Eagles Better or Worse: Receivers

Eagles Better or Worse: Receivers

While there was rampant change throughout most of the roster, the wide receivers and tight ends were largely unscathed, at least as far as the impact players are concerned. A few veterans were dumped, and some competition was brought in at the back end, but all of the starters remain intact, including the slot receiver. That type of consistency should be a tremendous help for a first-year starter at quarterback, but the question we're asking is whether the group is better or worse?

BETTER

Jeremy Maclin

This might be up for some debate, as we're going out on a bit of a limb predicting Maclin will continue to develop and make advances in his second pro season. That's just what's expected of wide receivers entering their sophomore year, and from what we saw from him as a rookie, we're comfortable projecting a leap forward.

The question is what type of receiver Maclin will become. He has big play ability, racking up three catches over 50 yards already, including the 76-yard touchdown reception in the Wild Card loss to the Cowboys, yet he only went over 100 yards on two occasions the entire season. Instead, he was merely dependable, particularly down the stretch where he went eight straight (injury-free) games with at least four catches and 50 yards.

That's a strong finish for a rookie season, something most people anticipate him building upon in 2010.

Brent Celek

We touched on the idea of Celek seeing an improvement in production again. Most people think it's unlikely after the Pro Bowl caliber digits he threw up in '09. Is a near-1,000 yard effort something he can seriously outperform?

There are a couple reasons why it may not be such a stretch. First of all, Celek battled through some torn ligaments in his hand toward the end of last season. While it didn't keep him out of the lineup, or even from remaining a frequent target, there were some issues with reliability. Pro Football Focus lists him third among tight ends with eight dropped passes, half of those occurring over the final six games of the season. We'll give him a pass and believe that total will drop.

The main indicator was what he achieved in two games with Kevin Kolb under center. Kolb looked for Celek frequently, which should come as no surprise given how much they worked together in practice and an inexperienced quarterback's tendency to rely on the tight end. It resulted in two of his biggest games of the season, a pair of consecutive eight reception, 104 yard days and a 35-yard touchdown. They are in sync, and over a full season, Celek could emerge as one of the elite pass catching tight ends in the NFL.

Tight End depth

Over the past few years, Andy Reid has managed to enter the season without one fairly essential, but easily overlooked piece of the club. In '07, the lack of an experienced punt returner cost them a game. In '08, they had a defensive player lining up as their regular fullback. Last season, you could make the case it was tight end depth.

The Eagles failed to sign a tight end in free agency, and didn't bother to draft one until the fifth round. Cornelius Ingram promptly went down with an injury, which left... um, nobody actually. Literally. They brought in Alex Smith, who seemed capable enough as a blocker, but only managed to contribute three catches all year.

They'll still be an inexperienced bunch behind Celek, although they hope to have added some insurance. Clay Harbor is an athletic prospect who played tight end, fullback, and even some wide receiver in college. Meanwhile, Ingram is recovering from another ACL tear, and while he hasn't even seen a down in the NFL, that's another high ceiling player if he can stay on the field.

At the very least, they added an extra body, and overall there is some solid potential behind Celek now.

WORSE

Experience

Nobody is going to miss Reggie Brown or Kevin Curtis. Each had their moment here, however brief; Brown's career got off to a promising start before falling off the face of the earth, and Curtis reached the 1,000 yard milestone in his first season in Philadelphia before getting derailed by injuries. Just wasn't meant to be here for either man, as the two combined for a lowly 15 catches in '09.

There's something to be said for removing both from the roster though. It should be noted Brown has more catches and yards than any Eagles receiver or tight end over the last five years, and Curtis was the only player between T.O. and DJac to gain over 1,000 yards through the air. While both are probably fringe starters at best now, they both have plenty of games under their belt, experience in the system, and have been known to fill up the stat sheet once in awhile. That has to count for something.

OVERVIEW

We all knew where this was going. There simply wasn't much change across the board, but particularly among the major players at wide receiver and tight end. Everybody is back. It's actually pretty silly to say they're better now, because they could already be considered among the best units in the league, but they sure as hell aren't any worse. Should be another fun season watching this group flying down the field.

Grade: Better

As Aaron Altherr's audition begins, Pete Mackanin says Cody Asche 'needs to step it up'

As Aaron Altherr's audition begins, Pete Mackanin says Cody Asche 'needs to step it up'

ATLANTA — Nearly four months late, Aaron Altherr is finally getting his shot to show the Phillies he deserves to be part of their future outfield plans.

Altherr, 25, was activated from the disabled list before Thursday night’s game against the Braves and was in the lineup, batting fifth (see story). Altherr will see a lot of playing time over the final two-plus months of the season. He’s essentially auditioning.

“We want to see him play as much as possible,” manager Pete Mackanin said before the game. “So if he stays healthy, I’m going to keep running him out there. That’s what this year is all about. We’re finding out about the guys that are here. He is a potentially important part so we want to see what he does. I’m anxious to see what he does.”

Altherr, a ninth-round draft pick in 2009, played in 39 games for the Phillies last season. He hit just .241, but 20 of his 33 hits were for extra bases and he had a .827 OPS. He was slated to be the team’s everyday rightfielder before suffering a wrist injury that required surgery early in spring training.

Altherr is healthy now and eager for his chance.

“I’m good to go mentally and physically,” he said Thursday afternoon. “I’m definitely excited to be back up.”

Altherr took Peter Bourjos' spot on the roster. Bourjos was placed on the disabled list with a sprained right shoulder two days after running into the outfield wall in Miami.

With Mackanin committed to giving Altherr playing time, it will be interesting to see how the skipper divides up playing time with the remaining outfielders, especially when Bourjos recovers. Bourjos was a trade candidate before his injury. He could still be moved in a waiver deal once he’s healthy in August. Tyler Goeddel, Cody Asche and Jimmy Paredes also play corner outfield spots and much heralded prospect Nick Williams is expected to be here at some point (see Future Phillies Report).

Asche is walking a tightrope. He entered Thursday night’s game mired in a 4-for-51 skid and Mackanin seems to be losing patience.

“As I said earlier in the season, this is a very big year for Cody to prove that he can be part of the future and he needs to step it up,” Mackanin said.

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Heading into his 13th season, Jason Peters has experienced a lot during his exceptional NFL career. So when the eight-time Pro Bowler says head coach Doug Pederson is more respectful of veteran players than the previous regime under Chip Kelly, you take notice.

"I think so," Peters stated frankly on Thursday at training camp (see Day 4 notes). "The last couple years, there wasn't a lot of vets, and any vet that stood up and had something to say, we got rid of him.

"Doug was a player here, he understands veteran players and he understands the game, so I think it's better."

Addressing the media for the first time since last season, Peters faced a series of questions about how Pederson differs from his unique predecessor. Schemes and philosophies were topics of discussion, as well, but perhaps the sharpest criticism levied by Peters was Kelly's lack of appreciation for what an NFL player goes through to be ready on Sunday.

"Any time you've got a coach who's been there, done that, he knows about the trenches and he knows about the two-a-days, it definitely helps with a veteran team as a whole," Peters said.

Peters admitted Kelly's practices took their toll on players. If that sounds like a familiar complaint, it's probably because former Eagles cornerback Cary Williams voiced a similar opinion in 2014. On Thursday, Peters echoed and expanded upon Williams' sentiments.

"The same practices that we did in training camp were the same spring practices, exactly the same, so it's pretty much we had training camp the whole offseason," Peters said. "Even OTAs were the same exact practice. It kind of wore us down."

Peters also maintained the unusual practice schedule during the regular season was no help, either.

Most teams practice Monday and take Tuesday off. Kelly did the opposite, so there was no real break leading up to gameday.

"We practiced on Tuesdays when Chip was here, and you felt it on Sundays," Peters said. "I did anyway."

Pederson has mentioned on several occasions the Eagles intend to do everything they can to keep Peters fresh and prepared for Sundays this season, which the 34-year-old says is "just being smart." One way that could manifest itself is an occasional day off during the week.

Although Peters' criticisms of Kelly weren't limited to the workload on veterans, the left tackle indicated the constant uptempo attack may not have done the offense many favors, either.

"If you run 100 times in a row, back to back to back, don't you think your 50th time you're going to be a little slower?" Peters asked. "But if you get a little bit of a rest, you're going to be a little bit faster.

"It's give and take. When you go back to the huddle and you get that wind, you're just a little stronger when you go back to the line, so I think it will help."

Peters added that the simplicity and predictability of Kelly's system became a problem, as well.

"I mean, this is the National Football League, and if the running back is to the left and you're running the zone read, where do you think the ball is going?" Peters asked rhetorically. "To the right.

"They caught up to us. We had some good years there back to back, then last year we had that down year. We just needed to change a little bit up, especially with [quarterback Sam Bradford] back there. They know he's not gonna run it, so it kind of put our hands behind our back."

While Peters believes the return to a more sophisticated, traditional NFL offense under Pederson — one that uses snap counts and chip blocks to help its offensive linemen — will be an enormous improvement for the Eagles.

Peters knows it's on the players to do a better job in 2016, too. At the same time, he feels as though the deck might've been just a little stacked against them.

"We can't really blame it on that, we're professionals," Peters said.

"[The coaches] call the play, and we execute it. But when the [opponents] know, and they're professionals too, and they know what the play is, it's tough."

Eagles camp Day 4 notes: Brandon Brooks out; starting O & D

Eagles camp Day 4 notes: Brandon Brooks out; starting O & D

As the Eagles kicked off their first full-squad practice in the bubble on Thursday afternoon, a big part of the offense was missing. 

Starting right guard Brandon Brooks was nowhere to be found. In his place, with the first-team offense, was veteran Stefen Wisniewski. 

Brooks, who signed a five-year, $40 million deal to join the Eagles this offseason, missed practice with a hamstring injury and is listed by the team as day to day. 

The only other player that missed practice is running back Ryan Mathews, who is on the Active/Non-football Injury list with an ankle injury he suffered while training last week (see story).

Offensive starters
Thursday’s light afternoon practice was what Andy Reid used to call a “10-10-10” practice. The term is back under Doug Pederson. Basically, it’s a light practice that goes continually through offense, defense and special teams. But it’s not very conducive for observations because of the format, which is meant to allow the offense or defense to look good. 

But we did get a chance to see the starting units. 

Here’s what the first-team offense (they came out in 11 personnel) looked like to start practice: 

QB: Sam Bradford
RB: Darren Sproles (Mathews was out)
TE: Zach Ertz
WR1: Nelson Agholor
WR2: Chris Givens
Slot: Jordan Matthews
LT: Jason Peters
LG: Allen Barbre
C: Jason Kelce
RG Stefen Wisniewski (Brooks was out)
RT: Lane Johnson

Notes: It’s worth noting that Matthews is still working in the slot way more than he is outside. And Givens, after a nice spring, got the nod to work outside with the first team.

Defensive starters
The defense first came onto the field in the nickel package, so we’ll start there: 

LDE: Vinny Curry
RDE: Connor Barwin
LDT: Fletcher Cox
RDT: Bennie Logan
LB: Jordan Hicks
LB: Mychal Kendricks
LCB: Leodis McKelvin
RCB: Nolan Carroll
Slot: Ron Brooks
S: Malcolm Jenkins
S: Rodney McLeod

Notes: We listed the defense in nickel, but when the Eagles were in base, Nigel Bradham was on the field as the strongside linebacker. The most important thing to note is that when the team was in base, Ron Brooks stayed on the field and moved outside. That’s what the team did most of the spring and it hasn’t changed yet. We’ll have to keep an eye on that. 

North Dakota’s hero
Earlier this week, there were several reporters and a TV crew from North Dakota to watch the progress of their hometown hero Carson Wentz. Wentz said it was cool to see some familiar media faces, especially because he knows how closely fans in his home state are still following his career. 

The rookie hasn’t been home much recently, so he wasn’t sure if the buzz has died down at all since the draft, but he suspects there are many more Eagles fans at home now. 

“I know now that football season is starting to kick up, it’s starting to heat up back home,” he said. “Everyone’s all interested in the Eagles, more than just the local teams around there. It’s pretty exciting. Exciting time for the state of North Dakota, for sure.” 

Odds and ends
• We’ll start with Wentz, who made a great toss on Thursday down the field about 40 yards to shifty wideout Paul Turner. Just a beautiful ball from the rookie. 

• Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Jalen Mills made another play. This time, he was able to get between the ball and Jordan Matthews near the right sideline. Perfect coverage. If he keeps this up once the pads go on Saturday, he’ll earn some playing time this season. 

• Jason Peters spoke for the first time this year after Thursday’s practice. We’ll have plenty on his thoughts and comments, but here’s what stuck out to me: He really didn’t like the way Chip Kelly did some things. He clearly didn’t like the tempo offense or Kelly’s management style. When asked, Peters agreed that Pederson’s staff is way more veteran player-friendly. 

“Any vet that stood up and had something to say, we got rid of him,” Peters said. Yikes. 

• Sproles, Agholor and Rueben Randle worked as the punt returners on Thursday. Obviously, Sproles is the guy, but this gives us an idea of the depth there. 

• Pads go on Saturday. 

• The first open practice (of two) is this Sunday at the Linc at 10 a.m. No tickets needed, just show up.