Training camp is the real beginning of football season. All spring we've had players running around in drills, wearing only shirts and shorts. The goal was to work on basics and to get the new players acclimated to the schemes. Now we've got the full team reporting to Lehigh to play some football. Ya know, hitting and tackling. After all, football is a collision sport. There may have been some contact in the spring, but that is about to change in a big way.
The Eagles have undergone a lot of changes this year. I think most, if not all, were necessary. Change means uncertainty. Watching guys run around at the NovaCare Complex in the spring didn't really answer any questions. It gave us some ideas, but we need to see real live football to get a better feel for the players and the team. We're looking for answers. All eyes will be on Kevin Kolb, but I don't think we're going to find out much about him that we don't already know. The regular season is the key for him. So what questions can get answered in the next couple of weeks?
Who will be the RCB?
Think about the guys we've had at CB during the Andy Reid era: Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Al Harris, Rod Hood, Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard, Asante Samuel. That's a who's who kind of list. That group has collectively started about 10,000 games and has 5,000 interceptions. They have gone to hundreds of Pro Bowls and made dozens of season altering plays. And they rescued babies from burning buildings in their down time. Maybe I exaggerate a little bit, but you get the point. We're used to stud corners. Now we find ourselves looking at a hole at RCB. The competition features Ellis Hobbs, Joselio Hanson, Macho Harris, Dimitri Patterson, Geoff Pope and rookie Trevard Lindley. Those guys are hardly awe-inspiring.
We don't need anyone to play like an all-star at Lehigh. That'd be great, but I'll gladly settle for one of those players having a strong camp and showing that he can be an effective starter. While that isn't a compelling list of names, I can offer you some hope. Remember the first group I listed? Hood and Harris were UDFAs. They developed into good corners pretty quickly. We threw them into action and got good results. Harris was signed less than a week before the season opener in 1998 after being cut by the Bucs. Al started that game and played well. He might have been the lone highlight of our 38-0 loss to Seattle. You know it is going to be a miserable year when the best player in a game is someone who's just been signed off the street. Hood was signed in April of 2003. He was firmly planted on the bench until Bobby and Troy got hurt and he had to come in as the #3 corner in some games. I remember seeing Hood covering Laveranues Coles man-to-man on a play in his second game of real action. My heart stopped for a minute, but Hood stuck right with coles.
None of the guys vying for the RCB spot is substantially better than the others. Hobbs has the most experience and is convinced he's the man for the job. Heck, he's thinking that he'll be in the Pro Bowl and in 15 years will be enshrined in Canton. That may sound nuts, but you want CBs to be delusional to a certain extent. Those guys need to be cocky and have a short memory. Give up two touchdown passes and I don't want you down on yourself. I need a CB who knows the offense just got lucky twice and that's all over.
Macho was an excellent CB at Virginia Tech. He's a confident, aggressive corner. He needs to show he can run with receivers on the outside. Hanson had the best spring of any DB. He is playing with a purpose this year. He hated the way the 2009 season ended. People assumed that his suspension and subsequent poor play were linked. Not so. Hanson got hurt and that fact was kept quiet. He's 100% now and wants to win a starting job. He'll be the slot corner at the least. I question whether Hanson is fast enough for playing out wide, but never count out someone who is focused and driven. Patterson is the real sleeper. He played some last year and held his own. Keep your eye on him. Pope has the best combination of size and speed. He's just got to play up to his potential.
Lindley is off to a good start in the rookie portion of training camp. That will build his confidence and get him some momentum. He's healthy and adjusting to NFL competition won't be as tough on him. Think about some of the guys he faced in college: AJ Green, Julio Jones, Riley Cooper, Jacoby Ford, Percy Harvin, Brandon LaFell, Demetrius Byrd. Those players are in the NFL or will be in the league. There is a mixture of big and small, fast and physical. Trevard will be given a fair chance to show what he can do. If he handles the competition well and proves to be coachable, it wouldn't shock me to see him make a strong push for the starting job.
As I said earlier, we don't need a shutdown, stud CB. We need to find a capable starter. If the guy can play at a high level, that's even better. As long as one player emerges we'll be fine.
Is the O-line okay?
The tackle spots should be good with Jason Peters and Winston Justice, although I have to say that I'll feel better after watching Winston play well for consecutive years. That's when I'll truly be confident in him. Things get interesting on the interior of the line. LG Todd Herremans is on the PUP list with a sore foot. Andy Reid says he's just being cautious. He indicates that Todd is fine to play, but that the Eagles don't want to risk the foot getting aggravated and affecting the regular season. I'm all for focusing on September, but it would be nice to have the 5 starters playing together to build some chemistry in August. RG Stacy Andrews is a player that fans have huge questions about, but talk to Reid or OL coach Juan Castillo and they are confident in the big guy. They think Stacy can be a good starter. Castillo sees Pro Bowl potential in Andrews. I've written about him quite a bit in the offseason, but I can't stress enough how different he should be this year. Stacy now knows the playbook and exactly what he's supposed to be doing. He's comfortable with the techniques that Castillo likes his blockers to use. And Stacy now trusts his knee. There's quite a bit of time gone by since the ACL tear (December 2008) and he isn't worried about the leg the way he was last summer. I expect Andrews to be a solid starter for us. He has good physical ability.
Center is key position for us. Reid says Jamaal Jackson is ahead of schedule in his rehab, but he's on the PUP list and may stay there for the first six games. Nick Cole is our center for now. He's spent the whole offseason practicing there and preparing for the job. Nick will battle Mike McGlynn for the starting spot, but Cole has the inside track. He is more experienced and was the backup center for most of his first three years. That means he logged a lot of practice time there and is used to making line calls and making pre-snap adjustments. We put a lot of pressure on our center to do those things and run the line. Without Jamaal at the end of 2009 the offense really struggled. That has to change.
Remember how good the offense was in 2004? We won a game with Steve Sciullo and Alonzo Eephraim as our starting guards. Should Todd Herremans get hurt and miss some time that won't kill us. We need stability at the OT spots and at center. We can plug Max Jean-Gilles in at LG and be OK. Focus on center and seeing if Cole or McGlynn has a strong summer and really earns the job. If that happens I think the line will be solid.
Is Stewart Bradley all the way back?
Middle linebacker was a huge problem for us last year after backup Omar Gaither went down. He wasn't playing lights out, but was an adequate replacement for Bradley. After him, playing MLB for us was like being the drummer for Spinal Tap. You were doomed. Remember the game where Joe "Mama" Besser spontaneously exploded? If not, see the movie and you'll understand.
All of the misery really began when Bradley tore his ACL last August. We thought we had good depth at MLB, but boy was that a fallacy. You knew things had gone horribly wrong when you saw Jeremiah Trotter out there and realized it wasn't to have his jersey retired or play in a legends game. Trot did his best, but it wasn't enough.
We need Disco Stew to be back to his 2008 form. He looked like a Pro Bowl type of player that year and got us all excited. The good news with his injury last year is that it happened so early. Bradley has had almost a full year to rehab. That gives him a big advantage in coming back. The coaches said he looked really good in the spring so they're curious to see if he's all the way back at Lehigh. That would be great news for us.
OLB is a question for us as well, but that is an area that may have to wait for the season before we have good answers. We want to see what kind of run defenders Moise Fokou and Ernie Sims are. Watching them go against our backup offense won't exactly answer our questions. Just an FYI, the starting defense faces the No. 2 offense and the starting offense faces the No. 2 defense in training camp. We'll better know about Fokou and Sims in late October after we've faced several good running teams in a row (JAX, WAS, SF, ATL, TEN).
Are we okay at RB?
Brian Westbrook is gone. That just sounds strange, huh? Westy is busy looking for some team to give him a chance. We've got a trio of backs looking to handle the running, receiving, and blocking chores in 2010. LeSean McCoy had a solid rookie year, but we need him to play better. At Pitt he showed great vision and an uncanny ability to find the hole and move through traffic. He was a confident runner. Last year you could see that Shady was feeling things out. We need him to be more comfortable and confident this year. I want to see the burst that he showed in college.
Behind him we've got a pair of big runners and both guys are new to the team. Mike Bell came over from the Saints and is here to give us a bigger, more physical back to complement McCoy. Bell is the most physical, aggressive runner we've had in a while. We need to see that he's focused. Last year he was on a Super Bowl winner. He got a pay raise in March. We've seen guys like that get complacent and have a down year. Hopefully that won't be the case with Bell. We'll know we're good to go if he's attacking defenders and playing with purpose. We do need him to block well and be productive in the passing game.
Rookie Charles Scott is behind him. He's our biggest back at 238 pounds. I'm confident that he'll run well. The key for him, as with all rookie backs, is how he handles pass plays. He must show that he can pick up the blitz and help in pass protection. Scott also has to be an effective receiver. He did play in somewhat of a pro style offense at LSU so that makes his transition easier. I like Charles a lot and think he could turn out to be a major steal as a sixth rounder.
Is Nate Allen ready to start?
Allen is the starting FS for now. The Eagles coaches liked him in pre-draft study and then the team took him 37th overall. He got a lot of reps as the starting FS in the spring. Now he's at training camp and still has that role. This is when we really find out if he can handle it.
Allen has the size, skill set, and college experience to start as a rookie. He's got the right attitude. He's confident, but humble. He knows he has a lot to learn and isn't busy telling the world how good he is (right Quintin Demps?). Allen has spent the spring learning the playbook and how to adjust to NFL offenses. Now it is time for him to take that training and put it into action in a live football setting.
I thought very highly of Nate when studying him for the draft. I was ecstatic when the Eagles took him. We needed a good FS prospect. He's passed all the tests so far. Now we get to find out if can take the next step and show that he deserves to be our starting FS.
Should Eagles fans be worried?
Not necessarily. Each situation has the possibility of a good outcome. Some questions do get good answers. This is a really talented team. It is young. Very young. The amount of new faces and uncertainty at key positions understandably will bother some people, but let's watch these guys in action and see what develops. I think some people are going to be very surprised by how well some of the new / young guys play. Besides, the summer is the time for optimism. Heck, I bet even Redskins fans think they have a chance right now.