By: Al Thompson
With only one practice open to the public, it will be tough this summer for Eagles Nation to monitor how key players are doing after the Eagles open training camp at the NovaCare Complex when rookies and selected free agents report on Wednesday, July 24, and the rest of the team reports the following day.
That is a shame, as there are some key storylines to follow as coach Doug Pederson takes a stacked roster into battle in what will be his second training camp since the Birds captured the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history and the first NFL title since 1960.
Pederson did a remarkable job defending his title last year after injuries continued to plague his team.
Using quarterback Nick Foles once again to take the place of injured Carson Wentz, without a real running game, and a patchwork secondary, Pederson led the Birds to three straight wins at the end of the regular season, stealing a Wild Card berth in the playoffs and an improbable first-round victory over the 12-win Chicago Bears on the road.
Pederson can’t keep relying on miracle comebacks and backups over-performing.
The Eagles must try to stay healthy and have key players develop and step up.
Here are five areas of the team that must develop for this team to have a chance to reach its goals.
Carson Wentz: By far the most important player fans want to see do well during training camp.
We all got to see Wentz run around during OTAs and minicamp without his knee brace for the first time in a long time.
He looked fine throwing the ball around during spring drills. His dropbacks looked solid, but there was no way to tell if his knees are 100 percent and even more important, that his back is fully healed and can function like it did in 2017 when Wentz was becoming a lock to win league MVP.
Wentz was special in 2017 because he could go into his Houdini routine in a blink to avoid would-be tacklers and throw downfield on the run.
That element of his game was missing in 2018. Wentz had good passing numbers but was compensating for his repaired knee on the field, and that may have played a factor in his back injury that Pederson said “evolved” as the season wore on.
Wentz will have to show he can be himself again while avoiding unnecessary hits.
The season’s success depends on his ability to do that.
The DeSean Jackson-Wentz chemistry: It was obvious to everyone who watched OTAs and minicamp that Jackson can still fly with the best of them. He still has that fifth gear only the elite possess.
With Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery sitting out most of the spring sessions, Wentz and Jackson got to know each other on-field with the franchise quarterback finding the 32-year-old speedster just about anywhere on the field. Jackson wanted to come back to Philadelphia in a bad way. He believes he has unfinished business here.
In 2013, his last year with the Eagles, Jackson had his best season of his NFL career. He played and started all 16 regular season games and caught 82 passes for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns. That year, the Eagles won the NFC East and Foles was the Pro Bowl MVP.
Jackson’s blazing speed opens up the field for all the other receivers plus tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert as well the running backs. Their relationship will be the catalyst for this year’s offense.
Jordan Mailata: The 6-foot-8, 346-pound offensive tackle picked in the seventh round of the 2018 draft has wowed everyone with his physical size and obvious athletic ability during offseason workouts and last year’s preseason games. His friendly demeanor has made him popular with his teammates and the media.
But his lack of experience playing the sport of football could get your quarterback clobbered if he actually was allowed to play in a real NFL game.
While offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland gives his animated reviews of Mailata when he is asked to talk about him, there is a quiet uneasiness about letting him play and putting Wentz in jeopardy.
Is that why the Birds selected offensive tackle Andre Dillard out of Washington State with the No. 18 overall pick in 2019? Dillard is an accomplished pass blocker and could see action as a rookie at the left tackle spot if incumbent Jason Peters has any injury issues, or at right guard if Pro Bowler Brandon Brooks is unable to go at the start of the season as he recovers from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
To be honest, with the lineup of experienced linemen already here, plus the trove of quality undrafted free agents the Birds brought into camp, getting any playing time is going to be a near impossible task for Mailata to pull off, but a lot of fun to watch.
Linebacker Zach Brown: Before this season, the only thing Eagles fans remember about the former Washington Redskins defender was his Twitter wisecrack about Eagles All-Pro tackle Lane Johnson’s PED suspension. He had responded to Johnson’s preseason prediction that the Birds were going to Washington, D.C. on opening day of the 2017 season and “whup some ass against the Redskins.”
Brown deleted the tweet but the Eagles did beat the Redskins, 30-17.
Brown said when his agent said the Eagles were interested in him, he told him to stop talking to other teams. After he signed with the Birds, the first thing he did was make amends with Johnson.
Brown said it was like being reborn coming to the Eagles, where he couldn’t believe how well everyone gets along so well.
“Why not want to come here?” Brown said. “They’ve got one of the best young quarterbacks, a great receiving corps, good running backs, good offensive line, one of the best tight ends in the game, the corners were all great until they got hurt…they got a great d-line that can put pressure on any quarterback with just four guys on the line…and they got a good coach.”
It is hard to imagine why Washington let him walk. In 2018, Brown recorded 96 total tackles (69 solo), 10 tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and a sack.
The Eagles usually play with just two linebackers, Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nigel Bradham, who are solid as a team. But if Brown can transfer his Redskins numbers and the enthusiasm he has being an Eagle, this position can be a position of strength. It could be special.
Defensive backs: The Eagles secondary was decimated with injuries in 2018. Starters lost for the season at some point included safety Rodney McLeod (knee, MCL), cornerback Jalen Mills (foot), cornerback Ronald Darby (knee ACL) and cornerback Sidney Jones (hamstring).
That is a lot of talent to lose and expect to compete and win. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and his coaches pulled rabbits out of their hats getting rookie Avante Maddox to play safety and corner and play well.
He found corners Cre’von LeBlanc and Tra Sullivan off the scrap heap and turned them into formidable NFL defenders. Rasul Douglas, a corner who was drafted in the third round in 2017, had been a bit disappointing until he was really needed. He came through and helped the Eagles make a late run to steal a Wild Card playoff spot and win a playoff game.
Will the newcomers come back and fight to keep their jobs? Will the veterans rebound and take back what is theirs?
This may be the most interesting training camp battle of the summer.
It all gets started next week. ••
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii