A camp full of intrigue
Mystery surrounds Chip Kelly's Eagles, and not just at the quarterback position
PHILADELPHIA -- For the first time since he took the head coaching job of the Philadelphia Eagles, Chip Kelly slowed down the pace of his team.
A dual practice against Bill Belichick's New England Patriots merited change. Kelly came to Philadelphia with a college offense from Oregon that was on fast forward. In practices, Kelly had cranked up the music and had his quarterbacks get plays off quickly.
The Eagles' practices against the Patriots this week were smart and reflective. The music was gone. Both teams spent their practice time concentrating on execution. Quality was stressed over quantity. None of this should be a surprise.
Clayton's Camp Tour
• Browns: Still rebuilding
• Jets: Ryan's tough task
• Bills: Team in a hurry
• Colts: Easing Luck's burden
• Bears: Trusting Trestman
• Chiefs: Poised to surprise?
• Rams: The buzz is back
• Falcons: Super motivation
• Bengals: Roster is loaded
• Giants: Change is constant
• Eagles: Full of intrigue
Kelly and Belichick have a great respect for each other. Last year, Belichick sent his assistants to Oregon to learn Kelly's fast-paced offense. The result was a 74.4-play-a-game offense and a division title. Against the Patriots, Kelly wanted to test how well his offense and defense can perform against a quality team and a great coach.
Here is what we've learned about the Philadelphia Eagles during camp:
1. Training camp position battles: Coaches often use the cliché that every starting job is open, but in Philadelphia, that notion is true. Unlike the other seven new head coaches in the league, Kelly comes from college with no NFL coaching experience. He enters with a clear vision and no preconceptions. The Eagles' roster is in total transition after 14 years under Andy Reid, so a fresh look isn't bad.
In talking to Kelly, you get the idea he's creative and will try to adjust the strategy to what he has for talent. The biggest battle is at quarterback, but it's a two-way battle. Fourth-round choice Matt Barkley is running a decent third and doesn't appear to be making a move toward the starting job. Michael Vick and Nick Foles enter a four-preseason game battle. Vick has the edge because of his experience, arm strength and running ability, but Kelly will give Foles every chance to win the job.
With Jeremy Maclin out for the season with a knee injury, every receiver slot after DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper and Jason Avant is up for grabs. Brent Celek, James Casey, second-round choice Zach Ertz and Clay Harbor are vying for playing time at tight end. Casey, though, could get time as a fullback/H-back.
The Eagles are looking at Isaac Sopoaga and Bennie Logan at nose tackle. Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Phillip Hunt are making the adjustment from defensive end in the 4-3 to outside linebacker in the 3-4, while Vinny Curry is fighting for time at defensive end. The Eagles are sorting out a lot of things in the secondary. Anything goes there.
2. Vick or Foles? The Philadelphia Inquirer had an interesting view of the Vick-Foles practice battle. For two days, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady consistently burned the Eagles' pass defense. One of the smartest quarterbacks in pro football history, Brady doesn't hesitate when a receiver is open. The Inquirer charted Brady releasing passes at 2.27 seconds during Wednesday's team drills; the paper counted Vick at 2.76 seconds and Foles at 2.89 seconds. While critics will want to point to the Patriots' experienced offense, that wasn't the case. Brady's only carryover target from last year was Julian Edelman. Vick and Foles had Jackson, Cooper and Avant. These numbers are telling. For the Eagles' fast-paced offense, balls need to come out quickly. If Kelly is going to get plays off with 24 seconds left on the 40-second clock, the Eagles can't afford sacks or three-and-outs. Kelly clearly isn't going to rush to judgment on a starter.
Vick would be the logical choice. He's a leader whom teammates respect. He's a better athlete than Foles. He has a better arm. But history has shown that Vick might turn over the ball and be prone to injury. Even if Vick wins the starting job, Foles should get a chance to play. Say what you want, Vick still gives the Eagles the better chance to win. He can make first downs with his legs and his arm. Foles can only do that with his arm.
3. Attrition at wide receiver: By the end of Wednesday's practice, the Eagles had only seven healthy wide receivers, and that included Cooper, whose status with the team is still under review because of his use of a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert. Maclin, Arrelious Benn and Dave Ball are on injured reserve with blown-out knees. Two young receivers who were showing promise -- Damaris Johnson and Russell Shepard -- tweaked hamstrings Wednesday and didn't finish practice. The Eagles have problems at wide receiver, and Kelly has to be cautious moving forward. Maclin's injury promotes Cooper to a starting job on the outside, and he made some nice catches after coming back from his brief time away from the team to reflect on his off-field incident.
The question facing Kelly is how to safely use Jackson. The NFL's desire to flag and fine defensive backs who crunch defenseless receivers in the middle of the field opened the door for Jackson, who is 170 pounds, to become a star a couple of years ago. But he did suffer a concussion, so Reid didn't want to totally let him roam in the middle of the field for catches. Losing him would stifle the passing game because the team would lack an outside threat. Avant's best routes are in the middle of the field. Kelly also can use his deep stable of tight ends and H-backs. It's a good thing Kelly is creative. He's going to need to be while adjusting this offense as the season goes on.
4. Secondary a primary concern: Brady has had his way against the Eagles' secondary, a unit that has been completely revamped since Reid put together the so-called "Dream Team" in 2011. On Tuesday, Brady completed 17 of 20 passes in team drills. The ball rarely hit the ground during Wednesday's practice. To be fair, it takes time for four new starters to come together in a secondary, and it's evident Kelly is experimenting to see what he has. For example, on Wednesday, he used safety Patrick Chung as a third safety in a pass-coverage package to try to take advantage of Chung's coverage skills and his knowledge of Kelly's defense (Chung went to Oregon).
One question is whether cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher can hold up against good quarterbacks. Brady picked them apart. A backup to watch is Brandon Boykin, a fourth-round choice from last year. He's had a good camp. Safety Kenny Phillips is coming off knee surgery and is just starting to get his legs under him. The Eagles have holdover safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman as fallbacks.
5. Chipping away at the NFL: Kelly is the biggest mystery in the NFL. His college track record was amazing. His offense was unstoppable. But Kelly warns not to read too much into the college stats. The 60-40 run-pass ratio is more a byproduct of the scoreboard than the game plan. The Ducks usually had the lead, so Kelly called fast running plays. Kelly is the first to tell you he's not running an offense to tabulate a high number of plays. His Oregon offense averaged 78, 78 and 81 plays a game over the past three years. His mission is to score points, which his Ducks did with ease against fatigued defenses. Will it work in the NFL? That's the mystery, but Kelly sounds as though he will adjust to the successes and failures of what he sees during the season.