Eagles OTAs and minicamp wrapped up on Thursday, and the Birds will have more than a month off before they return to the NovaCare Complex for training camp. With 'Mile 1' of the marathon in the books, let's take a look at who helped themselves this June. To note, all OTA and minicamp practices were non-contact, with the players in shorts. Therefore, evaluating the play of the offensive and defensive lines is basically useless. Therefore, if the following five players seem heavily slanted toward skill players, that's the reason why.
1) QB Nick Foles
At the conclusion of OTAs and minicamp last year, I felt that Nick Foles had outplayed Michael Vick. Vick of course would eventually win the starting job because of how well he played in the preseason games, But Foles' progression from his rookie year to his second year is what stood out. Here's what I wrote then.
"The natural, intangible progressions from a rookie to a second year player like "He looks more confident" apply, but there's another difference that I see in Foles' play that is more tangible. Last year, here's something I wrote about him:
"Something I’m beginning to notice with Nick Foles: If he throws the ball more than 15-20 yards downfield, it quacks."
What I meant by that was that Foles wasn't throwing tight spirals on the more difficult throws. His passes often wobbled, like "wounded ducks." Hence they "quacked."
That is no longer the case. Yesterday, Foles unleashed a 60 yard TD that was on the money to DeSean Jackson. On the very next play, he threw a 20 yard laser through heavy traffic, which once again, was also on the money. Those were throws he was not making in training camp last year. They were "wow" throws. Is it just a matter of Foles getting more comfortable with the ball used in the pros? Is it simply that he's doing less thinking and just letting it rip? I don't know the answer, but whatever it is, he's throwing a much prettier ball."
Foles looks even better in year three. His accuracy continues to improve, he's throwing well on the run, and players/coaches have noted that he has better command of the offense.
Nobody expects Foles to equal his 29 TD, 2 INT stats of a year ago, but even if he can't, he can still be a better player.
2) WR Jordan Matthews
Jordan Matthews' work ethic has been well documented by now, which is fine and good, but Chad Hall had good work ethic too. The more important question is, "Can Matthews play?"
Yep, he can play.
Matthews isn't just a try hard guy. He has great size at 6'3, 215-ish, he ran a 4.46 at the Combine, and he was the all-time receptions leader at Vanderbilt. He also stood out in OTAs and minicamp, making catch after catch after catch. It may take some time for Matthews to be an impact player at this level, but at a minimum, he should be a significant 'day one' upgrade over Jason Avant.
3) CB Nolan Carroll
We covered Carroll at length a few days ago:
Nolan Carroll has looked really good so far. He has repeatedly broken up passes, and even picked off a few. In OTAs and minicamp, there is no contact allowed, which means there's no press coverage from the secondary. That makes it much easier for the receivers to make plays, and is a big reason why you hear about a standout receiver this time of year every offseason. It is much harder for a corner or safety to stand out in non-contact drills, but Carroll has.
What makes Carroll's play so impressive is that he prefers press coverage. "I've been (playing press) for so long, since I came into the league," said Carroll. "It's just what my coaches had me do, the whole time. There had only been certain situations where I have played off. Here, this is the most I've ever played off in an offseason ever.
"My biggest thing is being physical and pressing, and we haven't been able to do that at all in OTAs. Receivers are getting free releases, so we're kind of reacting off of what they do."
Carroll is excelling play off coverage, which is outside his comfort zone. That is a very good sign. Yesterday, I asked defensive backs coach John Lovett whether or not Carroll had a legitimate chance to win a starting job. Lovett replied, "Yeah. He sure does. He sure does."
Lovett also noted, "I'm thrilled to death we have Nolan Carroll here. Having Nolan Carroll here has added competition, and it has made Cary (Williams) and Bradley (Fletcher) prepare harder, work harder, play better."
Not only has Carroll played well, but Cary Williams is set to count for over $8 million against the cap next season, while Bradley Fletcher will be a free agent at the conclusion of this season. If Carroll can win a starting job on the outside over either incumbent, the Eagles can feel more confident about losing Williams or Fletcher next offseason.
4) WR Arrelious Benn
It will be interesting to see how many wide receivers the Eagles keep when they trim down to 53 players. My best guess at the moment is six. Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, Jordan Matthews, and Josh Huff are all locks. Beyond those four players, the top three contenders for the fifth and sixth spots are probably Brad Smith, Jeff Maehl and Arrelious Benn. A month ago, the Eagles released Benn, and later brought him back for less money. Last training camp, Benn tore his ACL, so there were obvious questions as to how well he would recover.
So far, so good. Benn has made several leaping/sliding catches, and looks like his recovery from that ACL tear went well. My sense is that Benn will have to significantly outplay Smith and Maehl to earn a job, as durability concerns remain, but he is off to a good start.
5) RB (or whatever you want to call him) Darren Sproles
Yesterday, Darren Sproles turned 31 years old. Personally, I have no frame of reference for what Sproles typically looks like in a minicamp setting, since he's new to the team. Non-contact drills seem tailor-made for him, as he can use his shiftiness to easily beat linebackers in the passing game. However, there's no way for me to tell whether his age has slowed him in comparison to other practices in shorts.
What I do see is a very quick, very elusive player with good hands who has the potential to do serious damage in Chip Kelly's spread offense, whether he has lost a step or not.
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