NFL Nation: Zach Ertz

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 NFL Nation's Phil Sheridan examines the three biggest issues facing the Philadelphia Eagles heading into training camp.

Can Nick Foles repeat, even improve on, his 2013 success? A year ago, Foles went into camp trailing Michael Vick in the starting quarterback competition that Vick eventually won. After leading the NFL in passer rating, throwing 27 touchdown passes and two interceptions, Foles has a pretty high bar to clear in his first full season as a starter. It is perfectly reasonable to expect Foles to be further from perfect than he was in 2013. But Foles can do that while still being very productive. If he throws a few more interceptions by taking some risks that also produce more touchdowns or big plays, the Eagles can live with that. Foles could even raise his game to an even higher level. It won't be easy, but with a coach like Chip Kelly, it's not out of the question, either. Foles looked very sharp -- accurate and confident -- during June practices. He seems buoyed, not intimidated or cowed, by being the clear No. 1 QB ahead of Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley. Training camp and the preseason will give everyone a chance to see whether he's making progress or heading toward a major regression. Best guess: Foles will be fine. Not otherworldly, but just fine.

Who will replace DeSean Jackson's production? That became the Eagles' most urgent question after Kelly decided to part ways with the guy who caught 82 passes for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns. Since we have no evidence Kelly is a madman, we have to conclude the coach had reason to believe he could get Jackson's production from other players. Jeremy Maclin was never the big-play guy that Jackson was, but he is a solid receiver who is hugely motivated to prove he can excel after a second ACL tear. Riley Cooper may come back to the pack a bit after his breakout 2013 season, but he also might rise to the occasion after experiencing success. The Eagles' additions are intriguing. Darren Sproles figures to be as versatile and unpredictable under Kelly as he was in New Orleans for Sean Payton. Second-round draft pick Jordan Matthews had people at organized team activities comparing his physique to that of Terrell Owens and could be a star in the future. Meanwhile, tight end Zach Ertz is expected to take that key second-season leap in production and reliability. Would the Eagles have been better with Jackson? Probably. Can they be as successful with strong seasons from Maclin, Sproles, Matthews, Cooper and Ertz? Kelly clearly thinks so.

Did the Eagles do enough to improve their defense? Looked at one way, the answer seems like a big "no." The Eagles didn't go out and sign a star defensive back or draft an elite, quarterback-eating pass-rusher. It would be easier to sell this defense if they had. What the Eagles are counting on is an across-the-board rise in experience and comfort in Bill Davis' defense. That isn't as glittery as marquee free agents or high draft picks, but it may prove to be more reliable than either of those. And there is some foundation for hope. The Eagles' defense really did improve over the course of the 2013 season. It looked a lot better in December than in September, and that is why the Eagles may have more new starters on offense than on defense. The front seven looks like it will be the same as it was at the end of 2013. First-round pick Marcus Smith will play as he proves he's ready, but there is no reason to rush him when Trent Cole is playing as well as he did last season. Malcolm Jenkins is a smart and reliable safety, and that should help the secondary immeasurably. The best guess is the starting cornerbacks return. If not, it will be because Nolan Carroll shows that he is better than one of them.

Overall, the Eagles added a bunch of players who will push last year's starters. If they're better, they'll see the field. If not, it will mean the incumbents have fended off the challenge. Either way, the defense should be better.
PHILADELPHIA -- Jeremy Maclin got up. The moment of hushed concern passed, and everything shifted back to normal in the Philadelphia Eagles' world. The wide receiver walked off the field as practice ended, reporting his knee was fine.

In that moment, though, much was revealed about the state of this team as it begins Chip Kelly's second season as head coach.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Maclin
Matt Rourke/AP PhotoThe Eagles' offense will depend on more players than just wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in 2014.
The immediate reaction: that another injury to Maclin could be devastating because of his perceived status as the replacement for DeSean Jackson in Kelly's scheme. But in reality, that is not the case and it never was. The Eagles will try to replace Jackson's production with Darren Sproles, with draft picks Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, with second-year tight end Zach Ertz, with Arrelious Benn and, yes, with Maclin.

The Eagles won 10 games and the NFC East title last year without Maclin, who tore an ACL during training camp last summer. The former first-round pick has been a solid starter during his tenure here, but he has not had the kind of impact Jackson had. That's why, when the Eagles released Jackson in March, it was fair to worry that they were expecting too much from Maclin. Not only has he not been the big-play guy Jackson was, but Maclin would now be playing on two surgically reconstructed knees.

But here's the other twist. Any attempt to project Maclin's production based on his performance under Andy Reid is a waste of time. Kelly's scheme turned Riley Cooper, a former fifth-round pick, into a valuable asset and favorite target of quarterback Nick Foles. It will be fascinating to see what Kelly can do with Maclin.

"I was really excited about how he would fit into what we do because of what he can do," Kelly said of Maclin. "And then to lose him that early in camp was disappointing. You got a taste of him. But having him out there full speed, running out there right now, he's doing a really good job."

Maclin has good speed, but not Jackson's speed. So one issue is whether Maclin or someone else can provide enough of a deep threat to create space for LeSean McCoy to run the ball and for the other receivers to work underneath the coverage. The addition of Sproles by trade and of Matthews and Huff in the draft should help there.

But even McCoy wonders. He led the NFL in rushing last season. But McCoy said this week that he would have to see how the offense functions now before he could assess the impact of Jackson's departure.

The suspicion is that Kelly has all of this worked out in his busy mind. It is clear the coach made the decision to release Jackson. He wouldn't have done so without a sound plan for his offense to remain effective. And that is the objective. It isn't about replacing exactly what Jackson did, it's about building a balanced, varied attack with the players who are here.

All of those players stopped suddenly when Maclin went down at the end of Monday's practice. But that's because they were concerned for a teammate who is coming off a serious knee injury. They were not concerned about the fate of their offense. That is in too many hands this season.
The Philadelphia Eagles were active in keeping their own players, such as Jeremy Maclin, Jason Kelce and Riley Cooper. They were active in signing free agents, such as safety Malcolm Jenkins, and trading for running back Darren Sproles.

But the biggest move was cutting wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who stayed in the NFC East by signing with the Washington Redskins.

In ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper's Grade A draft, he plays general manager for the Eagles, not Howie Roseman or Chip Kelly. What would Mel do as GM?

Find out here. Insider

Losing Jackson hurts, but how much?

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28

The sad part of the DeSean Jackson mess is this: He was, and still is, a terrific talent. A Chip Kelly offense with Jackson ... and LeSean McCoy ... and a healthy Jeremy Maclin ... and Darren Sproles? That would have entertained one set of fans and scared the heck out of another.

Perhaps defensive coordinators can sleep a little better the night before facing Philadelphia now that the Eagles released Jackson. That is, unless the Eagles prove that life without Jackson is still a difficult one for defenses.

There's no way to sugarcoat the release of a talent such as Jackson. There's no need to get into the off-field aspects of the decision, other than to say it's a shame it came to this. And before the latest story broke on the receiver, prompting his release, some teams already considered him to be a walking red flag.

Still, my focus deals with his on-field performance and what it means for the Eagles. He was a dynamic receiver who helped make this offense dangerous. I don't care what system you run, or who's calling the plays, it's playmakers such as Jackson who can make any playcaller look good.

But the Eagles knew trouble was coming, which is why they were still able to construct an offense that should remain strong. Just as scary? It's hard to take out a guy such as Jackson and think it will just be the same. Quarterback Nick Foles targeted Jackson more than any other receiver last season (70 times) and completed 71.4 percent of those passes to him, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Nobody had more touchdown catches of 30-plus yards since 2008 (Mike Wallace shared the lead with 21).

Jackson was a guy who could open up the rest of the offense with his presence. One play by him could change a game, even if he didn't do a whole lot the rest of the way. The problem for defenses: They never knew which play it would be. Will the Eagles have anyone like that next season? Then again, given the depth of talent, do they need to?

Of course, the Eagles also were dangerous at times last season without Maclin (or Sproles, for that matter). If Maclin returns to form, he can be a dynamic threat. Two years ago he led the Eagles with 69 catches for 857 yards and seven touchdowns, but he's also never had a 1,000-yard season. However, he did have 46 more catches and five more touchdown receptions than Jackson in their time together with the Eagles.

And remember last summer? When Maclin was excited to be part of Kelly's offense because, he said, the previous one only wanted to feature Jackson's position -- and, therefore, Jackson?

"When Marty [Mornhinweg] was here, we tailored it around the flanker position," Maclin told CSN Philly in July. "That's just how it was ... The fact that I was able to personally accomplish what I accomplished, I think as far as the position I was playing, I think that's above what that guy normally does."

But, he said, there was no tailoring to one position in Kelly's offense. Indeed, part of what made their scheme dangerous is the multiple options to defend on a play. Run, by the quarterback or the running back, or pass. Bubble screen or hitting the tight end down the seam. Defenses had to worry about the multiple options available to Foles. Overplay one way and they could hit you the other. So the scheme works well when it has the right talent. And they should still have the right talent with not only Maclin but McCoy, Sproles, receiver Riley Cooper, and tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz.

The Eagles will survive cutting Jackson. Maybe if Sproles remains a threat, as I think he will, and Maclin is healthy and close to the same, then they can continue to flourish. But there's no way to say losing a guy such as Jackson will result in anything but questions. But the Eagles will move on -- and they will still move down the field. That could be wishful thinking on the Eagles' part, but for now, they have the parts to make them believe it will be a reality.
The Philadelphia Eagles need a backup quarterback. Mark Sanchez needs a new place to restart his career.

With ESPN Insider Chris Mortenson reporting Sanchez is expected to sign with the Eagles, it brings together two sides filling a major need.

Nick Foles is without question the Eagles' starter. He threw 27 touchdown passes and had just two interceptions while compiling an 8-2 record in 2013. But with Michael Vick off to the New York Jets and Matt Barkley an unknown, coach Chip Kelly is dipping into the Pac-12 quarterbacks again.

Kelly was Oregon's offensive coordinator when Sanchez played at Southern Cal.

We will now get to see if he can revitalize Sanchez.

Things started so well for Sanchez with the Jets. He helped New York and Rex Ryan to two straight AFC Championship Games, losing to Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, but he never made the next step in his career.

His best statistical year came in 2011, when he threw for 3,474 yards with 26 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, but the Jets lost their final three games and that was the end of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

Tony Sparano did not help Sanchez in 2012. A shoulder injury kept Sanchez out last year.

Provided the shoulder checks out, Sanchez will become the backup to Foles.

Kelly's first order of business is lifting Sanchez's accuracy. He is a 55.1 percent passer for his career. The best he has had in his career is 56.7 percent. In today's NFL with the rules the way they are, quarterbacks must complete about 65 percent to be effective.

With the Eagles, Sanchez would have better tools around him, especially on the offensive line. He could have DeSean Jackson at wide receiver, at least for a minute. He would have Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper to go with Brent Celek and Zach Ertz at tight end. And of course he would have LeSean McCoy.

He would also have Kelly, who has won with different kinds of quarterbacks along his stops at New Hampshire, Oregon and last year with the Eagles.

The Eagles are not the ground-and-pound of the Jets in Sanchez's first two years, but Kelly will run the ball to control the game and his quarterback.

Sanchez would be going to a perfect spot without the pressure to be the Sanch-ise. All he would need to be is a backup, not a savior.

The Philadelphia Eagles have already replaced Jason Avant on the field by re-signing wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper.

It will take more than a couple of pen strokes to replace Avant in the locker room and on the practice field. The 30-year-old Avant, who was released by the Eagles on Tuesday, was the go-to guy for younger players seeking personal advice, the organizer of team Bible studies and the standard-setter for doing extra work after practice.

“There have not been any players who have represented the Philadelphia Eagles with more class and dignity than Jason Avant,” Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement released by the team. “Whether it was in the locker room, on the playing field or in the community, he has always been a true professional, a role model and a winner every step of the way. On behalf of the entire organization, I wish Jason and his wife Stacy and their two daughters nothing but the best as he continues his fine career.”

Coach Chip Kelly marveled after the snow-globe game against Detroit that Avant came to him on the sideline and asked not for more passes to be thrown his way, but for Kelly to run the ball toward Avant’s side.

“Jason is on the sideline asking me, 'Can we run the ball my way?'" Kelly said. "I don't know how many wide receivers in this league are asking to have the ball run their way, but I think that's kind of a testament to the team we have right now."

Avant was also the guy who took young receivers and tight ends over to the JUGS Gun after practice to work on catching passes. Rookie Zach Ertz worked with Avant during the season, and Ertz wound up getting some of the playing time that was going to Avant earlier in the season.

But Kelly has said many times that a big part of leadership is being productive on the field. Avant, who caught at least 50 passes in the previous three seasons, caught just 38 balls for 447 yards and two touchdowns in 2013.

Some of that is because Kelly asked Avant to block, but clearly the Eagles are excited about what Maclin, Cooper and DeSean Jackson can do in the same three-receiver sets Kelly used so often last season.

Avant’s release was an unfortunate part of the business side of football. He was due a $1 million roster bonus on March 15, and seemed to know he would not be getting it.

“This is a business as well,” Avant said back on Jan. 6. “There are contract issues. There are so many moving parts. You want everyone to come back, but it’s just not the truth. That’s just the National Football League. To Eagles fans: I’ve had a ball here, no matter what the outcome is.”

The outcome is known now. It was inevitable, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to like it.

“There’s no question that releasing a player like Jason is one of the toughest parts of the job,” GM Howie Roseman said in the team’s official statement. “It’s a tough day when you have to say goodbye to a player who you have so much respect for. I can’t thank him enough for the leadership, the big plays and the positive impression he made on so many of his teammates.”

PHILADELPHIA -- With their new contracts, Riley Cooper, Jason Kelce and Jason Peters will remain Philadelphia Eagles, but that's not all.

They also officially became Chip Kelly guys. That's important for both the players, in terms of job security, and for the team.

New coaches often want to clear out as much of the roster they inherit and bring in their own players as quickly as possible. Kelly added just one starter, first-round pick Lane Johnson, to the starting lineup he inherited from Andy Reid. All 11 of those offensive starters are now under contract for next season.

Kelly said all season that he was impressed with how quickly the Eagles embraced everything from his X's and O's to his sports science-based conditioning program. The coach is now reciprocating, buying into some of the same key players who bought into him.

Kelce was the easiest call. The center was a sixth-round pick in 2011 who instantly became a vital cog in a very effective offensive line. He had already outplayed his original contract. Rewarding him with $13 million in guaranteed money and with long-term security sends a positive message to the locker room while also ensuring continuity at a vital position.

Cooper was the toughest call. He placed a target on his back last summer by getting caught on video using a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert. The Eagles could have easily released Cooper right away or simply let him walk away as a free agent.

There are plenty of wide receivers who could catch 47 passes for 835 yards, as Cooper did last season. But Cooper established himself as a favorite target of Nick Foles, who in turn established himself as the starting quarterback. Cooper also embraced the run-blocking aspect of the position as Kelly coaches it.

In short, Cooper turned himself into a Kelly guy, and he was rewarded with $8 million in guaranteed money on a five-year deal that could be worth $25 million.

Peters presented a different kind of challenge. He proved in 2013 that he is still, after two tears of the same Achilles tendon, as good a left tackle as there is in the NFL. But he also turned 32 in December.

The five-year contract he signed all but assures that Peters will finish his career with the Eagles. He will be 36 when it expires. That's pretty old for an athletic offensive lineman, but as Peters' agent, Vincent Taylor, put it, if Peters loses a step, he's still ahead of most players.

The Eagles' starting five offensive linemen are all signed through at least 2016. They have control for the foreseeable future of Cooper, Foles, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and Jason Avant. They could bring Jeremy Maclin back, as well, adding to the already considerable stability among offensive personnel.

This is Kelly's offense, and these are now Kelly's guys.
PHILADELPHIA -- When the NFL Network camera caught Chip Kelly watching wide receivers run the 40-yard dash at the combine Sunday, it brought to mind something the Eagles head coach said early this year.

The Eagles were preparing to play the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs, and Kelly was asked about Sean Payton's offense.

“He's obviously got some talent and they're a really, really talented football team, but Sean does a great job of getting his playmakers in matchups that are favorable to him and he does it week in and week out,” Kelly said, before ticking off a list of players' names.

“There's a ton of them,” Kelly said. “That's what Sean and Drew (Brees) have -- a lot of toys.”

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY SportsChip Kelly is eager to add offensive toys from this year's rookie class.
There was just a hint of envy in Kelly's voice. That's what resonated as he and general manager Howie Roseman looked down upon the wideouts, running backs and quarterbacks doing drills in Indianapolis. As good as Kelly's offense was in his first season, it figures to be that much more varied and explosive as the Eagles add new toys for him to play with.

And that is why it wouldn't be shocking for the Eagles to allow both Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper to walk in free agency. If they also part with veteran Jason Avant, who is due $3 million, that could mean huge turnover at a vital position.

At the same time, Roseman has said he is open to bringing both Cooper and Maclin back at the right prices. The Philadelphia Inquirer, citing unnamed sources, reported over the weekend that Maclin was the team's first priority. That report followed a Pro Football Talk report last week that there is expected to be a robust market for Cooper.

Frankly, until March 11, nothing that is leaked out anonymously should be taken too seriously. It would benefit Cooper for someone in his camp to predict that he will draw a lot of interest from other teams. And it would benefit the Eagles to send the message that Cooper is not their No. 1 priority.

Meanwhile, Roseman's on-the-record remarks can be taken at face value -- and there is certainly reason to believe he is open to drafting wide receivers from this talent-rich draft -- and read as coded messages for the agents he will have to negotiate with. The Eagles have “walkaway” numbers for the players they'd like to sign, and it doesn't hurt for agents to know that, and to know Roseman has other attractive options.

While the Eagles are still looking to upgrade the talent on their defense, they remain very likely to draft and sign offensive talent. Kelly went into the 2013 season with almost no additions to the offensive personnel he inherited. Rookies Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz were the only notable exceptions.

Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, Avant and Cooper produced the vast majority of the Eagles' yardage and points in 2013. Kelly has had a full season to learn their talents as well as their limitations. He knows where he had to cut corners while devising his weekly game plans and where a key addition or two could add octane to his schemes.

He may just want some new toys to play with, and the combine is like the world' biggest toy store.
PHILADELPHIA -- Zach Ertz was the living, breathing evidence that Eagles general manager Howie Roseman meant what he said. The Eagles would draft the best player on their board, regardless of their perceived need at a given position.

Going into the 2013 draft, the Eagles desperately needed talent on defense. They already had tight end Brent Celek and had added James Casey in free agency. Nevertheless, with the third pick of the second round, they took Ertz, a tight end from Stanford.

[+] EnlargeZach Ertz
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsEagles rookie tight end Zach Ertz caught 36 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns last season.
There were rumblings the Eagles tried to trade Celek, but nothing came of that. During the preseason, new coach Chip Kelly teased fans (and opposing defensive coordinators) by showing some formations with three tight ends. It was assumed that the selection of Ertz would be more than justified when Kelly unleashed his versatile group of tight ends on the rest of the league.

It didn't really happen that way. The Eagles lined up with three wide receivers and one tight end some 70 percent of the time during the 2013 season. Celek, the guy who was there all along, started 16 of 17 games, including the playoff loss to New Orleans.

With his dedication to blocking as well as his pass-catching skills, Celek was virtually indispensable. He was on the field for 77 percent of the offensive snaps. Celek caught 32 passes, his fewest since becoming the fulltime starter in 2009. But he was as adept at cutting back across the line to take out a defensive end as he was at picking up yards after the catch.

Casey, signed away from Houston for $12 million over three years, played only 14 percent of the offensive snaps and caught only three passes. To his credit, Casey didn't complain and devoted himself to his special teams responsibilities. But his lack of playing time underscored the puzzlement caused by the drafting of yet another tight end in the second round.

This would be the part where we conclude it was a mistake to draft Ertz, but that is not the case. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound rookie made that impossible with his promising performance -- 36 catches for 469 yards and four touchdowns. In a league where athletic tight ends are in vogue, Ertz's basketball-honed ball skills and smart route running give Kelly plenty to work with in the coming years.

If they had it to do over again, the Eagles and Casey probably would have made different decisions in free agency. But there are no regrets about drafting Ertz.

Going into 2014, Celek is still the more complete tight end. Ertz figures to add a little strength in order to improve his blocking. His playing time will grow accordingly.

It will be intriguing to see how Kelly approaches the position in the future. His wide receiver corps could look very different next season. Celek, Ertz and Casey could give him some alternatives to the three-wideout sets Kelly relied on so much in his first season.

The Eagles certainly seem set at the tight end position. It does not appear to be an area they will have to address in either free agency or the draft. But as we learned when they drafted Ertz last April, you never know.
PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles general manager Howie Roseman made a couple of media appearances last week that were worth reviewing for the insight provided into the team’s offseason plans.

At first glance, the most eyebrow-raising aspect might have Roseman’s declaration that the Eagles wouldn’t rule out taking a quarterback with the No. 22 pick in May’s NFL draft.

“If we have a significant gap on who the best player on the board is and the next best player, it’s not really not going to matter the next best position because we don’t know where we’re going to be two, three, four years from now,” Roseman told CSN Philly.

Upon further review, that position isn’t as startling as it first appears. Roseman has said consistently for the past couple years that the Eagles would not draft for need again after picks such as guard Danny Watkins and safety Jaiquawn Jarrett fizzled out. Starting in 2012, the Eagles’ policy has been to stick to their grades and take the best player on their board.

That was the explanation when they took tight end Zach Ertz and quarterback Matt Barkley in last year’s draft.

But it’s one thing to take a second-round tight end after signing James Casey in free agency or picking up a young quarterback prospect in the fourth round. It’s another thing entirely to draft a quarterback in the first round. That changes the temperature in the team’s facility -- for Nick Foles, for Chip Kelly, for everyone involved.

Roseman knows that. I suspect he also knows already there is not likely to be a can’t-pass-up quarterback sitting there when the Eagles draft. Quarterback-hungry teams are apt to overvalue the handful of legitimate prospects and snap them up early. If anything, that should help push a couple of higher-graded players down toward the Eagles.

As long as it’s purely a hypothetical, Roseman is smart to repeat his best-player-on-the-board mantra. It is a message worth sending to every player on the roster. After all, every draft pick represents a threat to somebody’s job.

Earlier in the week, Roseman talked to Reuben Frank on 94.1 WIP-FM. A couple takeaways:
  • While he maintains the stance the Eagles don’t want to splurge on overpriced free agents, Roseman acknowledged the team might have to open its checkbook for a safety. And the main reason is that very same draft philosophy. “Ideally, you don't want to go into the draft with a huge hole, because that puts you more susceptible to forcing things or kind of pushing guys up,” Roseman said in the interview. It just happens because you look at the depth chart and you go, ‘I don't have someone at that position. Who's in the draft?’ “ Three Eagles safeties, including starter Nate Allen, are due to become free agents next month. Another starter, Patrick Chung, could be released after an unimpressive first season with the team. The draft is not expected to provide a lot of depth at the safety position.
  • As far as wide receivers, the Eagles face the opposite of their safety dilemma. They really like their free agents-to-be, Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, but there is a lot of draft depth at that position. “I think it is complicated, because you have guys that you want to have back,” Roseman said on WIP. “Also, what resources are you going to devote to that position with the guys who are already on the roster? And then you look at it in the draft, obviously a very strong position. It's a complicated situation but we've never ruled out bringing both of those guys back.”
PHILADELPHIA -- The NFL scouting combine is about a month away. So Saturday’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., is your last chance to eyeball some of the players the Philadelphia Eagles could select in the draft in May.

Based on a number of sources and a little logic, here are five players to keep an eye on:

Cornerback Stan Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska. As Jimmy Kempski of noted, the Eagles' staff spent a good deal of time chatting with defensive players after the practice sessions this week. Jean-Baptiste, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound converted wide receiver, has the size and the cover skills the Eagles are looking to add to their secondary. Watch Jean-Baptiste with an eye on whether he’s willing to tackle, especially when playing the run.

Safety Deone Bucannon, Washington State. You may have heard the Eagles have had a tough time filling the safety position. The 6-1, 216-pound Bucannon plays with a “nasty edge,” according to Greg Bedard of That’s an element the Eagles have lacked since Brian Dawkins, and is probably a more pressing need than corner right now.

Outside linebacker Trent Murphy, Stanford. Could he be the defensive equivalent of tight end Zach Ertz, the Stanford tight end the Eagles took last year? Chip Kelly definitely remembers those who played well against his Oregon teams. Murphy is 6-6, 261 pounds. The Atlanta Falcons' coaches have him playing defensive end this week, but that should be seen as a testament to Murphy’s versatility. He had 15 sacks as a linebacker during his senior season.

Outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech. Sheil Kapadia over at Eagles 24/7 did a piece about how the 6-3, 252-pound Attaochu might fit in the Eagles’ scheme. Unlike Murphy, Attaochu could be around in the second round if the Eagles go for a defensive back or wide receiver in the first round.

Wide receiver Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt. It is considered a deep draft for big-bodied wide receivers, and it would make perfect sense for the Eagles to grab one in the first round. Texas A&M’s Mike Davis and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin won’t be on the field Saturday. The 6-3, 210-pound Matthews will.
PHILADELPHIA -- There was a time a rookie offensive tackle would be eased into NFL action. He might even start out at guard and gradually move outside as he became more comfortable.

Of course, there was also a time a quarterback might sit for all or most of a season before becoming a starter.

That time, in the ever faster-moving NFL, is gone.

So it should be no surprise that Lane Johnson, the fourth pick in the 2013 draft, played 1,103 of a possible 1,104 offensive snaps for the Philadelphia Eagles in his first season. Johnson was given one down off to catch his breath in the first game against the Giants in October.

It still takes more than a season to evaluate a draft class, but the process is being sped up all the time. Here’s a look at Johnson and the rest of the Eagles’ rookies -- or as first-year coach Chip Kelly puckishly dubbed them, “My favorite draft class for the Philadelphia Eagles.”

First round: Lane Johnson, offensive tackle, Oklahoma. The fourth overall pick, Johnson was one of the three offensive tackles taken at the top of the draft. He arguably had a better overall rookie season than No. 1 pick Eric Fisher (Kansas City) and No. 2 pick Luke Joeckel (Jacksonville).

Perhaps inevitably for a guy who had played quarterback and defensive end before being shifted to the offensive line in college, Johnson had some growing pains. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed seven sacks in the first eight games of the season but just three the rest of the way. He was solid in run blocking, as well.

It’s worth noting, too, that few rookie tackles (if any) are asked to line up split wide and block on bubble screens. Johnson took everything thrown his way with a smile and a shrug. He’s got a chance to be anchored at tackle for this franchise for a decade.

Also on board: Almost everyone.

Good pick or bad pick? Very good pick.

Second round: Zach Ertz, tight end, Stanford. Taking Ertz here, 35th overall, was an expression of GM Howie Roseman’s commitment to taking the top-graded player regardless of need. The Eagles already had signed James Casey in free agency and and had Brent Celek on the roster.

Would they have improved their overall team more by drafting cornerbacks Darius Slay or Johnthan Banks, or linebackers Manti Te’o or Kiko Alonso, or running back Giovani Bernard?

Maybe. But Ertz is going to be making plays in Kelly’s offense for years to come. He’s smart, driven and possesses excellent hands and good size (6-foot-5, 250). Like most young tight ends, he has to improve as a blocker and said he plans to spend time in the weight room in the offseason.

Also on board: Slay, Bernard, Te’o, Geno Smith and Tank Carradine were the next five players drafted. Alonso, who earned defensive rookie of the year consideration, went 11 picks later to Buffalo.

Good pick or bad pick? Good pick.

Third round: Bennie Logan, defensive tackle, LSU. The 6-foot-2, 309-pound Logan’s development allowed the Eagles to trade veteran Isaac Sopoaga at the deadline. Logan started at nose tackle the last eight games, which corresponded with the overall defense’s improvement.

Oddly, Logan had his only two sacks in the first half of the season, when he was playing limited snaps. It remains to be seen if he’s the true anchor/nose tackle of the future, but he has enough versatility to play in different fronts as needed.

Also on the board: Tyrann Mathieu, Mike Glennon, Terrance Williams, Terron Armstead, Keenan Allen.

Good pick or bad pick? Good. Best possible? A few of the guys taken right after Logan look pretty good, too.

Fourth round: Matt Barkley, quarterback, USC. The Eagles traded up to take Barkley at the top of the fourth round. It seemed an odd move at the time -- everyone thought Kelly would prefer more mobile quarterbacks -- and is still easily debatable.

It wouldn’t be fair to read too much into Barkley’s limited playing time. He was pressed into service when Nick Foles and then Michael Vick were injured. Barkley had little practice time to draw upon. He threw four interceptions and zero touchdowns in 49 attempts.

If he’s the No. 2 quarterback here or eventually flipped to another team looking for a potential starter, he was worth the 98th pick in the draft. If he winds up starting here some day, he was a steal.

Also on board: Nico Johnson, Akeem Spence, Ace Sanders, Josh Boyce, Ryan Nassib.

Good pick or bad pick? Curious pick.

Fifth round: Earl Wolff, safety, NC State. By this point in the draft, there’s an element of luck involved. The Eagles desperately needed safety help and took a shot on Wolff with the 136th pick. It was a good shot.

Wolff took the starting job from veteran Patrick Chung early in the season. He had his growing pains, but was starting to settle into the job when he hurt his knee Nov. 10 in Green Bay. Wolff made one brief appearance after that, aggravated the knee and didn’t play again.

Also on board: Jesse Williams, Tharold Simon, Montori Hughes, Stepfan Taylor and Oday Aboushi were the next five players taken.

Good pick or bad pick? Good pick.

Seventh round: Joe Kruger, defensive end , Utah. He spent the season on injured reserve. Should be an interesting guy to watch in training camp.

Seventh round: Jordan Poyer, cornerback, Oregon State. Poyer made the team coming out of camp, but was released when the Eagles needed to clear roster space for a running back in October. Cleveland claimed Poyer off waivers and he finished the season with the Browns.

Seventh round: David King, defensive end, Oklahoma. Released in camp.

Also on board: A bunch of guys.

Good picks or bad picks? Oh, come on.
PHILADELPHIA -- When the Eagles find themselves on the clock for the first round of May's NFL draft, you have to wonder if their board won't be ever so slightly tilted toward the offensive side.

General manager Howie Roseman has said no, that the team's policy is to take the best player on the board regardless of position. And that may well be true, although the selections of tight end Zach Ertz and quarterback Matt Barkley in the 2013 draft support both possibilities -- that they were the highest-graded players, period, or that Chip Kelly will go for offense if it's close.

The logical assumption is that the Eagles need to add defensive talent more urgently than offensive talent. But the job Bill Davis did with square pegs and patchwork additions -- combined with the league's enormous emphasis on offense -- makes you wonder.

With that in mind, here's a look at players who could be on the board for the Eagles at the 22nd pick in the draft. I used the rankings of ESPN's draft experts for guidance -- and you can get more on the Eagles and the rest of the NFC East in this ESPN Insider piece by Steve Muench. All of this will change as the scouting process shifts into high gear, but it's never too early to start speculating.

Big wide receivers: The Eagles will have to make contract decisions about Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin long before the draft but could be in the market for the kind of tall, powerful receiver that has become the industry standard. There could be one or two available when they draft:

Mike Evans, Texas A&M. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore follows Johnny Manziel to the NFL and could climb the rankings quickly. Evans caught 69 passes for 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. And he blocks, too.

Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt. The 6-3, 205-pound senior caught 112 passes for 1,477 yards and seven touchdowns.

Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State. He's the 6-5 sophomore who caught the game-winning touchdown in the BCS national championship game against Auburn. Think he'd make a good red zone target.

Josh Huff, Oregon. He's only 5-11, but we hear going to Oregon adds two inches to everyone in the evaluation process.

Defensive backs: It would be impossible to argue that the Eagles, like almost every other NFL team, could use help here.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama. Let's get the "not the first Eagles pick to make you say ha-ha" jokes out of the way. This 6-1, 210-pound (real name Ha'Sean) is athletic and fluid in coverage and may be the one safety worth taking at No. 22.

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon. ESPN's Todd McShay had this cornerback going to the Eagles in his first mock draft, but the Eagles were in the 19th slot back in mid-December. Still a possibility.

Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State, and Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State: a couple of cornerbacks who could be on the board when the Eagles' turn comes up.

Linebackers: Here's the obligatory line about how the Eagles haven't taken a linebacker in the first round since Jerry Robinson in 1979. But they are now a 3-4 defense, so they are 9 percent more likely to do so. That's just math.

Trent Murphy, Stanford. At 6-6, 261, with four years of playing against Oregon in the Pac-12, this guy sounds like the epitome of a Chip Kelly defensive player. Murphy had 14 sacks as an outside rusher last season.

Vic Beasley, Clemson. A former running back, the 6-3, 235-pound Beasley had 12 sacks last season.

Ryan Shazier, Ohio State. The 6-2, 222-pound Shazier sounds more like a weakside linebacker in a 4-3, but then so does Mychal Kendricks.

Defensive linemen: The Eagles like their young group, which includes high picks from the past two drafts. But getting better up front is always a good idea.

Louis Nix III, Notre Dame. If the Eagles like the 6-3, 340-pound two-gap tackle enough, they could always slide Bennie Logan over to end or rotate them.

Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota. He is 6-6, 311 pounds. Remember, "Big people beat up little people."

Scott Crichton, Oregon State. At 6-3, 260, he seems like a better fit for a 4-3 end spot. The Eagles already have Brandon Graham.

Kony Ealy, Missouri. Intriguing athlete who, at 6-5, 275 could add weight and strength to his frame.

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 11
Preseason Power Ranking: 25

Biggest surprise: Easy. Nick Foles. He started six games as a rookie in 2012, winning one of them and pretty much disappearing amid the debris of a 4-12 season. He seemed like a terrible fit for new coach Chip Kelly's offense, especially in contrast to the mobile Michael Vick. When Vick pulled a hamstring, Foles seized the starting job with epic numbers: 119.2 passer rating (third best all time), 27 touchdowns and two interceptions (best ratio ever). Foles won eight of his 10 starts and led the Eagles to the NFC East championship. Anyone who says they saw Foles' season coming is fibbing.

Biggest disappointment: The outcome of Saturday night's playoff game against New Orleans -- which says something about how thoroughly Kelly changed the culture here. No one expected the Eagles to win their division and reach the playoffs, but once they did, plenty of people expected them to win the first-round home game. But LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, didn't have his best game, and the Saints caught the Eagles off guard by running the ball so much themselves. The Eagles appeared capable of beating almost anyone, including the Saints, which made the loss hard to swallow.

Biggest need: Defensive difference-makers, especially in the secondary. The cornerbacks were solid and improved steadily by season's end, but a shutdown corner or legitimate playmaking safety would help a lot. A close second would be a pass-rushing threat, preferably from the outside. Trent Cole had a good year making the transition from defensive end to linebacker, but he's not going to play forever. Funny: For the midseason version of this, I listed quarterback as the biggest need. That's how shocking Foles' performance was.

Team MVP: LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing and in total yards from scrimmage, setting Eagles franchise records in both categories. No one could argue with you if you named McCoy MVP of the team, or even of the NFC. But McCoy was the running back when the Eagles were 3-5 at the midway point. It wasn't until Foles took over the starting quarterback spot that the Eagles began winning games. That seems like the very definition of "most valuable." Nevertheless, the Eagles' first NFL rushing title since Steve Van Buren probably earns McCoy the team MVP award.


PHILADELPHIA -- Nick Foles had the floor and he delivered the message he wanted to send.

Foles’ Philadelphia Eagles had just lost a playoff game to the New Orleans Saints on a last-second field goal. A season of promise and discovery was over. Players stood at their lockers trying to explain what happened to knots of reporters with notebooks and recorders and minicams.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
AP Photo/Matt RourkeDespite the loss in the playoffs, Nick Foles established himself as the Eagles' franchise quarterback.
Except for coach Chip Kelly, Foles was the only man who addressed the media from the podium in the interview room. He was upset. He was disappointed. But he was, as ever, thinking like a quarterback: What does the team need to hear from its leader right now?

“That was tough,” Foles said, “but I felt like we kept fighting throughout the game. I was proud of the team and all the guys in that locker room. They continued to fight ... on all sides of the ball. That’s what this team is about. We’re going to fight until the end.”

It was the kind of message a franchise quarterback takes care to deliver. And if anything became clear during the Eagles’ 2013 season, it is that Foles is the franchise quarterback now.

“I don’t want to comment on any player,” Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said, “but how can you not be impressed with Nick, with everything he has accomplished including tonight? He had no turnovers and led us back from 20-7 [down]. He is incredibly impressive.”

Foles hardly played a perfect game. Neither did the Saints’ Drew Brees, whose two first-half interceptions could have (and probably should have) buried his team. Foles didn’t make any killer mistakes, but he took a sack that pushed kicker Alex Henery to the limit of his range, leading to a missed 48-yard attempt.

“It was a bad decision by me,” Foles said. “I definitely should have thrown it away in that situation. I’m going to make mistakes. I made mistakes tonight, but I’m going to keep playing and keep fighting. You can’t let a mistake like that -- taking a sack or an intentional grounding -- defeat you on the next one.”

Foles did throw two touchdown passes, including a 3-yard pass to tight end Zach Ertz that gave the Eagles a 24-23 lead with just under five minutes to play. As postseason debuts go, it obviously would have been better to pull off the victory. But there was plenty to like and to build upon.

The same can be said for Foles’ entire season. He took the starting job after Michael Vick pulled a hamstring and never relinquished it. He threw 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. The Eagles were 8-2 in the 10 games he started. That kind of winning percentage will produce a lot more playoff appearances for Foles and the Eagles in the future.

Like every quarterback, playoff wins will ultimately define Foles. At 24, he has plenty of time to define himself. In a very real sense, he started doing that with his postgame message.

This is his team and this is how the quarterback responds to a tough loss.

“My guys are depending on me to go out there and make plays,” Foles said. “They’re going to look at me in those situations. I’m going to keep moving forward. That’s what the guys can count on from me. They know I’m going to keep fighting for them.”