Emptying the Notebook, Part I

With the start of training camp just days away it's time to empty the notebook. I wrote some 2,000 words on ten pieces so I'm breaking the notes into two entries -- one today and another tomorrow.

1. When the Eagles traded for DeMeco Ryans one of my first questions to Andy Reid was whether the ex-Houston linebacker would play all three downs. Reid, put on the spot, answered as you would expect him to: He said Ryans was a three-down linebacker. In a sit-down with the Eagles coach last month, I asked him the same question. “Do I think he’s a three-down linebacker? Yes,” Reid said. “Do I think other guys can come in? I think one of Casey [Matthews’] strengths is his pass game and how he handles that. You can take each guy and individually pick them out.” In a perfect world you would prefer that your middle linebacker -- your field general – played all three downs. In recent seasons, the Eagles seemed to force Stewart Bradley and Jamar Chaney into playing all three downs and both struggled in pass protection. Just because the Eagles made a significant investment in salary and in giving up a fourth round pick to get Ryans, and just because he has been labeled a savior of sorts, I’m not sure if Reid – based on the above comment – feels obligated to play the former Pro Bowl linebacker for all three downs. Matthews did look solid in pass protection late last season. Right now he is Ryans’ backup. The Eagles throwing him out there with Mychal Kendricks on passing downs does seem plausible. But it would drastically cut into Ryans’ playing time and dilute the importance of bringing the 28-year old in. I imagine the Eagles will open the season by playing Ryans on all three downs, but don’t be surprised to see some shuffling at a position that has increasingly become devalued in the NFL.

2. The Eagles aren’t sure yet if Mike Patterson will be ready for the start of training camp. Veterans have to report by Wednesday. Patterson, who had brain surgery in January to correct an anteriovenous malformation, will undergo a physical that day – as all players do – and then a decision will be made about his return. There doesn’t seem to be any major cause for concern, although Reid went from saying in May that Patterson would be ready by camp to modifying in June that he may not be. Patterson’s agent, J.R. Rickert, told me on Monday that all signs pointed to his client still being ready by the season opener. Still, we’re talking about brain surgery here. The Eagles will likely proceed with caution. Patterson, who is entering his eighth season in the NFL, can afford to miss a few weeks of camp. The Eagles are also fairly stocked at defensive tackle with veterans Cullen Jenkins, Derek Landri and Antonio Dixon and newbies like Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton. Patterson is still listed as a starter and still slated to play most run downs. He showed last season that he could function as a credible pass rusher in Jim Washburn’s system. But his forte is clogging lanes even if they’re a little wider than usual.

3. As far as summer indiscretions go, Dion Lewis’ arrest for pulling a hotel fire alarm failed to really register. From what I’ve been told, the Eagles aren't going to make a huge deal out of it. Reid will likely chastise the second-year running back, but Lewis should remain No. 2 on the depth chart when full squad practices start Thursday. What other choice do the Eagles have? Rookies Bryce Brown and Chris Polk are interesting prospects, but to expect either to push Lewis before the season is probably asking too much. Brown has never been asked to block, a must-have skill-set in Reid’s offense. Polk did block in college, but he didn’t look to have the burst Brown did during spring practices. Lewis has a year under his belt and was actually not bad at picking up the blitz the few times last season that he was asked to do so.

4. If you were as confused as I was about who will be handling the majority of pre-snap blocking calls join the club. Michael Vick took on the bulk of the responsibility last year because that’s the way Howard Mudd, who had Peyton Manning in Indianapolis handle the calls, wanted it. It made additional sense with a rookie at center. But early this offseason after I noticed Jason Kelce pointing out the middle linebacker on one particular drill I asked him if he was doing more pre-snap. He said he was, but only to assist Vick. I asked Vick and he said nothing had changed. Reid said Kelce was helping more, but that Vick still had final say. And then Howard Mudd finally showed up at the end of the spring session and I think we finally got a straight answer. “Yeah, he’s taking on more responsibility,” Mudd said of Kelce. “He understands what we need, taking some pressure off from Mike.” Why does this matter? Because Vick does need to have his load lightened. There’s no shame in that. Not everyone can be Manning.

5. The accepted storyline this offseason is that Juan Castillo will allow Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to play more man-to-man, press cover defense this season. “It’s definitely fair to say,” Asomugha said back in May. “Yeah, it’s fair to say.” That may very well end up being the case. It certainly makes sense with Asante Samuel gone and the man-press-loving Asomugha and DRC still here. I’ve often found myself saying it in interviews as if it is a matter of fact. The truth is we don’t know yet what Castillo’s scheme will look like. We probably won’t have a semblance of an idea until the first preseason game. For most of last season the Eagles avoided blitzing, mostly because they didn’t need to. They sent a few extra pass rushers by the end of the season and I think the addition of Kendricks, if he’s up to it, could impel Castillo to blitz a little more this season. But why weaken the back seven if you can generate enough pressure with the front four? So I think the pass rush philosophy will remain unchanged unless Washburn’s crew can’t get it done. As for the pass defense on the back end I still think Castillo will run a fair amount of zone. Even if Asomugha and DRC go one-on-one, the Eagles’ safeties and linebackers will likely remain in, say, a Cover-2 man defense.