Training Wheels Off For Training Camp

blount-3

By GORDON GLANTZ

@Managing2Edit

Just stop already, will ya?

No more lamenting every pitch of this long-lost Phillies season. How many times can you watch the same paint dry?

And who cares if Costa Rica beats Belgium in soccer?

Golf? Please.

Tennis? No comment.

This week we will be counting down the days until the 2017 version of the Philadelphia Eagles begin training camp under second-year head coach Doug Pederson.

To get you primed for prime time, here is a positional primer to get you more up to speed than if you were watching perpetual left turns in a NASCAR race (only to interrupted by a fiery crash and debris soaring into the crowd).

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK

Eagles-Foles1The Play Call: Easy peasy. Carson Wentz returns – hopefully wiser and more settled, in terms of mechanics – after his baptism by fire a year ago. Nick Foles (left), whose biggest crime was achieving near-perfection in 2013 (a league-best 119.2 QB rating, largely on the strength of 27 touchdown passes against two interceptions in 13 starts), comes back to town as the backup. It is doubtful the brass wants to keep more than these two on the active roster, meaning third QB Matt McGloin – who has somehow managed to parlay a middling career at Penn State into seven career starts (six as a rookie) in four years in the NFL with the Raiders – is here to take preseason snaps and have good enough tape on himself that he would get a call from another team, or the Eagles, if catastrophe would strike. Fourth quarterback Dane Evans will forever be associated with Dorial Green-Beckham because he was officially added to the roster when the plug was pulled on Project DGB. Evans, a Tulsa product, could play himself onto the practice squad with a solid camp and showing in preseason games.

Audible: Only needed if Wentz, or even Foles, goes down. Would the Eagles feel comfortable with McGloin as a backup? Also, it remains to be seen how much leash the restless fan base will give Wentz in his second year when many still have Foles jerseys hanging in their closets.

RUNNING BACK

The Play Call: With Ryan Mathews’ career in limbo after a neck injury last year, the Eagles went out got themselves a similar two-down option in 250-pound bulldozer LaGarette Blount, who has a pair of 1,000-yard seasons under his belt, as well as a career average of 4.4 yards-per-carry average. Last year, while earning a ring with the Patriots, he ran for 18 touchdowns. However, while Mathews was also a decent receiver out the backfield, Blount is more one-dimensional (season-high for catches was 15 in 2011, his second in the league). The Eagles have the ideal complement in Darren Sproles, the quintessential third-down back/return man-type whose all-purpose numbers (8th all-time) have put him at the precipice of Hall of Fame consideration when his career concludes, possibly as soon as the end of this season. Planning ahead, the Eagles aggressively pursued San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey to be Sproles’ successor by moving up in the fourth round to grab him. Despite both being diminutive, they are not apples-to-apples in body build (Sproles is 5-6 and around 190, while Pumphrey is generously listed at 5-9 and 170). And while Pumphrey put up record-setting all-purpose numbers in college, he was rarely used as a return man. The Eagles’ are reportedly giving him a crash course on bringing back kickoffs (punts are more a risky proposition for the uninitiated), but expect some growing pains in terms of decision-making.

Audible: Blount, Sproles and Pumphrey – barring injury to any of the three – are the only locks to make the squad. And with two active quarterbacks, that leaves open a job for a fifth running back or a sixth receiver. Wendell Smallwood, last year’s fifth-round pick from the Eagles’ new minor-league affiliate, West Virginia, had a 100-yard game early in the season and also returned a kick for a touchdown, but he faded while being dogged by injuries and didn’t finish the year on the active roster. Smallwood would still have the inside track on the No. 4 spot, but nothing is guaranteed. That means any touches – carries, catches or return chances – for high-end UDFA (undrafted free agent) Corey Clement (from Wisconsin by way of Glassboro, N.J.) and versatile Byron Marshall could prove meaningful. Clement, who gained 1,375 yards and scored 15 touchdowns against Big 10 competition last year, could unseat Smallwood with a good camp, while Marshall, like Pumphrey, could make keeping a sixth receiver a luxury if they can each double as decent slot receivers.

WIDE RECEIVER

The Play Call: On the surface, the Eagles created a more stable situation for Wentz at the much-maligned receiver spot. But free-agent signee Alshon Jeffrey was only inked to a one-year, make-good deal. Torrey Smith’s alleged five-year contract is really just a series of five one-year deals. Jordan Matthews, who moves back to his more comfortable slot position, goes into the season as a pending free agent. Best-case scenario, all three are retained for the long haul Worst-case, none are – meaning the Eagles will start all over the following year. Hopes still hinge on 2015 first-round pick Nelson Agholor answering his wake-up call from the front desk. The impromptu release of DGB suggests Agholor at least earned another chance for himself. The Eagles also drafted two receivers, albeit in the fourth and fifth rounds. Mack Hollins out of North Carolina brings shovel-ready special teams skills but might be a work in progress as a receiver. Shelton Gibson, the fifth-round pick out of West Virginia, is reportedly not catching on – literally and figuratively – to the speed of the pro game, but his college credentials are solid.

Audible: Last year’s training camp head-turner, Paul Turner, got time at the end of the season and showed some ability as a slot receiver who could at least handle return-game responsibilities in a pinch. Converted quarterback David Watford was kept around last year on the practice squad and could make a push for a roster spot if someone ahead of him on the depth chart isn’t careful – or remains careless. And then there is Bryce Treggs, now a rightful afterthought. All he needs to do is get behind a fourth-string UDFA in a preseason game for a long touchdown and he will come back from the dead to be a folk hero.

Eagles-ErtzTIGHT END

The Play Call: Easy peasy here, too. Zach Ertz (left), Brent Celek and Trey Burton. All that remains to be seen is if Ertz finally makes the leap to being an elite tight end or continues to be a tease in that regard. Celek and Burton form the ideal supporting cast for a star. That’s all on Ertz and how he is used. Celek, like Sproles, is likely in his last season, but is a solid No. 2 tight end as a blocker, underneath receiver and respected team leader. Wentz and Burton developed a nice rapport last year – connecting 37 times – and Burton’s versatility may also be deployed a bit as a fullback in certain sets.

Audible: The Eagles have two other tight ends in camp – A.D. Denham and UDFA Billy Brown – and a good preseason could set one or the other on a path to go from the 2017 practice squad to the roster in 2018.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The Play Call: The unofficial depth shows the starters – from left to right – as venerable Jason Peters, Allen Barbre, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson. Some have gone so far as to suggest this is best unit in the NFC and maybe the whole NFL. A closer look reveals some lingering questions. Barbre was allowed to shop himself around the league and had no takers. Kelce seems to be on an early downslide for an NFL pivot, with his physique (6-3, 282) being a likely culprit. Brooks struggled with some mental issues last year while Johnson was suspended for 10 games for PED violations. Depth, though, seems sound. Isaac Seumalo, the third-round pick in 2016, can play anywhere on the line and could be the heir apparent for either Barbre or Kelce, although veteran Stefen Wisniewski would be better suited to start at either spot in the short term. After struggling in his first career start as a fifth-round rookie, Hal Vatai played decently in Johnson’s stead. The Eagles are also trying to revive the career of guard Chance Warmack, who played at Alabama under offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland (and was probably overdrafted as result). And then there is Josh Andrews, who always manages to hang on to a low-end roster spot through coaching and regime changes.

Audible: The team is likely to keep 10 offensive linemen on the active roster, which will make camp battles interesting. Second-year man Dillon Gordon was an undrafted free agent who was kept on the roster last year because it was believed he would be a hot commodity for some other team if put on the practice squad. Hard to believe he did anything to make them lose faith in Peters’ hand-picked protégé. Then there is guard/tackle Matt Tobin, who has plenty of playing time under his belt, although much of it is forgettable. Wasted 2014 fifth-round pick Taylor Hart, who was waived last year as a defensive lineman, is back trying to cut it as an offensive tackle. Also keep an eye peeled on both Tyler Orlosky and Darrell Greene. Orlosky, a center, was this year’s highest-paid UDFA and Greene was last year’s highest-paid UDFA (only to set a world’s record for being released and brought back on the practice squad). Interesting to note that Greene blocked for Pumphrey at San Diego State and Orlosky for Smallwood at West Virginia.

DEFENSE

Eagles-Cox with footballDEFENSIVE LINE

The Play Call: The locks are Fletcher Cox (left) and newcomer Timmy Jernigan inside and Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and first-round pick Derek Barnett likely rotating outside. With third tackle Beau Allen injured for possibly the first 4-6 games of the season, meaning he could land on short-term injured reserve, sixth-round pick Elijah Qualls would seem to have a job locked up.

Audible: Nothing else is guaranteed, and how well the rest of the group of aspiring Eagles plays will determine if eight, nine or even 10 linemen are kept. Hence, these roster battles will be worth watching. Chris Long, the song of Howie Long, was signed off the champion Patriots’ scrap heap and he could provide professional and depth at end, but he will fend off challenges from the likes of 2014 first-round bust-in-the making Marcus Smith and 2017 seventh-rounder Alex McAlister, who spent last year on IR and added bulk to his 6-6 frame. A summer ago, journeyman Steven Means came out of nowhere to earn a roster spot. If he has another strong camp, it could send someone – Long, Smith, McAlister (or two of three) – to the street. Destiny Vaeao made it as a UDFA last year and played decently early in the season before seeing his playing time diminish, but he could easily play himself onto the squad again as an extra tackle.

LINEBACKER

The Play Call: Assuming mercurial middle linebacker Jordan Hicks didn’t injure his hand too badly on his honeymoon and outside linebacker Nigel Bradham will have his legal woes in the rear-view mirror, this group should be OK. Mychal Kendricks, talented but underutilized last year by defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, returns to man the other outside spot. Depth is bolstered by the return of Joe Walker, last year’s seventh-round pick who looked like a major draft steal until tearing his knee before the season. Versatile veteran and special teams’ standout Najee Goode also returns.

Audible: The Eagles can go with nine or 10 defensive lineman and/or nine or 10 defensive backs by keeping just six linebackers. That would leave one job open and it would likely come down to a battle between two hybrid outside linebacker/safety types in Kamu Grugier-Hill (6-2, 220) and recent fifth-round pick Nathan Gerry (6-2, 209). How they look on special teams and passing-down packages will go a long way toward securing a job (although Gerry could land on the practice squad). Also in the mix is Villanova product Don Cherry, a middle linebacker who was solid enough a year to be kept around on the practice squad.

CORNERBACK

The Play Call: Still remains to be seen how it will all shake out. Veteran Patrick Robinson is the next in a succession of first-round stones from elsewhere that the Eagles are hoping to get some blood from, while Jalen Mills – who gave it the old college try against pros as a seventh-round pick getting a lot of work last year – will either man the other outside spot or shuffle between outside and the slot. Much of that depends on a series of unknowns and what remains the team’s weakest link. Will Ron Brooks, an experienced slot corner, return from injury or will he be waived once he is medically cleared? Will second-round pick Sidney Jones, who slid on draft boards out of the top half of the first round because of a ruptured Achilles, be miraculously healed or will he go on the extended or full-season IR? Will third-round pick Rasul Douglas – from, you guessed it, West Virginia – be ready for prime time?

Audible: A savior could still be found. There has been talk of Darrelle Revis, but there is the same buzz around about a dozen other teams. A more realistic answer could be unearthed in house by the likes of Aaron Grymes, who played in the CFL before getting a chance last summer. Grymes was making a name for himself before getting injured. He was waived with a settlement, quietly brought back to the practice squad and was reportedly one of the stars of the recent team workouts. There is also C.J. Smith, who was a teammate of Wentz at North Dakota State and played a bit on special teams last year. Others who will get longer looks then perhaps anywhere else in the league include Dwayne Gratz, Mitchell White and Jomal Wiltz.

SAFETY

The Play Call: All good here with starters Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Chris Maragos would be a lock to make the team because he is a Pro Bowl-level special teams’ player, but a viable third safety to play ahead of him on defense needs to be found at this point.

Audible: It’s all right there for Jaylen Watkins, but that’s an old song. The former fourth-round pick, who was cut and then brought back, has had opportunities at every spot in the secondary and has been good enough to not quite be good enough. Versatility and special teams’ acumen could keep him employed, but not if Terrence Brooks, probably a better pure safety, makes him expendable. Randall Goforth, an UDFA from UCLA, is undersized (5-10, 190), but could turn some heads after a productive college career.

SPECIALISTS

The Play Call: Donnie Jones punts and holds the snaps from Jon Dorenbos while Caleb Sturgis does the kicking. Easy peasy, right? Well, maybe.

Audible: Rookie UDFA punter Cameron Johnston has a strong leg. Dorenbos isn’t getting any younger, is coming off an injury and has a legit challenge to fend off from the guy who finished the season in his stead last season, Rick Lovato.

This column/analysis originally appeared at phillyphanatics.com

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