Philadelphia Eagles: Fletcher Cox

The Philadelphia Eagles will be in almost perfect position when NFL teams are allowed to open talks with unrestricted free agents Friday.

They are perceived as a team "headed in the right direction," as soon-to-be-free-agent safety Jairus Byrd said on ESPN on Tuesday. And they have enormous flexibility thanks to more than $26 million in salary-cap space, according to ESPN's Roster Management service.

The Eagles didn't have to release wide receiver Jason Avant for cap purposes. That decision was about paying the $1 million roster bonus negotiated into his contract and due on March 15. But with Avant's departure, the Eagles save another $2.5 million on their cap.

General manager Howie Roseman has set low expectations for the team to make a huge splash in free agency. He could be doing that because he simply doesn't see a free agent worth splurging on, because he wants to prevent potential fan disappointment or because he doesn't want to telegraph his real plans to other teams before the market opens.

Three of the more intriguing names disappeared from a potential wish list this week: Miami extended the contract of cornerback Brent Grimes, Washington placed the franchise tag on linebacker Brian Orakpo and Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds signed his transition-tag tender.

The two top safeties, Byrd and Cleveland's T.J. Ward, are expected to hit the market. Roseman has acknowledged his preference to address the safety position in free agency so it isn't a glaring need going into the draft. But he may have his sights set on some of the less expensive players expected to be on the market.

Roseman said last week that his spree of contracts for current Eagles would not limit the Eagles' options in free agency.

"It will affect other things going forward," Roseman said. "We have some flexibility. Obviously, this affects it, the things we've done the past couple of days. But we're going to go out and try to do things that make sense for our football team."

Another thing working in the Eagles' favor is the expansion of the cap this year to $133 million and the expected continuing rise over the next couple of years. That extra cap space comes just as Roseman will have to decide on extensions for players like Nick Foles, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Boykin and Mychal Kendricks.

Foles, especially, gives the Eagles a lot of flexibility. Starting quarterbacks can eat up 12 to 15 percent of a team's salary cap. Foles' 2014 salary of $770,880 accounts for 0.65 percent of the Eagles' cap. That's about as much as backup offensive lineman Allen Barbre.

Eventually, if they're going to be successful, the Eagles will have to pay a quarterback that kind of money. For now, they can build a team and deal with Foles -- or someone else if Foles should stumble -- when the cap increases.

"It's hard to look three years out," Roseman said. "It's hard to know where you're going to be after two full seasons and after two draft classes. We do spend a lot of time on the cap next year. We try to be conservative with what the cap projections are going to be."

Finally, there's this reality: The salary cap is not nearly as onerous as it is made out to be. The Dallas Cowboys were in as tight a situation as any team in the NFL going into the new league year. By reportedly reworking quarterback Tony Romo's contract, converting salary to bonus money, the Cowboys resolved their cap issues.

So there is an escape hatch from cap purgatory. The Cowboys still probably won't have the cap space to be proactive in free agency.

The Eagles will. They are in position to do whatever they want.
PHILADELPHIA -- For anyone who covers an NFL team -- or a team in any professional sport, really -- the report released Friday by NFL investigator Ted Wells on the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin case raises questions.

The 144-page report provides a deeply disturbing look behind the scenes of the Miami Dolphins over the past couple of years. Could that sort of thing be going on with other teams, including the Eagles? Would the media be aware? Are there warning signs we should be looking for?

That got me to thinking about the situation in 2012, when coach Andy Reid released defensive end Jason Babin, then fired defensive line coach Jim Washburn in a surprising turn of events.

Washburn had been brought in to implement his "Wide 9" defensive scheme. Babin had registered 18 sacks and been selected to the Pro Bowl in 2011. For them to be gone in the middle of the next season was very unusual, to say the least.

Afterward, Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly.com reported that Washburn referred to defensive coordinator Juan Castillo as “Juanita” in front of his players. As for Babin, he was a loud and often unpleasant presence when the locker room was open to the media. It wasn’t hard to imagine that he was equally abrasive behind closed doors.

That’s not to say Babin engaged in any of the behavior Incognito is accused of in the new report. But there was no doubt Reid was sending a message when he released the Pro Bowler and fired his position coach. In what turned into a 4-12 season, Reid’s last with the Eagles, he made an example of those two individuals.

It was surprising, because the timing was so unusual. But reporters certainly had a sense that Babin was a strong personality concerned only with amassing sacks and that Washburn had little use for anyone outside of his position group.

Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer Jeff McLane wrote: “Washburn had become a 'cancer' around the team, according to one Eagles source, the situation becoming worse when defensive end Jason Babin was released last week.”

And columnist Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Daily News had this to say about Babin’s release, under the headline “Babin’s exit doesn’t seem like much of a surprise”: “Maybe this was Reid's message: Don't be a jerk. ... Babin's attitude set an uncomfortable tone on a team bursting with impressionable young linemen: Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry. … He was a locker-room lawyer of the worst kind; a me-first, me-last, self-absorbed bully who inexplicably spent an inordinate amount of time shirtless.”

Years ago, when the Eagles practiced and trained at Veterans Stadium, reporters spent considerably more time around the players. It was much easier to get a feel for the dynamics and chemistry of a team. With the building of the NovaCare Complex and its myriad places other than the locker room for players to spend time, all of that became tougher. You simply don’t see the players interact with each other as much anymore. The same is true for other teams.

Considering the peek behind the scenes provided by the Incognito report, that might not be an accident.
PHILADELPHIA -- If the question was whether or not Jerry Azzinaro's approach would work with NFL players, the answer wasn't quite what you might expect.

Sure, Azzinaro had the Eagles defensive linemen he coached hitting the blocking sled every day, working on fundamentals and reinforcing techniques. But if you were looking for veteran NFL linemen to resist, you were looking in the wrong place.

Defensive ends Fletcher Cox (23), Cedric Thornton (25) and nose tackle Bennie Logan (24) aren't much older than the players Azzinarro was coaching at Oregon before Chip Kelly brought him to Philadelphia. Cox, Thornton and Clifton Geathers each had one year of NFL experience. Logan and Damion Square had none.

[+] EnlargePhiladelphia's Jerry Azzinaro
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesEagles defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro had a young group to work with in 2013.
The only veteran, free-agent signing Isaac Sopoaga, was traded away in midseason to make room in the starting lineup for Logan.

Point is, the Eagles have a very young group of defensive linemen who quickly became an asset in their first season in Bill Davis' system. If the truism that players make their biggest improvement between Year 1 and Year 2 holds true, this group should be a real strength in 2014.

Cox, a first-round pick in 2012, took a little time to adjust to the two-gap system Davis and Azzinaro preferred. Simply put, he had to become responsibility for both sides of the offensive lineman in front of him instead of attacking one side or the other. It is a less intuitive way to play, but Cox steadily improved.

Those techniques allowed Thornton, an undrafted free agent, to establish himself as an impact player. Kelly and Davis routinely singled Thornton out as the Eagles' most productive and consistent defensive lineman.

Logan, a third-round pick last year, made Sopoaga expendable and started the rest of the year. Logan doesn't have the massive size associated with the nose tackle -- he goes about 310 pounds -- but is expected to add some bulk in the offseason.

Square, Geathers and Vinny Curry provided depth and played well in various situations.

The youth and potential along the defensive line put the Eagles in an enviable position as they continue to build their defense. If they find a bigger, more physical nose tackle in free agency or the draft, they can move Logan to end or rotate him in on passing downs. They don't have a pressing need for an end, but their rotation system means they can always use more depth and different types of linemen.

Davis sometimes uses a 4-3 look, allowing outside linebackers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham to rush from the more familiar three-point stance. As the Eagles defense evolves, with players selected to fit the system, Davis can be more creative and maximize the potential of his front seven.

Azzinaro is the guy in charge of getting that potential from the linemen. He couldn't have done much better in his first season.
PHILADELPHIA -- Bad drafts don’t happen in a vacuum, and neither do good ones. The Eagles’ 2013 draft class is an example of what it looks like when everything -- scouting, drafting, coaching, development -- works the way it is supposed to.

The Eagles took tackle Lane Johnson with the fourth pick in the draft, tight end Zach Ertz in the second round and defensive tackle Bennie Logan in the third. All three were contributors in their first season and look like very good choices.

[+] EnlargeZach Ertz
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsZach Ertz and the other top picks in the Eagles' 2013 draft class were valuable contributors during their rookie seasons.
But what if they had taken defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who excelled in Carolina, in the first round, then took linebacker Kiko Alonso in the second round and either cornerback Tyrann Mathieu or offensive tackle Terron Armstead in the third?

The point isn’t that, with hindsight, the Eagles should have done that. The point is that there are different ways to assemble the puzzle pieces for a good draft. And the larger point is that a draft class can sink or rise depending on the coaching that it gets.

For a number of reasons, the Eagles under Andy Reid lost that hands-on teaching and development element. Were the 2010 (Brandon Graham, Nate Allen) and 2011 (Danny Watkins, Jaiquawn Jarrett) draft classes really as bad as they looked? Or were all those players undermined by the dysfunction that had crept into the NovaCare Complex – constant change at defensive coordinator, Jim Washburn’s wide 9 defense, Howard Mudd’s idiosyncratic offensive line approach, etc.?

Case in point: If the Eagles had taken safety Earl Thomas or defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul instead of Graham in the 2010 first round, would they be the players they became in Seattle and New York? Or would they have the same lost look on their faces that became common among Eagles defenders in the Juan Castillo era?

The Eagles weren’t alone in ranking Watkins as a first-round pick. Was everyone in the NFL that wrong, or was Mudd precisely the wrong guy to coax the best out of a raw rookie from Western Canada? Maybe a little of both.

Chip Kelly and his coaching staff helped make this 2013 class look good, and there’s proof. Kelly’s staff also made the 2012 class better. Fletcher Cox improved steadily as he made the transition to the 3-4 defensive techniques. Mychal Kendricks grew into a turnover machine. Vinny Curry may not really fit the new system, but he was productive when used as a pass-rusher in defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ defense. Brandon Boykin was a revelation playing nickel cornerback.

You might have heard that Nick Foles had a pretty good year.

Like Reid, Kelly brought in a bunch of smart, energized teachers for his position coaches. Over time, Reid’s group aged and moved on. Kelly’s staff is just about to hit its stride here.

“Now that we've got at least a year of experience, it'll be a little bit different here in the offseason,” Kelly said. “We're all not living in a hotel and spending basically 20 hours a day here because we've got nowhere else to go. There's a lot of differences to it. ... I think we've laid a foundation, but you've got to build something upon that foundation.”

A little later, a look at the 2013 draft class.
 

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 -- It doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, considering Drew Brees is one of the truly elite quarterbacks in the NFL.

“He kind of reminds me of Kyle Orton, but he’s a little shorter,” Eagles outside linebacker Trent Cole said.

For context, it must be remembered that Cole and the Eagles had played against Orton and the Dallas Cowboys just a few days earlier. They couldn’t sack him because of his quick release. Orton threw for 358 yards and two touchdowns on 30-for-46 passing.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDisrupting Drew Brees' timing and preventing him from establishing a rhythm will be a key for the Eagles' defense.
So Cole wasn’t slighting Brees in any way, simply talking about the challenge of getting to a quick-throwing quarterback.

“He’s a rhythm quarterback and he gets the ball out,” Cole said. “The scouting report says they’ve taken more sacks than usual this year. It’s more us going out there and executing and being mistake-free. I think we can win this game.”

The scouting report is correct. Brees was sacked 37 times during the 2013 season, 11 more sacks than he took in any other season with the Saints. Brees was sacked 21 times in eight road games and 16 times at home.

That said, the pass rush can be effective even if it doesn’t result in sacks.

“You would love to get the sack,” linebacker Connor Barwin said. “But you don’t know how the game is going to go. We need to get pressure on him, that’s for sure. We can’t let him sit back there and play 7-on-7, because that’s what he wants to do.”

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said that, despite the lack of sacks in Dallas, he thought the “pass rush has been pretty solid and I think it's a product of some of these turnovers that we're getting. It's not always sacks. I think we have our share of them and we are getting there. Looking at the tape from the other night, the ball coming out that quick, they say, 'Boy, the pass rush just wasn't on.' It's a different time set. It's a different time frame. It's much harder to get to those guys that the ball is out right away.

“And sometimes, if he had held on one more count, we would have had him, and that's why they get rid of it so quick.”

The other half of the equation is coverage. The Saints will have five players running routes much of the time. Brees is terrific at quickly going through his series of options and making a quick decision. That makes disrupting timing and knocking receivers off their routes even more important than simply running with them in coverage. If that first and second read are not precisely where they should be, even Brees has to wait an extra second or two for someone to get open.

“We talked about it as a line,” defensive end Fletcher Cox said. “Keep pressure in his face and try to make him scramble out of the pocket.”

It might also be a good idea to keep their arms up. Cox, Barwin and Cedric Thornton are 6-foot-4. Defensive end Clifton Geathers is 6-8. Brees is generously listed at 6-foot -- which is to say, shorter than Kyle Orton.


The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.


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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

PHILADELPHIA -- Fittingly for the team that won the NFC East title, the Eagles were well represented on ESPN.com’s all-division team. Of the 26 spots, 11 went to Eagles -- including more than half the All-NFC East offense.

Nick Foles edged out Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Foles went 8-2 as a starter, threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions and led the NFL with a passer rating of 119.2.

NFL rushing leader LeSean McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson also made the all-division team. So did three-fifths of the Eagles’ starting offensive line: left tackle Jason Peters, left guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce.

Only McCoy and Peters were named to the Pro Bowl.

Four Eagles defenders made the all-division squad: linebackers Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryans, defensive end Fletcher Cox and cornerback Brandon Boykin. Boykin is unusual in that he isn’t a starter. As the Eagles’ nickel corner, he plays only about half the defensive plays. But he had six interceptions, tied for second most in the NFL. Two of them, including the one off Kyle Orton Sunday night in Dallas, ended opponents’ comeback threats.

Punter Donnie Jones was tops in the division in net average, but his real impact was in having 35 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

A look at Eagles' Pro Bowl chances

December, 26, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA – Selections for the new-look Pro Bowl will be announced Friday night. After sending zero representatives from last year’s 4-12 team, the Eagles have a few worthy candidates.

Running back LeSean McCoy is the most obvious. If the NFL leader in rushing and yards from scrimmage isn’t selected, there’s no point in having the game. McCoy set the Eagles’ record for rushing yards in a game with 217 against Detroit. He needs 37 to pass Wilbert Montgomery’s mark of 1,512 rushing yards in a season.

Quarterback Nick Foles is a tougher case. He has started only nine of the Eagles’ 15 games. The team’s record in those games is 7-2. Foles has thrown 25 touchdown passes and just two interceptions, a remarkable ratio. He leads the NFL in passer rating.

Foles might have had a better chance under the old format. Aside from Drew Brees, the NFC quarterbacks with big numbers have some other issues: Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford are not going to the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers has missed the past six weeks. Tony Romo is injured. Carson Palmer is not exactly a lock.

But this year, players are not being chosen to represent the two conferences. The teams will be selected in a draft in late January. So Foles will also be competing for spots with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Andy Dalton, as well.

Sometimes a player has to establish himself for a season or two before getting Pro Bowl recognition. It feels like that kind of year for Foles.

Wide receiver DeSean Jackson has the rep -- he’s been selected twice -- and the numbers. He isn’t the no-brainer that McCoy is because so many receivers are putting up big numbers this season, but he’s certainly deserving. While Jackson is 14th among NFL wide receivers with 79 catches, his 1,304 yards are eighth most.

With Foles and especially McCoy having such outstanding seasons, the Eagles' offensive line should get some respect. Three players are eminently deserving: left tackle Jason Peters, left guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce.

Peters is a five-time Pro Bowler and has returned from a career-threatening Achilles injury. Those two factors make him the most likely Eagles lineman to be selected.

Mathis is overdue for recognition. Pro Football Focus, which grades every player at every position on every play, has all but anointed Mathis as the best left guard in the game the past couple seasons. He’s smart, tough and durable. It’s his time.

Kelce may be where Mathis was last year. He’s integral to what coach Chip Kelly does on offense.

“He's been huge," Kelly said. “I think everything that we get started on the offensive side of the ball starts with him. He sets the blocking schemes for us. Very, very smart, and a real student of the game. He's really almost the coach on the field for that group, and he takes a little pressure off the quarterback. In some systems, the quarterback is making all those calls, and in our system our center does it, and it's because Jason can handle it, and I think he's been really invaluable to us.”

Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis meant it as a compliment when he said his unit was playing well despite a lack of big stars and Pro Bowlers. But it does seem unlikely the defense will get much play in the All-Star game this season. The most likely candidates – defensive end Fletcher Cox, linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Trent Cole – don’t have stats that catch the eye. And underrated contributors like linebacker Connor Barwin, nickel corner Brandon Boykin and defensive tackle Cedric Thornton are, well, underrated. That makes them long shots by definition.

Punter Donnie Jones has been excellent for the Eagles when they’ve needed him most. His overall numbers -- 21st in average, 11th in net average -- probably will keep him from being selected.
PHILADELPHIA -- It was a common refrain the past few years, when the Eagles' defense just wasn't the dominating force that it used to be: It didn't have a real impact player, one who had opposing offensive coaches reaching for the antacid tablets.

The past few weeks, the Eagles have had one of those players. The twist is that it's Trent Cole, who was here all along.

Cole had two sacks against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. He has five in his past four games after going eight games without one. If it had seemed that Cole, 31, was on the decline, then the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme apparently finished him off.

[+] EnlargeTrent Cole
AP Photo/Michael PerezTrent Cole had two sacks and forced a fumble against the Cardinals.
But those perceptions weren't really supported by the facts. Cole had a career-low three sacks last season, but that had more to do with the decline of the Eagles in Andy Reid's desultory final season than with Cole himself. And while he admittedly struggled with the demands of his new position, Cole's commitment to the change and his innate athleticism have paid off.

"I do think Trent has played at a high level the whole year," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "The sack numbers, to me, we put way too much on that. Sometimes the best rusher, the best pass rush doesn't get the sack. It gets the quarterback moved off the spot, and then a guy that might have had a horrible pass rush gets the sack. When we watch film week in and week out, who is disrupting or moving the quarterback off the spot the most, Trent is one of our leaders. He moves the quarterback off his spot."

Analytic and scouting website Profootballfocus.com named Cole the Eagles' MVP from Sunday's 24-21 win over the Cardinals. He forced a Carson Palmer fumble with a sack on the Cards' first possession. He got to Palmer again late in the game. In between, Cole was virtually unstoppable when he rushed the passer.

Watching the game again, with a focus on Cole, was telling. PFF had Cole with 29 rushes on his 71 snaps. He didn't make many plays in the run game, but that's because the Cardinals constantly ran to their right, away from Cole and defensive end Fletcher Cox.

Davis doesn't ask Cole to drop into coverage too often, but he acquitted himself well there, too. He got beat on a first-down catch by Arizona tight end Rob Housler, but he ran with Larry Fitzgerald on two plays. He set the edge on the run effectively and tied up blockers a couple of times when defensive backs blitzed from his side.

But Cole's game is getting to the quarterback, and he remains a relentless pass-rusher. Davis has been smart enough to adapt his scheme to his players' strengths. By my count, Cole lined up with his hand on the ground as a defensive end (and in two cases, as a defensive tackle) 16 times. Both of his sacks came on plays when his hand was on the ground.

Mixing in a little familiarity with the new stuff is simply good coaching, putting the player ahead of the scheme.

Pro Football Focus credited Cole with a hit and five hurries of Palmer. There were a half-dozen plays where Cole was a half-step from getting to the quarterback when the ball was released. He's getting the hang of this new defense, to say the least.

"I learned the way the 3-4 defense goes, everybody has to be disciplined," Cole said. "Everybody has to do their assignment. One mess-up can cost us the game. I think everybody is playing well together, we're learning each other. I'm getting comfortable, and my pace is speeding up. I'm playing fast."

It shows up on film enough to boost antacid sales in a few NFL cities.

Eagles defense owes a debt to Texans

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
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PHILADELPHIA -- The timing is convenient for Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis. Since the end of the regular season is right after Christmas, he can send his thank-you note to the Houston Texans along with those for the other gifts he receives.

Barwin
Ryans
Without DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin, linebackers who learned their craft in Houston, it's hard to imagine Davis' defense making the progress it has over the past few months.

"The thing that jumps off the film is the effort our guys are playing with," Davis said. "They view themselves as a high-effort defense. We're not a bunch of Pro Bowl names, pretty faces. We're scrapping and keeping people out of the end zone. It's hard work and high effort that's getting it done."

Ryans is the inside linebacker who converts Davis' play calls into proper alignments and assignments. Barwin is the outside linebacker with the skills and versatility to make some of Davis' best schemes possible.

Just as important, the two ex-Texans are a major reason for the defense's change in personality. Gone are team-second guys like Jason Babin and Nnamdi Asomugha. Here are Ryans, Barwin and cornerback Cary Williams.

"We don't have any egos on the defense," said Barwin, who signed with the Eagles as a free agent this year. "It's fun to play with 11 new guys that their goal is to be a good defense and shut teams down. As long as we keep that, we'll be fine."

"It's totally different [this year]," Ryans said. "We have great chemistry, a lot of younger guys. We have fun together, not only here during the day at work, but outside of here. We go eat dinner together. It's really becoming like a brother, you know? You care for that guy on the field and off the field. It's good to have our defense come together in that manner."

Ryans was here last year, too. After being acquired in a trade, he was expected to play middle linebacker and help bring order to the chaos of Andy Reid's final season. But with assistant coaches Juan Castillo and Jim Washburn getting fired in-season, and with the epically poor play of Asomugha and the secondary, it was an impossible task.

It's no wonder Ryans and the rest of the returning defenders were so willing to embrace Davis' scheme. It represented sanity in the asylum.

"He's smart," Barwin said. "He's really smart. He prepares us for the plays the offense is going to run. You understand the schemes and how they're trying to attack you. That really helps you during the game."

Barwin said Davis' defense is more complicated than the 3-4 run by Wade Phillips in Houston. It relies on more communication on the field. That makes the in-season progress even more remarkable, considering it was a new scheme with new starters at seven positions.

And that makes smart, versatile players even more valuable. None of Davis' players are any smarter or more versatile than Ryans and Barwin.

Davis said Barwin "wears a lot of different hats" during a game. He might set the edge on his side of the field against a run play, drop into coverage with a tight end or rush the passer. He made a huge play Sunday against Washington, sacking Robert Griffin III in the red zone and forcing a fumble that was recovered by teammate Fletcher Cox.

As for Ryans, he is an extension of the coaching staff, making sure a young and developing group lines up correctly and goes in the right direction.

"DeMeco is the leader of our defense and he's having an outstanding Pro Bowl year," Davis said. "We couldn't be happier with everything DeMeco is doing for us."

That thank-you note to Houston should be a pleasure for Davis to write.

Midseason Report: Philadelphia Eagles

November, 6, 2013
11/06/13
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PHILADELPHIA -- The curiosity factor about Chip Kelly and the Eagles was off the charts. Would the innovative Oregon coach take the NFL by storm? Would he be another Steve Spurrier or Bobby Petrino, crashing hard at the next level? Somewhere in the middle?

We can safely rule out the first possibility. Kelly has plenty of time to be a successful NFL coach, but you only get one chance to storm the beaches, and Kelly’s moment has passed. After one heart-pounding half on "Monday Night Football" at Washington, the Eagles have been good, bad and mediocre. But a 4-5 record (0-4 at home) is, by definition, not taking the league by storm.

Forgetting the expectations and the hype, and remembering that this was a 4-12 team last year with a muddied quarterback situation, here are the midterm grades for Kelly and his Eagles.

Making sense of Sopoaga trade

October, 29, 2013
10/29/13
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PHILADELPHIA – When Eagles head coach Chip Kelly was asked to name some defensive players who excelled in Sunday’s loss to Dallas, he volunteered three defensive linemen: Fletcher Cox, who is 22; Cedric Thornton, 25, and Clifton Geathers, 25.

Considering the Eagles play a 3-4 defense, that was probably a hint that 32-year-old nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga had become expendable. The Eagles proved that Tuesday, trading Sopoaga and a sixth-round pick in the 2014 to New England for a fifth-round pick.

The compensation – basically a late pick for another late pick -- tells the story. The Eagles effectively dumped Sopoaga, the former San Francisco 49er who signed a three-year contract with a $2.75 million bonus and $1 million salary for 2013. The Patriots will owe Sopoaga $529,000 (nine weeks’ worth) in salary for this year.

Sopoaga was credited with a total of 18 tackles in eight games with the Eagles.

After signing Sopoaga, the Eagles drafted defensive tackle Bennie Logan in the third round of the 2013 draft. Sopoaga played 49 snaps against the Giants Sunday, Logan just 11. Clearly, the Eagles feel Logan and Damion Square, who has been inactive, can give them at least the same production as Sopoaga.

The Eagles have a similar redundancy at tight end. They signed free agent James Casey to a three-year, $12-million deal, which included $3.3 million up front. Then they drafted Zach Ertz in the second round, making Casey an expensive special teams player. Ertz played 27 offensive snaps against the Giants, Casey just seven.

Odds and ends from Eagles' Kelly

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
5:45
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PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles coach Chip Kelly was much more forthcoming about non-quarterback-related issues Monday. Here are some highlights.
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  • Tight end Brent Celek had one catch for 10 yards. Problem? To the contrary.
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    "No,” Kelly said. "I think Brent, again, played an outstanding game. If you watch tape and watch how well he blocked -- specifically, you watch the last drive of the game -- I mean, he was just moving people. I really think he's probably been the most underrated or underappreciated (player).”

    Celek
    Kelly has praised the veteran tight end all along for buying completely into the new coach’s program, from the conditioning approach to the offensive concepts.

    "I know from a coaching standpoint, Brent through six games for us has been fantastic,” Kelly said. "A warrior, just doing everything -- really helping in the blocking game, had some key catches on the screen. He's come up with some really big catches during the season, but I thought Brent played another outstanding football game.”

    Celek’s snaps were down, but Kelly said that was because of the heat in Tampa. The plan going in was to rotate players more frequently to keep them fresh.
  • .
  • The defensive line is beginning to put it together, Kelly said. Cedric Thornton has been consistently effective. On Sunday, Fletcher Cox had his most productive game, knocking down two passes and hurrying quarterback Mike Glennon five times.
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    "I think Fletch really caused a lot of havoc.” Kelly said. "He tied up a lot of blockers and really pushed the pocket really, really well from inside, got a key holding penalty. Up until yesterday, you know, I would say our most productive defensive lineman statistically for us has been Ced, and then Fletch is really starting to come along and Vinny (Curry) can do some things.”
  • .
  • When Nick Foles took a knee to run down the clock at the end of the game, he did so from the shotgun formation.
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    "Well, obviously Tampa Bay is known for trying to attack and disrupt the snap,” Kelly said. "You know, we knew what they did and it's kind of something that coach [Greg] Schiano has done for the two years he's been there. We had discussed it during the week and it was just something, you want to not cause a pile up and try to get out of the game. And if they were going to try that tactic, if we were back in the gun, maybe they wouldn't do it. "

    Schiano created a stir last year when he had his defense go all-out to get to the opposing quarterback on kneel-downs, in violation of NFL custom. A year later, it seems almost quaint to think that was the biggest issue Schiano had to deal with.
  • Upon Further Review: Eagles Week 6

    October, 14, 2013
    10/14/13
    12:30
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    A review of four hot issues from the Philadelphia Eagles’ 31-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

    [+] EnlargeDeMeco Ryans
    AP Photo/Steve NesiusDeMeco Ryans is averaging nearly nine tackles per game and is on pace for a career high in sacks.
    Nick Foles may run the “same offense” as coach Chip Kelly insists. There is no question, though, that Foles plays quarterback differently than Michael Vick. That doesn’t necessarily mean better, but the difference could help sway Kelly in deciding which quarterback to start Sunday against Dallas. According to Pro Football Focus, Foles got the ball out in an average of 2.4 seconds per dropback. That’s nearly two seconds faster than Vick’s average release. Vick makes more plays by buying time with his mobility, and that raises his average. Still, Kelly likes a quick, decisive passer. PFF also looked at Foles’ performance when he was feeling pressure from Tampa Bay’s defense. His passer rating was 106.6, which is excellent.

    The Eagles’ record is a peculiar 3-3. Maybe it says something about Kelly’s team. Maybe it says something about the NFL in 2013. Maybe it’s just a fluke of the schedule, but the Eagles got to .500 in very odd fashion. Their three wins are against teams with a combined record of 1-15. The three teams that beat the Eagles, all from the AFC West, are a combined 14-3. Because they are 2-0 in the NFC East and 3-0 in the NFC, the Eagles could survive a 1-3 start and compete for a playoff berth. They can really help that cause Sunday when they host the Dallas Cowboys, with whom the Eagles are tied for first place in the division.

    Jason Peters was or was not at tight end at times. The Eagles’ Pro Bowl left tackle missed a total of nine offensive plays after hurting his shoulder Sunday. He returned, but played three different positions: left tackle, right tackle and tight end. Sort of. Peters lines up outside rookie tackle Lane Johnson in an unbalanced look Kelly deploys at times. The line can look like this: tight end, guard, center, guard, tackle, tackle/tight end. “It creates some different matchup problems on how they’re going to deploy themselves,” Kelly said. “You’re using Jason as a tight end. Are you going to put a defensive end on him? How are you going to time your blitzes?” While he lines up like a tight end, Peters does not report as an eligible receiver in that alignment.

    The Eagles' defense had its moments. There were some bad moments, to be sure. Allowing Mike Glennon to throw two second-quarter touchdown passes to Vincent Jackson and take a 17-14 lead? That was bad. The 90-yard drive for a field goal after having a chance to pin the rookie quarterback at his own 1-yard line? Also bad. But the Eagles got excellent play from defensive linemen Fletcher Cox (two passes knocked down, five hurries per Pro Football Focus) and Cedric Thornton, who was vital in holding Doug Martin to just 67 rushing yards on 16 carries.

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