Philadelphia Eagles

Sanchez winning battle of USC backups, so far

ap-eagles-barkley-sanchez.jpg

Sanchez winning battle of USC backups, so far

His shoulder is feeling much better, his comfort with the offense is where it needs to be and his second season should be the time when Matt Barkley makes his move up the depth chart.

But when the Eagles held their third and final practice Thursday of their first OTA, Barkley was in the same place he was last year as a rookie, staring up at two quarterbacks.

Nick Foles took the first-team reps, newcomer Mark Sanchez was the next guy up and only then did Barkley get his turn with the offense.

“It’s been like that [for the first two days], so it didn’t come as a surprise to me,” Barkley said. “I didn’t know what to expect [going into OTAs]. I just agreed with the coaches and assumed that they know what’s best for the team. So I’m just trusting them and keeping working hard and trying to make the most of my reps.”

Barkley, the second-year pro from USC, said he doesn’t invest much thought into spring depth charts or hierarchy, but his body language suggested that he isn’t thrilled to play third fiddle once again.

The same quarterback who destroyed Pac-12 conference records is stuck behind two other Pac-12 signal callers whose college careers weren’t as decorated as his.

One of them, Sanchez, just missed an entire season after injuring his shoulder last preseason with the Jets, who had already moved on from him after two disappointing seasons.

“He’s also an NFL vet and he’s a pro,” Barkley conceded. “He trains like one. So I don’t have a say in it, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m dealing with what I can do and that’s make the most of the reps I have.”

Sanchez, culprit of the infamous “butt fumble,” likewise dismissed his current position right behind Foles on the QB totem pole.

After undergoing surgery that forced him to the sidelines all of last season and then finding his walking papers early this offseason, Sanchez’s objective right now is to get his bearings straight in a new city and new offense.

“I don’t really care about that,” he said about taking second-team reps ahead of Barkley. “I’m competing against myself. I’m competing against the defense. The quarterbacks, we compete against ourselves in the weight room, in the classroom, on the field.”

Asked if he felt his confidence boosted by running with the second team, Sanchez said he’s “not putting too much into those things.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he added. “I’m absorbing the offense. I’m learning it the very best I can and I’m competing my ass off. That’s what I’ve got to do and that’s all I can control.”

Depth charts in May and June rarely look the same in July, August and September. Last year, Chip Kelly referred to his inaugural depth chart as a seating chart written in sand.

This year, Kelly said he’s more certain about some of his starters but cautioned again about reading too much into who’s running where.

Last year, first-round pick Lane Johnson started his OTAs on the second-string offensive line. By next camp, he was already atop the depth chart at right tackle.

“Like I said, I dont even lose sleep over it,” Sanchez said. “It’s not a big deal. I’m doing everything I can to help this team. If my role is going to be helping Nick get ready for the season, help Nick get ready for Week 1 or a preseason game, I’m going to be ready to do whatever they need me to do.”

Barkley’s arm strength is back to normal this spring, more than a year removed from the shoulder injury during his senior season at USC that lingered into his rookie camp with the Eagles.

Although he completed 61.2 percent of his passes on 49 attempts last year, Barkley was also picked off four times and didn’t throw any touchdowns in his three cameos. He was sacked three times and registered a 44.6 passer rating.

Maybe that’s why Kelly wasn’t ready to hand Barkley the No. 2 job off the bat, but Barkley’s velocity is back and the offense doesn’t feel like a foreign language anymore.

“It feels like my offense now,” Barkley said. “Last year, it was kind of like Oregon’s offense, it felt like. But this year it feels like the offense that I’ve been running for a while now. All the calls, all the checks, it just comes to you quickly without having to think about it.”

Sanchez seemed like an odd choice for Kelly, who was looking for a veteran to replace Mike Vick. Kelly places a high premium on quarterbacks who demonstrate repetitive accuracy and limited turnovers.

For his career, Sanchez has completed just 55 percent of his passes and has 69 interceptions in 62 starts. His 3.7 interception percentage ranks 27th among active NFL quarterbacks.

But one reason he signed on to play for Kelly is the appeal of the coach’s spread offense and ultra-fast tempo, which Sanchez thinks can cater to his strengths.

“It’s constantly like a two-minute drill,” he said. “They expect you to blink fast and think fast and move fast, react to things, anticipate. It’s fun. It feels like a fast break. It feels like when Steve Nash was running with the Suns, just dishing the ball. That’s really the way they view the quarterback. Be the point guard, dish it out and roll.”

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.