- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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You guys know by now that I'm not one of these frenzied maniacs who's going to be all like, "I'm so excited to see guys finally hit each other today!!!!! AHHHH!!! Football!!!!" I mean, I'm not opposed to hitting in football practice in general. There are just things about the game that fire me up more than the crunching of bones and pads. And I also think it's important to keep in mind that we're still six weeks away from the start of the actual season.
All of that said, though, I think this afternoon's Philadelphia Eagles practice over at Lehigh is significant. It's the first practice of this camp in pads. And for the Eagles, who have question marks at safety and need to establish a hierarchy in their running game as well as their linebacker corps, that provides a fresh opportunity for evaluation.
"When you put the pads on, it really separates the boys from men -- people who want to hit, and people who are scared to hit," Coleman said. "In this game you can't be scared to hit anybody. So I think that’s what the fans get to see, and it's a fun time for us to go out there and really knock some heads."
Now, clearly, Coleman is not in agreement with the thesis behind my first paragraph. But that's OK, because as an NFL safety he shouldn't be and because his point applies in particular to his position. Coaches everywhere will tell you that it's impossible to evaluate the safety position without watching players practice in pads. So much of what the safeties do is keyed around their ability to hit. And to this point, since OTA and minicamp practices were all non-contact and all training camp practices have been so far, the Eagles' coaches haven't seen their safeties hit anyone yet. So they don't know how Coleman or Nate Allen or Jaiquawn Jarrett or newcomer O.J. Atogwe really look.
Today, they can hit each other. Jarrett, the second-year safety whose reputation coming out of college was that of a fearsome hitter, can actually start showcasing some of the ability that led the Eagles to draft him. Atogwe, who was banged up for most of last season with the Redskins, can start trying to prove he can hold up physically under the strain of contact. It is these full-pad practices, and perhaps the preseason games even more so, that will allow the Eagles to determine who their starting safeties should be and how good they should expect to be at that position.
Similar points can be made about linebacker, where rookie Mychal Kendricks is looking to nail down the strongside linebacker spot and Brian Rolle, Casey Matthews and Jamar Chaney are competing at the weak side. To this point, the Eagles likely have been able to evaluate their linebackers in coverage and gauge their speed and their ability to react to what the offense is doing. But the linebackers in the Eagles' schemes are going to have to make some plays, and putting pads on them will help allow them to make more.
And if you've been to training camp and watched running backs in a non-contract drill, you know it's kind of anticlimactic. Yeah, they look good whizzing through that line, but ... well, no one's allowed to really try hard to stop them. Starting today, the Eagles can see more clearly how Dion Lewis, Bryce Brown and Chris Polk handle the rigorous part of their assignment as they compete for the backup running back job behind LeSean McCoy.
So that's why I think today's Eagles practice matters a little bit more than those that have come before it -- because the positions at which they're taking the closest looks are the ones you really need to watch in pads.