Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Eagles nuggets on safeties, pass rush, wide receivers, Pro Days, and more

Here are a collection of notes and nuggets on some of the key issues with the Eagles:

Eagles nuggets on safeties, pass rush, wide receivers, Pro Days, and more

Anthony Barr of the UCLA Bruins. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Anthony Barr of the UCLA Bruins. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Eagles’ offseason program begins on Monday. The draft comes two weeks later. OTAs and mini-camp begin shortly thereafter. So the slow period between the league meetings and the offseason program is almost finished.

Here are a collection of notes and nuggets on some of the key issues with the Eagles:

**The biggest need on the Eagles’ roster remains a pass rusher. The best-case scenario in the draft, in my opinion, is for UCLA’s Anthony Barr to somehow fall to the Eagles. Barr, a converted running back who had a two productive seasons as a pass rusher. He was considered a likely top 10 pick earlier in the draft process, but someone I trust told me this week that it’s conceivable Barr could slip into the 20s. If that happens, it would be a major boon. He still has some development to go through, but his story is similar to Lane Johnson’s last year – he doesn’t have many years at the position, is considered a high-character player, and the type of player he projects to be could be intriguing.

I don’t see Barr falling to the Eagles, but it’s a development to watch. This is not considered a deep class for edge rushers. The Eagles are counting on their internal options improving in the second year in the scheme to help a pass rush that had the second fewest sacks per snap last season.

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I spoke to Andy Reid about transitioning to the 3-4 last month, and Reid went out of his way to compliment Trent Cole. The Eagles are intrigued by Travis Long, who spent all of last season on practice squad and was recovering from a major injury at this time last offseason. Josh Kaddu was signed after the season and will get a look. The Eagles also would like to use Connor Barwin as a pass rusher more this season.

“Last year, I really filled holes all over the place; that’s what I had to do,” Barwin said. “If we can shore up some things in certain areas, I’ll be able to pass rush. Hopefully that’s what happens. If not, I’ll be happy to play in the role I did last year.”

The Eagles were not aggressive on pass rushers in free agency for a simple reason: they were not really blown away by the group that was out there.

“There wasn’t somebody in free agency where you were like, ‘Wow, I wish this happened’,” coach Chip Kelly said.

 **The Eagles have five safeties on their roster. Most fans can name Malcolm Jenkins, Nate Allen, and Earl Wolff. Chris Maragos was signed this offseason from the Seahawks and will make the team as a special teams contributor who can help on defense. The final one is a little more obscure, but don’t forget about Keelan Johnson. The Eagles like Johnson, and this isn’t just in the way they say that they like all players on their roster. Johnson, who spent most of last season the practice squad, had an appealing opportunity to leave to Philadelphia.

Before the Eagles signed Johnson to the 53-man roster on Dec. 17, the Arizona Cardinals tried signing Johnson off the Eagles' practice squad. Any NFL opportunity is a good one, but going to Arizona would have given Johnson a chance to play for his hometown team. He still declined the Cardinals’ offer.

Johnson’s decision was not about 2013. He understood that Allen, Kurt Coleman, and Colt Anderson were pending free agents. He had a good sense that there were going to be changes in the Eagles’ defensive backfield in 2014. The Eagles encouraged him to stay. Johnson had learned the defense, the coaching staff was intrigued by him, and he thought a full offseason in Philadelphia was better than joining another team in midseason – even if he was guaranteed a 2013 roster spot elsewhere.

The Eagles wanted developmental safeties. They were sorry to see Jordan Poyer go earlier in the season. The team had plans to see Poyer at safety, as Cleveland has since done. They did not want to lose Johnson.

I’m not writing this to suggest that Johnson is the team’s answer at safety. But it’s worth remembering his name when looking at what the Eagles have on the depth chart in 2014. One player with a similar story was Cedric Thornton. In 2012, the Bucs tried signing Thornton off the practice squad. The Eagles persuaded him to stay. One year later, he was a contributor. Two years later, he was a starter.

 **The depth of the wide receivers in this draft class has been well documented, and it’s not a stretch to say the Eagles will come out of it with potentially two wide receivers. It’s entirely conceivable that the top prospect on the board in the first two rounds are wide receiver.

Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks has received considerable attention, particularly after the Eagles released DeSean Jackson. Cooks, who won the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s best receiver and has the skill set that could help fill the void of Jackson.

That said, the player I keep hearing for the Eagles is USC’s Marqise Lee. It’s easy to look at his production against Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams as a reason – 20 catches for 344 yards and three touchdowns in three games – but it goes beyond two games. Lee’s nagging injuries in 2013 and 40-yard dash might have dropped his stock a bit, but he was considered an elite prospect entering the season and has the type of dynamic ability that would fit in Kelly’s offense. His route-running and ability to play different receiver spots would be especially appealing. That versatility is key with him – Kelly likes to miss receivers between the outside and the slot, and Lee can be used in that way.

One under-the-radar player to watch is Indiana’s Cody Latimer, who has generated some recent buzz. What about Latimer would make sense? The size is a check mark (6-2, 215 pounds), he played in a similarly fast-paced offense at Indiana, blocks well, and has dependable hands. He's quickly rising, and the Eagles are believed to be intrigued.

Around the combine, Kelvin Benjamin received considerable attention because of his sheer size (6-5, 240 pounds, 4 percent body fat). NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said if the Eagles go for a receiver, watch out for Benjamin.

“I think a lot of people have been hung up on the speed receivers, saying they’re going to find somebody to replace DeSean Jackson, so you talk about Brandin Cooks and maybe Odell Beckham…but I look at Kelvin Benjamin, who is a little bit of a polarizing player out of Florida State, that to me would be a name to keep an eye on,” Jeremiah said Thursday. “Chip Kelly at Oregon, everybody focuses on the pace and the tempo. They kind of assume he likes little small, fast players. But on the outside, they always had some big, physical receivers. And I would think adding more size, if you had Kelvin Benjamin [and Riley Cooper, and Jeremy Maclin], now your offense is not only going to be able to move the ball in the 20s, but now you get down into the red zone, you got two guys you can throw the ball up to.”

 **Chip Kelly’s busy Pro Day calendar has received considerable attention. I asked Kelly last month what value the Pro Days offer. Kelly said they’re “another tool in the toolbox” – a phrase he likes to use often – but he finds them more valuable for the combine because the drills are more specific and there are more resources for information.

“You get a chance to visit with them and talk to them and see them in different settings, and also talk their coaches and trainers and other people who’ve been around the young man for 4-5 years,” Kelly said. “They’re thrown in for three straight days [at the combine], and they’re marching around in their underwear, people are staring at them, poking and prodding and asking a million questions.

“You get a 15-minute interview. I think sometimes when you get them back on their campus and back in their environment, you get a better understanding of what they’re like as a player and a better feel for who they are.”

Kelly obviously cannot scout in-person during the season, but he said he watches prospects on Saturday nights during the season.

General manager Howie Roseman stayed behind after two Eagles road games last season – the Tampa Bay game and the Oakland game – to do in-person scouting in Florida and California. The value is similar to what Kelly said about the Pro Days: access to coaches, trainers, and drills that are not necessarily available during the combine.

**During the past 15 months, there’s been much thought and discussion about what Kelly is looking for in a player. I wanted to know from Jeremiah, who worked under Andy Reid and was the West Coast scout for the Eagles when Kelly was at Oregon, how the Eagles’ evaluations differ under Reid than under Kelly.

Here’s what Jeremiah said:

“I think they’re a little more targeted with Chip Kelly around,” Jeremiah said. “I think Chip knows exactly what he wants with size at position, whereas maybe under Andy, a corner for instance, he wouldn’t get too hung up on how tall a guy was if he could play. You’d be OK with it. I think Chip is someone who wants more size at a position.

“So what that does is it makes it a little bit easier to scout because you eliminate some players. There’s also some risk because you end up passing up on some guys that are going to be great players at the next level because they simply don’t fit. But in terms of philosophy, I think that sort of mirrors what the Patriots do under Bill Belichick.

“Most draft boards, when you talk to guys around the league and the teams I worked for, you had about 150 players on your board. In New England, they’re famous for being much less than that – well below 100. There’s only a certain number of guys they feel fits what they do. I think that’s kind of what Philadelphia doing with Chip Kelly.

 “But the personnel department there, they have a lot of veteran guys who’ve been doing this awhile, with really good eyes as scouts, so it seems so far, if you go by last year and they worked together and found good players, it worked out. This is going to be a big challenge for them in this next draft, taking a next step from being a division winner to being a team that can compete with those two teams out in the NFC West.”

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

 

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