Taking Stock Of the Eagles’ WR Situation

DeSean JacksonWith Jeremy Maclin out for the year and Riley Cooper taking an indefinite leave of absence, the Eagles’ WR group has gone from one of the deeper units on the team to a question mark.

The team could add a player or two in the coming weeks, but given that it’s Aug. 4, there aren’t a lot of attractive options out there. Keeping that in mind, let’s take stock of where the current wide receivers on the roster stand.

DeSean Jackson – After a bit of a bumpy start with Chip Kelly in the spring, Jackson looks locked in, constantly beating Eagles’ defensive backs downfield and hauling in bombs from both Michael Vick and Nick Foles during practice sessions.

“I think he’s an explosive player,” Kelly said. “I think he’s very difficult to cover in one‑on‑one situations.  We’re trying to figure out as we get through what his comfort level is, what routes he feels really good with. I think we’re starting to get a feel for him. Quarterback’s getting a feel for him. Our coaching staff is getting a feel for him. I’m excited about what his future holds with us.”

It’s true that Kelly wants his quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quickly, and the Eagles look like they’ll run plenty of bubble screens to the wideouts. But they have not been shy about chucking it downfield either. When Jackson’s at his best, he’s one of the premier vertical threats in the game. That fact is not lost on Kelly.

Damaris Johnson – With Cooper gone, he took the majority of first-team reps opposite Jackson on Friday. In a small sample size (25.4 percent of the offensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus), Johnson caught 19 balls on 28 targets for 256 yards as a rookie.

But would Mr. “Big people beat up little people” really want to play two starting wide receivers that measure in at 5-10 and 5-8, respectively?

“In the ideal world, no,” Kelly said. “I think I would love everybody to be MegaTron [Calvin Johnson]. If we had five of them, that would be a great situation. Again, that’s why I don’t know.  If we get to September 9 and those are our two best guys, we’re going to play with what we have.”

Johnson has had a good camp and seems to have solidified his grasp on a roster spot, but as Jimmy Kempski has detailed over at Philly.com, the size factor is an issue.

Jason Avant – You know what you’re getting with Avant. Reliable, tough, great hands. But his skills translate as a slot receiver only. Avant’s not posing much of a threat to opposing cornerbacks on the outside. A few weeks ago, I thought he could be a surprise cut. But that seems highly unlikely now.

Arrelious Benn – As the old saying goes, you can’t make the club in the tub.

When the Eagles acquired Benn from the Bucs, he said: “If I’m being honest with you, I don’t like my career. I’ve got to stay healthy. I haven’t stayed healthy. I’ve had a problem with injuries. When I was healthy and out there, I made plays. I was consistent. But the big thing for me is to stay healthy. It’s no secret for me, I know that. I’m going to be honest with myself. Just come in here and do what I’ve got to do.”

Benn has battled a knee injury during the first week of camp and has missed practice time. The truth is, if healthy, he’s got a great opportunity to resurrect what has been a disappointing career. He has size and is a good blocker. On the surface, Benn would be a nice complement to Jackson on the outside. But given how much Kelly values practice time, he faces an uphill battle if he can’t stay healthy.

No option is off the table right now with Benn. He could be starting Week 1. He could be off the team.

Russell Shepard – I had him as my deep sleeper even before camp started, and Shepard has not disappointed this summer. He’s shown great hands, consistency and the ability to line up in a variety of places. Shepard’s performance in the preseason will go a long way in determining his standing on the roster, but based on what we’ve seen so far, Kelly is going to have a really difficult time cutting him.

Ifeanyi Momah – Standing on the sidelines, I overhear a lot of fan conversations during camp practices. And the one guy whose name constantly comes up is Momah.

At 6-7, 239, with 4.40 speed, he’s got the attention of the Eagles’ faithful.

The key with Momah is finding a way to capitalize on those measurables. He hasn’t played in a game in nearly two years, and the speed, specifically, has not shown up on the practice field. I can’t remember having seen Momah run past defenders during any team drills.

Having said that, he had probably his best practice on Friday, making a nice adjustment on a deep ball for a touchdown near the end of practice.

Momah would add an element (size) the other receivers on the roster don’t possess. But he’ll have to prove to the coaches over the next several weeks that he’s worthy of a roster spot.

***

Dave Ball, Nick Miller, Greg Salas and Will Murphy are the other receivers in camp, but they are all longshots to make the roster.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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The Eagles’ Candidates To Replace Maclin

Riley CooperThe Eagles were dealt their first big blow of the summer, losing Jeremy Maclin for the season with a torn ACL injury Saturday.

Entering the final year of his deal, Maclin was committed to proving his worth on the field this offseason.

“I think Jeremy Maclin has emerged as one of the hardest-working guys on our team,” Michael Vick said last month at Maclin’s football camp in West Deptford, N.J. “You watch him in the weight room, he goes in there and he’s just a different person there. So I think that’ll translate over to the field.”

Instead, Maclin faces surgery and a grueling rehab regimen away from his teammates in the months ahead.

In the past three seasons, Maclin has averaged 67 catches, 893 yards and seven touchdowns. So how will the Eagles replace that production in 2013? Here’s a look at their current options on the roster.

Riley Cooper -  He’s shown flashes of ability, but Cooper (6-3, 222) got a chance for extended playing time last season and didn’t put up great numbers. In the seven games where he played at least 70 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps (per Pro Football Focus), Cooper managed a total of 19 catches for 206 yards (29.4 per game) and two touchdowns.

Then again, he was operating in an offense that was a complete mess. Cooper has a few things going for him. Most notably, his size and his ability as a blocker, something Chip Kelly values. Cooper is unlikely to match Maclin’s production, but he’s probably the favorite right now to replace him as a starter.

Damaris Johnson – If Kelly is looking for a yards-after-the-catch guy, Johnson is the best option. He played 25.4 percent of the offensive snaps last year, finishing with 19 catches for 256 yards. But Johnson made the most of his limited action, averaging 5.5 yards after the catch, tops on the team, per PFF. He did not drop a ball and forced five missed tackles.

Johnson might be better suited for a slot role, but last year, 16 of his 19 receptions came while playing on the outside. At 5-8, he’s not going to be as physical a blocker as Cooper, and playing Johnson alongside 5-10 DeSean Jackson would give the Eagles one of the smallest pairs of receivers in the NFL.

Arrelious Benn - The Eagles acquired him from the Bucs this offseason, so Kelly clearly likes Benn’s skill set (All-22 breakdown here). Benn can line up in multiple places, has good size (6-2, 220) and is probably the best blocking wide receiver on the team. But he has not been productive (59 catches) in his first three seasons. Benn has battled injuries in the past and already was dealing with a left knee issue on the first day of camp. If he can stay healthy in the coming weeks, though, he’ll have a chance to compete for playing time.

Ifeanyi Momah – He’s a longshot, but Kelly’s plan is to let the competition play out on the field, so there’s no sense in counting anyone out at this point. The 6-7 wide receiver out of Boston College has a rare blend of size and speed. It’s been nearly two years since he’s played in a real game though. Having him step in and and be a starter right away is probably asking too much. We’ll have a better sense of how Momah’s progressing a few weeks from now.

Zach Ertz/Brent Celek/James Casey – Most observers (present company included) expect the Eagles to use plenty of two tight-end sets. But that doesn’t solve the problem of losing Maclin. Sure, Ertz, Celek and Casey can line up outside on occasion, but that’s not going to happen every play. Even in two tight-end sets, you need two wide receivers on the field. Kelly will mix and match personnel depending on the game-plan and the opponent, but the Eagles still need to find an outside receiver who can line up opposite Jackson.

The others – Jason Avant is a reliable veteran, but he’s a slot receiver and doesn’t pose a threat on the outside. Undrafted free agent Russell Shepard seems best-suited for a slot role too. The other wide receivers on the Eagles’ roster are Greg Salas, Will Murphy, Dave Ball and B.J. Cunningham. They are all longshots to make the roster at this point.

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Applying ‘Smart Football’ Concepts To the Eagles

While on vacation, I was able to comb back over The Essential Smart Football by Chris B. Brown.

Many of you are familiar with Brown from his Web site and his work on Grantland. If you haven’t checked out the book yet, I highly recommend doing so in the next couple months leading up to the season.

Brown has written extensively on Chip Kelly in the past, so it should come as no surprise that many of the concepts he tackles in his book apply to the 2013 Eagles. Below are some thoughts on four specific concepts that stood out to me.

1. Dick LeBeau, Dom Capers and the zone blitz

When asked this spring which NFL coaches have influenced him the most, Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis recalled his first job in the league.

“I would say that Cowher/Capers, and Lebeau was there with us,” he answered.

Davis was a 26-year-old defensive quality control coach on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ staff back in 1992. He was answering to guys like Dick LeBeau, Dom Capers and Bill Cowher, who were bringing the zone blitz to the NFL as a way to combat quick, efficient passing offenses.

The basic idea was to line up in a 3-4, rush five and drop six, with the key being disguising where the pressure came from.

Writes Brown:

To LeBeau, this was the perfect remedy: depending on the coverage you put behind the blitz, you actually were playing a very conservative defense, but the offense thought you were being aggressive, and, depending on how intelligently you deployed your five rushers, you were being aggressive, albeit in a very controlled sense. Controlled chaos, indeed.

The fire zone blitz, which employs three-deep coverage, is in the Eagles’ playbook, although it will be up to Davis to add his own wrinkles to it.

2. Option routes for wide receivers

During teach periods in the spring, wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell would yell out different coverages, and players would be asked to respond with the route they would run.

“Depending on the defense, if the defender’s way back, if we can beat ‘em on the go, then that’s the point,” said DeSean Jackson. “But if not, we’re able to still within the route have the option to stop if the cornerback is bailing for his life to not get beat deep. So it’s really a win for the receiver. Going out there, it’s like you have a double route. So if he’s playing on this route, then I can go to something else.”

In his book, Brown explains how run-and-shoot concepts still are employed by NFL offenses, using Victor Cruz and others as examples:

Drew Brees’s best pass play is four verticals, where the receivers can adjust on the fly – a ‘shoot’ staple; the Patriots use a plethora of option routes, where receivers are given freedom to get open and break in any direction they want; and even Peyton Manning’s great Colts offenses frequently asked receivers to read routes on the fly.

Arrelious Benn explained that pretty much every team has option routes built in. But when I asked him how prevalent they are under Kelly, he said, “The majority of plays. I mean, basically it’s built into our offense and it’s just what we do.”

3. The one-word no-huddle

This one should come as no surprise. As has been reported, Kelly met with Bill Belichick multiple times before the Patriots incorporated this concept.

“We have some plays that are just one word, and certain letters in the word kind of tells you what you have,” said LeSean McCoy last month. “I don’t think it’s that hard. I picked it up pretty fast.”

Jeremy Maclin agreed.

“It’s a lot easier than people think it is,” Maclin said. “It’s just different. Guys haven’t seen it before. It’s just like learning a regular playbook. It’s just different terminology, the way they communicate is different. So it’s not really that it’s that difficult, it’s just foreign to a lot of people.”

Brown devotes one chapter to Tom Brady and the Patriots’ no-huddle:

Modern defenses want to match offenses in terms of strength and speed via personnel substitutions. They also want to confuse offenses with movement and disguise. The up-tempo no-huddle stymies those defensive options. The defense doesn’t have time to substitute, and it’s also forced to show its hand: it can’t disguise or shift because the quarterback can snap the ball and take advantage of obvious, structural weaknesses. And when the defense is forced to reveal itself, Tom Brady can change into a better play.

The Eagles of course don’t have Brady running the show, but whoever ends up winning the quarterback competition will be expected to make good, quick decisions and take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the defense.

4. The hybrid offensive weapon

Kelly has made it clear that this is what he’s looking for. He’s a big fan of tight ends because of their versatility and the matchup problems they can present to the defense. The Eagles signed James Casey early in free agency and spent a second-round pick on Stanford’s Zach Ertz.

Brown writes about hybrid offensive weapons and the Patriots’ past use of two tight ends:

And this is just one example of what has become a necessity for NFL offenses as defenses have gotten, well, weirder; you must have players who can dictate terms back to the defense by presenting odd matchup problems.

Unpredictability is the key. Is a play a run or a pass? Which direction is it going? How will it work? These hybrid weapons give offenses options in ways that even great players with more specific skills and roles cannot. They simplify defenses by making them uncertain.

Of course, it’s easy to say a guy can line up all over the formation. But the key is how effective he is in those different roles. That’s what Kelly and his staff will have to determine this summer and during the first part of the season.

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Twitter Mailbag: Wide Receiver Edition

Every Thursday we select a few of your Twitter questions and provide the long-form answers they deserve. For a chance to have your question published on Birds 24/7, send it to @Tim_McManus.

Eagles fans seem to have wide receivers on the brain on this fine June day. So let us talk wide receivers.

From @EaglesJake: who has a better chance to make the final roster: Avant or Cooper?

Tough one, but I would say Jason Avant. 

I think both have skill sets that are appealing to Chip Kelly. Maybe they aren’t explosive receivers but they’re willing to get their hands dirty, whether that means blocking downfield or contributing on special teams. That will work in their favor with this coach. I’ve noticed Kelly and Riley Cooper interacting a good bit during practice; there seems to be a solid rapport there.

What separates Avant is his leadership. He has long been regarded as one of the top character guys on the team. I would imagine a new coach would want his young guys exposed to a veteran like Avant, who can set a good example of how to approach the game. We have already seen him take Russell Shepard under his wing.

“Anything I can do to help [younger players], whether that’s catching JUGS or showing them things in the film room, correcting ‘em on the field, just life examples, all those kinds of things.”

Kelly is trying to establish a certain culture, and I think Avant can help him in that respect.

From @brookman_doug: does it seem like DJax is just messing around constantly?

DeSean Jackson can’t be painted with a single brush. He is a complex character and a pretty fascinating study. If you are just going off Instagram or Twitter, then you’ll probably associate Jackson with Jaccpot and Vegas and frivolous spending. If you see him in the locker room during the season, you may be greeted with a scowl and a cold shoulder. If you watch the documentary, you will see a kid that has been rigorously training for this job since he was in Pop Warner, and realize that his family pushed him really hard.

If you saw him at the screening of his brother’s movie a couple weeks back, you would notice that his scowl was nowhere to be found, and that his rebel image gave way to that of a considerate, thoughtful family man. You would have witnessed him throwing his arm around Tom Seagraves, who is in the middle of a battle with pancreatic cancer, while offering him words of encouragement.

So no, I don’t think Jackson messes around constantly. I think he messes around, sometimes too much. I think he is the rebel, and the family man; the kid who loves the game and the kid who feels burdened by it. He has all sorts of sides to him.

From @AdamSmith1814: what eagles reciever has the best looking hands/finger nails on the depth chart.

Avant has the best hands. Will Murphy wins the cuticle battle, without question.

From @KhandymanSports: Among the wide receivers lower on the depth chart (Momah, Shepard, Benn) who do you see making the team and where do they fit?

Out of those three, I would guess Arrelious Benn has the best chance of making the roster. As Sheil points out, he could distinguish himself as the best blocking receiver of the bunch. He is 24, has some versatility to his game and can be a contributor on special teams. Assuming he stays healthy, he might fit the bill for Kelly.

Shepard is interesting. I wonder if he can develop fast enough to claim a roster spot. I haven’t been wowed by Ifeanyi Momah yet, but who knows? Maybe he impresses at camp. It will be fun watching this group compete this summer.

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Eagles Wake-Up Call: Benn Adjusts To New Surroundings

Chip Kelly has made it clear that the coaches can only go so far with their evaluations in the spring.

“We have an understanding of their athletic ability and how they run, change direction and things like that,” Kelly said. “But there are still a lot of things to be evaluated when you put the pads on. It’s still a physical game. A lot of guys look great in shorts and T‑shirts, then they disappear when you put the pads on. So we have an evaluation in terms of athletic ability, how fast some guys are, their ability to change direction and things like that. But until we get the pads on, we can’t tell.”

And that’s just fine with Arrelious Benn.

The Eagles acquired the 6-2, 220-pound wide receiver for his physicality and versatility. After three disappointing seasons in Tampa, the 24-year-old now has an opportunity to follow through on the potential he showed at the high school and college levels.

“[I'm] in a great place, as far as retaining the offense and getting down all the little things I need to do,” Benn said. “There’s still some things I need to clean up and get better with, dealing with a new system, but overall, I feel pretty good.”

Like the rest of the Eagles’ wide receivers, Benn lined up in a variety of spots this spring. Once training camp starts and the pads come on, chance are he’ll distinguish himself as the best blocking wide receiver on the roster (All-22 breakdown here).

“I know every position because you could be lined up anywhere,” Benn said. “It’s not just on the outside or the inside, you could be anywhere.”

Benn has several other factors going for him too. Kelly gave Howie Roseman specific traits he was looking for at each position. And the personnel staff obviously identified those traits in Benn. While he didn’t live up to expectations in Tampa, Benn still averaged 6.6 yards after the catch in 2011, which ranked 11th in the league according to Pro Football Focus.

After dealing with injuries during his first three seasons, he feels fortunate to have a fresh start with Kelly.

“He’s a guy that genuinely cares about players,” Benn said. “He cares about how we are, how we train, the type of food we put in our bodies and basically, just wants everybody to be great no matter who you are.

“I’m blessed to be playing here. I’m blessed to be playing for him and this organization.”

WHAT YOU MISSED

Matt Barkley signed his rookie deal Thursday.

T-Mac addresses the “team unity” question in his Twitter Mailbag.

The Eagles released some details for fans who want to attend training camp.

According to a report, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin was on the Eagles’ radar when they were looking for a new head coach.

McManus catches up with Evan Mathis.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com offers five Eagles observations:

The lack of pads makes it next to impossible to judge the development of the offensive line and running game, but noticeable was the number of quick screens and hitch passes that the offense worked on at practice. Perhaps this is Kelly’s remedy for the two-deep defenses the Eagles have seen ad nauseam since DeSean Jackson’s prolific 2009 season. Hit ’em with the short stuff, force ’em to bring the safeties in, then hit ’em deep. Should be a big season for Jackson and Jeremy Maclin if the offense functions the way Kelly envisions it. Oh, and by the way, the two-tight end formation talk wasn’t hyperbole. There were plenty of two-tight end formations at camp.

Tommy Lawlor takes a look at special teams in his column for PhiladelphiaEagles.com:

Too often, I would see Eagles blockers being shoved backward on returns when I would go back and study the tape. I would then watch a punt or kickoff and see players getting blocked. This is simply unacceptable. You can’t demand that your kickers be perfect or returners be fast, but you can sure as heck expect the blocking/coverage units to be tough and physical. That is the foundation of all special teams.

Fipp must find players who want to run downfield and kick some butt. What I saw last year simply can’t happen again. Players must understand that special teams are not optional. This is a critical part of the game. You play well or else we’ll find someone who will.

COMING UP

We’ll look at three things we’ve learned about the Eagles’ defense this spring.

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Projected Depth Chart: Eagles’ Offense

We went over the defense yesterday.

Here is the projected depth chart for the Eagles’ offense, based on what we saw during spring practices. Explanations below.

 
First Team
Second Team
Third Team
QBMichael Vick/Nick FolesMichael Vick/Nick FolesMatt Barkley
RBLeSean McCoyBryce BrownChris Polk
LTJason PetersDennis KellyEd Wang
LGEvan MathisDanny WatkinsNate Menkin
CJason KelceDallas ReynoldsMatt Tennant
RGTodd HerremansAllen BarbreMatt Kopa
RTLane JohnsonDennis KellyMatt Tobin
TEBrent CelekZach ErtzJames Casey
WRDeSean JacksonDamaris JohnsonGreg Salas
WRJeremy MaclinRiley CooperIfeanyi Momah
WRJason AvantArrelious BennRussell Shepard

Quarterback: You can view it as a cop-out, but really this is the most accurate way to rank them. Vick and Foles split first-team reps at every practice I attended. I know some people charted overall reps, but that can be a bit deceiving. For example, if a quarterback throws a 50-yard touchdown on the first play of a drill, he generally comes off. That’s only one rep, but it’s a successful one. The same thing happens if the quarterback throws an interception.

Expect Vick and Foles to continue the back-and-forth well into the preseason. Chip Kelly wants to see how each guy responds when faced with the possibility of getting crushed by an opposing defensive player. He has plenty of tape to go off of, but Kelly needs to see how each quarterback handles the new concepts he and his coaching staff have implemented.

Barkley appears to be a clear No. 3 at this point, but I’m not ready to rule anything out.

Kelly has said consistently that the competition will play itself out on the field, and the best performer will be named the starter. His track record at Oregon suggests that’s one of his core beliefs and not just lip service.

Settle in. I wouldn’t expect a winner to be announced until close to that Week 1 matchup against the Redskins.

Running back: McCoy and Brown both figure to see plenty of action in this offense.

Behind them, Polk, Felix Jones and undrafted free agent Matthew Tucker will be competing for roster spots. Polk has dropped weight from a year ago and seemed to be ahead of the other two during spring practices.

Jones provides versatility and could have a leg up if he can be effective as a returner and stay healthy.

Since the Eagles don’t have a fullback on the roster, they could potentially keep four running backs.

Wide receiver: This was a tough one. You’ll notice that the depth chart I’m using features “11″ personnel, or one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers.

Avant is a difficult player to evaluate in this scheme. He doesn’t have exceptional size or speed, but he catches anything near him and is the toughest receiver on the roster. Avant is also someone who can set an example for younger players. He’s already taken Sheppard under his wing this offseason.

Benn is not exclusively a slot receiver, even though I put him behind Avant. He was a disappointment in Tampa, but has a versatile skill set. Benn’s chance to prove himself will come in the summer when the pads are on. He’s probably the best blocker among this group.

Cooper and Johnson return from last year’s squad and will have to earn spots. Johnson improved throughout the course of his rookie season and showed the ability to make plays after the catch. He’s also in the mix as a return man. Cooper didn’t do much when given the opportunity to start last year, but he has good measurables and is only 25.

Sheppard looked good during the spring, and Momah’s size (6-foot-7) is intriguing.

This is a crowded position with players with different skill sets. We’ll find out a lot about what Kelly is looking for from his wide receivers after the roster is trimmed down to 53.

Tight end: The depth chart here is a bit misleading. By all accounts, the Eagles are expected to use a lot of two tight-end sets under Kelly. I still think Celek will play the most snaps this season, but he could be on the field with Ertz or Casey quite a bit.

Ertz missed spring practices because of the NCAA graduation rule. And Casey spent several practices on the bike, following arthroscopic knee surgery .

Left tackle/right tackle: Peters has drawn glowing reviews from coaches and teammates, and Johnson has taken over as the starting right tackle.

Kelly looks to be the favorite to be the first backup at both spots (which is why he’s listed twice). He doesn’t appear to have a lot of competition.

Left guard/right guard: Mathis missed time with an ankle injury, but returned last week. Herremans makes the switch to right guard from right tackle.

In terms of depth, Barbre and Watkins are vying for the first backup guard spot.

Center: Kelly has praised Kelce for being in the building rehabbing all offseason. The third-year center is coming off of ACL surgery, but participated in team drills for the first time last week. He’s expected to be fully cleared by training camp.

The backup spot is up for grabs. Reynolds and Tennant are both in the mix.

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Eagles Depth Chart Outlook: Wide Receiver

This is the seventh in a series. Click here for the earlier depth chart posts.

It’s a period of change for the Eagles’ wide receivers: new coaches, new scheme, new routes and uncertainty at quarterback.

Chip Kelly’s offense will require them to block, not only in the run game, but for each other on screens and quick throws. They’ll face a new mental challenge as well, with an increase in option routes that call for the receivers to adjust based on the coverage.

Several familiar names return, including DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Damaris Johnson and Riley Cooper.

New faces such as Arrelious Benn and Ifeanyi Momah have entered the fray. Benn was acquired in a trade with the Bucs, and Momah is a 6-foot-6 target who signed on as an undrafted free agent out of Boston College.

Others on the roster include: Russell Shepard, B.J. Cunningham, Will Murphy, Nick Miller and Greg Salas.

Here’s a look at all the wide receivers:

 
Height
Weight
Age
Years/Starts
Jason Avant6-0212307/38
Arrelious Benn6-2220243/24
Riley Cooper6-3222253/10
B.J. Cunningham6-2215231/0
DeSean Jackson5-10175265/70
Damaris Johnson5-8175231/1
Jeremy Maclin6-0198254/57
Nick Miller5-9180260/0
Ifeanyi Momah6-6229230/0
Will Murphy6-2193230/0
Greg Salas6-1209242/0
Russell Shepard6-1195220/0

Pencil ‘em in: Jackson, Maclin.

I’ve only got two in this group.

In his first three years in the league, Jackson scored seven non-receiving touchdowns on carries and punt returns. In the last two years, that number has been zero.

Early indications are that he’s going to get more of a chance to do those things and will be moved around the formation. But Jackson’s greatest skill is still his ability to stretch the defense on vertical routes. He hasn’t been effective on wide receiver screens in the past, but he’ll certainly get a chance to pick up yards after the catch on those in this offense.

Maclin is in a contract year. Chances are he’ll go into Week 1 without a new deal. Maclin has flashed his ability on several occasions in his first four seasons, but he has yet to put everything together. He’s averaged over 67 catches per season since 2010 and will get a chance to make plays with the ball in his hands in this offense.

Fighting for spots: Avant, Benn, Cooper, Johnson, Momah, Cunningham, Murphy, Miller, Salas, Shepard.

As you can see, plenty of competition with this group. But there are favorites.

Benn has an excellent chance to stick. He was added after the Eagles hired Kelly and brings a diverse skill set (All-22 breakdown here) with the ability to block and play special teams. A former second-round pick, Benn was a disappointment in Tampa, but seems like an ideal candidate to provide depth to this unit.

On Monday, Avant was the last player off the field. After practice, he spent extra time feeding the JUGS machine for Shepard, an undrafted free agent. By all accounts, he’s as good a teammate as there is in that locker room.

But Avant is 30 and is no lock to make the squad. He’s been a reliable slot receiver with great hands, but does not offer much in the speed or size categories. Avant has gotten some looks on defense from the coaching staff. Kelly will have to decide whether he’s a valuable veteran or whether the team is better served giving a younger guy a shot.

Johnson averaged 5.5 yards after the catch last year, according to Pro Football Focus. That was tops on the team. It was a small sample size (19 catches), but he was productive in spurts and also improved as a punt returner. Johnson is far from a lock, but he has a decent chance of sticking around.

Because of Jackson’s injury, Cooper got a chance to prove himself last year. He played more than 70 percent of the offensive snaps in the final seven games, according to Pro Football Focus, but did not impress, totaling 206 yards on 19 catches (29.4 yards per game). But Cooper has a good size/speed profile and can play special times. He’ll be very much in the competition for a roster spot.

Perhaps the most intriguing player in this group is Momah. We wrote about him last week. He’s the biggest target among Eagles wide receivers and has been at the NovaCare Complex honing his craft for the last month. With his size and speed, Momah could be a nice option to create matchup problems and line up in different spots across the formation. But he’ll have to prove himself worthy of a roster spot this summer.

Cunningham, Shepard, Salas, Murphy and Miller are longshots. Among those names, Shepard, an undrafted free agent out of LSU, has the best chance of making an impression.

The guess is Kelly will keep five or six receivers. That could mean choosing three or four from the following group: Avant, Benn, Cooper, Johnson and Momah.

In other words, spots will be up for grabs during training camp.

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Three Eagles Numbers That Matter

Here are three Eagles-related numbers that matter:

74 – Oregon’s red-zone efficiency (touchdowns scored) from 2010 to 2012. That was second-best in the nation, behind only Wisconsin (78 percent), according to CoachingSearch.com.

Obviously, there will be adjustments to be made in the NFL, but that’s a promising number for the Eagles. Last year, the Birds ranked 28th in the league in red-zone efficiency, and they haven’t been in the top-10 since the Super Bowl year in 2004. Take a look:

 
Percentage TDs
Rank
201244%28th
201151.52%14th
201052.46%16th
200949.06%21st
200847.89%25th
200745.10%25th
200654%12th
200553.66%12th

I’m intrigued by how Kelly will use his personnel in the red zone. For example, we know by now that DeSean Jackson is not a productive red-zone receiver. And it’s not just about size. His skill set does not include making tough, physical catches in traffic. With Jackson, it’s about stretching the field, and that’s negated when the defense can use the back of the end zone as an extra defender.

Jackson has four catches in the red zone in the past two seasons combined. There’s not really a reason for him to be on the field down there, unless he’s being used as a decoy. Perhaps Kelly will use someone like Arrelious Benn to replace him. Or maybe the Eagles will go to 2-TE or 3-TE sets now that they have Brent Celek, James Casey and Zach Ertz in the fold.

If the team practices red zone during one of the practice sessions we’re allowed to attend, I’ll keep an eye on this.

And thanks to friend of the blog Sam Lynch for the CoachingSearch.com link.

8.5 – The percentage of plays in which the Eagles’ defense missed a tackle in 2012, according to Football Outsiders. That was the highest mark in the league. In 2011, the Eagles’ number was 8.1 percent, which was second-to-last.

The numbers are broken down by individual players too. For example, rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks missed 15.1 percent of his tackle attempts, the worst mark among linebackers.

And the numbers in the secondary back up what you saw with your eyes on a weekly basis. Dominique Rodgers Cromartie, Nnamdi Asomugha and Nate Allen were among the 10 worst tackling defensive backs in the NFL (no other team had more than one DB listed).

Rodgers-Cromartie missed 20.7 percent of his tackles, third-worst. Allen missed 16.4 percent, fifth-worst. And Asomugha missed 13.8 percent, 10th-worst.

The good news? Free-agent signee Cary Williams was among the best tacklers. He missed just 2.7 percent of his attempts, tied for third-best.

We spend plenty of time talking about scheme, but the basic fundamentals of blocking and tackling simply have to get better with this team.

26.5 – The number of seconds in between plays for the Eagles last year. Chase Stuart of Football Perspective did the leg-work, using time of possession and total number of plays to come up with a metric for tempo. And surprisingly, the Eagles ran the fourth-fastest offense in the league in 2012, behind only the Patriots (24.9 seconds), Saints (26.1) and Ravens (26.4).

Part of the Eagles’ tempo relates to the fact that they were often trailing in the second half. But there were weeks when the no-huddle was a part of the game-plan. Sometimes, it was a very slow-moving no-huddle, while other times the Eagles pushed tempo.

Chip Kelly has been quick to point out that the Eagles might not always go at a fast pace, but they want to have that option in their back pocket.

“I think the game is about making quick decisions,” Kelly said. “It’s a game of 60 to 70 to 80 four‑second plays. So once the ball is snapped, it happens at that tempo. We’re just trying to force them to – everything we do has to kind of be ‑ reflect what the mission is, and the mission is to be prepared to play a four‑second play.  You need to have that kind of (snapping fingers) to get that done, so I think that’s why we’re practicing like that.”

Stuart’s chart also shows that using an up-tempo offense is not a new phenomenon. He goes back to 1991 and shows that four of the five fastest offenses of the last 21 years were teams that played in the 1990s. Three were the Buffalo Bills (1991, 1992, 1993), and the other was the 1995 Patriots.

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Eagles Wake-Up Call: WRs Better Be Ready To Block

Even though he’s the wide receivers coach, Bob Bicknell didn’t need a football during a “teach” period at Monday’s practice.

The emphasis during this particular session was on blocking. It’s an aspect of playing the position that is often overlooked, and it’s not something that shows up in the box score or gets guys big pay checks.

But in Chip Kelly’s system, it’s crucial. Last year, Oregon had 43 runs of 20+ yards. That was No. 1 in the nation. In 2011, the number was 40 (third). And in 2010, 39 (fourth). Spread the defense out, run the football, and hit on big plays. Such a plan requires wide receivers to take care of defensive backs on the outside.

“Obviously, with the different type of stuff that we’re doing, there’s different techniques that you have to work on as opposed to the other techniques that are standard in the west coast offense,” said Jeremy Maclin.

The truth is, Maclin and the Eagles wide receivers were poor blockers in 2012. With a likely emphasis on the run game, wide receiver screens and quick passes, that will have to change in 2013.

The team has given itself more options going forward. The Eagles acquired Arrelious Benn from Tampa, and he’s proven to be a good blocker in the past. On a wide receiver screen to Maclin on Monday, Benn shoved cornerback Bradley Fletcher out of bounds, creating space for his teammate.

The Eagles also have a versatile group of tight ends who are capable of lining up in a variety of different places. For example, you might see Zach Ertz and DeSean Jackson on the same side of the field with the tight end blocking for the speedy wide receiver.

“If they ask you to block, then that’s what you have to do,” Maclin said. “There’s some offenses where they don’t ask guys to block. Some of the greatest receivers of all time never had to block. That’s just how it is.”

Every wide receivers coach in the NFL will say blocking is part of being a complete player. Some really mean it, others not so much.

But if the past is any indication, certain aspects of Kelly’s offense simply won’t work if the wide receivers don’t do their jobs as blockers.

WHAT YOU MISSED

A new documentary will reveal some intriguing stories about Jackson. T-Mac has the scoop.

The offense is in the process of picking up a new way of calling plays.

Find out how you can win tickets to the Eagles Academy For Men.

Interesting comments from Jason Kelce about the difference between Kelly and Andy Reid.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Good take on Brandon Graham from Tommy Lawlor over on IgglesBlitz.com:

The biggest thing I look for in a pass rusher is whether the player is explosive. Graham isn’t. He wins with good burst and great leverage. He is very good with the bull rush. There are some plays when he’s able to get his hands in the chest of the blocker and jolt him. Graham can then get by the blocker. Graham uses the rip move very well, which ties in to his use of leverage. Graham tried spin moves in a couple of games and had mixed results.

One of Graham’s best assets is his motor. He doesn’t give up when initially blocked. He will fight to disengage from the blocker and then will chase the ball all over the field. He makes hustle plays.

Albert Breer of NFL.com offers his impressions from Eagles’ OTAs:

Fourth-round draft pick Matt Barkley made his share of rookie mistakes, throwing into coverage and holding the ball too long. But on throws in which he was locked in and had it right, he flashed fantastic accuracy. And in the long run, that’s important, especially in the style of play preferred by head coach Chip Kelly.

COMING UP

Never a dull moment with this team. We’ll have plenty to get you through the day.

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Benn Seeks Fresh Start: ‘I Don’t Like My Career’

Arrelious Benn’s career had been going down a promising path.

He was a five-star recruit out of high school, showed off his versatile skill set at Illinois and got selected in the second round of the 2010 draft by the Bucs.

But since arriving to the NFL, he hasn’t lived up to expectations, totaling just 59 catches and 862 receiving yards in three seasons. Now, the 24-year-old is excited about getting a new start.

“If I’m being honest with you, I don’t like my career,” Benn said today. “I’ve got to stay healthy. I haven’t stayed healthy. I’ve had a problem with injuries. When I was healthy and out there, I made plays. I was consistent. But the big thing for me is to stay healthy. It’s no secret for me, I know that. I’m going to be honest with myself. Just come in here and do what I’ve got to do.”

Benn (6-2, 220) suffered an MCL sprain last year and only appeared in eight games before landing on IR. In 2011, he tore his ACL and missed the final two games. Benn pointed out that injuries were never an issue for him in college and said he’s 100 percent healthy right now.

Asked for a self-scouting report, Benn said, “Physical, a guy that gets the ball in my hands and can run after the catch.”

As we pointed out in the All-22 breakdown last week, the numbers back that up. Per Pro Football Focus, he averaged 6.6 yards after the catch in 2011, 11th in the NFL. And as a rookie, that number was 6.3, which was tied for sixth.

Benn hasn’t been given much information about his potential role yet. He was effective on special-teams coverage in Tampa, and even though he didn’t do much as a return man there, he could get an opportunity here to do that.

Although he doesn’t have the hands of Jason Avant, Benn, who is a good blocker, thinks he can be effective in the slot.

“I think I have the skill set to play both [inside and outside],” he said. “I think I’m a mismatch in the slot with my speed and size. We’re going to see where I fit in, and I’m going to go with it.”

Asked if he was expecting to be moved, Benn said, “I was expecting it. I’m not going to lie, I was expecting it. I wanted to move forward. I didn’t want to be there.

“I just needed a change of scenery. I just needed a fresh start. The situation just wasn’t going right. That’s all I’m going to say about it.”

Benn signed a one-year extension today that keeps him under contract with the Eagles through 2014.

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