Wheel route abundant in Eagles' offense

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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.”

An NFL prospect, Villanova's Tanoh Kpassagnon has brawn with brains to match

An NFL prospect, Villanova's Tanoh Kpassagnon has brawn with brains to match

A physical specimen, with the brains to match.

It's hard to understate the impression you get from meeting Tanoh Kpassagnon in person.

I read an article before meeting him that said his "abs had abs" and that he sported a minuscule 4 percent body fat. He laughed when I brought it up to him and said he wasn't so sure about the 4 percent body fat but that he loves to work out and get stronger, and he has been that way since high school.

Besides being a gym rat in the weight room, the 'Nova product was down to earth and easy to talk to. So much so we talked about what food we liked to cook and exchanged some tips on how to keep your mashed potatoes smooth and silky.

Kpassagnon moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Philly in the sixth grade and partly got turned on to football by watching the Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins and Brian Westbrook Eagles in the 2000s.

His proud parents don't know much about pigskin but are over the moon about his success and growing notoriety. He said he just wants to join an NFL team and build a bond with a new group of guys.

With his skill set, I imagine it won't be long before his name is called on Day 2 and his impact could go well beyond his draft position.

2017 NFL mock draft roundup: Who's rising and falling?

2017 NFL mock draft roundup: Who's rising and falling?

All the mock drafts and speculation will be over Thursday when the players get announced in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art during the 2017 NFL draft.

As we approach the finish line, let's see what some of the experts think about what the Eagles might do at No. 14.

Mel Kiper, ESPN - Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State

Conley has been linked to the Eagles on what seems like a daily basis. Earlier in the process, Conley was overshadowed by teammate Marshon Lattimore, a likely top-10 pick. After impressing at the combine, Conley has put himself in position to be the second cornerback off the board.

Kiper's take: "Conley, another riser after the combine, is the veteran of the three Buckeyes defensive backs I have going in the top 14 picks. Philadelphia let Nolan Carroll II walk in free agency after he started 16 games last season, and the Eagles brought in former first-round pick Patrick Robinson on a one-year deal to compete at corner. Coordinator Jim Schwartz's defense is thin on the boundaries."

Analysis: There is definitely a strong case to be made for Conley as the second-best corner in the draft. He's excellent in coverage and should be an NFL starter from Day 1. With that said, you might be able to get more value with this pick. Kiper has the Eagles passing on Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett (one of my draft crushes), Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, and wideouts Corey Davis (Western Michigan) and Mike Williams (Clemson). With the depth at the corner position, I'd pass on anyone not named Marshon Lattimore at 14.

Todd McShay, ESPN - Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

There may not be a player whose stock has soared more than McCaffrey's. Once considered a borderline first-round pick, there are analysts who project McCaffrey as high as No. 8 to the Panthers. McCaffrey's versatility is unparalleled to any running back in this draft. 

McShay's take: "I love this fit. Darren Sproles turns 34 in June, and Philly needs a versatile playmaker out of the backfield. McCaffrey has the skill set to be a really good running back and wide receiver in the NFL. He showed tremendous short-area quickness at the combine (6.57-second three cone), which is readily apparent when watching McCaffrey's route running."

Analysis: The fit is obvious. McCaffrey is a running back who runs routes and has the ball skills of a receiver. He's also a bit underrated as a runner between the tackles. With all that said, I don't love the value at 14. But if the Birds pick McCaffrey, it's by no means a disappointment. The more weapons for Carson Wentz, the better.

Josh Norris, Rotoworld - Charles Harris, DE, Missouri

Harris has joined the ranks of McCaffrey as one of the draft's highest risers. He was a productive player at Missouri and impressed at the combine. Most mocks have him going somewhere in the 20s, but there are rumors that more than one team considers Harris a top-10 pick.

Norris' take: "The Eagles could absolutely take a similar approach to the Panthers last season in terms of multiple corners after round one. Harris will be a top 15 selection and greatly improved his athletic testing at the school’s pro day."

Analysis: I like Norris' idea of snagging two corners later, but I don't love the idea of Harris this high. He's not the only one to mock Harris in this range recently. I've mocked Harris in the late 20s and that's still where I feel comfortable projecting him. With that said, Harris would be a safe pick at 14. He has a high motor, a variety of pass rush moves, and NFL size and strength.

Cris Collinsworth, PFF/NBC Sunday Night Football color analyst - Tre'Davious White, CB, LSU

White is an interesting prospect because he's projected to go all over the place. He could go here to the Eagles or he could still be available in the second round. He was an impact player for a school that seems like it produces secondary players in a factory.

Collinsworth's take: "I want to give the Eagles a receiver with the speed of John Ross to play alongside Alshon Jeffery, but Philadelphia has to have a cornerback, and White is the next best available. He may drive Jim Schwartz nuts if he refuses to tackle, but Schwartz has no choice -- you can’t compete without corners. I love White’s ability to find the ball in the air. Most young corners are afraid to turn their head and look for deep balls, and they end up getting beat. White is rock-solid there. I also don’t see him as a guy that will get a lot of cheap fouls; he keeps his hands to himself. I thought White would run a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash, but at 4.47, he was a little slower than his run-and-cover style would suggest. White has legitimate coverage skills, though, and should go in the first half of the draft."

Analysis: The bottom line: White can cover. That is, after all, a corner's primary function. This isn't a sexy pick at all, but like Conley, White should be able to start for an NFL defense from Day 1. Also, like with Conley, there might be better value in this spot.

Lance Zierlein, NFL Network - Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama

Humphrey was considered the best corner in the draft for a big chunk of the college season. He has prototypical size and was a track star in high school. He struggled to track the ball in the College Football Playoff on multiple occasions. Those struggles have put him behind players like Conley and White in the eyes of some analysts.

Zierlein's take: "A height-weight-speed prospect who is the best run defender at the corner spot in the draft. If Humphrey can improve in locating the deep ball, he could be a good one."

Analysis: This is a fair take. Aside from Lattimore, Humphrey might project best to being a No. 1 corner physically. For the 2017 season, Conley and White will likely be better than Humphrey. In the long term, Humphrey might turn out to be the best corner in this draft. With that said, the ball location issues are concerning. Especially considering that's been a problem for Eagles' corners recently.

Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network - Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama

Foster has had a rough go of the predraft process. He was kicked out of the combine for a spat with a hospital worker. Recently, questions have come up about his surgically repaired shoulder. And now it's come out that Foster's drug test at the combine came back diluted. Foster insists it was a result of an illness which caused him to drink an excessive amount of fluid.

Jeremiah's take: "Foster is a tone-setter and would excel in the Eagles' defensive scheme."

Analysis: It is important to note that Jeremiah's mock was from earlier this month. I doubt he'd have Foster going this high now. The kid is incredibly talented, though. Jordan Hicks and Foster would wreak havoc on a weekly basis. This is a player who is among the top 10 most talented players in the entire draft. Taking a chance on him at 14 might be worth it. The Eagles would really have to do their homework on this one.