NFL Nation: Jim Washburn

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DETROIT -- Each Saturday in the Detroit Lions' defensive line meeting, coaches Jim Washburn and Kris Kocurek handed out a link to a chain.

There are, defensive tackle Nick Fairley said, 10 chain links. Each of the Lions’ 10 linemen then talks about what he will do the next day. After the exercise, the chain is put together. The next day it comes out onto the field with the Lions before the game.

If you’re looking for a strong link for this Detroit team, it resides with the defensive line. Injuries have decimated the secondary -- they played their fourth, fifth and sixth slot cornerbacks of the season Sunday -- and middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch missed most of the game with a knee injury.

Yet the Detroit defensive line shut down Green Bay’s run and flustered Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throughout the Lions’ 19-7 win. It's a win where the defense actually outscored the Packers’ offense, 8-7.

That started with the defensive line.

"Every time in the defensive line room, man, our main thing is staying on gap and staying fundamental," Fairley said. "They are not going to be able to run the ball if we’re able to do that. If we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot, we’re going to be able to stop the run ... nine times out of 10, that’s what we’re going to be able to do the whole year."

Through three games, Detroit has managed it well. The Lions entered the game with the stiffest run defense in the league, allowing 2.5 yards a carry. Gap integrity remained intact Sunday as the Lions allowed 3.5 yards a carry and picked up a safety on a run.

The first Detroit touchdown came off a Green Bay run, too. Eddie Lacy got the ball on the Packers’ second offensive play. Fairley moved into the gap between the Green Bay center and left guard. Lacy bounced to the 'B' gap between the guard and tackle. Fairley was stuck, but he was able to 'just put my arm out and was able to get my hands on the ball."

Lacy’s fumble led to a Don Carey touchdown and started a day for the Detroit defensive line that saw it produce three tackles for losses, two quarterback hits and the Fairley forced fumble. The line also helped put enough pressure on Rodgers to produce a career-worst performance against the Lions.

Detroit rushed its front four on 25 of Rodgers' 29 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Against that pressure, Rodgers completed just 58.3 percent of his passes for only 5.8 yards an attempt. That was possible because Detroit shut off the run.

"The plan was, basically, keep Aaron in the pocket, stop the run, and at least on the pass get in his face," defensive end Jason Jones said. "Make him uncomfortable back there."

Detroit gambled in trusting its front four. The Lions played both safeties high -- something Rodgers noticed quickly -- throughout the game. Rodgers said Green Bay never adjusted and did what Detroit wanted.

"We really took it as a challenge, playing two high safeties against them," Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy said. "You kind of have to with how good a quarterback he is and how great of receivers he has. I think it’s kind of a risk-reward thing.

"You take the risk of maybe not being as tight in the run, but you’d rather Lacy have the ball than Aaron Rodgers. Not to knock Lacy, he’s a great running back, too, but we kind of put it on ourselves and stepped to the challenge."
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He tried something different for a season, thinking even though he had been a defensive end for years, the transition to playing outside linebacker might work.

Tapp
After a one-year stint with Washington, Darryl Tapp decided he needed to return to some familiarity, not with a team, but with a situation. In understanding why Tapp signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Lions, the answer is two-fold.

Going back to defensive end in a 4-3 and the coach he would play for, Jim Washburn.

“Our relationship actually started at the Senior Bowl,” Tapp said during a teleconference Friday. “Coach Washburn was with the Titans and his staff was the North, and he got his hands on me and that was my first introduction to the NFL, the way he coached me up and the way he brought me with the speed and the way they do things in the NFL.

“Then, in Philadelphia, he had me again and I’ve been trying to get with that guy for the last five years at that time, and it just worked out well in Philadelphia.”

Tapp played two seasons for Washburn, 2011 and 2012 with the Eagles, before the two were separated again. But being a free agent for the second time in his career -- the first time was last season, when he took a chance on making a position switch -- Tapp knew he wanted to play for the guy he felt could really help him.

That was Washburn, so Detroit became a viable option.

Whether he is the same player or not, though, is debatable. His production has dipped every year since 2008, when he had 54 tackles and 5.5 sacks. After a 2009 season with 49 tackles for Seattle, he was traded to Philadelphia.

He hasn’t played 16 games in a season or made more than 30 tackles in a season since. Tapp, though, doesn’t believe he has diminished as a player. According to Pro Football Focus, he graded out positively in every season he played except for last season at outside linebacker and, coincidentally, the 2008 season, which was his best statistical year.

“Stat line don’t always tell the story,” Tapp said. “Let’s get that first and foremost. I’m the same player that I was coming out of the draft, just a few years older and a few years wiser.”

Whether he’s able to contribute will be determined.

If you’re looking for more on Tapp, here’s what our Washington reporter, John Keim, told me about him.
Two days after officially coming on board as the Detroit Lions head coach, Jim Caldwell already has a majority of his staff in place -- including one of his coordinators.

Teryl Austin, who had been the Baltimore secondary coach the past three seasons, will get his first shot at being a defensive coordinator in the NFL. He was Florida's defensive coordinator in 2010.

"He's a guy, obviously, that is extremely bright," Caldwell told WDFN in Detroit on Friday morning. "He's a guy that has, without question, has a great balance in terms of overall experience. Energetic and really has an outstanding feel for defensive football. Outstanding communicator as well."

Here's a look at what Austin has done in the past and what his defense could look like.

Caldwell also has some of the other staff ready to go.

Bill Sheridan, who was Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator in 2012 and 2013, has been hired as the team's linebackers coach. Sheridan is a Detroit native who spent time on both the Michigan and Michigan State staffs in the past coaching linebackers. He also coached linebackers at Miami from 2010 to 2011.

So far those are the only two new coaches Caldwell has brought in, although he has chosen to retain a lot of members of the staff.

Offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn will return, along with assistant offensive line coach Terry Heffernan. Tight ends coach Bobby Johnson is also back, but Dave Birkett from the Detroit Free Press is reporting it is as an offensive line assistant.

Jim Washburn (assistant defensive line), Kris Kocurek (defensive line) and Curtis Modkins (running backs) were also retained, although it is not clear if all will remain in their same roles.

As reported Thursday, special teams coach John Bonamego will also return.
This means defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, linebackers coach Matt Burke and secondary coach Marcus Robertson were also not being brought back. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, wide receivers coach Tim Lappano, assistant wide receivers coach Kyle Valero and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing were previously announced as not retained.

The biggest holes left to fill for Caldwell now are offensive coordinator, wide receivers coach and defensive backs coach, although Austin has extensive experience coaching the secondary.

Here's a look at the coaching staff chart (with obvious flexibility for staff movement):
Head coach -- Jim Caldwell
Offensive coordinator -- TBD
Defensive coordinator -- Teryl Austin
Quarterbacks -- TBD
Running backs -- Curtis Modkins
Wide Receivers -- TBD
Tight ends -- TBD
Offensive line -- Jeremiah Washburn (asst. Bobby Johnson or Terry Heffernan)
Defensive line -- Kris Kocurek (asst. Jim Washburn)
Linebackers -- Bill Sheridan
Secondary -- TBD
Special Teams -- John Bonamego
Jim Caldwell is the new Detroit Lions coach, and though there has been a lot of consternation about the hire, the Lions will succeed or fail based upon his decisions and his ability to develop players, notably quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Caldwell will meet with the media for the first time Wednesday, and based on what I’ve heard and been told about his interview on Jan. 3, he has a detailed plan for how he is going to fix both the Lions and Stafford.

Those are his two most important tasks as Detroit’s head coach. If he is unable to do that, he’ll join the line of Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Rod Marinelli and Jim Schwartz as coaches who couldn’t quite reach the level the team wanted.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsDeveloping Matthew Stafford is one of the most important tasks facing new Lions coach Jim Caldwell.
If he can succeed, he’ll have a chance to do something only one coach in the Super Bowl era, Wayne Fontes, has even come close to doing with the Lions: turn the team into a consistent winner.

Here’s a look at five things Caldwell will have to do early in his tenure with the Lions.

1. Hire a competent staff: He could have some names as early as his introductory news conference, but Teryl Austin is a name I’ve been told multiple times as a likely defensive coordinator. Bill Lazor was a name for offensive coordinator, but h has been hired by Miami. If Caldwell doesn’t put together a strong staff, that will be an issue early on. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel also could end up on Caldwell’s staff.

2. Make smart decisions about free agents with GM Martin Mayhew: Dominic Raiola and Brandon Pettigrew are two of the bigger free agents for the Lions. Raiola is a strong presence in the locker room, and it might be smart to bring him back for continuity on an offensive line that was one of the best in the league last season. Pettigrew could be interesting. He is an important cog, as was Dallas Clark, Caldwell’s tight end in Indianapolis and with the Ravens this season. Of course, Clark is also a free agent, so Caldwell might push to get him to Detroit.

3. Matthew Stafford: Part of the reason Caldwell was hired was to work with Stafford, with whom the coach met on his interview. Stafford, according to receiver Kris Durham, seemed to like Caldwell. That relationship will be critical to any success Caldwell has in Detroit. He believes he has a plan to fix Stafford -- both Joe Flacco and Peyton Manning are high on Caldwell's ability to help quarterbacks -- and the coach will have to be able to implement that plan as soon as possible.

4. Keep at least two current assistants: This goes with the first point. John Bonamego did a really good job with special teams almost all season, including finding strong gunners in Don Carey and Jeremy Ross. Jeremiah Washburn turned an offensive line with two rookies on the right side into one of the top groups in the NFL, and players seemed to really like him. Jim Washburn and Kris Kocurek did a good job with the defensive line, and Matt Burke was strong with the linebackers. Consider at least some of them to keep some continuity.

5. Get out in the community: This might sound silly, but Caldwell is not a popular hire with the Detroit fan base. By all accounts, he is a good, well-intentioned man, so by doing a lot of community outreach early on, he could turn some people who are currently not pleased about the hire. Of course, the best way to do that is to win games, but getting out in the community would be a strong start.

Wrap up: Bengals 34, Eagles 13

December, 14, 2012
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A few thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' 10th loss of the 2012 season.

What it means: Not a lot, except to those who expected the Tampa Bay victory to catapult Nick Foles to quarterback stardom. The Eagles' rookie quarterback lit up the league's 32nd-ranked pass defense and led the Eagles to a comeback victory Sunday in Tampa, and he looked good leading them back from an early 10-0 deficit to take a halftime lead Thursday night. But he's a rookie, and that means he looks quite shaky at times. Thursday, that meant he fit right in with the rest of his team. His interception was but one of five Eagles turnovers. They also saw a punt blocked and had nine penalties for 76 yards. It was a heinous loss to a Cincinnati team that spent the second and third quarters trying to hand them the game.

More on Foles: I like the way he moves in the pocket. I like that he doesn't let the garbage going on around him get him down -- that he seems to have a short memory and that he maintains a determination to make a play. I think he makes decent decisions. I don't think he always makes good throws. I know he threw 168 passes in a row without being intercepted, but some of those 168 clanged off of defenders' hands, and he hasn't been super-accurate, especially deep. He has a very strong arm, but he needs better accuracy down the field. His lack of fear is the best thing he has going for him right now, and the reason the Eagles can feel confident they're getting a real look at what he can do over these final games.

Brown out: The bloom is off rookie running back Bryce Brown as well, after his fourth fumble in four starts in place of LeSean McCoy. Brown ran extremely well in his first two games, totaling over 300 rush yards. But he barely factored in the game play Sunday, and he had a tough time against the tough Cincinnati defense Thursday. And of course, he fumbled, which is obviously a big problem for him. He's got major talent, but the fact that he didn't play much college football at all is showing up in the cavalier way in which he carries the ball. If it doesn't improve, his future in the game will be short.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Graha, Fletcher Cox, Andy Dalton
AP Photo/Matt RourkeBrandon Graham (54) and Fletcher Cox had four of the Eagles' six sacks of Andy Dalton.
For the defense: The pass rush showed up! In the second game since the firing of defensive line coach Jim Washburn, the Eagles came up with six sacks of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. That raised their total for the season to 28 sacks and elevates them (for the time being) from 29th in the league in that category to 19th. Brandon Graham had 2.5 of the sacks, Fletcher Cox had 1.5 and Trent Cole had one and looked as lively has he has all season. The Eagles will go into the offseason feeling justifiably good about the talent they have on their defensive line.

And of course: The turnovers. Good for the defense for forcing two, upping its season total to 12. But only the Chiefs and Colts have forced fewer, and the Eagles also had those five giveaways. They now lead the league with 34 giveaways, and their minus-22 turnover differential is tied with Kansas City for the worst in the league. You want to get to 4-10, that's a pretty good blueprint for it.

Ridiculous injury note: Left guard Evan Mathis hurt his ankle and stayed in for a while but was eventually replaced by Danny Watkins. If Mathis were to miss next week's game, he'd be the 10th Eagles offensive starter to miss a game due to injury this year, which is to say everyone but fullback Stanley Havili, who also left this game with an injury.

What's next: The Eagles try to continue their spoiler run in their final two games of the season. They will host the Washington Redskins a week from Sunday, and the Sunday after that they will travel to New Jersey to play the New York Giants. The Eagles are no longer in playoff contention, but they still could have a say in the way the NFC East race turns out.

Wrap up: Eagles 23, Buccaneers 21

December, 9, 2012
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A few thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' last-second comeback victory Sunday over the Buccaneers in Tampa, Fla.

What it means: In the 2012 picture, not a lot for the Eagles, whose season was already lost. But it means the end of an eight-game winning streak, the team's first victory since September and a chance for the Eagles and their fans to feel good for a few days. (They play again Thursday.) It also showed the kind of toughness a lot of people have been accusing the Eagles of not having, as they recovered from a 21-10 deficit in the final four minutes to win.

The kid: This was the chance for rookie quarterback Nick Foles to look his best against the worst pass defense in the league, and Foles looked very good indeed. He was 32-for-51 for 381 yards and two touchdowns, including the last-second game winner to Jeremy Maclin, and he also ran for a 10-yard touchdown. He was sacked six times, but he did not throw an interception, and he looked especially in control in the waning minutes as the team was moving the ball down the field in its comeback effort. As the Eagles use this final month to evaluate Foles as the potential answer for them at quarterback next season and beyond, this game stands as his best tape to date.

The defense: In the first game since the firing of defensive line coach Jim Washburn, the Eagles got sacks from defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Cullen Jenkins, seemed to ditch the much-maligned "Wide 9" alignment Washburn instituted last year and held Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman to 189 yards on 14-of-34 passing. They didn't create any turnovers, and it was their seventh game in a row without an interception, but the big guys up front and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie did a much better job this week of limiting the opposing team's passing attack. And even once the Bucs appeared to figure things out in the second half, they couldn't get far enough ahead to hold off the comeback.

What's next: The Eagles host the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night. Cincinnati's playoff hopes took a hit Sunday with a last-second loss to the Dallas Cowboys, but they come into the game with a 7-6 record and one of the best defenses in the league.


The Philadelphia Eagles began the day with a 7:10 am ET announcement that they'd relieved defensive line coach Jim Washburn of his duties with four games left in his second season on the job. Odd timing, both today and in the greater scheme of things, and it obviously makes you think there's something behind the move other than trying to make the team play better over the season's final four games.

Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Washburn's "act had gotten tired":
Washburn had become a "cancer" around the team, according to one Eagles source, the situation becoming worse when defensive end Jason Babin was released last week.

And Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly.com reported via Twitter that Washburn had become "disruptive and difficult," and that things had worsened last week after the release of Babin, who was something of a pet project for Washburn.

[+] EnlargeJim Washburn
Andrew Weber/US PresswireThe Eagles defense thrived under Jim Washburn's "Wide 9" scheme in 2011, but this season has been a different story.
So there's your answer to "What's the point of doing something like this now?" If a guy's disruptive and difficult, a guy can get fired. In any line of work. Things are ugly and tense enough around the 3-9 Eagles these days without everybody having to worry whether the defensive line coach is going to pitch a fit about roster decisions.

Eagles head coach Andy Reid brought in Washburn at the start of 2011 as part of a series of high-profile coaching changes. Washburn came in with the reputation as being one of the best defensive line coaches in the league, and he installed the "Wide 9" defense, in which the ends line up extremely wide and pursue the passer with abandon. The Eagles tied for the league lead with 50 sacks in 2011, and Babin had 18 of them. And while the defense was too leaky in the middle, the Eagles believed they'd fixed that problem this year by adding middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and streamlining their coverage schemes.

None of it worked. The coverage has been terrible, the safeties unqualified to support the Wide-9 front. Ryans has been very good, but defensive ends such as Babin and Trent Cole, who thrived in Washburn's system in 2011, have struggled to produce in 2012. Babin was cut last week because he wasn't playing well and the team wanted to give his playing time to 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham. Babin's career as a pass-rusher took off in 2010, when he played for Washburn in Tennessee, and he followed Washburn to Philadelphia in 2011. The two are close, and Washburn is proud of the production he was able to get out of Babin in those two seasons. Cutting Babin appeared to be a public admission that the Wide 9 had failed in Philadelphia, and it appears Washburn took exception to that.

So he's out, and replaced with Tommy Brasher, who held this same role with the Eagles in 1985 and from 1999-2005. With Reid himself all but certain to be fired at the end of this terribly disappointing season, Brasher is a caretaker. The new coach, whoever he is, will pick his staff. Washburn wasn't likely to be a part of it anyway. And yeah, he could have ridden out the season with the rest of them, but apparently his mere presence around the team had become too much to bear.
The Jaguars have claimed Jason Babin off waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles, Adam Schefter reports.

Eight teams claimed him, but the Jaguars won his rights because they were second to Kansas City in the waiver order which is based on current records.

I like it. I like it a lot.

Babin has been an effective 4-3 end in Tennessee and Philadelphia for high-energy, vinegary defensive line coach Jim Washburn.

The man who holds the same post in Jacksonville, Joe Cullen, is a lot like Washburn. He isn’t getting nearly the rush he needs out of the guys he’s got. Adding Babin to the mix should help.

Jacksonville is 32nd in the NFL in sacks per play and has taken the quarterback down just 13 times, tied with the Raiders for the fewest sacks in the league.

Originally drafted by Houston 27th overall in 2004 in to play outside linebacker in a 3-4, Babin didn’t pan out. After three seasons, he turned into a journeyman, with stops in Seattle, Kansas City and Philadelphia over the next three seasons.

The Titans took him on as a $1 million reclamation project in 2010 and, spurred by Washburn, he produced 12.5 sacks.

But the team changed coaches and defensive schemes in 2011, looking to get bigger and asking ends to play over offensive tackles instead of way out wide. It didn’t bid to re-sign him and he wound up following Washburn to Philadelphia for a second term with the Eagles.

After 18.5 sacks in 2011, he was part of a crumbling team this year and the Eagles released him Monday in order to give some younger guys a chance.

If Cullen allows him to line up wide and use his speed to take on tackles, he should provide a pass-rush boost.

Eagles are a study in 'miscalculation'

November, 6, 2012
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Amid all of the perfectly justified rip jobs and sky-is-falling coverage of the Philadelphia Eagles' latest loss, this short item by Jeff McLane caught my eye. He's got someone with the Eagles telling him Andy Reid's bye-week firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was a "miscalculation." This comes as neither news nor a surprise to anyone who's been tracking the Eagles over the past two seasons, during which it appears "miscalculation" has been the hallmark of the front office's game plan.

Yeah, when you watch the Eagles play, it's easy to get caught up in the on-field, in-game issues. Why don't they run the ball more? Why can't Michael Vick make pre-snap reads? Have they quit on Andy Reid? Stuff like that. But I think if you look back over the past two years, it's easy to see that the flaws with this team are flaws of construction, and that the miscalculations are myriad and extensive. A partial list, in no particular order:

    [+] EnlargeMichael Vick
    AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelSigning QB Michael Vick to a $100 million contract appears to be a costly move for the Eagles.
  • Deciding on Vick as a $100 million franchise quarterback based on the spectacular aspect of the way he played in 2010, ignoring the likelihood that his issues reading the field, making audibles and adjusting on the fly were too ingrained to overcome in his 30s. And no, it's not that they should have kept Kevin Kolb or that they didn't get great value for him in the trade. It's just that tying so much of their 2011-12 success to Vick is going to set them back as they head into 2013 and beyond. And the bust potential that Vick came with at the time of the contract was high enough to make it a questionable decision at best.
  • Signing Nnamdi Asomugha on the presumption that he'd play like a top shutdown cornerback, then playing him in zone coverage for his first year because they didn't have the guts to move Asante Samuel. This resulted in their having to trade Samuel for nearly nothing a year later, and Asomugha has struggled at times this year in one-on-one coverage against speedy wideouts.
  • Drafting Danny Watkins in the first round after hiring Howard Mudd to run the offensive line. Mudd found Jason Kelce in the sixth round, identified him as the type of guy who could play his scheme and quickly molded him into a top NFL center. Surely, he could have found a guard in the fifth or seventh that fit his profile and done the same with him, and the Eagles could have used that first-rounder on something more immediately helpful. And no, the Eagles could not have imagined the extent to which injuries would ravage their offensive line this season, but it does seem as though they could have found backup players better suited to adapt quickly to Mudd's blocking schemes. Perhaps if they hadn't been so focused on bringing in high-profile, ultimately useless skill-position backups like Vince Young and Ronnie Brown last year, this could have been more of a point of emphasis.
  • Designing a defense predicated on the down linemen selling out for sacks, then failing in 2011 to support the defensive line with anything resembling adequate linebacker play.
  • In 2012, after bolstering the linebacker corps, failing to adjust anything about the defensive line scheme even though the whole league knew they'd be selling out for sacks on every play. The extent to which opposing offensive coordinators have appeared to be ahead of Castillo, Todd Bowles, Jim Washburn or whoever's been in charge of setting up the Eagles' defense on a given week this year is staggering.
  • Making Castillo the defensive coordinator in the first place, then of course firing him during the bye week just because they felt like they had to do something.

Look, I understand this is an exercise in second-guessing. I fell for it, as did a lot of the people who have been writing about this Eagles team for the past two years. Philadelphia's roster-construction efforts the past two springs and summers looked good as they were going on, and I for one failed to spot the number of flaws that have ultimately manifested themselves. The very good lesson, for those of us who write the NFL, is as usual about waiting for the games to be played before making broad conclusions about how they will go.

As we look back on it now, though, not much the Eagles have done in assembling their roster over the past couple of years has worked. There's the occasional DeMeco Ryans or Fletcher Cox, sure. The DeSean Jackson contract is a good one for them, and I don't think it was necessarily wrong for them to spend resources this past offseason locking up cornerstone pieces like Trent Cole, LeSean McCoy and Todd Herremans for the long-term. But in terms of building a Super Bowl contender in the short term, Reid and the rest of the people who run the Eagles have failed spectacularly. The product they've put on the field simply isn't as good as they believed it to be, and they are likely to pay for their run of miscalculations with their jobs.
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- A year ago, as excitement swirled around the free-agent-happy Philadelphia Eagles and preseason predictions called for big things, something still didn't feel quite right.

"I didn't think the expectations were too high, but I knew that the timing might not match up as quickly as everyone wanted it to," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said after practice last week. "Because you would hear, 'Oh, they're going to be this, going to be that,' and then you'd come out in practice and you could see us blowing plays. Yes, we could be there, but we weren't there yet. That's what I was feeling in training camp. Right now in training camp, it feels completely different."

Last week, before the Eagles' training camp was rocked by Sunday's news of the death of coach Andy Reid's son Garrett, the atmosphere was serene and businesslike. The players have been practicing together since February, when Asomugha and quarterback Michael Vick were organizing players-only workouts at the University of Pennsylvania. And late July welcomed them to one of the hardest-hitting camps in the NFL. Their motivation is clear and simple -- they were 8-8 last year and believe they should have been better. They admit to being downright angry about the way the 2011 season went.

"Yeah, I think there's a determined effort to try to maximize our opportunity," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. "You see it from the players. You see it from the coaches. You see it from the support staff. And I think last year, maybe you underestimated how long it takes to acclimate."

No such issues or excuses this time around. This is basically the same group as last year's, with new guys at middle linebacker and left tackle. All of the coaches who were new to the team or their roles last year are back. All of the new schemes implemented last year by defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, defensive line coach Jim Washburn and offensive line coach Howard Mudd are familiar by now, and everybody should be more comfortable in them. If the Eagles flop again, there won't be anywhere to look for explanations other than within. That's why this August's focus is internal, and on the things that are important, rather than any hype they might be attracting.

"I don't want anyone buying into anything," Asomugha said. "I just want us to get into this season and just play the way we know how to play. I'll be completely honest with you: Our team looks very good. Obviously it's camp, we're not playing against anybody. But we're under specific instruction: Don't talk. Don't blow this thing up. Don't nothing. Let's just get in the season and let's just start playing football."

Once they do that, the Eagles believe that this time around, everything will be just fine.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Can Vick lead them to greatness? There is no player in the league under more pressure in 2012 than Vick. The brilliance of his 2010 season was away under the disappointment of his injury- and interception-riddled 2011, in which he failed to take that critical next step in his late-career development as a leader and a quarterback. The popular narrative is that this is the first time since 2006 in Atlanta that Vick has had a real offseason as a team's starting quarterback. He began 2010 as the Eagles' backup, and the 2011 offseason was wiped away by the lockout. The result, everyone says, is that Vick has spent more time than ever before at the team facility, working out, studying film and applying himself to details in order to get better.

"It's all evident," Vick said of his 2011 film review. "A lot of the turnovers I had, I think eight of them, were on balls that got tipped, so I need to try and release the ball a little higher, do something differently. There's nothing more gratifying than learning from a mistake. Interceptions are going to happen, but you try to keep them to a minimum and think about ball control."

The more focus on detail, the better for Vick, who has long relied on his unusual and considerable talent to carry him through. As last year proved, being a quarterback is about the little things, and much more than just what you can do with your arm and your legs.

"I see him just being smarter," wide receiver DeSean Jackson said of Vick. "He's taking a leadership role where he can be coached and be taught by other people as well. He's not at a point where he doesn't feel like anybody can tell him anything. He interacts, and he wants to know what it is that he's doing something wrong. And if he is doing something wrong, you can just get on him, just like a regular individual, a regular player."

[+] EnlargeDemeco Ryans
AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelThe Eagles believe veteran DeMeco Ryans will provide the defense with stability at linebacker.
2. The "quarterback of the defense." The big player acquisition of the Eagles' offseason was middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, whom they acquired in a trade with the Houston Texans prior to the draft. Ryans is a well-respected veteran who was emerging as one of the top linebackers in the league before his 2010 Achilles injury. A misfit in the 3-4 defense the Texans implemented during his rehab, Ryans is more comfortable playing the middle linebacker spot in the Eagles' 4-3. He's also healthy and looking like the player who was so universally loved and respected by Texans teammates, who called him "Cap." The Eagles' defense, which started unprepared rookie Casey Matthews as its middle linebacker last September, should benefit from Ryans' veteran presence in the role.

"You see that stability there," Reid said. "The game's slower for him than it would be for a rookie. So he's able to just kind of get everybody lined up, get everybody settled and calmed down."

Roseman said it was a priority for the Eagles to find "the quarterback of our defense," and Ryans is aware that he was brought in to correct 2011's biggest defensive flaw. But he's trying to keep those expectations as calm as he's trying to keep his defensive teammates.

"It's not going to take one person to fix all the problems," Ryans said. "It takes everybody working together and finding out how we can make all 11 guys play better and have a better defense."

Sure, but what they like about Ryans is that he can help teach everybody just how to do that. And who can play a little, too.

"It's not like we just got a guy off the street who has some experience," Asomugha said. "This guy is a big-time player."

3. Replacin' Jason. Left tackle Jason Peters may have been the best player on the Eagles' roster last year, and that's no slight to anyone else. Peters was a monster blocker who was critical to the overall success of the offensive line and to the breakout season of running back LeSean McCoy. But Peters injured his Achilles in the offseason and is out for the year. His replacement is free-agent signee Demetress Bell, who's athletic like Peters and has the potential to be an adequate replacement. Bell's issue has been staying healthy and on the field, but so far his teammates say he's looking good and picking up Mudd's complex blocking schemes.

"I think he's one of the best options we could have had to replace Jason," left guard Evan Mathis said. "He displays great athleticism. He has a hunger to learn and a hunger to get better. And what's good for him is, Jason had a monster season, so he can go look at the film of Jason having a monster season, take what he's learning from Howard, apply it to what he's doing on the field and just try and replicate that and do exactly what Jason was doing. He's making strides daily."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

For all that went wrong last year, the Eagles still managed to finish 8-8 and weren't eliminated from playoff contention until Week 16. Had they managed to hold just one of those blown fourth-quarter leads -- against the 49ers, Falcons or Giants, say -- we might be having a very different discussion about their 2011. They played well enough at the end of last year (and in the first three quarters of their September games) to prove to themselves they can be as good as they think they can be. If they can cut down on the costly mistakes, and if they get the mental boost they say they got from their season-ending four-game winning streak, it's not a long journey from where they were to a division title.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

So much comes down to Vick, and with a backup corps that currently comprises Mike Kafka, Trent Edwards and rookie Nick Foles, it's more important than ever for him to stay healthy. He hasn't played 16 games in a season since 2006, and the Eagles were 1-2 in the three games he missed last year. When he's at his best, Vick gives the Eagles advantages at the position over any team in the league. He can do things with his arm and his legs that other quarterbacks can't. But his relatively small size and his all-out style of play have created a history of injury that can't be overlooked when forecasting his -- and the Eagles' -- season. If he doesn't play well, or if they lose him for an extended period of time, it's going to be difficult for them to compete with the top teams in the NFC.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJeremy Maclin
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNow fully healthy, WR Jeremy Maclin has the tools to have a career season in 2012.
  • Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is a breakout candidate. He was sick this time last year and wasn't able to get a lot out of training camp, and he had injury issues throughout the season. But he's 100 percent healthy now, and he gives the Eagles a big-time speed threat opposite Jackson in the wide receiver corps. Don't be surprised if Maclin has a better statistical season than Jackson.
  • I think McCoy will miss Peters at left tackle, because the Eagles ran outside a lot last year and Peters' upfield blocking was a huge help to McCoy's ability to break long runs. But having watched the Eagles work on their inside running in camp, I get the impression they're so strong in the middle of the offensive line -- especially given how much better 2011 first-round pick Danny Watkins looks at right guard -- that McCoy will be able to run successfully between the tackles more than he did a year ago.
  • Brandon Graham is the 2012 Eagles in microcosm. Fans are sick of hearing how good he's supposed to be and just want to see it. The 2010 first-round pick looks fantastic in the early going and should be able to make a contribution as part of the rotation at defensive end. Reid says the plan is to rotate eight guys on the defensive line and "throw fastballs, if we can, at the offensive line." A healthy, productive Graham subbing in to give Trent Cole or Jason Babin a breather would go a long way toward enabling that.
  • Jamar Chaney was playing well enough to look like the starter at weakside linebacker before a hamstring injury in the second week of camp sidelined him. So that could be Matthews or Brian Rolle if Chaney can't keep his momentum going. Rookie Mychal Kendricks is supposed to start on the strong side, but the Eagles are taking things slowly with him. Don't be surprised if, as with Watkins a year ago, his role is bigger in the second half than it is at the start.
  • Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the starter at cornerback opposite Asomugha, looks spry and comfortable in his new role. He played the slot cornerback position last year, which he never has before, and should be better on the outside.
  • Rookie Brandon Boykin could win that slot corner job ahead of veteran Joselio Hanson. Boykin is also helping as a kick returner.
  • It's possible the Eagles could go without a fullback. They didn't use one much last year, and they like what backup tight end Brett Brackett has been showing in camp. They could use him or Clay Harbor along with Brent Celek in multiple tight end sets.

On Eagles injury issues

July, 29, 2012
7/29/12
12:57
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Saturday was a bad-news day out at Philadelphia Eagles camp, as wide receiver Riley Cooper broke his collarbone and defensive end Jason Babin suffered a calf strain. Zach Berman's Twitter page has the updates this morning from coach Andy Reid, who told reporters out at Lehigh that he figured Cooper is out six weeks and Babin likely one week pending the results of an MRI he hasn't had yet.

Not great, obviously, but there are silver linings to everything. Start with Babin. It's not as though he needs extra reps or to learn the defense. He had 18 sacks in it last year and 12.5 playing for defensive line coach Jim Washburn in Tennessee the year before. As long as the injury isn't serious enough to threaten regular-season games, Babin should be able to get up to speed without any trouble, and in the meantime guys like Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry can get the extra reps they need at the position.

Same deal at wide receiver, where Cooper's absence opens the door for players like Marvin McNutt and Damaris Johnson to get some of his reps. Cooper's status for Week 1 is in question, as he'll need to have surgery Monday to fix the collarbone, and McNutt is the one receiver on the roster who's nearly as big as Cooper. The Eagles don't have much size in their wide receiver corps, so they'd like to see if McNutt can offer something. If the rookies don't look good enough, there will still be time for the Eagles to look over the remaining free agents at wide receiver (guys like Plaxico Burress, Braylon Edwards, etc.), but Reid is saying they have no plans to do that now, and there's no rush.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DeMarcus Ware and Jason BabinGetty Images, US PresswireJason Pierre-Paul, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Babin had 54 of the NFC East's 181 sacks in 2011.

The 2011 season was not the most, well, beastly season in NFC East history. It was the first time in a full, 16-game season that no team in the division won at least 10 games, and for much of the year the talk around the division was that it wasn't what it used to be.

Buncha baloney if you ask me. Even forgetting for a second that an NFC East team won the Super Bowl, this division still does one very important thing better than any other: rush the passer. The NFC East's 181 sacks led all NFL divisions in 2011, and by quite a bit. (The AFC North, which had three playoff teams, was second with 160). The Eagles tied for the league lead with 50. The Giants tied for third with 48. The Cowboys tied for seventh with 42, and the Redskins tied for 10th with 41.

SportsNation

Which team in the NFC East has the best pass rush?

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    47%
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    16%
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    24%
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    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 29,232)

Look deeper, into the film-based, number-crunching stats from Pro Football Focus -- stats that take into account more than just sacks when evaluating the extent to which teams rushed, hassled and affected opposing quarterbacks, and the division still rules. The Eagles rank No. 1 in PFF's 2011 team rankings, the Cowboys No. 3, the Giants No. 6 and the Redskins No. 9. No division prizes this critical aspect of the game more than the NFC East does, and it shows up in the numbers.

So, as we slug our way through a slow news month in the NFC East, I thought it'd be a good idea to check in on the pass rushes of our four teams and see how they're doing -- what they've done to get better or worse, what their 2012 prospects look like from this far out and yes, how they rank against each other. You guys asked for more polls, and I promised I'd listen, so there's one right here for you to vote on. After you finish reading, of course. I'm addressing them in order of how many sacks they got in 2011, in case you're wondering how I decided. Seemed fair.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key contributors: DE Trent Cole, DE Jason Babin, DT Cullen Jenkins. PFF ranked Cole the No. 1 overall 4-3 defensive end in the league last year. Babin ranked 10th overall and third in pass rush, finishing third in the league with 18 sacks. Jenkins ranked as the No. 4 pass-rushing defensive tackle, and Derek Landri was No. 10. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, each of whom is entering his second season in his current position with the Eagles, believe the front four is responsible for the pass rush. And while they got a lot of publicity for how wide they like to line up their defensive ends, they like to get pressure from the defensive tackles as well.

Newcomer: DT Fletcher Cox. The Eagles traded up in the first round to pick Cox because they believed he could be an impact pass-rusher from one of those interior spots right away. They need to toughen up against the run, and that will have to be part of Cox's game. But what appealed to them was his ability to get to the passer. Rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks could conceivably factor in here too, but the Eagles don't ask their linebackers to rush very much in the new scheme.

Stock watch: UP. The addition of Cox, as well as the possible return to full health of Mike Patterson and 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham, give the Eagles incredible depth at a position at which they were already very strong in 2011. It's possible they'll rush the passer even better in 2012.

New York Giants

Key contributors: DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Justin Tuck, DE Osi Umenyiora, DE/LB Mathias Kiwanuka. No one's roster goes as deep as the Giants' does in terms of star-caliber defensive ends. Pierre-Paul was fourth in the league with 16.5 sacks in just his second NFL season. Umenyiora had nine in just nine games. Tuck turned it on at the end and in the playoffs, and Kiwanuka is a defensive end playing linebacker. The Giants believe a strong pass rush is their heritage and their key to being an annual contender.

Newcomer: DT Marvin Austin. The Giants didn't really bring in anyone this offseason who looks like a 2012 pass-rush contributor, but their 2011 second-round pick missed all of last season due to injury, so we'll call him a newcomer. The Giants would like to get more help from inside. Linval Joseph was their best pass-rushing defensive tackle in 2011, according to PFF's rankings. A healthy Austin could be a difference-maker.

Stock watch: DOWN. Not by much, but a little, because of the loss of reliable, underrated reserve DE Dave Tollefson. If Tuck and Umenyiora have injury problems again, or if Umenyiora holds out, they could get kind of thin at defensive end pretty quickly without Tollefson there to fill in this time. Now, this is the Giants, and they'll probably figure it out. The addition of linebacker Keith Rivers could allow them to move Kiwanuka back to end in case of injury. But it's worth pointing out that they did lose a somewhat important piece of the pass rush and didn't replace him.

Dallas Cowboys

Key contributors: LB DeMarcus Ware, LB Anthony Spencer, DE Jason Hatcher, NT Jay Ratliff. There's no one like Ware, who rang up another 19.5 sacks in 2011. That's nearly half the team total, and the conventional wisdom says he needs more help. But PFF ranked Spencer its 11th-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the pass rush and Hatcher as its eighth-best 3-4 pass-rushing defensive end. Add in Ratliff, who can generate pressure up the middle, and the Cowboys look better in this area than we tend to think.

Newcomer: DE Tyrone Crawford. Dallas' third-round pick is looked at by many as a project, but as one that can eventually help with the pass rush whether he ends up as a 3-4 end or standing up as an outside linebacker. Whether he can help in 2012 remains a question, but the Cowboys didn't see a first-round or second-round pass-rusher they liked better than Spencer, so they focused on the secondary instead and picked up some down-the-road guys for the pass rush.

Stock watch: EVEN. They're bringing back basically the same group, and while there's a theory that the improvements at defensive back will help the pass rush by giving it extra time to get sacks, we have yet to see that in action. Spencer must play with more aggressiveness if this unit is to take a step forward into the upper tier with the Eagles and Giants.

Washington Redskins

Key contributors: LB Brian Orakpo, LB Ryan Kerrigan, DE Stephen Bowen. The Redskins' pass rush is all about those young outside linebackers, and they are fearsome. But with only 16.5 sacks between them in 2011, their numbers have a ways to go to get into the big-time stratosphere we're talking about in the NFC East. PFF did rank Orakpo fifth and Kerrigan ninth among pass-rushing 3-4 OLBs in 2011, so they do a lot of things well in that area. Bowen had six sacks and DE Adam Carriker came up with 5.5.

Newcomer: DE Jarvis Jenkins. Just as we did with the Giants, we'll go with a 2011 second-round pick who missed his rookie season due to injury. Jenkins may not be a pass-rusher, but adding him to the defensive line rotation could help free up more room for the linebackers and maybe help the other linemen get to the passer more often as well.

Stock watch: EVEN. This is really all about how much and how quickly Orakpo and especially Kerrigan continue to develop as elite pass-rushers. They've both shown flashes of incredible raw ability, and they have to continue to hone their craft so they can play at the level of the other pass-rushers in their division. Ware, Cole, Pierre-Paul and the rest of these guys are setting a high bar, and the Redskins know they have to have their own pass-rush monsters if they want to hang with them year in and year out.
Keith Millard MPS/Getty ImagesKeith Millard, the Titans' new pass rush coach, collected 58 sacks over his eight-season career.

NASHVILLE -- After 15 minutes on the phone with Keith Millard, I was ready to rush the passer.

The newest addition to Titans coach Mike Munchak’s staff won’t oversee a position but a skill set. And although Millard will spend a lot of time with defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and his group, he’ll also rove and talk nuances of getting to the quarterback with linebackers, safeties and even cornerbacks.

His initial speech will go like this:

“Before you even start, you’ve got to pick a line and you’ve got to stay on that line. And that goes for every position, no matter what you are doing. It’s from wherever you start to the quarterback and that thing can’t vary. You know the old saying the shortest distance between two spots is a straight line? That’s as true in pass rush as there is. You stay on that line, get your blocker off it. Now how you do that is where it gets interesting, where technique and fundamentals come in.”

Tennessee needs to rush the passer better than it did last season, which was its first without Jim Washburn since 1998. The former defensive line coach, now in Philadelphia, pieced together an effective four-man rush most of the time.

After Munchak hired Jerry Gray as defensive coordinator, the team concluded that getting to the quarterback at all costs wasn’t the way to go because the run defense suffered.

In Year 1 of the new regime, the team sacked the quarterback less -- managing just 28 sacks, 31st in sacks per play in the NFL -- and was still just 24th against the run.

Both the personnel and the coaching need to be better.

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
Brett Davis/US PresswireThe Titans brought in former Raider Kamerion Wimbley to boost their pass rush.
Enter Kamerion Wimbley, the former Oakland Raider whom the Titans pounced on when he was released. Enter Millard.

Wimbley should be a boost for the pass rush. He’s worked a lot in his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker but in Tennessee he’ll be a 4-3 end. He can rush the passer well from there, but the team could put his durability to the test if he’s on the field for too many snaps.

Millard’s a big believer in a four-man rush, as the Titans have long been. But if they can’t get to the quality quarterbacks they are scheduled to face in 2012 with just four rushers, they should be better equipped to bring more blitzers than they have been in some time after Millard coaches them up.

“I’m thrilled about Millard,” Titans outside linebacker Gerald McRath said. “For me, I’ve never had someone who took time to teach me pass rush. You can fine tune a skill, and that’s a skill that makes you more valuable to your team. I think that will be great, that you can have someone who can focus on that.”

Munchak and Gray talked about the idea early on after the new staff was assembled. It didn’t come together during the initial staff assembly and the lockout. But then Millard came free after Raheem Morris and the Tampa Bay staff were let go.

Millard played nine seasons as an NFL defensive lineman, primarily with Minnesota. He coached in Denver and Oakland before spending 2011 in Tampa Bay.

Although he’s worked mostly as a defensive line coach, he was a pass rush coach at times with the Broncos and Raiders.

Specialized coaches are increasingly popular in the NFL. Many 3-4 teams have outside linebacker coaches. Some teams have cornerback and safety coaches in their secondary, or a coach who concentrates on the nickel defensive backs.

A coach like Millard qualifies as being outside the box for the Titans. He gets fired up talking about his office, and initially makes it sound big. Then you realize he means big enough to have three or maybe four guys in there at a time to go over pass-rush nuances.

“Not only is he going to be doing D-line, and that’s a good thing, we’re going to be sending him linebackers and safeties and things like that,” said Gray, who played nine seasons as a cover corner. “I’ll be honest and tell you I don’t know anything about blitzing. Beating a running back, I can tell you, but I’ve never felt that. So I really don’t know how it feels.

“He’ll be able to help us, more than saying ‘Hey, I’ve got a clear open spot for you to hit the quarterback.’ The best thing you can do is offer a one-on-one. Now show me how to win the one-on-one. That’s what he’s going to be doing.”

Warren Sapp, who’s widely regarded as an all-time great pass-rushing tackle, raved about Millard’s influence on him to The Tennessean after the Titans made the hire.

[+] EnlargeKeith Millard
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIKeith Millard has had coaching stints with the Broncos, Raiders and Buccaneers.
Gray still emphasizes the need for players to stop the run. Millard and Gray talk about earning the right to pass rush. And nothing does that more than stuffing a run play on first down to help create second- and third-and-long situations.

Millard calls himself a self-taught pass-rusher.

He’s eager to share what he knows, and says it will be a lot more about feet than hands for both blitzers and guys who make a living rushing the passer. For Millard, that second group generally falls into two styles, straight-liners (like Kyle Vanden Bosch or Jason Taylor) and basketball types (like Sapp and Derrick Burgess).

“I think doing it myself from different positions has given me a real edge at teaching the true fundamentals,” Millard said. “Being able to study blockers and find their weaknesses and how to take advantage of them. I’m really about teaching the concept of getting the blocker on your terms and how to do that. It’s not so much a repertoire with your hands as it is your footwork and trying to work a blocker’s weaknesses against him.

“Hands are really just kind of a second nature thing. When you really get down to it, it’s about feet. Getting blockers off balance and using your hands to keep them off balance. Whether you are bull-rushing, whether you are going from one edge to the other and back, it’s really got to be about balance and footwork and your approach -- getting to a point where you own that guy, you know where his weaknesses are and you just continually, constantly, work on those weaknesses. There is a lot that goes into that.”

Millard will spell out for a guy what his body has to do to counter the body trying to block him: flipping hips, making yourself small, understanding what blockers are doing with their hands. Get the guy in your way off balance and keep him off balance.

It seems uncertain just where and how Millard will fit into the regular practice schedule, but he’s certain to work with specific guys before and after practices and outside of regular meeting times.

Those office sessions will be kept small -- he'll rarely work with more than two linebackers or two defensive backs at a time.

If he’s what Munchak and Gray expect, the Titans will do a far better job of getting from Point A to the quarterback and the defense will make big gains.

Millard’s motivated me. I’m heading outside right now to see about making myself small and finding the best way to stay on my straight line.
Today's lesson: When you're trying to keep a pre-draft visit secret, don't have it on the day you hold a news conference to introduce your new left tackle. While at the NovaCare Complex to cover the Demetress Bell newser, Philadelphia Eagles beat writers ran into defensive line coach Jim Washburn and Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe in the hall. Per Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
The Memphis product was spotted walking the NovaCare Complex corridors with Jim Washburn. The defensive line coach started to turn away when he saw a group of reporters, but ended up walking by the group and introducing Poe.

"Y'all know Fletcher Cox," Washburn joked.

Poe and Cox are among the best interior defensive line prospects in this year's draft, and both are realistic possibilities for the Eagles, who hold the 15th selection in the first round of this year's NFL draft. Now, the fact that Poe was in Philly today visiting the Eagles doesn't mean he'll be the pick. Teams can (and generally do) host up to 30 prospects for pre-draft visits, and Poe is a prospect worth the Eagles' time to investigate, whether they take him or not. Just interesting that he's there, is all.
I never believed there was a chance that defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins would not be back with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2012, but as long as that $5 million March roster bonus was hanging out there, I guess the questions about his status weren't completely ridiculous. Anyway, the Eagles and Jenkins have agreed on a restructuring of Jenkins' contract that will allow him to stay in Philadelphia, where his current employer is extremely happy with him.

Jenkins was due a $2.75 million salary in 2012 in addition to the bonus, which would have made his 2012 cap number $7.75 million. Presumably, the restructure gives the Eagles some relief on that. Which is good for them, because they wanted and needed Jenkins back. He's a complete professional, a strong locker room presence for a locker room that needs those. He's a Super Bowl champion on a team full of guys who haven't experienced what it means to be that. He was an anchor for the defensive line in 2011, and his versatility (he can play end in a pinch) plays right into what defensive line coach Jim Washburn likes to do with his personnel up front.

The Eagles and Jenkins were a good match last summer, and the way he played and carried himself during the season made it obvious that it would be greatly beneficial for the team to keep him around. Now, it's certain that the Eagles will.

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