Eagles-Panthers Cheat Sheet: 10 Things To Watch

Greg SalasHere are 10 things we’re tracking during tonight’s Eagles-Panthers game:

1. The quarterbacks

You didn’t think we were going to start somewhere else, did you?

Nick Foles will get the start. He led the Eagles on an up-tempo, efficient touchdown drive last week vs. the Patriots. What do we want to see this week? Foles chuck it downfield. Last week, none of his attempts traveled more than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. Foles has the arm, but he had issues with mechanics on the deep ball last year. It’d be nice to see him take a shot or two downfield in this one.

As for Vick, the Eagles slowed things down with him in the game last week. The guess here is he’ll be asked to operate the tempo package this time around. Vick looked great vs. New England, but he needs to show he’s capable of making sound decisions in an offense that gives the quarterback options. Hopefully we get a chance to see him in that environment tonight.

2. The progress of the O-Line

Lane Johnson looked like the real deal in the run game last week. The Eagles are looking for steady improvement from their first-round pick in the preseason.

Todd Herremans, meanwhile, did not play well last week. He’s got eight years of experience and 100 starts under his belt, so one quarter of one preseason game is nothing to panic about, but it’d be nice to see him play better vs. Carolina.

And then there are the depth spots. Allen Barbre will likely get the nod at left tackle with the first team tonight. He could end up being the top backup lineman on the roster – at both guard and tackle. The backup center battle continues with Julian Vandervelde, Dallas Reynolds and Matt Tennant.

3. Wide receiver depth

If Greg Salas continues to show up, he’s going to make it hard for the Eagles to cut him. Perhaps he’ll be bumped up the depth chart and get a chance to prove himself against better competition in the first half.

Russell Shepard is also fighting for a roster spot. Matt Barkley had a shot to connect with Shepard deep last week, but underthrew him. The undrafted free agent should see plenty of action in the second half.

4. Finding Zach Ertz

Ertz figures to have a prominent role in the Eagles’ passing game this season, but he looked shaky as a blocker vs. New England. Ertz missed much of the spring because of the NCAA’s graduation rules, but has had a pretty good camp.

Keep an eye on where he lines up and how he stacks up as a blocker tonight.

5. Fletcher Cox’s progress

The second-year player looked bad early on vs. New England. But 16 snaps in one preseason game is not enough to erase Cox’s outstanding rookie season.

As the Eagles move towards a 3-4, Cox is being asked to two-gap (explanation here) up front. He’ll need to continue to get more comfortable in the new scheme, and Billy Davis will have to make sure he’s putting Cox in position to succeed.

6. Defending a mobile QB

Within their division, the Eagles will face quarterbacks with different skill sets. For example, it could be Robert Griffin III one week and Eli Manning a few weeks later. That means incorporating a defense flexible enough to adapt to different offensive attacks.

Last week, the Eagles faced Tom Brady. This week, it’ll be Cam Newton. Newton ran for 741 yards last year, second among quarterbacks to only RGIII. The Eagles could get a glimpse of the read-option, but it’s not just designed runs they have to worry about. They’ll need to be disciplined with their pass rush as well.

7. Signs from Vinny Curry

The 2012 second-round pick was probably the Eagles’ best defensive player against New England. He looked comfortable in a variety of roles on the defensive line, using his quickness to create disruption behind the line of scrimmage.

Chip Kelly said earlier this week that he knows Curry can rush the passer, but indicated he’s looking for the second-year player to show he has a complete skill set. The Eagles are expected to rotate defensive linemen up front, but if Curry keeps improving, he could be in line for significant playing time once the real games start.

8. The Trent Cole/Brandon Graham transition

It’s been a storyline all offseason and will continue for the next several weeks. Cole, specifically, did not look good early on vs. New England. It’s not just dropping back into coverage. It’s new responsibilities in the run game and using different methods to rush the passer. Cole and Graham will continue to be under the microscope vs. Carolina.

9. Cary Williams’ debut

The Eagles’ new cornerback does not shy away from microphones. That much we know. He said last week that the defense needs to play with more of an edge, disagreeing publicly with the way Kelly handled the joint practices with the Patriots.

On the field, Williams missed most of the spring and has dealt with a hamstring injury this summer. By statistical measures, Williams was mediocre at best last year with the Ravens. He’s expected to start tonight and will get a chance to make headlines for his play, one way or another.

10. Safety? Hello? Anyone?

It’s a question for the Eagles pretty much every summer. Who will step up at safety? Patrick Chung looked like a sure tackler against his former team and is expected to win one of the starting jobs.

But the other one is up for grabs. Nate Allen continued to struggle against New England. And Earl Wolff got a chance to run with the first team earlier this week. The rookie could get a shot in the first half to prove he deserves serious consideration for the starting job.

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Eagles Wake-Up Call: Three Things We’ve Learned At Camp

Chris PolkThe Eagles will have a walk-through today with the Patriots, but for all intents and purposes, the first wave of training camp is over.

Eleven full-squad practices, each running a little more than two hours. That means plenty of film for the coaches to evaluate as they prepare for Friday night’s preseason game.

Keeping that in mind, here are three things we’ve learned so far on the practice fields:

1. Chris Polk is in the mix for the No. 2 RB job.

Going into camp, I thought the first two spots were accounted for with LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown. I also thought Polk would be on the roster bubble, fighting for a job.

But the second-year running back has been impressive. Back in June, Polk said he shed 15 pounds and was down to 215. And it’s shown. He’s reeled off big runs on a daily basis, can catch the ball out of the backfield and is the Eagles’ best blocking back.

Granted, there has been no tackling to the ground, and Polk will need to prove himself in games, but clearly, Chip Kelly and the coaches have taken notice. Kelly called Polk the most improved back on the roster earlier this week, and on Wednesday, with McCoy sidelined, Polk took the bulk of the first-team reps.

With the expectation being that the Eagles are going to rely on a heavy dose of the run game, Polk has a chance to steal carries away from Brown if he outplays him in the coming weeks.

2. The secondary is a giant question mark.

This might not really be something we “learned” since we knew it in the spring. But there was some thought that we’d get a clearer picture of what the defensive backfield might look like by this point in camp. That hasn’t happened.

Cary Williams didn’t show up for much of the spring. He was pulled on Tuesday after getting into a scuffle. And he has also been dealing with a hamstring injury that has kept him off the field. Bradley Fletcher, meanwhile, has not shown any consistency whatsoever. And Curtis Marsh got abused by the Patriots during Wednesday’s practice.

Brandon Boykin has been easily the Eagles’ best corner at camp. It looks like he’ll get a legitimate shot to start on the outside.

Safety might be the biggest mystery on the team. Patrick Chung will likely start at one spot, but even that’s no lock. Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman, Kenny Phillips, Earl Wolff, Colt Anderson and David Sims are all competing for playing time. But there’s been no clear separation from the pack during camp.

The faces are different, and so is the scheme. But there’s no guarantee that the results will be different for the Eagles’ defensive backs.

3. There’s no defined plan for Brandon Graham.

He was the Eagles’ best pass-rusher a year ago, but Graham’s role is very much a mystery. Most of his reps have come at left outside linebacker with the second team behind Connor Barwin. If there’s a way to get Barwin, Graham and Trent Cole on the field together, defensive coordinator Billy Davis has yet to unveil it.

Davis has maintained that he needs pads and live tackling to properly evaluate his players. But Graham has not looked comfortable dropping back into coverage.

Will Graham get a chance to consistently rush the passer? Will he play a prominent role in 2013? Those are questions that still need answers in the coming weeks.

WHAT YOU MISSED

Here is your running diary of practice observations from Wednesday’s session.

The secondary, minus Cary Williams, got lit up by Tom Brady.

A roundup of what the national media are saying about the Eagles.

T-Mac takes a look at the Eagles’ wide receiver options in free agency.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Dick Vermeil weighs in on the QB situation, via Les Bowen of the Daily News:

Of course, Vermeil is 76 now and he isn’t coaching the Eagles, hasn’t in three decades. But he was watching Chip Kelly’s training camp practice with the Patriots Wednesday, and it was an obvious question to ask him. “It doesn’t make any difference what I think. I don’t see ‘em every day,” Vermeil said by way of disclaimer. “I’ve seen Michael Vick play a lot over the years, and I just kind of believe when it all boils down … if I were going to bet on it, I would bet on him.”

Tommy Lawlor of IgglesBlitz.com offers thoughts on Mychal Kendricks:

He can be a playmaking ILB. If you want to run a good 3-4, you need that. Brian Cushing, Houston. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh. Both guys in SF. And so on. I think we all remember what a wrecking crew Daryl Washington was all by himself last September.

COMING UP

A light joint practice at 10:25. We’ll be there.

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Linebacker Watch: Graham, Cole And the Push Towards a 3-4

Chip Kelly wants his defense to eventually run a 3-4. Whether that happens in Year One hinges largely on Trent Cole and Brandon Graham.

“I think there’s a versatility in the 3-4 defense that you like, but, again, I think when Billy [Davis] said it, we’re going from a wide nine to a three‑four.  When do we get to a 3-4? I don’t know,” said Kelly following Friday’s practice. “We’re moving in that direction, but where we go really depends on us making a real thorough evaluation of how those guys at the outside linebacker are playing.

“We may have to stop at being a one‑gap over and under defense depending upon still making an evaluation of what our guys can do.  We haven’t been drafting for this and converting some of those defensive ends to see what they can do.  Our job is to do a great job of figuring out what they do best and then playing to those strengths.”

For both Graham and Cole, their strength is rushing the passer. Cole, now in his ninth NFL season, has tallied double-digit sacks four different times, including three 10-plus sack seasons before a down campaign in 2012. Graham finished in the top 10 in hurries last year despite playing in just 40 percent of the Eagles’ snaps. They do have some experience playing in space. Graham was a linebacker in high school. And according to outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern, Cole dropped more than 100 times in 2010 while playing for Sean McDermott. But it’s not a natural part of their game.

Kelly was complimentary of Cole’s performance during Friday’s practice. The 30-year-old has been generally running with the first team opposite Connor Barwin. Graham has been with the second team for the most part.

Both players say they weigh 264 at the moment. It took some work for Graham to get to that number. After watching the former first-round pick this spring, the Eagles concluded that Graham needed to shed some weight. So he stayed in Philadelphia during the time between minicamp and training camp to work with the team’s training staff, and lost 11 pounds.

“He was up there when he first showed up [in the spring], and it looks like now he’s really bought into everything,” said McGovern. “I’m excited to see him move around because he looks like a different guy right now.”

McGovern said that both Cole and Graham have been putting in the work. But with the opener against the Redskins quickly approaching, it will be a challenge to get them  acclimated to their new positions in time.

“I definitely feel the spotlight in on us on how the defense is going to come together,” said Graham. “I’m  just trying to make sure I hold my own weight and contribute so that we can get this thing rolling and coach won’t have to bring anyone else in and can trust us to be out there.”

At some point in the near future, the coaches will have to decide whether to push forward with the 3-4, or settle into a different scheme. How much time do they need to evaluate?

“By the third week [of camp] if you ain’t got it you ain’t got it,” said Graham.

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Three Eagles Numbers That Matter

Given that the Football Outsiders Almanac was released this week, I could probably make this 25 Eagles Numbers That Matter. But we’ll spread it out over a number of posts instead.

I’ve mentioned it before, but the annual publication is a great resource for football fans and I highly recommend giving it a look.

Keeping that in mind, here are three numbers from the FOA that stood out to me:

77.8 – The percentage of pass plays in which the Eagles rushed only four defenders last year; no team did so more. The number backs what we’ve been discussing all offseason about the scheme change on defense. During the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the philosophy was to rely on the front four to get to the quarterback and drop seven into coverage. When it worked, the Eagles were in good shape. They didn’t have to commit extra defenders to rushing the passer.

But when it didn’t work, they looked predictable and got picked apart to the tune of a league-worst 33 touchdown passes.

The overall philosophy under Billy Davis will be different.

“We’ll pressure anybody on the defense,” Davis said. “We’ve got pressures for everybody. We’ll bring anybody we need.”

That doesn’t mean the Eagles will necessarily blitz on a high percentage of plays, but Davis seems to desire a certain level of unpredictability. He acknowledges how good NFL quarterbacks have become at making pre-snap adjustments and sees where the league is trending. Every day in practice, Davis goes up against an up-tempo offense that’s centered around changing things up on the fly.

Last year, the Eagles rushed five 13.1 percent of the time. That ranked dead-last in the league, and it’s a number that will look completely different next season. We’ve mentioned before that the Eagles’ defense will be influenced by the Steelers and Dick LeBeau. Davis got his start as a defensive quality control coach in Pittsburgh, and you can expect to see zone blitz concepts when watching the Eagles’ D next season.

Often times, that means rushing five, dropping six into coverage and disguising where the pressure is coming from. In 2012, the Steelers rushed five 32.7 percent of the time, second-most in the NFL. Don’t be surprised if the Eagles’ number looks similar in 2013.

26 – The number of hurries notched by Brandon Graham in 2012, 10th-most in the league. That’s impressive, considering Graham only played 40.4 percent of the snaps, per Pro Football Focus.

More from FOA:

Graham easily averaged the most hurries per snap last year, and Seattle’s Bruce Irvin was the only other player with 15-plus hurries on fewer than 500 snaps.

Remember, Graham only averaged 10 snaps per game through the first month of the season. The list of mistakes last year is a long one, but waiting so long to replace Jason Babin with Graham has to rank near the top (well, at least on the first page).

Now, the fourth-year player seems to be stuck a bit in no man’s land. Most of his snaps during the spring came with the second team at left outside linebacker. Will Graham only be used in sub packages? Will he rotate in with Connor Barwin and Trent Cole in the base defense? Does Davis have a special role carved out for him that will capitalize on his pass-rushing skills?

I was at every practice open to the media this spring, have talked to Graham and have talked to Davis. But with the opener against the Redskins just about seven weeks away, I have no clue what Graham’s role is going to be on this defense. We’ll see if the picture is any clearer when camp opens next week.

17 – The number of defeats Fletcher Cox had as a rookie. Defeats are “the total number of plays which stop the offense from gaining first down yardage on third or fourth down, stop the offense behind the line of scrimmage, or result in a fumble (regardless of which team recovers) or interception.” Cox ranked fifth in defeats among defensive tackles, behind only Geno Atkins, Kyle Williams, Ndamukong Suh and Vince Wilfork. Those four players have combined for nine Pro Bowls.

If you’ve been reading Birds 24/7 for awhile, you know we’re driving the Fletcher Cox bandwagon. In addition to being the Eagles’ most active defensive lineman last year, he only missed one tackle.

Davis has maintained all along that he will scheme to the strengths of his personnel. That means taking advantage of Cox, the Eagles’ most talented player on defense. If Davis is successful, and if Cox improves from his rookie season, he’s got a legit shot at becoming a Pro Bowler in 2013.

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Eagles Wake-Up Call: LB Training Camp Preview

Each day this week, we’ll take a look at a different position group as we count down to training camp.

What’s changed?

Chip Kelly dropped a not-so-subtle hint about his preferred defensive scheme when he named both an outside linebackers coach and an inside linebackers coach back in February.

DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks return from last year’s squad, now playing as inside linebackers in a 3-4 instead of behind the Wide-9.

“I’m definitely sideline to sideline, going to be able to run a little bit more, be a little more freed up,” Kendricks said.

“We had a lot of people in our face last year, so I mean if tackling was an issue, it shouldn’t be this year.”

Outside linebacker is where the most significant changes have taken place. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham are trying to make the switch from 4-3 defensive ends. The Eagles also signed Connor Barwin from the Texans.

The pressing question: How do Cole and Graham fit?

Cole had probably the worst year of his career in 2012, dealing with an injury and finishing with just three sacks in 16 games. He’s been in the league eight years, but at 30-years-old, should still have a few good years left. Cole spent most of the spring at right outside linebacker with the first team, but the Eagles tried him out in a variety of roles. Cole lined up at DE in four-man fronts (sub packages) and even played with his hand down in some three-man fronts.

Graham, meanwhile, was the Eagles’ most productive pass-rusher a year ago. But he spent most of the spring backing up Barwin at left outside linebacker.

Barwin appears to be the most versatile option in this group (All-22 here), so look for him to start.

There doesn’t appear to be an easy way to get Barwin, Graham and Cole all on the field at the same time. But one of Billy Davis’ goals this summer will be to figure out defined roles for Graham and Cole in the new scheme.

Don’t be surprised if…

Kendricks makes the leap. He missed too many tackles last year, but was always around the ball. As he mentioned above, the new scheme should help free him up.

Kendricks has the versatility Kelly covets. He can cover, plays bigger than his size and even showed pass-rushing chops in college. With the right coaching, he should emerge as one of the better players on this defense.

Roster battles to watch

Barring something unforeseen, I feel comfortable saying Ryans, Kendricks, Barwin, Cole and Graham will make the roster.

But the Eagles are not deep at linebacker. On the inside, Jason Phillips, Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews, Emmanuel Acho and Jake Knott (undrafted free agent) are competing for a couple spots. Phillips signed here as a free agent and is a special-teams standout, so he has a good chance of sticking. Chaney and Matthews could be on their last legs here, and Knott is an under-the-radar player to watch.

If the Eagles keep four outside linebackers, the fourth spot is up for grabs. Phillip Hunt, Everette Brown and Chris McCoy are options, but it’s possible the Eagles make a roster move or two here in the next couple months.

WHAT YOU MISSED

We started our camp preview series with a look at the defensive line.

Kelly says the veterans have set the tone and made his transition to the NFL an easy one.

According to Forbes, the Eagles are the 15th-most valuable franchise in the world at $1.26 billion.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

In his study for Bleeding Green Nation, Jimmy Kempski found that the Eagles have the eighth-oldest offensive line in the league:

If Chip Kelly does indeed like athletic offensive lines, he’s got one. Injury concerns remain a major factor, but if this group is healthy, it might be the most athletic offensive line… ever.

Then again, the Eagles are one of two teams (the Giants being the other) who have 3 starters over the age of 30.

Jason from OverTheCap.com says the best contract on the Eagles’ books is Brent Celek’s:

By signing Celek early the Eagles were able to use some extra cap space in 2009 that was just going to go to waste and place some money into the uncapped 2010 season. All told the Eagles were able to get away “cap free” with $5.1 million of new money in Celek’s contract. The extension years of Celeks contract max out at $5 million in cap charges, which is due in 2016. The prorated money and dead money in the contract end in 2013, just three years into the extension. That allows the Eagles to fetch a good price with no worries about cap concerns if they were to trade the talented player in 2014.

COMING UP

More from Kelly and three numbers that matter.

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What They’re Saying About the Eagles

Here’s a roundup of what they’re saying about the Eagles this week.

Pro Football Focus recently profiled Brandon Graham.

Despite rushing the passer only just more than 200 times (t-83rd most among edge rushers) Graham’s 45 total pressures tied him for 33rd-most among edge rushers and in terms of outside pressure his 20 total pressures put him in the Top 30. Simply put, no edge rusher generated more pressure from such precious few opportunities as Graham managed.

His solid conversion rate had him inside the league’s Top 30 and his five sacks to the outside of opposing pass rushers was Top 15. Whichever way you slice it Graham was a simply terrifying prospect for tackles to block when he was looking to beat you to the edge and he was doing his work almost exclusively against tackles as well. Of his total pressures 10 were uncharged but of the remaining 35 that were assigned to an offensive player, 32 were charged to tackles. This wasn’t a situational pass rusher profiting from favorable matchups, this was a situational pass rusher just demolishing everybody he faced.

It’s official: everyone on the planet has now weighed in on the Eagles’ quarterback competition. Snoop Dogg (I refuse to call him Snoop Lion — when the hell did that happen anyway?) and DeSean Jackson were together for Snoop’s “Family Fun Minicamp” recently. The NFL Network asked Jackson who the Eagles’ starter would be Week 1. Snoop jumped in front of the camera.

“Vick. Vick. Vick. It better be Vick!”

Jackson didn’t get caught up in the moment.

“Having a new coach Chip Kelly coming in, he’s kind of kept everything open,” said Jackson. “I was with the twos, I was with the threes, so it’s hard to really tell. He’s coming from college and he doesn’t care who you are, he wants you to work hard, so you’ve just got to understand that. Honestly during minicamp it was real even — Nick Foles and Mike Vick taking snaps with the ones — so really man I don’t know. I still haven’t heard who the quarterback is.”

Mike Freeman of CBS Sports reviews the DeSean Jackson documentary.

I’ve been critical of Philadelphia wide receiver DeSean Jackson in the past. I’ve called him one of the 50 biggest jerks in sports. He preens too much. He’s lost the football due to premature celebration en route to scoring a touchdown. Twice. He has, at times, been a clown on the field.

Yet there has always been this other side of Jackson–dedicated and big-brained. The word dedicated is what applies most to Jackson and that is word many would not use to describe him. Until now.

Derrick Gunn weighs in as well.

Seeing DeSean grow up right before your eyes gives you better insight into who he is today. You learn how he became a gifted speed merchant and why he plays with a chip on his shoulder. Whether you’re a fan of him or not, you will appreciate this human interest voyage.

 NFL Mocks predicts Jeremy Maclin will be reunited with Andy Reid next season.

There is no shortage of teams that would love to have him, including the Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, and Detroit Lions.  However, one location that makes more sense than any other is the Kansas City Chiefs. Their head coach Andy Reid was the one who drafted Maclin back in 2009.  He knows what the young receiver can do for his team and for quarterback Alex Smith. Kansas City already has a go-to guy in Dwayne Bowe but the fight for the second spot is anything but a clear picture with Jonathan Baldwin, Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster.  If Jeremy Maclin finds he doesn’t fit the Kelly offense in Philadelphia, Reid should welcome him with open arms to Arrowhead Stadium and the new Chiefs.

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Three Things We Learned About the Eagles’ Defense

We covered the offense earlier this week. Now it’s time for Billy Davis’ defense. Here are three things we learned this spring:

1. Disguise will be a buzz word to describe this unit.

Jason Kelce was asked last week to go over the sequence of how the offense sets the protection.

The first thing he said? “It’s all depending on whether it’s a three-down or a four-down defense.”

One of the trademarks of Davis’ defense will be pre-snap disguise. The idea is simple: Make it as difficult as possible for the opposing quarterback and offense to know where the pressure is coming from. We don’t know whether this will be a more of a traditional 3-4 or more of a 4-3 under, but that’s the reason we saw the Eagles going with three down linemen in most packages during OTAs and mini-camp.

“The guys that are standing up as ends, it doesn’t mean it’s a 3-4,” Davis said. “The stand-up is more confusion for the offense – is that guy dropping or rushing? When his hand’s down, most of the time, he’s probably [rushing]. And it affects protections and everything else.”

It was telling last month when Davis said he was always impressed with the way Jim Johnson was able to create the “illusion of pressure.”

That might mean having DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks stand up at the line of scrimmage in the A-gaps before dropping back. It might mean Connor Barwin dancing around the line of scrimmage in various spots before the ball is snapped. It might mean asking the middle linebacker to hustle back and act as the free safety on a specific play (something we saw once or twice at practice).

“There’s a lot more disguise, position swapping than there was in Houston,” Barwin said.

Added safety Earl Wolff: “Disguise and trick the quarterback, which allows us to make more plays on defense.”

There’s plenty to be worked schematically once the pads come on, but get ready to hear the word disguise quite a bit this summer during training camp.

2. Roles for Trent Cole and Brandon Graham are still to be determined.

Let’s start with Cole. In his ninth NFL season, the veteran is being asked to take on responsibilities that were previously foreign to him as he lines up at outside linebacker.

For most of the spring, Cole was at right outside linebacker with the first team – rushing the quarterback from a two-point stance, dropping back into coverage and setting the edge against the run. But he wasn’t used exclusively in that role. He also played defensive end in four-man fronts (primarily in nickel), and there were even times when he was one of the defensive linemen with his hand in the dirt in three-man fronts.

Cole has admitted that he played poorly last season, totaling a career-low three sacks while battling a hand/wrist injury. But it’s not like he’s a fossil. Cole won’t turn 31 until October, and from 2007 to 2011, he averaged 11 sacks a season. In other words, there’s a pretty strong track record there. He may never get back to being a double-digit sack guy, but he should still be able to be a productive player.

Graham, meanwhile, remains a mystery. He most often lined up at left outside linebacker with the second team behind Barwin this spring. That spot appears to be a bit of a “joker” with the player being asked to perform a variety of tasks and display some degree of versatility.

Is Graham suited for that kind of role? His best skill is quite clearly rushing the passer. Last year, no one else on the team matched his production in that area. But now, Graham’s being asked to learn a new position, and the spring offered few hints about what Davis has planned for him.

The bottom line here is that Davis has emphasized personnel being the key, and he has said he’ll play the best 11. But that can only be true to a point. For (an exaggerated) example, if your best 11 players are all defensive backs, well, there’s not much you can do to get them all on the field at the same time.

Hearing him talk, I got the sense that Davis learned in his previous two stops as a defensive coordinator (Arizona and San Francisco) that sometimes you just don’t have the players, and no scheme or coaching tweak can make up for that.

But Barwin, Graham and Cole are without question three of the best 11 defensive players on the roster. In the spring, it was rare to see them all on the field at the same time. We’ll find out if that changes this summer.

3. The linebackers and safeties are excited about the scheme change.

It was no secret that the Wide-9 made life difficult for pretty much everyone except for the defensive linemen. The safeties, for example, had specific run responsibilities that made it difficult for them to guard against play-action.

“Not to say that the safeties aren’t going to be called on to make plays against the run, but we’re not going to be the first guys onto the scene,” said Kurt Coleman. “It’s going to be a big change for us, which is kind of good. It allows us to sit back and read the QB a little more, be more patient.”

Added Davis: “Any time you ask the secondary to be primary B or A gap run defenders, you’re just asking for trouble on play-action and deep balls. I hate to talk too much about last season not being here, but just all the transition and all the different communications that happened, I don’t know how you fight through that and play good. I really don’t.”

But it’s not just the safeties. It’s the linebackers too. Against the run, the defensive linemen were often flying upfield while Ryans and Kendricks were left to deal with offensive linemen before attacking the ball-carrier.

“I’m definitely sideline to sideline, going to be able to run a little bit more, be a little more freed up,” Kendricks said.

“We had a lot of people in our face last year, so I mean if tackling was an issue, it shouldn’t be this year.”

There’s always a fine line between excuses and reasons. But it’s obvious that many of the Eagles’ defenders are embracing the scheme change with open arms.

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Eagles Wake-Up Call: Graham Riding the New Wave

When Brandon Graham was rehabbing from microfracture knee surgery back in 2011, he admitted that he went heavy on the cheesesteaks. And well, he got heavy. All the way to around 290, in fact.

“Jim’s? That’s all I eat,” he said that October.

The former first-round pick is a lot more disciplined these days, and has employed a nutritionist to make sure he stays that way.  The 25-year old is working with a Boston-based company that comes down once a month to meet with him and texts or calls him daily. Graham sends them pictures of the food he is eyeing up to see if it is healthy for him or not.

And, of course, he is now under a coach that puts eating right at a premium.

“I’m getting helped double-time,” he said.

Graham has dropped 16 pounds and is currently around 260. The goal is to get down to 255 as he preps for a position change from defensive end to linebacker.

It’s not just the nutrition; Graham says he is benefitting from all the sports science that Chip Kelly utilizes.

“I see my body changing a lot,” said Graham. “I really didn’t know how dehydrated I was until they started doing that [sports science]. Now I’m hydrated, I’m moving a lot better out there, recovering a lot faster. If we keep it going, no telling how we’re going to be towards the end of the season.”

Graham told us a little bit about the sleep monitors that Kelly is asking his players to use.  The device is worn on the wrist, and is linked to an app that you can download on your phone. It tracks how many times you wake up during the night, and whether or not you are getting quality sleep.

The Michigan product will take any edge he can get. He is hopeful that this will be his breakout year, but is  tackling a new position for a new coach in a new scheme. Graham says that when it comes to the transition to outside linebacker, so far, so good.

“Now that I know the plays, I’m moving a lot faster,” he said.

WHAT YOU MISSED

Jason Peters is absent for personal reasons, according to Jeffrey Lurie.

Jason Kelce discusses the impact of Chip Kelly’s hurry-up on the quarterbacks.

Sheil tells us why Kelly values Mychal Kendricks.

When will Kelly name a starting QB?

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

A check-in on Nnamdi Asomugha, courtesy of PFT.

Asomugha called defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s scheme “more diverse than you think” and he won’t be playing the man coverage he prefers all the time, but said that his teammates have made the transition easier than it was when he moved to Philly in 2011.

“The adjustment hasn’t been that hard,” Asomugha said, via the team’s website. “This is a really solid defense all the way around. Since everybody knows the defense, it’s really easy to communicate. Anything I don’t get I can ask anybody on the defense and they pretty much have it down.”

Tom Moore talked to Barkley about life as a rookie quarterback.

Since Barkley began playing competitive football at the age of 10, he has always been the starter and earned the bulk of the first-team reps.

“I’m not going to be a little kid and beg the coaches for something more than what they’re giving me,” said Barkley after Tuesday’s workout. “You just do the best with what you’re given (and) give them every reason to put you out on the field.”

COMING UP

OTAs roll on. Media is permitted into Friday’s session.

Davis on New Eagles’ D: It’s a Huge Learning Curve

Billy Davis is well aware that there is no quick fix for the Eagles’ defense.

But he also knows that fans don’t want to hear excuses.

“We’ve done a complete roster flip defensively pretty much,” Davis said. “I mean there’s a huge roster change and then there’s a scheme change. We’re not going to run the Wide-9 4-3. I know that we’re moving away from that with players that were picked for that and were built for that. Now we’re kind of re-training that, so this year’s absolutely the hardest transition year we’re going to have.”

There are several spots to be won or lost, but the defense could be looking at as many as six starters who weren’t even on the roster last year (Connor Barwin, Isaac Sopoaga, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Patrick Chung, Kenny Phillips).

In other words, there are going to be bumps in the road. That’s inevitable. But in the NFL, we often see teams go from below .500 to playoff contenders in one year. Davis knows the fan base will expect to see improvements in 2013 after last season’s embarrassing display.

“I know this,” Davis said. “When the season hits, nobody wants to hear any excuses or anything. They want to see good defensive play. Right now, we have our head down as a collective staff and players and are working our tail off.”

In addition to the new starters, holdovers from last year’s squad are learning a new scheme and new roles. The focus has been on Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, who are going from 4-3 defensive ends to 3-4 outside linebackers. Davis said he’s been pleased with the way the two players are transitioning.

“I think it’s been outstanding,” he said. “When you take the guys that have had their hand in the dirt and you expose them to dropping into coverage at times, the biggest thing is training their eyes and where to look. When your hand’s in the dirt, there’s not a whole lot to look at. There’s only a couple keys and they’re right up on you. When you stand somebody up, they drop, they have to see more keys. And they’re doing a great job.”

Davis was quick to point out that the coaches are still in fact-finding mode and haven’t even had a chance to see the players in pads yet. The outside linebackers have been playing the right and left sides instead of strong side and weak side.

It might not stay that way once the season starts, though.

“The degree of difficulty right now is at its all-time high,” Davis said. “And they’re embracing it and doing a great job with it. Whether their hands are down or up, whatever mode we’re in, they’re learning it the hard way. And already you can tell, the comfort level with the way coach runs the practice and the amount of reps we get, with reps, come comfort. With knowledge of what you’re supposed to do, they’re relaxing more and you can see a big improvement.”

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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What They’re Saying About the Eagles

Here’s this week’s national media roundup of what they’re saying about the Eagles:

The Eagles’ over-under for wins is 6.5 or 7, depending on the sportsbook. Dave Tuley of ESPN Insider likes the under:

We’re just two years removed from the Eagles being referred to as the “Dream Team.” But after two disappointing seasons, head coach Andy Reid is gone and replaced by Oregon’s Chip Kelly and his wide-open spread offense. There’s reason for optimism, but I’m not sure the team will fully adapt to the new system in his first season.

Ben Muth of Football Outsiders thinks Lane Johnson will be a good NFL tackle, but he has serious questions about his pass-blocking right now:

Johnson is a pretty horrific fundamental pass blocker who probably wouldn’t have gone in the top five in any other draft. Well, maybe the 2000 NBA Draft. Nothing he does can’t be fixed, but if you’re taking someone that early, you would probably like a few less loose nails. Let’s start with the fact that he leads with his head all the time. …

If Johnson doesn’t learn to use his hands and keep his distance, guys are going to be grabbing the back of his pads and pulling themselves right through to the quarterback.

It’s worth noting that Muth is a former college offensive lineman. He played at Stanford from 2004 to 2008.

Chris Burke of SI.com looks at position battles to watch this summer, including the Eagles’ competition at outside linebacker:

Two of these three guys should start outside in the Eagles’ 3-4 defense. But who’s going to be the odd man out? Cole started 16 games for the Eagles last year, while Graham stepped in and delivered 5.5 sacks after inheriting a starting role late. Despite those numbers, Philadelphia still went out and handed $36 million to Barwin in free agency, a hint that the front office did not want to rely on the Cole-Graham combo.

Burke also says the secondary is the Eagles’ biggest question mark:

Chip Kelly wasted no time trying to reform the Eagles’ defense. Two new cornerbacks, Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, and two new safeties, Pat Chung and Kenny Phillips, could take the field to start Week 1. That group doesn’t carry the big-name potential of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but the Eagles need a more cohesive secondary this season than those former stars provided.

Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com has the Eagles 25th in his power rankings:

Chip Kelly is doing things differently, but time will tell if it can work. We know the Eagles will play faster, but who is the triggerman?

Prisco offers his thoughts on the QB situation too:

I bet for now Vick is the guy. He would seem to be a good fit with what Chip Kelly wants to do. But what if Kelly likes Barkley and sees him as his quarterback of the future? Does he go to him early? The early word is that it’s an open competition. I bet Vick starts on opening day.

Marc Sessler of NFL.com looks at the Eagles’ QB battle:

Michael Vick last week called his critics a pack of ignorants who “know nothing about football,” but here’s what we do know: The 32-year-old quarterback was a goner in Philly before Chip Kelly replaced Andy Reid. Now Vick looms as the logical starter heading into camp. Vick admits that Kelly recently “taught” him how to properly hold the football while running with it. For real. It’s pretty clear Kelly is digging in. Foles, meanwhile, showed growth last season, and Barkley — a seemingly odd fit for the Eagles — has an outside chance for snaps. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kelly use all three. Advantage: Vick.

Gary Horton of ESPN Insider looks at how Chip Kelly’s scheme will translate to the NFL, and he likes how Matt Barkley fits:

He is accurate in the short-to-intermediate passing game, with not a lot of vertical passes required; he is good on the play-fake; and he has underrated pocket mobility.

However, his most desired quality in this offense may be his command in the huddle. This guy has been in a lot of big games, he can get his offense into a play quickly and he should be comfortable with the pace of the offense — and there is nothing that Barkley hasn’t already seen. He could be ready to step in and run this offense with success after one season behind Vick.

ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano weighs in on the importance of a healthy Jason Peters:

The Eagles need Todd Herremans and Jason Kelce back on the offensive line, and they need first-round pick Lane Johnson to play well at right tackle. But the most important offensive line recovery is that of Peters, who brings something to the equation no one else brings. He needs not only to be healthy, but to play like his old, spry self.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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