Eagles Snapshot: CB Preview

Philadelphia Eagles CB Nnamdi Asomugha.Throughout the course of the week, we’ll be providing position-by-position previews of the entire Eagles roster. Click here to get to all of them. Today, we cover the cornerbacks.

The roster: Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Brandon Boykin, Curtis Marsh, Brandon Hughes.

Player in the spotlight: Nnamdi Asomugha

Nationally, some are pushing the idea that Juan Castillo and the defensive coaches realized the error in their ways last season and will simply line Asomugha up on the right side and let him play man coverage all game.

But those of you who are regular readers of Birds 24/7 know that’s not the case.

Yes, the Eagles have made adjustments from last year’s defense. They have taken out certain coverage schemes that caused confusion in the secondary or were just generally ineffective. But Asomugha is still going to be used in a variety of ways. He’ll play some man coverage and press at the line of scrimmage. He’ll play some zone. He might switch sides with Rodgers-Cromartie at times. And he’ll move inside to shadow tight ends on certain weeks.

The question that we don’t have an answer to is this: At 31, does Asomugha still possess the same physical skills that made him an elite corner with the Raiders? If the answer is yes, then it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that the Eagles should use him the same way Oakland did. But if the answer is no, then they need to find the best way to utilize his current skill set after signing Asomugha to a five-year, $60M contract with $25M guaranteed.

With tight ends becoming such a big part of the NFL passing game, using Asomugha against the likes of Jimmy Graham and Jason Witten on certain weeks could make sense. He had success in that role last season.

Looking at Football Outsiders charting numbers, Asomugha was targeted 38 times last year, which translates to 9.7 percent of the team’s overall targets. That was an increase from his previous two seasons in Oakland (31 targets/7.9 percent in 2010 and 25 targets/6.5 percent in 2009). But quarterbacks still much preferred throwing at Asante Samuel on the other side. Samuel was targeted 62 times, which translates to 18.1 percent of the team’s overall targets.

The key for Asomugha in 2012 will be making plays on the ball when he is targeted. There has been a lot of talk about how the Eagles can part ways with Michael Vick after the season if he doesn’t produce. The same can be said for Asomugha, who’s due $15M in 2013.

You should also know that…

* Rodgers-Cromartie is in the final year of his contract. The 26-year-old has all the physical tools to be an elite corner, but he was a poor fit in the slot last season. Rodgers-Cromartie improved when he moved to the outside late in the season, although his tackling skills aren’t much better than Samuel’s. Given the target numbers I mentioned above, Rodgers-Cromartie can expect to see plenty of action this season. He could parlay a strong start into a contract extension.

* One player the Eagles need to find out about is Curtis Marsh. A third-round pick in 2011, Marsh will be the first cornerback in should Asomugha or Rodgers-Cromartie go down. He’ll also play on the right side if and when Asomugha gets moved inside. With a strong showing, Marsh could put himself in place to start in 2013, should the Eagles cut ties with Asomugha or let Rodgers-Cromartie walk.

* Brandon Boykin won the starting nickel corner job. That means he’ll likely be on the field for about half of the team’s defensive snaps. Boykin played inside in college and has outstanding athleticism. He’ll endure some growing pains but should be a solid contributor right away.

* Brandon Hughes provides depth and versatility. He can play inside or outside and will also contribute on special teams.

* The players have had nothing but great things to say about new secondary coach Todd Bowles. If this unit matches or exceeds expectations in 2012, Bowles will deserve a lot of credit.

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

Eagles Wake-Up Call: Tight End Preview

Philadelphia Eagles TE Clay Harbor.We lead off today with a look at the Eagles’ tight end situation going into Week 1.

Let’s start with Brent Celek. He couldn’t have finished the 2011 season any stronger. Celek averaged just 19.2 yards per game in the first six last season, but that number jumped to 69.6 in the final 10. His catch rate (catches per targets) was 73 percent during that final 10-game stretch. Had he sustained that number for the entire season, Celek would have tied Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates for the top mark among tight ends with at least 50 targets.

Michael Vick built a chemistry with Celek, and the tight end earned the quarterback’s trust. He had six drops in the first nine games, but none in the final seven. Celek averaged a career-high 13.1  yards per reception and had 14 catches of 20+ yards, just one fewer than DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, both of whom finished with 15. Celek led the Eagles (and all NFL tight ends) in yards after the catch, finishing with 62 receptions for 811 yards and five touchdowns.

It’s also worth mentioning that he was playing injured and had TWO surgeries (hip and hernia) in the offseason. That only makes his 2011 performance even more impressive.

Given that he’s healthy now, Celek should be a monster in 2012, right? Well, let’s pump the brakes a little bit. One factor in getting Celek going last year was that he was kept in to block less. In the first five games, he blocked 29.9 percent of the time on pass plays, according to Pro Football Focus. In the final 11, just 23 percent of the time. The problem this year is that Jason Peters is out, and the Eagles coaching staff would be wise to give King Dunlap some help against some of the league’s top pass-rushers. That very well could mean Celek being used more as a blocker. He should still have a good season, but Celek may see a dip in targets (96 last season).

Clay Harbor, meanwhile, had a strange summer, but looks ready to contribute. Early in training camp, the Eagles showed interest in Visanthe Shiancoe and Jeremy Shockey, but ended up signing neither guy. Harbor, meanwhile, made a point to stay after practice everyday and catch an extra 50 balls. The work paid off as he caught everything thrown his way at Lehigh, and in the preseason.

Harbor played 33.5 percent of the offensive snaps last year (per PFF), up from 28.6 percent as a rookie. He was used as a run-blocker 56.1 percent of the time; a receiver 32 percent of the time; and a pass blocker 11.9 percent of the time. He got just 19 balls thrown his way all season and caught 13 of them for 163 yards.

Look for Harbor to have a bigger role in 2012. He has the skill set to be more of a contributor in the passing game. It might mean the Eagles using fewer 4-WR sets. It might mean fewer snaps for Jason Avant. Or it might mean Jackson coming off the field in the red zone, where he’s a non-factor. But Harbor should see a bump in playing time and targets in 2012.

WHAT YOU MISSED

Running back Dion Lewis is questionable for Sunday’s game, which could mean a bigger role for Bryce Brown.

We’ve been knocking out the position-by-position season previews. Get them all right here. Yesterday, Tim wrote about the quarterbacks, and I tackled the linebackers.

Everything you need to know about Sunday’s matchup in two posts. One details how the Browns’ offense matches up with the Eagles’ defense. And the other takes a look at the Birds’ offense vs. Cleveland’s D.

McManus and I offer up several Eagles season predictions that are sure to go wrong.

And finally, in case you missed it, Birds 24/7 is now a radio show. T-Mac and I will be on the air every Monday from 6 to 7 p.m. on 97.5 The Fanatic, broadcasting live from 360 at Parx Casino in Bensalem. Some of you asked yesterday about a podcast. We’ll definitely look into it. And you’ll be able to listen live online even if you’re not in the Philadelphia area.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

According to the National Football Post, the Eagles tried to deal Darryl Tapp, but found no takers:

Before the Eagles gave Darryl Tapp a $1.75 million paycut, they shopped him around the league. There were no takers, so taking the cut probably was a smart move for Tapp. He was not going to be making $2.5 million anywhere in the NFL this year.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter writes about how the Eagles looked for a quarterback last offseason:

Now it’s a bit easier to understand why the Eagles inquired about the availability of Peyton Manning, explored a trade up to the No. 2 spot to draft Griffin and had a private session with Tannehill before his pro day at Texas A&M. The Eagles can’t fully trust Michael Vick to play a full season. In four preseason series, Vick bruised his thumb and bruised his ribs. Now, Vick and the Eagles will be lining up each Sunday against some of the league’s top pass-rushers. The Eagles’ opponents combined for 625 sacks last season, which is the fifth most by any group of combined opponents for a team in 2012, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

And finally, per Evan Mathis’ Twitter account, Danny Watkins agreed to eat a cricket for $120. Mathis posted the video and everything.

COMING UP

It’s a travel day, but we’ll have plenty of Eagles-Browns coverage. And in case you were wondering, we’ll be chatting Sunday, starting at 1 p.m.

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

Eagles Snapshot: Quarterback Preview

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles.

Throughout the course of the week, we’ll be providing position-by-position previews of the entire Eagles roster. Click here to get to all of them. Today, we cover the quarterbacks.

The roster: Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Trent Edwards

Elite quarterbacks are the rarest commodity on Earth. There are thousands of football programs across the country and tens of thousands more kids that dream of being a star quarterback, yet there are only enough of them to fill up maybe a quarter of the 32 NFL teams in a given year.

There is a nice collection in the NFC right now, however. You have Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning. A tier down lies Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. RGIII hopes to get in the conversation, and Tony Romo certainly shows flashes.

Where does Vick fit?

Quarterback play in the conference runs unusually deep right now, making it all the more important that Vick find his way towards the top.

The Eagles hope they have their elite quarterback in Vick, and another in the making in Foles. His dizzying rate of progress totally changed the backup QB picture and essentially cost Mike Kafka a job. The coaching staff is very high on the 23-year-old right now.

“I’ve got great confidence in Nick,” said Marty Mornhinweg. “I’ll tell you what: Nick Foles progressed just beautifully at a very fast pace. He’s a bright guy. He’s got natural playing ability. He’s got natural instincts.”

Edwards’ role will be to shepherd the rookie along.

Player in the spotlight: Michael Vick

The difficulty in handicapping this Eagles team is that Vick is not just susceptible to  peaks and valleys in his play, but grand dips and spectacular rises. He can be the best player on the field, then the least disciplined. At age 32 and after an offseason of the coaching staff drilling caution into his head, there is optimism that Vick will level out and focus more on the substance and less on the sizzle.

With limited reps this preseason because of injury, there is no way of telling just what Michael Vick will show up. We at least know that he heads into the season feeling fresh.

“I feel good going into this game,” said Vick. “I feel like I’m 100 percent. No nagging injuries. I think I’m fully recovered – two weeks have really helped me get there.  Just ready to go out there and give it everything I’ve got.”

You should also know that…

*Most of the bumps in the road for Vick came outside the division. He was very good against the NFC East, completing 63 percent of his balls for eight touchdowns to three interceptions for a QB rating over 100.

* Want some evidence that Vick forced it way too much last year? Ten of his 14 interceptions came in games decided by seven points or less. He had just a 73.3 QB rating in tight games and a 96 rating in games decided by 8-plus points.

* Vick completed just 52.5 percent of his throws in the red zone and had 13 touchdowns to four picks inside the 20.

* A reminder of how good Foles was this preseason: 40-of-63 for 553 yards, a league-high six touchdowns, two interceptions, 110.1 QB rating.

*Foles went to the same high school as Brees — Westlake High School in Austin, Texas — and broke Brees’ records for passing yards (5,658) and passing TDs (56).

Eagles Snapshot: LB Preview

Throughout the course of the week, we’ll be providing position-by-position previews of the entire Eagles roster. Click here to get to all of them. Today, we cover the linebackers.

The roster: DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks, Akeem Jordan, Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews, Brian Rolle.

No real surprises on the roster. Keenan Clayton, a fourth-round pick in 2010, never met expectations and was let go. The starters are Ryans in the middle, Kendricks at SAM and Jordan at WILL.

Player in the spotlight: DeMeco Ryans

The Eagles swapped third-round picks and gave up an additional fourth rounder to acquire Ryans from the Texans back in March, and the move made a lot of sense. After last year’s struggles, go out and get a veteran middle linebacker who will command respect from his peers, help reduce confusion and play behind the wide-nine.

The only problem? We’re two days from the opener, and it’s unclear whether Ryans is a three-down player. He stayed on the field in nickel during OTAs, mini-camps, training camp and the preseason. But on Thursday, players said Chaney was joining Kendricks in certain nickel packages. As we’ve mentioned several times, the Eagles were in nickel about 47 percent of the time last season. If Ryans is on the sidelines for those snaps, he won’t be able to provide the leadership and direction we’ve heard about all summer.

Ryans was a step behind in the first preseason game, but played better against New England. He played limited snaps against Cleveland.

We’ll see how things play out Sunday, but the fact that the Eagles are considering shaking things up so close to the opener raises some questions.

You should also know that…

* Kendricks is the smart bet to be the Eagles’ best linebacker this season. He had an outstanding preseason and looked good at training camp. Kendricks had a very strong combine, but that was just one line on his resume. He was a very productive linebacker at Cal, earning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors last season.

* Rolle had been playing at WILL until a couple weeks ago when Jordan took over. We’ll see if he holds on to that spot. Chaney could get a chance to replace him, Rolle could get back in the mix, or Matthews could be given an opportunity.

* Right now, in the base defense, Chaney is practicing as the second-team SAM, and Matthews is the second-team middle linebacker, behind Ryans. Matthews had been dealing with a high ankle sprain, but has been a full participant in practice this week.

* According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles were good at covering opposing tight ends last year (fourth in the league), but poor against running backs (29th).

* Special teams is always a factor with linebackers. Jordan and Matthews (14 tackles and 11 tackles, respectively) were both good special-teams players last season.

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

Eagles Snapshot: Safety Preview

Throughout the course of the week, we’ll be providing position-by-position previews of the entire Eagles roster. Click here to get to all of them. Today, we cover the safeties.

The roster: Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman, Jaiquawn Jarrett, David Sims, Colt Anderson.

The Eagles shuffled up their safety situation on cut-down day. They let go of Oshiomogho Atogwe, who couldn’t stay healthy, and acquired Sims from the Browns. The Eagles also placed Anderson on the 53-man roster, instead of the PUP list, which would have forced him to miss the first six weeks of the season.

Player in the spotlight: Jaiquawn Jarrett

Even though the season is just three days away, it’s unclear exactly what Jarrett’s role is going to be in 2012.

As a rookie, he started two games and played significant snaps in two more. Safety was a problem area for the Eagles all season, but at no point did the team look to Jarrett as an answer. He couldn’t get onto the field until the team’s starters were sidelined with injuries in the second half of the season.

At the end of 2011, the expectation was that Jarrett would push Coleman for a starting spot after having a full offseason under his belt, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, he had to fight for a roster spot after a disastrous preseason game against the Steelers in early August. Jarrett took bad angles to the ball and missed multiple tackles in that game; at practice, Tom Nelson started to rotate in with him on the second team.

To his credit, Jarrett bounced back later in the preseason, but he needs to show a lot more to raise his ceiling from backup/special teams player to quality starter. He was also helped by the fact that Nelson suffered a high ankle sprain and Atogwe couldn’t get his hamstring right.

In Week 1, Jarrett will be counted on as the Eagles’ first backup behind Coleman and Allen. Chances are, at some point this season, he’ll get on the field and be given a chance to prove that the Eagles didn’t waste a pick on him in the second round of the 2011 draft.

You should also know that…

* Allen is the most talented of the group and finished 2011 strong. A second-round pick in 2010, he needs to show he can be healthy and productive in 2012.

* Missed tackles are only part of the equation, but Allen had trouble in that area last season. According to Football Outsiders, he missed 10 overall, or 17.9 percent of his tackling attempts.

* Sims has a great story. After high school, he worked a series of odd jobs, including one in waste management. He went to junior college, switched from running back to safety, transferred to Iowa State and has bounced around from the Giants to the Bucs to the Browns to the Eagles. He’s hoping to not only contribute on special teams, but push for playing time on defense also.

* Anderson was second on the team with 12 special-teams tackles last season, and keep in mind that he only played in 12 games after suffering a torn ACL against the Seahawks. He was also the first man down in coverage 18 times. No other Eagle did that more than nine times. Anderson will be inactive in Week 1, but it looks like he’ll be back making plays for Bobby April sooner rather than later.

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

Eagles Snapshot: Wide Receiver Preview

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean JacksonThroughout the course of the week, we’ll be providing position-by-position previews of the entire Eagles roster. Let’s take a look at the wideouts. Click here for all the previews.

The roster:  DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Riley Cooper, Damaris Johnson.

Andy Reid and Howie Roseman are rolling the dice and going with five wide receivers to start the season. The number is actually four right now, as Cooper is not all the way back from a broken collarbone sustained early in training camp. Chad Hall was likely sacrificed in part so they could keep running back Chris Polk, and no other receiver made a big push this preseason.

In case of emergency, the Eagles have Marvin McNutt and B.J. Cunningham tucked away on the practice squad.

Player in the spotlight: DeSean Jackson

Jackson’s image took a significant hit last season. Admittedly consumed with his contract, he sulked, showed up late to meetings, and was benched in what turned out to be a crucial loss to the Cardinals.

He is at a pivotal point in his career. Many feel that the organization was at fault in the contract squabble as well, hence why Jackson hasn’t been run out of town. But the Eagles stepped up and paid him, meaning the receiver is out of legitimate reasons to be disgruntled.

His teammates see a difference this year in the 25-year old.

“You definitely can, just in his preparedness, his focus and his concentration,” said Avant. “And also he’s back to being a kid again as far as his excitement and love for the game. Sometimes in this game, because there is a business aspect of it, sometimes you get your view tainted when it comes to playing this game like you were a child again.”

You should also know that…

*Maclin, standing at 6-feet, proves that you don’t need to be a big target in order to be a successful red-zone weapon. He has been the team’s best red-zone receiver the past two seasons, accruing 19 catches and 11 touchdowns inside the 20 over that time.

*Jackson has not found similar success. He had just two red-zone catches for 14 yards and a score last season. In 2010, he managed four grabs for eight yards and a TD.

*You could say that as Jackson goes, so goes the team. In Eagles wins in 2010, he had 36 catches for 949 yards and six touchdowns. In losses? Eleven catches, 107 yards, zero TDs. Similarly, three of his four touchdown  receptions came in wins last season.

* How important is the fourth wide receiver? According to  Football Outsiders, the Eagles went with four wide receivers on 9 percent of their offensive snaps last year. Cooper finished the year with 16 catches for 315 yards and a touchdown. They have a role, but they can certainly get by without Cooper for a week or two.

*Johnson only played three years at Tulsa, but finished as the NCAA’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards (7,796) and kickoff return yards (3,417).

Eagles Snapshot: Defensive Line Preview

Throughout the course of the week, we’ll be providing position-by-position previews of the entire Eagles roster. We start with the defensive line. Click here for all of the previews.

The roster: Jason Babin, Trent Cole, Cullen Jenkins, Derek Landri, Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Phillip Hunt, Brandon Graham, Darryl Tapp, Vinny Curry.

The Eagles decided to keep 10 defensive linemen, parting only with tackle Antonio Dixon when they trimmed the roster to 53. Assuming everyone’s healthy, Babin and Cole will start at defensive end, and Jenkins and Landri will likely be the tackles with the first group. There’s some uncertainty with the second foursome, however. Expect Cox and Thornton to be the tackles. But the Eagles could keep nine linemen active on gamedays and rotate Hunt, Tapp and Graham in at the end spots.

Look for Curry, a rookie second-round pick, to be inactive to start the season.

Player in the spotlight: Brandon Graham

Graham has been playing with something to prove all offseason. As a rookie, he finished with three sacks and 13 quarterback hurries (second on the team). But he tore his ACL late in the season, had microfracture surgery and fell into a funk during his sophomore campaign, battling weight issues and appearing in just three games.

Graham has vowed to get back on track this offseason, turning heads in the weight room back in the spring and making good on his promise to coaches to not miss a single practice at Lehigh. During the preseason, Graham lined up primarily at left defensive end and consistently got to the quarterback, finishing with 3.5 sacks.

The Jason Pierre-Paul comparisons aren’t going away anytime soon. The Giants snagged JPP two spots after the Eagles selected Graham in the first round of the 2010 draft, and he turned in a 16.5-sack season in 2011. But now that he’s healthy, Graham is hoping to prove that the Birds didn’t waste their pick on him.

You should also know that…

* Babin missed almost all of training camp and the entire preseason with a calf strain. He says he’ll be ready to go Sunday against the Browns. Of course, Reid will ultimately be the one to decide that. If Babin can’t play right away, or has to play limited snaps, the Eagles will have to figure out how to replace him. In the preseason, they moved Jenkins to left defensive end to help against the run, but that was when they were playing with extra tackles. Now, they only have four DTs on the roster, so moving Jenkins outside would leave them thin on the interior. The Eagles could go with some combination of Hunt/Graham/Tapp at left defensive end instead.

* Hunt might have been the Eagles’ most impressive player in the preseason, with 3.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. Look for him to be given ample opportunities to rush the passer.

* The Eagles’ second group could feature two defensive tackles who have never played an NFL snap. Thornton spent most of last season on the practice squad, but had a very strong camp and preseason, earning the nod over Dixon. Cox, a first-round pick in April, showed flashes, but will likely need some time to get comfortable with Jim Washburn’s style. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Cox replaced Landri with the first team, and Landri teamed with Thornton on the second team.

* While it’s true that the Eagles play eight or nine defensive linemen, it does matter who is on the first team. For example, the first-team tackles last year were Mike Patterson and Jenkins. They played 66.3 and 61.6 percent of the snaps, respectively, per Pro Football Focus. The backups (Landri and Trevor Laws) played 44.2 and 38.2 percent. In other words, everyone will play, but the most productive players will play more.

* The Eagles tied for the league-lead with 50 sacks last season, and 46 of those came from the defensive line. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Birds used just four pass-rushers 81.8 percent of the time last season. That was the second-highest percentage in the league. In other words, they didn’t need to blitz to get pressure. For the most part, that should be the case again this season.

* Patterson continues to recover from offseason brain surgery and could miss the entire season.

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