INDIANAPOLIS -- Here are some leftovers after talking with front office personnel, coaches, scouts and agents during the NFL combine about players on the Eagles current roster:
1. If you’ve wondered why the Eagles haven’t climbed to the highest mountain to scream their devotion to Nick Foles, you aren’t the only one. Howie Roseman was a little more emphatic about the team’s support of Foles, but the Eagles general manager and coach Chip Kelly have yet to say anything that equates to – “Foles is our quarterback. He’s our future. Period.” And people around the league are noticing, particularly some that are close to the third-year quarterback. Foles is obviously the starting quarterback in 2014. And the Eagles can’t technically say he’s their long-term quarterback because he still can’t receive a contract extension. But the less-than-full backing suggests that Kelly and Roseman are still leaving themselves some wiggle room in case Foles regresses this season. Some believe the Eagles still have doubts. It will be hard to top last year’s 27-touchdown, two-interception, 119.2-passer rating season, but there is certainly room for improvement. The worst that could happen to the Eagles would be for Foles to perform somewhere in that nether region that often forces teams to move forward with a quarterback they’re less than convinced can win them a Super Bowl.
2. Safety Earl Wolff appears to have completely recovered from the knee sprain that sidelined him for most of the second half of the season. He seemed to be steadily improving up until his injury in Green Bay, but Wolff was still good for a couple of costly mistakes each game. But it was still better than the alternative. How much better? When Wolff returned against the Bears and re-injured his knee, the coaches pushed for him to re-enter the game. I can’t say I know anything about the condition of Wolff’s knee at the time and whether he should have toughed it out or not. But he didn’t feel healthy enough, balked and felt backed into a decision from what I understand. Wolff had said a month earlier that he had never missed a football game and the knee injury was the first significant one of his career. Nevertheless, the important point is that the Eagles felt that a gimpy Wolff was a better alternative to a healthy Patrick Chung. It doesn’t take a 40-year NFL scout to realize that Chung struggled after he returned from a shoulder injury. The Eagles are expected to release Chung this offseason. As for Wolff, he could enter the spring as a designated starter or he could face competition depending upon what the Eagles do in free agency.
3. I still can’t figure out what the Eagles plan to do with Trent Cole. I don’t think Cole or those close to him have any clue either. Cole is a good football player, a tireless worker and gives full effort on game days. Was he ideally suited to play 3-4 outside linebacker last season? No, but he accepted the challenge and the Eagles found other ways to utilize his strengths. Cole’s salary was guaranteed last season, though. He wasn’t every going anywhere unless the Eagles were able to find a trade partner. And I’m not sure they even wanted to deal him. Cole’s $5 million salary this season is not guaranteed. But it’s a manageable number before his salary jumps to $10 million in 2015. And there aren’t exactly a lot of attractive outside linebacker options in free agency. The Eagles know what they have in Cole and seem more apt to add a complementary piece in free agency and draft a pass rusher to develop.
4. So what does that mean for Brandon Graham? The former first round pick has value. I had a few NFL people ask me what the Eagles planned to do with the defensive-end-turned-linebacker, which tells me that there would be interest from other teams. But only teams with a 4-3 defense or a hybrid scheme that would allow Graham to put his hand in the ground and rush the majority of the time. He was adamant about wanting the opportunity to start next season. He avoided questions about which scheme he would prefer to play in, but it’s clear the outside linebacker thing was a difficult adjustment. All that being said, it’s going to be difficult to trade for a player most teams know the Eagles would be willing to deal. Graham still has two years left on his contract and is slated to earn around $1.67 million this season.
5. Speaking of pass rushers, the Eagles have another that technically isn’t a schematic fit if they want to continue their transition to a two-gap 3-4 scheme. Defensive end Vinny Curry is a one-gap penetrator, plain and simple. He caught on some to playing two gap later in the season, but the system takes away from what he does best and that’s shooting the gaps with his quick get-off. I don’t think the defense will ever get to a traditional 3-4 or that Bill Davis even wants a Steelers-like scheme up front. Coordinators have more flexibility with hybrid fronts and the Eagles still need to cater to their players’ skill set. And Curry has a commodity few of the Eagles linemen have at this point and that’s rushing the passer. Cedric Thornton is a very good run-stopping defensive end and he does a lot of the dirty work in tying up blocker on passing downs. But he generated just 17 hurries and one sack in 436 pass play snaps. Thornton is an exclusive rights free agent this offseason, which means he pretty much isn’t a free agent. The Eagles own his rights and will obviously tender him a contract. He may be fishing for something longer. Thornton changed agents this offseason, moving from Jimmy Sexton (CAA) to Joby Branion (Athletes First). I’m under the impression the Eagles will sign him for just the one season and then go from there.
6. With Jason Avant likely to move on there have been questions about who will now play in the slot. The simple answer: everyone. I wrote more extensively about the topic in today’s column. Kelly likes to move his receivers around everywhere. Avant (78 percent of pass routes), DeSean Jackson (26 pct.), Brent Celek (34 pct.), Zach Ertz (43 pct.) and Riley Cooper (18 pct.) all saw significant time in the slot last season. But if the Eagles can get Jeremy Maclin, who ran out of the slot 32 percent of the time in 2012, signed, he’ll replace a lot of Avant’s time in the slot. Ertz could be the X factor inside, though. Kelly is far from setting any plans for next season, but it is inevitable that Ertz will steal snaps from Celek, especially as a pass catcher. The Eagles project a significant increase in production for the second-year tight end, who caught 36 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie.
7. A few quickies … LeSean McCoy spent little time resting this offseason after the Pro Bowl. He took a few weeks off and was back working out locally. A confidant recently called him asking what he was doing and he said he’s training. “I know Adrian Peterson isn’t resting” was McCoy’s reason. … Todd Herremans got off to a slow start last season, partly because of his return from a broken cuboid bone and partly because he was transitioning from right tackle to right guard. But he, in essence, saved his job with a solid second half. Herremans may have lost a step as a pass blocker, but he’s still an above average run blocker. … There remains some question about what the Eagles will do with tight end James Casey. He’s carrying a large salary (almost $4 million) into next season, so there’s a chance the Eagles force a pay cut now or right before the season. That’s a lot of dough for a guy that played only 14 percent of offensive snaps. But Casey played on almost all of special teams and indications are the Eagles want him back -- probably at a reduced rate.