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.”

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

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

Senior Bowl: 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.