Eagles waive K Sam Swank

Looks like it will be veteran kicker David Akers handling all of the kicking duties again in 2009.  This week after a couple inconsistent OTA sessions, the Eagles waived undrafted free agent kicker Sam Swank from Wake Forest.  The former ACC kicker was brought in to provide some legitimate competition for Akers in training camp, but apparently that did not materialize and the team let him go.

Now Akers, 34, will need to show that he can still perform the way he did in the 2008 regular season (career high 144 points and making 33 of 40 FG’s Attempted including 25 of 26 inside 40 yards).   Hopefully another solid season will help everyone put a tough NFC Championship Game by Akers — missed a 47-yard field goal and an extra point plus sent a kickoff out of bounds right before halftime – behind them.  The Birds may still bring in a back-up  free agent type to help out only for training camp.

Profiles of the 2009 Philadelphia Eagles Coaching Staff

(Philadelphia, Pa) — All one has to do is pick-up a sports page on Mondays to see that too often in the NFL a team’s head coach gets too much praise or criticism after football games.  Unfortunately in the “What have you done for me lately NFL” weekly head coaches’ popularity meters continue to swing like a pendulums within the media and team’s fan base.  Head Coaches are paid handsomely for their roles within organizations, but to be honest with you many team wins and losses can be directly attributed to the preparation and execution of assistant coaches and support staff working with an NFL team’s 53-man roster.  Most assistant coaches are undervalued and overworked while leading nomadic lives chasing their dream of one day being a football team’s headman.  Some of the team jobs they must do while the head coach is focusing on “figurehead” duties (media relations, overall game planning, team functions and other duties) are breaking down film, doling out daily motivation, teaching, giving tough love and of course discipline to players.  Sure the head coaches get the glory and paycheck from winning, but every head coach from Steelers Super Bowl winner Mike Tomlin to a high school JV coach knows it is his assistant coaches, who are the lifeblood of a football team. 

Eagles head coach Andy Reid is no different than other good coaches in NFL history as he has had some quality coaches working for him during his 10+ years in Philadelphia.  Reid’s coaching record of  97-62-1 (.610) regular season and 10-7 (.588) playoff records [All-time team leader in wins, percentage, and playoff wins] could have never been compiled without leaning on his assistants and staff in good and bad times.  Reid has had three current head coaches (Rams Steve Spagnuolo, Ravens John Harbaugh, and Vikings Brad Childress) and three current coordinators (Vikings Def. Coor. Leslie Frazier, Rams Off. Coor. Pat Shurmur, and Chargers Def. Coor. Ron Rivera) on his staff at one time or another.

Reid’s 2009 Coaching Staff is an eclectic group of older and younger coaches who may also one day sprout another branch off Big Red’s coaching tree.

Andy Reid- Head Coach, VP of Football Operations – The Eagles main man on the coaching staff will again be calling the plays along with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, keeping track of timeouts, and working with GM Tom Heckert on player personnel. Grown from the Mike Holmgren West Coast Offense tree, Reid is an offensive specialist head coach, who has an affinity for throwing the football.  Reid rose from a former offensive line at BYU to the Packers tight ends and quarterback’s coach under Holmgren before landing the Eagles head job in 1999.  was A key member of the Green Bay Packers 1996 Super Bowl Championship coaching staff, Reid also has had stops at San Francisco State (1983-1985), Northern Arizona University(1986), UTEP(1987-1988), and then the University of Missouri (1989-1991) during his long coaching tenure. Reid’s career highlights include coaching in Five NFC Championships, one Super Bowl, and sending 19 players to the Pro Bowls

Offense

Marty Mornhinweg, Offensive Coordinator/Assistant Head Coach – When Mornhinweg came to the Eagles in 2002 as a special offensive assistant after a rather inauspicious head-coaching job with the Detroit Lions (5-27 record over two years in 2000 and 2001), everyone thought Reid was doing a friend a “solid”.  But Mornhinweg has slowly distinguished himself as a good play caller and he has a good pulse on the Eagles players and scheme.  Mornhinweg also was grown from Mike Holmgren’s West Coast Offense tree and was a member of the Packers 1996 Super Champion coaching staff (quarterbacks coach).  In his coaching career Morhinweg has also had stops at Montana University, UTEP, Northern Arizona, SE Missouri State, San Francisco – NFL (offensive coordinator, 1997-2000) and the aforementioned Lions position.  In 2008, the Eagles set a franchise record for the most points scored in a single season (416).

Juan Castillo, Offensive Line Coach – One of the few coaches that Andy Reid kept around from the forlorn Ray Rhodes era was Castillo. The former tough USFL linebacker (San Antonio Gunslingers) has made one heck of an NFL offensive line coach and for the past 12 years the Birds have had one of the best blocking units in the NFL.  In two of the last three years the Eagles have ranked high in running the ball and Castillo’s group was a big part of mercurial running back Brian Westbrook reaching the 1,000-yard plateau in 2006 and 2007.  Some of Castillo’s prized Pro Bowl players have been OT Jon Runyan, OT Tra Thomas, and OG Shawn Andrews.  Look for an even greater year from the Birds O-line in ’09 as Castillo has the huge athletic group of LT Jason Peters, LG Todd Herramins, C Jamal Jackson, RG Stacy Andrews, and RT Shawn Andrews. 

Other Key Offensive Coaches: Tom Melvin – Tight Ends Coach (8th year in position), David Culley – Wide Receivers Coach (11th year in position and former first black quarterback in the SEC with Vanderbilt ’73-’77), Ted Williams- Running Back Coach (13th year in position), James Urban- Quarterbacks Coach (1st year in position and has been with the team since 2004), and Doug Pederson – Offensive Quality Control (1st year with Eagles, was a former starting QB for the team in 1999 and served as a veteran backup with the Packers).

Defense

Jim Johnson, Defensive Coordinator – The cornerstone of Andy Reid’s coaching staff is Johnson as the respected veteran defensive stalwart coach has 42 years in the business.  Johnson has been a steady warrior in coaching circles since 1967 when he was head coach at Missouri Southern.  The veteran defensive coordinator, who is known as the “Mad Scientist” of the blitz, will again lead the Eagles defensive unit (#1 ranked in the NFC in 2008 — allowed 274.3 yards per game in the regular season).  Johnson joined the Eagles staff with Andy Reid in 1999 and he has had great success getting pressure on the quarterback (48 sacks in 2008) and he has produced 26 Pro Bowl players in Philly.  The venerable coach has lived a nomadic coaching existence, but everywhere he has landed his teams are tough defensively and quarterbacks better beware.  Some places Johnson has coached were Drake University (1969-1972), Indiana University (1973-1976), Notre Dame (1978-1983), Oklahoma Outlaws – USFL, Jacksonville Bulls – USFL, St. Louis Cardinals – NFL (1986-1993), Indianapolis Colts (1994-1995), and Seattle Seahawks (1998 – linebackers coach).  This piece would not be complete without wishing Johnson the best as he battles cancer this off-season.  I know the Eagles players and staff will be anxiously awaiting his return.

Sean McDermott, Secondary Coach/Interim Defensive Coordinator – A young (32-years old) respected coach who has literally grown up in the Eagles organization over 11 years going from a scouting assistant to a quality control coach to coaching the secondary and linebackers.  McDermott is a Philadelphia area native, who was an All-Catholic hard-hitting safety and National Prep Champion wrestler for LaSalle High School.  He got the itch for coaching after a stellar career at  William & Mary College.  McDermott is quickly becoming known as one of the NFL’s up and coming coaches along with Bucs head coach Raheem Morris and Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels.  Under his tutelage, the Eagles secondary has always been one of the NFC’s best and has sent members Brian Dawkins, Lito Sheppard, Michael Lewis, and Asante Samuel to the Pro Bowl.  Former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins credited McDermott with his rejuvenated Pro Bowl play in 2008.  The 2009 season will be a special challenge for the developing coach as he his duties will increase from defensive signaler to interim defensive coordinator while Jim Johnson recovers from his battle with cancer. 

Other Key Defensive Coaches: Rory Segrest- Defensive Line Coach (3rd year with team and he was switched from Special teams Coor. to his new position),  Bill Shuey – Linebackers Coach (With the team since 2003 and the 2009 season will be his second as LB’s Coach), Mike Caldwell – Defensive Quality Control Coach (former NFL special teams ace and linebacker, who will be in his 2nd year on the staff), and Otis Smith – Assistant Secondary Coach (2nd yr with the team and first on staff.  A former standout cornerback, who won Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots)

Special Teams and Other Staff

Ted Daisher – Special Teams Coordinator – When the Eagles decided that former Special Teams Coordinator Rory Segrest would be moving to the defense, the team wanted a veteran coach to fill his shoes.  The team got their wish as they added back Daisher to their special teams unit.  Daisher has over 30 year of experience in coaching including stops at Illinois (1979), Northern Illinois (1980-84),  Eastern Michigan (1985-88), Cincinnati (1989-92),  Army (1995-97), Indiana (1998-2000), East Carolina (2001-02), Eagles – NFL (2004-2005, special teams quality control coach), Oakland – NFL (special teams coor. in 2006), and Cleveland – NFL (special teams coordinator 2007-2008).  Daisher will be looked to continue to develop a special teams unit that was vastly improved in 2008 (great coverage, returned a kickoff for a touchdown – first time since 2001 and a punt return for a touchdown – first time since 2003).  Hopefully the veteran coach will be able to develop returnmen DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Quintin Demps on the level of Browns Pro Bowl player Joshua Cribbs.

Other Key Coaches and Staff:  Jeff Nixon- Special Teams Quality Control Coach (3rd season with team), Mike Wolf- Strength and Conditioning Coach (15th season),  Jeanie Subach – Nutrition Consultant, Jay Merlino – Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach (8th Season), Barry Rubin – Strength and Conditioning Assistant (2nd Season), and Rick Burkholder (Head Trainer)

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award -winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

NFL Power Rankings – Pre Training Camp 2009

(Philadelphia, Pa) We are almost to my least favorite time of the year when there is virtually no football.  Though the NFL Calendar is now packed it seems every month, most teams take a nice break after May and early June’s OTA’s to recharge for late July’s training camps.

The fun part of this time on the NFL Calendar is that hope has sprung eternal around the NFL, as every team is 0-0 heading into next season.  Yes even the 0-16 Detroit Lions believe they have positively tweaked their roster and drafted well enough that training camp can’t get here soon enough.

With rosters pretty much set for next season, I thought now was a good time to rank all 32 NFL Teams.

1. Steelers – The 2008 Super Bowl Champions still remain in my top spot until someone knocks them off their perch.  In order to be the man, you have to beat the man…wooo!!  The Steelers lost players that they believe already have replacements on their current roster.  Plus the Steelers’ weakest area, the offenisve line, will have another year together and the draft yielded Wisconsin OG Kraig Urbik and Penn State C A.Q Shipley. Theif defense is getting a little older along their front four, but Defensive MVP James Harrison shoulld be productive after signing a lucartive extension. It will be interesting see if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continues to throw 25 to 30 times a game with RB’s Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall (shoulder) returning.  Will compete with the Raven for the AFC North title, but there are issues of complacency and a history of falling back after winning it all (record of 8-8 in ’06 after winning in Super Bowl XL).

2. Giants – The G-Men stumbled down the stretch after WR Plaxico Burress shot himself and the team’s playoff hopes.  But look for the Giants to return to contention at the top of the NFC.  In the NFC East, the Giants’ main competition will be the Eagles who knocked them out of the playoffs in 2008.  Quarterback Eli Manning who is looking for a Matthew Stafford type contract and guaranteed money this year will need to lean on his running game led by RB’s Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Danny Ware.  Rookie pass catchers WR Hakim Nicks (North Carolina), TE Travis Beckum (Wisconsin), and WR Ramses Barden (Cal Poly) will try to replace Burress along with returning Super Bowl hero David Tyree (knee).  The Giants’ defensive pressure should also get a boost from the additions of Pro Bowl DE Osi Umenyiora (knee), DT Rocky Bernard (F\A – Seattle), LB Michael Boley (F\A – Falcons), DT Chris Canty (F\A – Cowboys) and rookie LB Clint Sintim (UVa) to last season’s menacing DE’s Mathias Kiwanuka and Justin Tuck.

3.  Patriots  – After becoming only the second 11-5 team to not make the playoffs (Denver – 1985), head coach Bill Belichick is on a mission.  The Pats return QB Tom Brady from a devastating knee injury and they also made an emphasis of getting younger on defense this offseason.  Look for NT Vince Wilfork (playing for a contract), LB Adalius Thomas (finally comfortable in the system), and rookies CB Darius Butler (UConn) and S Patrick Chung (Oregon) to have a huge impact on defense.  Offensively the Patriots running game should be better with the addition of veteran RB Fred Taylor (playing the Corey Dillon role) and the return of RB Laurence Maroney (shoulder).  Also watch for deep throws from Brady to speedsters Randy Moss, Joey Galloway (F\A – Bucs), and Greg Lewis (Draft Day Trade – Eagles).

4.  Eagles – After a rollercoast type season where things went a little haywire in Weeks 10-12, the Birds rebounded to make some noise in the playoffs.  Any momentum gained from their playoff run was totally enhanced by arguably the NFL’s best offseason.  The Eagles obtained veterans CB Ellis Hobbs (Draft Day Trade – Patriots), Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters (Pre-Draft Trade – Bills), and OL Stacy Andrews (F\A – Bengals) plus drafted potential offensive differencemakers WR Jermey Maclin (Missouri),RB LeSean McCoy (PITT), and TE Cornelius Ingram (Florida).  QB Donovan McNabb (make or break contract season) has to like his team’s chances after the Birds’ front office made over a roster that was getting a little old at key positions.  Areas to watch in training camp will be right tackle where Shawn Andrews (back) is moving from his Pro Bowl right guard spot to battle his brother Stacy and free saftey where Quintin Demps and newcomer Sean Jones (F\A – Cleveland) will be competing to try and replace future Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins (Broncos).

5. Titans – Jeff Fisher’s team was the talk of the NFL after they went undefeated for the first 11 weeks of the 2008 season, but in the playoffs it was a totally different story as the Ravens shutdown the AFC’s No. 1 seed.  However with the Titans strong running game (LenDale White and Chris Johnson) and tough defense led by LB Keith Bullock and a  talented secondary (S Michael Griffin and CB Cortland Finnegan) expect them back near the top of the AFC South with the Colts and Texans.  However there are big question marks around QB Kerry Collins (age), C Kevin Mawae (age/retirement?), their receivers (still looking for a #1 guy) and a defense that lost number #1NFL free agent DT Albert Haynesworth (Redskins).

6.  Cardinals  – The 2008 NFC Champs will not be sneaking up on anyone this season after a playoff run that included an impressive road stomping of the NFC top seeded Panthers.  The NFC West is definitely improving with the Niners (playing harder under Singletary) and Seahawks (getting healthier) expected to step-up, so the Cardinals will need to avoid the dreaded Super Bowl loser hangover syndrome — 7 of the last 8 Super Bowl losers failed to qualify for the post-season the following year.  The Cardinals will again lean on their offense led by a rejuvenated QB Kurt Warner (new contract), rookie RB Chris “Beanie” Wells (Ohio St), and All-World WR Larry Fitzgerald.  It will be interesting to see if the four 2009 defensive draft picks coming in can help a unit that allowed 26.6 points per game.  Also what are the Cards going to do to keep DT Darnell Dockett and WR Anquan Boldin happy over their contracts.

7.  Panthers – Everything seemed to be falling the Panthers way in ’08 as their “Double Trouble” running back combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and an opportunistic defense led the way into the playoffs.  After securing the NFC’s number one seed, the NFC South Champion Panthers imploded at home losing badly to the Cardinals.  Panthers Head Coach John Fox (hotseat) will need to get another stellar season from his running backs, but newly re-signed QB Jake Delhomme (arm and 6 turnovers in playoffs loss) is the big key to this team’s success.  The Panthers have a stellar offensive line, so look for a continued run heavy offense with about 8 to 10 passes a game going to gamebreaker WR Steve Smith.  The Carolina defense will need LB Jon Beason (labrum),  DT Damione Lewis (rotator cuff) and rookie DE Everett Brown (FSU) to stay on top of their games in case “franchised” defensive end Julius Peppers (career-high 14.5 sacks) holds out or becomes a distraction.  Look for a three-way race between the Panthers, Saints, and Falcons in the NFC South.

8.  Vikings –  A litany of things finally came together for the Vikes in ’08 as they won the NFC North for the first time since 2004.  Right now the Vikings with All-World RB Adrain Peterson and the NFL’s #1 Rush Defense are a sexy pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season.  However there are still too many lingering questions for my taste to move this team higher.  Who is the quarterback going to be? (Tarvaris Jackson – inconsitent in the playoffs against the Eagles, Sage Rosenfels – New to their system, or dare I say it…Brett Favre, who brings age and lockerroom chemistry issues, if he is signed).  Brad Childress’ team must also deal with DT’s Kevin and Pat Williams’ facing 4-game suspensions for Water Pills-gate.  In the 2009 draft, the Vikings looked to add more offensive firepower to Peterson and emerging WR Bernard Berrian by bringing in WR/KR/RB Percy Harvin (Florida).  So whomever the quarterback is in training camp there will be expectations to get the ball in the team’s many playmakers hands.  Expect the Vikings and Bears to fight it out for NFC North supremacy again.

9.  Colts – Another season, another 12-wins for Indy (NFL Record Six Consecutive).  The Colts are a regular season buzzsaw, but once again the playoffs were a different story.  QB Peyton Manning’s team lost in OT to the Chargers, but the game seemed little bit more organizational changing.  Super Bowl winning head coach Tony Dungy decided that ’08 would be his last season and now first time NFL head coach Jim Caldwell takes over.  Caldwell will also have to go into battle without franchise receiver Marvin Harrison (F\A), former offensive coordinatorTom Moore (Retirement), and former O-line coach Howard Mudd (Retirement).  With so much leadership lost on the coaching staff there is going to be even more pressure on veteran thrower Manning.  Expect the Colts to lean more on their running game as RB Joseph Adda is healthy and Indy picked RB Donald Brown in the first round.  On defense the Colts are still small and fast, but it will be interesting to see how they fare against larger offenses.  Expect the AFC South to be one of the NFL’s best with the Colts, Titans, Jags, and Texans all fighting it out for the top spot.

10.  Ravens – Led by Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed and upstart head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens were the surprise of the AFC in ’08 going all the way to the AFC Championship Game.  Despite the loss of several Ravens (Def Coor. Rex Ryan, LB Bart Scott, S Jim Leonhard, and others) to Baltimore North (New York Jets) expect QB Joe Flacco and his defensive minded team to still be in the mix.  The Ravens defense kept their leader in LB Ray Lewis plus they added CB Domonique Foxworth (Falcons).  There should be much more firepower this year on offense as Flacco and RB Ray Rice return for their second seasons fully knowing the playbook and the team also added TE LJ Smith (F\A – Eagles), C Matt Birk (F\A – Vikings), and OT Michael Oher (Ole Miss – 1st Rd).  Expect another black and blue season for the Ravens as they battle their hated rival, the Steelers, for the AFC North title.

11.  Bears –  Lovie Smith wanted a quarterback to compliment running back Matt Forte and management brought-in QB Jay Cutler in a blockbuster trade.  Now Smith needs a playoff run by Cutler as he is on a very hotseat in the Windy City.  All I want to know is where are the WR’s that Cutler is throwing to.

12.  Saints – Sean Payton’s team was too inconsistent in ’08 (only won two games in a row once), so they will need to equate their talent laden roster into wins this season.  Look for an improved running game led by NFL Surprise Player RB Pierre Thomas to help MVP candidate QB Drew Brees and an emphasis on defense of eliminating big plays.

13.  Chargers – The Bolts had a nice run in the playoffs to put an inconsistent regular season behind them.  But head coach Norv Turner needs a better effort by his running game (LT and Darren Sproles) to assist Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers.  The Chargers are hoping a healthly return by LB Shawn Merriman (knee) will pick-up a defense that was sporadic without him.

14.  49ers – Under new head coach “Iron” Mike Singletary, the Niners proved to be one of the NFL’s best teams down the stretch going 5-2 in their last seven games under their former interim head coach.  In order to compete with the NFC Champion Cardinals, the Niners must find a passing game to go with Singletary’s new run emphasized offense and attacking defense.

15.  Texans –  After their second 8-8 season in a row, it is hotseat time for GM Rick Smith, head coach Gary Kubiak, and quarterback Matt Schaub.  The Texans must find ways to avoid injuries on offense and add consistency on defense to compete with the Colts, Titans, and Jaguars in the tough AFC South.

16.  Dolphins – Last season’s greatest turnaround from 1-15 to 11-5 AFC East Champs will be hard to duplicate for head coach Tony Sparano and GM Bill Parcells.  The ‘Phins will be marked team as the Patriots, Jets, and upstart Bills will try to bring them back to Earth.

17.  Broncos – Former head coach Mike Shanahan, QB Jay Cutler, and GM Ted Sunquist are all no longer with Denver.  A new regime led by young head coach Josh McDaniels and over 17 new players will try to improve a team that lost 3 straight games to finish the season.  An improved defense (drafted 4 defensive players) and a hard running game led by rookie Knowshon Moreno should help in the Broncos chase the Chargers for the AFC West crown.

18.  Falcons – Besides the Dolphins there was no great turnaround story in the NFL in ’08 than Falcons.  Head Coach Mike Smith and Rookie of the Year QB Matt Ryan returned this once downtrodden franchise back into the playoffs.  Ryan, RB Michael Turner, WR Roddy White, and new TE Tony Gonzalez will need to jell quickly and the Falcons defense will need bigger plays to catch the Panthers..

19. Cowboys – During the ’08 season, one of the NFL’s most talent laden rosters was pulled down again from drama in Big D.  The Cowboys will be moving on to their new billion dollar stadium hopefully without the problems created by former distractions (Pacman, T.O, Tank Johnson, and others).  But there are some lingering question marks regarding whether head coach Wade Wilson and/or QB Tony Romo can lead the ‘Boys passed the Eagles and Giants in the tough NFC East.

20.  Redskins – The ‘Skins in ’08 under first year head coach Jim Zorn were a non-cohesive and inconsistent team due to injuries and internal fighting.   But expectations will be a lot higher in 2009 as owner Dan Snyder opened his checkbook for a haul that included DT Albert Hayneswoth and other big ticket items.  Zorn and Snyder will need QB Jason Campbell make them forget why the Redskins tried to bring in Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez this passed offseason.

21.  Jaguars  – After a front office shakeup, all the pressure in ’09 will be squarely on head coach Jack Del Rio.  The Jags have some weapons in players like RB Maurice Jones-Drew and CB Rashaun Mathis, but they need more consistency from QB David Garrard and a defense that allowed 367 points in ’08.

22.  Jets  –  With the AFC East title in their sights, the Jets underestimated the Dophins and were left home for the playoffs.  With new head coach Rex Ryan coming over from the Ravens along with several former players and staff, look for a new attitude by the J-E-T-S.  The keys will be settling a quarterback controversy (Kellen Clemens or Mark Sanchez) and getting their defense acclimated to Ryan’s attacking scheme.

23.  Raiders  – After playing the “spoiler” role rather well in Tampa Bay during Week 17 in ’08, the Raiders and their new head coach Tom Cable will be looking for respect in ’09.  Cable will need to get more points from offensive weapons QB JaMarcus Russell, RB Darren McFadden, TE Zach Miller and rookie Darius Heyward-Bey (only 27 touchowns in ’08).  Plus in order to catch the Broncos and Chargers at the top of the AFC West, Al Davis’ team will need to get better on defense (allowed 388 pts).

24.  Buccaneers – Offseason changes were everywhere for the Bucs after an end of season meltdown where they were knocked from the playoffs in WK 17 by the Raiders.  New head coach Raheem Morris and a roster full of youngsters will attempt to get right in the NFC South mix, but the division is stacked with the Panthers, Saints, and Falcons near the top.

25.  Bills  – Get your popcorn ready, because T.O was brought to town this offseason by soon to be Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson.  The new look Bills and their new weapon will attempt to climb out of the tough AFC East’s basement.  However the Bills may need more than Owens as they finished 0-6 in the stacked division in ’08.

26. Packers  –  The Pack probably were one of the NFL’s Most Disappointing Teams in ’08, despite some solid play from new starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.  With an emphasis of getting better on defense via the draft (NT BJ Raji),  the Packers will need to get pressure to cut down on opponent’s scoring (allowed 380 pts).

27.  Seahawks  –  Even after an injury plagued season and head coach Mike Holgrem leaving the franchise, the Hawks still have a chance in the AFC West.  However it may take more than drafting LB Aaron Curry, QB Matt Hasselbeck returning (back) and signing WR T.J Houshmanzadeh to bring the Seahawks back to the top of the NFC West.  Hopefully Curry will help lift up a defense that allowed 392 points in ’08.

28.  Browns – The Dawgs didn’t have much bite in ’08, so after an organizational shake-up it is Eric Mangini time by the lake.  However the coach once dubbed “Man-genius” in NY has his work cutout for him as the Browns have a bad quarterback controversey, a malcontent receiver that wants out in Braylon Edwards, over 15 new players on their roster, a new system, a new GM, and an owner that wants to him now.   I guess it will be an Ohio affair at the bottom of the AFC North division.

29.  Chiefs – Herman Edwards and Carl Peterson are no longer with this team, but they left behind a mess in KC.  New head coach Todd Haley and GM Scott Pioli have their work cutout for them as the Chiefs have been a rudderless ship the last couple of years.  Any hope will need to start with a healthy and focused Larry Johnson at running back and new signalcaller Matt Cassel hitting the ground running in training camp.

30.  Rams – After a season where things were bad under former head coaches Scott Linehan and Jim Haslett, the Rams have turned to former NY Giants defensive guru Steve Spagnuolo.  Spags will bring the G-Men way of doing things (running the ball and attacking on defense) to the Midwest. But it may take awhile to find the right players to execute at his former team’s level.

31.  Bengals –  HBO’s Hard Knocks will be fully entertained from a team that has some talent, but loads of questions marks and dysfunction.  Head Coach Marvin Lewis will be counting on recoverd quarterback Carson Palmer (elbow), new name receiver Chad Ochocinco (formerly Johnson), huge first rounder OT Andre Johnson (Alabama) and a host of other “characters” to get him off the hotseat.

32.  Lions – Just like the Super Bowl Champion Steelers, the lowly Lions have to start in the same spot they ended the ’08 season in.  After an NFL low 0-16 season, there is no place but up for the Lions.  New head coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew will be counting on over 20 new faces including first overall pick QB Matthew Stafford to turnaround the fortunes of one of the NFL’s worst teams ever.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

Eagles Feature Interview Questions: WR Danny Amendola

Eagles receiver Danny Amendola is a scrappy player, who has an interesting story and background.  I believe the questions  that I would ask of him would bring to life a “Rudy” type player that has the potential to be a fan favorite.

— The 2008 NFL Season was an interesting one for you as you were a featured Dallas Cowboys player on HBO’s Hard Knocks reality series.  What was it like to be a reality TV star and did you think being on the series was a good or bad thing?

–What was your relationship like with fellow Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens and did he give you any pointers while you were on the practice squad?

–During the whole T.O versus Tony Romo and Jason Witten situation how did you and the rest of the locker-room handle the situation and the media frenzy?

–Did you go against Pacman Jones in practice a lot, what was the experience like, and does he talk a lot of trash?

–After the Cowboys released you, what made you decide to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles?

–Your now with the Philadelphia Eagles, how is the Eagles system and receivers coach David Culley different from your time with the Cowboys and WR’s coach Ray Sherman?

–What do you think of the Eagles current receiving corps and do you believe that you have a legitimate shot at making the team?

–Have the Eagles coaches told you which receivers you are in direct competition with (Reggie Brown, Shareer McBride, Brandon Gibson, or others) for a roster spot?

–Are the Eagles looking at you at all three receiver positions (X, Y, and Z) or are you mainly being looked at as a slot receiver like veteran Jason Avant?

–What was your nickname with the Cowboys…Did you know former Eagles first round pick and 4th and 26 hero Freddie Mitchell among his many nicknames used to call himself “The Sultan of the Slot”, do you plan taking that moniker?

–Compare the type of ball that Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb throws compared to Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo?

–You have experience in college as a punt returner (ranked 3rd All-time at Texas Tech with an 11.06 average), is there a chance you could help the Eagles in that area and the other special teams units?

–Your wearing Number #11 with the Birds, did anyone tell you that former Eagles receiver Jeremy Bloom  who was also a former Big 12 smaller receiver (Colorado) wore that number with the team?

–Everyone always talks about your size (5’11, 183), do you believe size is overblown when evaluating a receiver’s qualities and what are the factors that you believe will enhance you sticking around the NFL?

–How fast are you and which NFL receiver past or present are you most compared to?

–When you came out of Texas Tech in 2008, many people compared you to your school’s former star alum Patriots receiver Wes Welker. Have you ever met Wes and if so did he pass along any NFL pointers?

–What was it like to play in Mike Leach’s high-octane Texas Tech offense?

–Do you believe that the NFL will ever consider a Texas Tech quarterback as a high round draft choice?

–What was it like to play with former Texas Tech star receiver Michael Crabtree — now the Niners’ 2009 first pick in 2009. 

–Were you surprised that Crabtree dropped to the 10th overall pick and do you believe he will come to the NFL with a chip on his shoulder?

–Talk about your biggest plays at Texas Tech… the one I remember the most was the fumble you recovered after an interception against Nebraska in 2005

–Talk about playing at Woodlands High in Texas and how important high school football is in small towns throughout the state? 

–What was it like to be a “true” Friday Nights star including leading your school to it’s first Texas State championship game ever and How was it playing for coach Weldon Willig?

–If after training camp in Lehigh University you are on the Eagles regular season roster, who will be the first person you will call with the good news?

–You were a communications major in college, any aspirations of being on the other side of the NFL microphone one day?

Michael Vick Begins Home Confinement

The long road back to the NFL for suspended quarterback Michael Vick took another step early in the morning of May 20th as the disgraced star was released from prison in Leavenworth, Kansas to begin two months of home confinement in Hampton, Virginia.  The mercurial quarterback this time ducked a horde of waiting media like an oncoming defensive lineman as he exited out a side door to a waiting group of family and friends including his fiancé Kijafa Frink.  Vick, who turns 29 on June 26th, had served 19 months in Leavenworth for financing a dogfighting ring –- originally sentenced to 23 months. He will be released from his home confinement on July 20th then he will serve will serve three years of probation

Larry Woodward, Vick’s Virginia-based attorney, said of the release of the former superstar turned Persona-Non Grata, “It’s a happy day for him to be starting this part of the process and he looks forward to meeting the challenges he has to meet.”  We all know that Vick wants to be back in football and there have even been rumors that he will be working out with a trainer and quarterbacks coach during his home confinement.  But Woodward said his first priority “is spending time with his children and his loved ones.”  Vick, once the NFL’s highest-paid player with a $130 million, 10-year deal signed in December 2004, will now make $10-an-hour working for a construction company and will have to report to a parole office in Norfolk, Virginia plus for he will need approval from his probation officer if he intends to leave his five-bedroom Hampton residence.  I am sure Vick will remain quiet for the next two months, but It is almost a foregone conclusion, that given Vick’s lengthy monetary problems since his fall from grace in early 2007 that the former 2001 NFL first overall pick will be petitioning NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for reinstatement into the league — Vick was suspended indefinitely in August 2007.  Goodell has said that he will not even look into the Vick’s case until the end of his federal confinement on July 20th.  But Goodell did recently define the “remorse” he’s seeking from Michael Vick as he considers reinstating him from suspension.  Goodell said, “Michael is going to have to demonstrate…did he learn anything from his experience?”  Goode added, “Does he regret what happened? Does he feel he’s going to be a positive influence going forward?…those are the questions I would like to (ask) when I sit with him.” My belief is when their face-to-face meeting at the league offices in New York City does happen that Vick and his agent Joel Segal better have a contrition filled apology and a future plan ready if the quarterback ever wants to put on an NFL uniform again.  Assuredly a great first step would be for Vick to apologize to the NFL’s headman for lying to his face at the 2007 NFL Draft when asked about his part in the extensive dogfighting operation. 

The rehabilitation of Michael Vick will be a continuing process and the humbled former three-time Pro Bowl quarterback seems to understand the levity of his actions and the long hard road he must travel.  Vick recently met with NFL beloved former Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy and the stoic coach shared words of wisdom with the formerly troubled quarterback.  The Humane Society of the United States also came out and said that Vick met its president recently in prison and wants to work on a program aimed at eradicating dogfighting among urban teens.  These moves are all a good start, but Vick must convince the court of public opinion before anyone else.  Trust me his expected meeting with Commissioner Goodell will be a cakewalk compared to convincing the many dog lovers out there who know all to well the gruesome details — dogs were hanged, drowned and electrocuted — outlined in Vick’s indictment that fueled public outrage plus brought unprecedented attention to the problem of dogfighting.  However Vick does have his supporters as Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said upon learning of Vick’s release, “There’s no question Michael’s paid his debt to society and merits a second chance”. Blank added that Vick is taking positive steps by wanting to work with humane societies and making other changes in his life.  Former on-the-field opponent linebacker Derrick Brooks, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers recently said of Vick’s situation, “Just like any other American citizen, he deserves a chance to work. I think that’s first and foremost, and his employment was football”. Brooks added, “Whatever team decides to give Mike an opportunity, I think that team has to convince the commissioner’s office that they have a system in place that’s going to help him succeed and move past his mistakes.” 

Of course all of this “Michael Vick playing in the NFL” talk is purely speculative at this point as there are many hurdles to the former quarterback returning the field.  Goodell must first reinstate Vick, which I do believe he will given his history of giving problem players like Adam “Pacman” Jones, Matt Jones, Tank Johnson, Chris Henry and others second and sometime third opportunities – after a positive meeting, I see Goodell handing down a four game suspension.  To his credit, one hurdle that Vick has already cleared is securing his release from the Falcons.  As soon Vick is reinstated by the league, the Falcons will release him and he owe the team $6.5-$7.5 million.  But the hardest obstacle I believe Vick has to clear before returning is finding an NFL team willing to take a PR hit for a player that has severely tarnished the NFL’s shield.  It is going to take a very strong owner with a secure GM and head coach to make the decision to bring in the formerly convicted player.  We all know the public relations mess that awaits such a team (picketing and boycotts), but there are several on the field issues too.  There is no doubt that Vick was an extraordinary talent at one time (remember his 27-7 playoff win over the Packers at snowy Lambeau Field in 2002), but what role does the NFL’s single season top rushing quarterback ever play on a team (backup QB/Wildcat QB/WR), how will he affect team chemistry if he signs around training camp or into the season, and most importantly how much have his skills eroded during his two years away from the game (Vick played intramural football in prison).  So where will Michael Vick land?”… My list starts with the Cowboys, Raiders, Bills, Jaguars, and Niners. But there is also Arena Football or the new-fangled UFL to knock off some rust. 

To all of the people that believe Michael Vick has committed acts that are truly unforgivable, I say enough already with persecuting this man.  Let me make this abundantly clear, I in no way support or condone what he did, but the man has served his time and deserves a second chance.  It maybe an eye opener to some stone throwing fans that are convinced the NFL should be closed a book to such a despised person, but each Sunday NFL fans cheer for players that have committed crimes from domestic violence to weapons charges – try checking the roster of your favorite team and for those needing additional help there is a book called Pro and Cons.  At the very least Vick is one of the few players who actually served legitimate time in prison for his acts so give the man a chance to redeem himself.

Stay tuned as this melodrama is only going to get juicier as we head towards the end of July.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2009 Philadelphia Eagles’ Playbook Changes/Trends

Every season during training camp each NFL team gets a fresh start.  The past season does not matter any longer except for two areas: the previous season’s film and a team’s playbook.  Trust me when I talk to people around the NFL, they all point to looking at the previous season’s film to find tendencies, formations, and of course “Copy-Cat” plays from themselves and their opposition that be worked into their playbook. 

Even though most coaches and their coordinators believe in their base system (ex. Power Running Game for Minnesota Vikings) and their “system” playbooks are usually based on years of repetition and familiarity.

Each year there are always a few new NFL trends out there waiting to be unearthed and incorporated into team’s playbooks.  In 2008, the Miami Dolphins showed the world it’s version of the Single Wing formation called the “Wildcat” and pretty soon the entire National Football League (NFL) jumped on board.  After the Dolphins had success against the Patriots in Week 4 (38-13 win where they churned out 216 rushing yards – eventually ran 12 percent their entire offensive plays in 2008 out of the formation), the tricky Wildcat popped up everywhere.  The Wildcat was incorporated in some fashion in almost every NFL team’s playbook including the Philadelphia Eagles who ran eight times out of formation with receiver DeSean Jackson.  And to think the  Dolphins only tried the Wildcat formation after their quarterbacks coach David Lee (coached the formation at the University of Arkansas under the name the “WildHog”) got inventive trying to find a way to utilize running backs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown on the field at the same time.

Here are some changes that I envision in the Philadelphia Eagles’ playbook in 2009 due to shifts in team personnel and coaching staff.

Fresh Defensive Linemen should equal Pressure, Pressure, and More Pressure – Taking a page from the 2007 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, the Eagles now go at least six guys deep on the defensive line (Darren Howard – Team leading 10 sacks in ’08, Trent Cole – 9 sacks, DE Juqua Parker – 5 sacks, DT Mike Patterson, DT Broderick Bunkley, DE Victor Abiameri, DE Chris Clemons, DE Bryan Smith and returning former fullback DT Dan Klecko).  The increased depth and versatility in the Eagles front four from getting Smith and Abiameri back healthy plus the return of the cat-quick Klecko to their defense will allow for a rotation of fresh bodies throughout games.  Sure the Birds’ NFC Number 1 ranked defense had 48 sacks in 2008, but the majority of the sacks came from all over the defense and by the end of the season many of the D-linemen were battered and bruised.  If you remember the Eagles only sacked Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner twice in the NFC Championship Game (once each by DE’s Trent Cole and Victor Abiameri early in the game). But overall the venerable passer had all-day in the pocket especially in the Cardinals game-winning drive in the 4th quarter as he threw for 279 yards and two scores in the game.  With the depth along the Birds D-line, Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson and interim Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott will now be able to throw fastball after fastball at quarterbacks.  Look for more natural pressure from the Eagles’ front four and less blitzing, which often times leaves the secondary exposed to big plays.   We will see if the Eagles 2009 D-line can duplicate the NFL high 53 sacks that Steve Spagnuolo’s 2007 Giants defense produced, but you know McDermott and Johnson are studying their former colleague’s schemes.

Two-headed monster in the backfield – Around the NFL there is a growing trend of having at least two quality running backs playing in games to keep defensive coordinators guessing.   Last year several teams including the Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, and  NY Giants (Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward both over 1,000 yards in 2008) utilized two backs keeping constant pressure on defenses with fresh legs in the backfield at all times.  Who could blame them as today’s NFL usually necessitates having two running backs because the position is so demanding (inside power runs, match-ups, mismatches, hands, blitz pickup, etc). However some reason over the years the Eagles have always leaned heavily on soon to be 30-year old RB Brian Westbrook (only 936 rushing yards in 14 starts in ‘08) causing the Pro Bowl runner to slowdown at the end of the season.  In the NFC Championship Game, Westbrook was clearly not himself finishing with pedestrian numbers (2 receptions for 26 yds, 12 rushes for 45 yds and 1 fumble) but during the game former Eagles running back Corell Buckhalter still was not called on as he only had 4 rushes for 21 yards. For some reason throughout Buckhalter’s Eagles career (only 76 carries In 2008)  he was not counted on to fill the role as Westbrook’s compliment.  Often times Buck would wait an entire game to get a chance that  usually would never come.  I believe with the addition of University of Pittsburgh versatile running back LeSean McCoy (5-11, 210, 4.49) in the 2nd round of the 2009 NFL Draft will allow the Eagles to finally have a true 1-2 punch in the backfield.  McCoy, an elusive runner with great lateral moves and as a receiver he runs great routes and has soft hands, should get about 10 to 15 touches a game to help B-West. His career college totals were 2,816 yards and 35 touchdowns rushing and 65 catches for 549 yards receiving in just two seasons at PITT. I can envision plays where offensive coordinator Marty Mornhingweg flexes Westbrook out in the slot and has McCoy in the backfield leaving defenses wondering who is getting the ball.  Also watch for McCoy, Westbrook, and possibly Lorenzo Booker to contribute on 3rd downs catching the football.

Utilization of a “True Fullback” – To say the least, the Eagles were abysmal in short yardage situations during the 2008 Season.  I hate to bring it up, but the Eagles week four 24-20 loss to the Chicago Bears was a prime example.  The Eagles had just one TD in four red-zone opportunities, were 1-for-3 in goal-to-go situations , and converted just 2-of-13 third-down situations.  Everyone remembers that game, because over and over the need for a “true” fullback in the Eagles offense was glaring.  Though defensive lineman turned fullback Dan Klecko was willing, unfortunately he either was unable to deliver a key block or run the football when needed most.  Though he will never admit it, head coach Andy Reid and his staff had to see how weak they were on 3rd/4th down and shorts plus in the redzone running the football.  In the off-season the Eagles brought in former Seattle Seahawks bruising fullback Leonard Weaver to remedy the situation.  The Birds will now have a bruising lead blocker so they can use more “I” formation running with running back Brian Westbrook running behind Weaver.  No matter how much Reid has not been a proponent of running the ball in the past, he has made steps this off-season to get bigger on the offensive line (OT Jason Peters and the Andrews brothers) plus added a blocking fullback.  Hopefully the Birds will now push their way to more first downs and touchdowns in short yardage situations  — the Eagles were 7-0 in ‘08 when they out-rushed their opposition

Spreading the field on offense – The NFL game is now all about match-ups on offense. Offensive coaches now know that if they can get a player like Brian Westbrook (running back with speed and hands) in a foot race with a safety or linebacker they will almost find a big play every time.  With the addition of WR Jeremy Maclin (first round from Missouri), RB LeSean McCoy, TE Cornelius Ingram (5th rd from Florida) and WR Brandon Gibson (6th rd from Washington State) in the 2009 NFL Draft to go along with Westbrook and receivers Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson, the Eagles now have the speedy weapons that quarterback Donovan McNabb has so craved.  The Eagles can now put multiple receiver and running back combinations together where they have speed to spread out defenses and cause mismatches.  Fans should look for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhingweg to put together four wide receivers (Jackson, Curtis, Maclin, and Hank Baskett) and one back (Westbrook or McCoy) formations on the field causing a defense to use all of their DB’s in coverage leaving the running back one on one. I could even imagine where the Eagles running an Arizona Cardinals’ type formation where they have five receivers and no running back bringing a run and shoot look to Philly.  The Eagles could also use tight ends Brent Celek, Cornelius Ingram, and Eugene Bright as H-backs out of the backfield the way the Indianapolis Colts use Dallas Clark.  The combinations are endless (reverses, receiver screens, slants, etc) for Reid and Mornhingweg, but they must be creative and not revert back to the “Todd Pinkston” offense.  The Eagles averaged 6.2 yards per pass attempt in 2008 ranking them 12th in the NFL.

The Wildcat and other trick plays will be back in the playbook – With the selection of Mizzou ultra-speedy receiver Jeremy Maclin in the first round, the Eagles added a legitimate 4.4 forty player.  Maclin is electric with the ball in his hands, so look for him and DeSean Jackson to form a speedy dangerous receiving duo for years to come.  A great open field runner, Maclin In ’08 had 102 catches for 1,260 yards and 13 touchdowns as a receiver and 306 rushing yards with 2 TDs.  Look for the Eagles to use more of the Wildcat formation (ran it 8 times in 2008) as Maclin and Jackson both have familiarity with the taking direct snaps.  Maclin is also excellent as a runner on reverses too and he has an ability to make people miss in space.  I would like the Eagles to see if Maclin can fill the Antwaan Randle El role in their offense and if he is comfortable throwing the football (was 1 for 2 passing in 2007 for 0 yards and 1 INT).  I could see lateral passes behind the scrimmage and throwbacks, the Wildcat, reverses, and receiver throws all added to the Eagles playbook if  Maclin, Jackson, or Hank Baskett can throw the ball.  Another tidbit regarding a former passer on the Eagles roster is that tight end Cornelius Ingram was originally a quarterback during his first two years with the Florida Gator, so he also is comfortable with the ball in his hands.

Versatility from linebackers – NFL defenses are now built on hybrid players and schemes at the linebacker area. 4-3 teams often incorporate 3-4 schemes and pass rushing into their systems, because the 3-4 has come back in vogue in the NFL due mainly to the success of teams like the Super Bowl Champion Steelers for generating pressure. 3-4 defenses rely on interchangeable players, who can rush the passer and cover, so defensive coordinators want guys that can play all three positions (SAM, MIKE, WILL). The key is an athletic player with the ability to stay on the field for all 3 downs (think Patriots LB Adalius Thomas).  For years the Eagles linebackers have failed to make the game changing plays that are so common around the NFL.  As a unit the Birds linebackers only produced 5.5 sacks and 1 interception in 2008.  However the continued maturity of middle linebacker Stewart Bradley and strongside linebacker Chris Gocong should give the Eagles two guys who have the versatility to both rush the passer and drop in coverage.  Gocong especially could be a wildcard when it comes to getting pressure on the quarterback.  The former 2006 3rd Round pick was former small college sack leader at Cal Poly and he is adept at putting his hand in the dirt and getting after the passer.  The Eagles in 2009 also might use smaller defensive end Chris Clemons more in the “Joker” role in their defense as he has experience as a stand-up linebacker on third downs.  The one spot in the unit that will probably need to be tweaked in training camp to provide more depth for a 3-4 look is the “WILL” linebacker.  The Birds have Omar Gaither and Akeem Jordan at the position now, but I have heard rumors that they may bring in a veteran like former Rams weakside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.  Other LB’s who should contribute at the minimum on special teams are MLB Joe Mays, OLB Tracy White, and OLB Tank Daniels.

Interchangeable pieces in the defense’s secondary — With so many teams running three, four, and five receiver sets (see Arizona Cardinals from the 2008 NFC Championship Game), the Eagles have added personnel to cope with pass-happy teams.  The Eagles added versatile defensive backs Victor “Macho” Harris from Virginia Tech (5th round of the draft) and Ellis Hobbs (Draft Day trade with the Patriots) to assist their current core of CB Sheldon Brown, CB Asante Samuel, and CB Joselio Hanson.  Harris has the ability to play corner and safety, so he will be extremely valuable in nickel and dime packages.  Hobbs, a former teammate of Assistant DB’s coach Otis Smith when they were with the Patriots, has very good man-to-man skills and should help in replacing former Pro Bowler Lito Sheppard (traded to Jets) plus provide insurance against injuries.  With so many versatile corners on their roster, the Eagles should easily be able to make adjustments for any personnel package and produce turnovers – 15 INT’s in ’08 ranking the Eagles 11th in the NFL.  Eagles secondary coach and interim defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will also have a couple of versatile safeties in the mix in 2009.  Though veteran Brian Dawkins left for Denver, near Pro Bowl player Quintin Mikell will take the lead of the Eagles deep coverage unit.  Mikell, Harris, free agent pick-up Sean Jones, and 2nd year player Quintin Demps should be interchangeable at free and strong safety positions.  By having three quality safeties, McDermott and Smith will not have to rely on having a traditional free safety that only plays the deep ball and a strong safety that only plays closer to the line of scrimmage.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award -winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

Eagles 2009 Training Camp Battles

After months of speculation surrounding NFL teams from the NFL Draft in April to OTA’s, training camp in late July is finally the real barometer regarding roster battles.  Sure on paper and in non-contact practices leading up to training camp, hope springs eternal amongst team management, players, and fans.  But the harsh reality that comes with two-a-days in summer’s blazing sun is that certain players are further ahead than others.  Like death and taxes, the “Turk” surely will be coming on NFL Cut Days (September 1 — Roster cutdown to maximum of 75 players and September 5 — Roster cutdown to maximum of 53 players).

You would hope that positional and roster battles in training camp only come down to who is a better player.  But other factors like where a player was drafted, which player is a coaches “guy” (ex. Veteran RB Keith Byars followed Bill Parcells from team to team), whether a player was selected by the current head coach or was he inheritted from a past regime, and of course contract dollars always creep into the equation.  When it comes to player contracts sometimes making a larger salary can help or hinder a player fighting for a job.  Cutting a player with years and guaranteed money still on their contract can cause serious cap ramifications, but conversely sometimes coaches would rather go with a younger and cheaper player due to their ability to play special teams over a veteran who is past that point in their career.  However I am a firm believer in the old saying, “Follow the Money” when it comes to training camp position battles.  That is why the more a Head Coach/GM/Team has invested in a player in terms of time and most important of all money, the longer the lifeline a player will receive – See Eagles OT Winston Justice a high 2nd rd pick in 2007, who has yet to become a starter but always make the team.

Some of the Eagles Training Camp Battles to keep an eye on at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA are:  (BTW: Rookies report to training camp on July 26 and veterans on July 29)

Number 2 Wide Receiver – If this was a professional wrestling match this position battle for the 2nd receiver spot would be a “Battle Royal” pitting Kevin Curtis vs. Reggie Brown vs. Hank Baskett vs. Jeremy Maclin. Every receiving core in the NFL has the standard X, Y, and Z positions.  Within the Eagles team we already know that emerging 2nd year receiver DeSean Jackson (1st Team All-Rooke w/ 912 receiving yards) is the “X” as the go-to guy and tough over the middle receiver Jason Avant is the “Z” as the team’s best slot receiver.  So a big question going into training camp is “ Who is the “Y” receiver?”  Right now the odds on favorite is former 1,000 yard receiver Kevin Curtis, but the former Rams standout has struggled with a sport hernia that required another surgery this offseason.  Curtis expects to be recoverd in time for Training Camp at Lehigh University, but when I recently attended mini-camp you could sense the team liked what they saw in 2009 first round pick Jeremy Maclin.  The mercurial former Missouri star is lightning fast and as long as he learns his playbook, Maclin should be able to contribute more than just on special teams as a returner in his first year.  Baskett is a nice complimentary guy especially in the redzon plus he also plays well on special teams so I think he has the edge over Reggie Brown.  The former 2005 2nd round pick from Georgia just doesn’t seem interested in football at times and I believe the Eagles will finally give him a fresh start in training camp either through a trade or cutting him.  You can also throw Danny Amendola, Shaheer McBride, and 2009 6th round pick Brandon Gibson in the mix for former Eagles’ receiver Greg Lewis’ last receiver roster spot.  Prediction:  Curtis recovers to claim the 2nd receiver spot opposite Jackson; Maclin backs up both Jackson and Curtis plus contributes in the return game; Baskett, Avant, Gibson (Practice Squad), and McBride make the team; Brown is cut after training camp after no trading partners are found.

Starting Center – Jamal Jackson vs. Mike McGlynn and Nick Cole. Though the center position is not as well known as the quarterback’s blindside protector at Left Tackle, some would say the center is more important to a team’s offense.  The center has to call out all the line calls, snap the ball efficiently (quarterback under center and shotgun), and be a battler against big defensive tackles while blocking.  The Eagles’ center position has been in a state of flux for some time with the likes of Bubba Miller, Hank Fraley, and Jamal Jackson holding down the position for periods of time.  Though each of these men did a professional job, a couple years ago the Birds tried to sign former New Orleans Saints Pro Bowl center LaCharles Bentley to a huge free agent deal.  Unfortunately Bentley went on to join his hometown Cleveland Browns instead of the Eagles – never played a game for the Browns as he tore his knee up and then subsequently had several surgeries for infections that basically ended his career.  With a new lease on his Eagles life former Delaware State undrafted free agent Jackson looked solid enough to merit a contract extension in July 2006 (extended through 2013 with a deal that included a $1.75 million signing bonus).  However in 2007 Jackson struggled with injuries and last year consistency (short yardage blocking) was a big problem causing the team to look at options.  The Birds may look to McGlynn drafted in the 6th round of the 2008 draft to be a utility O-lineman and Cole (played himself into contention by filling in nicely for injured Pro Bowler Shawn Andrews at guard in 2008) to push for the starting job in ‘09.  Jackson will need to report to Lehigh in shape and ready to face the challenge of McGlynn and Cole or he soon could be following Fraley out the door as the Eagles have a lot of depth at interior offensive line this year. Prediction: Jackson gets another chance due to his extension and familiarity of the Birds system, but watch for Cole in pre-season  as he will continue to be a swing player at LG, RG, and Center.  With the roster spot of injured guard Max Jean-Giles up for grabs (probably on I\R in ’09 with a severe leg injury from ‘08), McGlynn will be in a battle for his roster life with 2008 Draftee Mike Gibson, 2009 Draftee Paul Fanaika, and free agent Dallas Reynolds.

Weakside Linebacker – Omar Gaither vs. Akeem Jordan.  For years the Eagles linebackers have failed to make the game changing plays that are so common around the NFL.  As a unit the Birds linebackers (SAM, MIKE, and WILL) only produced 5.5 sacks and 1 interception in 2008.  I know a lot of people will point to teams running a 3-4 system as having playmakers at outside linebacker (Cowboys and Chargers), but some teams running the 4-3 like the Eagles find ways for playmakers in the linebacking unit (Seattle Seahawks).  It is pertinent that the Eagles find a guy at the weakside position who can at the very least get a few sacks on a blitz and grab a pick when they get their hands on a ball.  Gaither was first miscast as a smallish middle linebacker a couple of years ago and then in ’08 the Birds decided that he should start at WLB for the departed Takeo Spikes.  It was abundant early in the 2008 campaign that Gaither also struggled as a weakside backer especially in coverage.  Teams’ tight ends were picking apart the Eagles linebackers and when you looked at the tape quite often it was Gaither who was out of position.  The Eagles finally had seen enough after 10 games when they elevated former undrafted free agent Jordan to Gaither’s starting spot on the outside.  Jordan was solid producing 38 tackles and recovering 2 fumbles in 6 starts, but his play would not make anyone forget Eagles great Seth Joyner.  But going into training camp right now you have to give the edge to Jordan despite a less than spectacular NFC Championship Game (6TKLs) where he struggled in coverage and missing tackles.  Prediction: This is a tough as both players, Jordan and Gaither, maybe better suited for special teams than being a feature outside linebacker.  I will give the edge by the slightest of margins to Jordan, however the Eagles may still hit the waiver wire for another WLB.  Of course there is always the option of moving MLB Stewart Bradley to the outside (experience at Nebraska) and letting hard-hitting Joe Mays start in the Middle.

Tight End – Matt Schobel vs. Cornelius Ingram and Eugene Bright.  After a mini-camp where rookies Ingram and Bright both shined, everyone maybe saying “Forget Schobel’s job, starter Brent Celek should be nervous”.  But any talk of the two emerging youngsters vying for the starting tight end position is too premature.  Celek had a great NFC Championship versus the Cardinals producing a career-high 10 catches, gaining 83 yards and two touchdowns, so he is firmly entrenched in the Eagles starting lineup and there are rumors he will soon getting an extension.  Even with Celek improving, it was quite evident that the redzone was a huge problem in 2008 — tight ends as a whole only caught 66 passes for 626 yards (9.5 ypc) and only 4 TDs  — and the Eagles set out to improve the tight end position this off-season.  The Birds let LJ Smith walk to the Ravens leaving Celek and serviceable veteran Schobel as their second tight end.  But lets face it, Schobel is a journeyman type veteran who is not much of a blocker or receiver (2 catches for 10 yards in ’08).  With an eye on upgrading, the Birds drafted Ingram in the 5th round from National Champion Florida and you cannot help but to be excited to have the physical athletic youngster on the team.  Ingram will need to learn pro techniques in route running and blocking to compete with Schobel, but it is his return from an ACL injury in 2008 that is the big question mark out with him.  However after talking to Ingram at the Eagles recent post draft mini-camp, he seemed fully recovered and you could help but to notice his explosiveness, range of motion with knee, and his hands in drills.  The Eagles might have also found another gem at the tight end position in former local Harriton High and Purdue undrafted rookie free agent Bright.  The former Boilermaker was probably the Birds best target within the redzone in minicamp and he had the sidelines abuzz with some nice catches in traffic.  Right now it is too early to call battle.  The two rookies will need more reps in OTA’s and at training camp to win the battle for the 2nd tight end spot.  I cannot wait to the Eagles put on the pads, so we really can see what Bright and Ingram have in them.  I believe the battle will last well into training camp as Ingram and Bright must prove they are able to handle the playbook, special teams duty and playing in two tight end sets to supplant Schobel. Prediction: The coaching staff likes Schobel, because he is a veteran that knows what to do after years in the league. However if Ingram and Bright have good camps, I could see Schobel cut leaving both rookies to share playing time behind starter Celek.

Free Safety – Sean Jones vs. Quintin Demps.  Hard to believe, but No. 20 Brian Dawkins will not be patrolling the Eagles secondary in 2009.  His spot is up for grabs for the first time in13 years.  The two players competing Demps and Jones are very different as Jones is a savvy veteran and Demps is a young developing player.  Prediction: In looking at this battle I still believe the Eagles are leaning more toward Demps as Jones is only on a 1-year make good contract.  Demps will need to play more controlled in 2009 than he did in the ’08 NFC Championship Game, but expect him to be the starter by the end of training camp.  However Jones will contribute on special teams, also backup SS Quintin Mikell and serve as a valuable security blanket in case Demps stumbles or gets injured. Also watch for youngster Victor “Macho” Harris (5th Rd draft pick from Virginia Tech) to learn as a free safety backup and special teams player.

Other Eagles Training Battles to Watch

Kicker – David Akers vs. Sam Swank.  This will be a fun match-up to watch as the Birds finally have brought in some legitimate competition for Akers – tough NFC Championship Game including missing a 47-yard field goal and an extra point plus sending a kickoff out of bounds right before halftime.  Swank was an All-ACC kicker at Wake Forest and he was getting looks from other NFL teams after the draft before the Birds signed him.  I see Akers hanging on for another season, but the Birds will keep Swank on the Practice Squad as insurance.

Right Offensive Tackle – Shawn Andrew vs. Stacy Andrews…sounds like Mom needs to get the belt again.  I believe this is Shawn’s job to lose as he finally seems healthy and focused after a disappointing 2008 season.  Shawn has experience on the outside playing at Arkansas in college and he has the feet and punch to battle defensive ends.  Look for Stacy to be the starter at right guard if his knee is healed in time for training camp (played some guard for the Bengals).  After the Andrews brothers finish their slotting, I really want to see if the Birds keep enigmatic Winston Justice around as a backup or go with a youngster like King Dunlap.

Fullback – Leonard Weaver vs. Kyle Eckel and Marcus Mailei.  This is a no-brainer as free agent pick-up Weaver should help in blocking and on short yardage plays.  The key question, “Is how many running backs will the Eagles keep?”  I see Brian Westbrook, Weaver, LeSean McCoy, and Eckel right now as the favorites with Lorenzo Booker and rest of the backs on the outside looking in.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award -winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)