Philadelphia Eagles

Pederson expects Kelce back; how about other expensive vets?

Pederson expects Kelce back; how about other expensive vets?

INDIANAPOLIS -- If the Eagles are planning on cutting or trading long-time center Jason Kelce, no one has told head coach Doug Pederson.

Shortly after his podium session on Wednesday inside the convention center at the combine, Pederson was asked if he expects Kelce to be back on the team next season.

"I do," Pederson said without hesitation.

"Listen, he's a player that's under contract, a Pro Bowl player who has been a tremendous asset to the team, so yeah."

Kelce, 29, is coming off a Pro Bowl season but has been labeled as a possible salary cap casualty this offseason. In 2017, his cap number rises to $6.2 million and the Eagles would save $3.8 million if they cut or trade him.

Eagles vice president of football operations Howie Roseman wouldn't commit to Kelce's return. But when he was asked about the center, Roseman praised him.

"Jason Kelce was a second-team Pro Bowler, has been a huge contributor to our football team," Roseman said. "I don't want to get into specifics of any player individually because that will open the door to every other player. But certainly appreciate the tremendous value that he's had and had for our young quarterback this season."

The Eagles have shown that they'll skip no expense to give Carson Wentz every tool he needs. They signed Chase Daniel to be a mentor, blocked quarterbacks coach John DeFillipo from leaving and it looks like they're going to keep a more expensive option at center to keep continuity. The Eagles are also keeping left tackle Jason Peters at his $10.7 million cap hit in 2017.

Back on Feb. 8, the Eagles cut cornerback Leodis McKelvin. Since then, things have been slow.

Kelce, of course, is among some of the tough decisions the club needs to make. Another is defensive end Connor Barwin, who shares the same agent. The Eagles, coming into the week, were expected to meet with their agent while in Indianapolis.

"You don't want to pay for a guy for what he's done," Roseman said. "You have to figure out what his value is going forward and what he's making."

So that brings up plenty of questions about Barwin, who is coming off a relative down season in his first year in Jim Schwartz's 4-3 defense. He had just five sacks in 2016.

Will Barwin be worth his $8.35 million cap hit in 2017, or does it make more sense to cut him and save $7.75 million in cap space?

"You talk about Connor and what he's meant to our football team on and off the field," Roseman said. "There were a lot of questions about his ability to play in a 4-3. And he did it and he did a really good job with it. Obviously, we're not going to get into whoever you guys ask me about. We're not going to get into specifics of who's going to be back and who's not. Certainly, when you talk about Connor, he's got all those traits we're talking about here, about guys who have done a good job and still have stuff left in the tank."

If Barwin still has "stuff left in the tank," the Eagles' decision to hold onto him this long might make sense. Instead of cutting him, perhaps the Eagles can trade him to another club and recoup at least some sort of asset. 

Another veteran player who would be a logical cut is veteran running back Ryan Mathews, who is set to have a $5 million cap hit and is coming off a significant neck injury.

"Ryan is doing great," Roseman said. "We fully expect him to be ready to play. He's under contract and I think it's as simple as that."

Only it's probably not as simple as that. The Eagles would save $4 million in cap space by cutting the oft-injured Mathews – a move that would seem to make a lot of sense -- but it's not that easy thanks to his injury.

When asked in general terms, Roseman said league rules prohibit teams from cutting an injured player.

So maybe the Eagles' hands are tied there until they can figure out some sort of injury settlement.

But for decisions about the other guys, the clock is ticking.

The legal-tampering window begins on March 7 and free agency begins two days after. So it would appear March 9 would be a deadline for when the Eagles want to make these decisions. Roseman isn't giving himself that deadline.

"There's no deadline on the decision-making," he said. "We don't have a drop-dead date. For us, again, it goes back to information gathering, getting as much as possible, seeing the potential options for us. We don't want to do something shortsighted and lose and opportunity. And it's easy to talk about all the players you want to get rid of, but do you have a plan to replace them?"

Wendell Smallwood ready for his 'chance to take it' in Eagles' next preseason game

Wendell Smallwood ready for his 'chance to take it' in Eagles' next preseason game

Don't give that fourth running back spot to Corey Clement just yet.

Wendell Smallwood isn't going to go down quietly.

Smallwood, the Eagles' second-year running back from West Virginia, is back practicing with no restrictions after missing nearly two weeks with a hamstring injury.

Smallwood has yet to play in a preseason game, and with undrafted rookie Clement acquitting himself well both at practice and in the first couple preseason games, the pressure is on Smallwood to produce soon to secure a roster spot.

“It was real frustrating," Smallwood said after practice Monday. "Just missing those reps, missing two straight preseason games, not being able to get better. You get better with those game reps and those practice reps, so I think I need to start taking advantage of every one I have."

Smallwood got hurt two weeks ago Monday, and although he returned on a limited basis last week, Monday's practice with the Dolphins was his first with no restrictions since he got hurt.

He looked good. He looked fast and physical. And he said he finally feels 100 percent.

“I think so," he said. "I feel good. Today I forgot about it. Wasn’t even thinking about the injury. Didn’t think twice about cuts, running, bursting, anything like that. I think I got it back.

"It’s a huge relief just because last week practicing I could sense that it was still there and I was still kind of thinking about it, and the coaches could sense it, so being this week, I’m full go, it’s not bothering me. You could see I got some of my burst back. I’m good."

Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Monday that Smallwood is more of an every-down back than he first realized.

"You know, I think Wendell is a true three-down back," he said. "When we first drafted him, I kind of looked at him as more like a first- and second-down back. I thought he would be OK on third down, but really he's turned out to be better on third down than I thought.

"So really I think he is a very versatile back who knows protections very well, who runs good routes, who catches the ball well. And then I think he's a slashing runner on first and second down, so we like that combination. He's done very well. He works very hard at it. Love him mentally, and really glad he's in the mix."

Smallwood played well early last year before he admittedly got out of shape, hurt his knee and wound up on injured reserve.

He ran for 79 yards against the Steelers and 70 against the Falcons — the Eagles' two biggest wins of the year — before fading later in the season.

He said learning how to work through an injury is an important lesson for a young NFL player.

"I’m definitely more equipped in my second year getting hurt than my first year because I dealt with it differently," he said. "I let it get to me a lot and kind of shied away from the game, but this year I got more into the game.

“It was frustrating, but I stayed into the game plan, stayed in my playbook, [and] I didn’t let it get to me. I stayed dialed in. It was frustrating to me, but I know what I can do and I know what I’m capable of. I’m right back out here and I’m ready to go, and I’m full go."

Much has been made of the Eagles' struggles running the ball this preseason.

LeGarrette Blount is averaging 1.9 yards on nine carries, rookie fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey has two yards on seven carries, Clement and Byron Marshall are both averaging under 4.0 yards per carry, and Darren Sproles and Smallwood haven't gotten any carries.

As a group, the Eagles' running backs are averaging 2.4 yards per carry.

The Eagles finish the preseason against the Dolphins at the Linc Thursday — the first offense is expected to play into the third quarter — and at the Meadowlands against the Jets, when most starters won't paly.

Smallwood knows people are already questioning the Eagles' running game.

“We sense it, we hear it, but like Doug (Pederson) said, we’re not going to overreact, we’re not going to underreact," he said. "It’s preseason, we’re going to get better at it, we know what we’re capable of doing. We’re not going to let it get to us that much.

“This game is going to be the one where we dial up the run and show how we can run the ball."

And it needs to be the game that Smallwood does the same thing.

“I’m definitely very hungry," he said. "I missed a lot of reps and missed a lot of game reps that could have made me better. So this is my chance to take it and go full throttle.

“It’s the game, man. It’s my welcome home party. I’m back on the field, going to go out there, I'm going to get some plays, I’m going to get some runs, going to get some passes. It’s real important for me."

Smallwood finished last year with a 4.1 rushing average, becoming only the fourth Eagles rookie running back to rush for 300 yards with an average of 4.0 or more in the last 35 years (also Correll Buckhalter, LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown).

And he felt before the injury he had come a long way from his rookie year.

“I definitely think I took that step," he said. "From last year to this year, I took that leap that I needed, and I think just my running, I was more dialed in, my shoulder pads were getting low, I was running through people instead of trying to run around. I wasn’t thinking so much. I was just playing with confidence.

"Now I’ve just got to do it Thursday night — and every day we’re out here at practice."

Ronald Darby has potential to change how frequent Eagles blitz

Ronald Darby has potential to change how frequent Eagles blitz

The Eagles blitzed early and often during their second exhibition game against the Bills last week, and unlike much of what we see in preseason, it actually could be a sign of what’s to come.

No NFL defense used a standard four-man pass rush with greater frequency than the Eagles in 2016 at 79.3 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders Almanac. (Conversely, the team that rushed four the fewest was the Jets at 49.2 percent.) This has long been the philosophy of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who prefers to generate pressure from the front four without drawing on help from linebackers and defensive backs.

Schwartz also may have been more hesitant to blitz than usual last season out of fear a weak secondary would not be able to hold up in coverage. Now that the Eagles acquired cornerback Ronald Darby in a trade, the defense may have the freedom to send additional pressure.

“A lot of times, your blitz really depends on how well your corners are going,” Schwartz said Monday after practice (see 10 observations). “The more help you're getting in the corners, obviously, the less guys that you can use to blitz, so they certainly both go hand in hand.”

The Bills game almost certainly does not represent a fundamental shift in Schwartz’s strategy. The Eagles are not expected to go from blitzing the least in the league to sending extra rushers on every other play.

It’s only preseason — a time when coaches are evaluating everything.

“We didn't scheme up, we used more of our scheme,” Schwartz said. “Everything that we ran in that game, we had run 50 times in training camp. It was all sort of base stuff, but there were some different things we were looking at.”

So nothing to see here, right? Maybe, but if nothing else, this goes to show Schwartz is working from a larger playbook than it might have seemed in '16, when the Eagles rigidly sent four rushers down after down.

Having a potential shutdown cornerback in Darby, or at least a competent tandem along with Jalen Mills, could provide the Eagles' defense with the flexibility it sorely lacked last season. It may merely be a matter of getting Darby up to speed in the system, considering his arrival was less than two weeks ago.

“He's pretty close,” Schwartz said. “There are some situations that don't come up very often where he's still maybe a step slow when a safety makes a call, but everything is installed.

“He has it. It's just a matter of repping it enough times that he feels comfortable with it, and we're still a work in progress there.”

Darby impressed in his Eagles debut last Thursday, recording one interception and letting another go through his fingertips (see story). However, the third-year defensive back is coming off of a down season in Buffalo, so it’s not necessarily a given he’ll continue producing at a high level.

In order for Schwartz to feel comfortable with getting creative, Darby must continue to demonstrate not only his individual ability, but that he’s also able to work in concert with the rest of the secondary.

“There is something with a corner and safety communication,” Schwartz said. “The safety is making calls, there’s a lot of moving parts — motion can change a technique the corner makes, and anticipating that motion, and sort of being one step ahead — so it certainly would help a corner to have that.”

Since his arrival, Darby has already changed the complexion of the defense, putting another playmaker in the secondary. The Eagles are making some tweaks to his technique — he’s working with legendary safety Brian Dawkins, and catching balls from the JUGS machine in the hopes of converting more pass breakups into picks.

And if Darby turns out to be everything the Eagles hope, he may even allow the Eagles' defense to get after the quarterback a bit more.