player in the training room.

“He’s an incredible player,” said Countryman, one of Penn’s leaders. “I have the utmost respect for him. When he came in his freshman year, you noticed right away the talent he had. So all of the accomplishments that he gets, I’m not surprised at all. 

“And they’ll keep coming in.”

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies (60-71) vs. Nationals (76-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies couldn't hit in Monday's series opener, but they did receive the positive of Jake Thompson finally looking like he can get outs at the big-league level. Thompson allowed two runs over seven innings, but the Phils were blanked by Tanner Roark for the third time this season.

The task Tuesday night is no easier.

1. Due vs. Scherzer?
When the Phillies face Max Scherzer, you can essentially chalk it up as an automatic loss. The Phils are one of the weaker offenses, Scherzer is one of the game's best pitchers, and his track record against them is nearly flawless.

Scherzer (14-7, 2.92) has faced the Phillies eight times since 2013. He's 6-0 with 1.74 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP, with 62 strikeouts and 10 walks in 57 innings. 

Scherzer had some early missteps this season, caused mostly by home runs, but he's been incredible since the middle of May, when he tied a MLB record with 20 strikeouts in a game. Since that game, he's 11-5 with a 2.40 ERA and .172 opponents' batting average in 20 starts. He's struck out 181 and walked 29 in those 139 innings. Ridiculous. Otherworldly.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, they'll be seeing a lot of Scherzer moving forward. He's in the second of a seven-year, $210 million free-agent contract with the Nationals that, to this point, he's lived up to.

Scherzer has a blazing fastball and a disappearing breaking ball. He throws strike after strike after strike, which is ironically what gets him into trouble at times. Like Cliff Lee, Scherzer is around the plate so often that hitters tend to attack his early fastballs. The result is a lot of solo home runs. But Scherzer has even corrected that issue of late, allowing just five homers over his last 11 starts.

2. Learn from Herrera
Odubel Herrera has had by far the most success of any active Phillie vs. Scherzer. He's 6 for 19 with a double, a triple and five walks. There are only six players in baseball with at least 20 plate appearances against Scherzer and an on-base percentage higher than Herrera's .458.

Herrera had a multi-hit game Monday, his fourth in his last eight contests. He's hitting .283/.361/.413 in 540 plate appearances this season, providing pretty much the same offense he did a year ago. But still, the Phillies would like to see more consistency from Herrera over the season's final month. His OBP had declined every month this year until August.

Phils manager Pete Mackanin said on Monday that Herrera will remain in center field the rest of the season. Mackanin had indicated several weeks ago that Herrera would see some time in the corner outfield to allow the organization to get a look at Aaron Altherr and perhaps even Roman Quinn in center field in September, but that's no longer the plan. Quinn is on the concussion DL at Double A, and the Phillies don't want to move Herrera around or do anything to affect his confidence at this point.

It still seems likely that Herrera will end up at a different position in the future because the Phillies have better defensive centerfielders.

3. Their steadiest starter
Jerad Eickhoff tonight makes his 27th start of 2016 and 35th career start for the Phillies. He's 9-12 with a 3.87 ERA this season and 12-15 with a 3.57 ERA in his career.

Eickhoff is coming off yet another quality start, his 14th. He's pitched at least six innings in 17 of his 25 starts. 

Strange as it is, Eickhoff has faced the division-rival Nationals only once in his career so far. He allowed two runs to them over seven innings with 10 strikeouts in his penultimate start last season.

Eickhoff has been much better this season at home (3.27 ERA) than on the road (4.56).

4. A night for small ball
One of the Phillies' goals this season was to manufacture runs because they don't have a ton of power. That will be especially necessary tonight against Scherzer, who's shut down every Phils hitter with pop.

Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp are a combined 5 for 31 (.161) off Scherzer. Ryan Howard, who's unlikely to play, is 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, Herrera has gotten on base with regularity against him, and Cesar Hernandez is 5 for 18 with a double. Herrera and Hernandez will need to reach base and run tonight. Scherzer, however, does a better job than most aces of controlling the running game. He's allowed just 11 steals on 14 attempts in 60 starts with the Nationals.

5. This and that
• A loss tonight would put the Phillies 12 games under .500. Their record hasn't been that bad since June 27, which was 53 games ago.

• The Phils are 6-12 against the NL East since the All-Star break.

• It would have been difficult for Jayson Werth to play up to the seven-year, $126 million contract he got with the Nationals after 2010, but when you look back at his tenure in Washington he's had only two bad years out of six. In more than 3,000 plate appearances with the Nats, Werth has hit .269/.361/.442 for an .803 OPS that is 18 percent better than the league average over that span.

Phillies shut out, but Jake Thompson's best start yet and kudos to that one fan

Phillies shut out, but Jake Thompson's best start yet and kudos to that one fan

You knew it probably wasn't going to be a very good night for the Phillies after Jayson Werth led off the game with a home run for the Washington Nationals. After the smarting blow from our former WFC RF, the Nats picked up another run to go up 2-0 in the first, and that was plenty for the NL East leaders on a windy Monday night in Philly. The Fightins managed just four hits, one walk, and zero runs worth of offense, and Tanner Roark and the Nats shut 'em out, 4-0, for the series opener. (That's Werth's 18th homer against the Phils, btw — one off his single-opponent high of 19 against the Braves, and in about 60 fewer games.)

Luckily, the night wasn't a complete wash for the Phils: We got our best start yet — indeed, the first one that would likely qualify as "good" — from young righty starter Jake Thompson, who buckled down after the two first-inning runs, and went six scoreless from there. (Thompson had yet to pitch more than three consecutive innings without an earned run in his four starts to date.) The starter's finest inning was his last, where he notched all three of his strikeouts on the evening, including a particular beauty dropped in for a third strike on an incredulous Trea Turner to close the frame. For a 22-year-old pitcher whose early-career issues are often said to be more mental than mechanical, it could be a huge confidence boost to come through like that against one of the best offenses in the NL.

Meanwhile, the other hero for the Phils tonight came in the guise of a fan sitting on the first-base line, who responded to a Frank Herrmann pickoff overthrow by reflexively cleanly fielding the ball as it bounced near the seats. The fan-interference got Nats third-baseman Anthony Rendon, who was well on his way to third base, called back to second, incensing Washington manager Dusty Baker and earning the fan a good deal of high-fives from the fans in his section. He got booted from the stadium — and Rendon was rewarded third base anyway after Baker's challenge was supported by replay — but y'know. No one can say dude didn't do what he could, and that's all anyone can ask of a real fan.

Jerad Eickhoff vs. Max Scherzer at 7:00 tonight. Still just 9.5 games out of the second wild-card spot.