Philadelphia Eagles

Rob's Rants: Brian Dawkins, Rhys Hoskins and Ozark

Rob's Rants: Brian Dawkins, Rhys Hoskins and Ozark

Here's the latest edition of Rob's Rants in which CSNPhilly's Rob Ellis does just that about the hottest topics in Philly sports.

Coach Dawk
When Brian Dawkins rejoined the Eagles organization as a football operations executive prior to last season, his role appeared to be that of a scout and/or conduit to the younger players to help teach them the ropes of the NFL. But something that’s become apparent at this year’s training camp is this: Dawkins has been doing some coaching and on-field instruction as well. Two players in particular he has been working with this summer are rookie corner Rasul Douglas and second-year man C.J. Smith. 

What better resource to have as an added voice for a young player than Dawkins? He’s played the game at the highest level. He’s not too far removed from the game, having retired in 2011, that these guys haven’t seen him play or don’t remember him. And no player epitomizes or understands this city better than Dawk — and what it takes to succeed here. Dawkins had incredible talent but was driven by an insatiable work ethic. Here’s hoping the young Birds defensive backs have half his talent and all his drive. 

16 > 18
I’ve never been a proponent of expanding the NFL regular season schedule to 18 games. I fully understand how brutal four preseason games are and how bad it stinks for fans to have to pay for these so-called exhibitions. 

The problem is, the NFL is a league of attrition. A major injury can derail a team's season. Accordingly, the ones in the preseason play sparingly. Yes there’s injury risk, but it is on a much smaller scale. Add in two more regular season games, and you’re all in – and therefore the injury risk increases dramatically. Not to mention the long-term, cumulative effect increased blows to the head could have on these players at the end of their careers. 

That said, the preseason is useful evaluation tool to fill out the bottom of a roster. While camp and OTAs are important in gauging talent, coaches like to see these guys in game conditions. Reducing it to two games would make it more difficult to for the under-drafted or undrafted to carve out a roster spot.

Out in left field
Why did it take until Aug. 7 for the Phillies organization to try Rhys Hoskins in left field? This could be an extremely short-lived experiment if Hoskins is a butcher out there, but shouldn’t the club have tried this a little earlier in the year? 

As things look now, the big league club could have the makings of three starters in Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams.  And I realize Altherr's trip to the disabled list may have changed things. But while the club was slogging through Michael Saunders and Cameron Perkins and Ty Kelly in the outfield earlier this year, Hoskins' call-up could have been expedited instead of being blocked by Tommy Joseph at first if they had tried this in May or June.   

"Couple of weeks ago, they said, 'Hey, go run around the outfield a little bit during BP,'" Hoskins said pregame Monday in an interview with CSNPhilly's Marshall Harris. "It was good, get my conditioning up, keep it up towards the end of the year here. Then they told me, 'Hey, start taking it a little bit more serious, getting reads off the bat.' They talked to me about it a little bit, I felt comfortable out there and here we are tonight."

Matt Klentak has been steadfast in saying that Hoskins needed nearly an entire season of Triple A at-bats, and he’s put up big time offensive numbers. But if Hoskins had showed some promise early in the outfield at that level, is there a chance we could have seen him sooner in South Philly? The Phils tried to move Joseph at the trade deadline to no avail. His offensive power numbers are decent, but his other metrics are poor. If Joseph had been moved, this conversation is moot and Hoskins is playing first. But it seems strange to do this now. 

Ozark
Let me start by saying, I have never seen a full episode of Game of Thrones. Don’t @ me. I realize I am in the minority. My colleagues in the newsroom here at CSN, when not watching or talking Philadelphia sports, are discussing Thrones. The only way I can sum it up is, it’s not my cup of tea. I will however give a ringing endorsement to Ozark on Netflix. I’ve always been a big Jason Bateman fan, and he is excellent both as the lead and directing several episodes. It’s dark and twisted, but the story arc is intense and the acting is phenomenal.          

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.