NFL Nation: NFC East
The Cowboys want him to catch a lot more from the slot this season.
The Cowboys can finally expand Bryant's package of plays because they can move him around the formation and put him in the slot, where he doesn't have to deal with bump-and-run coverage.
Jason Garrett said the Cowboys would've liked to have done it in other years, but Bryant wasn't ready. His grasp of all the different positions wasn't good enough.
Now, it is.
There's a significant difference between playing outside receiver and one who is in the slot.
"He's grown as an inside receiver," Garrett said. "The trait and the qualities are different. I've been around a lot of outside receivers who looked like a fish out of water when they moved inside.
"If you picture an X receiver in right formation, there's no one outside of you. You're typically working against a corner by yourself or there's a safety rotating over the top. When you're inside, you have people inside of you and outside of you. You have a linebacker walked out, you have a safety coming down, and you have to have a feel for how to run the routes because there's a lot going on.
"It has a lot to do with your feel as an athlete -- your vision, your instincts and your experience. You have to get in there and do it."
- The Eagles drew just under 15,000 fans for the first of three open training camp practices this summer. It was the first chance for fans to see the changes to Lincoln Financial Field. It was also Military Appreciation Day, and dozens of active service people were in attendance. “It’s awesome, man,” cornerback Cary Williams said. “You’ve got some people who can’t afford to come to a regular game. This is their opportunity to sit in these green seats and enjoy what we put out every day.”
- The Eagles wore full pads for the first time, but there wasn’t significantly more hitting than there was in the first two days. Coach Chip Kelly has made it clear he sees practices as teaching and training opportunities and really puts a lot of weight on preseason games for evaluating player performance.
- Several players did stand out. None of the four quarterbacks has thrown a single interception during the first three days of practice. LeSean McCoy looked impressive running the ball as well as catching it. He made it very tough on linebackers, especially Mychal Kendricks, who were called upon to cover him. Rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews got open in the middle of the field for two consecutive catches from backup quarterback Mark Sanchez.
- The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Matthews plays primarily in the slot. Kelly likes the kind of matchup issues that can create. “Obviously, a lot of the corners who play slot corner in this league are a little smaller,” Kelly said. “You can create some mismatches from that standpoint. If you’re going to leave a linebacker in the game, obviously there’s some athletic mismatches we can exploit there. Also, in the run game, our slot receivers have to block. That’s one thing Jason Avant was outstanding at last year.”
- Unlike his predecessor, Andy Reid, who opened every news conference with a list of injured players, Kelly seldom brings up injuries. He isn’t especially forthcoming when asked, either. His approach is basically that he’s coaching the players who are healthy and the trainers are working with those who aren’t. Four Eagles were limited or out of Monday’s practice: nose tackle Bennie Logan (hamstring), wide receiver Riley Cooper, running back Chris Polk and center Julian Vandervelde. None of the injuries appeared serious. The Eagles are off on Wednesday.
"I felt the same way in college. You devote everything to the signing day. Well, how many guys from the signing day are actually going to contribute? You may have one or two rookies who have an impact on your team. The rest of them, it's just having them develop. The fact that people would watch the combine -- there's times at the combine where I fall asleep. They're running 40-yard dashes."
Kelly is more concerned with how all of this affects the players coming into the league.
"You guys are in the newspaper business," Kelly said. "If someone is a rookie coming into the newspaper thing, I don't think you're all applauding and saying, 'Oh, my God, the savior is here! Our paper is saved because we just signed a kid out of Northwestern that has really good prose.' In football, it seems to be the biggest thing in the world. And if a guy isn't an all-pro in his first year, but he was drafted in the first five picks, then he's a bust. And I don't think that's the case."
That perspective is interesting when you watch how Kelly approaches his rookies. Last year, first-round pick Lane Johnson was a starter from the very beginning. But defensive tackle Bennie Logan was eased into the starting lineup, eventually replacing veteran Isaac Sopoaga. Tight end Zach Ertz and safety Earl Wolff were brought along slowly.
This year? Same thing. First-round pick Marcus Smith opened camp as the third-team left outside linebacker. Smith runs with the second team at times, but there is clearly no pressure from Kelly's staff on the rookie. Second-round pick Jordan Matthews, who made two flashy catches Monday, is still behind veteran slot receiver Brad Smith on the depth chart.
It doesn't matter to Kelly what the expectations from the outside are. And once players are here, they are judged on merit, not on where they were drafted.
Take Johnny Manziel for example.
Speaking on NFL Network during Sunday’s practice, Jones talked about just how close the Cowboys were to taking Johnny Football with the 16th pick of the first round in the May draft.
Speaking at a function in June in Arkansas honoring Jones’ former coach, Frank Broyles, Jones had this to say about how difficult it was to pass on Manziel:
"Well, it was,” Jones said. “Yes, it was. First of all, I couldn't believe he had fallen there. And secondly, we had spent a lot of time, I'd spent a lot of time. He's the kind of player that can be that kind of difference-maker. There's no doubt in my mind that he'll be a successful player. We have in Romo what I consider to be the better quarterback. But there's also the future, there's also insurance if you don't have him. If anybody could have adjusted to Manziel's style, we could have because we're a lot like that with Romo.”
And finally let’s revisit what Jones said at a news conference on draft night after the Cowboys took Zack Martin in the first round .
“As you well know in here, Romo, by contract as well as by commitment, is certainly the quarterback for the Cowboys for several years to come,” Jones said. “There is no moving around that. I don’t care who you draft, that’s the way it would have been. That was going through our minds from the get-go. That’s why we didn’t spend a lot of time at all in this draft considering Manziel.”
The next time Jones is asked about Manziel he just might say the Cowboys had his name on a card ready to turn in to the commissioner.
“When people say the position is decreasing, or that people don’t value us as much, I don’t believe that,” McCoy said Sunday. “The top guys, who make good money and are productive, aren’t just running backs. They’re play makers. Compare the top guys to any other players, and they hold their own.”
As for himself, McCoy’s 2012 contract runs through the 2017 season. He will make $7.65 million this season and $9.75 million in 2015.
“I’m here,” McCoy said. “I’m under contract. I’m friends with those [other backs].”
McCoy has gotten into a public give-and-take with Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson over which is the better back. When he clinched the rushing title during the season-ending game in Dallas last year, McCoy displayed a championship belt. Clearly, he takes pride in being at the top of his profession, but also in his profession itself.
“Jamaal Charles led his team in receiving yards,” McCoy said. “I led the league in yards from scrimmage. Adrian Peterson had tons of big plays. You look at any big wide receiver and you could put us right there with them. We’ll make big plays.”
Someone told McCoy that former teammate Michael Vick, now with the Jets, said he wouldn’t race Chris Johnson but he would be happy to come back and race McCoy.
“That’s just Mike,” McCoy said. “If you ask him who’s the best back, he’ll tell you me.”
- It isn't always easy to make sense of a fast-paced Chip Kelly practice in real time. But there were some interesting things going on Sunday afternoon. Matt Barkley, who is supposed to be competing with Mark Sanchez for the No. 2 quarterback job, may actually be competing with G.J. Kinne for the No. 3 slot. Kinne, who has been throwing the ball well, was third throughout most of Sunday's session. Last year, Kinne was cut during training camp but he finished the season on the Eagles' practice squad. Barkley has an advantage as a fourth-round pick from last year, but Kelly always says there is open competition for every job.
- Kelly's practices are broken up by intermittent teaching periods. On Sunday, those mostly turned into water breaks. Weather forecasts had called for a cooler day with rain throughout the morning and afternoon. But it was sunny and reached 90 degrees, with high humidity. The players didn't have pads on, but they were feeling the heat.
- The best evidence of the heat was the first scuffle of camp. Linebacker Trent Cole took a little shot at running back LeSean McCoy, knocking McCoy down. McCoy, who felt the defense has been a bit liberal in the amount of contact dished out, came back at Cole. The two wrestled before teammates got involved and separated them. Cole and McCoy were joking about the whole thing by the end of practice.
- Kelly confirmed Saturday that the Eagles will not tackle to the ground during practice sessions. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said that's typical, "because of the way you expose too many people to injury on a daily basis." But it is Davis' job to teach sound tackling technique despite those limitations. "A lot of that is body placement," Davis said. "If you can continually work on putting your head in front of the ball carrier, as opposed to behind -- I think one of the biggest problems we had last year when I broke down the tackling issues was our head placement was always behind the ball carrier, leaving all arm tackles." Davis said the Eagles improved their technique during the season "and we have to build on where we left off at the end of the season."
- First-round pick Marcus Smith continues to run with the third team at left outside linebacker -- the Jack linebacker position -- behind Connor Barwin and Bryan Braman. "They come at their own pace," Davis said. "We give them every opportunity to teach and grow them. … Marcus is a very hard worker and a very intelligent guy and very athletic. So you have a bunch of characteristics you look for in all Eagles players. He cares a lot about the game. One of the biggest things that attracted us to him was that Louisville and (coach) Charlie Strong's defense is a lot like ours, and the way they used him is a lot the way we use our Jack position."
Barbre lined up with the first team at right tackle as the Philadelphia Eagles opened training camp Saturday. The 30-year-old will get every chance to start in Johnson’s spot during the first quarter of the season.
Two years ago, while he was with the Seattle Seahawks, Barbre received the same letter from the league office that Johnson got in May. He had violated the NFL policy on performance-enhancing drugs and would be suspended for four games. The Seahawks, Barbre’s third NFL team, simply released him. He was out of football for the 2012 season.
“I felt like I could still play football,” Barbre said. “It was just getting the opportunity.”
And that is just a bit harder with a PED suspension on your permanent record.
“I had a workout here [with the Eagles],” Barbre said. “That’s the only workout I had after I was released. It just looks bad."
The Eagles did sign Barbre in January of 2013, shortly before hiring Chip Kelly as their new head coach. Kelly viewed Barbre as just another of the players he inherited.
“We’ve seen Allen every day here,” Kelly said. “We feel like he’s a talented football player. He was really going to be pushing, even if Lane wasn’t out, all those other guys for playing time. When he’s had the opportunity to perform, he’s done a great job. He did a great job in the offseason program.”
One of the possibilities for Kelly would be moving right guard Todd Herremans to tackle, where he has played in the past. But Kelly’s comment suggests that Herremans might have been in danger of losing his guard spot to Barbre before Johnson was suspended. So it makes sense that Kelly would just plug Barbre into Johnson’s spot.
It will still be up to Barbre to hang on to the job. But he is clearly, in Kelly’s view, one of the five or six best offensive linemen on the roster.
“I just want to come out here and do well,” Barbre said. “That’s my plan, just to come out and work hard every day.”
The Eagles signed Barbre to a three-year contract extension early in June. By then, they knew Johnson would be out for four games. But the contract talks predated all that. Barbre had established himself as the primary backup at four of the five offensive line spots.
“For them to show confidence in me to sign me, that shows that they trust me,” Barbre said. “Whether I’m a backup or I’m a starter, I want my team to trust me.”
He said he is most comfortable on the left side, where he played in relief of Jason Peters last season. But he will have the advantage of focusing on the right tackle spot from the very start of training camp.
“I think there’d be something wrong with you if you didn’t want to start,” Barbre said. “That seems like it’s the only option.”
A year ago, Foles was the underdog in a training camp competition with Michael Vick for the starting quarterback job. This time around, Foles is the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback as training camp opens.
"I feel really good," Foles said. "I felt great last year. But it's another year under my belt in the NFL. Obviously, a lot of things happened last year that we were able to grow on and expand on as a team. It's definitely a huge difference from last year until now."
Last summer, Vick outperformed Foles in practices and preseason games to win the job. This year, instead of trying to compete, Foles can simply focus on things he wants to improve in his own game.
"Getting any rep is huge," Foles said. "If you get the majority of the reps, it helps a lot because you're going to go against the defense and you can rep with your guys. I think the biggest thing, it's the same coaching staff as last year. So we're able to grow as an offensive unit. We're not learning new stuff, we're able to compound on what we already learned.
"When I play, I want to better. I don't want to be the same, I want to keep progressing. When I went to college, I didn't think about what I did in high school. When I had a good year in college, I didn't think about that. I just kept going. It's the same in the NFL."
Last year, all five offensive linemen started all 16 regular-season games as well as the playoff game against New Orleans. Already, the Eagles know they will be without suspended right tackle Lane Johnson for the first four games of the season.
Foles benefited from that continuity last year. He said he has confidence that Allen Barbre, the likely replacement for Johnson, will maintain order on that side.
"Allen's awesome," Foles said. "He's a tremendous player. He works hard every day. He's almost like a caveman out there. Big, strong, physical guy. He's very smart. Great teammate. Our line as a whole, if you talk to any of them, you see what kind of people they are. On the field, they all give it all they have. No matter who steps up, I feel comfortable in there."
Mathis has three seasons remaining on his contract. His salary cap hit for 2014 is $6.15 million. In the final year of the deal, Mathis' cap hit is $7 million.
Mathis went to the Pro Bowl after the 2013 season. He was among New England's Logan Mankins ($10.5 million cap number) New Orleans' Jahri Evans ($11 million) and Ben Grubbs ($9.1 million), and Baltimore's Marshal Yanda ($8.45 million).
So Mathis could make a good argument that he is underpaid.
"I'm not here to make that argument right now," Mathis said.
He will attempt to make it on the field, as well as in conversations between his agent and the Eagles' front office. But Mathis decided not to seize whatever leverage he could by holding out. His position would have been even stronger because of the four-game suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson. The Eagles really wouldn't benefit from having 40 percent of their offensive line missing.
"That's not the course of action I took," Mathis said. "I'm not trying to strong-arm the team. I'm not trying to put them in a bad situation to get what I want. I'm trying to do the right thing. I'm not really worried about it. Hopefully, it works out. If not, I'm still going to be the same football player."
Mathis said he finally decided a holdout would hurt his teammates too much.
"I wasn't scared of the fines," Mathis said. "But what I'd be doing to my teammates and coaches, that's the ultimate reason. I would feel wrong putting my team in that kind of situation."
That medication prescribed by your hometown family physician might be on the NFL's list of banned substances. The doctor wouldn't know, but the Eagles' trainers would.
Johnson would not disclose the substance that earned him a four-week suspension at the beginning of the season.
"It sucks," Johnson said. "The toughest part about it is I won't be around here to battle. I was expecting to come out here and get a good start, Week 1. That's something I can't do now. It's all my fault. I have nobody to blame but myself. It's all on me."
Johnson, the Eagles' first-round draft pick last year, started all of last season at right tackle. He said he was using the prescription medication in April. He received a letter from the NFL notifying him of the suspension early in May. He immediately informed general manager Howie Roseman so the Eagles could plan for his four-game absence.
"The biggest part is I let the team down," Johnson said. "I let the fans down. That's the toughest part."
Johnson reported for training camp Friday along with his teammates. He is able to practice throughout camp and participate in all four preseason games. However, he also knows coach Chip Kelly has to prepare someone else to start the season at right tackle. That's likely to be Allen Barbre, whom the Eagles signed to a contract extension in early June -- after they knew about Johnson's pending suspension.
Johnson said he wasn't sure how Kelly would handle his workload during camp.
"I'll know more tomorrow when we start," Johnson said. "I'm not quite sure how it's going to go. I'm sure the guys will fill my shoes really well."
Meanwhile, Johnson will have four weeks in September that he will have to use to prepare for his return in Week 5.
"That's the thing I'm going to figure out closer to Week 1, someplace I can go to try and keep in football shape, maybe do some one-on-ones with somebody," Johnson said. "That's going to be the toughest part, not being around here playing. It's hard to come and play in a game when you're not able to practice."
Johnson said he knows people will speculate about what he did and how it might have helped him add weight and strength during the offseason. He said there's nothing he can do about it.
"That's the rule," Johnson said. "I got what I deserved. Players have done this before, they've been in my shoes. As a professional, you're supposed to be aware of what you put in your body and take precautions. It's something I didn't do and now I'm paying the price."
Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles started off the 2013 season 1-4. They went through turmoil as the quarterback situation sorted itself out. Once Nick Foles was established as the starter, though, the Eagles went 7-1 in the second half. Their seventh loss was in the playoff game against New Orleans.
That's a pretty good first season for a head coach, but Kelly wasn't grading himself on a curve.
"I was 10-7, too," Kelly said. "I wasn't 12-6, or 12-4. I don't have a better record than the team, so we're all kind of judged on the same thing, but I think everybody can work on their individual aspect and how they contribute to the success or failure of what we're doing."
That seems to be the theme as the Eagles open camp this weekend. Players report Friday to the NovaCare Complex. The first practice is Saturday. The feeling you got from talking with coaches and players throughout June was that last season ended in disappointment, so it was disappointing.
"I think if you're content with 10 wins and winning the division, you're probably shortchanging yourself and the team," Kelly said. "We did that. What's the next step? How can we improve upon that? We're trying to get a bunch of guys that are never complacent in terms of, 'All right, we've arrived.' We haven't arrived. We're looking to work and strive to get better and better and better. That's part of the deal, so I think that's the thing we're always trying to emphasize with these guys."
The message seems to have gotten through. During minicamps, defensive players talked about being last in the NFL in passing yards allowed, not about how they held opponents to 22 or fewer points nine times in their last 10 regular-season games. Quarterback Nick Foles talked all spring about forgetting his breakout 2013 performance and focusing instead on the little things he must do to improve.
"How do you get to that next level?" Kelly said. "Some guys are content -- you've got to make sure that they're not content -- being where they are. Just like some guys' goal's just to play in the NFL. All right, you're playing. Now what? That's a legitimate question. 'My goal is just to be a starter in the NFL.' So you're starting. Now what? I think that's the one thing you're always trying to strive -- you look at it as an individual, how do you continue to improve?"
The Eagles couldn’t have minimized the distraction any more if they had control of the entire operation.
As for Johnson, he is out $116,000 – his salary for the four games he will miss. But that $12.8 million he received upon signing his rookie contract last year? That’s safely in the bank.
So except for a little embarrassment and annoyance at having to face some questions Friday, Johnson and the Eagles will emerge from this incident with minimal damage. As for the football issues raised, the Eagles seem pretty well prepared to deal with those, as well.
In early June, they handed backup lineman Allen Barbre a three-year contract extension. Barbre has started eight NFL games at right tackle, and he is the leading candidate to start in place of Johnson. He played well in spot duty at left tackle last season, so the Eagles feel pretty comfortable with Barbre. If someone – Dennis Kelly, Matt Tobin, Michael Bamiro – outperforms Barbre in training camp, well, that’s just another positive development.
The biggest problem, really, is what happens if there are injuries along the line while Johnson is suspended. Barbre is the Eagles' primary backup at four of five spots, with center as the only exception.
If Jason Peters or one of the guards goes down, the Eagles will officially be in crisis mode. Considering all five linemen started all 17 games, including the playoff game, last year, that would represent a challenge for Chip Kelly and his staff.
Two years ago, only left guard Evan Mathis was able to play in all 16 games. Eight other players started games at the other four line positions. Peters missed the entire season. Center Jason Kelce played two games. Todd Herremans was available for only eight games.
The Eagles went 4-12 that season.
It’s a long way from having one player suspended for four games to that kind of chaos. But that chaos has to start with the loss of just one player. The Eagles are hoping that’s not what Johnson’s suspension turns out to be.
The last coach/QB duo to try that here came achingly close but ultimately fell short. From the start, Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb were a joint entry. Reid was hired in January 1999, and he took McNabb with the second overall pick in that year's draft. That pair got to five NFC title games and one Super Bowl together but never quite reached the top of the mountain.
Reid tried to move on from McNabb, signing Michael Vick after he got out of prison, in hopes of finishing the task of winning a Super Bowl. The whole enterprise failed, and the Eagles never so much as won a playoff game during Reid's final four seasons with the Eagles.
That long, slow slide into misery led to the hiring of Kelly. The new coach gave Vick every chance for a late-career rebirth, but injuries forced Kelly to go with Foles. That led to an arranged marriage between the coach and his quarterback. Foles will never be the anointed savior of the franchise -- he was a third-round pick under a different head coach -- but that doesn't mean he can't deliver where previous Eagles quarterbacks have failed.
In some ways, the situation most resembles 1998, when Bobby Hoying was entering the season as the No. 1 quarterback. Hoying had some things in common with Foles. He was a third-round draft pick. He got a midseason opportunity to start during the 1997 season and showed some promise. Hoying went 2-3-1 in those final six games, including a showy 44-42 victory over Cincinnati.
There were some major differences between Hoying then and Foles now. Offensive coordinator Jon Gruden left after 1997 to become the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Ray Rhodes, a defensive coach by trade, hired Dana Bible and then undermined the new coordinator by claiming, even to players, that the hire was forced on Rhodes. Foles got in on the ground floor of what Kelly is building in Philadelphia.
It was fascinating when this year's draft rolled around. Johnny Manziel was still on the board when the Eagles' 22nd overall pick came up. Kelly could have claimed his franchise savior right there. Instead, the Eagles traded the pick to Cleveland, who snapped up the Texas A&M quarterback. The Eagles took Marcus Smith, an outside linebacker from Louisville with about 0.3 percent of Manziel's star power.
At that moment, Kelly and Foles became a new joint entry in Eagles history. Their fates are now intertwined, coach and quarterback.
Foles did more than Hoying to earn his opportunity. His numbers -- a league-high 119.2 passer rating, 27 touchdowns, just two interceptions, 8-2 record in 10 starts -- was much more impressive than Hoying's back in 1997. And he has benefits that Hoying did not, No. 1 among them an offensive innovator as a head coach. Kelly saw enough to believe in Foles, but also enough to believe Foles can be even better.
Kelly said he has seen that same trait in Foles during the spring.
"I just go to work every day and just try to get a little bit better, and I try to push myself as hard as I can," Foles said. "Even on days I don't feel the best, when I'm worn out, I just try to push as hard as I can and really focus in. Because I know my teammates are looking at me.
"And I think the thing that I will always work on is attention to detail in the drills. 'OK, we're not just doing this drill to go through the motions.' Why are we doing it? I need to do this to the best of my ability because when the game time comes, I can just do it naturally."
Foles completely bought into Kelly's approach from the very beginning. He wasn't able to translate that onto the field fast enough to beat out the mobile Vick in one training camp, but Foles was able to run Kelly's offense efficiently after Vick pulled a hamstring in Week 5 against the Giants.
Foles made his mark with his seven-touchdown performance in Oakland a few weeks later. He had played poorly before being concussed against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 20. After missing a game, Foles went to Oakland and played a nearly perfect game.
"Going into that game," Foles said, "it was just one of those weeks where you're coming off the concussion, you're just really paying attention to every single detail, you're trying to really focus in even more, because you remember your last play was a concussion. 'All right, can I still do this? Can I still react like I need to?' You really don't know until the game starts. But after the first drive of the Oakland game, I knew that my reactions and everything were there."
Foles' equipment from that day was sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. It was the first in a series of unusual moments that marked Foles' breakout season. The last was being named MVP of the Pro Bowl.
"I know I say it over and over again, but all those throws that happened last year, the TDs, whatever, it does absolutely nothing," Foles said. "It probably hurts me more now than it did last year because I did it, so now you've got to do it even better. In my mind, I want to do even better.
"But I know in reality, some things can happen. There could be a game where I throw two INTs. I threw two INTs all last season and it's like, 'Oh gosh.' But that happens. I've thrown multiple interceptions in a game in college, but then the next week, I came out and threw four touchdowns. It's that short memory and just really having amnesia and forgetting stuff."
Taking that next step -- toward consistent excellence -- isn't easy. It is what Foles as a quarterback and Kelly as a coach are attempting to do together.
"I think he's a lot more comfortable in what we're doing offensively, just because it is Year 2," Kelly said. "So you just see the little things, whether it's the footwork or the proper technique or looking off a guy -- he knows he's throwing to No. 1 [in his progression], but can he keep the free safety in the middle of the field a little bit longer so that the run after the catch is a little bit better?"
That synchronicity between Foles and his coaches is the main reason Foles is in better position than Hoying was in 1998. It is a very good reason to believe Kelly and Foles have a chance, at least, to be the kind of coach/QB combination that excels in the NFL.
"Our team isn't measured by my 27 [touchdowns] and two [interceptions] or whatever," Foles said. "If we win and I throw 25 touchdowns and 20 interceptions -- well, hopefully I don't do that. I don't want to do that. ... I might not ever reach those statistics again. ... If we don't reach it again, I hope that we're winning more games. Because that's the big thing."
A year ago, Foles competed for the starting job with Michael Vick. Now the competition is between Sanchez and Barkley for the No. 2 spot. Put your money on Sanchez. The Eagles wouldn’t have signed him to be the third quarterback.
RUNNING BACKS (4)
It won’t be surprising if the Eagles go with only three backs here, as Chip Kelly has been talking Sproles up as a running back since signing him. But if Sproles slides around the field as Kelly finds interesting matchups for him as a receiver, the Eagles may need depth behind McCoy. Rookie Henry Josey belongs in the picture, too.
WIDE RECEIVERS (5)
This is a confusing position because of all the offseason churn. DeSean Jackson and Jason Avant are gone. Cooper is more established. Maclin is returning from injury. Matthews could develop into the best of the bunch. Ifeanyi Momah and Jeff Maehl are in the mix, too.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
Ertz should continue his ascent to the No. 1 slot here, but Celek’s completeness as a blocker and receiver make him tough to write off. It wouldn’t be shocking if somebody (Emil Igwenagu?) persuaded Kelly to move on from Casey, who probably wonders why he signed in Philadelphia last year.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (10)
- Jason Peters
- Evan Mathis
- Jason Kelce
- Todd Herremans
- Lane Johnson
- Allen Barbre
- Matt Tobin
- Michael Bamiro
- Dennis Kelly
- Julian Vandervelde
Boy, does the looming four-game suspension of Johnson throw things into disorder here. Kelly got away with going light on the line last year because all five starters were available for every game. We’ll learn early who among Barbre, Kelly, Tobin and Bamiro have earned the coaches’ confidence. Barbre is likely to start for Johnson, but keep an eye on who else dresses on Sundays.
DEFENSIVE LINE (6)
This is actually a tough group to project. Kruger spent his rookie year on IR, so he’s kind of a wild card. The coaches seemed high on Hart, who played for Kelly and line coach Jerry Azzinaro at Oregon. Allen is a draft pick. All three could make the team, but then, so could Damion Square.
- Connor Barwin
- DeMeco Ryans
- Mychal Kendricks
- Trent Cole
- Marcus Smith
- Jason Phillips
- Bryan Braman
- Najee Goode
The big issue here is how long it takes first-round pick Smith to progress to a point where he could start ahead of Cole. It might take the whole season. And then there is the idea of giving Ryans some downtime, which could get Goode on the field quite a bit. Phillips and Braman are mostly special-teams guys.
That seems like a lot of safeties, but Maragos was signed for special teams, and the coaches like Reynolds enough to carry the fifth-round pick as he develops. Johnson could be the odd man out.
In Year 2 of a total redo at this position, the Eagles will let merit sort things out with this group. Williams and Fletcher were adequate last year but now have Carroll pushing them both. Boykin established himself as a solid nickel corner. The coaches are high on Watkins, a rookie from Florida. Roc Carmichael could force his way onto the roster, as well.
These three mainstays all figure to be back. Henery is working on kickoffs, which would help the coverage unit immensely. Jones had a solid season punting the ball, and Dorenbos remains automatic at long-snapping.
The Philadelphia Eagles won the division last year in Chip Kelly's first season, but do they have staying power?
Alfred Morris has eaten up yards on the ground in his first two years with the Washington Redskins, but can he do it without Mike Shanahan's system?
The New York Giants' offense grew stale under Kevin Gilbride. Can new coordinator Ben McAdoo get Eli Manning back to a top level?
The Dallas Cowboys' defense was bad in 2013 and have pinned their hopes of improvement on new coordinator Rod Marinelli. Just how much can Marinelli do?
John Keim, Kieran Darcy, Andy Jasner and Todd Archer look at what can be expected from the Redskins, Giants, Eagles and Cowboys with training camp just around the corner.
Will Rod Marinelli improve an already poor defense having lost DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee?
Todd Archer: I believe the Cowboys will be better with Marinelli serving as defensive coordinator instead of Monte Kiffin in part because it can't be worse. It can't be worse, right? Ware, Hatcher and Lee were part of last season's poor defense and missed time. Lee will be missed the most because of his playmaking ability. Ware's pass rush will be missed even if he had just six sacks in 2013. I believe the Cowboys have Hatcher's replacement in Henry Melton. He might not get 11 sacks, but he'll be fine. Marinelli does not have the talent he had to work with in Chicago, but he is a top coach. He can coax the ability out of these guys. Does that mean the Cowboys will be a top-10 or even top-15 defense? Not really. If they can get in the low to mid 20s, then that's improvement. He is more in-tune with today's game than Kiffin and will be more willing to adjust if necessary. The Cowboys had no answers last season. I think Marinelli will have more answers but not enough pupils to earn an A.
Andy Jasner: It's hard to imagine the Cowboys' defense getting any worse. Well, anything is possible. Four different quarterbacks threw for 400 or more yards in a single game last season. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs against the Cowboys' defense in November. Even with some key pieces missing from the defense, they should be improved for one simple reason: work ethic. Marinelli has been part of some bad teams in the past but not because he didn't work hard. Marinelli will instill good habits in his defensive players and improvement throughout the unit will likely be visible. Four years ago in 2010, Marinelli was promoted to defensive coordinator with the Bears. That defense steadily got better as the season moved on. The Cowboys allowed 388 first downs last season, the second-most in NFL history. Even with Ware, Hatcher and Lee, the defense was awful. Good work habits should help across the board.
John Keim: Man, how bad will the Cowboys' defense be if he can't help them improve? Does that mean even more quarterbacks throwing for 400 yards after a record-setting four did a year ago? That was a defense in transition last year, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under coordinator Monte Kiffin, who had been out of the NFL since 2008. The problem is, they've lost their most productive players in the front seven. Losing Lee is a huge blow because he was the one of this group who was going to return. Marinelli has done good work as a coordinator in the past and was excellent as Dallas' defensive line coach in 2013, despite needing to use 20 players because of injuries. If the Cowboys stay healthy and their defensive backs respond to different coverages they'll improve. But they have such a long way to go.
@toddarcher the defense is going to be so bad that if they don't score 30 points they won't win! Another miserable year for us cowboys fans!— Chris Matteson (@chechespopp) July 8, 2014
Will the rest of the division figure out Eagles coach Chip Kelly and make him a one-hit wonder?
Archer: The second time around against the Redskins and Giants, the Eagles' offensive performance slipped in 2013. The numbers against the Cowboys were better in the rematch only because the Cowboys were so good in the first meeting. In what was their best showing of 2013, Dallas gave up only 3 points and 278 yards in the first meeting. In the de facto NFC East title game to close the season, the Eagles scored 24 points and put up 366 yards. That's still respectable for a defense, especially one that was as bad as the Cowboys' last season. Kelly is innovative and appears to know how to stay ahead of the curve. He did that at Oregon in the Pac-12. But it will come down to Nick Foles. If he is a franchise quarterback and not a one-hit wonder himself, then the Eagles will struggle. Having LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, Zach Ertz and Brent Celek will help Kelly and Foles. With everybody wanting to hand them the division in the offseason, I think it's best to tap the brakes a little.
Jasner: Everything seemed to click in Kelly's rookie season as running back LeSean McCoy rushed for a league-high 1,607 yards and quarterback Nick Foles threw 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Foles began the season as a backup to Michael Vick, who now plays for the New York Jets. Kelly took his high-powered offense from Oregon and made the seamless transition to the NFL. Kelly did a stellar job of adjusting to defenses last season and there's no reason to believe that won't happen again. The rest of the division has plenty of film on how to stop the Eagles' offense. Doing it is another thing altogether. Don't expect Kelly to be a one-hit wonder. However, repeating the feat is always more challenging with defenses keying in more closely. The Eagles may not put up the same huge numbers in Kelly's second season. With talent such as McCoy, Foles, Jeremy Maclin and Darren Sproles, the Eagles will still be able to score plenty of points.
Keim: I'm assuming Kelly will have some changes for defenses in order to build on what the Eagles accomplished last season. What he can't do is fall in love with his "system" and forget it's the talent that made it work. The tough part is expecting Nick Foles to post similar numbers as in 2013. And you can't minimize the loss of receiver DeSean Jackson, even in terms of his impact on others. That said, I still expect them to be a potent offense. They do a good job manipulating defenses and they still have one of the best all-around players in the NFL in running back LeSean McCoy -- not to mention a terrific line. So even if teams think they've figured out Kelly's offense, I'd expect the Eagles to keep doing well.
@SheridanScribe I don't think so, as a eagles fan I think that division is broken, and we have our full arsenal back minus DJacks— Chocolate Gladiator (@Willing2GoHamm) July 16, 2014
Was Alfred Morris just a product of Mike Shanahan's system and will his effectiveness decrease under Jay Gruden?
Archer: So is he Tatum Bell, Mike Anderson or Reuben Droughns? Is that the question? Those three guys combined for four 1,000-yard seasons under Shanahan and never really performed well again. There is definitely something about the Shanahan system that makes it seem like any back can rush for 1,000 yards. But I think Morris could be more Clinton Portis than those other three. Portis was outstanding in Denver before his trade to Washington. The question, however, with Jay Gruden isn't so much the system as it is his willingness to run the ball enough. The Bengals ran for nearly 1,800 yards last year but it seemed like Gruden went away from the running game in the big moments. When you have a guy like A.J. Green that can be understandable, but is Andy Dalton good enough to carry the show? Now the question is can Robert Griffin III carry the show? The best way to help Griffin is to make sure Morris is a big part of the plan. If Gruden is smart, then he makes Morris the centerpiece of the offense.
Jasner: It shouldn't. Morris racked up 1,275 yards rushing, 4.6 yards per carry, and 7 touchdowns last season. He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time and was arguably the Redskins' most consistent offensive player. Gruden will expect Morris to become a complete player with the ability to run block and pass block. Gruden is a meticulous coach whom expects his players to be all-around competitors. Gruden has always leaned heavily on running backs in his system and it would be foolish not to have Morris do the same thing in 2014. Morris has played all 32 games in two seasons, resulting in 2,888 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns. Morris' effectiveness should increase under Gruden as long as he's healthy. When there's an ultra-talented player such as Morris, you give him the football as often as possible.
Keim: I don't think so. Gruden used his backs differently than Washington has with Morris, but in Cincinnati he did not have a similar runner. Nor in Washington does he have a Giovani Bernard (at least not yet anyway; maybe Lache Seastrunk becomes that sort of player in 2014) to take a ton of work away from Morris. The Redskins will use other backs, especially in the pass game. But they kept the run game the same for a reason: They want to feature Morris. He makes the offense go. Last season, Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried the ball 278 times two years ago; that's two more than Morris had in 2013. If healthy, and if the Redskins want to win, then Morris will still be in that 280 carry, 1,300-yard area.
@john_keim Yes. Gruden is notorious in forgetting about the run game. Unless you are a young fast multi purpose back: (See Giovanni B)— Dan (@dautry88) July 14, 2014
Will Eli Manning revert to Pro Bowl form in Year 1 under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo?
Archer: Having worked with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay for two seasons, McAdoo should have the benefit of the doubt with Manning. There is no doubt Manning was bad last season and his 27 interceptions are proof of it. He took too many chances. He didn't get help from his receivers at times. His line didn't help him. His eyes were on the rush a lot. Rodgers has been sacked a lot in Green Bay, but some of that is because he won't take chances. He will eat the ball and move on to the next play. Can Manning do that? if he doesn't, then it will be another long season for the Giants. I believe Manning will have a bounce-back year, but I don't know if it will be Pro Bowl form. It will be good and solid form and that could get the Giants back into the playoffs.
Jasner: Maybe not Pro Bowl form, but it has to be better than last season's debacle with 27 interceptions. Yes, 27. To be fair, Manning had poor pass protection on a week-in and week-out basis. He was never able to locate his rhythm. McAdoo has a reputation of building a strong rapport with his players and that was evident when he was the quarterbacks coach and worked with Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers. Manning must keep his interception total down and the Giants can't give the ball away 44 times like they did last season. Manning will have more options on offense in 2014 and some early-season success will be a boost to his confidence. This team doesn't resemble the two Super Bowl-winning teams under Manning. Don't expect a Pro Bowl season from Manning, but it should be a whole lot better.
Keim: One thing that hurt Manning, against the Redskins at least, was the defense's familiarity with Kevin Gilbride's system -- and, more important, his tendencies. They had a strong handle on what to expect. My guess is other teams did as well. But it sounds as if McAdoo will focus more on shorter passes which, the Giants have to hope, will help Manning cut down on his interceptions. Yes, he's learning a new system, but Manning is a smart player so I don't think it will hold him back that much. I'm looking for a big bounce-back year from him, but whether he reaches the Pro Bowl will depend on how his line improves and how the questions at receiver are answered. I'm not ready to go that far just yet.