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.

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies’ roster

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies’ roster

TAMPA -- When Phillies camp opened earlier this month, Brock Stassi was considering mentioning his ability to play the outfield to manager Pete Mackanin.

Though he’s played mostly first base during his six seasons in the Phillies' system, Stassi has been used occasionally in left field. He’s also played the position in winter ball in Latin America. Even going back to high school, Stassi played center field.

As it turned out, Stassi didn’t need to have that conversation with Mackanin. The manager actually approached the player early in camp and told him he planned to get him some time in the outfield as well as at first base.

Mackanin and the Phillies' front office value versatility and they want to have it on their bench. Stassi has come to his second big-league camp as a serious candidate to win a job on the bench. His left-handed bat -- which he showed off with a solo homer in Friday’s 9-4 Grapefruit League loss to the Yankees -- would be attractive to the Phils. So would his versatility.

And if the ability to play first base and outfield isn’t enough versatility, Stassi can actually offer something else.

He can pitch.

In fact, the Cleveland Indians drafted him as a pitcher after his junior year at the University of Nevada in 2010.

Stassi returned to school for his senior year in 2011 and was a two-way player. The Phillies selected him in the 33rd round of the draft that year as a hitter, even though on draft day there was some confusion.

“Initially, I was announced as a left-handed pitcher then they changed it to outfielder,” Stassi said. “Then I got to Williamsport (the Phillies’ New York-Penn League team) and had a first baseman’s mitt in my bag, and I was like, ‘All right, let’s go. You’re going to be playing first.’”

Stassi’s minor-league managers in the Phillies' system have always been aware of his pitching background. He has made nine pitching appearances during his time in pro ball, including four with Triple A Lehigh Valley last year. All were in relief in long extra-innings games.

“I got a win and a loss,” Stassi said.

He recalled the loss with a big laugh.

“I shook off Logan,” he said, referring to catcher Logan Moore, another candidate pushing for a spot on the Phillies’ bench. “I shook to the fastball against a lefty. It wasn’t the right move and Logan won’t let me forget that. The guy hit a triple. Then I got hit with a comeback one-hopper right on the butt. It was like a 14-inning game.”

Stassi throws a fastball, curveball and changeup.

“My fastball is like 84,” he said with a laugh.

Many position players in a big-league clubhouse were pitchers at some point in the baseball journey. Roman Quinn, who broke into pro ball as a shortstop and is now a centerfielder, was used as a closer in high school and hit 94 mph on the radar gun.

“I believe it,” Stassi said. “That guy’s got a cannon. I had to catch him when he was playing shortstop. He’d come charging in on a close play and he’d let one loose and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And even from the outfield he’s got a cannon.”

Stassi’s arm doesn’t bounce back the way it used to when he pitched in college.

“Every time I have to pitch now I’m hanging for like two weeks,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t grab the baseball and gut out an inning if Mackanin ever needed it.

“Hey, if that’s what it takes,” he said.

Figuring out the Phillies’ bench at this point of camp is a little like solving a Rubik’s Cube. There are many possible combinations. Infielder Andres Blanco is a sure thing and outfielder Aaron Altherr seems like a good bet. So does outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Andrew Knapp, Ryan Hanigan, Bryan Holaday and Moore are the candidates for backup catcher. Knapp can also play first base. And it’s not out of the question that the Phils would carry three catchers.

They could fill the perceived final spot on the bench with an infielder such as Pedro Florimon or another outfielder such as Daniel Nava, Andrew Pullin or Cameron Perkins. Or it could be Stassi, whose versatility is a plus.

“There’s a lot I like about Stassi,” Mackanin said.

Stassi comes from a baseball family. His brother, Max, is a catcher with the Houston Astros. They played for their dad, Jim, at Yuba City High School near Sacramento, California. Jim was a catcher who reached Triple A during his playing days in the Giants system.

“My dad always talked about the value of versatility in high school,” Brock said. “He preached it to the whole team. You might have two second basemen and they’re pretty equal, but you want both bats in the lineup so you might have to play outfield. It’s good to be able to do it. Don’t take it as a knock that you’re not at your normal position -- you’re in the lineup.”

In addition to wearing several different gloves, Stassi can swing the bat. He was Eastern League MVP in 2015 when he hit .300 with 15 homers, 90 RBIs and a .863 OPS for Double A Reading. He hit .267 with 12 homers, 58 RBIs and a .806 OPS at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season.

Stassi has been described as “a grinder” by members of the Phillies’ player-development staff, and that’s a compliment. More than one thousand players were selected ahead of him in the 2011 draft. His signing bonus was just $1,000. He’s never appeared on one of those Top 10 prospect lists and never been on a 40-man roster, never mind appeared in a big-league game. But he’s continually moved up the ladder and now, at age 27, is under serious consideration to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench.

And maybe -- if needed in a pinch -- in the bullpen, too.

“Oh, man, it would be a dream come true,” Stassi said. “Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of playing in the big leagues. Just the path that I’ve taken -- I've had to earn everything, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It would be really awesome to make this team.”

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

TAMPA -- The Phillies’ bats were slow getting started in the Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon. The Phils did not have a baserunner through the first six innings in a 9-4 loss to the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field.

“First game, I’m just happy we got at-bats because the pitching is always ahead of the hitting this early,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said afterward.

Outfielder Cameron Perkins had the Phillies’ first hit, a single up the middle in the seventh inning. He added a solo homer in the ninth inning.

Perkins, 26, was the Phillies’ sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft out of Purdue University. He graduated from Southport High School in Indianapolis, the same school that produced Phillies great and Hall of Famer Chuck Klein.

A right-hander hitter who eschews batting gloves, Perkins hit .292 with eight homers and 47 RBIs at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season. He is not on the 40-man roster but was invited to camp for a look-see. He is considered a longshot to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench, but will certainly improve his chances if he keeps swinging it like he did Friday.

“I don’t think about it,” Perkins said of his bid to make the club. “All I can do is what I did today -- get my opportunity and make the most of it.”

Brock Stassi, another candidate for a job on the Phillies’ bench, also homered.

On the pitching side
Right-hander Alec Asher, who projects to open in the Triple A rotation, started for the Phils. He pitched two innings, allowed a home run to Didi Gregorius and struck out two.

Asher made big strides with his sinker last season. He’s added a cutter now.

Right-hander Nick Pivetta debuted with two scoreless innings. He gave up a hit, walked one and struck out three. The Phillies acquired Pivetta from Washington from Jonathan Papelbon in July 2015. He projects to open in the Triple A rotation, but first will pitch for Team Canada in the WBC in March.

“It’s a lifelong dream for me, right up there with whenever it is that I get my first start with the Phillies,” Pivetta said.

The bullpen
Mackanin has said he’d like to have two left-handed relievers in his bullpen. The Phillies have just one -- Joely Rodriguez -- on their 40-man roster, although it’s possible that Adam Morgan could be shifted from starter to reliever later in camp.

The Phils have brought two veteran lefties -- Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos -- into camp on minor-league deals to compete for a job. Burnett made his debut Friday and gave up a triple, a sacrifice fly and a home run in his inning of work.

Luis Garcia was tagged for four hits and three runs in his spring debut.

Up next
The Phillies host the Yankees in Clearwater on Saturday afternoon. Morgan will start for the Phils against right-hander Adam Warren.