Allen, Wolff battle for starting job -- again

usanateallenearlwolff.jpg

Allen, Wolff battle for starting job -- again

The storyline that wouldn’t go away last spring and summer is back again. Nate Allen or Earl Wolff? Earl Wolff or Nate Allen?

The steady vet or the promising upstart?

Right now, just like it was last year at this time, the answer is Nate Allen.

“Nate's the first guy up,” coach Chip Kelly said Thursday. “And Earl is in running with the second group right now. And both have done a great job in the offseason program. We're excited to see those guys play it out.”

Of course, Kelly and his staff have seen this act play out once before.

The veteran Allen and rookie Wolff battled all last year throughout OTAs and training camp for the right to start opposite Patrick Chung. The coaches never really intended to open the season with Wolff, a fifth-round pick from N.C. State, but they split reps between both safeties until finally settling on Allen.

In the end, the odd man out ended up being Chung, whose injuries led to Allen and Wolff manning the safety tandem as the calendar turned from fall to winter. Allen started all 16 games for the first time his career, playing steadily. Wolff enjoyed some very good moments until a knee injury late in the season sidelined him for six of the last seven games, including the team’s first-round playoff loss to New Orleans.

In the offseason, the Eagles cut Chung, signed Malcolm Jenkins to start and re-signed Allen to a one-year deal. When the team reconvened in April for the offseason program, Wolff observed his name below Allen’s on the depth chart.

Upset?

“Not at all,” Wolff said. “I ended up getting hurt. Nate played pretty good, to me, to everybody. So I wasn’t mad the first day we came back and I saw his name above mine. He deserved it. I didn’t end the year the way I wanted to, so I didn’t deserve to be up there as the No. 1 guy.”

So the Eagles are back to Square 1. They’ll let competition decide whether Wolff or Allen should be the guy opposite Jenkins.

“Every day I come out here and give it my all,” Wolff said. “Me and Nate have a good friendship, relationship and basically we both know it’s going to come down to -- we’re not sure -- probably till the preseason or whatever. We’re both going to give our all and may the best man win.”

Kelly also drafted Ed Reynolds out of Stanford in the fifth round but Reynolds, like all NFL prospects from Stanford, will miss the OTAs because of an NCAA rule prohibiting college players from attending NFL camps before graduation.

Jenkins, still new to the club, couldn’t handicap the race but seemed to suggest that Allen’s savvy and expertise could trump Wolff’s athleticism.

“It’s too early to say anything about it,” Jenkins said. “Obviously, they’re both competing for that spot. You got Nate, who’s a veteran who knows what to do. He’s gonna be in the right place at the right time. He knows the defense. I think he’s getting better as far as anticipating what offenses are gonna do.

“Earl, he’s very, very athletic. He’s young. But he’s still inexperienced. I think that’s the biggest thing for him is learning the nuances of the game and how to play different positions, what to look for and how to take what the book says that you should do it and apply it to what the play is developing as. We’ll see how that plays out once we get into training camp and get further along.”

Allen and Wolff were surprisingly efficient last year, helping the Eagles resolve their prolonged streak of disasters at the position going back to their head-slapping decision to let franchise icon Brian Dawkins escape to Denver after the 2009 season and then Quintin Mikell walk out the door after 2010.

Allen, a second-round pick whose career kept arcing the wrong way in 2011 and 2012, managed to play 16 games for the first time in his career and seemed to correct the sloppy tackling problems that had become his calling card during those two dark years.

He set a career high with 94 tackles, ranking third on the defense, and recorded at least one sack and one interception in the same season for the first time since his promising rookie year.

Wolff mixed into the defense early before getting his first start Week 4 against the Broncos to replace an injured Chung. In his second career start, he registered eight tackles. He racked up eight more a week later against the Bucs.

If he hadn’t suffered a knee hyperextension that limited him to just one game over the last seven weeks, maybe he’d enter this year’s camp ahead of Allen on the depth chart.

No matter, Wolff said. It’s just another motivational tool.

Not that he really needed one more.

“Even if my name was ahead of him, you know, I know that doesn’t guarantee anything,” he said. “Because even though I’d still be No. 1 on this team, I still want to be the best in this league.”

Wendell Smallwood 'really excited, ready to go' for NFL debut Saturday

Wendell Smallwood 'really excited, ready to go' for NFL debut Saturday

Eagles rookie running back Wendell Smallwood will finally make his NFL debut on Saturday. After missing out on the team’s first two preseason games with a quad injury, Smallwood can’t wait for his first action.

“I’m really excited, ready to go,” Smallwood said Tuesday. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in a game.”

Smallwood held out some hope that he would play against the Steelers, but said he never cleared the final hurdle.

“The trainers and coaches didn’t feel like I had my last burst,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was up to full speed, I was about 85 percent running. I didn’t feel like I had that last gear … this week, I’m back to full speed.”

As he discussed last week, Smallwood has maintained his focus and tried to learn from watching his teammates while on the sidelines. Given his desire to impress as a rookie and the fact that he’s never missed a game before in his football career, that’s obviously been a challenge. Running backs coach Duce Staley and veterans like Darren Sproles understand that and have paid close attention to Smallwood’s development.

“Darren talks to me all the time about it, he asks me every day how I’m doing and what I need to do,” Smallwood said. “I think just having him and the other running backs in my corner is definitely a positive.”

One facet that Smallwood has been constantly working on is his pass-blocking knowledge. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich on Tuesday stressed the importance of all his backs being strong in pass protection, and said he was encouraged by Smallwood’s progress in that phase of the game.

“Even though he was a great runner in college, you could see glimpses of him in the passing game, you could see him in protection, that he was a willing blocker,” Reich said. “And he had the aptitude when you talked to him in the interviews and when you watch film with him, you can see that he gets it and he processes it, and that’s a very important part of it. So his continued progress to get on the field is going to have to come in the passing game, as well.”

Smallwood is pleased with his understanding of the Eagles’ pass-blocking schemes, but he knows he always has to be on his toes, just in case a question flies his way.

“I think I’ve been progressing very well with [pass blocking,]” Smallwood said. “Just learning techniques and learning the system, all the calls the line has, and I think I’ve picked it up. Duce throws random questions at me and I’m right on time with them, so I think I’m doing very well in that area.”

On Saturday, he’ll be dealing with more than questions; Smallwood will have to pick up linebackers and safeties trying to hit his quarterback. He’s looking forward to it.

DL Martin (knee) day to day
Defensive lineman Mike Martin is another Eagle who has been frustrated by a lingering leg injury.

Like Smallwood, Martin has yet to play in the preseason. Since twisting his knee several weeks ago in training camp, Martin has mostly been on the sidelines. Now he’s back to practice, though Martin said he’s “just easing back into it, not trying to throw myself in there hard right off the bat.”

It seems unlikely that Martin will play against the Colts. While he classified his situation as “a day-by-day thing right now,” it’s hard to imagine him going from “easing back into it” to the heat of an NFL game.

While he’s been out, Martin, a third-round draft pick by the Titans in 2012, has aimed to learn as much as he can.

“Anytime you miss time and can’t be out there, it sucks, but I’ve been in my book and haven’t missed much on the mental side of it,” he said. “Every day I’m just trying to pick up where I left off.”

Once he returns, Martin can’t wait to play in Jim Schwartz’s defense and create chaos for opposing offenses along with Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and his other talented teammates on the defensive line.

“[This defense] is just an attack style, which is really great for me,” Martin said. “That’s the type of player I am and it fits me perfectly.”

Upon arrival, newest Eagles LB Stephen Tulloch ready — but for what?

Upon arrival, newest Eagles LB Stephen Tulloch ready — but for what?

Stephen Tulloch walked out of the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday afternoon chatting with new teammate Brandon Graham, while wearing a crisp white No. 54 jersey for his first practice.

Jim Schwartz wasn’t sure if Tulloch would make it onto the field Tuesday because of all the “administration stuff” the linebacker needed to do, including putting ink to paper. But as the Eagles took the field at around 1:30 p.m., Tulloch joined them. He wouldn’t miss it.

After all, practice is where the 31-year-old feels most comfortable.

Schwartz on Tuesday morning recalled a story from training camp several years ago, when, as the head coach of the Lions, he wanted to give Tulloch a veteran day off. The coaches even told the training staff that Tulloch wouldn’t be participating that day.

“He came in my office mad as a hornet and was ready to practice,” Schwartz said.

Tulloch then told his head coach that he was ruining his streak. Forget games — dating back to high school, the linebacker hadn’t missed a practice.

Schwartz admitted he’s not one for compromising, but did make a compromise that summer day. Tulloch was allowed to practice, but his reps were cut down some.

“He knows how I am. I prepare,” said Tulloch, who remembered the story. “To me, practice is more important than that game. When you miss a rep, you miss something and you can’t make it up. I try to be present every day that I’m out here on this field. We’re playing a kid’s game. I’m 31 years old and to be able to come out here and play this game, it’s pretty fun.”

Tulloch was 28 during the 2013 training camp and went on to play and start all 16 games in the 2013 season. In 2014, he played just three before tearing his ACL, but returned to play in all 16 last year.

Tulloch told Schwartz he has been working out twice per day while unemployed this summer. “Guys like that, they know how to get themselves ready,” Schwartz said.

“I have tremendous respect for guys that get 10 years in the NFL because you can’t make 10 years on talent alone,” Schwartz said. “You can’t make 10 years by being a try-hard guy. You gotta have a great combination of things and also in 10 years, you’re going to be working with different coaching staffs in 10 years. You gotta have the ability to work in a lot of different schemes, whether you’re an offensive player or a defensive player. I’ll bow down to guys who play 10 years in this league because that’s tough business.”

Tulloch has been a starter in the NFL for years but likely won’t have that role in Philly. The Eagles have a starting linebacker group of Jordan Hicks, Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham. Doug Pederson said Tulloch will compete at the middle linebacker spot, but Hicks is still the starter for now (see story).

For a long time, Tulloch was very good. He's one of just nine players in the league to have five interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries since 2006. And he’s played six of his 10 NFL seasons under Schwartz, who already has three of his former players in prominent roles this year.

Schwartz said Tulloch is “not here to replace anybody,” but added that a rotation isn’t out of the realm of possibility. The defensive coordinator, citing an analogy in which everyone brings something different to a party, said it’s important to accentuate each of his players' strengths.

Despite starting for most of his career, Tulloch in 2016 will likely be a backup, which includes playing special teams. Earlier in the week, Pederson said he wants to get Tulloch on at least one special teams unit. The veteran linebacker on Tuesday said he hasn’t played special teams since 2006 or 2007.

“Whatever’s asked of me, I’ll do,” Tulloch said.

Tulloch was informed of his release from Detroit in February, but he wasn’t officially cut by the Lions until July, after he healed completely from a minor ankle surgery. He said he felt good a long time ago, and had a couple other teams interested in him. Ultimately, though, he decided to join the Eagles and reunite with Schwartz, for whom he has great respect and whose defense he feels most comfortable in.

Even if Schwartz tries to make him take a day off.

“I just love football,” Tulloch said. “I think this is my 26th, 27th year of playing football. I started back in 1991 when I was five years old. It’s just a way of life for me. It’s something I do. I have a passion for practice, I have a passion for the game. I play hard, I work hard, I take care of my body. I do what I have to do.”

NFL Notes: Cowboys WR Dez Bryant out after concussion in practice

NFL Notes: Cowboys WR Dez Bryant out after concussion in practice

FRISCO, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant will miss the next preseason game after sustaining a concussion in practice.

Coach Jason Garrett said Tuesday that Bryant was hurt a day earlier when the receiver's head hit the shoulder pads of safety Barry Church. Garrett says Bryant was held out of the rest of that practice and will not play Thursday night at Seattle.

On his Twitter account Tuesday, Bryant promised Cowboys fans that he is OK.

Garrett said Bryant seemed "much better" Tuesday, and the coach doesn't think there is a long-term concern.

Bryant had four catches for 74 yards in two preseason games. He had a touchdown catch in each game.

Patriots: Brady ready after 'silly accident' with scissors cuts thumb
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady says he's ready to play after a "silly accident" cut his right thumb with a pair of scissors before the Patriots preseason game against the Bears last week.

Brady says he missed the first two practices this week for personal reasons, but he's available and ready to play as New England prepares to play at Carolina.

He says the accident with the scissors occurred when he was trying to get something out of his cleats and the scissors slipped and cut his thumb. Brady said he wanted to play, but coach Bill Belichick made the decision he'd sit out.

Brady has yet to appear in a game this preseason. He's got two remaining opportunities before the start of four-game regular-season NFL suspension for what the league says was his role in "Deflategate."

Bills: Receiver Marquise Goodwin sustains possible concussion
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin is being evaluated for a possible concussion sustained during practice on Tuesday.

Coach Rex Ryan would only say the player was placed in the NFL's concussion protocol, which makes it unlikely Goodwin will play in Buffalo's preseason game at Washington on Friday.

The fourth-year player was hurt when the back of his head slammed against the turf while attempting to make a catch in the end zone during a red-zone drill.

Ryan says he didn't have an update on the status of right tackle Jordan Mills, who hurt his knee and did not return.

Ryan expects Watkins and linebacker Manny Lawson to make their preseason debuts Friday. Watkins has practiced the past two weeks since recovering from surgery in April to repair a stress fracture in his left foot. Lawson missed the first two weeks of training camp with a partly torn chest muscle.