Things starting to click for Eagles 2nd-year DE Alex McCalister

us-mccalister.jpg
USA Today Images

Things starting to click for Eagles 2nd-year DE Alex McCalister

Earlier this week, Alex McCalister did something new. 

The second-year defensive end lined up out wide but before the snap, slipped inside just in time to dip and speed past offensive tackle Taylor Hart for a training camp sack. 

"I would just run around people in college," McCalister said. "But everybody in the league is fast as hell, so you have to learn switch-ups and stuff." 

At 6-foot-6, McCalister used his redshirt rookie season to gain some weight necessary to play in the NFL. Even with the extra weight, he's still long and lanky. Speed is still his greatest attribute. But speed isn't enough. 

He can't be a one-trick pony as a pass-rusher. Not in the NFL. 

So he's been working hard at developing a changeup to go with his fastball. 

"It's big," veteran defensive end Chris Long said. "Good pass-rushers can threaten your inside, through you and on the edge. With the gifts [McCalister] has, to develop that part of his game is just going to make him really hard to block.

"Alex has a lot of gifts. Learning some new moves is just going to accentuate those gifts. I think everybody has to realize what their strengths are at some point and work on their weaknesses."

McCalister is happy about how he's improved his inside moves. He said all training camp he has been hitting offensive tackles with speed, so he knew he'd be able to sneak inside and beat them with a change of pace.

He's been noticing that tackles start to cheat when they think the outside speed rush is coming. 

"Yeah, they just bail out immediately off the ball," McCalister said. "Which is good. I'm starting to set people up. Now I can take that inside move or show some power." 

For the last week or so, McCalister has looked like a different player. He suffered a hamstring injury earlier in training camp, but since returning, he's been making a push while working with the third-team defense. The problem for McCalister is the depth at his position. Even without Marcus Smith, who was cut last month, McCalister is probably the sixth defensive end on the roster after Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, Chris Long and Steven Means. 

He's starting to make a push though. 

In the Eagles' preseason opener, McCalister did some good things. He had 34 snaps, second most on defense, and picked up his first NFL (preseason) sack. He used a speed move around the right tackle to sack quarterback Taysom Hill with just over five minutes left in the game. He also forced a fumble on the play. 

McCalister had two tackles, the sack, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble. Not bad. 

"I don't think it was a secret," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "He made some plays in the game, but he was also up and down. It's a little bit difficult at the end of the game because you don't have — early in the game you can roll waves of guys through. You get into that fourth quarter and there is nobody else, and they've got to stay out there for an extended period of time. That being said, just all those guys need to be more consistent. I think every single guy out there made a play somewhere along the line. But it's not just about making a play, it's about making all the plays or making the majority of the plays and being consistent, and Alex is still working on that."

McCalister agreed with Schwartz's assessment. He acknowledged that he needs to be more consistent, but also thinks that will come once his conditioning gets better. Missing time with a hamstring injury didn't allow him to stay in as good of shape as he normally is. 

Playing at the end of the game, McCalister just stayed in and didn't get to be part of a rotation. 

"Suck it up," McCalister said. "Fight. I'm glad nobody took me out though, because in my head, I know I can fight through it."

For the last week or so, McCalister has looked like a different player and he's noticed it too. Although he doesn't know what sparked it, something has finally clicked. He no longer beats himself up over mistakes; he just moves on to the next play. 

He used to drag after making a bad play; now he doesn't. McCalister knows it sounds cliché, but he's just trying to take every day and every play one at a time. 

"I don't know [what changed]," McCalister said. "I don't know what it was. But I'm glad it happened."

Eagles camp notes, quotes and tidbits: Derek Barnett expects to produce

Eagles camp notes, quotes and tidbits: Derek Barnett expects to produce

Derek Barnett had a pretty good NFL debut in the Eagles' preseason opener. 

Just ask Brett Hundley, whom he sacked twice. Or Joe Callahan, whom he drilled into the grass at Lambeau Field. 

"It felt good to get to the quarterback because we're not able to hit them in practice," Barnett said about the hit below. "It was live. All the D-linemen on the field were just excited because we could touch the quarterback without getting yelled at."

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz specifically mentioned this hit on a screen pass when asked about what Barnett showed in his debut. 

"He's a slippery guy," Schwartz said. "There are some things he can do better. He had a couple sort of wasted rushes where we weren't in sync with our front four. Sort of what you expect from a rookie as you start. But obviously, two sacks on a limited number of reps — that kind of production, you expect from a first-rounder."

Barnett said his first game felt good but he's just concerned on getting better. He is still focused on trying to make his rushes look the same. It's the mantra he's been sticking with for the last few weeks. 

Barnett feels the pressure, too. He agrees with Schwartz that production is expected from him as a first-round pick. 

"I think that's what's expected of me," he said. "It's not a surprise to me. I mean, I feel like as a first-round pick, I have to come in and help early. I feel like I'm trying to do that as much as possible and still continue to grow each and every day. It was the first preseason game but there's still a long way to go. I think it was a good start but I have to keep continuing to build every day and not get satisfied." 

Douglas shines in debut 
While the Eagles acquired Ronald Darby on Friday, one of their rookie cornerbacks really impressed Schwartz in Green Bay on Thursday night. 

Rasul Douglas stood out. 

"Well, first of all, I thought he played very well in the game," Schwartz said. "I don't remember if I said this before, but one of the things that's impressed me about Rasul is, every time we've taken a step up in competition, he's sort of met that challenge, you know, and it might not look the same on a normal practice, but on our first padded practice, he really stood out. First preseason game, I thought he stood out. 

"He's got great length. He can get his hands on balls. He responded quickly to things that happened in the game. Did a couple nice things on special teams, too, and that's important for young corners. So he's on the right track. Like so many players, and I'm sure you guys are tired of hearing this from me, he's just striving for consistency."

Don't drop the ball
While a few rookies stood out on Thursday in Green Bay, it wasn't a great debut for fourth-round running back Donnel Pumphrey. 

He struggled on offense and in the punt return game. But more importantly, he struggled holding on to the football. And on Saturday, the first practice after the game, he fumbled the football again. 

"Well, I just know this, like every coach knows, you can't win games and you can't be on the field — and this is just a general statement — if you can't hold on to the football," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "Every player knows that in this game. So we talk about it a lot. We want to make sure we drill it. It's emphasized. Some of it is hard to tell until you get into live action a bunch, that's why Coach (Doug Pederson) has some live practices during training camp. We've had some live practices without putting the ball on the ground too much. So that was probably the most disappointing thing to me, is that we put the ball on the ground four times in that last game. That's unacceptable and we have to improve upon that."

Injured Brandon Brooks, Wendell Smallwood return to Eagles practice

ap-brandon-brooks-wendell-smallwood-eagles.jpg
AP Images

Injured Brandon Brooks, Wendell Smallwood return to Eagles practice

Monday was a day of returns at the NovaCare Complex, all on the offensive side of the ball.

Alshon Jeffery took his turns with the first-team offense during 11-on-11 drills, Bryce Treggs was also back out wide and Nick Foles threw for the first time in a while.

But after Brandon Brooks went down with strained right ankle one week ago, his return to the practice field had to be the most encouraging — especially following the way the Eagles' offensive line struggled last week at Green Bay.

"I’m feeling good," Brooks said. "I’m not there yet, just doing what I can — some individual, some group install. I’m kind of staying away from team for the time being."

Although the starting right guard didn't participate in any team drills Monday, it was clearly a step in the right direction. With Chance Warmack taking first-team reps last Thursday vs. the Packers, the Green Bay defense had a field day on the Birds' initial offensive series, forcing three rushes for negative yardage and a sack by Nick Perry.

Now, the question is will Brooks be back on the field this week?

"I don’t know," he said. "It’s kind of up in the air, 50-50. I’m just seeing how I feel, taking it day by day. It felt better today than it did last week. Obviously, we don’t think it’s where it needs to be for me to do team, but we’ll just take it from there."

Fortunately for Brooks, his starting spot is more than safe. He will be an Eagles starter come opening day at Washington next month.

The same cannot necessarily be said, however, for Wendell Smallwood, who also was back on the practice field Monday

It was a similar situation for the second-year running back — he participated in both individual and group drills but did not make an appearance during the team portion of practice. Instead, Donnel Pumphrey and Corey Clement worked out of the backfield in relief of LeGarrette Blount.

What makes Smallwood's case all the more interesting, though, is that his role hasn't been clarified in the Eagles' running back committee. 

Blount and Darren Sproles both have clearly defined positions and skill sets. But Blount is 30 and Sproles is 34 — it's not necessarily reasonable to expect either to be a lead back at their age.  And as far as Pumphrey? He's a rookie fourth-rounder.

So the opportunity is there for Smallwood. It's just a matter of whether he'll get to prove that he's ready for it during the next few weeks.

"It felt good to run around a little bit, be out here and do my thing," Smallwood said. "I definitely want those reps — practice, game, whatever it is, I definitely want to get those reps.

"It’s always motivation to get back out there whether we’ve got one running back, two running backs. I want to be out there and I want to get better with myself, get those reps in and see things to learn."

If last week was an indicator, the Eagles could definitely use the West Virginia product back on the field Thursday when they host the Bills. Against Green Bay, seven different players registered at least a carry for the Birds, yet those players totaled just 47 yards on 19 carries (good for an average of 2.5 yards per rush).

It still remains to be seen how Doug Pederson will split the offense between the air and the ground, but if Smallwood can show that he has the ability to make an impact, Pederson may have no choice but to put the ball in his hands.

"I definitely want to be back," Smallwood said. "I think I put the pressure on myself trying to get back. That’s on me being eager to get out there, compete and show what I can do."