2014 Eagles training camp storylines

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2014 Eagles training camp storylines

The offseason is officially over. It’s time for football in Philadelphia.

The Eagles on Friday will report to the NovaCare Complex for the start of Chip Kelly’s second training camp and to start preparing for their NFC East title defense.

The first practice kicks off Saturday morning. Here are some dominant storylines surrounding the team:

Offensive line
One of the strongest units of last year’s team is, suddenly, a source of concern headed into camp with right tackle Lane Johnson suspended for the first four games of the season because of PEDs. Allen Barbre will likely fill the void, ensuring that the Birds won’t have all five linemen start every game.

With Barbre in the starting lineup, the next guy off the bench at guard is Matt Tobin, an undrafted rookie from last season who didn’t play a single game. That’s a scary thought given that three stalwarts — Jason Peters, Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans — are each over 30. The Eagles are one injury away from an offensive line featuring Barbre and Tobin.

Speaking of Mathis, he wants to be paid like an elite guard, not just top 10. He didn’t boycott the spring camps, perhaps hoping the Eagles will reward him for continuing to play at a high level and keeping his professionalism.

Keep an eye on how Barbre performs in his four-game audition. The coaches liked him enough to give him an extension. Herremans, who struggled at the start of last year, should be looking over his shoulder.

Muddled OLB picture
Connor Barwin and first-round pick Marcus Smith are making the team. The others — Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, Bryan Braman, Travis Long — aren’t so secure.

At spring camps, the Eagles sure made it seem like Cole and Barwin would be back to anchor the starting jobs. Those two took all first-team reps. Smith worked mostly on the third string, but a team doesn’t use the 26th overall pick on a guy who’s gonna ride the pine.

If Smith can play, he’ll see playing time, and if he’s seeing playing time, it doesn’t make financial sense for the Eagles to keep both Cole and Graham on the roster at their current salaries.

Long also becomes an X-factor. If the Eagles think he’s good enough to be a fourth (or fifth) outside linebacker, it further clouds the future of either Graham or Cole.

Foles and friends
You know the story. DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant and Bryce Brown are gone. Jeremy Maclin is back. Darren Sproles is here. Chris Polk is ready. The offense will have a different look and different personnel, and the onus is on Nick Foles to make it work as he follows up a brilliant and historic 2013 season.

This will be the first time Foles enters camp as the unquestioned starter, and there’s a big carrot dangling: a potential blockbuster contract extension next offseason that will hinge on his 2014 performance.

Pass rush
Cedric Thornton took up boxing. Vinny Curry gave up red meat. Bennie Logan added weight. Graham dropped weight. Several Eagles went to extremes this offseason to prove they’re capable of hitting quarterbacks at a better rate than last year, when the Birds ranked 31st in sacks per pass attempt.

Outside of drafting Smith, the Eagles didn’t do much else to address their pass rush, so they’re banking on these motivated incumbents to show their offseason work paid off.

The real J-Mac
This is the year we finally get to see if Maclin is a special, game-changing receiver with first-round talent or just a good receiver who ranks somewhere in the top 20.

If he stays healthy.

Maclin has always been on the cusp of a 1,000-yard season, and he really believed last year would be his big breakout before he tore his ACL at training camp. If this offense is perfect for him, as he has suggested, this needs to be the year he’s among the top 10, especially since he gambled on himself and signed a one-year deal in the offseason.

Fairly or not, Maclin’s numbers and production will be measured against Jackson’s season with the Redskins. If Maclin fails to flourish, he’ll be playing elsewhere in 2015.

Barkley vs. Sanchez
For the second time in Kelly’s two training camps, a competition will be waged at quarterback. This time, it’s for the backup job.

Surprisingly, Jets castoff Mark Sanchez took the majority of second-team quarterbacks reps at the spring camps ahead of Matt Barkley, a fourth-round pick in 2014 whom the Eagles traded up to select. And don’t forget about G.J. Kinne, who’s come a long way in his year with the team and looked impressive at the spring camps.

Sanchez lacked the “repetitive accuracy” throughout his Jets tenure that Kelly prefers from quarterbacks, and Barkley struggled with turnovers in his brief cameos last year as a rookie. Kinne lacks NFL real-game experience. The backup situation is much less stable this year than last year.

On the bubble
Besides Cole and Graham, there are other veterans who could become casualties before the cutdown date.

The arrivals of free-agent cornerback Nolan Carroll and fourth-round pick Jaylen Watkins threaten the security of Bradley Fletcher, who’s slated to make nearly $3 million. At kicker, Alex Henery faces competition from rookie free agent Cary “Murderleg” Spear. Wide receivers Brad Smith, Arrelious Benn and Damaris Johnson could get shown the door if the Eagles like what they see in rookie free agent Kadron Boone or an improved Ifeanyi Momah.

Rookie watch
Eyes will be squarely focused at camp on Smith and second-round pick Jordan Matthews, a record-setting SEC receiver out of Vanderbilt who’s been billed as the anti-DeSean. Matthews has the intangibles and work ethic coaches covet, but the 6-foot-3, 215-pound prospect is being asked to play the slot — a different animal at the NFL level.

Kelly hopes the receiver’s big body will be an advantage against small corners, especially against man coverage. But if there’s any slippage from Maclin or Riley Cooper, Matthews could be asked to play a greater role.

Philadelphia to host 2017 NFL draft

Philadelphia to host 2017 NFL draft

The 2017 NFL draft is coming to Philadelphia, NBC10 confirmed. Philadelphia has been long-rumored to be the front-runner to host the 2017 draft. On Wednesday afternoon, ESPN's Adam Schefter first reported that the draft was officially coming to Philly. A press conference is scheduled for noon Thursday at City Hall.

Back in early July, U.S. congressman Bob Brady told the Philadelphia Daily News that the draft was coming to Philly, but the city and the NFL told NBC10 and CSNPhilly.com that it wasn't yet a done deal at that time.

Now, it is.

While the draft is coming to Philadelphia, it's unclear where the actual event will be held. Philadelphia and Los Angeles were the reported frontrunners. Philly hasn't hosted the draft since December 1960, when it was held at the Warwick Hotel.

The Eagles don't have a first-round pick in 2017 after trading up to No. 2 to take Carson Wentz this past spring.

For the last two years, the draft was held in Chicago after New York hosted the event for many years.

Eagles' WRs embracing being one of youngest groups in modern NFL history

Eagles' WRs embracing being one of youngest groups in modern NFL history

There's no veteran to show them the way. No older guy who's seen it all to look to for advice. Nobody who’s been around forever to share his wisdom and stories and knowledge.
 
The Eagles’ oldest wide receiver is Josh Huff, who's 24. The Eagles’ most experienced wide receiver is Jordan Matthews, who's started 23 games. The Eagles’ average wide receiver? He’s 23 years old.
 
There’s always a chance the Eagles will add a veteran wide receiver before opening day a week from Sunday against the Browns. 
 
But right now? They have one of the youngest wide receiver crews in modern NFL history.
 
Matthews and Huff are 24. Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham  and Paul Turner are 23. David Watford, Cayleb Jones and Marcus Johnson are all 22 or 23.
 
Of this group, only Matthews has more than 35 career receptions.
 
When the Eagles released Rueben Randle and Chris Givens earlier this week, it left them without a wide receiver older than 24.
 
“It’s crazy,” Matthews said. “My rookie year I was the youngest dude on the whole team. Now, me and Josh are the oldest. It’s kind of different but I like it.
 
“I like situations where everybody feels like they’ve got to go get it. Where everybody feels like they have to work. When guys get to year nine, year 10, you see that, like, ‘OK, I got this.’ And that works for some people. But me personally? I like rooms where everybody feels like, ‘I’ve got to go get it.’”
 
Randle is only 25 and Givens 26, and each entered the NFL in 2012. So they’re not exactly nine- or 10-year veterans. But Matthews’ point is that he likes a wide receiver room where everybody is hungry and nobody is resting on their laurels.

This group has no real laurels to rest on.
 
Matthews has the 10th-most receptions in NFL history after two years, but Huff (35 catches, three TDs), Agholor (23 catches, one TD) and Green-Beckham (32 catches, four TDs) have a combined 90 career receptions and eight TDs.
 
The other receivers still on the roster — Turner, Jones, Johnson and Watford — are all undrafted rookie free agents.
 
“Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, those are the two leaders in the room right now, but we have some young guys who are ready to step up and ready to go and obviously Howie (Roseman) and Doug (Pederson) and Joe (Douglas) and all those guys that make the decisions up there feel really comfortable with who we have," backup quarterback Chase Daniel said.
 
“We’re excited about it because all those young receivers, they want to learn, they really do, and they’re putting in the time and the work not just during practice but after practice as well and in meetings.
 
“Fastest way to gain experience is to play, and they just need more playing time and once they get more comfortable with Sam (Bradford) and me and and Carson (Wentz) and just everything out there and the scheme, they’re going to be just fine.”
 
Maybe.
 
Huff has certainly shown some flashes, including three catches for 60 yards and a rushing touchdown against the Colts Saturday night. Agholor is a first-round pick. Green-Beckham caught a touchdown in Indianapolis and led all NFL rookie receivers with 17 yards per catch last year.
 
But it’s incredibly rare for any NFL team to go into a season without a wide receiver older than 24.
 
If the Eagles don’t add a veteran receiver, they will become only the sixth team since 1970 without a wide receiver older than 24. Three of those teams were in the 1970s – the 1972 Falcons and 1978 and 1979 Jets.
 
The only teams in the last 35 years that played without a wideout 25 or older were the 1988 Chargers and 2000 Bengals.
 
So this is the youngest group in the NFL in 16 years.
 
“Looking back, being behind Jeremy Maclin and being behind Riley Cooper and being behind Jordan last year, being on the bench and just watching, I know what to expect now,” Huff said.
 
“I know what our group of receivers need in order to get where we want to go. We are young, and me and Jordan have to be the leaders of the group to take this group to where we want to go.
 
“It just falls on me and Jordan right now and we’re going to go out each and every day and perform the way we know how to perform and bring these guys along with us.”
 
The last time the Eagles went into a season without a wide receiver at least 25 years old was 1964.
 
There’s always been a Maclin, a Jason Avant, a James Thrash, an Irving Fryar, a Mike Quick.
 
Not always the best receiver on the team, but a guy who fills that leadership role, leads by example, always has time to advise and guide the younger guys and has a wealth of experience to draw from.
 
Right now, that role belongs to Matthews, who just turned 24 in July.
 
“Going to Vanderbilt, you can play as hard as you want to but you still get no respect, so you stop playing for public opinion and you start just going out there and playing for the guy next to you and to get respect from your opponents and your teammates ultimately,” Matthews said.
 
“So I like a room like that. I feel like we’ve got young guys and it’s, ‘OK, DGB, you can’t take a day off. Nelson you can’t take a day off. Josh, you can’t take a day off.’ And me, I definitely can’t take a day off. So when you have that type of room, you can say really, ‘Forget the outside, let’s hone in on what’s going on in here, and let’s go out and make plays.’”
 
Green-Beckham, like Huff, like Agholor, is kind of an unknown. You can’t help see his boundless potential. He’s big, he can run, he’s got great hands.
 
But nobody really knows what to expect from him after the Titans gave up on him so quickly.
 
“It is a young group, but that’s good because that means [we] have a lot of room to develop,” Green-Beckham said.
 
“But we can’t look at it as a young group. We have to go out there and make plays. And if we don’t have that older guy, whatever we know as football players, we’ve got to help each other out.
 
“We’re all smart. If we see anything new, see anything, a missed assignment, we hold each other accountable. ‘Hey, I ain’t trying to get on you but you can do this better, you can do that better.’ That’s the room we have, and I like that.”
 
Huff knows how much outsiders doubt this group, and he understands it. He's been a disappointment. Agholor has been a disappointment. DGB was a disappointment with the Titans.
 
But he also believes the Eagles can win with this group.

“Every play’s not going to be perfect,” Huff said. “You’re not going to catch every ball, and that’s just part of the game and you’ve got to understand that and you can’t beat yourself about that.
 
“But what I know is that this group of receivers that we have, at any given time of the game, we can make plays, and I truly, wholeheartedly believe that. And we’ve just got to get it out of everybody in the group and not just Jordan. We know we can make plays but everybody has to believe they can make plays so it comes down to confidence and just being aggressive when the ball is in the air.
 
“See the ball, catch the ball, and if you don’t, just move on to the next play.”
 
Matthews is only 24 but carries himself like a veteran and can’t help but lead the people around him.
 
He doesn’t try to do it, it just happens organically.
 
But Matthews said he'll have to focus more than ever on leadership and guidance now that he’s the only established receiver on the team.
 
“I take it upon myself to be the leader of the group but at the same time I’m not the type of guy who’s going to be calling people out,” he said. “I don’t raise my voice around anybody. That’s just not the way I go about things.
 
“I have to go out and practice hard every single day, always have my clipboard out, and then just be around the guys when they need it. That’s the role I take, and I know Josh has been trying to do the same thing, just working on his consistency in the field and in the meeting room.
 
“It’s definitely a different dynamic. We don’t have that Jeremy Maclin there who’s seven years in. We just don’t have that. But I do like what we’ve got. I like the fact that everybody has to go out and every day and feel like, ‘We gotta go get it.’
 
“The second somebody thinks that they got it? All of us can get humbled real quick. So don’t even get to that point. Let’s just keep knocking on the door and continue to work on being successful.”

Beau Allen, Taylor Hart prove they’re scheme fits, outlast competition

Beau Allen, Taylor Hart prove they’re scheme fits, outlast competition

Plenty of people outside the Eagles’ organization — and probably a few inside — doubted that Beau Allen and Taylor Hart would be able to play in Jim Schwartz’s aggressive 4-3 defense. 

But Allen and Hart never doubted themselves. 

“I think for whatever reason, we got brought in to two-gap and I think we got labeled as two-gappers, and for whatever reason, that kind of stuck,” Allen said. “And when people think of two-gappers, they think, ‘This guy will stay on blocks and aren’t as athletic.’ I guess what I’m trying to say I think there’s a different perception between guys that two-gap and guys that play in the defense we play. 

“We’ve known all along that we can do this. And I think all the guys in the locker room have known that. It’s just kind of flipping that switch in your brain and getting used to a new mentality and scheme and being comfortable in it.”

Over the past month, they’ve shown they can indeed fit in Schwartz’s defense. 

Allen and Hart were drafted in the seventh and fifth rounds, respectively, in the 2014 draft. Allen was seen as a prototypical nose tackle and Hart a 3-4 end. While Allen played in an attacking defense in college, Hart had never played a 4-3 tackle in college or the pros. 

Still, they have both seemingly earned spots on the Eagles’ 53-man roster. 

“I hope that the play I’ve done out here in these three preseason games has shown that I’m not just a 3-4 guy,” Hart said. “I can play both schemes.”

For a long time, veteran free agent pickup Mike Martin was considered not just a roster lock, but also a rotation player on the defensive line. He worked as the third tackle for a lot of the offseason before hurting his knee. He missed a couple weeks and was recently cut. 

So how did Martin go from being a contributor to off the team?  

“The knee just never came back,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “It just never bounced back, and it is hard. It's tough for players and veteran players like that. You're making decisions that are kind of out of his control.”

With Martin gone, the top two backup tackles appear to be Allen and Hart, while undrafted rookies Destiney Vaeao and Aziz Shittu appear to be on the outside looking in.

With a roster spot already likely locked in, Allen will play in the preseason finale against the Jets, where he joked he hopes to pad his stats. Hart’s preseason is already over. He has knee and ankle injuries that will keep him out for the Jets' game, but Pederson said Hart will be ready for the opener. 

Ready for the opener? That sounds like Hart has already won a job. 

“I didn’t hear that,” Hart said. “Well, we’ll see what happens.”

Allen and Hart roomed together during their rookie seasons and remain close friends. They also worked incredibly hard this offseason to pickup a new defense and shed that “two-gapper” label. 

One guy who might not be as surprised about Allen and Hart’s success in the defense is the guy in charge of it. Back in early August, before the pair showed what they could do in a game, Schwartz was asked about them and said, “Don’t sell those guys short. Just because that's what they were asked to do doesn't mean [that’s] the only thing [they’re capable of doing].

Turns out he was right. 

Was there ever really that preconceived notion that they couldn’t play in this defense? 

“Maybe from you guys (media),” Hart said with a smile. “I believed in myself.”

It looks like that belief is paying off.