Philadelphia Eagles: James Casey

Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman employed a baseball term to describe his team's 2013 approach to free agency. The Eagles tried to have a decent “batting average” by signing “a bunch of guys that aren't high-price guys.”

But batting average is so 1975. It would be more 2014 to look at the equivalent of the Eagles' VORP (that's Value Over Replacement Player for you football-only readers) from last year. That is a better way to analyze if that approach truly is more effective than making one or two pricier, higher risk/reward signings.

The Eagles signed nine free agents in March of last year. We won't count later moves, such as picking up running back Felix Jones -- only moves made in the primary free-agency period.

Four of the nine players were hits: linebacker Connor Barwin, punter Donnie Jones and cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher.

Five of the nine players were outs: strikeouts Kenny Phillips and Jason Phillips, groundout Isaac Sopoaga, popup Patrick Chung and line drive right at the shortstop James Casey.

Four-for-nine is a batting average of .444, which will get you in the Hall of Fame. But that basic metric doesn't tell the whole story.

Getting a good punter shouldn't count for as much as whiffing on a safety, let alone two of them. Williams and Fletcher were good, but not great. It should tell you something that virtually every offseason analysis and mock draft has the Eagles looking to upgrade the cornerback position.

Barwin was better than his stats said he was. His versatility inspired defensive coordinator Bill Davis to use him in different roles -- not all of which resulted in sacks or other easily identified big plays.

Sopoaga was paid $3 million by the Eagles before being traded away at midseason. Chung made $3 million to lose his starting job twice. Casey made $4 million to play special teams. Williams made $5.75 million and Fletcher $3.28 million while Brandon Boykin led the team with six interceptions for $480,000.

So it's not really about a .444 batting average. It's about what kind of value Roseman got for the money he spent, and whether or not it would have been better spent elsewhere. That's not VORP in the baseball sense, but it's an easy way to extend the “batting-average” analogy.

Is it better to drop $10 million on Chung, Sopoaga and Casey than to drop $10 on Jairus Byrd? Is it smarter to spend $9 million on two decent cornerbacks or the same amount on one Pro Bowl-caliber safety?

There may not be one right answer, but the questions are worth asking.
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.”

The next big thing: Eagles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 -- They are the Eagles Chip Kelly is talking about, the veteran leaders who embraced the transition from one coach they respected to a new coach they wanted to believe in.

“I think the makeup of the group of people we had here,” Kelly said, “it didn't go unnoticed to us as coaches that it was a bunch of guys that really wanted to be coached and that really wanted to be better and were very receptive to everything that we were doing as a staff.”

That was toughest for veterans like Trent Cole, who would have to move from defensive end to outside linebacker, and Brent Celek, who watched Kelly bring in tight ends James Casey and Zach Ertz in free agency and the draft.

When players like Cole and Celek buy in, there’s a ripple effect.

“Everything coaches ask of you, I feel like you should do,” Celek said. “They pay you a lot of money around here. Anything they want me to do, I’ll do. I think they appreciate that.”

Celek brought up the issue that complicates these things: money. While Cole, Celek, guard Todd Herremans and wide receiver Jason Avant were all instrumental in the locker room and on the field in Kelly’s first year, all are older players making “a lot of money.”

Most years, that might make them targets for pay cuts or even outright release as a team looks to get younger and more cap-flexible. But there is a case to be made for Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman to hang on to these key elements in the team’s chemistry. Kelly cited that chemistry as the thing that most excited him about the team’s future.

“I think how our staff and our players interact and how receptive these guys are,” Kelly said. “The only thing that's disappointing is we're still not playing right now, because it's an exciting group to be around. There's an energy around this group of guys, and that's hopefully in year one -- if this is what we can do, we can learn to build upon this.”

There is always change, and contracts are always part of that equation. The bottom line is that Celek’s $4 million salary for 2014 seems higher when Ertz figures to get more playing time for his $650,000 -- and so on across the board with Cole ($3.75 million), Herremans ($3 million) and Avant ($2 million).

But here’s the twist: Most teams pay a huge percentage of their salary cap to their starting quarterback. Michael Vick took up more than 10 percent of the Eagles’ 2013 cap. Guys like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees consume closer to 15 percent of their teams’ cap money.

Nick Foles and Matt Barkley combined will take up a little over 1 percent of the 2014 salary cap. Even if the Eagles bring back Vick or another veteran backup, they will be getting a huge bargain at the quarterback position.

That won’t last forever. And it doesn’t mean the Eagles can or should throw money around indiscriminately. But it does mean there is no urgency to shave a few dollars here and there.

Take Avant, for example. He caught 38 passes for 447 yards. Considering the need to pay DeSean Jackson and imminent free agents Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin (or their replacements), that’s not enough production. But Avant’s run blocking and overall performance add value that’s harder to quantify.

“I think the job Jason Avant did down the stretch (was) real underrated,” Kelly said. “I don't think people understand how important Jason was to what we were doing, not only in the passing game but what we were doing in the running game.”

Kelly said similar things about Celek, who “found the joy,” in his words, in run blocking and pass protecting. Cole may be more comfortable as an end somewhere, but he had eight sacks in the second half of the season here. Herremans was an integral part of a very good offensive line.

They may not all be back. Some may be back at a lower salary. But if it was important for the veterans to show they were invested in Kelly’s plan, it’s just as important for the Eagles to show they are invested in their players.

Fourth-quarter calls aided the Eagles

December, 1, 2013
PHILADELPHIA – The officiating is always in the eye of the beholder.

“You win some calls, you lose some calls,” Eagles safety Nate Allen said. “When you win the game, it’s easier to accept the ones you lose.”

Referee Tony Corrente’s crew played a major role in the Eagles’ 24-21 victory over the Arizona Cardinals Sunday. Their work may have been good or it may have been bad, but it looked beautiful when the Eagles beheld it.

“The refs let us play a little bit today,” Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher said. “So I think that is a good thing, especially on our end.”

Fletcher made contact with Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd while breaking up a fourth-down pass from Carson Palmer. Floyd and his teammates wanted a flag, but none was thrown.

It was one of three key fourth-quarter calls that went the Eagles’ way. The first came earlier, when Nick Foles made a rare poor decision and threw the ball while being tackled. It floated into the arms of Cardinals’ cornerback Patrick Peterson.

The interception would have stopped Foles’ streak at 19 touchdowns passes without a pick, one shy of the NFL record. It also would have given the Cardinals the ball in Eagles territory with plenty of time to score a go-ahead touchdown.

Instead, a defensive holding penalty on safety Tyrann Mathieu gave the Eagles a first down.

“The interception call was definitely holding,” said Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant, who was held on the play. “Listen, man, when it comes to pass interference I don’t know the definition of it anymore. I was just hoping, especially when I saw 21 (Peterson) with the ball in his hands. I just started looking around. There was a flag where I had been.”

After Fletcher ended the Cardinals’ last offensive possession, the Eagles had a third down from the Arizona 9. They were trying to run as much time off the clock as possible. Foles rolled to his right, looking for tight end James Casey in the flat.

Foles was taken down, which would have brought up fourth down with 1:42 left on the clock. Instead, Arizona linebacker Matt Shaughnessy was called for holding Casey. From the replay, it looked like Shaughnessy was fighting off a Casey block and got his hand stuck.

“He was blocking down on me,” Shaughnessy said. “I was fighting the pressure, pushing him outside and he tried to release. I threw him down and then I went after the quarterback.”

Ah, the eye of the beholder.

“He held the crap out of him,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “It was a great call. Watch it on film. (Casey) is supposed to run a route into the flat and there was no one else left (to cover him). If they didn’t hold him, he would have been in the flat.”

To their credit, the Cardinals didn’t complain publicly about the calls. They made enough mistakes early in the game to leave themselves at the mercy of the officials later.

“We didn’t make enough plays to win the football game,” Mathieu said.
PHILADELPHIA – The big matchups were obvious: NFL leading rusher LeSean McCoy against the Arizona run defense, big-play receiver DeSean Jackson vs. shutdown cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Ultimately, though, it was the Philadelphia Eagles’ tight ends who made the difference in their 24-21 victory over the Cardinals Sunday.

“We thought they have some really good corners, starting with Peterson,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “So trying to get matched up on some safeties and some linebackers … just thought we had some plays in there to the tight ends.”

It started right away. The Eagles got the ball on the Arizona 25-yard line after Trent Cole stripped Carson Palmer. Nick Foles threw four passes, all to tight ends. The fourth was a 6-yard touchdown to rookie tight end Zach Ertz, who beat rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu to the corner of the end zone.

“Those guys run about three or four plays in one play and you just have to keep to your assignment and don’t let the play fakes and motions confuse you,” Mathieu said.

Ertz and Brent Celek were targeted 12 times, or more than one-third of Foles’ 34 attempts. Ertz caught five balls for 68 yards and two touchdowns. Celek caught four for 29 yards and a touchdown.

In the previous 11 games, the two tight ends combined for 40 catches and four touchdowns.

“We knew it was our opportunity to make plays,” Celek said. “We had to take advantage of it. We knew coming into the game that we had to play well.”

Peterson and the rest of the Arizona secondary held Jackson to three catches for 36 yards. McCoy fared a bit better, rushing for 79 yards on 19 carries, but he was never really the difference-maker in this one. Celek and Ertz were.

“I just felt like we had good matchups with our tight ends against their linebackers,” Foles said. “Their linebackers are very talented, but they’re bigger guys. They are very good at stopping the run. I liked our matchups with our tight ends and I thought they did a great job today.”

Foles has great chemistry with wide receiver Riley Cooper, who caught three passes for 48 yards and drew a pass-interference call in the end zone. If he can build that kind of rapport with Celek, Ertz and James Casey, it would make the Eagles’ offense that much more versatile and dangerous.

“Any time we are running routes or doing anything, we have to be a viable option for him,” Celek said. “We are an integral part of this offense, too.”

“Riley and DeSean have been huge playmakers all year,” Ertz said. “We had to have a big day today to take the pressure off other teams’ game-planning against them.”

Midseason Report: Philadelphia Eagles

November, 6, 2013

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.

Upon Further Review: Eagles Week 9

November, 4, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Philadelphia Eagles' 49-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNick Foles tossed seven touchdowns and 406 yards against the Raiders.
Nick Foles has to play. The main reason is obvious. Coach Chip Kelly says his intention is to try to win every week, and that makes it nigh impossible to bench a quarterback who just threw for seven touchdowns in a game.

But even if Kelly says he's not thinking beyond this season, he still has to know what he has in Foles. The 23-year-old has started only nine games. He had two bad games mixed in among his six starts last year. This year, he followed a very good start in Tampa with a disaster against Dallas, then produced his epic performance in Oakland.

A winning team needs consistent quarterback play. Foles can't be expected to duplicate what he did Sunday, but the Eagles have to know whether that Dallas game was a one-time aberration or part of a pattern of up-and-down performances.

Foles is not a statue. He has always suffered from the inevitable comparison to Michael Vick, one of the most mobile quarterbacks of all time, but Foles can move around a little bit. On two of his touchdown throws Sunday, Foles rolled out to his right -- once by design and once, Foles said, in an “ad lib.” He had three runs for 14 yards.

“Nick's a good athlete,” Kelly said. “He's not a blazer. We all understand that, but I think he really moves around, he keeps things alive. That's what he did today.”

The tight ends finally appeared. When the Eagles added free agent James Casey and second-round pick Zach Ertz to a roster that already had Brent Celek, the expectation was that Kelly would find all kinds of ways to deploy his tight ends. That really hadn't happened until Sunday.

Ertz was targeted six times, Celek four times. Ertz had five catches for 42 yards and his first career touchdown. Celek caught three balls for 27 yards and a touchdown.

“It's a matchup thing,” Kelly said. “It's something we hoped we'd get to at some point in time. Some weeks, it's not the flavor of the day. We really felt this week it would be a big thing for us.”

The pace was fast. The Eagles looked much more like the fast-break team Kelly wants them to be. They ran only 57 plays (compared to a whopping 92 for the Raiders), but really seemed to put pressure on the Oakland defense with their tempo.

“It's tough to play tempo when it's first down, incomplete,” Kelly said. “The ball's not going your way. It's hard to get going. Our guys are starting to get a better feel for it.”

“The most important thing about it,” guard Evan Mathis said, “is you start to learn what the blueprint for success is. We have a lot of young guys on our team. They start to see that the hard work, the trust in the process, can translate to these kinds of results.”
PHILADELPHIA -- We looked at the Philadelphia Eagles' 2013 free-agent signings Thursday. Today we turn to the draft class, with the upfront acknowledgement that you can’t truly evaluate players in their first year.

It’s a little different with the veterans, since they’re meant to be plug-and-play pieces. So we’re not here to make conclusions about the draft picks, merely to assess how they’re coming along and whether we have any better idea if the selections made sense.

• First-round pick Lane Johnson (fourth overall) has played every single offensive snap, mostly at right tackle. He is the beneficiary and victim of the NFL trend toward throwing high draft picks at every position into the fire immediately. There’s hardly any such thing as easing first-round picks into the lineup.

With that in mind, Johnson has been just fine. When he makes a big mistake, it had big consequences. Plays, and teammates, get blown up. Pro Football Focus has him on the hook for seven sacks, five quarterback hits and 30 hurries. He is much stronger in the run game, which typically comes first for offensive linemen. With his size, athleticism and demeanor, you get the feeling Johnson will be a solid player for years here, and that’s ultimately what a first-round pick should be.

Good pick, bad pick: Good pick. Maybe one of the defensive linemen that went in the first half of the round would have been a good call, too, but locking down a tackle spot is vital to building any team.

• Second-round pick Zach Ertz (35 overall) may turn out to be a great player -- there’s no knock on the kid’s size, skill set or football savvy -- but he is arguably the most questionable pick the Eagles made in the 2013 draft. GM Howie Roseman’s declared approach, choosing the best player regardless of position, explains the decision to choose a tight end after the team had invested $12 million in free agent James Casey.

But was it a wise use of the third pick of the round? Chip Kelly just hasn’t used his tight ends the way we expected when the Eagles loaded up at the position. Ertz has 14 catches for 201 yards. By comparison, Washington’s third-round tight end, Jordan Reed, has 34 catches for 388 yards and two touchdowns. Is Reed a better player or is he just being utilized more often? Point is, if you’re not going to utilize the tight end, it makes sense to use such a high pick to address one of the many other needs a 4-12 team has.

Good pick, bad pick: Mystifying pick. This is a case where a guy could be a good player, but not a good pick.

• Third-round pick Bennie Logan (67 overall), a defensive tackle from LSU, hasn’t really distinguished himself yet -- although he does have two sacks. That’s OK, because the Eagles signed veteran Isaac Sopoaga to man the nose tackle position as they switched to a 3-4 scheme. With Sopoaga traded away, Logan should get more playing time and a chance to make more of an impact.

Good pick, bad pick: Good because it was the first pick dedicated to a defense in dire need of talent. Of course, if the Eagles had used that second rounder on defensive tackle Kawann Short (Carolina) or linebacker Kiko Alonso (Buffalo), they would have been free to scoop up one of the third-round wide receivers (Terrance Williams, Keenan Allen) or even defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.

• Fourth-round pick Matt Barkley (98 overall) was another curious choice. The Eagles traded up in the round to take the quarterback from USC. That wouldn’t seem out of place except that Barkley seems like an odd fit in Kelly’s offense. The explanation at the time was that Kelly didn’t need a mobile quarterback, but the coach’s subsequent choice of Michael Vick doesn’t really support that.

Barkley has been forced to play the past two weeks because of injuries. It has been eventful, to say the least. He turned the ball over on his first four possessions, an unprecedented feat, but had stretches where he got the ball out quickly and accurately. He may be able to play in this league, but he’d be much better off in a different system.

Good pick, bad pick: Again, strange pick. Nothing wrong with adding young quarterbacks at this point in the draft, but the Eagles had plenty of other holes to fill.

• Fifth-round pick Earl Wolff (136 overall) personifies the development of the Eagles' defense. He was initially meant to play occasionally as he learned, but was forced to start when veteran safety Patrick Chung injured his shoulder. Wolff still makes mistakes, but he has come a long way and continues the Eagles’ tradition of pretty solid fifth-round picks -- Trent Cole and Brent Celek come to mind.

Good pick, bad pick: Good pick. If he recedes into a backup/special teams role, Wolff already has given the Eagles more than many fifth-round picks give their teams.

• Seventh-round picks Joe Kruger (212), Jordan Poyer (218) and David King (239) are non-factors this year. Kruger, who was seen as a developmental guy, is on injured reserve. Poyer was released to create a roster spot for running back Matthew Tucker, then claimed off waivers by Cleveland. King was released at the end of training camp and is on Cincinnati’s practice squad.

Good picks, bad picks: Seventh-round picks. They are what they are.

• Undrafted rookies: Jake Knott, a linebacker, had been a regular on special teams until injuring his hamstring two weeks ago. His absence led to the signing of Emmanuel Acho, so it will be worth watching whether Knott gets his job back when he’s healthy. Tucker was on the practice squad until injuries required his elevation to the 53-man roster. He hasn’t been a factor. Defensive lineman Damion Square, inactive the past six weeks, is one of the players who could get more playing time in the wake of the Sopoaga trade. Offensive lineman Matt Tobin is a project who has been inactive all eight games.

Midseason look at Eagles' free agents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Emergency' QB Casey has been close

October, 30, 2013
PHILADELPHIA – When coach Chip Kelly says tight end James Casey is the Philadelphia Eagles’ emergency quarterback, the emphasis is on the word emergency.

“I would not be a well-oiled machine out there,” Casey said. “It’s one of those things where it would really be an emergency, emergency situations. Hopefully, it never gets to that point.”

[+] EnlargeJames Casey
AP Photo/Brian Garfinkel"I would not be a well-oiled machine out there," Eagles tight end James Casey said.
That point was one play away in three of the Eagles’ last four games. Nick Foles left the Dallas game with a concussion. Michael Vick left both Giants games with an injured hamstring. The past two weeks, rookie Matt Barkley replaced them. Casey was the only option if Foles had been injured at MetLife Stadium or if Barkley had gone down.

“I’ve been close,” Casey said. “I would have to go out there and try to execute what I can offensively. Obviously, it wouldn’t be the entire offense. It would just be a couple of plays. I work on it a little bit every day. Not a ton, because I have other responsibilities as a tight end, and a bunch of special-teams stuff.”

Casey is used to multitasking. He spent three years in the Chicago White Sox's minor-league system before deciding to go back to football. At Rice University, he was a triple major in economics, managerial studies and sports management. Casey once played seven different positions in a game for Rice, and lined up as a Wildcat quarterback at times. He caught 17 touchdown passes and threw two during his college career.

“I was going to be the quarterback my junior year, but I left college after my sophomore year,” Casey said.

The Houston Texans selected him in the fifth round of the 2009 draft. A fullback/tight end, Casey was the emergency quarterback for the Texans as well.

“I was never used there,” Casey said. “I think every team has something like that prepared, because most teams carry just two quarterbacks on the roster that are active for the games.”

Casey said he didn’t do anything special once Barkley went in – no warming up his arm or studying pictures of the defensive formations. He just goes about his business, but is keenly aware that he could be called upon at any moment.

“Hopefully,” Casey said, “from now on, our quarterbacks will stay healthy and we won’t have to worry about it.”

Making sense of Sopoaga trade

October, 29, 2013
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.