Monday, December 29, 2014

10 thoughts: State of the Eagles

The Eagles are 17 days away from their Week 1 opener in St. Louis against the Rams.

10 thoughts: State of the Eagles

Will King Dunlap be the Week 1 starter at right tackle? (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Will King Dunlap be the Week 1 starter at right tackle? (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

The Eagles are 17 days away from their Week 1 opener in St. Louis against the Rams.

They are five days away from cutting their roster down to 80 players.

And they are nine days away from cutting that number down to 53.

Tonight, the Birds take on the Browns at the Linc. It will likely be the last time we see many of the starters take the field this preseason.

Keeping all that in mind, here are 10 thoughts on the state of the Eagles, as of August 25:

1. Let's start with your favorite topic: Who's starting at right tackle? This is the team's biggest concern with two-and-a-half weeks left before the opener. If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on King Dunlap as your Week 1 starter.

I've been asked in the comments section why I don't believe Dunlap should get more of a shot to start. At this time last year, I didn't think he was going to even make the team, so Dunlap deserves credit. He's certainly improved and worked his way into a backup role. He was OK when the team needed him to fill in for Winston Justice last year, but I don't think he's the answer as a full-time starter on a team that wants to get to the Super Bowl. At times last season, the Eagles still had to do things to help him on the right side, especially since (you might have heard) that was Vick's blind side.

Remember, if the Eagles really felt like Dunlap could be the guy, would they have signed Ryan Harris? Would they have brought in Reggie Wells to compete for that spot? I doubt it.

My guess is that Dunlap will begin the season at right tackle. If he surprises and proves to be better than he's shown to this point, he'll get his chance to stay there. If not, the Eagles will hope Justice (or maybe Harris) is healthy, and they will replace him. Overall, the best we've seen from Justice has been better than the best we've seen from Dunlap, if that makes sense.

In other words, Dunlap will be used as a stop-gap.

Of course, my answer to the right tackle question could easily change before Week 1.

2. I don't think I like the idea of moving Todd Herremans to right tackle. There's something to be said about continuity on the offensive line, and really, the only place the Eagles have had that in recent years is on the left side with Herremans and Peters.

We talk a lot about the Eagles' blind side, but dont' forget that pressure from Vick's left side forces him to roll to his right, where it's more difficult to make throws.

Not only are Herremans and Peters good in pass protection, but the Eagles run to their side more effectively also. Looking at LeSean McCoy's splits, he averaged 5.8 yards per carry to the left last year and 4.4 yards to the right.

If the Eagles get completely desperate and run out of all their options, maybe they move Herremans. But I think they want to avoid that, and for good reason.

3. Moving on to another widely-discussed topic: the linebackers. It seems like a lot of the anger and frustration has been directed towards Casey Matthews. And I'm not sure that's fair.

Matthews was a fourth-round pick, and by all accounts, has done everything in his power to be the Eagles' starting middle linebacker. He reportedly bulked up to 245 pounds (according to both Matthews and Juan Castillo), and he's done his best to learn the defense in an incredibly short amount of time. Jumping the gun and saying he can't play or won't have a successful NFL career after one bad preseason is too reactionary.

What does make sense, though, is questioning the Eagles' coaching staff and front office. If Matthews is on the field when the season starts, and he struggles, it's on them. They were the ones who decided he could get the job done. And they were the ones who decided to move Jamar Chaney to the SAM position.

It's strange to think so much is riding on a preseason game, but if Matthews plays well tonight, my guess is the Eagles will at least start the season with him in the middle. If he struggles again, they will have to make a decision, the most likely of which is to move Chaney back inside.

4. Safety has emerged as a legitimate concern. Nate Allen is not 100 percent, and Jarrad Page will get his shot to start tonight. The positives? Page has started 40 career games and has 12 interceptions.

The negatives? This is his third team in three seasons, and only six of those career starts have come since 2009.

Confusion was an issue with the Eagles' secondary last year. Of course, the additions of talented cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will help with that. Kurt Coleman has looked good in camp and is on track to start the season as one of the safeties. But it's been extremely difficult to judge Jaiquawn Jarrett's play so far. Partly because of that, safety is pretty much on par with linebacker in terms of positions to keep an eye on the next two weeks.

5. The one issue we're probably not discussing enough is special teams. We know the Eagles will be going with a rookie kicker, Alex Henery, and a rookie punter, Chas Henry. But there are other concerns as well.

In the return game, it seems unlikely at this point that Johnnie Lee Higgins makes the team. And Chad Hall is squarely on the bubble. The depth chart has Dion Lewis listed behind Higgins as a kickoff returner, which would probably work. But I don't know how this team plans on returning punts. Will DeSean Jackson be back there all the time? Even without a new contract? The depth chart has him listed with Higgins and Sinorice Moss, neither of whom will likely make the final roster. Do they really want Jeremy Maclin in that role? That seems like a gamble too.

Meanwhile, special teams standouts like Eldra Buckley and Colt Anderson are going to have a tough time making the team as well.

Combine those factors with the reality that Bobby April had less time to work with his group during this year's training camp, and special teams should be added to the list of concerns.

6. On DNL yesterday (name-dropper!), we talked about the concern in starting rookies. It's conceivable that five of the Eagles' 25 starters (including specialists) will be rookies in Week 1: Danny Watkins, Jason Kelce, Matthews, Henry and Henery.

To be clear, I don't have a huge issue with the notion of playing rookies. Experience can sometimes be overrated, and coaches generally just go with the best players. We saw that last year when Chaney, a seventh-round pick in 2010, performed better than any of the team's other middle linebacker options.

But I would be concerned about the combination of two rookies at center and right guard AND a big question mark at right tackle. If the Eagles end up deciding Kelce is just better than Jamaal Jackson, he will start. But, at least in the beginning, it will add concern with the group the Birds are counting on to protect Michael Vick.

7. The Giants lost starting cornerback Terrell Thomas earlier this week. Some have asked if the Eagles would unload one of their cornerbacks - Asante Samuel or Joselio Hanson - to New York in a trade.

I don't see it.

Normally, I think the whole idea of never trading within the division is a bit overplayed, but not in this case. Why help the Giants fill what appears to be a major hole? Especially considering the Eagles are a passing team that has to compete with them for the division and face them twice a year?

It just wouldn't make sense.

8. Having said that, the Eagles' cornerback situation is still worth monitoring. They have seven guys they think can play: Asomugha, Samuel, Rodgers-Cromartie, Hanson, Curtis Marsh, Trevard Lindley and Brandon Hughes.

I have a tough time seeing how they could keep all seven on the 53-man roster. Asomugha, Samuel, Rodgers-Cromartie and Marsh are locks.

I still would not be surprised if they deal Hanson in the next two weeks. It's made sense to wait and get through the first three preseason games healthy, but after tonight, dealing Hanson might be the smart move. The way the group is currently constructed, he'd only get on the field in dime packages, and the Eagles probably trust Marsh, Lindley or Hughes to fill in there.

Hanson has a reported cap number of $2.435M, so dealing him would free up space, even if it's only for a late-round pick. If the Eagles don't deal him, they'll have to decide which cornerback gets cut.

9. On the other side of the ball, the wide receiver numbers are tough to figure out at this point. I've contended all along that it didn't make sense to sign Steve Smith to a one-year deal and then place him on the PUP list where he can't be used for the first six games of the season.

Joe Banner indicated yesterday on WIP that the Eagles will take him off PUP before the season starts, but when will he be ready? The locks on the 53-man roster are: Jackson, Maclin, Jason Avant and Riley Cooper. As I just mentioned, I think Smith makes it too.

But the health of Maclin and Smith could very well determine whether the Eagles keep five or six receivers. If they're unsure what they're going to get from Smith and Maclin in the first couple weeks of the season, they might have to keep six. In that scenario, I'd say Hall is the favorite to make it.

If Maclin and Smith are healthy, I don't really see a need to keep more than five receivers. There's greater need in other areas on the roster.

10. Last thought: Juan Castillo has coached this defense for just about a month now. So what do we know about the offensive line coach turned defensive coordinator?

We know he's fiery, that he will call players out who are not doing the right things at practice. But maybe more importantly, we've found out he's going to follow Andy Reid's philosophy and make sure his players know he has their back.

This is probably one of Reid's most overlooked qualities. It's why we saw players like Jeremiah Trotter and Hugh Douglas return at the end of their careers. It's why you won't hear guys like Freddie Mitchell and Terrell Owens ever say a negative word about their former head coach.

And now we've heard Castillo defend his linebackers publicly time and again. It's not just the linebackers, though. I've yet to hear Castillo offer anything but a glowing review about any one of his guys. That's not great for reporters, who would benefit from hearing what Castillo actually thinks. But it probably goes a long way with his players.

Of course, many questions still remain with him. Most notably, how will Castillo call a game? How will he play the cornerbacks? Will he be forced to make a move at linebacker?

We'll get answers to those questions in the coming weeks, but at this point, it seems like he's at least built the foundation for a good relationship with his players.


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Sheil Kapadia Philly.com
About this blog
Sheil Kapadia is in his fifth season writing about the Eagles and the NFL for philly.com. His earliest memories as a sports fan include several trips to Veterans Stadium with his Dad. He's not a beat writer or an Insider, but is here to discuss the NFL 365 days a year. E-mail him at skapadia@philly.com or by clicking here

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