I caught up with training camp expert Mike Lederer again, who this time, reveals his final review of the 2009 training camp. Read about the "Top 5 Stars of Camp", "Who to watch during Preseason", and plenty more.
Top 5 Stars of Training Camp
(1) Desean Jackson: The only negative aspect of Desean's camp was his knee injury. And fortunately, it seems that it is a minor concern. The 2nd year WR from Cal looks poised for a big season. I slightly worried about a sophomore slump from Jackson but I have nothing but confidence in the kid after watching him for the last week. He clearly is not satisfied by the success he had in his rookie campaign. Desean was very good at the start of camp. Nobody (with the exception of Sheldon and Asante on occasion) could keep Desean in front of them. He was just flying by DBs. During the live session, Desean was still the best player on the field. He caught almost every ball thrown his way and really seems to have built good chemistry for Donovan McNabb. The interaction between Desean and Asante Samuel was also a highlight of camp. Both players are pushing each other to get better and it is a great matchup to watch. For as good as Desean was early in camp, he took his game to another level as soon as Jeremy Maclin arrived. Once all of the talk surrounded the rookie WR making his Eagles debut, Jackson made sure to remind everyone that he was the big man on campus by catching deep ball after deep ball. I am extremely excited to see how #10 progresses coming into the 2009 season.
(2) Lesean McCoy: If not for Jackson, Shady McCoy would be my clear choice for the most impressive player throughout training camp. Maybe it's because I am cautious in expecting a lot out of rookies but Lesean was not only the best rookie on the field, but he was one of the best overall players at Lehigh. The thing that impressed me most about Shady was his blocking. I had read so much about how his blocking was below adequate but Lesean was really impressive in blocking drills. He would engage with the oncoming defender and never let up. He had a huge block on Quintin Demps early in camp and excelled throughout blocking drills as the week progressed. We still need to see how he does in blitz pickup but I was very impressed by McCoy's blocking ability. As a runner, Lesean is a great fit for the West Coast offense. He is a hard runner that is shifty enough to fake out defenders. He also catches almost everything thrown his way. McCoy seems to have a very good grasp of the offense and I think he can help this team as a rookie in 2009. There are still questions surrounding Brian Westbrook, and I think McCoy could fill in adequately. The problem is the depth behind Shady at running back.
(3) Donovan McNabb: For the first time in what seems like forever, there is no news or controversy surrounding McNabb. He got his contract renegotiation and is not coming off an offseason of rehab. #5 has been out of the spotlight at Lehigh and he has let his play on the field do the talking. I noticed two main things from McNabb at training camp. First, he is in phenomenal shape. He is moving around well, joking on the sideline, and just looks great out on the practice field. Secondly, he is far and away better than any other QBs in camp. And this is coming from a guy who likes Kevin Kolb. At this point in time, McNabb is BY FAR the best quarterback on this team. He still throws the occasional ball in the dirt and I'm sure many of us will be frustrated at times by his play in 2009 but Donovan gives us the best chance to win now. He has had a great camp and with all of the new weapons around him, hopefully he will have a great 2009 season.
(4) Leonard Weaver: You wouldn't normally see a FB on a top 5 list but that is how impressive Weaver has been this camp. I really think he adds a whole new dimension to our offense. We haven't had a FB this good in a long time and I would argue that Weaver is the best FB of the Andy Reid era. He is a good blocker and hard nosed runner. Weaver got a lot of carries on 3rd and short situations and was able to push the pile for the 1st down. He also has decent hands out of the backfield and will be another check down option for McNabb. I feel Weaver is a versatile player and a very underrated signing from this offseason. He is a very nice addition for this team.
(5) Quintin Mikell: I was going to just list the 1st team defense but you have to take into account that they are going up against the 2nd team offense all practice. The defensive line has had a good camp and both Sheldon and Asante have been solid, but if I had to pick one player on the defense it would be Mikell. In my mind, he has clearly taken over the leadership role on the defense. You see him going up and down the sideline trying to pump up the guys and telling them "good job" after a good play. He also has been out during special teams practices giving instruction to the younger players. Mikell's play on the field has also been very good. With the loss of Stewart Bradley in the middle, the Eagles need someone to step up and fill that play-making role on defense. A lot of people expected Bradley to take the next step this season. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear Q's name a lot during broadcasts in 2009.
Biggest Concerns Moving Forward:
Keep in mind that we are still over a month away from the regular season and a lot of things can change between now and then, but on August 11th, these are my biggest issues with the team
Offensive Line: The offensive line is a mess. Period. Obviously the recent returns of Jason Peters and Stacey Andrews will be huge for the line but there are still several question marks. Shawn Andrews was nowhere to be seen at Lehigh except for check-in day. For most of training camp, the first unit had 3/5's of it's projected starting line absent. Guys like Max Jean Gilles, Nick Cole, and Winston Justice did a decent job filling in but I don't want to have to rely on them moving forward. The coaches seem to feel that Winston Justice can do the job at RT but I am still not convinced. Obviously they know more than I do, but even though Justice is fundamentally sound, I still see speed rushers coming off the edge and blowing by him. Todd Herremans had some off the field issues and was moved around a lot between LG, LT, and RT. He seemed to have a good camp but was moving around so much that the line never seemed to have time to build chemistry. Due to injuries, the 2nd and 3rd team offensive lines were downright pitiful. Kevin Kolb and AJ Feeley barely had time to set their feet before there was pressure in the backfield. The good news for King Dunlap fans is that I didn't notice a ton of pressure coming from his side. However, guys such as Mike McGlynn, Mike Gibson, and Fenuki Tufou did nothing to impress me over the past couple weeks. Getting healthy and building cohesiveness on the offensive line is imperative for the Eagles to have success in 2009.
Middle Linebacker: The loss of Stewart Bradley leaves a major void on the defensive side of the football. Do I think the Eagles can recover from this loss? Yes I do. I feel that a combination of Joe Mays, Omar Gaither, and Matt Wilhelm can get the job done but don't discount the importance of having a MLB that can play 3 downs. Maybe I am overvaluing Bradley, but I truly felt he was on his way to being an All-Pro MLB. The Eagles lost a major playmaker and extremely valuable asset on defense. I like Joe Mays and think that most Eagles fans will love his play. He is a hard hitting LB that goes all out on every play. I think Mays will be very good against the run and blitzing up the middle, but he still scares me in pass coverage. We'll have to see more in the preseason but as of today, I still expect Joe Mays to be your starting MLB. If he fails, we all know what Omar Gaither can do in the middle and he would be an adequate replacement at MLB.
Tight End: I like Brent Celek and think he is going to have a good year catching the football. But behind Celek, there is NOTHING. Cornelius Ingram was having a GREAT camp and was well on his way to being one of the stars at Lehigh. But with Ingram lost for the season, the Eagles are incredibly thin at TE. Matt Schobel has been out almost all of camp with injured and quite frankly is nothing special when he is out on the field. Eugene Bright went from a nice story of a local kid trying to make the team to being the #2 TE right now. Bright hasn't impressed me at all during training camp. He doesn't seem to have great hands and his blocking has been suspect at best. Maybe his play improves during the preseason but right now I am incredibly concerned about the TE position. If Celek goes down with an injury, we have very little behind him.
Jeremy Maclin: Maclin hasn't been bad out on the fields of Goodman Campus. But he hasn't shined either. Jeremy shows flashes of greatness and clearly has a ton of potential. But I really feel the time missed at training cam set him far behind. He has done what he can to get caught up and it has to be noted that I am watching him while he is trying to catch up to players that are 15+ practices ahead of him. I still feel the coaches are going to try to get him on the field in certain situations (WR screens, etc.), but I'm not sure Maclin will be able to have a huge impact in 2009. His punt returning skills have also been very poor. I don't like the way he catches the ball and he muffed two too many punts for my liking. You can't make any plays in the open field if you don't catch the football. Hopefully Maclin continues to progress and is able to get on the field with the 1st unit but right now I'm not convinced he can help us a ton in 2009.
Sean McDermott: I love the way the defense has looked during practice and I think McDermott is going to do a very good job trying to replace a legend in Jim Johnson. However, Sean still hasn't called a full game at the professional level and that alone is why he is a concern at this point. I'm not too worried about McDermott but we won't really know until we see our defense out on the field on Sundays.
I don't know where else to mention this but I am really impressed with Special Teams coach Ted Daisher. He runs a really tight ship and I expect our special teams to be vastly improved from the Rory Segrest unit of 2008.
Players to watch during the PreseasonBesides the obvious players to watch, here are a couple battles I would keep an eye on during the preseason:
Lorenzo Booker vs. Eldra Buckley: We all know about Booker. He is a shifty back that looks great on the practice field. However, he still can't block and seems to go down from initial contact. Buckley is an interesting player. While he isn't the traditional big back, he runs hard and should give Booker a run for his money in the preseason. Buckley started off training camp great with a couple of big runs and good blocking but has seemed to slow down as camp has progressed. His blocking doesn't seem great to me but it can't be much worse than Booker.
Reggie Brown vs. Hank Baskett vs. Brandon Gibson: Three players likely fighting for two spots. Gibson has had a very good camp at Lehigh. He picked up the offense well and continues to perform. While he hasn't been extraordinary from my view, he also hasn't made any mistakes. We all know about Reggie Brown. For every tough catch he makes, he seems to drop an easy ball. The same holds true for this training camp. Brown has also worked a lot on special teams and even returned some kickoffs during practice. He is also one of the first players on the field in the morning and one of the last to leave. Reggie is doing everything he can to make this team. Baskett provides us our big WR who is also a very good special teams player. He hasn't had a great camp but he hasn't been bad either. We'll see if the sideshow with Kendra comes back to bite him in the end. Also keep an eye on WR Danny Amendola. He won't make the team but the kid is very solid. Runs crisp routes and catches everything thrown his way. He is also lightning fast.
LDE - Victor Abiamiri vs. Juqua Parker vs. Chris Clemons vs. Darren Howard vs. Bryan Smith: The revolving door on the left side of our defensive line. Abiamiri has been hurt all camp but is still penciled in as the starting LDE. When healthy, he seems to be a good player but we haven't seen him stay healthy long enough to prove it. We all know what we have in Juqua Parker. It will be interesting to see how his recent arrest effects his playing time. I don't see Chris Clemons as an every down DE but he will see the field for this team. Clemons lined up at LDE during nickel packages and was also upright in the joker position on several downs. Darren Howard returns for another season and looks to build off of his 10 sack campaign in 2008. The dark horse to watch at LDE is Bryan Smith. The 2nd year LDE from McNeese State has a lot to prove this preseason. He ran exclusively with the 2nd unit throughout the last week at training camp and seemed to hold his own. He is pure speed off the edge and can definitely make some plays.
Quintin Demps vs. Sean Jones: I expect both of these guys to see a lot of the field during the regular season alongside Quintin Mikell, but it will be interesting to see who shines during the preseason. Right now, Demps is the 1st team FS and Jones is listed as the 2nd team SS. Demps is very good in deep coverage and moving sideline to sideline. His tackling is still a concern but it looks improved from last year. Jones is simply a ball hawk. He was covering a lot of TEs up in the box during training camp and had several interceptions over the middle of the field. I really liked the Sean Jones pickup during the offseason and it will be interesting to see who wins the battle between these two.
Jack Ikegwuonu vs. Victor "Macho" Harris: While Harris is playing more safety, he can rotate back and forth between CB and S. I still expect the Eagles to carry 5 CBs but wouldn't be shocked if they stuck with 4 and had Harris move back and forth. Ikegwuonu was not overly impressive during training camp. His mechanics seemed sound but he was beat way too much for my liking. Macho Harris was hurt during most of camp but before his injury was very impressive out on the field. While it might seem like a roster spot at the very bottom of the roster, keep an eye on both of these players during the preseason. I know there are a lot of fans of each of them.
Joe Mays vs. Omar Gaither vs. Matt Wilhelm: The obvious position to watch. I touched a lot of Mays earlier and I still feel it is his job to lose. However, don't be surprised to see Matt Wilhelm get a closer look. He is now running as the 2nd team MLB and is a very good LB in coverage. If he is able to pick up the system, he could make a push for a roster spot. Gaither has been used almost exclusively at WILL except for during nickel packages. I'm not sure how serious the coaching staff is about him returning to the middle. Maybe they just know he can already do it and want to give other guys a look. Moise Fou will be the 3rd string MLB. Fou has had a very good training camp and I think a lot of people will like this kid. He will push for a roster spot depending on his performance in the preseason.
Question 1: Briefly describe the following Eagle players' training camp performances
Celek had a solid camp at Lehigh. He didn’t have any spectacular plays but he was sound throughout the last two weeks. We all know Celek can catch the football. The key for Brent is his blocking. Brent improved his blocking significantly from the start of 2008 to the end of last season. He looked good in blocking drills throughout camp. During live practice, Celek had a great block on the outside to spring Lesean McCoy for a big gain. Brent sealed off the defender and opened a lane for McCoy to get through. If Celek can be an adequate blocker, he will be a great fit as our starting TE. I’m not worried at all about his ability to catch the football.
Chris Gocong also had a quiet camp. He was solid throughout but with all of the attention surrounding the MLB position, Gocong did his thing behind the scenes. He looks comfortable standing up and hopefully will improve in pass coverage with another season under his belt. One thing I noticed about Chris is his burst off the line. He lined up at left DE on occasion, and just flew around the corner. It’s clear why he was able to record so many sacks in college at Cal Poly. I could see defensive coordinator Sean McDermott using Gocong to rush the passer a lot this season.
The veteran WR had a good training camp. I will say this about Brown. He is doing everything he can to make this team. Brown is consistently one of the first players out on the field in the morning and one of the last to leave. He has also spent a lot of time playing special teams as a gunner and has returned a couple kickoffs during practice. I doubt Brown would be a kickoff returner but it is interesting to see him trying so many different things on special teams. The thing about Reggie that is so frustrating is his inconsistency. Throughout the past two weeks I have seen Brown make a great catch in traffic and follow it up with a bad drop. I think he will make the team but I’m still not sure how much he will contribute in 2009.
We heard so much about Lorenzo Booker last preseason and then he did absolutely nothing during the regular season. Booker continually shows flashes of greatness during practice. He is incredibly quick and shifty in the open field. However, Booker still can’t block a lick. He was consistently beat in blocking drills and even though he says he knows the playbook, it still looks like he struggles in blitz pickup. Booker also seems to go down at the first sign of contact. I would keep an eye on Eldra Buckley during the preseason. He could give Booker a run for his money.
Gaither has remained the 2nd team WILL linebacker throughout training camp. Joe Mays remains the 1st team MLB and Matt Wilhelm has taken over with the 2nd team in the middle. Omar has been lining up with the 1st unit in their nickel package. Gaither is an incredibly vocal player. He is as loud as almost any other player on the field. When Omar is in the huddle, you can tell he loves assuming the leadership role. I feel at this point that the coaches know what they have in Gaither and want to get a closer look at guys like Mays and Wilhelm. If they are not satisfied with their performance, Omar could easily slide back into the middle.
Question 2: As an Eagles fan whose watched nearly every camp practice to date, are you satisfied with what you saw?
I think this question really depends on your expectations for the 2009 Eagles. If you expect the Birds to win the Super Bowl, then quite frankly this has been a bad training camp. There have definitely been highlights and things to get incredibly excited about. The performances of younger players such as Desean Jackson and Lesean McCoy have to excite people about the future. Additionally, Donovan McNabb has had his best training camp in years. However, there have been far too many negatives at Lehigh this year. Between the tragic loss of Jim Johnson, the arrest of Juqua Parker, the uncertain status of Shawn Andrews, the loss of Stewart Bradley and Cornelius Ingram for the season, and the ridiculous amount of injuries over the past two weeks, this team seems to have more question marks than it did before training camp began. Not to mention the fact that we haven’t seen Brian Westbrook put the pads on yet. Fortunately for Eagles fans, there is still a month left until the season starts, which leaves the team plenty of time to correct a lot of their issues before the regular season begins.