NFL team preview: Philadelphia Eagles
Somebody asked Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott the other day whether his defense has looked better this summer than it did last year.
"At which point last year?" McDermott asked with a laugh. "You know, there's a number of new faces, and it's one thing to look good in preseason, and it's another to look good throughout each and every week of a 16-game schedule. So we still have a lot of work to do. And the players know that more than anybody."
Beset by injuries and the departure of seven-time Pro Bowl free safety Brian Dawkins, McDermott's unit struggled last season, giving up 27 touchdown passes and holding just two of their final 12 opponents to less than 20 points.
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But head coach Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman made some key offseason additions, trading for linebacker Ernie Sims and drafting defensive end Brandon Graham (first round) and safety Nate Allen (second). Those additions, along with the return-to-health of middle linebacker Stewart Bradley and the opportunity by McDermott to have a full offseason to put his stamp on the defense (he replaced the late Jim Johnson a week before the start of training camp last year) has made a huge difference.
The first-team defense has looked good in training camp and in the preseason, though, as McDermott pointed out, it's one thing to look good now, and another to look good in November, December and January.
With Akeem Jordan moving from weak side linebacker to the strong side and Sims playing the WILL, the Eagles open the season with one of the league's faster linebacker units, which McDermott hopes will improve their pass defense, particularly against opposing tight ends, who caught 100 passes against the Eagles in '09.
"I like the toughness in the group there with those three," McDermott said. "And they look like they're building that chemistry from being out on the field together, which is important."
Rookies Allen and Graham both will be in the starting lineup against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 12. The Eagles used three different players at free safety last season and none were close to adequate. But Allen has picked up McDermott's complex defense quickly and has played well this summer.
Allen came into training camp as the starting free safety and never was challenged. Graham started camp behind veteran Juqua Parker at left end. Parker had a career-high eight sacks last year, but Graham was named the season-opening starter last week after an impressive camp and preseason. Graham will play outside on first and second down and move inside to tackle in the Eagles' nickel package.
"There's a process in place and when you start in training camp, or really even back in the spring, there's a to-do list that's this long, and you try each and every day, each and every week to check off a number of those boxes," McDermott said. "And I think we've done that in terms of moving the defense forward. Are all of those boxes checked off? Certainly not, and that's what we need to continue to push forward on and make sure we're working on it."
Ironically, the Eagles' offense, which didn't seem to have nearly as many question marks as the defense when training camp opened, aside from a new quarterback (Kevin Kolb) and a center (Jamaal Jackson) coming off a major knee injury, has struggled in the preseason.
Kolb hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in six quarters and the Eagles' first-team offense is 1-for-6 in the red zone.
Jackson, who started 71 straight regular-season games before tearing his ACL last December, hasn't played in the Eagles' first three preseason games but may see his first action Thursday against the Jets. He is optimistic that he'll be ready to play on September 12 against the Packers.
COACHING: Andy Reid, 12th year, 12th with Eagles (118-75-1).
REMEMBERING: 2009 RECORD: 11-5 (2nd in NFC East); lost in wild-card game to Cowboys, 34-14.
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 10-6 (2nd in NFC East); lose in divisional round.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
There still are a couple of uncertainties along the offensive line heading into the season opener. The biggest is whether center Jamaal Jackson will play, and if he does, how effective he'll be. Jackson is coming off ACL surgery. If he doesn't start against Green Bay, Mike McGlynn likely will.
The other uncertainty is at right guard, where Stacy Andrews hasn't had a particularly good preseason. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg declined to say Andrews definitely will be the season-opening starting RG, leaving open the possibility that it will be either Nick Cole or Max Jean-Gilles.
--S Macho Harris was moved back to safety last week after spending most of training camp and the preseason at cornerback. Harris, who started eight games at free safety last year, could be in jeopardy of not making the team.
--C Jamaal Jackson participated in one-on-one blocking drills this week for the first time since January surgery to repair a torn ACL. He came out of the drills in good shape and is hoping to start the season opener.
--C/G Nick Cole, who had been sidelined for the better part of three weeks with a sore knee, returned to practice this week. He started the last two games last year at center after Jamaal Jackson got hurt, but is now taking all of his snaps at guard.
--RB Mike Bell, who sat out the first two preseason games with hamstring and calf injuries, played in the third preseason game against the Chiefs. He had just 17 yards on eight carries, but is expected to open the season as the team's No. 2 RB behind starter LeSean McCoy.
--QB Mike Vick will start Thursday's final preseason game against the Jets and play the first two quarters. It appears the Eagles plan to use Vick a lot on third-and-short situations, as well as in the red zone.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/13, DE Brandon Graham, Michigan -- Graham had an excellent camp and preseason and beat out veteran Juqua Parker for starting LE job. In the Eagles' nickel scheme, Graham likely will move inside and rush from the tackle spot.
Rd. 2/37, FS Nate Allen, South Florida -- Allen picked up Sean McDermott's complex scheme quickly and went into training camp as the starting FS. He solidified his starting role with solid play in the preseason.
Rd. 3/86, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Washington -- Te'o-Nesheim is expected to see a lot of action in the Eagles' nickel package as an inside pass-rusher.
Rd. 4/105, CB Trevard Lindley, Kentucky -- Lindley is competing with Dimitri Patterson for the No. 4 corner job. He's probably the best outside cover man the Eagles have behind starters Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs.
Rd. 4/121, LB Keenan Clayton, Oklahoma -- The Eagles wanted to improve their speed at LB and Clayton probably is their fastest player at that position. But he's also undersized. He'll earn his keep as a rookie on special teams.
Rd. 4/122, QB Mike Kafka, Northwestern -- Kafka will be the Eagles' No. 3 QB behind starter Kevin Kolb and backup Mike Vick. He doesn't have a very strong arm, but picked up the offense quickly and understands coverages very well.
Rd. 4/125, TE Clay Harbor, Missouri St. -- Harbor will be the team's No. 2 TE behind starter Brent Celek. He's an outstanding athlete and receiver who just needs to continue to improve his blocking technique. But Eagles seem comfortable using him in two-tight end sets.
Rd. 5/159, WR Riley Cooper, Florida -- Cooper had a good camp and preseason and beat out the competition for the No. 4 WR job. He's a big target with dependable hands and excellent speed.
Rd. 7/244, Kurt Coleman, Ohio State -- Coleman will make the team as a backup safety and special teams player. He's not very big, but hits like a guy much bigger. Should develop into a core special-teamer and could compete for starting SS job next year.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Kevin Kolb. Backups -- Mike Vick, Mike Kafka.
With Kolb taking over for Donovan McNabb, who was traded to the Washington Redskins in early April, the Eagles will run a more traditional West Coast offense. Under the strong-armed but often inaccurate McNabb, the Eagles ran more of a vertical passing game. Kolb is a more traditional West Coast type quarterback. He's an accurate rhythm passer who gets the ball out quickly and gives his receivers yards-after-the-catch opportunities. If the preseason is any indication, the Eagles intend to replace Kolb with Vick in third-and-short and some red-zone situations.
With Brian Westbrook gone, LeSean McCoy will become the Eagles No. 1 back. With Westbrook missing eight games last year with injuries, McCoy saw a lot of action as a rookie and played well before running out of steam late in the season. He averaged a decent 4.1 yards per carry and caught 40 passes. Like Westbrook, he's a versatile back who can line up anywhere in the formation and get mismatches against linebackers and safeties in the passing game. Bell, who was signed away from the Super Bowl-champion Saints, is a solid between-the-tackles runner who will back up McCoy, but he has little experience at pass-protection. Weaver proved last year that he can be more than a blocking fullback. He averaged an impressive 4.6 yards per carry on 70 rushing attempts and also had two receiving touchdowns.
In his first full season as a starter, Celek had a team-high 76 receptions and eight touchdown catches. He is a tough-to-bring-down receiver with good speed, sure hands and an understanding of how to get open. He averaged 5.9 yards after the catch last year. The only tight end in the league who averaged more was the Chargers' Antonio Gates. Celek should flourish as a yards-after-the-catch receiver with Kolb, who is more accurate than McNabb. Harbor, a rookie fourth-rounder, is fast and athletic and has good hands. He'll team with Celek in two tight end sets. Ingram is coming off his second ACL injury in as many years, and was slowed during camp and the preseason with a Baker's cyst behind the knee.
Jackson established himself as one of the league's most dangerous wideouts last season, catching 63 passes. He had nine touchdowns, including six of 48 yards or longer. Maclin, the team's first-round pick in '09, made an incredibly smooth transition from a college spread offense at Missouri to the Eagles' West Coast. He had 55 receptions as a rookie. Maclin and Jackson both should see their yards after the catch increase with Kolb at quarterback. Avant has developed into one of the league's better slot receivers. Twenty-six of his 41 catches last season went for first downs. Cooper is a big target with excellent speed and will be the No. 4 wideout.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jason Peters, LG Todd Herremans, C Jamaal Jackson, RG Stacy Andrews, RT Winston Justice. Backups -- Nick Cole, Mike McGlynn, Max Jean-Gilles, A.Q. Shipley, Austin Howard.
The biggest concern up front is the status of Jackson, who tore his ACL in late December. He didn't play in the Eagles' first three preseason games, and probably won't be anywhere close to 100 percent going into the season. Since three of their first five opponents play 3-4 defensive schemes, that's a concern. The rest of the line is fairly solid. Peters is one of the best left tackles in the game when he feels like playing. The Eagles are hoping to get a lot more from Andrews this year than they did last year now that he's a year removed from his ACL injury and understands offensive line coach Juan Castillo's blocking techniques a little better. Justice has developed into a serviceable blocker since being moved from the left side to the right.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Brandon Graham, LT Mike Patterson, RT Brodrick Bunkley, RE Trent Cole. Backups -- Darryl Tapp, Juqua Parker, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Antonio Dixon, Trevor Laws, Pannel Egboh, Victor Abiamiri.
The Eagles had 44 sacks last season, but just 19 in their last nine games. Cole, a two-time Pro Bowler, is a high-motor guy on the right side who has notched 34 sacks the last three years. Rookie first-rounder Graham is a Cole clone, who will play on the outside on first and second down, then move inside in nickel. Parker had a career-high 8 sacks last season. He'll be a nickel pass-rusher. Bunkley and Patterson are solid first- and second-down interior run-defenders, but combined for just 2.5 sacks last year.
This unit has more speed than any linebacker unit in the Andy Reid era. The 6-4, 255-pound Bradley is back after missing the entire '09 season with a torn ACL, which will give the unit a big lift. The Eagles traded for Sims to help improve their coverage of tight ends, which was awful last season. While he will play WILL in their base, he will be matched up with the tight end a lot in their nickel and dime packages. Jordan, who opened last season as the starting WILL, was moved to SAM less than a week into training camp to replace Fokou. Jordan isn't as big as Fokou, but has more speed, which is what Sean McDermott wants from this unit this season.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Asante Samuel, RCB Ellis Hobbs, FS Nate Allen, SS Quintin Mikell. Backups -- Joselio Hanson, Dimitri Patterson, Quintin Demps, Macho Harris, Trevard Lindley, Kurt Coleman, Jorrick Calvin.
The Eagles had 25 interceptions last season, fourth-most in the league. But they also gave up a disturbing 27 touchdown passes, as busted coverages became the norm rather than the exception. Samuel had nine picks and made the Pro Bowl, but also was a liability as a tackler and often refused to play press coverage. The Eagles traded away long-time left corner Sheldon Brown and likely will replace him with Hobbs, who is coming off a career-threatening neck injury. Hanson returns as the nickel corner. Eagles tried three different people at FS last season after Brian Dawkins signed with Denver. None were adequate. They should be better there with the addition of rookie second-rounder Allen.
Akers will turn 36 during the season, but he still has one of the league's strongest and most accurate legs. He missed just five of 37 field goal attempts last year and converted 12 of 16 from 40-plus yards. Jackson and Hobbs are two of the league's top return men. Only question is whether the Eagles want to risk two undersized starters to injury by using them as returners. But they're good. Jackson led the league in punt returns last season, averaging 15.2 yards per return and taking two back for touchdowns. Hobbs was leading the league in kickoff returns before suffering a season-ending neck injury. The Eagles also hired Bobby April, who is regarded as the league's best special teams coach, in the offseason, and many of their draft picks are defensive players with speed who can be an asset on special teams.