Recently, I took an overview of what I saw from the defensive side of the Philadelphia Eagles during their OTAs and mandatory minicamp.
In this piece, I’ll take an inside look at the offense.
I spent most of my time watching the quarterbacks during the OTAs and mandatory minicamp, which shouldn’t surprise anyone if you know my work. But in reality, I really did this because of the importance of the position—especially to this team. The Eagles’ roster is probably the strongest it has been in many seasons, but I think the quarterback position is one that needs to be closely examined because of the inconsistent results over the past few seasons.
– The one thing that really stood out with veteran Michael Vick is how he got the ball out faster from his left hand and to his intended receiving target in a timely manner. I want to see how well he does with this when everything is faster during training camp, but this has been a problem for him in the past—being decisive with reads. There’s no question that last year’s lockout hand a profound impact on Vick last season. Not being able to work with the coaches in the offseason really set him back. And I also noticed he was throwing his targets open—something that he has rarely done in the past. Again, let’s see if he can continue this in late July and through the entire month of August.
– I’ve been hard on third-year QB Mike Kafka over his first two seasons. If you’ve heard me speak about him or read what I’ve written, you probably know this already. And my criticism mainly stems from a lack of consistent arm strength. It never was about athleticism or work ethic. Kafka’s problems have stemmed from inconsistencies with footwork, mechanics and power. And believe it or not, all three issues are tied together. The quarterback position is rhythmic—meaning everything is tied together. If you have watched him closely during his first two seasons, he had a real problem getting his body into throws. Over the time I watched him throw during this offseason, it’s clear that his arm strength has noticeably improved. I noticed on several occasions that the right-handed passer had no problem throwing the ball 50 yards down field with plenty of room to spare—this was never the case at any point over the previous two seasons. It’s also clear that getting a chance to work out at the practice facility, unlike last year in the offseason due to the lockout, has clearly benefitted Kafka. And you can see how the coaches have adjusted his footwork and his release is tighter. Previously, Kafka threw with a widened stance and was all arm with little power. Arm throwers are easy to spot—they don’t get enough power from their lower body. That clearly is changing. Let’s put it this way: I didn’t think he had a prayer to succeed when watching him over his first two seasons. Now, he’s on his way to solidifying the No. 2 job—something that was not even remotely possible if you watched him last year. However, let’s see how he does when the speed of the game ramps up during training camp and the preseason. That’s the true barometer to measure where he’s at in his progression as a signal caller.
– Third-round pick Nick Foles is just as I remembered him from Senior Bowl back in late January. When he lines up his feet and squares his hips up correctly, he can really fire the ball. Arm strength is not an issue for him. Performing with consistent mechanics is what it’s all about with him. I made some really outstanding throws during OTAs and the mandatory minicamp, but only when he was squared up correctly. When he gets lazy with his mechanics, the passes went awry. And some of them came up short, which is a reflection of not always stepping into his throws.
– Veteran Trent Edwards had a rough go of it, but there are reasons for this. Edwards, as he discussed, had his mechanics adjusted to the style that the other quarterbacks use with the Eagles. And that had an impact on his timing and rhythm, which seemed to be off. Because he clearly wasn’t comfortable, Edwards had trouble even hitting open receivers at times. But he still clearly has enough arm strength. That was apparent on some deep comebacks where he fired the ball to his intended target right on time. Edwards will work with former NFL assistant coach Ted Tollner until training camp starts later this month.
– LeSean McCoy enters fourth season as one of the top backs in the NFL. It’s been interesting to watch his ascension to the top of the position. And you can sense his leadership role his growing. It’s remarkable that he turns just 24 next week. He hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, but the Eagles need to develop the backup position. It wasn’t too long ago that Eagles’ fans were clamoring for the team to draft Knowshon Moreno in 2009—and look how that’s turned out.
– Second-year RB Dion Lewis, to me, has yet to show that he’s capable of handling the No. 2 role full time. He’s an interesting back, no question. He has shown the ability to run inside and get to the second level. But he’s a bit small (5-6 ½, 195) and I don’t think we’ve seen enough from him yet to warrant being handed the job. He only saw 42 snaps last season. My sense is if McCoy couldn’t play in a given week, we could see a two-man backfield with Lewis and another back.
– Rookie RBs Bryce Brown and Chris Polk will their chance to show the coaches that they belong on the roster in training camp and the preseason. However, I don’t see the team keeping more than three backs. Brown has a nice combination of size and speed (you can see this up close), but he’ll need to show he can block and handle the play book. Polk, I thought, was very smooth coming out of the backfield as a receiver—more so than Brown. And, as I saw during Senior Bowl week, he’s a tough inside runner. His medical red flags kept him from being drafted, so even if he wins the No. 3 job, the coaching staff will have to feel comfortable that he’ll be able to last physically.
– Had a chance to watch UDFA FB Emil Igwenagu a bit. He has really good athleticism for the position, but whether he can block well enough won’t be determined until several days go by in training camp. And his competition, 2011 seventh-rounder Stanley Havili, spent all of his rookie season on the practice squad.
– Fourth-year pro Jeremy Maclin looked to be all the way back from the injuries which caused him to miss three games. He looked very smooth and considering he had a health scare last offseason, everything seems to be trending up for him. What I want to see in training camp is if he’s asked to run deeper routes. He’s fully capable of increasing his yards per catch from 13.7 for his career to over 15.0 this season. Maclin’s second gear, which we rarely get to see, is as about as good as I’ve seen from any young receiver. It’s just that he hasn’t been involved in many “shot plays” in his previous three seasons.
– I really didn’t keep an eye on him, but check out this interesting piece on UDFA WR Elvis Akpla. He could be a practice squad candidate if he has a strong camp.
– Not much to say when it comes to fifth-year WR DeSean Jackson. He looked as far as ever—no surprise there. And with his contractual issues finally behind him, you can expect his mind to be in the right place this season. He seemed to be off his game in just about every phase last season.
– Third-year WR Riley Cooper looks to have the #4 job locked up—even this early. He practiced with a lot of confidence and seems to really know where he’s going with route running, etc. I will be interested, however, to see rookie WR Marvin McNutt in training camp. He didn’t get much of a chance in minicamp to show what he’s capable of doing since he was in the learning phase. McNutt was impressive during Senior Bowl week, but he would have to put together a great training camp and preseason to beat out Cooper.
– The biggest surprise had to be second-year WR Ron Johnson. He definitely caught my eye in two areas—route running and hands. The Eagles might only keep as few as four receivers, so the chances of him making the roster are slim to none. But if he can do as well in pads during training camp as he did in the relaxed offseason setting, things could get interesting for him.
– He might disagree, but I thought starting TE Brent Celek looks to be all the way back from both of his surgeries (hip, groin). Celek looked more fluid getting off the line. Going back to last season, Celek didn’t look as smooth getting in and out of his breaks. Again, there is no contact in minicamp, so you can only see so much, but he did look good.
– Brett Brackett spent all of his rookie season on the practice squad of three teams, but when he was with the Eagles practice squad, you could clearly see he could run. And it makes sense since he was a wide receiver in college. What Brackett will need to do is bulk up and show that he block. Same goes for UDFA Chase Ford. Ford, like Brackett, can run, but he needs to get stronger. You can really see that even in a minicamp setting. With so many teams going with two-TE sets with guys who can run, you can see why one of those two players might stick around on the 53-man roster if the Eagles choose to keep three TEs.
– I’ll be interested to see if third-year TE Clay Harbor will get a chance to stretch the field vertically a bit this season. He only caught 13 passes last season, but Harbor moves well. The one thing the Eagles have been missing the position has been the ability to move the ball down field in the air.
It’s hard to get a read on how the offensive linemen performed since there wasn’t any real contact and there’s a lot of teaching going on. What you can evaluate, however, is overall depth at various positions and other small factors.
– Considering the team had four offensive line changes last season, which were completed literally right before the regular season started, it’s remarkable at how well the group held up. But without starter Jason Peters for 2012, the left side has a huge hole. I talked to one NFC personnel executive who watched Demetress Bell’s tape from last season. Bell, according to the executive, has really good feet and is very athletic. The issues for him are being consistent with mechanics and staying injury free. Fourth-year OT King Dunlap looks to be the top backup OT for another season.
– Getting second-year RG Danny Watkins more reps should go a long way toward getting him totally comfortable with playing inside. He had to learn how to play guard last year without having the benefit of an offseason due to the lockout.
– I’ve been asked about Jason Kelce when it comes to putting on weight. That’s hard to judge, but he did look noticeably stronger in the upper body. Keep in mind that he weighed just 280 during last year’s NFL Scouting Combine.
– The early guess is that veteran OL Steve Vallos is the leading candidate to be the backup center this season. I don’t see any other backup on the current roster capable of handling the job. Mike Gibson figures to have the best chance of landing the backup guard job. He has eight starts at guard.
After last year’s disastrous return game results (20.9 per net kickoff return-ranked 31st/7.1 per net punt return-ranked 27th), the Eagles look to have addressed the issue.
– UDFAS CB Cliff Harris and WR/KR/PR Damaris Johnson, Lewis, WR Mardy Gilyard and possibly others will get a chance to return kicks. The Eagles simply didn’t have good enough competition for kickoff returns last season, but they certainly have it now.
– Johnson is the leader in NCAA history in all-purpose yardage and in kickoff return yardage (25.5 yards per return). He’s also a solid punt returner (12.1 yards per return—anything over 10.0 yards per return is considered excellent). And just getting to see the guy up close for a few weeks — albeit without pads on — he has remarkable quickness in and out of his breaks as a receiver. I think his competition in training camp for a roster spot will come vs. Chad Hall.
– Harris only returned 27 kicks and finished with just a 21.3 average in college, but he was outstanding as a punt returner (16.2 yards per return).
– Gilyard is known as a physical kickoff returner (22.3 per return as a rookie/29.2 per return in college), so we’ll get a better idea of his talent in this area once the pads go on. His only realistic shot to make the 53-man roster is going to be as a kickoff returner.
– Lewis, who averaged just 21.3 per kickoff return as a rookie last season, will benefit from a full offseason of film work—something he didn’t get as a rookie due to the lockout.
– Second-year K Alex Henery picked up where he left off last season. He continues to kick with power and height. When he struggled early last season, his kicks were low line drives. And talk about a guy who is performing with a lot of confidence. You can see that every time he steps out on the field.