Priority Number One: Get a Linebacker or Two

Priority Number One: Get a Linebacker or Two

With DeSean Jackson under wraps, and the franchise tagging period closing to a flurry of activity -- 21 players in all were hit with the tag, including several kickers and a punter -- it's finally time to look ahead. Free agency opens in one week, and while we don't anticipate a spending frenzy to rival this past summer, we do expect the Eagles to be active.
Of course, the club still has some of their own players to worry about, Evan Mathis being chief among them, but there are several areas that will require management to step outside the organization's umbrella.
None loom larger than the linebacker position. You often hear the Birds' front office devalues linebackers, but that simply cannot be the case this year. The middle of the field was a black hole for much of the last season, manned primarily by a bunch of undersized, inexperienced fourth-through-seventh rounders, over-matched in a system that heaps pressure on the position.
This offseason, either the Eagles won't go cheap on linebacker, or they won't wait until day three of the draft. In fact, it may very well be both. Fixing this unit just became the team's latest top priority.
EVALUATING WHAT THEY HAVE
WeaksidePopular thinking is the Eagles need a complete overhaul at linebacker. Admittedly, they need a ton of help, but it's not as if there is no talent there at all.
Brian Rolle is the one guy who stood apart from this group last year. Listed at 5-10, Rolle will always be hampered by his short stature. There were moments during his rookie season when Rolle had perfect coverage, but the play wound up going over the top of him. However, those were few and far between. Rolle was often a blanket in coverage, and he showed glimpses of pass-rush ability as well.
Is Rolle an every-down linebacker in the NFL? Difficult to say for sure right now, though he has a few things going for him. He needs to work on becoming a sound tackler, but at least he knows where he's supposed to be. After starting a fairly effective 13 games on the weakside in 2011, this sixth rounder should continue to have a role in the defense next season. Don't sleep on the kid.
MiddleThe other primary starter, on the other hand, is in rough shape. Jamar Chaney had offseason surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck, a result of the blow he delivered to a Redskins ball carrier in the final game of the season. He insists he'll be ready to go, but even assuming Chaney is a picture of health once workouts begin, he looked like a replacement level player most of the time last year anyway.
For three games as a rookie, Chaney's athleticism made him look like the second coming -- especially in relief of a plodding Stewart Bradley -- as Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley held offensive linemen at bay. Last season, with the defensive line in the wide nine, Chaney didn't have nearly the same impact while trying to fight off guards exploding at him off the line of scrimmage. He wasn't exactly an abject failure, but they could use somebody stronger at the point of attack -- not to mention that by the end of the season, he wasn't even in the game on passing downs.
Neck surgery further complicates matters. At the very least, the coaches can't rely on Chaney to bounce back quickly.
DepthThere's not a great deal of promise in the rest of the group. Casey Matthews improved by the end of the year, though he had nowhere to go but up, and still seemed to be a step behind the action. We haven't seen much of Keenan Clayton after two seasons, Akeem Jordan is serviceable in limited playing time, and they've squeezed about all they can out of Moise Fokou.
It will be interesting to see who they bring back along with Rolle and Chaney, the latter probably remaining with the club as a backup. They really like Matthews, so he should get another chance, and Jordan contributes on special teams. Clayton could be a coin flip to make the roster, but Fokou's maximum potential has to have been reached, and it's nothing special, so watch for him to wind up a camp casualty.
EVALUATING WHO THEY CAN SIGN

1. MLB Stephen TullochWho better to play middle linebacker behind the wide nine than a middle linebacker whose NFL experience comes exclusively from playing behind wide nine fronts?
The Eagles were believed to have targeted Tulloch when free agency opened last summer, but for whatever reason, he wound up in Detroit. The Lions would surely like to keep Tulloch after a solid year, but they are up against the cap, and may have trouble doing something long-term. If the Eagles can swoop in for the steal, it would go a long way toward fixing their problem.

2. MLB Curtis LoftonLike the Lions, the Falcons are having trouble keeping all their talented players in house, and Lofton is coming dangerously close to getting away. Some might see Lofton as the top available linebacker, a player who turns 26 in June, has not missed a game in his four-year NFL career, and recorded over 100 tackles each of the previous three seasons. He's a strong run-defender, but not a star, even though they might need to pay him like one to get him under contract.

3. MLB/OLB David HawthorneFlying under the radar out of Seattle, Hawthorne is an interesting candidate because he has NFL experience playing both inside and out. Signing Hawthorne would give the front office more flexibility, particularly during the draft. Another player might dictate which pool of linebackers the Eagles could select from, while they would have the ability shuffle Hawthorne around accordingly.

4. MLB London FletcherPeople really like Fletcher, and I confess, I do too -- only not for the Eagles. The guy has been around for-e-ver, and been highly productive at every stop, but there are two questions that need to be asked. One, he'll be 37 this year, so you have to wonder: how long can he keep up this pace? Two, at his size (5-10) and age, will he really be able to pick up where he he left off while playing behind the wide nine for the first time in his career? In other words, is Fletcher the right fit for Philly?
Which, to be fair, is the question we have to ask about any of these guys behind Tulloch. Can he handle the added pressure the Eagles' scheme puts on its linebackers?

5. OLB Erin HendersonAs usual, there aren't a huge number of (any) great 4-3 outside linebackers available. Henderson, a fourth-year player, charted the best according to Pro Football Focus, who ha
d him fourth overall in 2011. However, Henderson -- an undrafted rookie in '08 -- had no starting experience in the NFL prior to this season, so we're going off of a small sample size and potential. He also plays weakside for Minnesota, the same spot as Rolle.
WHAT'S THE PLAN?
This should be pretty straight forward. If the Eagles can sign Stephen Tulloch, that's what they should do. There's no question about whether he is a fit, and he is one of the better interior linebackers in the league to boot. This lessens the immediacy of the need at the position, giving them some freedom on draft day. Instead of automatically targeting LB with their first pick, maybe they could find a replacement at strongside in the second round.
Curtis Lofton, meanwhile, could be an expensive mistake. He probably has the ability to make the transition to playing behind the wide nine, but it could take time, and he may not be as good. Then again, he could also thrive, but I'm more comfortable with the known quantity. Same thing goes for London Fletcher, only while he doesn't carry the same long-term consequences, the potential is there for a far bigger drop off. The best alternative seems to be David Hawthorne, because at least he provides some versatility, and can be moved into a role that better suits his skills if necessary.
It feels like they have to get one of either Tulloch, Lofton, or Hawthorne though, because while there are several good prospects in April's upcoming draft, they don't have nearly enough talent there right now that they should be comfortable inserting one player, a rookie at that. (Plus, it's hard to find free agent help on the outside).
Nor does signing one of those free agents preclude them from adding another backer in the draft. With a large percentage of their starters set for 2012, the Eagles can really focus on rebuilding this unit. Teaming an experienced veteran with an early draft pick to go along with the collection of young, developing players already on their roster is a realistic possibility, and one that could conceivably turn linebacker into a position of strength in time for the season ahead.
Player screen caps courtesy of NFL.com player pages.

Future Phillies Report: The Bash Brothers are killing it in May

Future Phillies Report: The Bash Brothers are killing it in May

The Bash Brothers are operating at peak efficiency this month for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, who can't lose in May.

That's where we'll start this week's Future Phillies Report.

OF Dylan Cozens (AAA)
Cozens is having a Joey Gallo-esque season for Lehigh Valley, hitting for a low batting average (.219) with a whole lot of strikeouts (63) and homers (12). 

He's slowed down some after a torrid start to May, but in 19 games this month he's hit .311 with eight home runs, two doubles, a triple and 19 RBIs. He has six walks and 23 strikeouts.

Cozens was named International League Batter of the Week the second week of May, when he had two walk-off home runs and a game-tying, ninth-inning single.

Cozens has made some improvements against left-handed pitching but he still has a long way to go. Six of his 12 homers this season are off lefties, but he's still hitting just .175 against same-handed pitching with five walks and 30 strikeouts.

The more Triple A pitching he sees, the more comfortable he should become against veterans with good breaking balls and an actual plan on the mound. Keep in mind Cozens doesn't turn 23 until May 31.

Cozens is on the 40-man roster and will probably get a look in September. It would seem unlikely that he'd get a call-up to replace an injured outfielder before then, a relevant topic given the minor injuries this last week to Michael Saunders and Daniel Nava.

1B Rhys Hoskins (AAA)
Hoskins is the one offensive prospect we feature regularly here who I'm confident will be up with the Phillies before September. He continues to impress not just as a power hitter but as a "hitter's hitter" — a guy who controls the strike zone and has few holes.

As productive as Hoskins' April was, his May has been just as impressive. He hit .338 with six homers, 12 RBIs and a 1.063 OPS in April compared to .296 with six homers, 24 RBIs and a 1.045 OPS in May.

Hoskins had a two-homer, five-RBI game last Thursday in a rare Lehigh Valley loss, which snapped the IronPigs' 12-game winning streak.

In total this season he's hit .318 with 12 homers, 36 RBIs, nine doubles, two triples, 24 walks and 27 strikeouts. His consistent production could create an interesting scenario soon because if Tommy Joseph continues to hit, one of them could become a valuable trade piece that could bring back a starting pitcher. 

In Hoskins and Joseph, the Phillies have two powerful, young, inexpensive first basemen who project to hit somewhere in the middle of the order. Why not use an organizational strength to improve an organizational weakness?

Joseph has already shown he can hit for power at the major-league level, but Hoskins' upside seems higher because of his plate selection.

SS J.P. Crawford (AAA)
He's almost there. After 171 plate appearances, Crawford has nearly reached the Mendoza line.

Crawford's multi-hit game Friday made him 10 for 25 over his last six games with a double, a homer, six RBIs, five walks and six strikeouts.

He's raised his batting average this month from .145 to .186, and even when he's slumped he's taken his walks — 25 in 39 games.

Crawford has hit .235 this month with a .358 on-base percentage. If his pitch recognition remains consistent when he reaches the majors — and keep in mind it's a skill he's shown at every rung of the minor-league ladder — it won't matter if he hits .260, he'd still be a valuable two-hole hitter.

This is the hottest Crawford has been all season and the Phillies are hoping he can keep it up for at least another week or two.

OF Roman Quinn (AAA)
I wrote about Quinn at length on Monday, outlining the reasons why he should be called up by the Phillies (see story).

Entering play Tuesday, he had hit .333 with a .424 OBP in May, fueling Lehigh Valley's surge by contributing at the top of the order.

Quinn would, right now, be a defensive upgrade for the Phillies, and it's not as if Saunders has done a whole lot to keep his job anyway.

OF Nick Williams (AAA)
Williams has homered three times in his last six games. All three were solos, but one was a game-tying shot in the ninth inning and his home run the next day was a game-winner in the 10th.

The ninth-inning bomb went to the opposite field and was off veteran big-league closer Joe Nathan. Both were good signs — that Williams' power can travel to left-center field and that he did it against a pitcher who's had a lot of success and experience.

On the year, Williams is hitting .258 with an on-base percentage right around .300. He has six walks and 47 strikeouts. For the 700th time, that's a concern and it's probably always going to be there. To make a difference in the majors, the Phillies will need Williams to produce about 30-35 doubles and 15-20 homers per season. In that regard, the recent uptick in barreling balls is a promising development.

2B Scott Kingery (AA)
The most surprising storyline in the Phillies' farm system this season is Kingery's home run jump. The guy has 14 homers already before Memorial Day. He hit five last season.

The quick assumption would be that Kingery is taking advantage of Reading's homer-friendly ballpark, but six of the 14 homers have come on the road.

On the season, Kingery is hitting .290/.369/.665 with eight doubles, four triples, 14 homers, 28 RBIs, 17 walks and 31 strikeouts. He's also 9 for 10 in stolen base attempts. And he's committed one error all season.

This has been a breakout year for Kingery, who will make the jump to Triple A in 2017 if this continues. 

C Jorge Alfaro (AAA)
Alfaro has been striking out a lot lately. He has 27 strikeouts and no walks — you read that right — in 70 plate appearances this month.

His batting line has dropped to .281/.308/.410 with 10 extra-base hits in 146 plate appearances. 

Like Williams, Alfaro is probably never going to show enough plate selection to be a true superstar. But there's some more confidence Alfaro will be able to hit in the majors, and if he can hit .260 with power and a strong arm behind the plate, that might be enough.

RHP Sixto Sanchez (High A Clearwater)
A stiff neck has kept Sanchez off the mound since our last Future Phillies Report, but he remains the Phillies' highest-upside pitching prospect and maybe their highest-upside prospect overall. 

He has 28 strikeouts and three walks this season with a .211 opponents' batting average, and he still hasn't allowed a home run in 104 pro innings. He has a blazing fastball and above-average command, especially for an 18-year-old.

Carson Wentz building rapport with Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith

Carson Wentz building rapport with Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith

For a few weeks now, Carson Wentz has been throwing to his new weapons, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, in an attempt to grow their chemistry.

Something was different on Tuesday.

"The biggest thing is we get comfortable on air and now all of a sudden, there's a body in the way," Smith said. "It's weird. But you have to get open against somebody. Just have to knock the rust off these next few days. A lot of us have been playing long enough. We just need to be where [Wentz] expects us to be."

On Tuesday morning, the Eagles kicked off their OTAs, the voluntary practices that lead into the mandatory minicamp in mid-June. And for the first time this spring, offense and defense went head-to-head in full-team drills (see 10 observations).

It was just the latest step in the progress of building a rapport between the quarterback and his top receivers, who were added during free agency.

"I don't think it's too tough," Jeffery said. "I think it's just working each and every day. He knows what type of player I am; I know what type of player he is. It just makes it better. Just keep working."

Wentz said in addition to on-field work, he and his new receivers (and new RB LeGarrette Blount) will be looking to sneak in as much extra time together as possible. That extra time will come in the locker room, in the training room, in the film room and in the cafeteria, wherever and whenever they can.

At least now, thanks to OTAs this week, they'll have tape against the defense to look back at and use to get on the same page.

"It's a work in progress," Wentz said. "No doubt about it. It's a work in progress with guys I've been here with a year now. It's just an ongoing process. You're putting in new plays, new routes, things are always changing. So it's a process, but I feel very comfortable with them at the same time. But again, we're still just going to continually build that relationship."

While Tuesday was just the first day of practice in a long process leading up to the season, both Jeffery and Smith showed off their respective skills.

While Jeffery is quiet off the field, he already made plenty of noise in Day 1 of OTAs.

"It's been great with him," Wentz said. "He plays on time, he knows what he's doing, his catch radius is impressive. That's the first thing that jumps out at me. I'm just looking forward to continuing to build that relationship."

Jeffery is the big receiver with a huge catch radius, while Smith is the speedier receiver, even though he still has good size at 6-0, 205 pounds.

Were both their skills on display at Day 1 of OTAs?

"Definitely," cornerback Patrick Robinson said, shaking his head.

Jeffery and Smith are still the new guys in town, but they both worked with the first team on Tuesday, while Jordan Matthews played in the slot (more on him here). (Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham worked with the twos; rookies Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson worked with the threes.)

For Matthews, playing in the slot with Jeffery and Smith outside should help him quite a bit in 2017. So the Eagles' slot receiver said he was glad to have them added to his team.

"Both of them bring a lot of production," Matthews said. "Both of them are playmakers in their own different ways. The biggest thing I like, too, is in a room full of guys, you need competition. That's going to be what elevates guys' level of play. When you bring in two guys like that, who have had production over a long period of time, and they're also willing to come out here and work during the voluntary part of the offseason, you're going to have everybody get pushed."

Matthews has spent a ton of time with Wentz over their year together and already has a great relationship and chemistry with his quarterback.

Now it's up to Jeffery and Smith to catch up. And they're off to a good start.