Thoughts and analysis on the Philadelphia Eagles



Position Battle: Wide Reciever

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This is probably the low point of the year as far as the NFL goes. The draft is over and has been analyzed ad nausea, free agency is over and has been talked to death, the season is still far away… So, in these doldrums I will continue to analyze the major position battles.

So let’s get to WR.

In all the WR position is pretty weak from top to bottom. There’s question marks at literally every position on the depth chart. Anyone who reads me regularly knows how highly I think of Reggie Brown, but the fact is that he’s a 2nd year player that really only saw significant time for 9 games last year. I think he’s going to be a very good player, but he’s got a lot to prove. Jabar Gaffney seems like a solid possession WR that is going to catch 50-60 balls, but he’s never played in the west coast offense which we always here is complicated for wideouts to learn. Then there’s Todd Pinkston, who despite not being the most popular Eagle, has shown more and done more in his career than any of the other guys on this roster. However, he’s coming off a major knee injury and there’s question marks about how ready he’ll be to start the season. Other than Greg Lewis, there’s no one else that has even taken an NFL snap. With the lack of true, experienced veterans the battle for the WR spots is pretty wide open.

Reggie, Gaffney, & Pinky are the clear top 3 coming into camp. If Pinky is healthy, we have a solid albeit not scary (for opponents that is) top of the depth chart. The top 3 receivers will get the lion’s share of the snaps. If Pinky is unable to play, the #3 slot through 6 slots are wide open. Veterans Greg Lewis and Darnerian McCants, rookies Jason Avant & Jeremy Bloom, along with undrafted free agents JJ Outlaw & Hank Baskett (who the Eagles traded the perennially disappointing Billy McMullen to the Vikings for) are left to fight for a roster spot.

Jason Avant, the 4th round pick, is going to make the team. It’s very unlikely that a 4th round pick won’t make the team. Jeremy Bloom is probably the reason that 6 wide receivers will make the roster. He’s here to be a return specialist and is so raw as a WR that he likely see very few if any snaps at WR this year. Assuming he shows any ability as a return man, he should be a lock to make the team.

So assuming that Reggie, Gaffney, Pinky, Avant & Bloom make the roster… that leaves one spot for another guy.

Greg Lewis and Darnerian McCants are the only guys with experience out of the group. In 04 Lewis showed some ability to stretch the field in 3 and 4 WR sets, however when he was installed as a starter last year he struggled mightily. In an offense where Andy Reid was passing over 60% of the time and TO out the lineup for most of the year… Greg managed only 48 catches and 1 TD. On the worst team in the league, playing opposite a good WR, in an offense that passes much less than the Eagles Gaffney managed to get 55 catches for 2 TDs. That shows just how overmatched Greg was last year. McCants’ however, did virtually nothing as WR last year(5 catches). He did manage to distinguish himself as a good special teams player, which is important for WR that’s #4, or 5 on the depth chart. It’s very likely that the only snaps guys so low on the depth chart see (barring injury) are on special teams. So the fact that McCants played so well on special teams last year will certainly help his chances of making the team.

Despite his shortcomings, Greg has at least shown he can do some things on an NFL field. The rest of the competition for the final slot have not shown that. In fact, they didn’t even show enough to get drafted this year. Probably Greg’s greatest threat is Hank Baskett who the Eagles traded former 3rd round pick Billy McMullen for. Baskett was a guy that a lot of draftniks projected as a potential 5th round pick due to his exceptional size(6‘3“ 224lbs), physical play and good hands. That said, every team in football passed on him and the Eagles drafted a LB and a DT instead of him. Considering that they had already signed 2 free agents at those positions and drafted 2 guys on the first day at those positions doesn’t exactly mean a ringing endorsement for Hank. He seems to be a WR with great size, but severely lacking in speed… reminds me of Billy McMullen….

Finally, there’s guys like JJ Outlaw from Villanova & Justin Jenkins who are long shots to make the team.

There’s been some talk about the Eagles having interest in disgruntled Denver Broncos WR Ashley Lelie. Since the Broncos traded for Javon Walker and still have Rod Smith, Lelie wants to go somewhere he has a better chance to play more. It’s been rumored that the Eagles have called about him, but the Broncos are asking too high a price in terms of draft picks. Lelie has never quite lived up to his 1st round pick expectations, but he’s at least a proven NFL WR that has shown an ability to catch the deep ball. So far though, it seems as if we are going to war with what we have….


Position Battle: SAM LB

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Some call it the SAM LB, others the strong side linebacker, or Madden players call it the LOLB... Whatever you call it, Dhani Jones has occupied the position for the past 2 years after Carlos Emmons left. The job of the SAM LB is to support the run, bring pressure on the pass rush, and cover the tight end who he usually lines directly up against.

In 2004, Dhani's shortcomings were masked a bit by the fact that the front four were deep and effective. The team as a whole got 47 sacks and the secondary was full of pro bowlers. In 2005 however, when the secondary was on it's heels due to the lack of pass rush and the defensive line was riddled with injury and losses to free agency (turns out Burgess was a big loss...) Dhani struggled mightily. He had trouble shedding blocks to support the run and rush the passer, hence less guitar strums... He got absolutely abused in coverage as Shockey, Witten, & Cooley(the 3 TEs in our division) all had big games against the Birds. Witten in game one had 7 rec for 80 yds, Cooley had 7 for 87, Shockey had a TD in one game and 10 rec for 107 yds in another. In the NFC East, to be successful these TEs can not be allowed to dominate like they did last year. Now, few if any SAMs in the NFL can consistently cover TEs of that caliber and they'll eventually all need help. Michael Lewis in particular certainly needs to do a better job helping the SAM in coverage, however the TE was primarily Dhani's responsibility and he did a poor job.

Even Andy Reid, who never calls out players in the media, criticizes Dhani in the offseason saying he needs to play better. There were options in Free agency such as Julian Peterson that could have helped to solve the SAM spot, but the Eagles passed on them and chose to look to the draft to fill the hole. In the 3rd round the Eagles traded up to get Chris Gocong, a defensive end from Cal Poly. You can check out the scouting report on him from school here. It's not all uncommon for smaller, fast defensive ends from college to be drafted to play SAM in the NFL. Carlos Emmons was a college DE, rookie standouts from last year Demarcus Ware and Shawne Merriman were both DEs converted to SAMs (both excelled as pass rushers and not in coverage). Terrell Suggs in Baltimore is among the best converted DE to SAMs in the league. Gocong seems to have the speed to play the position, he has rushed the passer from the standup position like he'll have to in the NFL, and he has shown an uncanny ability at the college level to get to the passer and blow up run plays in the backfield. What he has no experience in is pass coverage, which will likely be the biggest learning curve he has in his transition to a new position.

The good news on Gocong is that he's a very smart kid, certainly with the physical attributes & the nonstop motor to play the position. The learning curve is going to be tough, and with the fact that he played against lesser college competition at the 1-AA level and was only a 3rd round pick and it's not at all unlikely that he's going to take a year to learn the position. Merriman excelled in his first year making the transition, but he had played some LB in college and was a top pick.

So while this will be a closely watched battle in camp, don't look for Gocong to beat out Dhani in year one. However, Gocong shouldn't be expected to sit the bench the whole year. A guy with his skills and pedigree as a pass rusher should be able to get on the field in situations where Jim Johnson needs to bring some extra pressure off the edge. In their first year DE-SAM converts has success, Ware had 8 sacks, Merriman had 10 sacks, and Suggs had 12 sacks. Like I said before though, these guys were 1st round picks... Regardless the potential is there for Gocong to share the SAM spot with Dhani for the first year as he learns the position.

Also, there's an undrafted free agent from last year named Greg Richmond who was hurt during the entire 05 campaign. He's another college DE turned SAM who piled up a good amount of sacks at Oklahoma state. It appears that early on in minicamp he's 2nd on the depth chart at SAM, but I'd be surprised to see him there by the time training camp rolls around. He should stick around long enough to work hard and push Jones and Gocong before he gets cut or makes the practice squad.

Coming up later this week, one the most competitive and wide open spots on the roster. Wide Receiver...


Real Live football and the battle for Center

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So the 2 weeks following the draft have been pretty boring. Not much Eagles talk to be had… Most experts and fans seem to really like the draft, the schedule has already been set, almost every big free agent is signed. Now, all that’s left is… to actually play real live football!

Mini camp starts for the Eagles Friday and it opens up one of the most competitive off seasons in recent memory. For the first time in a few years there’s a significant amount of real battles for starting spots. In the next few days we’ll go over the major battles.

Center. In my opinion, this may be the most interesting of all. Ever since taking over the starting spot in 2001, undrafted free agent Hank Fraley has been a mainstay at center. He’s snapped the ball to McNabb in nearly every major game and every major play during the Eagles run of playoff appearances. In 04 however, some of Hank’s weaknesses started to get exposed. In the Eagles first loss of the season at Pittsburgh, McNabb was brutalized by the Steelers’ rush up the middle. They play a 3-4 defense where a nose tackle lines up right in front of Fraley. He struggled mightily with that and the push up the middle that killed the birds in that game. Fast forward to the superbowl and yet another 3-4 defense in the Pats. The same thing happened and the push up the middle disrupted the timing of the offense and put McNabb under major pressure. These games put a spotlight on Hank and more teams started to bring pressure up the middle right at him, with success…

Last year, Hank went down with an injury midway through the season and Jamaal Jackson took over as a starter. Originally he was a guard and expectedly had some trouble snapping and communicating with McNabb early on. However, as the season wore people really started to take note of his play. First off, he’s bigger and stronger(6’4” 330) than Hank(6‘2” 300). He used his size and strength to better handle rushers up the middle and really shined late in the season as the Eagles began to run more after McNabb was gone. He showed some real ability to push defenders around and displayed some of the nastiness that Hank never has been known for.

Now, the way I’ve described it you’d think it was a no brainer that Jackson should win the job. However, it’s really not that simple. First and foremost, Hank has started for this team in every big game they’ve played in the last 5 years and that can’t be discounted. Jackson has started 8 games in his career and they were almost all exclusively in the garbage time second half of last season. Fraley has experience and has been good at calling the blocking schemes for the O-Line and he has good chemistry with #5. Since he was a starter and went down with an injury, this should be his job to lose.

In the end, I loved the raw ability Jackson showed last year and I’d love to see him anchoring the center of that line. I think he has the size, strength, and demeanor to develop into a very nice piece of what should be a dominating line. However, if Fraley takes this challenge from Jackson and uses it to motivate himself to be a better player, I can’t say that I wouldn't be happy for honeybuns (as John Madden called him).


The Draft day 2... More Meat!

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It's said that day 2 of the draft is where the meat of a team is really built. This is where good GMs and personell men really make their money, so I think it's important to take a look at what the Eagles picked up here, since these guys should be important little pieces of the overall machine that Andy Reid is trying to build.

After drafting Broderick Bunkley and Winston Justice, 2 guys over 300 lbs, and another DE you may have thought the Eagles were done building the lines... Not quite. They traded up to take Max Jean Gilles, a mountain of a man that stands 6-3 3/4 & weighs in at 355 pounds. He was ranked as either the best or 2nd best guard in the entire draft. He was projected as a day one pick, so for the Eagles to be able to grab him on day 2 made for yet another strong value pick for them. The reports on him are basically that he's a massive man, strong as an ox that just manhandles opponents and is nearly impossible to push around. The knock on him is that he's a bit slow and can be beaten by speed rushers. He started out as a tackle, but was moved to the inside to avoid dealing with speedy edge rushers. He will most certainly be competing for a starting job at LG this year with the trade of Artis Hicks.

An interesting rumor I heard about Gilles is that the Eagles may see him as a future center. His body type and size certainly would fit there. There are football people who believe that you rarely draft a pure center, you draft better talent along the line and develop a guy into a center. The Eagles haven't given much indication if this is their plan, and there certainly is a hole at LG that he could fill... but it's an interesting thought to keep in mind for the future.

With another 4th round pick the Eagles tooke Michigan WR Jason Avant. I wrote up an entire scouting report on him here in my WR preview. A quick look at him is that he's a decent sized, sure handed, strong, polished possession reciever that has been a valuable target in the red zone. He's been called the best route runner in the entire draft and not afraid to go over the middle, which is a skill that Eagles cleary value in the west coast offense. They also value that he's considered a good character guy that gives full effort on every play. He's not overly fast however, and won't burn anyone or present much of a deep threat. He doesn't project as much more than a #2 WR in the NFL. He was projected as first day pick, so again the Eagles made a decent value pick here.

In the 5th round with pick #147 the Eagles selected one of the most interesting stories in the draft in Jeremy Bloom. He was a mogul skier on the us olympic team in Torino. As a skier he won two World Cup championships and went to the Olympics twice. He started his football career at Colorado as a WR/KR/PR and was considered an emerging star there, but was made ineligible for his last 2 years of school because he accepted endorsements so he could continue his professional skiing career.

The scouting report on him? "Extremely fast...A great natural athlete...Has outstanding quickness...Explosive and a terror to try and tackle in the open field...Knows how to train and work hard...An amazing return man who can literally change a game on special teams."

He's not really projected to be a starting NFL WR any day, but he should step in and improve the return game from day one here. We all know that Reno Mahe is perfectly capable of fair catching any punt that comes near him and that Dexter Winn can take a kickoff back 15 yards and get tackled with the best of them... What the team has lacked is a dynamic special teams player that is a legit threat to taking a kick to the house. Bloom appears to be that guy, in the mold of a Tim Dwight. He may be able to be molded into a decent #4 WR one day, but I doubt the Eagles are expecting him to contribute on offense anytime soon. He needs to get his body in "football shape" and will obviously have an adjustment period after not playing football for 2 years... but this guy clearly knows how to train and should be a very exciting addition to this team.

The Eagles final picks of the draft were Omar Gaither LB from Tennesse and DT LaJuan Ramsey out of USC. Gaither is an oustide LB that could play either side, is good in coverage but considered a bit weak against the run. He should be a decent special teamer in kick coverage. Ramsey is a pass rushing defensive tackle that spent most of his career stuck behind, ironically, Mike Patterson at USC. When he finally got to start he showed some real explosiveness and ability to pressure the passer. He needs to bulk up and get stronger against the run. Since Hollis Thomas was traded to the Saints, Ed Jasper is here on a one year deal and Grasmanis may not make the team... Ramsey is here for depth and hopefully to develop into a more complete DT.

All in all the Eagles second day looks promising. As with all second day picks, it's all complete craphoot, but the birds got good value with most of these picks and a potential game changer in Bloom. Also, just in case you were counting... The Eagles added a total of 1,515 lbs to the line of scrimmage or three quarters of a ton.


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