Observations and Impressions from Eagles' Practices with the Patriots

Observations and Impressions from Eagles' Practices with the Patriots

The Eagles were wrapping up their joint practice sessions with the New England Patriots with a light walkthrough on Thursday, bringing an end to the most revealing few days of training camp thus far. We got a chance to see just how much Chip Kelly’s squad is a work in progress compared to a perennial Super Bowl contender, but most of all, we got a glimpse of the players in simulated action, against a real opponent.

The atmosphere around these practices was fantastic. The players were physical. They were hitting, bodies were going to the ground. There was even a skirmish or two, one of which caused Cary Williams to get kicked out on Tuesday. It was very competitive as far as scrimmaging goes.

Of course, the Patriots looked sharper, crisper – whatever adjective you want to use there. A lot of that has to do with Tom Brady though, who looks like a machine in practice. His balls rarely hit the ground, and when they do, it’s usually because their intended target dropped it. So naturally Tom Terrific carved up the Eagles’ defense nice and thin, although they are a noted work in progress, going up against one of the greatest of all time.

Still, it was good experience for everybody, and I think we were able to get a better read on a lot of the players after seeing them in something closer to live action. Not as good as seeing them in an actual game, which we finally will on Friday night, but this was something at least. On to the notes.

QB

I thought Mike Vick and Nick Foles both had their moments against the Patriot secondary, but both have shown a tendency to hold on to the ball far too long throughout training camp. Chip has stressed on more than one occasion that he needs to see how these quarterbacks handle an actual pass rush. To take that a step further, the reality is it will be one of the main determining factors in the Eagles’ competition.

Both guys have demonstrated they are capable of making all the reads, all the throws in a practice environment, and in those respects the competition is neck-and-neck. But can they still make the right reads and place the ball in tight windows when Vince Wilfork is bearing down on them? How Vick and Foles perform under pressure will be what sets the two of them apart in all likelihood.

RB

How impressive has Chris Polk been in this camp? We mentioned before the second-year back is already ahead of Felix Jones on the depth chart, which at this point seems unlikely to change. Well Polk has looked so explosive carrying the football, he may even wind up taking touches away from Bryce Brown. Apparently I wasn’t the only person at the NovaCare Complex who had this thought.

Brown can be a nifty rusher as well, as evidenced by his gaining 347 yards over one two-game stretch last season. Fumbles were an issue though, and he tried bouncing too many runs outside during his rookie year. Polk plays within the offense, seeing the holes and hitting them hard, which has often resulted in long gains during practice. He may be the more reliable option to spell Shady on a consistent basis.

WR

Riley Cooper was one of the stars of the day at Tuesday’s practice, and not just because everybody wanted to grill him about his brief excused absence from the team. Cooper hauled down multiple long passes from Vick and Foles over New England defensive backs, seemingly sending the message that he is still the Eagles’ best option to replace Jeremy Maclin.

All controversy aside, that’s good news for the Eagles in the wake of Arrelious Benn’s injury. Benn was also lost for the season with an ACL this week, leaving the team extremely thin at wide receiver. After Cooper, DeSean Jackson, Damaris Johnson, and Jason Avant, they currently have Russell Shepard, Greg Salas, and Ifeanyi Momah as the front-runners battling for the final wide receiver spot. The front office could add a player once teams start chopping down their rosters, but don’t expect it to be a big name.

TE

James Casey had a big day down by the goal line on Tuesday, regardless of who was under center for the Birds. At one point Casey was targeted at least three times in a matter of four or five reps, finding open spaces in the end zone and using his big frame (6-3, 245) to shield the ball from the defender – making it look rather easy at that. It appears he could make for a nice security blanket for whoever the QB is inside the red zone, particularly early on this season.

OL

As good as Polk has looked, maybe the offensive line is not getting enough credit in this. The starting five has done a good job opening holes for whoever is coming out of the backfield, be it Polk, Brown, or LeSean McCoy, particularly on inside runs. It’s been said before, but we’ll say it again: the ground attack is going to be the greatest strength on this football club regardless of who is carrying the football. As Todd Herremans put it earlier in camp:

“I think that our running game will be second to none.”

That is as long as everybody stays healthy. It’s a little disconcerting to see Jason Peters and Jason Kelce in and out of the lineup all the time this early in the year, Peters battling a hamstring, Kelce for varying reasons. It doesn’t seem like those dings are anything too major, but any time either of those two guys exits a game or a practice early, you’re going to hold your breath a bit. So far, so good though.

DL

This area actually has a chance to be a strength as well. I saw Cedric Thornton come up with a “sack” on Brady. Vinny Curry had a “tackle” for a loss on a Patriots running play. Bennie Logan is batting balls out of the air. We know the coaches really like what they’ve seen out of Clifton Geathers as well, Fletcher Cox could be on the verge of becoming a star, and Isaac Sopoaga has been recognized for taking leadership of the unit.

We still need to see these guys in an actual game in order to prove they can actually finish some of these nice practice plays where nobody actually hits the turf at the end of the rep, but what we’ve seen so far is encouraging. There aren’t too many big names in there, but the effort is good, and they have enough bodies where there must be some decent combination to work with.

LB

I think we’ve reached the point in training camp where it’s fair to say dropping into coverage is not a strength of Brandon Graham’s (shocking!). Brady had no trouble finding that mismatch wherever it happened on the field, and no doubt there would be others. But again, it’s important to note that in a real game the Eagles likely wouldn’t depend as much on Graham to drop. They’ll use him primarily as a rusher, so I don’t believe it’s that huge an issue.

Between Graham and Trent Cole playing out of position, yet are two of the top three outside linebackers anyway despite that minor detail, the Eagles’ defense might not use conventional 3-4 in Chip's first season as the head coach would like. He’s a smart, personnel-driven gameplanner. I just can’t see him dropping those guys into coverage during many spots in the fourth quarter.

CB

It’s hard to imagine anybody having a more dreadful performance than Curtis Marsh did on Wednesday. With Cary Williams leaving practice early yet again (hamstring), Marsh got some reps with the first-team defense, and it did not go well to put it mildly. At one point Brady was picking on Marsh on nearly every play, frequently targeting second-round pick Antonio Dobson, and the third-year corner had no answers.

Obviously it wasn’t the 25-year-old’s best day, and you don’t want to judge anybody too harshly over one practice, least of all against Brady. Having said that, it’s not like Marsh is a lock to make the roster. Williams, Bradley Fletcher, and Brandon Boykin are all definites, and rookie Jordan Poyer probably has a spot locked down. That could leave just one opening for either Brandon Hughes, Eddie Whitley, or Marsh. Hm…

S

We don’t want to give Marsh all of the credit, if you want to call it that. Nate Allen didn’t exactly help his defensive backfield mate out on one or two of those, particularly a pair of deep balls that went over the top of the entire secondary. I wouldn’t say any of the safeties has stood out much one way or the other, and as a group the unit has been collectively underwhelming.

One interesting detail to note however is Patrick Chung, who is still one of the projected starters, got a look as a third safety in a nickel package on Wednesday. Here’s what Chip had to say about the experiment.

It's a case of trying to mix and match as best we can, and make sure we got the right lineup to lineup and play the opening game. So these opportunities to practice against the Patriots are a great time for us to look at some things.

There may be a guy or two that you'd say, hey, he'd be good at nickel, but we can't afford to move him right now because he's still learning where he is in his position. It's a credit to Patrick in terms of how smart a football player is his ability to cross train in different positions. So you're a chinstrap away from if we were to start the game and Brandon were starting nickel. If he goes down, then what are you going to do?  We're not going to nickel if you're going to get exposed a little bit when you're playing a good quarterback and good spread team. So we have to develop at that position.

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

500 plate appearances in, Tommy Joseph an above-average offensive 1B

500 plate appearances in, Tommy Joseph an above-average offensive 1B

BOX SCORE

Tommy Joseph is making the Phillies' situation at first base quite tricky.

Joseph on Thursday continued building on his red-hot month of May by going 2 for 5 with a game-tying homer in the seventh and a walk-off RBI single in the 11th inning of the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Rockies (see Instant Replay).

He's hit .329 in May with six doubles, six homers, 15 RBIs and a .657 slugging percentage. The only first basemen in the majors with a higher slugging percentage this month are Yonder Alonso, Justin Bour and Paul Goldschmidt.

That'll hold off the eye-popping production of Rhys Hoskins for now (see Future Phillies Report).

Extending it further, Joseph has played 148 career games with 499 plate appearances in the majors. That's just a bit less than a full season. He's hit .255 with an .804 OPS, 28 home runs and 23 doubles. He's provided above-average offensive production from first base.

Most Phillies fans know Joseph's story — big-time catching prospect acquired from the Giants in the 2012 Hunter Pence trade, series of concussions, position switch, hot start to 2016 at Triple A, promotion, production.

It was a long, winding road for Joseph, and when he was asked Thursday if he expected to be this solid 500 plate appearances into his major-league career, he brought up health.

"My goals were to be healthy, to be able to play in 162 games and that's all I really want to be able to do," Joseph said. "That's something I haven't been able to do in my career and it's something that I'm looking forward to. I'm looking forward to the challenge to go through the mental challenge and the physical challenge and I'd say that's my No. 1 goal, that's my only goal. Because if I'm able to stay healthy and stay on the field then I'm able to enjoy this great game and getting to share it with my teammates."

As for the May adjustments, Joseph said the standard things about communicating with hitting coach Matt Stairs, working in the cage and staying consistent with his approach. His timing wasn't there in April but it's certainly been there in May.

"There's no telling what clicks in a guy, it's just a matter of making a minor adjustment sometimes, possibly getting better pitches to hit," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's no telling what it is, but he just looks a lot more comfortable at the plate."

Bullpen bouncing back
It's been completely overshadowed by the Phillies' recent skid but the bullpen has pitched very well of late. The unit that was overworked and criticized in April has combined to allow just two earned runs in its last 22 2/3 innings. On Thursday, six Phillies relievers — Edubray Ramos, Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris, Luis Garcia and Jeanmar Gomez — pitched six scoreless innings.

Neshek made the play of the day, diving and landing on his head to snag a pop-up bunt attempt before turning and firing to first base for the double play.

"I said early on that I think it's one of our strengths," Mackanin said of the bullpen. "And after today you can see why I have a lot of confidence in them."

Neshek, who has pitched in the postseason for four different teams, said Thursday that he thinks this is one of the best bullpens he's ever been around. It's not lip service, either. The unit was terrible in April, there's no getting around that. But some of that really did have to do with the overuse. Setup men were entering in the sixth inning. Opportunities for holds and saves were few and far between. Roles were not defined.

Stuff-wise, repertoire-wise, there is a lot to like about the Phillies' bullpen. Neris, Benoit and Neshek all offer vastly different looks and have track records of success.

While Neshek didn't totally endorse Benoit's comments from a few weeks ago that everything would settle down once the relievers knew specifically which inning they'd pitch, he did say that he too feels most comfortable coming in during a hold opportunity.

"I think my numbers show that I'm best in those situations, coming into a hold opportunity when we're ahead," Neshek said. "We haven't had much of those lately."

The horrendous start to the season for the Phillies' relievers will skew their stats all season long, but it's nice to see that at least one aspect of this team is starting to get into a groove.

With a new mentality, Vince Velasquez takes nice step in right direction

With a new mentality, Vince Velasquez takes nice step in right direction

Vince Velasquez needed 94 pitches to complete five innings in yet another short outing Thursday ... but still, it was a nice step in the right direction.

Velasquez minimized the damage against a stacked Rockies lineup, allowing one run over five innings with seven strikeouts in a 2-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay). He avoided having that one big, meltdown inning. His pitch count still soared because the Rockies fouled off 28 pitches, but it was a promising sign that the longest at-bat of the day — 11 pitches to Charlie Blackmon — ended in a strikeout.

"Today was just huge on my part, even giving up the home run (to Trevor Story), just shutting down the majority of the guys," Velasquez said. "I gave up seven hits, but limiting the damage and getting out of the innings. These guys are just attacking.... I had a plan to attack the guys. You know, prior starts, changing game plans causes damage. So keep planning to attack and work your way around that.

"They're fouling off fastballs, it means they're late on them. I'm not changing my mentality. Why throw a curveball?"

Velasquez met with pitching coach Bob McClure last Sunday after his latest poor start Saturday in Pittsburgh. The key advice he was given was "stick to your strengths." Anybody who's watched Velasquez the last two seasons knows what his strength is: his fastball.

"Definitely. That's my go-to," Velasquez said. "[Before], I was just pretty much having second thoughts about certain pitches and again, just changing my game plan. If you shy away from that, things pretty much go away from you. That's where you get hurt. Today's mentality didn't change at all. I attacked guys with high fastballs in 0-2 counts. Story put a good swing on it and it ended up escalating out."

That was the one big mistake Velasquez made. He threw an 0-2 fastball right down the middle that Story hit out of the park. The Phillies have allowed the most 0-2 home runs in the majors this season (six) and the last two seasons combined (17). For reference, the Marlins have allowed the fewest over that span, just two.

But still, the high fastballs for Velasquez mostly worked on this afternoon. He induced 10 swinging strikes on 72 fastballs.

His off-speed stuff was a different story. The Rockies' first two hits of the day came on curveballs and they went 4 for 6 against his curve, slider and changeup. Colorado's hitters swung through just 2 of the 22 offspeed pitches they saw from Velasquez.

Manager Pete Mackanin said after Velasquez's last start that commanding his off-speed pitches is the key for him. His fastball is great, we all know that, but it just doesn't play multiple times through the order when the other team knows that pitch is coming in every key situation.

"The changeup was actually working a little bit [today]," Velasquez said. "It was down. That's just another pitch I need to work on a little bit more. But it's coming around. The curveball has a good shape to it but, again, it's just locating it."

It's important to keep it all in perspective when it comes to Velasquez. He's a power-armed 24-year-old who's still figuring things out. Most pitchers wouldn't be doing their jobs by going five innings, but with Velasquez it's a baby-steps approach — every small step in a positive direction being a sign that his dominant stuff can someday translate into consistency. 

He'll carry a 2-4 record and 5.55 ERA into his next start Tuesday in Miami.