NFC East: Brandon Graham
ESPN.com New York Giants reporter Dan Graziano makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: at Detroit Lions
The Giants are coming off a mess of a preseason, undermanned and overwhelmed, with the offensive line still a mess and the new offense not clicking at all. No one will pick them to win this game. Except me. Prediction: Win
Week 2: Arizona Cardinals
This one's a comedown off the Week 1 surprise, as Arizona's banged-up defense still manages to flummox Eli Manning and collect a few interceptions. It's a bummer of a home opener as reality begins to set in. Prediction: Loss
Week 3: Houston Texans
Houston's defense is as liable as Arizona's to make life miserable for Manning and the offensive line. But Houston has bigger questions on offense than even the Giants, and this is a win for the New York defense against Ryan Fitzpatrick. Prediction: Win
Week 4: at Washington Redskins
Week 5: Atlanta Falcons
The pattern continues, and the Giants overcome two Osi Umenyiora sacks to outscore the Falcons with a furious Manning comeback in the final minutes. The Giants poke their heads over the .500 mark as they make the turn into the most brutal stretch of their schedule. Prediction: Win
Week 6: at Philadelphia Eagles
The Giants don't have Matt Barkley to kick around this time when they visit the City of Brotherly Love. Chip Kelly and the Eagles show them what a truly innovative offense looks like. Prediction: Loss
Week 7: at Dallas Cowboys
The season-long debate about what gives when an anemic Giants offense meets a pathetic Cowboys defense tilts in Dallas' favor in the first meeting. Tony Romo & Co. have more than enough weapons to outscore Manning and his bunch, and the Giants hit the bye with a 3-4 record. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Indianapolis Colts
After a long break before the Monday night home game, the Giants get taken apart by Andrew Luck, Hakeem Nicks & Co. at MetLife Stadium for a third straight loss. The offense is starting to run more smoothly, but it still doesn't have enough playmakers to outscore one of the league's better offenses. Prediction: Loss
Week 10: at Seattle Seahawks
You're kidding, right? Prediction: Loss
Week 11: San Francisco 49ers
The Giants have obviously handled the Niners in recent years and in some high-profile situations. But by this point in the season, San Francisco's defense is back to full strength, and the 49ers can't afford to lose ground to the Seahawks by failing to beat the team Seattle just beat the week before. Prediction: Loss
Week 12: Dallas Cowboys
A sixth straight loss is by no means out of the question here, as Romo and his crew still have the potential to outscore anyone in a given week. But from this far out, I'll forecast that something goes wrong for Romo late in this game, and the Giants get a gift. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at Jacksonville Jaguars
This is where the schedule starts to soften up, when the Giants start playing teams that insist on not starting their best quarterback. It's unfortunate they're 4-7 at this point and just about out of the playoff hunt, but they will get it going against the bottom-feeders. Prediction: Win
Week 14: at Tennessee Titans
I think the Titans are going to be dreadful this year, and by December they won't be very difficult for anyone to beat, even at home. A third straight victory keeps the Giants' hopes alive. Prediction: Win
Week 15: Washington Redskins
Have to be honest: The NFC East is so unpredictable that, when doing these predictions, I just decided to give the Giants a 3-3 division record with victories in all three home games and losses in all three road games. It's as fair a way as any to do it, I believe. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at St. Louis Rams
After moving back to .500 with four straight wins, the season falls apart at the hands of the St. Louis pass rush. An offensive line that has once again been the Giants' biggest problem all year can't protect Manning in a must-win game. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: Philadelphia Eagles
Tom Coughlin's teams can always find a way to play for pride. The Giants' playoff hopes are extinguished, but they still manage to end the season on a high note and with a .500 record. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 8-8
In the offseason, Graham’s name was reportedly floated in trade talks. But he’s still here and ready to produce.
"I just go hard, man,” Graham said as the Eagles completed three days of OTAs. “I came in at the right weight -- 265 pounds -- and I'm feeling good. I'm controlling what I can. Whatever the rumors were, I didn't pay attention to them because I've got a role to play.
“I don't talk about it. It's not my place. I feel like they still want me here. I'm still here. All the rumors, or whatever it is, it's just rumors. I feel like if there was something they wanted to do, I'd be good. I can adjust to anything. I want to show those guys that I really want to be here because I love Philadelphia. I made it my home. I would be sad if I have to go.”
Graham’s weight is right where he wants it to be. That wasn’t the case last season.
“Last year, I was dealing with a weight issue,” said Graham, who has 11.5 career sacks. “This year, it's really not a problem. I'm moving around a lot better. ... With a year under my belt, I feel like I can take it to another level. Last year, I was a lot more nervous. I was trying to do too much. This year, I'm a lot more calm. I know where to be and I know what coaches want me to do. It's been fun for me, showing them that it's really important to me that I want to be here.”
Graham watched the NFL draft and saw the Eagles select Louisville linebacker Marcus Smith with the No. 26 overall pick.
Graham and Smith are both pass-rushers taken in the first round. They’ll also be competing for playing time.
“I was cool,” Graham said of watching the Eagles draft Smith. “I was like, ‘Hey, we've got competition coming in.’ I'm going to go out and do what I can and not stress about it. I'm happy. I know what I can do. I'm going to go out and show everybody what I can do. My weight was the biggest thing. Now I have that under control with my wife helping me. My girl, she cooks for me every day. I'm going to go home and eat my lunch right now.”
Graham said he’s excited for the competitive nature of OTAs and training camp.
“It was a big adjustment coming in,” Graham said of being a first-round pick. “It was a lot of pressure. It's not pressure any more. I know what I can do. I can't wait to go out there and show it. I love Philadelphia. I really want to be here. ... [Coach] Chip [Kelly] is a great coach. Coach [Bill] Davis is also a great coach, too. I want to give them everything I can so I can be safe on this team. If not, somebody's going to get something good. But I know I really want to be here.”
Or is it?
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman indicated he was OK with standing pat in terms of pass-rushing.
But the Eagles managed only 37 sacks last season, which ranked 20th in the league. In seven of those 16 games, they had one sack or fewer.
The NFL draft opens on Thursday and the Eagles hold the No. 22 pick in the first round.
“You’re always looking to add pass-rushers,” Roseman said. “There’s no doubt about it.
“But at the same time, you don’t want to sign or draft someone that you don’t think is a good player and that you don’t think is worth the resource that you put out there, whether it’s a pick or money. Those are hard guys to find.”
Veteran Trent Cole wound up with eight sacks last season and Brandon Graham showed flashes of improvement. Connor Barwin was a solid addition as well.
Is that enough?
“Trent Cole was a 4-3 defensive end who came in his first year and had eight sacks and most of them were in the second half of the season when everyone would say, ‘Well, maybe he’s gonna start to wear down,’” Roseman said. “When you look at his production over the last couple of years versus the better pass-rushers in the NFL, it’s pretty good. I don’t think he gets enough credit for his transition into this defense and the production he had.
“And then Brandon Graham has shown he can play in a 4-3 or a 3-4. We’re always gonna be looking for those guys. Obviously we brought in Connor, who we think is a really good fit. And we have some young guys that are here in the offseason that we’re excited to see, that we almost feel like are extra draft picks.”
Kelly said the Eagles had Jordan among the top four players available in the draft. If offensive tackle Lane Johnson had gone third, the Eagles would have taken Jordan fourth. Instead, it went the other way around.
First, let’s tamp down the significance of Kelly’s draft-day comment. Jordan played very well for him. He was drafted third overall. There was no reason for Kelly to say anything remotely critical of the kid at that point. That doesn’t mean the Eagles didn’t have Jordan graded that high -- most experts did -- merely that a benign comment isn't the basis for any kind of conclusion.
There are two considerations in any situation like this: what you’re getting and what you’d have to give up. It is almost universally agreed that the 2014 draft is as deep as any in recent memory. So a high pick in this draft has significantly more value than a high pick in last year’s more modest class.
Jordan did not have a good rookie season, to put it mildly. Pro Football Focus, which grades every player on every play in film review, called him a “complete bust” based on his 2013 season. Jordan had two sacks as a part-time pass-rusher and couldn't displace Olivier Vernon at right defensive end.
That is one reason the Dolphins appear to be ready to give up on the draft's third pick after one season. Another is that GM Jeff Ireland, who traded up to get Jordan, has been fired.
None of that makes Jordan sound very appealing. But if you've paid attention to NFL news this offseason, you might have gotten the impression that the Dolphins are not exactly a well-run football franchise. A rookie walking into the Richie Incognito-influenced locker room might have a little trouble getting comfortable and performing at his best.
If Jordan is a potentially great player, as many believed before last year's draft, stuck in a bad situation, he could be a steal. For the Eagles, he would fill an enormous need without having to overspend in free agency or hope an edge rusher falls their way in the draft.
Player-for-player trades are rare in the NFL, and it's hard to imagine the Dolphins parting with a high-profile investment like Jordan for the likes of Brandon Graham or Bryce Brown. It will probably take draft picks -- although Graham at least lets the Dolphins save face by saying they simply swapped first-round defensive ends.
Could Howie Roseman give up a higher pick in next year's draft, which should be as depleted as this year’s was flooded by the number of underclassmen jumping in? Miami might prefer to say they got a first-round pick, regardless of year, than get a second- or third-round pick in 2014.
The Eagles’ advantage is obvious. Kelly saw Jordan practice and play for four years at Oregon. He knows better than anyone what the player is capable of doing, and he knows exactly how Jordan would fit into the defensive schemes the Eagles are using.
That could make a trade very attractive or completely out of the question, depending on Kelly’s true evaluation.
It means they have most of their most important players under negotiated contracts and don’t have to anger anyone by using the tag to keep him from free agency. Using the tag has created bad feelings and problems for the Eagles in the past, most dramatically when they removed the tag from linebacker Jeremiah Trotter after weeks of bitter back-and-forth.
The negative aspect, of course, is that the players most likely to be tagged -- such as Jimmy Graham of the Saints and T.J. Ward of the Browns -- are from the 2010 draft class. The Eagles don’t have star players from that class they are fighting to keep.
Monday is the first day teams can apply franchise and transition tags to players. For an explanation of tags and their ramifications, click here.
Safety Nate Allen and wide receiver Riley Cooper were starters in 2013. The Eagles wouldn’t mind having both back. But they are not likely to want to pay them franchise-tag salaries -- likely to be more than $8 million for one season for safeties and $10 million-plus for wide receivers.
The Eagles took Allen one pick before Cleveland selected Ward. Four years later, the Eagles remain in dire need of safety help. They are apt to be affected more by Ward’s status than Allen’s. If Ward is on the market, the Eagles could be very interested in him. At the very least, he would expand the pool of free-agent safeties.
The Eagles’ first-round pick from 2010, Brandon Graham, still has another year on his rookie contract. Nine of the 10 other 2010 draftees on shorter deals are long gone. The 10th, safety and special-teams guy Kurt Coleman, is certainly not going to be tagged.
The Eagles’ most intriguing decision among their free-agents-to-be concerns wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. The 2009 first-round pick missed the entire 2013 season after tearing his ACL in training camp.
Could the Eagles use the tag to hang on to Maclin and try to work out a more reasonable deal? It’s possible, but not likely.
That’s how general manager Howie Roseman deployed the tag in 2012, the last time the Eagles used it. Roseman tagged wide receiver DeSean Jackson. By mid-March, Roseman had signed Jackson to a new five-year contract.
The difference here is that Maclin is coming off his second ACL surgery. The Eagles or another team might want him on a one-year, prove-it deal, but not at a guaranteed $10-11 million.
Sure, Azzinaro had the Eagles defensive linemen he coached hitting the blocking sled every day, working on fundamentals and reinforcing techniques. But if you were looking for veteran NFL linemen to resist, you were looking in the wrong place.
Defensive ends Fletcher Cox (23), Cedric Thornton (25) and nose tackle Bennie Logan (24) aren't much older than the players Azzinarro was coaching at Oregon before Chip Kelly brought him to Philadelphia. Cox, Thornton and Clifton Geathers each had one year of NFL experience. Logan and Damion Square had none.
Point is, the Eagles have a very young group of defensive linemen who quickly became an asset in their first season in Bill Davis' system. If the truism that players make their biggest improvement between Year 1 and Year 2 holds true, this group should be a real strength in 2014.
Cox, a first-round pick in 2012, took a little time to adjust to the two-gap system Davis and Azzinaro preferred. Simply put, he had to become responsibility for both sides of the offensive lineman in front of him instead of attacking one side or the other. It is a less intuitive way to play, but Cox steadily improved.
Those techniques allowed Thornton, an undrafted free agent, to establish himself as an impact player. Kelly and Davis routinely singled Thornton out as the Eagles' most productive and consistent defensive lineman.
Logan, a third-round pick last year, made Sopoaga expendable and started the rest of the year. Logan doesn't have the massive size associated with the nose tackle -- he goes about 310 pounds -- but is expected to add some bulk in the offseason.
Square, Geathers and Vinny Curry provided depth and played well in various situations.
The youth and potential along the defensive line put the Eagles in an enviable position as they continue to build their defense. If they find a bigger, more physical nose tackle in free agency or the draft, they can move Logan to end or rotate him in on passing downs. They don't have a pressing need for an end, but their rotation system means they can always use more depth and different types of linemen.
Davis sometimes uses a 4-3 look, allowing outside linebackers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham to rush from the more familiar three-point stance. As the Eagles defense evolves, with players selected to fit the system, Davis can be more creative and maximize the potential of his front seven.
Azzinaro is the guy in charge of getting that potential from the linemen. He couldn't have done much better in his first season.
It is obvious the Eagles need to generate more pressure on quarterbacks from their edge rushers. In their two biggest games of the season -- the NFC East clinching win in Dallas and the playoff loss to New Orleans -- the Eagles did not put nearly enough pressure on Kyle Orton and Drew Brees.
And since that's our final impression of the team, it resonates. But when you look at the individual players involved, things begin to get murkier.
Trent Cole was rightly praised for making the difficult transition from defensive end, where he was a Pro Bowl-level player for his entire previous career, to outside linebacker. Cole had zero sacks in the Eagles' first eight games, then had eight in the second half of the season.
Does that mean he grew more comfortable in his new role? Partly. But it also appears that defensive coordinator Bill Davis simply used Cole more often in familiar situations. He did drop into coverage at times, and Cole was always an eager and aggressive run defender, but Cole rushed the passer much more than his counterpart on the outside, Connor Barwin.
As the season progressed and Davis came to understand his players better, he used Barwin to do the less glamorous tasks. He rushed the passer less and dropped into coverage more. Barwin even lined up at cornerback against big receivers like Larry Fitzgerald, jamming them at the line and then sliding into shallow zone coverage.
In a perfect world, Davis would surely like a group of versatile linebackers equally capable of covering backs and tight ends or rushing the quarterback. That would give him more options when devising alignments and calling plays. As it is, he is camouflaging one player's limitations by limiting another player.
There's nothing unusual about that, especially when a team is caught in a transition such as the 2013 Eagles were. Cole and Brandon Graham, two 4-3 defensive ends, tried to adjust their games (and their bodies) to fit as 3-4 outside linebackers. They did better than expected, but they remained most effective within their comfort zone – rushing the passer.
The Eagles can hold on to Cole and Graham throughout free agency and the draft, then make decisions on them depending on what happens.
It's hard to imagine the Eagles throwing big money at Washington's Brian Orakpo, arguably the best outside linebacker on the market. But if Pittsburgh doesn't commit to Jason Worilds, who started ahead of first-round pick Jarvis Jones in 2013, he could be an interesting name to watch. After all, Davis made it clear that his model is the Steelers 3-4 defense. Worilds is already ahead of the learning curve.
The draft could provide help, as well. Stanford's Trent Murphy and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier could be around when the Eagles are on the board with the 22nd pick of the first round.
It isn't a bad spot to be in. If Graham and, especially, Cole are back next season, the Eagles can still pick up where they left off in the second half of 2013. If they can get younger and more versatile at the outside linebacker position, Barwin will be freed up to have even more of an impact. That would make the long-term prognosis for this defense even brighter.
Here's how the roster shapes up:
Unrestricted free agents: Wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin; safeties Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson; quarterback Michael Vick; defensive end Clifton Geathers, punter Donnie Jones.
The Eagles could lose all of those players without taking a major hit. That doesn't mean those players aren't valuable, merely that they're not irreplaceable. It's not as if LeSean McCoy or Mychal Kendricks or Jason Kelce were free to leave.
My guess is general manager Howie Roseman will make solid market offers to Cooper, Maclin, Allen, Geathers and Jones. He will not overpay for any of them. If some other team does, the Eagles will move on without the player in question.
Players due for contract extensions: Defensive end Cedric Thornton (exclusive rights free agent) and center Jason Kelce.
Let's project to the year 2022. The 35-year-old Kelce announces he is playing his final season after 13 years with the Eagles. That's how things should go with this guy. He's smart, physical, athletic and exactly the kind of player teams should commit to. So yes, extend Kelce.
Thornton was one of the delightful surprises of 2013. An undrafted rookie from Southern Arkansas, he hung around for a couple years without anyone paying much mind. But he's living proof of Chip Kelly's no-expectations approach. Kelly judges based on what a player does, and Thornton was very good this year.
Players who could be gone: Vick, Anderson, Coleman, wide receiver Damaris Johnson, kicker Alex Henery, linebacker Brandon Graham, safety Patrick Chung, linebacker Phillip Hunt (restricted free agent on IR), wide receiver Arrelious Benn, offensive lineman Dennis Kelly.
Mostly self-explanatory. Vick wants to find a place where he can start. Even if he doesn't, the Eagles really like Matt Barkley and may well prefer a younger (read: cheaper) No. 2 behind Nick Foles.
Henery will have competition for the kicking job next summer. Not sure he'll answer that bell. Graham belongs at end in a 4-3 defense and may get a chance to return to one. The Eagles tried to replace Chung over and over but injuries kept him in the lineup.
Johnson lost his return job and never played on offense. Anderson has been a solid special teams guy, but Kelly likes versatility and may prefer a replacement who can fill in on defense, too.
Veterans on the salary-cap bubble: Tight end Brent Celek, linebacker Trent Cole, guard Todd Herremans, wide receiver Jason Avant. They are all good enough players to stay. That, not their cap numbers, should be the deciding factor.
Youth movement: The Eagles signed their practice squad and one other player to futures contracts. They are linebackers Emmanuel Acho, Josh Kaddu and Travis Long; offensive tackle Michael Bamiro; defensive end Brandon Bair; wide receivers Will Murphy, B.J. Cunningham and Ifeanyi Momah, and tight end Emil Igwenagu.
The takeaway here: The Eagles staff spent a lot of time coaching these guys and one or three of them just might become contributors.
The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.
Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?
In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.
Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?
Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.
Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.
While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?
Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.
The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?
Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.
Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.
From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?
Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.
It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.
Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?
Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.
Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.
Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.
I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.
Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.
But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.
"It definitely knocked us off our high horse," Williams said. "It's something that was bittersweet. It was sad that we lost, the bitter part, but it was sweet that we lost. ... It's great that they were able to knock us off. We learned from the experience. We're going to get better."
Two weeks after getting trounced by a Minnesota team without Adrian Peterson and with Matt Cassel playing quarterback, the Eagles are again preparing for a depleted opponent. This time, it's the Dallas Cowboys and the stakes are higher. With a division title on the line, it turns out Williams had a point -- the Eagles might be better for having been humbled a bit.
The Cowboys appear likely to be without their quarterback, Tony Romo, and their quarterback on defense, inside linebacker Sean Lee.
"I know they're going to miss (Lee)," Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. "But I also know teams rally when guys are hurt, so I'm going to be ready for their best shot."
It isn't that the Eagles don't care who plays quarterback Sunday night. There are very practical football considerations if the less mobile Kyle Orton plays instead of the freewheeling Romo.
"You know where he's going to be," linebacker Brandon Graham said or Orton.
"We have to get back there really fast," linebacker Trent Cole said. "He likes to get the ball out. He's a rhythm quarterback. We've just got to get to him. Romo, he's very athletic. He can get out of the pocket. He can get hot.
"Of course we're very curious -- who's going to be the quarterback? But it's not going to change anything. We might not know until we step on the field who we're playing."
Head coach Chip Kelly didn't buy the Minnesota angle for a minute. That would mean acknowledging that his team wasn't prepared properly for the Vikings game, and Kelly isn't about to do that.
"I don't think that was our mind set going in," Kelly said. "I thought we had a great week of practice and as I said before, I think you've got to give Matt Cassel a lot of credit. Go back and watch the film of how well he played in that game -- they made plays and we didn't and that's what it is. I don't think anybody in this group was like, ‘Hey, we don't have to get ready this week because such and such and such and such isn't going to play.' I know this team is not going to fall for the banana in the tailpipe trick. We are not concerned with that stuff."
However you brand it, the loss to Minnesota is fresh enough to prevent a repeat of the Eagles' flat approach. And if that doesn't do it, the stakes this Sunday should.
"We're fighting for the division," Cole said. "This is. Win or go home. This is where we start our road to the Super Bowl or we end our road to the Super Bowl and get ready for next year. This is big."
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.