Wheel route abundant in Eagles' offense

ap-eagles-lesean-mccoy.jpg

Wheel route abundant in Eagles' offense

Chip Kelly’s newest weapon is showing off in training camp, embarrassing a defense powerless to find an answer. And his name isn’t Jordan Matthews, Ifeanyi Momah or Cary Spear.

It’s not even a he, actually. It’s an it.

One of the most prominently featured patterns throughout the first three Eagles practices is the wheel route, a simple but prolific route designed to get running backs involved in the passing game.

Time and time again last week, quarterbacks dropped back, surveyed the landscape and found that their best target was the guy who’s usually carrying the ball.

“You’re seeing it a lot, right?” LeSean McCoy said. “The thing is, how do you stop speedy, athletic, shifty backs that can run and also run routes?”

That’s the question Kelly hopes defensive coordinators can’t answer this season as he attempts to defend his first-year NFC East championship and advance past the first round of the postseason with an offense that no longer flaunts premier big-play wideout DeSean Jackson.

In McCoy and Darren Sproles, Kelly has two of the league’s best dual-threat weapons. Both are in the top five for catches by a running back since 2009, so it makes sense that he’d open the playbook to incorporate them more into the passing game.

The wheel route can create dangerous mismatches, especially against man defense, by pitting a sure-handed halfback in space against an outside linebacker or safety.

In the Eagles’ wheel route, the halfback usually lines up next to the quarterback in shotgun, giving a pass-protection look. After the snap, the running back heads for the sideline, giving the impression of a screen or quick flare, but suddenly rotates upfield -- hence the term “wheel route” -- to catch the defense off guard.

“You want it versus man (defense),” Sproles said. “When you get a linebacker on you, you got a good chance.”

After Jackson’s release, people naturally wondered how the Eagles would replace the wideout’s vertical threat, how they’d counteract defenses that would be more aggressive on blitzes without having to worry about getting beaten deep.

Jackson’s career 17.2 yards-per-reception average is third-highest among active wideouts. Since 2008, he and Mike Wallace have the league’s most receiving touchdowns of 30 or more yards.

Instead of trying to find Jackson’s clone, Kelly diversified his offense. He traded for Sproles, one of the best route-running tailbacks in league history, and dealt power rusher Bryce Brown to clear the way for Chris Polk’s integration into the offense.

McCoy last year totaled 539 receiving yards, seventh-most among running backs. He averaged 10.37 yards per catch, the highest of any running back with at least 27 receptions. Since 2007, Sproles leads all NFL running backs with 375 receptions, 3,371 receiving yards and 27 receiving touchdowns. Polk played wide receiver in high school and last year caught a 34-yard pass against Dallas on a wheel route.

What Kelly lacks in blazing outside speed, he compensates with more dimensions to his spread, no-huddle offense. He can insert Sproles for McCoy to get an even better pass catcher at running back. Or he can put McCoy and Sproles in the backfield together, forcing defenses to pick their poison. Or he can put Sproles in the slot and run the wheel route from an inside receiver position.

We haven’t even mentioned Polk yet.

And those are just obvious personnel groupings. With Kelly, opponents have come to expect the unexpected.

“We have a lot of guys that can do more than run the ball,” Polk said. “Especially if a [linebacker] is on us. We feel we should win that matchup anytime. We’ve gotta get open.”

Eagles linebackers have already felt the sting of Kelly’s new toy. On Sunday, the second day of camp, outside linebacker Bryan Braman drew Sproles in coverage during a scrimmage. Sproles headed toward the right flat, then suddenly burst upfield while Braman’s momentum took him toward the sideline.

A rhino had a better chance of tracking down a cheetah. Forty yards later, a perfectly thrown ball by Foles settled in Sproles’ hands while Braman ate dust. Later, a wheel route by Polk turned into a big gain when linebacker Casey Matthews tumbled into a defensive back while trying to rotate over.

“I love those routes,” Polk said. “If it were my call, I’d love to run all of them. I just love catching and running, especially when it’s man-to-man. My eyes open up, you start salivating. It’s a great feeling.”

10 Eagles to watch during 2017 training camp

csn_eagles_training_camp_2017_640x360.jpg
USA Today Images/CSN

10 Eagles to watch during 2017 training camp

The Eagles kick off their 2017 training camp this week for a season with higher expectations than a year ago. 

A big reason for that is because Carson Wentz is entering his second season after an up-and-down, yet promising, rookie campaign. We're not going to list him as a player to watch because we're all going to watch him anyway. 

Another big reason for optimism is plenty of newcomers. Many of them are listed. 

Here are 10 players to watch during Eagles training camp 2017: 

Nelson Agholor 
We mentioned the newcomers, but let's start with a guy who has been here for a couple of disappointing seasons. Agholor will probably never live up to his draft status, but now it's just about making him a decent NFL player. This spring, he was the best receiver on the field, which was undeniable as it was infuriating to fans. Because it just hasn't translated into games and until it does, no one will care much. But it's worth watching to see if he can continue his impressive offseason. Maybe this year, with a reduced role, he won't be a headcase. 

Derek Barnett
The first-round pick showed some impressive signs during the spring, especially when he beat Lane Johnson a few times 1-on-1. But now the pads go on and the real football begins. Barnett has a real chance to not just earn playing time but also earn a starting job during this training camp. 

Ron Brooks/Joe Walker
We cheated a little here by lumping these two together, but it kind of makes sense. Both are coming back from serious injuries, which is why we need to see what they can do. Walker tore his ACL during the preseason a year ago. Before he did, he was set to be the team's backup middle linebacker. It wasn't until his injury that the Eagles went out and signed Stephen Tulloch. And Brooks was playing OK as the Eagles' slot cornerback before his ruptured quad tendon in October. Jim Schwartz seems to really like him, but many folks have seemingly forgotten about Brooks this offseason. 

Timmy Jernigan
Of all the newcomers, Jernigan might be the most overlooked, but could also make the biggest impact. He's here with just one year left on his contract but will get a chance to put up some serious numbers while playing next to Fletcher Cox on the interior line. 

LeGarrette Blount
Blount reportedly has language written into his contract that gives him bonuses based on staying under 250 pounds. Even if he's under 250, Blount is still a big back, about 20 pounds heavier than rookie Corey Clement. Blount is up there in age and had a huge workload for the Patriots last season. How much does he have left? 

Rasul Douglas 
Of all the Eagles' rookies, Douglas might need to have the most immediate impact. The third-round pick might be thrust into a major role this season just because of the lack of talent at the cornerback position. He was impressive in the spring but is bound to have ups and downs as a rookie. 

Alshon Jeffery 
The Eagles actually have a real No. 1 receiver. Jeffery made some spectacular catches during the spring, but he and Wentz need to build their rapport, which they had extra time to do when the receivers went to North Dakota. We'll see how far along he and Wentz are soon enough. 

Donnel Pumphrey
It's pretty shocking to see how small Pumphrey looks without pads, especially standing next to Blount. How will the Eagles use the tiny running back? Will he be more of a receiver out of the backfield and in the slot? And can his body really hold up in the NFL? 

Isaac Seumalo 
Yeah, we're telling you an interior offensive lineman is a guy to watch. Seumalo has a real chance to beat out Allen Barbre for the starting left guard position. Either way, Seumalo figures into the Eagles' plans for the future as a guard or as the center who eventually takes over for Jason Kelce. 

Mack Hollins
Of the rookie receivers, Hollins was clearly more impressive this spring. I became convinced Hollins can play football in shorts and a helmet. Now, we'll get to see how he does when the pads go on. With his size/speed combo, he's certainly an intriguing prospect.

NFL Notes: As Cowboys prep for training camp, Jerry Jones backs Ezekiel Elliott again

usa-ezekiel-elliott.jpg
USA Today Images

NFL Notes: As Cowboys prep for training camp, Jerry Jones backs Ezekiel Elliott again

OXNARD, Calif. -- Jerry Jones interjected some bad-boy anecdotes from his youth, smiled at the thought of life before social media and even asked a couple of questions himself Sunday at his annual training camp opener with reporters.

When the topic is the multitude of off-field issues confronting the Dallas Cowboys -- headlined by star running back Ezekiel Elliott -- their owner, president and general manager can dance with the best of them.

"I can give you the same old excuses -- young, aggressive, got a lot of energy," Jones said. "Hard to paint that picture of the days when it won't be this easy, they won't be as pretty and they won't have the money. Somehow you've got to paint the picture."

Elliott is still waiting for clearance from the NFL on a year-old domestic violence case that prosecutors didn't pursue. The NFL rushing leader last season as a rookie, Elliott didn't help himself with his involvement in a bar fight a week before the Cowboys flew to California for camp.

Jones reiterated his belief that Elliott wasn't guilty of domestic violence in a dispute with his ex-girlfriend last summer in Columbus, Ohio, where he starred for Ohio State. But the Dallas owner still wouldn't speculate on whether Elliott will get suspended.

The Cowboys will have two suspended defensive players when the season starts in pass rushers David Irving and Randy Gregory. Two more could be: cornerback Nolan Carroll (drunken-driving charge) and linebacker Damien Wilson (aggravated assault charges).

Receiver Dez Bryant was late to report at the team's practice facility in suburban Dallas on Friday, a day before he was on the team flight to California. Irving decided to stay in California rather than report in Texas, and running back Darren McFadden missed the charter flight (see full story).

Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald motivated by quest for championship
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Training camp is a drag at this point in Larry Fitzgerald's long and accomplished NFL career. Of course, the quest for the ring is the main reason the 14-year veteran continues to play.

The longtime Arizona Cardinals wide receiver isn't sure what his future holds as far as retirement.

"That's the only reason I'm playing at this point," Fitzgerald said Sunday, the second day of Cardinals training camp. "From a personal standpoint, things I've accomplished, they're fine. But the thing that you will say is out of your control because you're in a team sport is a championship."

Fitzgerald said he feels good, and when retirement comes there won't be a podium or tears because "that's not who I am."

Yet it is important to him to still be productive as a player when he decides to step away. Fitzgerald admitted it would be a struggle to accept a diminished role due to not being able to give 100 percent.

"The end is never really pretty for elite athletes. It never looks good. You watch Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards uniform or see Tony Dorsett playing for the Denver Broncos. ... It's weird because you're used to seeing them at their most dominant stage," Fitzgerald said. "For me, I really want to do things at a high level and be able to walk away and still be someone who can play at a high level."

Fitzgerald has asked others who are closer to retirement or have retired about their thought process going into it. He's been doing that for the last few years, checking in with the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Tony Gonzalez.

For now, he still enjoys being around teammates and staff, asking questions in an effort to improve as a player and setting an example and providing leadership for young players (see full story).

Browns: Rookie Peppers signs, full class under contract
CLEVELAND -- Browns rookie defensive back Jabrill Peppers has signed and now Cleveland's entire draft class is under contract.

Peppers and the Browns had been haggling over guaranteed money on his four-year-deal, which is worth $10.3 million and includes a $5.6 million signing bonus.

The Browns chose Peppers -- one of Cleveland's three first-round selections -- with the No. 25 overall pick. The former Michigan standout played numerous positions for the Wolverines, but the Browns will try him at strong safety and as a kick returner.

Peppers may have been passed over by other teams after he had a diluted urine sample at the scouting combine. Peppers was placed in the first stage of the NFL's substance abuse policy, but he can be cleared from the program after 90 days if he has not positive tests.

Cleveland's rookies were scheduled to report to training camp Sunday night with the veterans arriving on Wednesday. The Browns will open their second training camp under coach Hue Jackson on Thursday.