FIVE THINGS TO KEEP AN EYE ON AS TRAINING CAMP OPENS
The wait is almost over.
More than seven months after their lopsided playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs last January, the Eagles will open their second training camp under head coach Nick Sirianni on July 26 armed with an improved roster and high hopes.
General manager Howie Roseman, who has regularly rotated between genius and village idiot in the minds of Eagles fans, currently is being hailed as the former after an impressive offseason that, on paper at least, seems to have provided the franchise with the tools to make a deep postseason run.
He brought in capable free agents like edge-rusher Haason Reddick, linebacker Kyzir White, cornerback James Bradberry and safety Jaquiski Tartt, added a solid draft class headed by two of the top defensive players on the University of Georgia’s national championship team – defensive lineman Jordan Davis and linebacker Nakobe Dean – and pulled off a blockbuster Draft Night trade, acquiring one of the league’s top wideouts, A.J. Brown, from the Tennessee Titans.
Aside from their three preseason games against the Jets, Browns and Dolphins and a couple of joint practices with Dolphins, you won’t see a whole lot of hitting from the Eagles this summer, as Sirianni’s top priority will be making sure his team gets to the 2022 regular-season starting line on September 11 as healthy as possible.
Nevertheless, here are five things to keep an eye on at the NovaCare Complex in the coming weeks:
WHO WILL START AT RIGHT GUARD?
Even with the retirement of three-time Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks, the Eagles have one of the best – and deepest – offensive line groups in the league heading into training camp.
The only question up front is who will be the starter at Brooks’ old spot: Isaac Seumalo or Jack Driscoll.
Seumalo started 16 games at left guard in 2019, but has missed 22 games with foot and knee injuries the last two seasons. He played in just three games last year before suffering a Lisfranc injury to his foot. Landon Dickerson started 13 games as a rookie at left guard in 2021.
Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland thinks he has a King Kong-Godzilla combo in the making on the left side with 6-8, 350-pound left tackle Jordan Mailata and the 6-6, 333-pound Dickerson. So, left guard no longer is an option for Seumalo.
Assuming his foot injury is healed; Seumalo will slide over to right guard and compete for the starting job there with 2020 fourth-round pick Jack Driscoll. Driscoll also had injury issues last year (pec and ankle) but started eight games at right guard and played pretty well.
Still, if Seumalo can stay healthy, he likely will be the season-opening starter at right guard, with the versatile Driscoll opening the season as the team's top guard-tackle swingman. If Driscoll wins the job, trading Seumalo, who has a $7.7 million cap number this season, would be a possibility, though Roseman might be reluctant to mess with his team’s enviable offensive line depth.
A BRIGHTER OUTLOOK AT LB
The Eagles historically have not valued linebackers very highly. The position regularly is at the bottom of the team’s salary cap positional distribution chart.
As everyone in Eagles Nation is aware, the last time they took an off-the-ball ‘backer in the first round of the draft was Jerry Robinson in 1979.
Since hitting pay dirt with Jeremiah Trotter in the third round of the ’98 draft, they have selected just seven linebackers in the first three rounds of the last 23 drafts. Most of them were busts.
In recent years, defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and his predecessor, Jim Schwartz, schemed around the linebacker position to try and minimize the weaknesses at the position.
But things are starting to look up.
White was a solid pickup. He had the 15th highest overall grade among off-ball linebackers last season in Pro Football Focus’s ratings and gives them a dependable cover linebacker to put a dent in the 13 touchdown catches they gave up to tight ends last year.
While many teams had concerns about Dean’s injury history and the potential effect it might have on his career expectancy, he still was one of the two best linebackers in the draft, and the Eagles got him for chump change in the third round. Among other things, he’s an outstanding blitzer who will give Gannon a versatile pass-rushing weapon he didn’t have a year ago.
Former undrafted free agent T.J. Edwards has developed into a dependable first- and second-down linebacker. And Davion Taylor, the raw 2020 third-round analytics pick with 4.4 speed, finally showed flashes of ability last year before getting hurt.
ALL EYES ON THE QUARTERBACK
Jalen Hurts’ first year as the Eagles’ starting quarterback was a mixed bag. He was impressive as a runner – seventh in the league in rushing first downs (56) and sixth in rushing TDs (10) -- but terribly inconsistent as a passer.
He finished 22nd in overall passing (87.2) and 26th in third-down passing (82.0), 26th in completion percentage (61.3) and 31st in third-down completion percentage (54.2), tied for 23rd in touchdown passes (16) and he threw just four red-zone TD passes in his last eight regular-season starts.
Heading into training camp, there are several reasons to expect significant improvement from Hurts in 2022. This is the first time since he was in high school that he’ll be running the same offense two years in a row. He has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL protecting him. With the addition of A.J. Brown, he has a plethora of talented pass-catching options.
Hurts has improved every year at every level that he’s played, and he almost certainly will be better this year than he was last year in his first full year as a starter.
The unanswered question, the question the Eagles need to answer before next offseason, is what is his ceiling? Is it high enough to help them be a legitimate Super Bowl contender going forward? Or do they need to find someone better?
With the Eagles holding two first-round picks in a 2023 draft that is expected to be waist-deep in quarterback talent, Hurts’ play this season will determine what the Eagles do. Clearly, though, they’ve surrounded him with a supporting case that should help him succeed.
GANNON’S NEW 341-POUND TOY
It’s going to be fun to see how Jonathan Gannon uses first-round pick Jordan Davis this season. The 6-6, 341-pound Davis is not just a one-technique nose tackle who can plug the run and occupy multiple blockers.
He’s an athletic freak. Davis ran a 4.78 forty at the NFL scouting combine to go with a 10-3 broad jump. His 1.63-second 10-yard split was right there with the draft’s top three edge-rushers – Travon Walker (1.54), Aidan Hutchinson (1.61) and Kayvon Thibodeaux (1.56). Hell, it’s the same split Myles Garrett ran when he was coming out.
“We need to recalibrate our mindset and our thinking as far as who Jordan Davis is,” NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said. “He’s very much more of an Akeem Hicks, or the way John Henderson played with the Jags back in the day. He is a guy who goes forward.
“I don’t really think people had that view of him initially. They thought he was this massive early-down nose tackle. But he can get after the passer. He can get up the field. He has range. He’s very light-footed. He’s a freak show. He's a unicorn.’’
Davis is athletic enough to play anywhere along the defensive front. Because of his unmatched combination of power and speed, some have suggested the possibility of lining him up at nine-technique on passing downs since few offensive tackles or tight ends would be able to stop him when he comes at them with a running start.
WHAT TO DO WITH JALEN AND JJ
This could be the last hurrah for two players from Roseman’s village-idiot period: Jalen Reagor and JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Arcega-Whiteside, the 57th overall pick in the 2019 draft who the Eagles took ahead of, among others, D.K. Metcalf has just 16 catches, one TD and a 45.7 catch rate in three seasons.
Drafted as a big-body who could be a force in the red zone and win 50/50 balls, he’s played just 311 offensive snaps the last two seasons, earning his keep mostly as a blocking wide out in 12-personnel packages.
The Eagles moved the 6-2, 225-pounder to tight end this spring. He’s beefed up to 237, but still is facing an uphill battle to make the roster. He’s currently one of seven tight ends on the roster.
Reagor will forever be known as the guy the Eagles took in the 2020 draft instead of Justin Jefferson. Reagor has just 64 catches and three TDs in two seasons. He was used mostly as a bubble-screen guy last year, which largely explains his tiny 5.2 yards-per-target average.
Reagor needs to have an impressive camp and preseason to make the season-opening 53-man roster. His so-so punt-return ability is not going to be enough to assure him of a roster spot. The Eagles may keep just five wide outs and four of those spots are pretty much locks (A.J. Brown, Devonta Smith, Quez Watkins and Sirianni favorite Zach Pascal). *