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.

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

With three sacks in three games, Brandon Graham is off to the fastest start of his career by far, already almost halfway to his career high of 6½. Naturally, the Eagles' defensive end is excited about the production, but not nearly as excited as he was with the defense as a whole after a 34-3 romp over the Steelers on Sunday.

"For us, I was just happy we stayed together, we played together and the outcome was good," Graham said postgame. "Hats off to Pittsburgh because we did a lot of planning for them. We respect them a lot.

"I am just happy to get this win and I am happy in the style we did it."

Graham was one of four Eagles players to bring down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, marking the first time the seventh-year veteran has recorded at least one sack in three consecutive games. In fact, prior to this season, Graham had never posted a sack in Week 1.

For once, the numbers are taking care of themselves for Graham — although that's not what he's focused on.

"Since I've been here, I've never gotten a sack in the first game, and I've never been consistent," Graham said. "I'm just trying to be the leader, go out there, get W's and be relentless."

There are plenty of explanations for Graham's seemingly sudden emergence.

This is only his second season as a full-time player in the NFL after injuries, then depth conspired to keep the 2010 first-round pick on the bench early in his career. Perhaps all he needed was an opportunity. The switch back to a 4-3 defense and wide-nine front no doubt helped rejuvenate Graham's career as well, allowing him to move from outside linebacker back to his natural position at defensive end and focus on rushing the passer.

With Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry and Marcus Smith all rotating in at end, Graham is also being kept fresh. Last season, the Eagles lacked the quality reserves to provide many breathers for Barwin and Graham on the outside.

"It's a great feeling because there's no pressure to hurry up and get back out," Graham said. "I feel like everybody is just as good and there's no drop-off when we come out of there.

"It's definitely going to help us later on in the year. It's been helping now."

There are all sorts of schematic reasons why Graham could finally be on his way to a breakout season. This will be his first full season as a starter at D-end in a 4-3, it's the first time since 2012 he's in a wide-nine and the defense no longer has to be worried about being exhausted by Chip Kelly's offense's uptempo approach.

Graham was also blessed with a new addition to his family during the offseason — a baby girl. The 28-year-old admits that changed his perspective as well, making him want to work even harder toward achieving his goals.

"Just the preparation and then the work this offseason, I took it up to another level," Graham said. "I guess because I had a daughter this offseason, everything is kind of viewed a different way for me.

"I know we have a good defense — that helps out a lot, too. I couldn't ask for a better defense right now."

Clearly, those goals are not individually motivated. Graham wants to be part of something great, and with a dominant performance against the Steelers in Week 3, the Eagles and their defense passed a huge test.

"I feel like we improved," Graham said. "We got a lot better. We stopped a good team, a great team, a well-coached team. Our hats off to them because they made us work this week."

Few people were expecting the Eagles to handle a trendy Super Bowl pick the way they did, and Graham actually prefers it that way.

"I hope we still get overlooked because it feels so good when people are talking the way they did," Graham said. "It added a little fuel. We watched a little bit of the TV (Sunday) morning, and they were just saying how [the Steelers] were going to dog us.

"I'm just happy that we came out and did what we were supposed to do, and I hope we stay the underdog because, for us, nobody gave us a chance and we stayed together. If we stay together in here, that's all that matters."

Through three games, the Eagles lead the NFL in fewest points surrendered with a paltry 27 and rank fourth in yards allowed. They're also tied for third with 10 sacks and tied for seventh with six takeaways.

If the defense stays together the way Graham says they have, how far does he think the Eagles go this season?

"I don't know," Graham said. "If we keep playing like that, there is no ceiling."

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Carson Wentz named NFC Offensive Player of the Week

Carson Wentz named NFC Offensive Player of the Week

Another week, another award for Carson Wentz.

This time, the Eagles' electrifying rookie has been named the NFC's Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Steelers.

In the 34-3 win over Pittsburgh, Wentz completed 23 of 31 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 125.9. It was the first 300-yard game of his very young career.

Wentz is the first rookie in Eagles history to win an Offensive Player of the Week award, and the first Eagle to win the award since Jeremy Maclin in Week 9 of the 2014 season.

Through three games, the 23-year-old Wentz has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 769 yards and five touchdowns. He's the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to achieve those stats in the first three games of a career. He still hasn't thrown an interception in 102 passing attempts, a record for rookies.

It looks like Wentz will have plenty more opportunities for awards this season.

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