Three leftover thoughts before we head to the NovaCare Complex for practice today.
1. I had previously been on the fence in regards to whether Zach Ertz could really be a breakout player in 2014. The issue, to me, was whether he could be a good enough blocker in the run game to stay on the field. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had a telling comment on that topic yesterday.
“It’s very important for tight ends, number one, to be efficient blockers,” he said. “You don’t always have tight ends that are just going to knock them into next Wednesday, but you have to be an efficient blocker, especially if your thing is to catch passes. I think Ertz is developing more and more and more. I see his confidence starting to really build.”
Last year, Brent Celek was outstanding blocking in the run game. The point Shurmur is making is it’s OK if Ertz doesn’t reach that level in 2014 – or really, ever. He was drafted because he can be a weapon in the passing game.
We’ve talked a lot in this space about the size of the Eagles’ pass-catchers. But really, the important thing is knowing how to use that size. And Ertz does that as well as anyone on the roster. He attacks the ball in the air, can box defenders out and is a precise route-runner.
Ertz had five touchdowns in the Eagles’ last nine games last year. Four of those came in the red zone where guys have to be able to catch the ball in traffic and make contested catches. Ertz is going to be the most utilized pass-catching weapon the Eagles have in the red zone, and it would not surprise me one bit if he led the team in receiving touchdowns.
2. Sometimes, football can be really complicated. Eleven guys asked to all complete their assignments in unison. Different formations and play-calls. Athletes of different shapes and sizes.
Other times, it’s relatively simple. For example, if you took someone who had only been watching football for a week and asked him to sit in on yesterday’s practice and tell you who the best cornerback on the field was, he would have easily been able to come up with an answer: Brandon Boykin.
The fan favorite played with an edge and was everywhere: getting physical with Jordan Matthews, swatting the ball down in front of B.J. Cunningham, out-muscling Josh Huff in the end zone for an interception.
Of course, Boykin’s ability is not a revelation after the year he turned in last year. He’s as sure a tackler as the Eagles have on defense. His ball skills are unmatched (only four defensive backs had more combined INTs/passes defensed last year). And his athleticism is off the charts.
Yet for roughly half the snaps last year, on a defense that finished 23rd according to Football Outsiders, Boykin was on the sideline watching. We know the reasons. Chip Kelly sees the wide receiver position getting bigger. He believes big people beat up little people. And Billy Davis wanted Boykin to master the nickel role (which he did).
But what about 2014? Yesterday, we wrote about how the Eagles might stay in base more this season. Kelly and Davis obviously know more football than me, but if good coaching comes down to figuring out ways to best utilize your personnel, I have to think there’s a way to get Boykin more snaps. Sure, maybe he’d be at a disadvantage against Dez Bryant or Brandon Marshall. But is that going to happen on a weekly basis?
Really, what we’re talking about here is a couple inches. The Eagles are fine going with 5-11 guys on the outside, yet they won’t give the 5-9 athletic playmaker a shot out there. A role where Boykin started on the outside and then moved inside in nickel doesn’t seem to be an option.
I asked Matthews yesterday what makes Boykin so good. His answer? “Intelligence.”
The old adage goes that you don’t want to build a team of exceptions. But in certain cases, it makes sense to adapt to personnel. I think it’s time to push Boykin and see how much the Eagles can get out of him, rather than not give him a shot at all to earn more playing time.
3. A couple weeks ago, I asked Davis why the Eagles made the decision to go with a two-gap 3-4 in the first place.
“Well, a lot of it has to do with stopping Chip’s offense in the spread,” he said. “They make you leave the box, and when you’re in the 4‑3, it’s much harder. You don’t have as much versatility to handle the bubbles and the width. When you’re in the 3‑4 with the two standup outside backers, you can expand your defense.
“So the 3‑4 really fits not only what he’s doing; it’s also my history and the majority of what I’ve done. It’s what worked best at Oregon. We combined all… we just kind of sat down and kind of collectively said what’s the best for the Philadelphia Eagles and the division we play in and how we want to go forward, and the 3‑4 is by far what we feel most comfortable with.”
As others have pointed out, the two-gap 3-4 takes away some of the numbers game that Kelly employs on offense because the defensive linemen eat up multiple blocks.
Not a lot of teams in the NFL play a two-gap 3-4. It’ll be interesting to see going forward if defenses start to trend that way.