LeGarrette Blount

For Eagles, jelling quickly will be key to playoff run

For Eagles, jelling quickly will be key to playoff run

Nine new starters.

That’s a lot of turnover in key spots. Welcome to your 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, a team with playoff expectations. The short math has this squad with three new wide receivers — if you include the slot — a left guard, and a running back on the offensive side. On defense, we have a new tackle, end and two corners.  

Howie Roseman 2.0 has been bold in his actions, no doubt. Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Tim Jernigan and Ronald Darby are all established players. However, some come with asterisks, which we’ll get to in a second. 

But there’s no denying on paper the Eagles are better suited to win and compete for the postseason this year than last. And the road could be a little less bumpy depending on what happens with Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension appeal in Dallas.
 
From an Eagles standpoint, there’s no sense diving into the cesspool that was 2016 at positions such as wide receiver and corner — it’s been well-chronicled. And despite Brandon Graham's solid all-around season, the defensive end spot was not good enough. So change was needed. While the defense still has questions, the talent has been upgraded. A second season in Jim Schwartz's system should do them all good.

The new offensive faces should allow Carson Wentz to put away the knife he brought to all those gun fights last season. But back to those pesky asterisks. 

Jeffery has played only 21 of a possible 32 games the last two years because of injuries and a suspension. Smith had just 53 catches in 28 games in San Francisco in that same time span. And you have to wonder why Buffalo would be willing to part with a 23-year-old corner who had a stellar rookie season and has two years left on his rookie deal. That would be the glass half empty look. 

Half full folks — and I’m one of them — would say the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Jeffery could be the Eagles' best all-around threat at wide receiver since Terrell Owens. Jeffery will give Wentz the luxury of someone who can win 50-50 battles with his size and hand strength. And motivation shouldn't be an issue – he's playing on a one-year, prove-it deal. 

Smith was in a virtual no-win situation with the 49ers. He had instability at quarterback, and both of his head coaches — Jim Tomsula and old friend Chip Kelly — were one and done. 

Darby’s play fell off for a number of reasons, some of which may have been his own doing. Perhaps he was sniffing himself a little too much after a successful rookie season. But he, too, fell prey to a situation that was not ideal from a coaching and ownership standpoint. Not to mention a scheme change that did not highlight his skill set.

The question remains, can this team with all the new faces and a challenging schedule out of the chute reach the playoffs this year? Can talent trump chemistry? There are many questions, and the answers will begin to be answered Sept. 10 against Washington.

Will Eagles make a better effort to establish the run in 2017?

Will Eagles make a better effort to establish the run in 2017?

It was just one preseason game, but it all seemed oddly familiar. 

Against the Packers last Thursday night, the Eagles passed the ball an astounding 54 times and ran just it just 19. Matt McGloin threw 42 passes! 

While offensive coordinator Frank Reich blamed the lack of rushing attempts on the Packers' blitzing defense, for many fans watching it probably seemed like the same old story. Doug Pederson abandoned the run. 

"We didn’t run it very well against Green Bay," Reich said, "but I'm very confident that we will run the ball well this year."

For a former quarterback and quarterbacks coach who comes from the Andy Reid school of offense, Pederson has earned the reputation of being a pass-happy play-caller and coach. After all, he's the coach who allowed his rookie quarterback to attempt over 600 passes last season. 

Despite Pederson's reputation, free agent pickup LeGarrette Blount said he didn't hesitate to sign with the Eagles this offseason. 

"That didn't concern me," Blount said this week. "You just have to take advantage of every opportunity you get. Some games you might run it a lot, some games you might not run it as much. I'm confident that I'll touch the ball as much as they need me to."

In fairness, the Eagles weren't as pass-heavy as they appeared in 2016. In Pederson's first year as head coach, the Eagles passed 609 times and ran 438 times. So they ran the ball 41.83 percent of the time, 16th in the NFL. Despite that percentage, the Eagles were still the 11th-best rushing team in the league, averaging 113.3 yards per game.  

While the Eagles released the often-injured Ryan Mathews on Tuesday, Howie Roseman did his part to bring in adequate replacements. He signed Blount as a free agent and drafted Donnel Pumphrey in the fourth round. Those two will combine with Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood to create a four-headed running attack. 

While there are still a few weeks before the opener, Reich said the look of the running back rotation is beginning to crystallize a little bit. 

"We all have our roles," Sproles said. "I feel like the last couple of practices, the running game is starting to come together."

In his rookie season, a season in which he didn't become the starter until a week before the opener, Carson Wentz threw an astonishing 607 passes. That's more than any Eagles quarterback had ever thrown in a season and the second most an NFL rookie has ever had. 

Pederson even admitted in July that Wentz probably felt like the Eagles asked him to do too much at times as a rookie (see story)

So what's the easiest way to help Wentz?

Run the ball. 

"We have a handful of backs who run hard and do some good things," Wentz said Tuesday. "It'll be interesting to see how that shakes out. But we believe no matter who's in the backfield, with the O-line we have and the guys up front, we should be dynamic up front. 

"We believe that will kind of be our bread and butter and we can lean on those guys, whoever's back there, hopefully, they'll get the job done and do it well."

Earlier this week, Reich touted the Eagles' run efficiency last season, claiming the team was fifth in 2016. He explained that run efficiency doesn't just take yards into account but also looks at how productive those yards were depending on the situation. 

While Reich said the rotation is starting to crystallize, it's still unclear what it will look like. It is clear Sproles and Pumphrey will get a bulk of their work in the passing game. Then it becomes a question of whether or not Blount is a short-yardage and goal line specialist or if he's also the guy who will run the ball between the 20s. He seems to think he is still a bell cow, but Smallwood has been extremely impressive when healthy in camp. 

"He's been looking good," Sproles said of Smallwood. "He got more comfortable with the offense now. He's looking good."

Meanwhile, Blount is coming off an 18-touchdown season and a Super Bowl victory. 

"[Blount] knows what it takes to win," Sproles said.  

The Eagles have three more games this preseason to figure out how they want to rotate their running backs, and it won't be easy considering the starters won't play much until the Dolphins game on Aug. 24.

This week against Buffalo offers the Eagles another chance to prove they're committed to running the football. 

Maybe that means Matt McGloin won't throw the ball 42 times. 

“You try to go into every game trying to establish [the run],” Pederson said. “You know, it was unfortunate the way the game kind of took off. But, yeah, the plan would be to try to get that established a little bit this week and see where it goes. I really feel like we've got a good offensive line that can handle that with the backs that we have. It's something that we'll try to focus on hopefully Thursday.”

In number stumper, LeGarrette Blount reunited with No. 29

In number stumper, LeGarrette Blount reunited with No. 29

LeGarrette Blount got a surprise Saturday morning when he entered the Eagles' locker room. 

He got his number back. 

From the time Blount was signed in mid-May, the veteran running back has worn No. 35 on his jersey. Now, he's back to the No. 29, which he wore in New England. 

"Oh yeah man, I'm excited about it," he said. "I'm just happy that I got it back. I'm happy that things worked out for the best. I don't know how it happened. I just know I came in here and I had 29."

Blount said he didn't know why the number switched today and he didn't have to make any kind of deal with Terrence Brooks, who had worn 29 until Saturday. 

Perhaps the acquisition of cornerback Ronald Darby spurred the action. While Brooks now wears 24, Darby took Blount's old No. 35. 

Blount said an equipment man took his shoulder pads and brought them back to him with the 29 jersey attached. 

"I know he loves to have that number," Brooks said. "To me, it doesn't matter what number I have. That's something special to him. That's never been a number I've worn in the past, so it really doesn't matter to me. Twenty-four looks good. I'll rock it and do what I can with it."

One thing is for sure. Blount wasn't feeling 35. 

"Nah," he said smiling. "Nah, I wasn't going to keep that."

Blount has worn a different number in the past. During his time with Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, he wore 27, but that number is owned in Philly by defensive leader Malcolm Jenkins and he likely wasn't going to give it up. 

There's nothing superstitious about the No. 29 for Blount. He just likes it. 

"I've had it for a long time," he said. "I just enjoy having it. I had it with New England. I just like the number. I just like the number, that's all."