June 10, 2016
The Philadelphia Eagles wrapped up their spring minicamp on Thursday, and will now enter the longest phase of team-organized inactivity of the NFL calendar. By my count, the Eagles have had eight media-attended practices, in which we were able to make observations. Below are five players who have impressed, and five who have not.
To note, all of the Eagles' practices have been in shells and shorts (no pads) so far, meaning that it is somewhat pointless to try to legitimately evaluate offensive and defensive linemen at this stage of the offseason. Therefore, our focus is on skill position players.
Also, to some degree, we'll factor in expectations. For example, guys like Nelson Agholor and some undrafted rookie free agent receiver will not be judged the same way.
Most of the attention throughout the spring has been on Sam Bradford and Carson Wentz, as it should be. However, on the field, the quarterback who has exceeded my expectations has been Chase Daniel. From my perspective, Daniel was coming in with a blank slate. Over his six year career, Daniel has just 77 career pass attempts, so it's not as if there's a lot of game tape out there to evaluate.
To begin, Daniel has been a positive influence on Bradford and Wentz, as Bradford said a couple weeks ago.
"Having Chase in the room for me and Carson both has been great," said Bradford. "Just because he's been in this system for three, what, this is his fourth year in the system? So he understands some of the smaller details ... like when we watch tape he's able to point out things. Like, 'Hey, in the past this play has looked like this vs. this coverage. You can short-cut this read and get back here a little quicker vs. this coverage.' So I think that having him in the room for me and Carson has been really good."
That part was expected to some degree with Daniel. However, I did not expect Daniel to play as well as he has in practice. He has a much better arm than I was anticipating, and he has probably made the least mistakes of any of the three quarterbacks to date. Of course, Daniel does have the built-in advantage of already knowing the offense, but he still deserves credit for his accuracy on the field.
A few weeks ago, we predicted that Leodis McKelvin would be one of the Eagles' starting cornerbacks. On Thursday, Doug Pederson said that McKelvin has stood out the most among the corners.
"Leodis has probably been the guy that's really stood out the most to me," Pederson said. "He's a guy that it seems like he's making plays quite a bit, knocking PBUs [pass break ups] and getting his hands on balls and doing the things that you expect from a veteran corner. He’s a smart guy, very athletic and [we’re] excited for the upcoming season with him."
I concur. I've liked what I've seen from him as a competitor. When he gives up a completion, he's angry. When he makes a play, he lets the receiver know it. I like the energy he has brought to practice.
We'll have more on Mills this weekend, but we'll note here that Pederson singled him out as having impressed so far this offseason.
"I love his competitiveness," said Pederson. "I love the aggression that he has playing that position and he doesn't back down from any of our veteran receivers or tight ends or any of the guys that you normally might see on a normal basis might do that. He's challenging guys. He's got great quickness and transition in and out of breaks; smart kid; eager to learn. Those are things that really have stood out with me."
A lot of times in minicamp and OTAs, rookies look like, well, rookies. Mills looks nothing like a rookie, in terms of his demeanor. Pederson noted that Mills doesn't back down from the Eagles' veteran receivers, and why should he? This is a guy who had to cover Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry in practice every day at LSU.
Matthews is no stranger to "impressive at camp" lists. In the past, the media (self included) have ooh'd and ahh'd at the sheer number of catches Matthews makes in practice. He's as active a receiver in practice as I've seen since I've been covering football. So in that sense, there's nothing new here.
However, where Matthews has been extra encouraging this offseason is that he's catching everything, as in, he's not dropping the football. A season ago, Matthews struggled with drops, and had a few very untimely ones.
"I think the main thing is we have to stop talking about [the drops]," said Matthews. "So much of it is mental. The first thing you need to catch the ball is confidence. We need to facilitate confidence in our room. I understand it's a problem, and I understand it's something we need to fix, but I think that everybody does too.
"I know you have to bring it up, but at the same time, that's the last thing we want to do. That's the last thing coach G Lew does. He doesn't sit there and rewind plays of guys putting the ball on the ground. No. He talks about the things that need correcting. He says, 'Guys, you're receivers. You catch the ball. That what has to happen. We have to facilitate confidence within the room. That's how guys go out and make plays. That's how guys catch the ball."
During the pre-draft process, I had convinced myself that the Eagles were going to target a running back who was skilled in catching the ball out of the backfield. In a West Coast system, it stood to reason to me that Doug Pederson would want a player like Brian Westbrook or Jamaal Charles, each of whom has made a living in the NFL making plays in the passing game.
Wendell Smallwood was not on my radar. In 2015, Smallwood had 26 catches for 160 yards (a low 6.2 YPC average), and a long reception of just 15 yards. Over his college career, he didn't have a single receiving touchdown.
However, after watching Smallwood in practice this spring, it's a lot clearer why the Eagles like him. He does a great job catching the football.
When answering a question about Darren Sproles' role in the offense, Pederson said that he want to move his running backs around to create mismatches for the defense.
"If you go back and just look at what we did in Kansas City with our running backs with Jamaal before he got hurt and then with the two guys after the injury [Chiefs RBs Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West], we like to move our running backs around," said Pederson. "[Sproles is] a guy that creates matchups on defense, or against the defense, and we're going to move him around. We are not necessarily going to keep him in the backfield."
I believe the Eagles have an eye toward moving Smallwood around the formation in a similar role whenever they think he is ready.
To note, practices in shorts are not the best way to evaluate running backs, as you don't get a chance to see how physical they are as runners, and you don't get to see them pass protect. There's still plenty left for Smallwood to prove before he can contribute in real games, but so far so good.
Honorable mention: TE Chris Pantale, LB Jordan Hicks, LB Najee Goode.
• WR Josh Huff: So many drops.
• WR Nelson Agholor: Again, Agholor has simply had too many drops. Agholor has so much ability, but if I may steal from Jordan Matthews' quote above, it just doesn't seem like Agholor is playing with a lot of confidence.
• CB Eric Rowe: Personally, I think Rowe is a good player who played really well last season as a rookie. However, the Eagles' defensive backs have had a boatload of pass breakups, but Rowe hasn't really gotten in on the action all that much. Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks, two former Jim Schwartz players in Buffalo, have been mainstays with the first team defense. Rowe was initially coming in as the nickel corner (he would play outside with Brooks moving into the slot), but more recently, that role has gone to Nolan Carroll and Jalen Mills. Rowe may not be a slam-dunk starter that many (self included) thought he'd be this season.
• CB JaCorey Shepherd: To be clear, this is not a performance issue. Shepherd hasn't been able to play in team drills, as he is still not back to 100 percent from his torn ACL in training camp a year ago. However, with a regime in place that did not draft him and a crowded bunch in the secondary, Shepherd is going to have a hill to climb to make the roster in training camp. Shepherd did impress immediately in OTAs and minicamp a year ago, so it's not out of the question that he can make up ground quickly beginning at the end of July.
• RB Kenjon Barner: As noted above, Pederson wants to be able to move his running backs around to create mismatches for the opposing defense, and Barner simply does not catch the ball well enough to be used in that kind of role. As for other talents making up for that deficiency, I just don't see it.