It didn't take very long for the first curve ball of training camp to shake up Lehigh -- mere minutes actually. Rick Burkholder opened for Andy Reid at his traditional opening press conference on Sunday, and the team's head trainer was not there to try out his new single. We learned from Burkholder that starting defensive tackle Mike Patterson is still recovering from brain surgery, has not been cleared to play by his physician, and therefore will miss training camp, perhaps more.
Patterson underwent the procedure back in January to remove a brain AVM, an issue we first learned about last summer after he suffered a seizure on the practice field. The surgery was successful, and Patt was hopeful he would be ready in time for the start of the season, but the part of his skull that was removed has not fully healed.
While that sounds mighty unpleasant, the situation isn't as bad as you would think. The truth is, there is a lot more good news to this story than bad.
First and foremost, everybody agrees Patterson is healthy -- the team, his doctors, the man himself. This is not a matter that is interfering with his day-to-day life. Now, they need to ensure he is completely healed and stable before he starts playing a collision sport. Makes sense.
The question is how long that will take. It was originally hoped to be only six months, and that Patterson would be ready for camp, but it could be several more, which obviously could last into the start of the regular season. Nobody is sure enough for timetables, but it doesn't sounds like there is any significant medical issue behind why. As Burkholder told the assembled, "Everybody heals differently."
The fact that Patterson should be fine is the best news of all, but from the Eagles' on-field standpoint, it has to be load off the organization's minds knowing they are relatively deep on the interior. They'll be missing a good player, one who has missed only two games since he was taken 31st in the '05 Draft, but the rotation should remain quite strong up the middle.
Of course, one half of the starting duo is intact, that being Cullen Jenkins. Jenkins arrived as a free agent, one of the few from last summer's spending spree who panned out. Voted as an alternate for the Pro Bowl, Jenkins had 5.5 sacks, was fourth among all defensive tackles on the Pro Football Focus list of pass rushing efficiency. There is some question as to whether the 31-year-old fell off down the stretch last season (0.5 sacks over final 11 games), but he still charted well, and there are better players behind him to help share the load than was the case a year ago.
It's been such a long time since he last suited up, you could have forgotten about Antonio Dixon, but he was the first name Coach Reid mentioned when discussing who could fill in for Patterson. After starting 10 games in 2010 -- and acquitting himself fairly well for an undrafted, second-year player -- Dixon played in only four last season before tearing his triceps against the 49ers.
It was a bigger loss for the Birds than people realized, particularly against the run, an area that gave them fits for much of the season. PFF graded Dixon eighth among interior linemen in their run defense grades the previous season. In '11, Philadelphia finished 16th in the NFL against the run, 19th in yards per carry. Dixon figured to a bigger piece of the puzzle this year anyway, at least situationally, but now he may be asked to carry more of the load if Patterson's absence becomes prolonged.
One of the best moves the team made this offseason was re-signing Derek Landri, even if only for one more year. A free agent who coincidentally was added after Patterson's episode last summer, Landri didn't make the roster out of camp, but he was brought back after Dixon was lost for the season. It was sort of a mystery why he wasn't with the club after a strong preseason, but once he got his chance when the games counted, Landri charted among the league's best.
If it seemed like #94 was living in the opposing offense's backfield, that's because he owned a timeshare at the very least. According to PFF, which billed Landri as the team's top run defender in '11, he graded fourth overall among 4-3 defensive tackles, and he was fifth among all tackles in pass rushing productivity. Football Outsiders Almanac ranked him third with a 91% stop rate (percentage of plays he was involved that FO considers stops). And while advanced stats are nice, we all saw the carnage for ourselves. Landri stood out week after week.
The Eagles made Fletcher Cox the 12th overall pick in April's draft, and thus he was expected to come in and become a game changer sooner rather than later anyway. Now he'll get plenty of extra reps in camp, and if Patterson doesn't come back soon, Cox could make an impression and dig into his playing time, too. After all, Patterson is a quality player, but in the long term, Cox is supposed to be elite.
It's already been suggested that Cox was selected for exactly this reason, in case Patt would miss time. That may be true, but the main motivation still seemed to be acquiring a dominant pass rusher who fits defensive line coach Jim Washburn's wide nine front. Patterson has never had more than four sacks in a season, and his 2.5 in 2011 was his highest total since, so it's not just swapping one player for another, but entirely different skill sets. However, whatever the case was, there's no denying it's a good thing they have Cox now.
With a solid mix of players around him, there's no reason why the current Eagles shouldn't be able to shoulder the burden until Patterson returns.