Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:
One thing of which I'm certain: The Eagles will dazzle in camp. You're going to hear and see a lot of stuff about how great quarterback Michael Vick looks, how focused DeSean Jackson is now with the contract stuff behind him, how healthy and explosive Jeremy Maclin looks. You're going to hear and see a lot about how much depth there is on the defensive line and how the defense is so good it's making it tough on all of those offensive stars to shine. Camp practices will feature breathtaking catches and interceptions, lightning-quick LeSean McCoy runs and reports of Vick doing near-impossible things at the quarterback position. The Eagles don't just look good on paper -- they look good in practice.
The question about the Eagles this year isn't about the caliber of talent on the roster -- it's about whether they can make good on that talent this year. And we won't know that until the regular season gets under way and we find out whether they stop the run better, turn the ball over less and play tougher in the fourth quarter than they did in 2011. One thing of which I am certain, however, is that training camp will do nothing to tamp down expectations for this year's Eagles. They will spend the coming weeks looking exciting and getting their fans even more excited for the season than they are now.
One thing that might happen: Two rookies could win themselves a job as defensive starters. The camp-opening news that defensive tackle Mike Patterson is still recovering from his offseason brain surgery and isn't yet cleared to practice opens up an opportunity for first-round pick Fletcher Cox at that position. The Eagles do have some veteran depth at that spot, and Antonio Dixon and Derek Landri won't be easy competition. But the Eagles moved up in the draft to select Cox because they believe he fits their scheme well and can help generate pressure on the quarterback right away, and he should get enough reps with the first team to get a shot at starting Week 1.
Second-round pick Mychal Kendricks has more than just a chance to be the starting strongside linebacker. He's already working as the starter at that position and would need to play and practice poorly this preseason to lose the spot. The Eagles like Kendricks for his speed, which is a must for a linebacker playing behind the "Wide 9" defensive line alignment the Eagles use because he needs to cover as much ground as possible. He also could be an asset in blitz packages on the rare occasions when the Eagles use those. He's a rookie, so you never know, but the Eagles are proceeding as though he's going to be one of their starting linebackers. An Eagles team with Super Bowl aspirations could well come out of camp with two rookies starting on defense.
One thing we won't see: Asante Samuel. The veteran cornerback was known for livening up camp practices with his relentless and loud trash talk. The Eagles traded Samuel to the Falcons just before the draft in April, and practices will be a little bit quieter for his absence. The real impact, though, will be on the coverage schemes the team implements this summer. The conventional wisdom around the Eagles now says that they played a lot of zone last year to try to minimize the impact of Samuel's deficiencies in man coverage, and that with him gone they can use starting cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in man coverage, which is their strength.
That puts a lot of pressure on those two starting cornerbacks, of course, to deliver on the promise of the 2011 offseason in which they both arrived. But it's what they want, and the Eagles expect them to thrive in their returns to their old, more comfortable roles. So if you show up to Eagles training camp and you're watching the defensive backs, don't expect to see a lot of zone.