Sanchez winning battle of USC backups, so far

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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.”

Stay or Go Part 9: Jalen Mills to Wendell Smallwood

Stay or Go Part 9: Jalen Mills to Wendell Smallwood

In the ninth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — part 9 is Mills to Smallwood.

Jalen Mills
Cap hit: $559K

Roob: Mills has all the tools to be a capable cornerback except world-class speed. He’s fearless, he’s cocky, he’s smart, he’s a hard worker. He just doesn’t have that make-up speed you want your top outside corners to have. I’ve seen enough positives from Mills that I definitely want him on my team. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a starter, but I definitely want him around.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Mills really got thrown into the fire as a seventh-round rookie, didn’t he? It wasn’t all good, but it wasn’t all bad either. It’s pretty obvious defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s loves Mills’ competitiveness. He doesn’t have top-end speed and that’s probably going to prevent him from ever becoming a top-of-the-line corner in the league. But there’s no reason he can’t stick around for a long time. He certainly has the right mindset to be a corner in the NFL and that’s a part of the battle. The Eagles really need to upgrade the corner position, which could greatly reduce Mills’ role, but he should still have one. 

Verdict: STAYS

Aaron Neary

Roob: Neary is a guard who spent the year on the Eagles’ practice squad.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: I’d say there’s a fair to good chance most of you have never heard of Aaron Neary. He’s an undrafted O-lineman out of Eastern Washington who was on the practice squad in 2016. I’d be lying if I told you I knew a lot about him. 

Verdict: GOES

Jason Peters
Cap hit: $11.7M

Roob: Cut Jason Peters at your own risk. You want the $9.2 million cap savings that the Eagles would gain by releasing the perennial Pro Bowler? Find it somewhere else. Because some guys simply should never be released. Peters is an all-time great Eagle and unless his level of play drops off dramatically, he should be allowed to decide when it’s time to go. Only Chuck Bednarik has been picked to more Pro Bowls than Peters in Eagles history. Peters rebounded from a subpar 2015 with a vintage Peters season this past year. Considering that the Eagles have a promising young quarterback who has to be protected and considering that Lane Johnson is one more positive test from a two-year suspension, Peters has to stay. I don’t care what the cap savings would be by getting rid of him. He’s too good and means too much to cut him. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Sure, the Eagles could save over $9 million in cap room if they cut Peters, but who would they get to play? While they’d be fine moving Lane Johnson to left tackle, they’d then be relying on Halapoulivaati Vaitai to play right tackle. And while that might be the plan in coming years, it would weaken the team in 2017. Peters might not be the dominant force he once was, but he had a very good season and he was able to play 97 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, which is huge. He gets paid a lot, but he’s still worth it. 

Verdict: STAYS

Isaac Seumalo
Cap hit: $764K

Roob: I asked Jason Kelce about Seumalo back in training camp and Kelce said he thinks the third-round pick will one day be a Pro Bowl center. Pretty clear Seumalo is the heir apparent to Kelce, it’s just a matter of when the transition occurs. Kelce wasn’t as awful as some people seem to think. He actually finished the season strong. But I think Kelce goes this offseason and Seumalo is your opening-day center in 2017. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Seumalo’s rookie year was a really interesting one. It started with a pec strain in training camp that slowed him down, but eventually ended with his getting some real experience. In all, Seumalo played six different positions in 2016: right tackle, right guard, left guard, left tackle, fullback and tight end. He didn’t even play center, which might be his most natural spot. I think he’ll have a real shot to be the team’s opening-day starter at left guard. 

Verdict: STAYS

Aziz Shittu

Roob: Rookie defensive tackle spent the year on the practice squad. Depending on what happens with Bennie Logan in free agency, the Eagles could be on the prowl for defensive tackle depth this offseason, and Shittu is an interesting guy. He had a good training camp last year coming off a solid career at Stanford and it’s fair to say he has a chance, depending on what the Eagles do in the draft and free agency. Going with my instincts on this one.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: I actually really liked Shittu coming out of Stanford and not just because I giggle like a schoolgirl every time I hear his name. For an interior defensive lineman, he has some real pass rushing potential. I think he would have been the undrafted guy to make the team over Destiny Vaeao had he not missed the spring because of the silly college graduation/quarters rule. I’d like to see him get a legitimate shot to stick here. It’s a longshot, but I’m going to take a chance with this one. I think he can make the roster. 

Verdict: STAYS

Wendell Smallwood
Cap hit: $601K

Roob: We spend so much time talking about the Eagles’ desperate needs at cornerback and wide receiver that it’s easy to forget they're just as desperate at running back. Assuming Ryan Mathews isn’t back, the Eagles will have a real need for a No. 1 back. You can’t draft or sign every position. So Smallwood could get a real shot at the lead back role. Can he handle the role or is he best suited to be a No. 2? Not sure yet. I like how Smallwood responded when he got double-digit carries against the Steelers, Falcons and Seahawks. Averaged 4.2 yards in those three games. And he had nine runs of 10 yards or more out of just 77 carries. I know Smallwood is a player. I’m just not sure where he’ll fit in. Maybe it’s the No. 28 jersey, but at worst I see him as a Correll Buckhalter-type, a solid No. 2 back who can fill in once in a while as a lead guy. At best? We’ll see. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Smallwood might not be the true answer at the running back position, but he proved enough to earn a roster spot next year and a role in the offense. I’m not sure if his ceiling is very high, but he got better throughout the year, specifically as a blocker. He’ll be back for Year 2. 

Verdict: STAYS

Villanova's Tanoh Kpassagnon ready to put himself, Wildcats on NFL map

Villanova's Tanoh Kpassagnon ready to put himself, Wildcats on NFL map

MOBILE, Ala. — A couple days ago, Tanoh Kpassagnon received a text message from one of his school’s most famous alumni, Brian Westbrook.

On Tuesday morning, as he readied himself for the week of Senior Bowl practices leading up to Saturday’s game, Kpassagnon kept Westbrook’s message at the forefront of his mind.

“Just embrace the moment,” Kpassagnon said, relaying Westbrook’s message. “Don’t take anything for granted, and I belong here.”

Kpassagnon, 22, has a chance to join an elite group in April. There haven’t been many Villanova football players taken in the NFL draft, especially recently, but the big defensive lineman has a good chance to join the list.

In addition to Westbrook, Kpassagnon has also received some advice to help him through the pre-draft process from Hall of Famer Howie Long, the most famous Wildcat to make it in the NFL.

“It would be really cool to represent my school like that,” Kpassagnon said.

The last Villanova football player to be drafted was OL Ben Ijalana in the second round of the 2011 draft. Ijalana is one of just three Wildcats drafted since the early '80s. Kpassagnon is listed as a third-round prospect by CBS Sports.

Despite the Wildcats’ recent success on the football field at the FCS level, Villanova is, of course, known for its basketball program. Kpassagnon wants to do his small part to help the football team gain some recognition.

Coming out of Ambler's Wissahickon High School, the interest in Kpassagnon was lukewarm at best. But once Villanova showed interest, some other CAA schools followed. Ultimately, Kpassagnon settled on going to Villanova, which made his mother happy because he would be staying close. And ultimately, he thinks going to a small school was best for him.

“Definitely,” he said. “I know some other programs, they kind of pass by guys if you’re not ready yet. And definitely coming in as a freshman, I wasn’t ready. Villanova really took the time to develop me. My coaches really believed in me, saw what I could do. I think going to Villanova was a blessing.”

A blessing can sometimes be a curse, though. While Kpassagnon tore up his level of competition, being named the CAA Defensive Player of the Year, he’ll have to shake off the small school and FCS stigma.

That starts this week, which Kpassagnon said is probably one of the most important weeks of his life.

What does he need to show NFL teams?

“I can hang with the big boys,” said Kpassagnon, who was stuck on the South team as an FCS player. “... Villanova has kind of a reputation for basketball, not football, even though our football program is awesome. I kind of have to show that I can hang with the SEC guys, bigger schools.”

This season, Kpassagnon played against Pitt tackle Adam Bisnowaty, who is also at the Senior Bowl. Kpassagnon is looking forward to facing him and some other top tackles this week.

Physically, hanging with the big guys won’t be a problem. Kpassagnon is one of the biggest. At Senior Bowl weigh-in on Tuesday morning, he came in just shy of 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds. He was listed at 290 all season but said the 280 wasn’t a surprise and that he played at that weight all season. NFL teams want him to bulk up some more, so maybe he’ll be able to do it before the combine in early March.

But for now, Kpassagnon's focus is on showing NFL teams that he belongs. That starts with a good week of practice at the Senior Bowl.

“One of my best friend’s dads told me this going into college,” Kpassagnon said. “You want the coach to say your name at least once or twice per practice, for something good. I sort of took that with me to college and I’m trying to bring that here. I’m going to try to make a play or two each practice.”

When asked if the coaches will pronounce his name correctly, Kpassagnon smiled and said he’s heard it every way imaginable.

tawn-o pass-N-yo

This week, he has a chance to put his name and Villanova football’s on the map.