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:
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.
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.
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.