Which Eagles belong in the Pro Bowl?

Which Eagles belong in the Pro Bowl?

Upon finishing up practice on Tuesday, the Eagles were officially on vacation until next week. That means come Sunday you’ll finally have time to rake the leaves, have dinner with your in-laws, or worse, fill out Pro Bowl ballots at NFL.com.

The Pro Bowl has long been a punch line in NFL circles. Playing at half speed might work for All-Star games in the NBA and NHL, but it makes a mockery of the game of football. That said, the league is trying to spice things up this year by letting captains choose their teams rather than the traditional AFC vs. NFC, so that could be kind of cool. Yes, they totally ripped that idea from the NHL, no, I don’t care.

Either way, it would be nice if a few Eagles could represent. And I’m sure the players would appreciate your vote so they can collect a nice bonus and free trip to Honolulu.

A few of the choices are obvious. LeSean McCoy is a shoe-in as the NFL’s leading rusher this season, as is DeSean Jackson who’s third in receiving yards. A long-form ballot can be difficult to fill out though, so unless you’re just going to pick Birds all the way, here are a few suggestions.

Evan Mathis

Hands down the best offensive guard in the NFL the past two seasons according to Pro Football Focus, that has yet to turn into a Pro Bowl appearance for Mathis. He came from nowhere in 2011, and was likely overlooked last year because the rest of the Eagles’ offensive line was garbage. Mathis is having another fine season though, and it’s about time he gets his due.

Jason Kelce

Jason Kelce is having a nice return campaign after torn knee ligaments ended his 2012 early. I’m not sure it’s worthy of a trip to the Pro Bowl necessarily, and center can be a tough position to crack the list because long-time veterans tend to get that call. Kelce won me over with his promo though, so go ahead and put him on there if for no other reason than The700Level would undoubtedly get some quality posts out of his trip.

Cedric Thornton

Cedric Thornton arguably has been the Eagles’ best defensive player this season. My subscription to Pro Football Focus is in need of renewal, but as of a couple weeks ago, Thornton ranked first among all 3-4 defensive ends in the metrics site’s run-stop percentage. Unofficially, he has about 55 for tackles for loss this season. Fletcher Cox is really starting to come along too, but Thornton has been a force up front since Week 1.

DeMeco Ryans

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis called DeMeco Ryans the heart and sould of the Eagles’ defense, and it’s hard to argue. He’s never been one to put up flashy numbers with two sacks and two interceptions on the season, but Ryans is third in the NFL with 96 tackles. This is on a unit that has held opposing offenses to 21 points or less in nine of 11 games this season, including the last seven in a row.

Bradley Fletcher

Brandon Boykin may lead the team in interceptions, but Bradley Fletcher quietly has been the true standout at corner this year. Fletcher has lost three games to injury now, yet he’s tied for sixth in the NFL with 15 pass breakups to go along with two interceptions—imagine where he might be with a full season. The free-agent signing from the Rams has been a willing tackler who doesn’t get beat very often, and his name definitely deserves to be in the mix.

Donnie Jones

Only three punters in the NFL have downed more attempts inside their opponents’ 20-yard line than Jones. Before you assume those players are all more deserving though, Jones’ 40.9 net average tops them all. He’s worth considering for his punt to pin Washington at its own 4-yard line late in the fourth quarter on Sunday alone.

Nick Foles

Nick Foles isn’t on the ballot because Michael Vick was the starter at the beginning of the season, so technically you can’t vote for him online. You could petition Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league office through a write-in campaign though. He prefers hand-written letters, so really take your time—good penmanship, people—and craft a thoughtful note on your best stationary so he takes notice.

Of course, nobody would be upset if Foles decided to skip the Pro Bowl altogether and go straight to the Super Bowl, at which point all these hours you devoted to voting will be for naught. Then again, that’s a trade-off any Eagles fan would take, however unlikely it may be.

Who would you vote for?

>> 2014 Pro Bowl Ballot [NFL.com]

NHL Playoffs: Vernon Fiddler provides big lift as Predators take 1-0 series lead on Blues

NHL Playoffs: Vernon Fiddler provides big lift as Predators take 1-0 series lead on Blues

ST. LOUIS -- One nifty little flip by Vernon Fiddler provided a big lift for the Nashville Predators on a rough night.

Fiddler scored with 5:05 left and P.K. Subban had a goal and two assists, powering Nashville to a 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series on Wednesday.

The Predators lost Kevin Fiala to an ugly leg injury in the second period and blew a 3-1 lead before Fiddler poked a loose puck by Jake Allen in the third.

"They had a little push there," Fiddler said. "We got 3-2 and then 3-3 and the building's rocking. You have to give our guys credit. We just regrouped and went back at them and found a way to get the two points."

It was the fifth goal in 43 career playoff games for the 36-year-old Fiddler, who did not play in the Predators' first-round series sweep against the Blackhawks.

"He's a veteran guy so he's been in these situations before and he stepped up and got us a big goal," Subban said. "That was the toughest game of the season for us and they fought so hard and had so many chances, but we found a way to get it done."

Colin Wilson and Filip Forsberg also scored for Nashville, and Pekka Rinne made 27 saves.

Game 2 is Friday night (see full recap).

Draisaitl leads Oilers to Game 1 win over Ducks
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Adam Larsson scored his second goal of the third period with 4:40 to play, and the Edmonton Oilers blew a two-goal lead in a wild third period before beating the Anaheim Ducks 5-3 on Wednesday night in their second-round playoff series opener.

Mark Letestu scored two power-play goals and Cam Talbot made 33 saves for the upstart Oilers, who seized home-ice advantage from the Ducks with a four-goal final period.

Jakob Silfverberg scored the tying goal with 9:13 to play in regulation for the Ducks, who lost in regulation for the first time in 19 games since March 10.

Larsson scored just four goals in his first 85 games this season, but the Swedish defenseman improbably got two goals in 7 1/2 minutes.

Game 2 is Friday night in Anaheim (see full recap).

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

 

BOX SCORE

This is what the Phillies could look like some day, maybe in a year or two, when the rebuild has moved further down the road and the club is approaching contender's status.

Maikel Franco clubbed three hits, including a grand slam, and Vince Velasquez pitched his best game of the young season to lead the Phillies to a 7-4 victory over the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay).

The win was the Phillies' fifth straight as they inched over the .500 mark at 10-9 and it offered a glimpse of the tantalizing tools of two of the team's most enigmatic young players — Franco and Velasquez. Both players are 24 years old. Both have had individual highs and lows in a Phillies uniform. Both have the ability to be cornerstone talents for the franchise — if they can put together more nights like this one.

"It's a long season and it doesn't happen overnight," said manager Pete Mackanin, acknowledging the ups and downs that each player has had in the early part of this season and before.

It was just last week that Franco was riding a career-worst 0-for-22 slump that dragged his batting average to .145.

On Wednesday night, he stroked three hits — he had two hard-hit singles to go with his grand slam — to push his average to .203, not good but moving in the right direction.

Even as he struggled, Franco continued to hit balls hard and produce runs. He now has 20 RBIs, which is just one shy of the NL leaders. He also has four homers, including two grand slams.

It's no secret that new hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to get Franco to stop pulling off the ball. From Day 1 of spring training, Stairs has had Franco working on driving the ball to the middle of the field. That's just what Franco did three times Wednesday night. His first hit, a single to center in the second inning, set the tone for his night. His grand slam came on a 2-2 fastball from lefty Wei-Yin Chen in the third inning.

"That was Matt Stairs' big rallying cry for Maikel — try to use the big part of the field and not pull everything," Mackanin said. "He still has it in him where he'll pull his head off the ball, but I think with his type of power, he can hit a ball to center field or right field out of the ballpark. Once that sinks in, he's really going to take off. He's starting to look a lot better." 

Two pitches before Franco lined the grand slam over the wall in left center, he lost his helmet while hacking at a slow breaking ball. It was the type of out-of-control swing that Stairs is trying to eliminate. Two pitches later, Franco gathered himself and hit the grand slam with a smooth swing.

That was progress.

And so is this: He's only lost his helmet on a swing one time this season.

"At the time, I just told myself, 'Calm down, relax, don't try to do too much. Just see the ball and put good contact on it,'" Franco said.

"I think last year I lost my helmet like 20 or 25 times," he added with a chuckle. "I'm working on it."

Velasquez is also working on things. He is trying to harness his power stuff and improve his economy of pitches so he can stay in games longer. He'd lasted just four, five and six innings, respectively, while running high pitch counts in his first three starts. He made some improvements in his last outing at New York last week and took another step forward in this one. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, scattered six hits and three runs, walked two and struck out three. The strikeout total was way down from the 10 he struck out in four innings in his first start of the season. But Mackanin was pleased with the results and the improved efficiency. Velasquez threw 97 pitches, 68 of which were strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 26 batters and that was important to his success.

"Even though he's not striking people out like we know he can and will, he's using all of his pitches and he got us into that seventh inning, which was huge," Mackanin said. "I think he's trying to pitch to more contact and not trying to make perfect pitches and strike everybody out with perfect pitches.

"I think once he puts that all together, he'll have that total ensemble working for him and know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He's making good improvements."

And so are the Phillies as a group. They hit three home runs in the game and the bullpen did an excellent job, especially Joely Rodriguez and Joaquin Benoit, who combined on five outs (see story)

Five straight wins is nothing to sneeze at. The Phillies have suddenly become fun. They go for a sixth straight win Thursday.