NFL Nation: Kenny Phillips

There's no shortage of poor personnel decisions that led the New York Giants to last year's 7-9 record and their subsequent roster rebuild, but signing safety Antrel Rolle to a five-year, $37 million contract in 2010 was among the better moves in recent franchise history.

We've ranked NFL players -- a top 100 on offense and another on defense -- and we're rolling out the results 20 at a time (10 on offense, 10 on defense) per day. Today brings us players No. 81-90 on either side of the ball, and Rolle checking in at No. 83 on defense offers a chance to reflect on just what he's turned out to be for the Giants.

Rolle is the No. 13-ranked safety and the No. 25-ranked defensive back on this list, but quibbling about whether he should be ranked ahead of Donte Whitner on the former list or Johnathan Joseph on the latter doesn't interest me too much. Rolle's value to the Giants has been diverse and significant, and it rises beyond stats and on-field performance.

Rolle arrived in New York at the age of 27 and chafed under coach Tom Coughlin's rigid, old-school structure. But he grew quickly, and he and Coughlin proved wise enough to realize they could be of great benefit to each other. Over the past three seasons Rolle has developed as a team leader, captain and spokesman, and he handles the role gracefully and naturally. Sure, he says crazy things on the radio sometimes. But these days they're almost always about how great he thinks his team is, and that's a perfectly acceptable method for a leader to try to keep his teammates in a productive frame of mind.

On the field, Rolle has played opposite three different starting safeties the past three years, and all three have flourished. He teamed with Kenny Phillips (who predated and helped mentor him as a Giant) in the Super Bowl season of 2011. Stevie Brown replaced an injured Phillips in 2012 and collected eight interceptions, roaming the post safety position while Rolle played up in the box because he knew how and Brown hadn't learned it yet. Will Hill replaced an injured Brown in 2013 and became one of the best playmaking safeties in the league by season's end before smoking himself out of a job this spring.

Rolle has been a constant in a Giants secondary that's seen its share of ups and downs over the past four years. And last year, largely freed from the nickel corner responsibilities he willingly assumed so often early in his Giants career, he flourished as a playmaker in his own right and earned a Pro Bowl trip to Hawaii. His coaches say he's just coming into his own as a safety, at age 31, because this is the first time since he signed with the Giants that he's been able to focus on the position exclusively. They believe he'll get the best out of his former Cardinals teammate Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, one of their big free-agent cornerback signings, and Rolle has a track record that backs up that belief.

One of the best 100 defensive players in the NFL? Nobody in the Giants' building would disagree. Rolle's as solid an acquisition as any they've made over the past 10 years.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles could wind up settling for a “stopgap” at safety in free agency, general manager Howie Roseman told reporters at the combine in Indianapolis.

Well, that would keep their streak alive. Roseman signed veterans Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips last offseason. They followed in the soft footsteps of Jarrad Page, Marlin Jackson, Sean Jones and all the other stopgap safeties that have passed through Philadelphia in recent years.

It would seem like a good time to try the other way, especially with some very good safeties scheduled to hit free agency. Pro Football Focus published its top-10 free agent safeties Friday. It must be noted that Nate Allen, who started every game for the Eagles in 2013, is not on it at all.

PFF rates Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd ahead of Cleveland’s T.J. Ward. Frankly, I’d lean toward Ward if both players actually get to the market. He seems like the perfect blend of intimidating run stopper and solid pass defender. Byrd has a rep as more of a big play guy, but Ward would immediately be the best Eagles safety since Brian Dawkins left.

Chip Kelly happens to know both Byrd and Ward personally, since they played at Oregon when he was there.

Donte Whitner is third on the PFF list, but it is considered very unlikely Whitner will leave San Francisco. If he hits the market, he would likely be looking for the kind of bank-busting contract the Eagles are reluctant to hand out.

PFF’s No. 4-ranked safety, Miami’s Chris Clemons, personifies the risk/reward of settling for bargain-priced stopgaps. Clemons was available last year. He signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins when no market developed for his services. It is safe to say he would have been a better signing than Chung, who lost his starting job early in the season, or Phillips, who was released during training camp.

If the Eagles do go with the stopgap type, veterans Bernard Pollard and Antoine Bethea could be options. They’re the types who could help develop a rookie taken in the draft -- unfortunately, the Eagles won’t know until May whether such a rookie exists.

Of course, if they’re looking for a stopgap, there’s always Allen.
PHILADELPHIA -- The secondary was already the Philadelphia Eagles' most obvious need area. After watching the NFL postseason, especially the Super Bowl, that need looked even more glaring.

Put another way: The Eagles got by with their secondary in 2013. Elite defenses do better than get by. Their safeties and cornerbacks are impact players.

Let’s look at the more dire safety situation first. We’ll address the cornerback position in a separate post.

Good safeties have been as elusive as unicorns for the Eagles since Brian Dawkins' unfortunate departure five years ago. (Say that out loud: Dawk's been gone for five years.) They have tried nearly everything to fill that void: second-round draft picks, second-day draft picks, midlevel free agents.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Ward
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesIt might be time for the Eagles to pursue a starting safety in free agency, like Cleveland's T.J. Ward.
As it happens, three of the safeties on the Eagles’ roster are to become unrestricted free agents next month: starter Nate Allen, former starter Kurt Coleman, and special-teamer Colt Anderson.

That should be viewed as an opportunity more than a problem. By doing nothing, the Eagles can start the process of turning over this part of their roster. They can really turn the page if they release Patrick Chung, who lost his starting job twice during the season.

That would leave Earl Wolff, last year’s fifth-round draft pick and the guy who took Chung’s job before getting hurt, and Keelan Johnson as the only two safeties on the roster.

When we said the Eagles have tried nearly everything, it’s because the one thing they haven’t done is sign a top-level free agent. For years, the Eagles rated the safety position fairly low on their list of priorities. Dawkins was a homegrown superstar who transcended the position, but their emphasis was always on edge pass-rushers and cornerbacks.

General manager Howie Roseman has said the team will avoid splurging on big-ticket signings, and that is a reasonable position. But one reason the team has struggled to resolve the safety problem is its insistence on mediocre, small-ticket free agents. Chung and Kenny Phillips were last year’s additions to a list that includes Sean Jones, Jarrad Page, Marlin Jackson and O.J. Atogwe.

Maybe Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd or Cleveland’s T.J. Ward will demand too much money to be options, but this might be the year the Eagles have to pay full-market price at this most challenging of positions. Miami’s Chris Clemons might be a better value signing.

You could make a case for retaining Allen, who had his best season. Maybe spending more time in Bill Davis’ defense will help Allen continue to grow. But the feeling here is that Allen personifies the concept of just getting by at the safety spot. The Eagles are not going to be a tough, hard-hitting, intimidating defense like Seattle or San Francisco by just getting by.

Sign one starter (Ward, preferably) and at least one veteran who can compete for playing time. Hope Wolff can lock down one starting position with a full offseason and some experience under his belt. Give Johnson a chance to earn a roster spot with special-teams play.

The timing is treacherous. If the Eagles allow Allen, Coleman and Anderson to walk, they will have to move quickly in free agency to fill at least a couple of those spots. They can hang on to Chung as security until they do. But the worst-case scenario is going into the draft in May with a desperate need for safety help.

The Eagles have done that before, and it has not ended well. But then, nothing they’ve done at safety has gone much better.

The next big thing: Eagles

January, 23, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- With the draft so far off this year – May! – the next major item on the Eagles’ to-do list is deciding on a strategy for free agency, which begins March 11.

General manager Howie Roseman has repeatedly said the team will continue to avoid huge free-agent deals in favor of making a number of smaller, less risky investments on the open market. That approach brought Connor Barwin, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Donnie Jones last offseason. It also brought Patrick Chung, James Casey and Kenny Phillips, moves that didn’t hamstring the franchise when performance didn’t equal compensation.

Before getting to March 11, though, the first order of business is deciding how to handle the current Eagles with expiring contracts. That group includes Michael Vick, who wants to explore opportunities to start, wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, and safeties Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson.

The Eagles could have extended any of those contracts before now, so they’re clearly willing to risk losing any or all of those players once the market opens. The best guess here is the team will wait and see if the market convinces Cooper, Maclin and Allen that their best option is to remain in Philadelphia on reasonable contracts. If not, then adios.

There are a handful of veteran players whose contracts could dictate some action. Will the Eagles hang on to players like Williams, Casey, Trent Cole, Brent Celek and Jason Avant?

Once those decisions are made, the Eagles can move on to the next Next Big Thing, signing free agents and preparing for the May (May!) draft.

Midseason look at Eagles' free agents

October, 31, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles signed a handful of free agents last offseason. The departure of one of them, nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, combined with the midway point of the season makes this a good time to see how general manager Howie Roseman fared.

"I think everything is an inexact science," coach Chip Kelly said. "Sometimes you miss on a draft pick. It's just what's available, what have you got to do, you've got to get your roster together. You always analyze at the end of the year. If this guy isn't exactly what we thought he was, why is that, and evaluate the whole process."

For perspective's sake, remember that the Eagles felt burned by free agency after the horrendous "Dream Team" crop -- led by Nnamdi Asomugha -- contributed to a 12-20 record in Andy Reid's final two seasons. And remember that Roseman was trying to stock a fairly empty cupboard on the defensive side of the ball without overpaying a la Asomugha and without a real feel for what coordinator Bill Davis was looking for.

• Safety Kenny Phillips was released in training camp after nagging injuries kept him from staking a claim to a roster spot. It speaks volumes that the former New York Giants' first-round pick, who was coming back from microfracture surgery, hasn't hooked on anywhere else.

Good deal, bad deal: Neither really. Phillips was a low-risk gamble that didn't work out. This one move was not an issue. The issue is the Eagles' inability to find good safeties over the previous four years.

• Sopoaga made a few million dollars because the Eagles had no one who could play the nose as they made the switch to a 3-4 defense. He was a solid veteran presence who, by all accounts, helped coach up the younger linemen on the team. Those linemen made him expendable, and the Eagles traded Sopoaga to New England this week for virtually nothing.

Good deal, bad deal: Bad deal, made worse when the Eagles drafted Bennie Logan in the third round out of LSU. If you're going young, go young. If they needed a vet, they could have hung on to Cullen Jenkins, who signed and is playing well with the Giants.

• Safety Patrick Chung has been a mixed bag. The former Patriots defensive back earned a starting job (against a relatively weak field, to be sure) but injured his shoulder in the third game of the season. Chung tried to come back too soon and has missed a total of four games. Meanwhile, rookie Earl Wolff has given the coaches a reason to believe he's the eventual starter.

Good deal, bad deal: For $3 million? Bad deal. There's no way to anticipate injuries, of course, but Chung hasn't given the Eagles much they couldn't have gotten from Kurt Coleman while Wolff was learning on the job.

• Tight end James Casey was the only significant free agent pickup on the offensive side of the ball. His three-year, $12-million deal made sense when it appeared Roseman was stockpiling versatile weapons for Kelly's offense. After eight games, in which Casey caught 2 passes for 23 yards, and was on the field for just 5 percent of offensive plays, the deal makes much less sense.

Good deal, bad deal: Bad deal, as much for Casey as anyone. You could also say that drafting tight end Zach Ertz in the second round was a mistake after spending so much on Casey. Either way, Roseman expended more capital than was wise on a position Kelly hasn't really utilized.

• Cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams feel like a single entry. After parting ways with Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (the right move, regardless of DRC's play in Denver), Roseman needed somebody who could line up across from opposing wide receivers. He got the fire-and-ice duo of Williams, a mercurial ex-Raven, and Fletcher, a softspoken former Ram. Grading on a curve because of the overall inconsistency of a defense in transition, they have been better than expected. Or maybe competent play at the position just looks so good after two years with those other guys.

Good deals, bad deals: Good deals. Roseman paid more for Williams, who was coming off a Super Bowl title with the Ravens, but got a terrific bargain with Fletcher.

• Outside linebacker Connor Barwin was an intriguing signing. He had a huge 2011 season, with 11.5 sacks for the Houston Texans. He had only three in 2012, though, purportedly because he was used differently by coordinator Wade Phillips. As with Sopoaga, the Eagles really needed someone with the demonstrated ability to play OLB in the 3-4, and Roseman got Barwin for six years, $36 million. Unlike Sopoaga, they are getting production as well as a bell-cow for younger players to follow.

Good deal, bad deal: Good deal. The money sounds like a lot, but the majority of it ($23 million) comes after the third season and is not guaranteed. Barwin is earning his money.

Giants' defense wants out of its rut

September, 8, 2013
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Shaun Rogers and Cullen JenkinsUSA TODAY SportsThe additions of Shaun Rogers and Cullen Jenkins should help bolster New York's run defense.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The question was about the New York Giants' sparkling 4-0 record at Cowboys Stadium, which is now called AT&T Stadium and is where the Giants will open their regular season Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys. It was a leading question, about a point of Giants pride, and its author was asking it of almost everyone in the room. But the answer from Justin Tuck, captain of the Giants' defense, may have transcended the topic.

"I've never left from Jerry's World feeling good about our performance on defense," Tuck said. "Obviously, you feel good about the win, but we don't like to put the pressure on Eli [Manning] and the offense to have to score 30 points to win a game. I hope they only have to score 10. We have to play a great game."

Such this the state of the Giants' defense at the dawn of the 2013 season. They intend to be great. They believe they can be great. But when you get right down to it ... they haven't really been great for some time. Oh, there are spurts, sure. They were unquestionably great for a six-week stretch from late December 2011 to early February 2012, and that stretch helped deliver the franchise's fourth Super Bowl title. They were great last year in San Francisco, when they dominated the eventual NFC champs in a game that seemed to stamp them as a serious threat to defend their title.

But in the big picture ... not great. The Giants ranked 27th in the 32-team National Football League in total defense in the 2011 regular season. They dropped to 31st last year, when they finished with an identical 9-7 record that this time wasn't good enough to get them into the playoffs. Blame to go around, for sure, but one can't help but think fielding a top-30 defense might have meant the one more win they needed, right?

"It is quite motivating," Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said of that No. 31 ranking from a year ago. "It never goes out of my mind. You never want to be ranked last, or near last, in anything you compete at as a professional. So we are very motivated to erase that number and be a top defense in the league."

It's a long way back to anything resembling the top for these Giants, who as part of the plan to jump as many of those 30 spots as possible are counting on players like Tuck and cornerback Corey Webster to simply play better than they did in 2012. Both players say they're sure they can do it, but August talk is the cheapest talk and we'll start actually finding out tonight. Other parts of the improvement plan, Fewell said, include (a) supplementing the front four's pass rush with increased help from blitzing linebackers and (b) using players with larger backsides.

"We've got bigger butts," Fewell said. "Shaun Rogers is in there. Cullen Jenkins is in there. The butts are a lot bigger, so it looks different."

He laughed, as we all did, but he wasn't really kidding. Adding size at defensive tackle, as they did by bringing in Rogers, Jenkins, Mike Patterson and second-round pick Johnathan Hankins, was part of the Giants' offseason plan to beef up the middle of their defensive line and be tougher against the run.

"It's a huge factor is helping us be a better run defense," Fewell said. "The mass, the size, the strength is noticeably different for us."

All right. We can give him that. Defensive tackle appears to be the one spot at which the Giants clearly upgraded on defense this offseason. But questions remain in the secondary, where Webster is a mystery and Prince Amukamara is still emerging and safety is all kinds of banged up with Kenny Phillips gone and Stevie Brown out for the season with a torn ACL. They have their usual patchwork at linebacker, a position at which the plan appears to be for Fewell to rotate players in and out of the lineup depending on how their individual strengths and weaknesses mesh with the situation. And in the end, it all likely comes down to whether their pass-rushing defensive ends can be dominant, and whether they can be that way every week.

"We know what it's about for us," defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said. "The reason it's frustrating is because one week we can look like the best defense in the league and then the next week, we go out and we don't. If you want to be one of the best defenses in the league, you have to do it week in and week out. And that's what we haven't done."

That's the mission for the Giants' defense as 2013 dawns -- to play back up to its old reputation and keep it there. If it doesn't, then things could start to look a lot different on that side of the ball starting next year. Tuck could be gone. Fewell could be gone. Webster and Antrel Rolle and who knows who else could be gone. The Giants may consider themselves underachievers, but one more year near the bottom of the league would make it hard for anyone else to believe they're not just a bad defensive team.

Observation deck: Eagles-Jaguars

August, 24, 2013
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The Philadelphia Eagles returned to the site of their Super Bowl XXXIX loss for a preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was the ghosts of 2012, not 2004, that haunted their starters in a come-from-behind 31-24 win. Some thoughts:

" The third preseason game had some of the flavor of a regular-season game. The Eagles had better hope that flavor was pure vanilla.

It would take some of the sting out of the Eagles’ ragged offensive play if coach Chip Kelly was holding back most of the good stuff in his playbook. If not, there was some real reason for concern here.

For starters, Michael Vick looked very much like the guy who held the Eagles’ starting-quarterback job the last two years rather than the guy who was competing for it in the first two preseason games. Vick threw two terrible passes off his back foot (well, he was almost on his back the second time) while under pressure. One was intercepted, the other was ruled a sack. That sack came late in the first half when the Eagles needed to take advantage of a long return by Damaris Johnson.

Vick completed 13 of 15 passes for 199 yards while competing with Nick Foles in the first two preseason games. After being named the starter, he completed 15 of 23 for 184 yards, one TD and one INT.

" There was little evidence of the go-go pace that Kelly demands from his offense. The Eagles did not huddle, but there were long delays as plays were signaled in and the players sorted themselves out into the proper alignments. Vick has not really executed that fastbreak offense in this preseason. On the play before that late first-half sack, the ball was snapped with one second left on the play clock. Vick ran around, couldn’t find a receiver and threw the ball away.

" Last year, running back Bryce Brown showed amazing quickness to the corner but came down with a bad case of the fumbles. In the third quarter, Brown sped around the right corner, then fumbled the ball through the end zone for a turnover. The fumble killed an opportunity for the Eagles to answer the Jaguars’ long, second half-opening TD drive. Brown ran four yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

" That late TD came at the end of the Eagles’ best sustained drive of the game to that point. Foles was at quarterback for that one. Foles also managed the uptempo, go-ahead scoring drive that began on the Eagles 1 and ended with a Chris Polk TD run.

Foles completed 10 of 11 passes for 112 yards. To be fair, the Jaguars backups were playing defense on both of those drives.

" For the first time, the offensive line was complete. Left tackle Jason Peters took the field for the first time since the end of the 2011 season. For the first time, however, the line looked confused and unable to figure out its assignments. Early on, especially, Vick seldom had a clean pocket and resorted to running for his life. That has been a bad combination over the past few years, with Vick turning the ball over or getting hurt with great frequency.

" The Eagles defense had some great moments. Connor Barwin batted a pass in the air and caught it as he landed on his back. That gave the offense great field position, which Vick took advantage of for the first team’s only touchdown. Barwin, Trent Cole, Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry and Mychal Kendricks all disrupted the Jaguars offense at different times.

" The Eagles defense had some very 2012 moments. Chad Henne carved the Birds up on Jacksonville’s first possession. It ended with a blown coverage: Henne found Justin Blackmon all alone between safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Bradley Fletcher. It looked like many of the league-high 33 passing TDs allowed by the Eagles last season.

" Jordan Todman’s 63-yard touchdown run was another bad flashback to 2012. Todman ran off left tackle, then cut to his right. Both Eagles safeties, Patrick Chung and rookie Earl Wolff, took terrible angles and were unable to slow him down, let alone hit him. Todman got outside to the right and was gone.

Wolff replaced the mediocre Nate Allen in the first half but did little to stand out in a positive way. Kenny Phillips, the free agent brought in to challenge Allen for the starting job, said he expected to play after dealing with a sore quadriceps. Phillips did not play. Considering Chung’s performance on the Blackmon and Todman TDs, there is real concern about both safety spots.

" Return man Damaris Johnson had an eventful night. He fumbled the ball away on a punt return, then got stopped inside his own 10 on a kickoff return. Later, he broke two long returns, 61 yards on a kickoff and 37 on a punt. The Eagles would love the undersized wideout to provide big-play potential on returns so they can avoid putting DeSean Jackson at risk.
It is no surprise the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback competition was the dominant story of Chip Kelly’s first training camp. The untold story is the lack of other spirited battles for starting jobs, especially on the defense.

New coordinator Bill Davis is expected to start the same 11 players in Jacksonville on Saturday night as he started last week against Carolina. And with the exception of cornerback Cary Williams, who was sidelined with an injury, Davis started the same group against New England on Aug. 9.

“This is a big preseason game for us,” Davis said this week. “In the evaluation process, every game weighs a little heavier than the practices, obviously, because of the speed at which you play, and the tackles and all that. But this is a big preseason game to help us determine who the starters will be and the backups.”

Especially, it turns out, the backups.

Williams and Bradley Fletcher appear to have the starting cornerback jobs sewn up. Brandon Boykin went into camp as the nickel corner, and he’s still there. Neither Brandon Hughes nor Curtis Marsh (who had surgery on a broken bone in his hand this week) seriously challenged the top three.

Nate Allen remains a starter at safety. Injuries have kept veteran Kenny Phillips from taking the job, and fifth-round pick Earl Wolff doesn’t appear ready yet. Patrick Chung has never budged from the top of the depth chart at the other safety spot.

The starting front seven has looked the same throughout the preseason, as well. The good news there is along the line, where Bennie Logan, Vinny Curry and Damion Square have played their way into what could be a solid rotation.

The linebacking situation is another matter. It is a position that has vexed the Eagles nearly as much as safety over the past five years. There is a chance the four starters -- Connor Barwin and Trent Cole on the outside, DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks on the inside -- will be adequate. But the Eagles’ Friday trade of running back Felix Jones for linebacker Adrian Robinson shows how much they need depth and competition there.

Can Phillips make a late push to replace Allen? Can Logan slip ahead of veteran Isaac Sopoaga at the nose tackle spot? Does former first-round pick Brandon Graham need to make some plays in order to show he’s completed the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker?

This game in Jacksonville is the last real chance Davis will get to see his first team in extended live action. It doesn’t help that the Eagles will be facing backup quarterback Chad Henne and a rebuilding Jaguars team. If the Eagles looked better against Cam Newton than Tom Brady, they should look much improved against Henne.
PHILADELPHIA – Only the strong (safety) survived.

That’s been the case so far, as the overhaul of the Eagles’ dreadful 2012 secondary remains incomplete. Strong safety Nate Allen could be the sole survivor.

“Nate's a phenomenal athlete and good football player,” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “Nobody works harder at it than Nate. The first game he struggled a little bit, and second game, he played well.”

Allen, drafted with a pick acquired in the Donovan McNabb trade, figured to be swept out with the rest of the starting defensive backfield. That group gave up a league-high 33 touchdowns, more than two per game, and wasn’t exactly a model of stout run defense.

The starting cornerbacks are gone. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had become symbols of the 2011 “Dream Team” debacle. They were even less effective last season. Asomugha was released. Rodgers-Cromartie walked in free agency.

General manager Howie Roseman signed Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher to replace them.

[+] EnlargeNate Allen
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportThough he hasn't exactly overwhelmed during camp, safety Nate Allen could be close to cementing a place in the Eagles' secondary.
Free safety Kurt Coleman is still in camp, but has been displaced on the depth chart by Patrick Chung. Roseman signed Chung in the same offseason spree that netted Williams, Fletcher and safety Kenny Phillips.

That’s where the overhaul remains incomplete. Injuries have kept Phillips from establishing himself. He missed the second preseason game, against Carolina, with a strained quadriceps. He was riding an exercise bike instead of practicing Wednesday.

Meanwhile, fifth-round pick Earl Wolff has not yet been able to slip into the starting lineup. That leaves Allen, who has been an underwhelming presence, as the No. 1 strong safety for Saturday’s preseason game in Jacksonville, Fla.

“This is a big preseason game for us,” Davis said. “In the evaluation process, every game weighs a little heavier than the practices, obviously, because of the speed at which you play and the tackles and all that. But this is a big preseason game to help us determine who the starters will be and the back ups.”

Davis said Allen and Chung will start for the third week in a row, but he plans to rotate other candidates in with the first team.

“There is still a good competition going on there,” Davis said. “We'll try to get everybody some plays. Probably roll some of the other safeties in the first half. So it's not in stone. We really want to get a good look at all the guys and see where we are at the end of the three preseason games that we play.”

If Phillips isn’t able to play, there won’t be much time left for him to make a run at the starting job. That could leave Allen, thought to be targeted for replacement, as the only secondary survivor from last year’s wreckage.

“I need to have a great game,” Allen said. “No mental errors, just go out there and make plays. That’s the same every day. Even out here in practice, you have to go out and play your game -- no mental errors, nobody getting behind you. Whether I’m running with the ones or the twos or the threes, I’m just going out there and working.”

A look at the Giants' secondary

August, 14, 2013
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This one's by request, after Twitter follower @justinwillfail asked for an analysis of the New York Giants' secondary situation. Yes, of course I take requests. Why wouldn't I? Hope you enjoy it, Justin.

The Giants' secondary was clearly an issue in 2012. Although only two teams in the league had more interceptions than the Giants' 21, no team allowed more yards per pass than the Giants' 8.1. Only five teams allowed a higher opponents' completion percentage than the Giants' 63.9. Only three teams allowed more than the Giants' 60 pass plays of 20 yards or longer. Only one allowed more than their 13 pass plays of 40 yards or longer.

To address their issues on the back end in the offseason, the Giants did ... well, they did very little, actually. They let the chronically injured Kenny Phillips leave via free agency and elevated Stevie Brown, who had eight interceptions last year, to Phillips' starting safety role alongside Antrel Rolle. They return both starting cornerbacks, Corey Webster and Prince Amukamara, as well as promising nickel corner Jayron Hosley. For depth at safety, they brought in former Steeler Ryan Mundy. For depth at corner, they brought back old friend Aaron Ross. And Terrell Thomas is in camp as well, looking good as he attempts his recovery from a third ACL surgery.

If everybody stays healthy and plays to his pedigree (including Thomas, who was a starting corner for the Giants three years ago), there is surprising depth at both positions. Here's a bit of a breakdown of each:

[+] EnlargeCorey Webster
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsThe Giants are expecting cornerback Corey Webster to have a bounce-back season.
Cornerback: Webster had a big year in 2011, and the Giants won the NFC East and the Super Bowl. Webster struggled badly in 2012 (Pro Football Focus ranked him 111th in coverage out of the 113 cornerbacks who played at least 25 percent of their teams' snaps) and the Giants missed the playoffs. While it bears mentioning that they had the same 9-7 regular-season record in both of those seasons, the point is that a big play here or there can be enough to swing your season the right or wrong way. Had Webster been burned less, perhaps the Giants win a 10th or 11th game and get into the playoffs for a second straight year. Webster had to take a pay cut in order to stay, and the team does not believe he's washed up at age 31.

"We expect Corey to have a bounce-back year," GM Jerry Reese said during a recent training camp practice.

But the guy about whom Reese really raved was Amukamara, who was the team's best corner in 2012 and has looked strong in camp this year. The 2011 first-round pick struggled with injuries in his first two seasons but is healthy now and has big plans for the way in which he's used going forward.

"I just want the coaches to either let me and Corey just play right/left, or 'OK, Prince, you go in and get that assignment to shadow this receiver or whatever,'" Amukamara said. "I think when you get that assignment, it just shows that the coaches trust you enough to be on that island, quote/unquote, with that receiver. I'm just trying to build that trust in them. I know they're confident in Corey, but just that they're confident enough in me that they would say, 'Prince and Corey, you guys can just play right/left regardless of where the receivers line up.'"

Amukamara wants to be good enough to be considered a No. 1 cornerback, and he believes the best-case scenario for the Giants would be that he and Webster could both be trusted to be that. Amukamara's trajectory is encouraging, but much depends on Webster's ability to play the way he did in 2011.

Hosley is a physical second-year corner whom they like in the slot. Ross was a disappointment in Jacksonville last year, and if they needed him to start as they did in 2011 there would likely be some drop-off, but the Giants believe there are certain packages in which he can help them. He's good in blitz packages, and not bad in run support, so there's likely a role of some sort for Ross. Thomas is the wild card, because they can't possibly know whether he'll actually make it back from his latest knee surgery. So far, so good on that, but there's no way to know whether he'll be able to contribute, or at what position if he is. Reese spoke early in the offseason about possibly using him at safety. Speaking of which...

Safety: The key player is Rolle, who's entering his fourth year with the Giants and is the only safety they have with significant experience playing the dual roles the Giants need their safeties to play in this defense. Last season, after Phillips went down, Brown played the post safety position almost exclusively while Rolle moved up and played in the box. But the defense works best when the two safeties can switch off, as Rolle and Phillips did so well before Phillips' knee problems started keeping him off the field. Rolle said Brown has been working in camp to develop into a better-rounded safety who can handle all of the responsibilities required of him.

"We already know that he's a ballhawk and he can go get the ball and do something with it once he gets it," Rolle said. "Now he's showing us that he can play in the box and definitely be a versatile safety."

The ankle injury Rolle suffered in practice Monday is alarming because it would be nearly impossible for the Giants to replace him. No other safety on their roster approaches him in terms of experience or leadership ability. But even in terms of bodies, they're a bit light here. Mundy is a serviceable player with some NFL experience, but he struggles in run support. Will Hill is suspended for the first four games of the season. Tyler Sash hasn't shown much, and Cooper Taylor is a rookie whose long-term position isn't even clear.

The Giants need Brown to develop, Amukamara to stay healthy and Webster to rediscover his 2011 magic. But the most important thing they need in the secondary is a healthy Rolle organizing it all on the back end. And quite frankly, the Giants believe that whatever problems they had in the secondary last year can be fixed by improving further up toward the line.

"We've got some talent back there, and it has to jell, but it really doesn't matter what the secondary does if we don't rush the passer," Reese said. "We've got to rush the passer better."

That's an organizational philosophy, right there. The Giants' 2012 sack total of 33 was unacceptably low. If it comes back up into the high 40s, the secondary's going to have a much better chance to look good this time around.
New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle was carted off the practice field Monday with a sprained right ankle, and the team isn't sure yet how much time he'll have to miss. It almost goes without saying that the Giants' secondary could ill afford to be without one of its starting safeties for regular-season games, but in the case of Rolle I think the potential trouble goes deeper than that.

With the chronically injured Kenny Phillips now in Philadelphia, the Giants are counting on Rolle to be the leader of the secondary this year. He's been a versatile veteran for them, willingly moving around the field to play some nickel cornerback two years ago when they had injuries and playing up in the box last year while Stevie Brown racked up interceptions in the post. And Rolle has been a unique but effective locker-room voice at some critical times. But his role is supposed to expand this year as he's now clearly the elder statesman of that secondary, and his experience and knowledge of so many facets of the Giants' defense keeps this from being as simple as just designating Ryan Mundy as the "next man up." Will Hill's four-game drug suspension also compounds things and leaves the Giants thinner at safety. There's been some talk about cornerback Terrell Thomas switching to safety, but the Giants first have to find out whether Thomas can play at all as he works his way back from a third major knee reconstruction.

So the Giants will hope for good news on Rolle's ankle. If he has to miss much preseason time, that will hurt the defense's development because he and Brown are learning to work off of each other and switch responsibilities the way Rolle and Phillips used to. But the Giants would happily trade in some preparation time if it means Rolle is healthy and ready to go for Week 1.
We have an Insider piece from Gary HortonInsider on the Giants' secondary and whether we can expect it to improve in 2013 over its disappointing 2012 performance. Gary's not the only one who thinks this way, but his chief concern about the Giants' secondary is the ability of the pass rush to rebound from its 33-sack season:
Jason Pierre-Paul must develop more counter moves and not just rely on his natural ability in order to build back up from the 6.5 sacks he recorded last season. Hybrid OLB/DE Mathias Kiwanuka probably will play a lot more snaps with his hand in the dirt, and both his edge rush quickness and athletic ability are excellent. This gives the Giants a potentially good three-man rotation at DE -- along with veteran Justin Tuck -- but there is no margin for error.

We know the Giants love their "NASCAR" package -- where they line up four athletic pass-rushers to get good blocking matchups -- but where is that fourth DE that they need to run it? For the first time in recent memory there are concerns about this unit.

When you talk to people around the Giants about the defense, and even about the secondary, they bring it back to the pass rush as well. The Giants' defensive schemes all rest on the ability to generate quarterback pressure with the front four and drop seven players into coverage. As Gary details, there's good depth at the cornerback spot, and newcomer Ryan Mundy could well fill the third safety role when the Giants go to "big nickel." If Terrell Thomas can recover from his latest knee surgery and stay healthy, the depth in the secondary only gets better. A healthy Thomas is a starter-quality player in a backup role.

But Thomas is an "if," and there are other questions on the back end, including the starting safety tandem of Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown. Were Brown's eight interceptions last season an anomaly, or is he going to deliver on that playmaking promise again this year? And regardless, are he and Rolle going to be able to switch off as seamlessly as Rolle and Kenny Phillips used to? Brown was almost exclusively the post safety in the Giants' defense in the second half of last season, with Rolle playing mainly up in the box. But they'd prefer to be able to switch off, and they're working in camp to get Brown more comfortable with both roles. No guarantee it'll work, nor is there any that cornerback Corey Webster will get burned less in coverage this season or that Prince Amukamara will take the steps he needs to take in terms of aggressiveness.

So yeah, I'm with Gary. The Giants need Pierre-Paul healthy, Tuck to bounce back and someone from the backup group of pass-rushers (Adrian Tracy? Damontre Moore?) to step forward and fill Osi Umenyiora's shoes in the rotation. Because all of those questions on the back end of the defense are going to feel a lot easier to answer if this is a 48-sack defense than they were last season when it was a 33-sack defense.

Camp Confidential: New York Giants

August, 6, 2013
8/06/13
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The buzzword around the New York Giants the past few years has been "consistency." As in, they need to find ways to be more consistent week-to-week, month-to-month in order to achieve their goal of making the playoffs. When they make the playoffs, the Giants are a threat to win the Super Bowl, as they showed two seasons ago. But in three of the past four seasons, they have failed to qualify for the postseason.

The issue, ironically, is that for all of their in-season inconsistencies, the Giants are actually one of the most consistent teams in the league year-to-year. Their regular-season win totals the past four seasons are 8, 10, 9 and 9. There are teams all over the league that would kill for that kind of consistency -- to stay annually in the division race deep into December and be in position to get themselves into what Giants general manager Jerry Reese calls "the tournament." But for the Giants, it's not good enough.

"I guess we are consistent when you look at it that way. So we need to be better," quarterback Eli Manning said before Giants training camp practice Friday. "We expect to be a team that can get 11 wins, that can get 12 wins in a season. So I think it's really just playing to our potential, is really what we're saying. We've got to avoid the bad games. We should be in every game we play."

There are multiple levels on which to attack the problem. Manning himself says he's working to improve his accuracy, especially insofar as it helps the Giants get back to hitting big plays in the passing game. Around him the offensive line and the receiving corps are working to get and stay healthy and be cohesive. The run game is transitioning to younger players. On the other side of the ball, the Giants hope the pass rush can rebound from a 33-sack season (the Giants' lowest team total in that category since 2009) and return to the dominant form that helped it win the Super Bowl two seasons ago. If that happens, they believe the secondary will play better and a defense that allowed the second-most yards in the NFL last year will necessarily improve its ability to control games and steer away from the annual potholes.

"Since I've been here, we've kind of fallen into that same trap. We've had that midseason letdown," said safety Antrel Rolle, who's entering his fourth season with the Giants. "And I'm not quite sure why that's happened, but we definitely need to break that mind frame and get above the nine, 10 wins, because we're better than that. Our standards are way beyond that."

The Giants are holding training camp this year at their regular-season practice facility, mere yards from the stadium in which the Super Bowl will be played six months from now. The view of hulking MetLife Stadium from their practice fields, along with the Super Bowl countdown clock Reese installed in the locker room, is making sure the Giants keep their very high goals in mind as they prepare for the 2013 season.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDavid Wilson
AP Photo/Seth WenigDavid Wilson will now have the chance to be the lead back in New York's running attack.
1. Who will carry the ball? With mainstay Ahmad Bradshaw off to Indianapolis, the running game is in the hands of 2012 first-round pick David Wilson and Andre Brown, who was the Giants' goal-line back before an injury ended the 2012 season for him. Wilson has everyone excited because of his game-breaking potential, but it's clear that whichever of these guys shows the most as a pass-blocker will get the bulk of the carries.

"You really can't play unless you can protect the quarterback," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "Fortunately, those two young men as well as our other running backs have had the opportunity to look at Ahmad's film and get a better understanding of the complexities of our protection packages. Those two guys are very, very fast and very skilled, and we definitely believe in the balance theory. To play great football, we're going to have to run the ball."

Expect a carry split not unlike what the Giants have shown in years past. But if Wilson shows he can stay on the field for three downs, he could emerge as a star. No Giants back in recent memory has been as explosive a runner as he is.

2. Can they get to the quarterback? The pass rush is in flux as well. Osi Umenyiora is in Atlanta. Jason Pierre-Paul is recovering from back surgery and may not be ready for Week 1. Justin Tuck has 12.5 sacks in his last 32 games. Mathias Kiwanuka is moving back up to the line after a couple of years in the linebacking corps. And they only had 33 sacks last year. The Giants, historically, do not have the kind of success they intend to have without a dominating pass rush.

Tuck says he's rejuvenated after two tough years -- healthier than he's been in any camp since 2010. He's in the final year of his contract, and if he looks like his old self this year, he and the team will benefit dramatically. Toughening up inside at defensive tackle should help as well, and if Pierre-Paul makes a full recovery, this will be a driven unit capable of much bigger things.

3. Last stand for the old guard? "Me worrying about contracts or things that are going to happen in the future doesn't really help me in the present," Tuck said after practice last Friday. "I've never been a player that played the game for money or played for a big contract. If I did, don't you think I'd have been more inclined to play well the last two years and not have to worry about the contract now? I just want to go out there and prove to people that Justin Tuck can do still do his job very well."

Tuck's feelings echo those of teammates David Diehl and Corey Webster. All three are proud Giant champions who took a lot of criticism for their disappointing play in 2012. All three are determined to play better in 2013. All three are likely done in New York next year if they don't. The Giants are placing a big bet on the professional and personal pride of some of their title-team cornerstones. They're all talking tough in August, but it's got to translate into turn-back-the-clock production for the Giants' key veterans.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
AP Photo/Seth WenigEli Manning has plenty of offensive weapons this season and the unit will be capable of putting up a lot of points.
Manning is always the biggest reason for optimism in East Rutherford. Steady, reliable and capable of making every clutch throw there is, the Giants' franchise quarterback is the sun around which their current universe revolves. With Victor Cruz back in the fold after an offseason contract dispute, Rueben Randle looking good as he prepared for his second season, the young legs in the run game, and a new tight end in Brandon Myers who caught 79 passes in Oakland last season, Manning is surrounded by exciting weapons on offense. And if top receiver Hakeem Nicks can shake his latest offseason injury bout and stay healthy all year, this is an offense capable of scoring a lot of points in a hurry.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The one issue on offense -- and it's a big one -- is the blocking. Bradshaw was a great blocking back, and as we've already discussed we don't know what Wilson and Brown can bring as blockers over a full season. Martellus Bennett was a great run-blocking tight end, and that's not a strength of Myers' game. Diehl is proud, determined and worthy of the benefit of the doubt, but he's coming off a bad season. Interior offensive linemen Chris Snee and David Baas have struggled the past few years with injuries. All of the skill-position talent is exciting, but it could be undone if the Giants can't answer some of their big blocking questions.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rolle said that when Kenny Phillips went down with his injury problems last year, he had to play a lot in the box while fellow safety Stevie Brown handled the post safety role. Brown did collect eight interceptions in that role, but the Giants want him to be more versatile now that Phillips is gone and he's a full-time starter. Having a full training camp to work as a starter is helping Brown become the kind of interchangeable safety they need him and Rolle to be. "We already know he's a ballhawk and can go and he can go get the ball and do something with it once he gets it," Rolle said. "Now he's showing us that he can play in the box and definitely be a versatile safety."
  • They don't want to talk about it because they don't want to give away their plans, but the Giants have worked on some different alignments of the defensive front seven this camp. Usually a strict 4-3 team, the Giants have tried some 3-4 looks or some hybrid looks that ask their defensive ends to stand up and either play outside linebacker or at least look as though they might. The idea is to confuse the offense and possibly to be in better position to react to the run-heavy, read-option offenses in Washington and maybe Philadelphia.
  • Third-year cornerback Prince Amukamara is healthy and hoping to build on his solid second season. He said his goal is to play well enough that he's able to stay on one side and Webster on the other side of the field for the whole game, rather than having Webster assigned to the other team's No. 1 receiver regardless of where he lines up. The coaches say that's their goal for their cornerbacks as well, and Amukamara's strong camp is leading them to believe they can play that way.
  • Former Eagle Cullen Jenkins has worked some at defensive end as well as tackle. His experience playing different positions in 3-4 and 4-3 fronts could help the Giants if they plan to be varied and have multiple looks on defense.
  • Randle, the team's second-round pick in 2012, is a big-bodied outside threat who could keep Cruz in the slot where he's at his best. It's still premature to project Randle as Nicks' long-term replacement, but from what I saw he's a guy who knows how to use his size and his leaping ability to out-fight a defensive back for a ball in traffic. His speed becomes more of an asset the further he gets down the field, because of his long strides.
  • The biggest-impact 2013 draft pick could be second-rounder Johnathan Hankins, who looks like a valuable part of the rotation at defensive tackle. Third-rounder Damontre Moore is at least a situational pass-rusher at this point, and it's easy to see the way those playmaking instincts help him get off the ball and into the backfield. First-round pick Justin Pugh isn't running with the first team (and he's actually out right now with a concussion), but they have worked him at tackle and guard and they believe he's going to be a valuable long-term piece for them at some position on the line. Right now, though, he's clearly behind Diehl at right tackle.
  • We've come this far without mentioning linebacker, and I don't have much to report. Between their nickel packages, the three-safety looks they like so much, and the possibility that they might show some 3-4 here and there, it's just not a high-priority spot. Spencer Paysinger is making a push for the starting spot at weakside linebacker, with Keith Rivers on the strong side and Mark Herzlich in the middle at least so far. But I think the linebacker alignment could depend on who shows something on special teams.
PHILADELPHIA -- Chip Kelly sometimes sounds as though he's speaking in fortune cookies. The Philadelphia Eagles' new coach has an array of easily digestible sayings he employs to illustrate his points, whether he's speaking to the media in a news conference, addressing his players in a meeting or just passing them in the hallways. Last week, he trotted out "touchdown, first down, get down" as the progression of possibilities he wants his quarterbacks to go through in their minds on each play and then said "durability is the most important ability" when discussing players' health. He's got a million of them, and they're all designed with a teaching purpose in mind.

"We spend a lot of time as a staff talking about that: 'What's the best way to teach our guys?'" Kelly said after the Eagles' practice Monday. "Because the bottom line is, it means absolutely nothing what we know, because we're not the ones playing. So our job, very simply, is that we need to create an environment where our players have a chance to be successful and then get out of the way and let them go play. And if we can arm them with information so that they can not have to think on the field but react, then we're doing what we're supposed to do."

I asked some Eagles players for their favorite Kelly-isms.

"He always says, 'Take 15,'" left tackle Jason Peters said. "And that means take 15 minutes out of your day to do something positive, whether it's studying your plays, go call a loved one, just take 15 minutes out of your day to do something positive. Whatever you do in that 15 minutes is going to help the teammate across from you or beside you."

"He'll just say, 'The little things,'" guard Evan Mathis said. "It just means doing everything like a professional. Just carry yourself on the field, off the field the same way. Clean up after yourself after you eat. Parking in the right place. Being here on time. The little things. It helps you focus things the right way. How you carry yourself off the field translates to the way you carry yourself on the field. Just get used to forming good habits."

"'Let the world see what you want them to see,'" running back LeSean McCoy said. "Good plays, bad plays, you let the world see that. Same thing off the field. Whatever you may tweet, however you may act in public, that's what the world will see. So always be thinking about what you want the world to see."

The fact that everybody seems to have his favorite speaks to the number of these mini-mantras Kelly employs, but also to one of the central teaching tenets he learned from former NFL coach Tony Dungy when he approached him, before taking this job, about the challenges of coaching professional players as opposed to collegiate ones.

"The one thing Tony told me is that if you can make individual players better, then they're going to listen," Kelly said. "So I think when you're dealing with anybody, no matter what business it is, if people understand that you care about them and you want to help them, then I think they're going to take to it. And these guys understand us and I think we've got a pretty good understanding of them as a staff."

If Kelly's first mission was to get his players to buy in, then he's done well. He's connected with them on a personal level, impressed them with his preparedness and his ideas and installed an atmosphere that appears conducive to the teaching he wants and needs to do.

"I just like his attitude, man," McCoy said. "He's always positive. Good days, bad days, always positive."

Long way to go, obviously, and many more good and bad days ahead once the Eagles get into the grind of the NFL season and try to improve on last year's 4-12 record. But this is training camp, a time of excitement, hope and teaching. And Kelly's got all of that humming so far.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick and Chip Kelly
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsMichael Vick's experience gives him front-runner status to start at QB for Chip Kelly.
1. Who will be the starting quarterback? It appears to be a two-way race between veteran Michael Vick and second-year man Nick Foles with rookie Matt Barkley a long-shot possibility to start at some point if not right away. But it's very wide open, and Kelly isn't planning to make any final evaluations until he sees his candidates play in some preseason games. "A quarterback is like a teabag," he has said more than once, the meaning being that you don't know what's in a teabag until you steep it in water. Since the quarterbacks haven't yet been in an environment that lends itself to reliable conclusions about the way they'll function in game situations, there's no way to know yet who's the best choice.

Vick is the obvious front-runner, based both on experience and 2013 upside. But the fact that he has foot speed and Foles doesn't won't win him the job. He's got to show he can handle the quick decision-making Kelly wants from his quarterback, and that he's willing to give up on a play for the sake of protecting the ball and making it to the next play. Throughout his career, Vick has been a guy who's preferred to extend plays in the hopes of making big ones. If he doesn't show a willingness or ability to change that, he could lose the job to Foles or even Barkley. Don't be surprised if each of those guys starts games for the Eagles this year. They don't appear to have a great solution on the current roster.

2. Replacing Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles' leading receiver in 2012, Maclin went down with a torn ACL in practice Saturday and is almost certain to miss the entire season. The fact that this happened so early in camp gives Kelly time to adjust his offense around Maclin's absence. And although speedy wideout DeSean Jackson should be heavily featured and guys like Jason Avant, Arrelious Benn and Riley Cooper have a chance to contribute more, it's probably better to look to the tight end group and the running back group for solutions here. The Eagles have depth at both of those positions, with players who can contribute as receivers and make the kinds of short-range and medium-range plays that will help speed Kelly's offense along. None of them offers the playmaking versatility or the speed of Maclin, but there are plenty of options here for Kelly, and if Plan B doesn't work out there are lots of potential Plans C, D, E, etc.

3. What will the defense look like? "We're going from a wide nine 4-3 defense to a 3-4," Kelly said. "When do we get to a 3-4? I don't know."

What Kelly means is that, while the ultimate goal is to play a base 3-4, two-gap system on defense, he's not going to force square pegs into round holes right away just because that's what he wants. If the players he has on defense aren't ready to swing all the way to that 3-4, two-gap system, then he's going to stop the transition at some yet-undetermined midpoint and fashion his 2013 defense around their capabilities. And if it doesn't work, then they go out next offseason and find personnel who can better handle what he wants to do.

The question is whether a defense can succeed in the short term while it endures such a transition. Change is worth making for the Eagles on defense, but how quickly the players master the changes required of them will go a long way toward determining whether they're a 2013 contender.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The energy and the enthusiasm in camp are very high, and the players do seem to be buying what Kelly and his staff are selling. That's always going to be a question mark with a new coach, and it could continue to be one if the team starts losing and the attitudes turn sour, but for now everybody seems to be enjoying the novelty.

"Every single thing has been very well thought out, very well researched, and there's a rhyme and reason to everything," Mathis said. "And it definitely matters. It helps you understand and just give it your all. When you can trust the game plan, the road map that you've been given, you can just focus on applying yourself and doing it."

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

[+] EnlargeCary Williams
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsCary Williams will be one of the players trying to improve the Eagles' defense.
On the flip side, there are plenty of these. This is a team that won four games last season, doesn't have a great option at quarterback and is having to learn a dramatically different defense that's asking some players to play new positions. The secondary is different, but there's no way to say for sure that it's better until we see what guys such as Cary Williams, Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips bring to the party. There's a lot of change, and probably more is still necessary before this team is where it wants to be.

"The way we're looking at it is that we're trying to develop into a team like we've had in the past, that can consistently compete," GM Howie Roseman said. "We want to win now, obviously, because in this league you can never say you're going to have a redshirt year. But at the same time we want to build it the right way. We don't want to take shortcuts. In the past we were in a situation where we felt like we were close, so we did some things that you do when you're a team that you think is right on the verge. For us, if we build it the right way, good things will happen."

As is the case with any team that bottoms out at 4-12 and changes coaches, the Eagles have a great deal of work to do. Kelly and his staff are wisely operating according to a long-term plan, and it's entirely possible that this season is a transition or rebuilding year just out of necessity.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Andy Reid's Eagles training camps were well known as some of the hardest-hitting camps in the league. Although the Eagles practiced in pads Sunday and Monday, there was no tackling to the ground and there won't be. Kelly said, "We have four preseason games for that." He doesn't like the risk of his own players injuring their teammates, and he thinks keeping everyone on their feet encourages proper tackling technique. It's new in Philly, but not unheard of. Some teams, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, never do any hitting at all in training camp.
  • One of the defensive keys will be the ability of pass-rushers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, who had been 4-3 defensive ends, to transition to standup 3-4 outside linebacker roles. Cole says he enjoys the extra room he has to rush the passer, and Graham says that pass coverage is "a weakness of mine" and that he has to improve in that area.
  • For a few moments Monday, it appeared Kelly had his running backs on leashes. Turns out, this was a new drill in which one back carries a ball with a string attached to it while another runs behind him holding the other end of the string and trying to pull the ball loose. Obviously, it's a drill designed to improve ball security.
  • The standout player in the secondary, to me, was second-year cornerback Brandon Boykin, who works mainly as the nickel corner but could get more work on the outside if he continues to show well.
  • As much as the Eagles would like former Giants safety Phillips to help, he looks to me like a guy whose knee isn't fully healthy, and of course it may never be.
  • The loss of reserve linebacker Jason Phillips, who tore his ACL during Monday's practice and was placed on injured reserve, could show up more than you'd think. The Eagles signed Phillips because he was a special teams star in Carolina, and his loss is a blow to their coverage units.
Ohm Youngmisuk has this from New York Giants camp on safety Antrel Rolle, who has shown an impressive ability to pick his spots as his own type of leader during his time with the Giants, and understands that he might have to pick more of them this season:
Already considered one of the most respected veterans, Rolle realizes the Giants will be looking to him to help replace the leadership lost in the locker room, with Ahmad Bradshaw, Osi Umenyiora, Michael Boley, Chris Canty, Chase Blackburn and Kenny Phillips all gone.

Rolle
"I understand pretty much what it takes to be a leader a whole lot more this year, for whatever reason," Rolle, entering his fourth season with the Giants, said at the end of minicamp in June. "I think there are natural-born leaders. Some people try to adapt to it. I know I'm a natural-born leader."

I like Rolle as a locker-room guy for the Giants, and I think the fact that he's an unconventionally strong locker-room guy adds to his appeal. The standout moment came of course in the locker room following the loss to the Rex Grossman Redskins that dropped the Giants to 7-7 in 2011. That was the day Rolle made his comment about how guys who had nagging injuries might need to start practicing through them -- a comment that some of the more traditionally acknowledged locker-room leaders later admitted spurred them to action. But in a room filled with proud veterans, Rolle's approach to speaking up and picking his spots as a leader is appreciated, and he's probably right that he'll get (and should take) more opportunities this season.

My questions with Rolle this season are on-field ones -- specifically, what kind of player can he be in the absence of Kenny Phillips. When Phillips couldn't play last season, the answer to that question wasn't a great one for Rolle. He'll have to adjust his game this offseason knowing that Phillips won't be back (since he's with the Eagles now), and it remains to be seen whether the Giants' plans at safety will allow Rolle to settle into one comfortable spot rather than switching off roles with his opposite number as he and Phillips did so well. It's possible they'll just uncomplicate things and that Rolle will thrive, or that he'll step up his game with Phillips gone and lead a secondary that has to play better than it did last season.

What's certain is that this is a big, prove-it year for Rolle, as it is for Justin Tuck and David Diehl and some other championship-tested Giants vets. Rolle's salary-cap number is getting prohibitive, and unless he plays like a star this season, it's going to be tough for the Giants to keep him for 2014.

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