NFC East: Brandon Graham
The Eagles' remarkable progress over the past few weeks, though, has as much to do with Davis learning his players as with the players learning the defense. As Davis has figured out players' strengths and vulnerabilities, he has been able to come up with formations, coverages and pressure schemes to suit them.
“It's always players over scheme,” Davis said. “Players are making the plays. Nothing to do with scheme.”
Putting scheme over players did not work, not for the 2011 and 2012 Eagles.
There is learning involved here, too, of course. One of the big questions going into this season was whether defensive ends Trent Cole and Brandon Graham could make the transition to outside linebacker. And it is a change. They have different pass-rushing techniques and different responsibilities in the run game. They have to drop into pass coverage at times.
Each of them had two sacks in Sunday's 24-21 win over Arizona. Both of Cole's came when he had his hand on the ground and rushed like the defensive end he was for eight seasons. Graham stood up on both his sacks, but he was in a low crouch in a defensive end formation on one, and he slid over and rushed between the guard and center on the other.
“It's definitely nice that he plays into our strengths and tries to maximize them the best he can,” Graham said. “Coach Davis is a great coach, a great coordinator. I think he's utilizing us the best way he can in his scheme.”
It probably helps that it's not exactly Davis' scheme. The Eagles defense is more of a collaborative effort being created and developed on the fly.
“Right now,” Davis said, “you're not looking at my defense. You're looking at the Philadelphia Eagles defense. You're looking at our staff, our personnel group. We built the playbook as a group. I didn't just bring my playbook and put it down and say, `Hey, that's what we're running.' That's not how this defense has been built.
“It's been built through a collection of great position coaches and we built it from scratch. We named things the way we wanted to name it and call it and verbalize it, and then from there, we have built to our players strengths and weaknesses as we as a group see what they can do well and what they can't do well.”
Head coach Chip Kelly said Davis' scheme wasn't the reason he hired him.
“I looked at what does he know from a football standpoint, how intelligent is he and what type of teacher is he,” Kelly said.
Kelly also brought defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro with him from Oregon. Azzinaro is one of those position coaches Davis mentioned with great input into the defense.
Watching the defense evolve has been almost as entertaining as watching Kelly's innovative offensive ideas unfold. Connor Barwin is a 6-foot-4, 264-pound linebacker who lined up as a cornerback at times against Larry Fitzgerald Sunday. Inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks lined up outside Cole, who was back at defensive end in some formations. Davis has been blitzing different defensive backs, trying to get a feel for who can get to the quarterback and who can't.
The progress through the first three-quarters of the season has been impressive. It makes you wonder how good this defense can be as Davis, Kelly and GM Howie Roseman identify and acquire players who are even better suited to it.
It’s ironic, because those precise qualities are prized by Philadelphia fans. Instead of winning hearts and minds, Watkins had fans, coaches and Roseman scratching their heads. He was a 26-year-old rookie, a former firefighter from British Columbia, and he seemed lost from the beginning.
“He never let himself go here,” Roseman said. “I don’t know why that was. I told him that was one of the things I was so confused by. It all goes back to the pressure he put on himself here. At the end of the day, for him to have success in this league, we felt he had to have a fresh start.”
That 2011 draft has turned out to be disastrous for the Eagles. Watkins is a bust. Second-round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett, a safety from Temple, was cut last year and is now starting for the New York Jets. Only two players, center Jason Kelce and kicker Alex Henery, from that class are in the Eagles’ starting lineup.
The 2010 draft wasn’t much better. First-round pick Brandon Graham is a backup trying to make the move from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. Second-round safety Nate Allen appears to have survived a challenge to hold onto his starting job. Riley Cooper and Kurt Coleman are the only other players from that class on the roster.
When he fired head coach Andy Reid after 2012 season, owner Jeff Lurie made a point of absolving Roseman for those drafts. To his credit, Roseman seized the opportunity to change the way the Eagles do business. That included adding veteran personnel men Tom Gamble, Rick Mueller and Tom Donahoe to his staff.
“We’ve been able to evaluate ourselves and make some substantial changes in how we do things,” Roseman said. “We’ve changed a lot of people in our personnel department. We’ve changed the way we look at things because we have new people in place.”
Kelly will sit down with his Philadelphia Eagles coaches and with general manager Howie Roseman and the personnel staff. By the end of the day, they should know which 22 players will be released to reach the final 53-man roster limit by Saturday at 6 p.m. ET.
This game will be but a small part of the evaluation process. A total of 22 players didn’t even dress; they are the starters held out to avoid injury risk. If anything, this game will serve as a tie-breaker for a few spots at the bottom of the roster.
“It gives us another opportunity to evaluate,” Kelly said. “Some guys are in situations where we haven’t got a ton of snaps for them. Some of those guys played an entire game tonight.”
For those on the outside of the meeting rooms, the game and Kelly’s comments offered a few insights into where some of those competitions stand:
- Matt Tobin, an undrafted rookie out of Iowa, has a better chance of making the team than former first-round pick Danny Watkins. Kelly played Tobin nearly the entire game at left tackle and praised him for having a strong summer.
Watkins? “Danny’s competing like the rest of those guys,” Kelly said. “There’s always some good out of Danny, but there’s always some mistakes out of Danny.”
- Emmanuel Acho made a very compelling case to be the first linebacker off the bench. He and Jake Knott thoroughly outplayed veteran Casey Matthews, in this game and throughout the preseason.
- Chris McCoy is probably the second-most-complete outside linebacker on the team after Connor Barwin. Brandon Graham and Trent Cole continue the transition from defensive end and struggle with the pass-coverage aspect of the job. McCoy looked very good in a starting role.
- Outside linebacker Everette Brown could sneak onto the roster. He recorded a sack for the second week in a row. Kelly volunteered his name when listing defensive players who stood out.
- Nobody really seems interested in claiming the open starting-safety job. Nate Allen, the incumbent, managed exactly one tackle. Rookie Earl Wolff had three. Neither did what McCoy, Acho and Brown did -- make a big play or two in their final opportunities to stake a claim.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Bill KostrounLinebacker Chris McCoy (94) turned in a solid performance as a starter in Thursday's finale.
So with all that, here’s a somewhat educated guess on how the 53-man roster will look Saturday at 6 p.m. Expect a couple of changes in the next days as Roseman and his staff look for help on the waiver wire.
Quarterbacks (3): Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Matt Barkley. No explanation necessary here.
Running backs (3): LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown, Chris Polk. It’s a high-attrition position, so it wouldn’t shock me to see Matthew Tucker stick and Kelly go light elsewhere.
Tight ends (3): Brent Celek, James Casey, Zach Ertz. If Casey’s hamstring injury is a problem, Clay Harbor could wind up back in the TE meeting room.
Wide receivers (6): DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper, Jason Avant, Damaris Johnson, Greg Salas, Russell Shepard. That might be a little high, but Kelly likes to have a lot of options.
Offensive line (10): Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans, Lane Johnson, Allen Barbre, Matt Tobin, Julian Vandervelde, Dennis Kelly, Matt Tennant. Could Watkins edge out Tennant? Sure, but I see Eagles cutting another tie to the Andy Reid era.
Defensive line (7): Fletcher Cox, Isaac Sopoaga, Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan, Vinny Curry, Damion Square, Clifton Geathers. Went with Geathers over Antonio Dixon, but could go either way.
Linebackers (8): Connor Barwin, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans, Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, Chris McCoy, Jake Knott, Emmanuel Acho. It was hard to leave Everette Brown off. It wouldn’t be a shock if Eagles went heavy here: Linebackers make key special-teamers.
Defensive backs (9): Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin, Jordan Poyer, Patrick Chung, Nate Allen, Earl Wolff, Kurt Coleman, Brandon Hughes. This group is subject to the most change after deadline.
Specialists (3): K Alex Henery, P Donnie Jones, LS Jon Dorenbos.
- Maybe the most significant thing that happened for the Eagles was the hamstring injury that sent tight end James Casey to the locker room in the first half. The severity wasn’t immediately known (and given Chip Kelly’s casual approach to dispensing injury info, may never be known), but staying healthy is the No. 1 priority in a fourth preseason game. So an injury to a guy expected to be a key part of the offense can’t be good.
- This one last chance to impress before roster cuts resulted in more impact defensive plays than in the first three preseason games combined. If coordinator Bill Davis is looking for reserves who can step in and make an impact, he had to like what he saw from:
-- Inside linebacker Emmanuel Acho, who sacked Jets QB Matt Simms on a blitz, played solidly against the run and forced a Konrad Reuland fumble in the second quarter. In the first half alone, Acho was credited with eight tackles. Acquired from Cleveland in the Dion Lewis trade, Acho sure looks like the third-best ILB on the team right now behind starters DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks.
-- Brandon Graham, who bull-rushed Simms on the Jets’ first possession and wrapped him up in the end zone. Simms threw the ball away, an intentional-grounding play that resulted in a safety. Graham still needs work on his pass drops (an understatement), but he can get to the QB from the OLB spot.
-- Chris McCoy, who started at the ROLB spot and tormented Jets tackle Jason Smith. McCoy dropped an interception on the first play from scrimmage -- a negative, sure, but he was in position to make it -- and sacked Simms for a 6-yard loss on the third play. McCoy got around Smith and hit Simms from behind, knocking the ball loose.
-- Everette Brown, the guy singled out by Pro Football Focus for his play against Jacksonville, ended the first half by sacking Simms and knocking the ball out of his hands when the Jets were in the red zone. Eagles fans would recognize the failure to get even a field-goal attempt from Marty Mornhinweg’s days as Andy Reid’s lieutenant.
- On the other side, a few of the veterans who are trying to stick just did not impress. Safety Nate Allen gave up a 23-yard completion to Zach Rogers on a third-and-19 play. He had decent coverage on Michael Campbell on a later Jets possession, but did not make any real impact. Of course, neither did fifth-round pick Earl Wolff, who started alongside Allen.
- Inside linebacker Casey Matthews had a very rough night. If he makes the team, it is going to be because he’s that valuable on special teams. Matthews had gap control and a chance to tackle Kahlil Bell in the backfield, but ran into a teammate instead. Bell ran into the end zone for an all-too-easy 8-yard TD. Matthews had a defensive holding penalty two plays before that.
- The only significant competition on the offensive side is for the backup spots along the line. With the starters sidelined, it was interesting to see who Chip Kelly lined up out there. Allen Barbre, who played two games at left tackle in place of Jason Peters, was at left guard. Undrafted rookie Matt Tobin, a 6-foot-6, 300-pounder from Iowa, started at left tackle. With Dennis Kelly expected to miss at least a couple of regular-season games because of a back injury, there is an opportunity for a backup tackle. Michael Bamiro, the massive but raw rookie from Stony Brook, started at left tackle. He looked massive and raw, especially in the early going. Danny Watkins was at right guard. He looked like Danny Watkins. Julian Vandervelde looks very much like he’ll make the team as the backup center.
- There was no reason to ponder whether Nick Foles should have been given a longer opportunity to compete for the starting QB job. He did not have a great game. But then, he was playing behind a dreadful offensive line against a Jets defense that blitzed more than usual in the preseason. It was also clear that Kelly was using as little of his offense as possible. Foles fumbled the ball away on the first series. He succeeded in finishing the game, and the preseason, without an injury.
- By the second half, when Matt Barkley took over at QB, the line had settled in a little bit. Barkley engineered a 16-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. On the downside, he threw the Kevin Kolb-patented pick-six with two minutes left in the game. Barkley didn't get enough on an out to Jeff Maehl. Antonio Allen stepped in, intercepted and returned it for a TD.
- In the midst of a sea of vanilla, Kelly suddenly called one of the triple-option plays the Eagles frequently ran in a recent practice. Foles faked a handoff, started running to his left, then whipped an overhand lateral to wide receiver Greg Salas. Surprised Kelly put that on film. Also, that play seems certain to result in a turnover at some point.
- The injury plague continued at cornerback. Trevard Lindley limped off the field in the third quarter with a right ankle sprain. The Eagles have two corners, Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes, sidelined with broken hands. They are so thin there that safety Kurt Coleman was playing corner even before Lindley went down.
- Speaking of which, Coleman would seem to be one of the guys on the bubble here. The fact that he played both safety and cornerback could help his case for making the team. You never know when you’re going to be caught short in a game. On the other hand, it could mean Coleman is so far out of the running at safety that Kelly and Davis weren’t interested in seeing him there.
- If the cutdown to 75 was an indicator, Kelly is likely to do most of his roster work Friday, the day before the deadline to reach 53.
1. Matt Barkley’s summer swan song: Nick Foles will start the game, according to Chip Kelly’s plan. The guess here is Foles will be out of there after a series or two. Barkley, the fourth-round pick from USC, will be next up at quarterback.
That’s probably the last time you’ll see Barkley for a while. For all those five-QBs-throwing-at-once drills Kelly has been running throughout camp, the regular season is about preparing the No. 1 quarterback for each week’s opponent. Michael Vick will get most of the work, while Foles gets enough to be ready in case he’s needed.
Barkley will barely practice unless he moves up the depth chart because of an injury or other catastrophe.
Even more interesting (maybe just to me): Will Kelly play Dennis Dixon or G.J. Kinne at all? It seems strange to expose those two to injury when they are almost certain to be released this weekend. Of course, it seems strange to carry five quarterbacks on a 75-man roster.
How strange? Only two other teams, Jacksonville and Buffalo, have five. Both of those teams have injured starters and real question marks as backups. Ten teams had four quarterbacks as of Wednesday afternoon. Most of the league -- 22 teams -- carried just three.
Seems like a minor thing, but with so much competition at other positions, every roster spot counts.
2. The first-round picks whose pedigree means nothing: Kelly’s clean-slate approach to evaluating players means guys like Danny Watkins didn’t have any strikes against them. But it also means Kelly doesn’t care that Watkins was a first-round pick, or that the Eagles traded up to get Brandon Graham instead of Jason Pierre-Paul.
Kelly is just going by what he sees on the field and in the film room.
Neither of those guys is a starter, which says something, so they should get a fair amount of playing time in the last tune-up game.
Graham, who is making the awkward transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, appears safer than Watkins. He has made strides at his new position and, frankly, there isn’t a lot of fierce competition there.
“It could be better,” Graham said of his coverage skills. “I’m not a pro at that, but I’m trying. My heart’s in the right direction. That’s all I can manage. All I can do is compete. Whatever happens, happens.”
At worst, Graham could be used situationally to rush the passer from different spots on the field.
There is much stiffer competition along the offensive line. Allen Barbre can play tackle and guard. He’s likely to start at tackle, leaving Watkins to start in one of the guard spots. A poor game really could result in Watkins being released.
3. Keep an eye on Everette Brown: He hasn’t gotten much attention this summer, but Brown is a former second-round pick (Carolina, 2009). He’s another DE/OLB tweener.
He’s worth watching because Pro Football Focus pointed out that, in 22 snaps, Brown had a sack, a hit and two hurries. He earned a +2.6 grade from PFF. Not bad for a guy who has been under the radar. When and how he is used will indicate whether the Eagles coaches were as impressed.
4. The safety position: Yes, yes, you’ve heard way too much this week about Nate Allen and Earl Wolff. They will both get a chance to win the starting safety job alongside Patrick Chung.
Advice: Make a play, somebody. A big hit, an interception, anything. The first guy who looks like he can make an impact should start.
5. The clock: When it hits zero, the preseason is officially over and the countdown to Sept. 9 begins in earnest. Finally.
He has been a non-factor since signing with the Eagles this offseason, however. General manager Howie Roseman traded Jones to Pittsburgh this morning for linebacker Adrian Robinson.
It looks like a trade that, at best, won't hurt either club.
The Eagles need depth at outside linebacker, where Trent Cole and Brandon Graham are trying to make the transition from defensive end. Connor Barwin, the free agent acquisition from Houston, is the only outside linebacker on the roster with significant experience playing the position in a 3-4 alignment.
Robinson is just that, depth. The Harrisburg native, who played at Temple University, is 6-foot-1, 250 pounds. He was undrafted in 2012 and made the Steelers' roster. Robinson played in 12 games without recording a tackle, forced fumble or interception.
What he does bring is a feel for the Steelers' 3-4 system as operated by Dick LeBeau. That is the model for what new Eagles coordinator Bill Davis is working toward. So Robinson could make the 53-man as a backup and a special teams player. Remember, the Eagles lost linebacker Jason Phillips, who was expected to contribute on coverage teams.
With rookie running back Le'Veon Bell injured, the Steelers needed depth at that position. Jones, 26, carried the ball 12 times for 45 yards in two preseason games. With LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown and Chris Polk in camp, there was little room for Jones. Rookie Matthew Tucker has looked better so far in camp.
Jason Reid thinks Robert Griffin III needs to stop questioning Mike Shanahan's plan for his recovery in public. I mean, I'm not down there, so maybe I'm reading things all wrong, but I don't see all the wrong everyone seems to be seeing in what Griffin said. And I'm really not comfortable with the idea of telling someone what to say and what not to say in their news conferences. Griffin and Shanahan need to get along, obviously, but there's little if any real evidence that they're not. The kid wants to play, and when someone asks him if he wants to play, he says yeah. But it's a terrible idea to play him in a preseason game right now, and it's Shanahan's job to make the right decision for him and for the team. Whether he likes it or not. Griffin appears to know this. I honestly don't see the problem.
And in case you missed this last night, rookie safety Phillip Thomas is out for the season with a foot injury. It's not a certainty that a healthy Thomas would have been a contributor in 2013, but given the Redskins' issues in the secondary it was a possibility. At the very least, he loses a year of development.
New York Giants
This is getting talked about a little bit more as Giants camp progresses, the idea that the Giants could show a few different looks on defense this year, including some 3-4-type alignments in the front seven. It's all in the name of staying flexible and trying to handle the many multiple facets they're seeing from opposing offenses these days. And training camp is about experimenting and figuring out what you can and can't handle.
Justin Tuck says he has a medical exemption to the NFL's new facemask rule, and won't have to change his look.
Dez Bryant remembers being suspended for the final 10 games of his college career for lying to NCAA investigators, and he says he'll be mad if Johnny Manziel isn't suspended over his autograph controversy.
Ernie Sims still believes he has a chance to win the starting strongside linebacker job that appeared ticketed for newcomer Justin Durant.
As the Eagles transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, much is justifiably being made of the challenge guys like Trent Cole and Brandon Graham are facing in new positions. But 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox is struggling with some of his assignments as a 3-4 defensive end as well, as the system tries to encourage him to do things with which he's not ultra-comfortable yet.
This year's first-round pick, Lane Johnson, is having a great camp on and off the field. He just became a dad.
Sheil Kapadia has a detailed look at all of this -- what the Eagles ran last year, what they'd like to run eventually and the 3-4 "under" look that might be what we see out of them this year:
It’s a 3-4 look with three down linemen (Cedric Thornton, Isaac Sopoaga and Fletcher Cox in the photo), but the weak-side outside linebacker (Trent Cole) is a pass-rush specialist who rarely drops back into coverage.*Side note: The New York Giants showed something like this in training camp practice Sunday during a hurry-up drill. They had three linemen with their hands on the ground with Shaun Rogers playing the nose and Justin Tuck and another pass-rusher (Mathias Kiwanuka? Couldn't see from where I was.) standing up at the line of scrimmage as outside linebackers. My guess is that Tuck, who has said he doesn't like dropping into coverage, would play that weak-side pass-rush-only role, but the point is that the offense wouldn't know.
“The stand-up is more confusion for the offense -- is that guy dropping or rushing?” Davis said. “When his hand’s down, most of the time, he’s probably [rushing]. And it affects protections and everything else.”
When center Jason Kelce sets the protection for the offense, the first thing he identifies is whether the defense is showing three down linemen or four. I asked offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland if having that fourth rusher stand up makes setting the protection more difficult.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “There’s no question. Whenever you ask your offensive line to make another change in the communication, somebody might not get it. It’s like the secondary. It’s like when you change formations and you shift, then you motion and they’re making calls back and forth to each other, all one guy has to do is miss the call and it’s a touchdown.”
With offenses becoming more multiple and varied all the time, defenses are going to have to do the same in order to stay flexible and swing the confusion advantage back their way as far as possible. I think the Eagles' defense is going to be a work in progress this year, with players learning new positions and figuring out how to handle them. Cole and Brandon Graham have never been standup linebackers, and Graham admitted when I spoke to him last week at Eagles practice that he's struggling in pass coverage. I imagine the coaching staff will be patient as the transition takes place, and the fans will have to do the same.
"We spend a lot of time as a staff talking about that: 'What's the best way to teach our guys?'" Kelly said after the Eagles' practice Monday. "Because the bottom line is, it means absolutely nothing what we know, because we're not the ones playing. So our job, very simply, is that we need to create an environment where our players have a chance to be successful and then get out of the way and let them go play. And if we can arm them with information so that they can not have to think on the field but react, then we're doing what we're supposed to do."
I asked some Eagles players for their favorite Kelly-isms.
"He always says, 'Take 15,'" left tackle Jason Peters said. "And that means take 15 minutes out of your day to do something positive, whether it's studying your plays, go call a loved one, just take 15 minutes out of your day to do something positive. Whatever you do in that 15 minutes is going to help the teammate across from you or beside you."
"He'll just say, 'The little things,'" guard Evan Mathis said. "It just means doing everything like a professional. Just carry yourself on the field, off the field the same way. Clean up after yourself after you eat. Parking in the right place. Being here on time. The little things. It helps you focus things the right way. How you carry yourself off the field translates to the way you carry yourself on the field. Just get used to forming good habits."
"'Let the world see what you want them to see,'" running back LeSean McCoy said. "Good plays, bad plays, you let the world see that. Same thing off the field. Whatever you may tweet, however you may act in public, that's what the world will see. So always be thinking about what you want the world to see."
The fact that everybody seems to have his favorite speaks to the number of these mini-mantras Kelly employs, but also to one of the central teaching tenets he learned from former NFL coach Tony Dungy when he approached him, before taking this job, about the challenges of coaching professional players as opposed to collegiate ones.
"The one thing Tony told me is that if you can make individual players better, then they're going to listen," Kelly said. "So I think when you're dealing with anybody, no matter what business it is, if people understand that you care about them and you want to help them, then I think they're going to take to it. And these guys understand us and I think we've got a pretty good understanding of them as a staff."
If Kelly's first mission was to get his players to buy in, then he's done well. He's connected with them on a personal level, impressed them with his preparedness and his ideas and installed an atmosphere that appears conducive to the teaching he wants and needs to do.
"I just like his attitude, man," McCoy said. "He's always positive. Good days, bad days, always positive."
Long way to go, obviously, and many more good and bad days ahead once the Eagles get into the grind of the NFL season and try to improve on last year's 4-12 record. But this is training camp, a time of excitement, hope and teaching. And Kelly's got all of that humming so far.
THREE HOT ISSUES
Vick is the obvious front-runner, based both on experience and 2013 upside. But the fact that he has foot speed and Foles doesn't won't win him the job. He's got to show he can handle the quick decision-making Kelly wants from his quarterback, and that he's willing to give up on a play for the sake of protecting the ball and making it to the next play. Throughout his career, Vick has been a guy who's preferred to extend plays in the hopes of making big ones. If he doesn't show a willingness or ability to change that, he could lose the job to Foles or even Barkley. Don't be surprised if each of those guys starts games for the Eagles this year. They don't appear to have a great solution on the current roster.
2. Replacing Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles' leading receiver in 2012, Maclin went down with a torn ACL in practice Saturday and is almost certain to miss the entire season. The fact that this happened so early in camp gives Kelly time to adjust his offense around Maclin's absence. And although speedy wideout DeSean Jackson should be heavily featured and guys like Jason Avant, Arrelious Benn and Riley Cooper have a chance to contribute more, it's probably better to look to the tight end group and the running back group for solutions here. The Eagles have depth at both of those positions, with players who can contribute as receivers and make the kinds of short-range and medium-range plays that will help speed Kelly's offense along. None of them offers the playmaking versatility or the speed of Maclin, but there are plenty of options here for Kelly, and if Plan B doesn't work out there are lots of potential Plans C, D, E, etc.
3. What will the defense look like? "We're going from a wide nine 4-3 defense to a 3-4," Kelly said. "When do we get to a 3-4? I don't know."
What Kelly means is that, while the ultimate goal is to play a base 3-4, two-gap system on defense, he's not going to force square pegs into round holes right away just because that's what he wants. If the players he has on defense aren't ready to swing all the way to that 3-4, two-gap system, then he's going to stop the transition at some yet-undetermined midpoint and fashion his 2013 defense around their capabilities. And if it doesn't work, then they go out next offseason and find personnel who can better handle what he wants to do.
The question is whether a defense can succeed in the short term while it endures such a transition. Change is worth making for the Eagles on defense, but how quickly the players master the changes required of them will go a long way toward determining whether they're a 2013 contender.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The energy and the enthusiasm in camp are very high, and the players do seem to be buying what Kelly and his staff are selling. That's always going to be a question mark with a new coach, and it could continue to be one if the team starts losing and the attitudes turn sour, but for now everybody seems to be enjoying the novelty.
"Every single thing has been very well thought out, very well researched, and there's a rhyme and reason to everything," Mathis said. "And it definitely matters. It helps you understand and just give it your all. When you can trust the game plan, the road map that you've been given, you can just focus on applying yourself and doing it."
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
"The way we're looking at it is that we're trying to develop into a team like we've had in the past, that can consistently compete," GM Howie Roseman said. "We want to win now, obviously, because in this league you can never say you're going to have a redshirt year. But at the same time we want to build it the right way. We don't want to take shortcuts. In the past we were in a situation where we felt like we were close, so we did some things that you do when you're a team that you think is right on the verge. For us, if we build it the right way, good things will happen."
As is the case with any team that bottoms out at 4-12 and changes coaches, the Eagles have a great deal of work to do. Kelly and his staff are wisely operating according to a long-term plan, and it's entirely possible that this season is a transition or rebuilding year just out of necessity.
- Andy Reid's Eagles training camps were well known as some of the hardest-hitting camps in the league. Although the Eagles practiced in pads Sunday and Monday, there was no tackling to the ground and there won't be. Kelly said, "We have four preseason games for that." He doesn't like the risk of his own players injuring their teammates, and he thinks keeping everyone on their feet encourages proper tackling technique. It's new in Philly, but not unheard of. Some teams, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, never do any hitting at all in training camp.
- One of the defensive keys will be the ability of pass-rushers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, who had been 4-3 defensive ends, to transition to standup 3-4 outside linebacker roles. Cole says he enjoys the extra room he has to rush the passer, and Graham says that pass coverage is "a weakness of mine" and that he has to improve in that area.
- For a few moments Monday, it appeared Kelly had his running backs on leashes. Turns out, this was a new drill in which one back carries a ball with a string attached to it while another runs behind him holding the other end of the string and trying to pull the ball loose. Obviously, it's a drill designed to improve ball security.
- The standout player in the secondary, to me, was second-year cornerback Brandon Boykin, who works mainly as the nickel corner but could get more work on the outside if he continues to show well.
- As much as the Eagles would like former Giants safety Phillips to help, he looks to me like a guy whose knee isn't fully healthy, and of course it may never be.
- The loss of reserve linebacker Jason Phillips, who tore his ACL during Monday's practice and was placed on injured reserve, could show up more than you'd think. The Eagles signed Phillips because he was a special teams star in Carolina, and his loss is a blow to their coverage units.
What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC East team?
Offense: Running game
Dallas averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per rush in 2012. In turn, the Cowboys too often got away from their run game and became too reliant on Tony Romo and this very good passing attack. The offensive line was mostly to blame for the ground struggles, but at least Dallas did use a first-round pick on Travis Frederick to improve the interior of the line. But DeMarco Murray is increasingly difficult to count on, having missed nine of 32 games in his two NFL seasons. Murray’s yards per attempt also dropped from 5.5 to 4.1 in his second season.
Defense: Scheme change
New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is a smart man and surely will not rely on his usual Tampa 2 scheme as some might speculate. Still, after investing so heavily in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne as man-to-man corners, Dallas now -- just one year later -- will ask these two to operate much more out of their comfort zone. It will be interesting to see what percentage of man coverage Dallas plays this season.
Wild card: The linebackers
If Dallas does move to a predominant Tampa 2 scheme, two players who should benefit a great deal are Sean Lee in the middle and Bruce Carter at the Will linebacker spot. Both have outstanding range and playmaking skills. Lee could flourish much like Brian Urlacher did in his prime as an outstanding coverage linebacker, while Carter could have a Derrick Brooks-type impact as a run-and-hit defender.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Offense: Plenty to like
Few seem to be talking about it, but I expect the Giants’ offense to produce an awful lot of points this season. With the addition of Justin Pugh, the offensive line should be upgraded. My only slight concern is at tight end, where Martellus Bennett's blocking will be missed. New starter Brandon Myers really isn't even comparable in that department. I am expecting a breakout season from running back David Wilson, with Andre Brown acting as a superb complement. Wide receiver Rueben Randle also should take monumental steps forward in his second season, and I have little doubt that Eli Manning is still an exceptional quarterback. What’s not to like?
Defense: Back seven
While I am extremely high on the Giants’ offense and think the defensive line will be improved, the back seven of this defense is worrisome. This just might be the worst group of linebackers in the NFL, and I expect Kenny Phillips to be missed at safety. Certainly the Giants have been successful defensively by dedicating resources to the defensive line, but this is a bit ridiculous.
Wild card: Defensive line
Can this deep and talented front make up for all the concerns behind it? I have my doubts, but that isn’t a knock on this front four. Potentially, the Giants should go four deep at end and six deep at tackle with high-end talent. That is pretty amazing and should allow this group to constantly have fresh, hungry players on the field. Also, Jason Pierre-Paul should be healthier than he was a year ago, which is frightening.
Offense: Jason Peters
Before his Achilles injury, I thought Peters was the best offensive lineman in the NFL. He missed the entire 2012 season, a year in which the Eagles’ offensive line was simply horrible. Other injuries certainly factored into that ineptitude, but getting Peters back in the form we saw pre-injury would go a long way to making this a potentially excellent unit, especially with the addition of Lane Johnson. But therein lies the question: What kind of movement skills will we see from the 31-year-old Peters, a tight end in college who once possessed exceptional quickness, balance and agility?
Defense: Cole, Graham and Curry
By all accounts, the Eagles are going to be a predominant 3-4 defense under Chip Kelly. But Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are prototypical 4-3 defensive ends. Cole and Graham, who somewhat quietly played exceptional football during the second half of the 2012 season, are listed as outside linebackers in this 3-4, and Curry is listed at defensive end. It will be a shame if these three players are misused, and it will be interesting to see their role when camp opens.
Wild card: All new secondary
The Eagles' starting cornerbacks greatly underachieved last year, and the safety play was just terrible. The new Philadelphia regime completely revamped the back end of the defense, and it looks as though the Eagles will have four new starters in the secondary. Philadelphia had an inordinate number of mental errors last season; while it might take some time for this group to jell, it should be improved in that capacity as well as in its overall play.
Offense: Right tackle woes
Robert Griffin III’s immense abilities and Mike Shanahan’s scheme masked a major deficiency at right tackle in 2012. The scheme won’t change and Griffin will have even better on-the-field awareness in his second season -- even if he isn’t as mobile while recovering from injury -- but Washington certainly realized this area of concern and brought in Tony Pashos and Jeremy Trueblood to compete with Tyler Polumbus. My fear is that none of the three is the answer.
Much like Peters for the Eagles, Brian Orakpo will be under a microscope when camp opens, as all eyes will be watching to see if he still has his same explosive movement skills post-injury. Far and away Washington’s best pass-rusher, Orakpo and his edge presence were missed in a big way last season, and the Redskins were forced to blitz, exposing their weak secondary, much more than what would have been ideal.
Wild card: New DBs
Again much like in Philadelphia, the Redskins put many of their limited offseason resources into improving a poor secondary. A healthy Orakpo’s pass rush certainly will help, but the Redskins could see as many as three rookies -- David Amerson, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo -- playing prominent roles in their secondary early in the season. Rookie cover men rarely enter the league without their share of growing pains.
Second, consider age here. Graham just turned 25. Barwin is only 26, but Cole turns 31 in October. Graham had the best 2012 season of the three and is also the youngest. Doesn't sound like a guy on whom an organization should be thinking about giving up just because it's asking him to change positions.
Finally, there is cost to consider. And while the Eagles always seem to have plenty of cap room, that's because they plan out their future well. Graham costs $2.9575 million against this year's cap. Cole cost $5.35 million. Barwin costs $1.3 million. Next year, Cole's cap figure goes up to $6.6 million, Barwin's to $4.9 million and Graham's to $3.378 million, meaning he's the cheapest of the Eagles' established pass-rusher options for 2014 at this point. Graham is an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season, while Cole's cap cost for 2015 is currently sitting at $11.625 million and Barwin's at $6.1 million. If Graham can continue to show what he showed in the second half of 2012, he represents the future at pass-rusher for the Eagles, whether they run a 4-3, a 3-4, a 5-2, a 1-6 or whatever they want to run.
Too many pass-rushers is a good problem to have, so even if Graham stays stuck behind Cole and Barwin on the depth chart throughout training camp, I wouldn't expect the Eagles to be in a rush to dump him. He's talented enough that they should and will find uses for him. His issues his first two years in the league were health issues, not ability ones. I don't think the arrival of Kelly, Davis or Barwin signals the end for Graham in Philadelphia. I think he'll get every chance to show he can handle his position switch and new role, and only if he flops in it will they think about moving on from him.
“‘Multiple’ is the best way,” Davis said. “I know you guys are tired of that answer. I know you want to hear one or the other or something. What we’re doing here is we’re taking that wide-nine 4-3 and we’re moving in the direction of the 3-4, but where we stop is yet to be determined by the players we have.”
Davis said Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, who played defensive end in the Eagles' 4-3, have been adjusting to the role of standup outside linebacker in a 3-4. But it definitely sounds as though Davis is prepared to use 4-3 fronts as well as 3-4 fronts as the transition takes place in 2013.
"Right now in this phase, it's a no-padded phase, so we get to test them in a different movement things and different positions," Davis said. "And then sometime during training camp the system is in place. Everybody out there has a system that runs four-down, three-down. ... So you use them at different times, and how much we use any of them will dictate who we're playing and the offenses we're trying to stop that week, and first and foremost, who [our] guys are and what they do best."
Ultimately, it appears as though Kelly's Eagles teams will run a 3-4 defense. But it's going to take some time to transition to that, and rather than simply wade in and impose a new system and formation on personnel that may not fit naturally into it, Kelly and Davis want to spend the offseason assessing what they have and the best way to play defense with that in the meantime. It makes sense. The extent to which it works will depend on their ability to teach and the players' ability to learn and incorporate the new stuff once the games begin.
The outside linebacker position is one of the most interesting to watch for the Eagles this offseason. Assuming they plan to institute more 3-4 looks, everybody wants to know how Brandon Graham and Trent Cole will handle the transition from 4-3 defensive ends to stand-up rush linebackers.
Jeremy Maclin says he doesn't know much about whether the Eagles are holding or will hold a starting quarterback competition. But in practices so far, Maclin says, Michael Vick has been running with the first team with Nick Foles "sprinkling in some reps here and there." As we have discussed at length, there are no sure things or guarantees here, but Vick is the current clear and obvious favorite to open the season as the Eagles' starter, based on his experience and his 2013 upside.
New York Giants
What the Giants liked about offensive lineman Justin Pugh, who was their first-round pick in the draft last month, was that he's smart and technically sound enough to grasp their system quickly and that he could play whatever position on the line they need him to play a year from now.
Chad Jones, the 2010 Giants draft pick who was injured in a terrible car accident before he could ever play for the team, has given up his football comeback and will try to pursue a career as a baseball pitcher instead.
Redskins owner Dan Snyder had this to say to USA Today on the name-change issue: "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps." So, you know. At least he's keeping an open mind on a sensitive issue. Good to see.
If there is to be any change on the Redskins' offensive line this year, it's most likely to be at right tackle. Keith McMillan examines the four candidates, including returning starter Tyler Polumbus.
You know how every single offseason there's a story about how Miles Austin is working harder or doing something different to prevent a recurrence of the hamstring injuries that are always bugging him? Yeah? Well, this is the May 2013 version of that story. I feel confident in saying that Cowboys fans would rather read stories next May about the success Austin had in doing this.
Cut earlier this offseason in a salary cap move, former Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh has decided to retire from the NFL at the age of 29. Good for him. Hopefully he got out before the game took too great a toll on his physical health. I'm rarely surprised when people decide to retire from this game young.
Kelly got a new toy in the second round, when the Eagles took Stanford tight end Zach Ertz. It's too simplistic to assume Ertz will push out Brent Celek. It's more likely Kelly's dreaming up schemes that involve both of them as well as free-agent signee James Casey, as he continues to keep his options open.
Which brings us to the fourth round, and the Eagles' move up to take USC quarterback Matt Barkley. Again, the lockstep analysis that assumes Kelly won't be able to get out of bed in the morning unless he has a running quarterback found this one unfathomable. Barkley? He's a pocket passer! That doesn't look like what Kelly was running at Oregon! How can this beeeeee???????
Enough. Barkley in the fourth round represented astounding value, and it has nothing to do with whether he can run. A year ago, this was a guy people were talking about as the possible first pick in the first round. The Eagles got him for a fourth and a seventh. Kelly's seen him play -- coached against him in the Pac 12. He's seen the good and the bad, and the good is a smart quarterback with experience in a pro-style offense who makes quick decisions and has a strong presence in the huddle. The reasons Barkley dropped were because of poor production (and injury) in his final college season and a relative lack of arm strength that makes people worry about his downfield accuracy. Fine reasons not to take him in the first or second round, but no reason not to take a shot in the fourth if you like the guy. And again, it's not as though he's never given NFL teams a reason to like him.
I'm not rushing to figure out what this means for 2013 -- again, because I don't think Kelly is either. Barkley joins an Eagles quarterback mix that includes likely 2013 starter Michael Vick, second-year man Nick Foles and career backup Dennis Dixon. Could Barkley outplay Vick and Foles in camp and win the job? Of course he could. Vick's footspeed is a nice possible aspect of an up-tempo Kelly offense, but it's more important to Kelly that his quarterback be able to make quick, sound decisions and avoid turnovers, and those things haven't been Vick's strengths. If I had to bet, I'd say Vick starts the season as the Eagles' quarterback but that Barkley and/or Foles exist as viable replacements in the event that he gets hurt, struggles to produce or turns the ball over too much. And I don't think a coach with Kelly's intelligence and experience designing offenses is going to struggle to adjust his schemes if he has to switch from the mobile Vick to the less mobile Barkley or Kelly. I just don't.
This is a long-term project on which Kelly is embarking, and he's doing the right thing by assembling as many options as he can for his offense in the long-term as well as the short-term. He's not committing to any one system or any one player. He wants to see what all of these guys have to offer, and how quickly they can offer it, and he'll decide the right course of action accordingly. It's smart, and the offensive picks he made in this draft will help him do it.
The defensive picks? I questioned the selection of Bennie Logan in the third, because I thought he was a 4-3 defensive tackle, but they seem to think they can train him to be a 3-4 lineman. Safety Earl Wolff in the fifth and especially cornerback Jordan Poyer in the seventh felt like good value picks in a draft deep with secondary players. The Eagles already have a lot of good players on defense, and it's possible guys like Trent Cole and Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham will fit better into their new roles than many have assumed. The decision-makers seemed to approach this draft as though they didn't feel an urgent need to find replacements for them.
All in all, a good value draft for Kelly and Howie Roseman in the first year post-Andy Reid in Philadelphia. One thing he can say about Kelly's offense for certain is that it's going to keep us interested -- all through the offseason and likely the season as well.
You have heard this week about music at practice, about the speeding up of practice tempo. You've read about Vinny Curry's weight gain and Brandon Graham's weight loss as each prepares for a possible position change in the new defense. Michael Vick and Nick Foles split first-team practice reps at quarterback. Each player had an individually prepared, personalized smoothie waiting for him when practice ended. Vick practiced with a heart monitor. Players are being given sleep monitors. Tight end Brent Celek said the communication on offense has a chance to be revolutionary.
“From a communications standpoint, it’s going to change the league,” Celek said. “I’m not going to tell you guys how, but it will. Just the way that they can communicate plays in and get us the stuff, it’s pretty cool. It’s something that I never even thought was possible in the NFL. Seeing the stuff he’s doing, he has a reason why he does everything that he does, and a reason why each play is called what it is. And it all makes sense.
“I can’t say that we’re going to be super successful, but from a communications standpoint, it’s insane. I think it’s awesome.”
Yeah, new is fun, and it's been a long time since much was new around the Eagles. So there's no need to go old-school-NFL wet blanket on this situation and start grumbling about how some new young coach is going to fall flat on his face trying to reinvent the league. Kelly is forward-thinking, his methods are research-based, and there's nothing wrong with that.
But the good thing about a results-oriented business like sports is that time ultimately does determine the value and validity of any new coach's ideas. The proof is on the field and in the standings. Years from now, we'll either still be writing stories about Kelly's smoothies and sleep monitors or we'll have forgotten all about him. It all depends on whether his Eagles win.
It's up to the decision-makers to remain more level-headed than the fans or even the players. But Jeffrey Lurie and Howie Roseman must at least occasionally let themselves dream about Celek's proclamation coming true. They targeted and hired Kelly to overhaul their franchise and lead it into the future. They're paying him a significant amount of money to do this. At the outer reaches of their imagination, they must sometimes think how great it would be if someday people were saying of Kelly, "He changed the league. What a great hire that was."
But there's work to be done in the meantime if that's to happen. The defense has to come together in whatever hybrid form Kelly and Billy Davis are imagining for it. Regardless of how they line up the front seven, they have to make sure they put the right pieces behind them in the secondary. Smoothies or no, that's a question-mark area right now. The offensive line needs to get and stay healthy, and the electric playmakers they have at wide receiver and running back have to make electric plays. Sleep monitors or no, all of that still lives in the realm of potential.
Above all else, Kelly and the Eagles must find their long-term answer at quarterback. If that answer is on the current roster, it's a long way from making itself apparent. Maybe they get something out of Vick or Foles that's more than the rest of us expect. Maybe they find someone in the draft next week. But unless they find their on-field leader at the most important position, their sideline leader can move training camp or change the defense or play music at practice as much as he wants and the Eagles aren't going to win enough games over the next couple of years to make any of that look smart.
Kelly doesn't have to make the 2013 playoffs to be a success. He's thinking long term, and that's what his bosses hired him to do. But "long term" isn't always as long as an NFL coach would like it to be. If the Eagles struggle this year, the April smoothies are going to start being a talk-radio punch line. And if they struggle again next year and the year after that, they're going to be a forgotten footnote while Kelly's replacement tries his own way of fixing things.
Everything about Kelly and the Eagles and what's going on in Philadelphia this week is fun and exciting, and it should be. Whether the excitement is ultimately justified, however, will depend on what happens on the real field in the big stadium in the games that count in the coming autumns and winters.