July 26, 2022
Football is back! Eagles players report to training camp on Tuesday. Practice will be open to the media at the NovaCare Complex on Wednesday. Following a spring and summer that saw the Sixers go down in the second round yet again, the Flyers making it clear that they don't have a clue what they're doing and the Phillies continuing their trend as the most inconsistent team ever, Philly sports fans need the Eagles right now.
As camp kicks off, here are five storylines I'll be following throughout July and August as the regular season creeps closer...
Jalen Hurts has been placed in a ton of different offensive systems in his football career. Hurt started as a freshman at Alabama in 2016 when Lane Kiffin was the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator. The next season, current Giants head coach Brian Daboll was the OC. Hurts lost his starting QB job to Tua Tagovailoa going into 2018, a move that led to him transferring to Oklahoma and playing under Lincoln Riley for the Sooners in 2019. As a rookie in the NFL in 2020, Hurts started the last few games of the Doug Pederson era. In 2021, his first full-year as a pro starter, he worked with new head coach Nick Sirianni.
For the first time in a long time, Hurts has some semblance of continuity with coaching. This isn't to make excuses. That line of thinking rationalized someone like Sam Bradford getting endless chances at the NFL level that were undeserved. It's more so about urgency. Hurts is in his second go-around as the Birds' QB1. There were mistakes that could be chalked up as inexperience during his first two years in Philly under two different head coaches. That's not the case anymore. It won't fly, certainly not when he'll be throwing to A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert.
"He has a new coach!"
"He doesn't have enough help!"
None of that matters with this pass-catching unit and offensive line while playing under Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen once more. Throw the excuses away, burn the ships, etc. It's time for Hurts to clean up those little mistakes, make strides as a passer and demonstrate a mastery of the Birds' playbook. Everything is in place for him to ball out and every media member at the NovaCare Complex will have their eyes on Hurts whenever he drops back to pass over the next month.
Here are the Eagles' top-four defensive tackles: Javon Hargrave, Fletcher Cox, Jordan Davis and Milton Williams. Hargrave made the Pro Bowl in 2021. Cox is a Super Bowl champ and a multiple-time All-Pro. Davis won the Bednarik Award at Georgia last season as the best defensive player in college football. Williams was my favorite Day 2 prospect in the 2021 draft, has testing numbers akin to Aaron Donald and came on strong down the stretch last year.
It's an organizational philosophy that has been going on for two-plus decades: build through the trenches. Moving up for Davis is exactly what I would've done if I was running the show for the Birds during the draft. I can't wait to see how Davis looks going up against the Eagles' ultra-talented offensive linemen during 1-on-1 drills and how many reps he'll get in full-team situations. Jason Kelce is the best center in the NFL and Davis has at least three inches and, give or take, 50 pounds on him (maybe an understatement given that Kelce being listed at 295 lbs. seems pretty high). Landon Dickerson was a monster at Alabama and has battled with Davis before. Early camp success from Davis could go a long way to him demonstrating that he can be a three-down player in the NFL sooner rather than later.
There are four locks for wide receiver roster spots to me: Brown, Smith, Quez Watkins and Zach Pascal. Those first three are the team's starters and I imagine Pascal will get a healthy amount of action given his familiarity with Sirianni because of their shared time in Indianapolis.
I assume the Eagles will carry six wideouts on their roster after final cut downs. That leaves two spots for Jalen Reagor, Britain Covey, Greg Ward, Devon Allen, Deon Cain, Josh Hammond, John Hightower and Keric Wheatfall.
He has a rocky status among Eagles fans, but I imagine Reagor makes it. You never know though!
Two players who could become quick fan-favorites at camp are Covey and Allen. The Eagles have been starved for some juice in the return game since the Darren Sproles days. Covey had three return touchdowns for Utah in 2021 with a punt return average of 14.7 yards and a kick return average of 30.0 yards. It'll take just one or two big catches in camp for Twitter to go wild over him. Allen is a two-time Olympic hurdler and a three-time U.S. National Champion. He was a four-star recruit out of high school and played football at Oregon with a seven-touchdown season in 2014 standing as his high point. An Olympic athlete in midnight green? Again, it'll take a single deep ball catch from Hurts for fans to call for Allen to make the roster. And you know what? Good for them. Training camp is the perfect time for irrational hype.
For reference, when previewing the team's training camp roster, our own Jimmy Kempski had Brown, Smith and Watkins as locks. Pascal and Reagor were near locks. Allen, Ward and Covey were bubble players with the remainder listed as longshots.
Due to the fact that the Eagles' safeties were god awful for several years after they let Brian Dawkins go following the 2008 season, calls for the "Next Dawkins" became a meme for Birds fans. They were finally gifted one in the form of Malcolm Jenkins, the backbone of the team's Super Bowl-winning defense in 2017 who made three Pro Bowls in Philly. The search has been on the last two years to find the "Next Jenkins" now.
The idea of these old school training camp battles for starting jobs seem to have gone away in the modern NFL. Teams would just grab two veteran quarterbacks and let them go "Highlander" mode to find out which guy would be the QB1 on a mediocre team. I remember when Hank Fraley and Jamaal Jackson were on the cover of Sports Illustrated together because of camp battles:
Eagles training camp tomorrow makes me remember that Hank Fraley and Jamaal Jackson were once on the cover of Sports Illustrated together in 2006 (also a Chase Utley sighting) pic.twitter.com/y62vS7eM6Q— shamus (@shamus_clancy) July 25, 2022
The Eagles position that is the most up in the air is at safety.
Anthony Harris and Marcus Epps are currently penciled in for the team's starters, but that's not quite ideal. Of course, you can't have zero holes on your roster, but it's a talking point for a fan base that has an affinity for the safety spot more than anyone. Third-year safety K'Von Wallace played just 22 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Jared Mayden has played just six games in his NFL career, but he had a strong performance at the OTA sessions that were open to the media. Jaquiski Tartt is best known for dropping an interception. Those back-of-the-roster guys are in an iffy spot, so the Birds will really be banking on Epps taking a step forward in his age-26 season and Harris to look like the player he was in his Minnesota days.
The player who could get the biggest fan backing in camp is definitely Wallace given that he was seen as a possible Day 2 prospect in 2020 who the Eagles drafted in the fourth round and because he went to Clemson like a certain other safety.
Who was the last great linebacker that the Eagles drafted? Jordan Hicks and Mychal Kendricks had some good moments and were contributors on a Super Bowl team, but I'd give that distinction to Jeremiah Trotter. Rookie third-round pick Nakobe Dean could be that dude going forward. Dean was unanimous All-American and the Butkus Award winner as the best LB in college football for that historically great Georgia defense in 2021. He fell to the third round in the draft because of a pectoral injury that Dean opted not to get surgery for. The Eagles also didn't feel that he needed the surgery after the draft.
I'm totally on board with the Eagles rolling the dice late on Day 2 for a player of Dean's caliber. If he's on the field, I have no question he'll excel in the NFL. Seeing that No. 17 jersey patrol the defense at the NovaCare will be big for the immediate and long-term future of the Eagles' defense. Guys like T.J. Edwards and Shaun Bradley have been in Philly for a bit and Kyzir White was a free agent signing with the expectations of starting, but we could see the first hints of Dean as the Birds' best linebacker if/when he's out there this summer.
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