Eagles practice observations: Fletcher Cox dominates; Tempers flare; Jordan Matthews battles

The Eagles continued training camp on Thursday. Here’s what I saw from Day 10 (Links to Days 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9):

After a lighter day on Wednesday, the Eagles donned the full pads and went back to hitting and tackling for their longest practice thus far. There was a ton of action so let’s get to the running diary:

The Eagles worked on a number of red zone trick plays during the offensive installation period. We got to see running back Darren Sproles toss a “touchdown” pass to tight end Trey Burton on a halfback option play. We saw tackle Dillon Gordon, who has filled the fullback role on the goal line, catch a touchdown out of the backfield. And we saw tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai snag a touchdown grab on a tackle-eligible play. The Eagles worked on other plays, of course. At one point, coach Doug Pederson didn’t like how receivers Greg Ward and Shelton Gibson had lined up. He whistled the play dead and stood there for about 10 seconds waving his hand for Ward to move closer, closer, closer to the line. Pederson, shaking his head as he walked away, seemed nonplussed about the whole incident.

I caught only the end of blocking drills, but it was more of the same as certain running backs and tight ends just didn’t have the technique down to stop rushing linebackers and safeties. Tight end Adam Zaruba, otherwise known as “Rugby,” barely got a hand on rookie linebacker Nate Gerry. And running back Corey Clement failed to drive linebacker Joe Walker up field on his edge rush. The offensive skill players fared better in three-on-two passing drills  —  as they should. Tight end Zach Ertz used soft hands and his athleticism to stretch for a Carson Wentz pass just beyond safety Jaylen Watkins’ reach. Tight end Brent Celek was able to get beyond linebacker Don Cherry on a fade. No one seemed to be able to guard running back  Sproles out of slot. With so many hybrid players in the NFL  —  tight ends and running backs who can run and catch like receivers  —  defenses have been forced to find personnel to match that kind of versatility. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz talked about it last week. It’s why we’ve seen college safeties like Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill become converted linebackers in the pros. I’ll have more on both linebackers later.

Run drills weren’t “live,” but there were some big hits. Defenders can get downhill knowing the ball will be handed off, and we saw that when linebacker Nigel Bradham slashed into the backfield and popped Sproles. Bradham eased up rather than bring him down, but Sproles also stayed on his feet. Defensive end Vinny Curry read a Wendell Smallwood carry and met him near the line of scrimmage. Safety Terrence Brooks knocked running back Corey Clement to the ground after a long rush and after the whistle. Schwartz pulled him off the field,according to  a couple of reporters who didn’t look away as I did. Jordan Hicks, who is still being eased back in with the first team, took snaps with the third team. Grugier-Hill looked like he was shot out of a cannon when he squared up running back Bryron Marshall for a loss.

“Live” tackling drills are necessary, in my opinion, when working on short yardage. How else can you evaluate in that area before the preseason? The second-unit offense was pitted against the first-team defense, and vice versa. It took one play for there to be an injured player. Zaruba walked off favoring his shoulder and that was the last I saw of him at practice. Center Stefen Wisniewski and quarterback Matt McGloin had a couple shaky exchanges with the snap. Bradham wrestled Marshall to the ground after a short play-action pass. McGloin hit Jordan Matthews on a slant and the receiver ping-ponged off two would-be tacklers. Tough kid. Clement picked up a “first down” with a misdirection flip. Receiver Nelson Agholor had a key block on the outside.

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Agholor had a reception on the last play of the first-team offense’s set, so we’ll start there since I just mentioned his name. Wentz’s pass forced Agholor to turn his body. It wasn’t a bad throw. And it wasn’t necessarily a difficult snag. It’s the type of pass that should always be completed. But that simply wasn’t the case last year. And Agholor made it look effortless here. We’re still talking about baby steps. But at least he is moving in the right direction. Linebacker Steven Daniels delivered a few blows to Smallwood and tight end Anthony Denham on short yardage plays. But Smallwood gobbled up a chunk of yards when he followed a Jason Peters seal block on Derek Barnett. Burton lined up as the fullback on a few plays. Lead blocking is not his strength. Bryce Treggs continued to practice efficiently. Quarterback Dane Evans threaded a pass in between safety Chris Maragos and cornerback Mitchell White that the receiver took to the house.

During goal-line drills, the second-team offense appeared to get the better of the starting unit. Clement muscled his way into the end zone behind the backup offensive line on two out of three plays. The starting offense also had success, but it should against the reserves. Smallwood eked across the goal line on his first carry. Walker and others strung Marshall out short. But Wentz hit Ertz in the back corner of the end zone. And Smallwood scored again. Pederson signaled that it was a touchdown but the defense objected. Kelce, for some reason, then got in safety Rodney McLeod’s face. There was some jawing and pushing, but cooler heads prevailed and the skirmish ended. During the third team set, the 325-pound Dillon was the lead blocker. He squared up Gerry and drove him back, but the rookie maintained his footing and was able to get in on the tackle.

More than two hours into practice, the Eagles started another period of live team drills. And the temperature was nearing 90 degrees. But defensive tackle Fletcher Cox took his game to another level. Just a few of the highlights during this section: Clement found a crease up the middle and looked like he had a clearing, but Cox slid over and dragged him down for a minimal gain. A few plays later, Cox disposed of guard Darrell Greene and “sacked” McGloin. During the last series, the Pro Bowler dropped Clement for no gain. And then he batted a McGloin slant pass inside the red zone. The first-team defense, overall, didn’t have a strong day. But Cox was a standout.

Hicks was back in with the first team during tackling drills even though the broken bone in his hand hasn’t completely healed. Matthews caught yet another slant over the middle and took on would-be tacklers. He’s clearly not 100 percent, but he also has yet to miss a practice. The first team O-line had a strong effort. Smallwood ran for 5-plus yards on three straight rushes. On the middle carry, he emerged into the secondary and was met by Brooks, who delivered a pop. Smallwood, though, hammered the safety and picked up an extra yard or two. After Wentz dumped to receiver Torrey Smith underneath, Walker came up for the open-field stop. Cherry and Gerry were credited with sacks during third team drills.

It was mixed bag for the first-team defense on the final series. Cornerback Jalen Mills dropped receiver Mack Hollins after a short catch, but he later missed tackling Burton. Slot corner Ron Brooks dragged Matthews to the ground after a quick toss. But the middle of the field was empty when McGloin found Burton on third down. Hicks batted a red zone slant before Cox did, and on fourth down Burton couldn’t pull in what would have been a score in the back of the end zone. Bradham had the coverage. The first-unit offense was also up and down during their final series. Smallwood peeled off another long run to Peters’ side. And Wentz moved the sticks with short tosses to Agholor. But the quarterback threw wide of the open Ertz and short of Burton. On fourth down, he connected with Agholor  —  who had a step on corner Rasul Douglas  —  for a 40-something-yard touchdown. But it should be noted that corner Aaron Grymes, who blitzed off the edge, eased up rather than go full tilt at Wentz.

 

  1. And some leftovers … The education of Barnett continues. He was stonewalled by tackle Matt Tobin during one-on-ones, but he pulled his speed rush out of his back pocket on his next attempt and made a turnstile out of tackle Victor Salako. … Alshon Jeffery was out for the third straight day. He has what the Eagles have been calling a shoulder injury. It doesn’t appear to be that serious. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said that he thought it was precautionary.