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10 training camp thoughts from early Eagles training camp

What are we learning about the 2021 Eagles following a few days of camp?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Howdy folks! Been a moment for me on the Bleeding Green main page and BGN Radio, but there’s a reason for that. A bittersweet one, unfortunately.

I am moving on to a new spot in the NFL media world, so this marks my final work at Bleeding Green and on the Eagles beat. To say that I’ve enjoyed it is too small; to say that I’ve learned from it is too meager. This is where I really cut my teeth, and as I step forward into a new role, I realize how much I’ve loved working here, and how much I owe the entire team and community. Eagles fans are lucky to have the best team coverage in all the NFL — it’s inarguable, really — and Bleeding Green is a cornerstone of that castle. BLG is truly a kingmaker and shepherd; the BGN community is in the best of hands. Make sure you show him some love, even when he’s getting grouchy about Carson Wentz months after he’s been traded — he does so much, so well.

For my final publish here, ten semi-training-camp related thoughts on the Eagles. Some players, some scheme, some season predictions, some jokes — and of course, a Nate Gerry complaint.

I’ll always root for the Eagles, read Bleeding Green, and never be far. Love you all very, very much.

1) Andre Dillard: the only Eagles early pick I’ve ever been right about

Whenever your team drafts a freak athlete on Day 3, it’s human nature to get excited. Rooting for underdogs is fun and natural; when the underdog is a person as likable as Jordan Mailata, it’s all the easier. But for as much fun as that story is, the seventh-round rugby convert is not supposed to beat out the first round tackle. If that happens, something has gone incredibly haywire in the plan.

Well, that snag is Dillard, who has seemingly never built up momentum in Philadelphia since the day he was drafted. There are a lot of different ways a player can bust: injury, opportunity, fit, conditioning, coaching. But the most concerning way is when the individual simply isn’t suited to playing professional ball, and the entire scouting and coaching staff missed on that. Such is the case with Dillard, who has had attitude and demeanor questions follow him since his fight with Derek Barnett in his rookie training camp. In contrast to Mailata, who has approached his daunting learning curve with a beaming smile, Dillard’s bumpy start is notable.

The book isn’t closed at all on Dillard, nor Jalen Reagor, the Eagles second-year wide receiver who has also had some attitude and demeanor problems early. Nick Sirianni has spoken to the importance of connecting with players and working with them through their personal lives; both young players for the Eagles deserve that attention and that mercy.

But as Mailata pulls ahead early in the training camp process, the Eagles’ trading up for Dillard in the first round may end up being the crowning jewel in a long litany of draft misses over the last five years. And the lesson to be learned? Gotta draft tough individuals, not just tough players.

2) It’s 2021 and I’m still begging Travis Fulgham to be good

The Eagles’ wide receiver is certainly up in the air. Nobody knows what exactly to expect from Jalen Reagor after a shaky first year; Devonta Smith as a 170-pound rookie. Throw in J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, John Hightower, and Quez Watkins, and there’s a ton of unproductive youth facing plenty of opportunity. Things could go ten thousand different ways.

Travis Fulgham knows that — he was one of those unproductive youths facing opportunity last season, when he exploded for 29 catches on 48 targets, 435 yards (15 yards/reception), and 4 touchdowns in the middle of the 2020 season. The since-departed Eagles coaching staff and quarterback couldn’t catch that spark and make it fire, and Fulgham faded into the background during the home stretch of the season.

Fulgham may feel like another name in the milling pool of potential starting wideouts, but he does have that key advantage over everyone else: he has done it before, if just for a brief moment. Compared to the rest of the receiving room, he also has a size/contested catch profile matched by nobody else save for Arcega-Whiteside. When it comes to three receiver sets, Fulgham projects as the necessary outside receiver to get guys like Reagor and Smith in the slot, where they should be more effective.

And if Fulgham can bring anything like what he did in 2020, he’ll clearly hold down a starting role on this team, for this year and next. That will help keep Smith and Reagor in roles that they should fill — underneath route runners, separators, YAC threats — which will help their development; it’ll give young QB Jalen Hurts a downfield inaccuracy-eraser, which will help his development. A good Fulgham does a lot for the other younger, highly-drafted Eagles, as well as secure his spot on the depth chart for next season.

3) I refuse to look at or learn who is starting at linebacker

It depresses me, and it should depress you to.

(Shaun Bradley should get an opportunity to win a job, though.)

3b) Do you guys remember Nate Gerry?

It absolutely is not getting talked about enough that Nate Gerry signed with the 49ers, weeks after free agency started, for a maximum of $1.1M on a one-year deal, and was subsequently waived with injury three months later, and remains on the free agent market.

The Eagles started him at MIKE linebacker for MULTIPLE SEASONS. He was their green dot, defensive leader, and top linebacker. And when he hit the free agent market? Total crickets in terms of interest.

Some of that is injury-related. But not all of it, and certainly not most of it, either. Of all of the inexplicable choices made over the last few years in Philadelphia, the continued faith in Nate Gerry was one of the most laughable. The league’s total lack of interest reflects that.

4) What the SAM linebacker role tells us about Jonathan Gannon’s defense

I’ve enjoyed hunting down threads and diving down rabbit holes for new DC Jonathan Gannon, who is easily the coach on Nick Sirianni’s staff about whom I’m the most excited. While Gannon was most recently under Colts DC Matt Eberflus, he’s a Mike Zimmer disciple at heart, which makes for an interesting blend of influences.

Eberflus is committed to zone coverage, often running two-high shells with seven defenders dropping and a four-man rush predicated on twists, games, and stunts. His underneath defenders play from deep alignments, allow short completions, rally, and tackle. They chart loafs, prioritize team defense, and adheres to the HITS principle: Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways, Situationally Smart.

There are echoes of Zimmer’s defense here. Zimmer likes two-high structures and zone coverage; his zone defenders play with top-down integrity and rally to short throws. But Zimmer’s got a lot more zest than Eberflus. He’s far more willing to rotate coverage, send blitzers, and on third down, present highly aggressive fronts that suggest seven, eight possible blitzers.

Gannon likely falls onto the Zimmer side of the spectrum. The on-ball SAM role, nonexistent in Philadelphia under Jim Schwartz or Indianapolis under Matt Eberflus, speaks to that. That SAM linebacker can line up as a traditional stack linebacker, but also rotate onto the line of scrimmage as a quasi-edge rusher, creating deception and versatility in the defense’s pre-snap look. Anthony Barr filled that role in Minnesota under Zimmer; in Philly, players like Genard Avery, Patrick Johnson, and Joe Ostman are working with the linebacker group to learn that job. It may not be a permanent fixture — Avery, Johnson, and Ostman are all notably worse players than Anthony Barr — but it will have its place in the defensive packages.

Expect from Jonathan Gannon more duplicity, blitzing, and risk-taking than Eberflus showed in Indianapolis — and Jim Schwartz in Philadelphia.

6) Pony up

See this? I like this.

Before we go any further, we should make a quick distinction. The Eagles were in two-back sets on a woeful 27 snaps last season — around 3% of the total offensive deployment. Other teams like Baltimore, San Francisco, New England, and Minnesota all crested 30%. But those teams were doing it with a running back and a full back — traditional two-back sets. The Eagles are looking at “Pony” backfields here, which is a common West Coast term for two RBs on the field at the same time.

The Colts didn’t really mess around with this at all last year (13 snaps with two backs on the field), but it makes sense as a growing EDGE in modern NFL play, especially for a team with a backfield like Philadelphia’s. Both Miles Sanders and Kenny Gainwell are threats to catch the football, and many defensive rules in match coverages are conditional on the behavior of the running back in the passing concept. By putting two players on the field who can reasonably line up in the backfield, potentially line up in the slot, motion through both places, and create explosives with the ball in their hands, you can really stress the rules of even the top NFL defenses.

Throw in a running quarterback like Jalen Hurts, and now you can run college-style option plays in the backfield with three threats to carry the football. Shared snaps between Sanders and Gainwell could be a devastating gadget package for Philadelphia in one short season.

7) We build through the trenches

It’s tough to say emphatically “Howie Roseman has to do this in order to keep his job,” because man, it seems like Roseman could do or not do pretty much anything and still keep his job.

But! If we say instead “Howie Roseman should start doing this in order to do his job better,” then we’re probably in the clear. And that thing is: investing in the back seven.

You can be as excited about Zech McPhearson as you like. (I think he’s a fine pick for Round 4.) Looking at the Eagles’ roster pre-Draft — looking at the way the Eagles have lost so many games over the last few years — and deciding to prioritize the defensive trenches above the cornerback room reveals stunning blindness.

It is one thing to have a team-building philosophy; it is another thing entirely to decide that the less-prioritized positions in that philosophy never warrant any investment. The Eagles drafted McPhearson and (finally) signed Steven Nelson, and still have a bottom-8 CB room in the NFL, arguably bottom-5. It is especially frustrating in the wake of the Darius Slay trade, which was a very necessary move to fix the cornerback room, but clearly not the only move, in that three good corners have to be fielded on any down.

Slay + Nelson + Maddox may end up average this year, but make no mistake: we’re going to be talking about the same exact team needs in 2022 as we’ve been talking about since 2019.

8) Early Wentz injury

It absolutely blows that Wentz is injured in Indianapolis right now. Many of Wentz’s issues in Philadelphia were health-related, and many again were chemistry-related. Wentz may get rushed back onto the field for Week 1; he’ll likely miss critical time with his new coordinators, coaches, and receivers. It sucks.

Independent of rooting for/against Wentz, and independent of the Eagles’ incoming pick that depends on Wentz’s playing time in Indy, Wentz is a fascinating football experiment. This is a guy that was definitely good at some point, was definitely bad last year, and has been grafted back into the context that seemingly had him good in 2017: elite OL, Frank Reich, lower expectations, et cetera. From a pure football perspective, Wentz’s run in Indianapolis was going to tell us a lot about Howie Roseman, Doug Pederson, Frank Reich, Jim Irsay, and a slew of other important NFL figures. It sucks, not just from an Eagles-centered lens, but from a football lens in general, that the Wentz experiment has already hit a potentially debilitating snag.

9) Season predictions

Eagles go 5-12, beating the Giants once, the Cowboys once, the Falcons, the Lions, and the Jets. They have a Top-5 pick, and use it (as well as their two other firsts) to get some sort of new quarterback. Roseman makes a “QB factory” comment during that presser, and my blood pressure spikes.

Washington Football Team wins the division at 10-7 on a tiebreaker with the 10-7 Cowboys; they lose in the first round and end up with 19 overall again, making it tough to draft a true starting QB. The Giants go 7-10 despite having a Top-8 defense; Dave Gettleman is fired and they start to investigate QB options other than Daniel Jones.

Devonta Smith plays 12 games and snags 800 yards worth of volume, behind only Ja’Marr Chase and Rashod Bateman among rookie receivers. Dallas Goedert is the Eagles’ leading receiver, and has just under 1,000 yards — rumors of a big contract extension begin. Hurts accounts for 30 total touchdowns, but 20 total turnovers, and analysts are split on whether or not he deserves another season.

Josh Sweat has 6 sacks. Brandon Graham has 6 sacks. Derek Barnett has 5.5 sacks. Fletcher Cox has 5 sacks. K’Von Wallace gets a foothold in the starting lineup, Donnel Pumphrey scores a returning touchdown (just making sure you’re still reading, BLG), Jason Kelce retires and makes me cry, Tyree Jackson wins the TE2 job by season’s end, Jake Elliott never misses a kick (never has missed a kick anyway), JJAW gets cut during the season, Nick Sirianni accidentally drops an F-bomb on a live mic, and BLG creates a #FireHowieRoseman hashtag by Week 7.

10) **rattlesnake sounds**

I’m not going to go very long on Jalen Hurts — most everyone knows where I stand on him by now. I think he’s a top-flight dude, #1 looks absolutely sick, and he can be an important cog in a decent, QB-run-centric offense. I think his ceiling is fairly low, largely due to the limits on him as a passer, and I think the Eagles will be back in the QB market in 2022.

I won’t go too long on that QB market, either. Deshaun Watson will likely be available, either at some point before this season’s trade deadline, or by the new league year in 2022. There’s no way of prognosticating what will happen with his legal situation, but there’s more than enough smoke there that I don’t think I’d root for him as an Eagle. Aaron Rodgers will likely be available, but 29 other teams will be in on his market, and as we saw during last year’s coaching cycle, major league players don’t want to come to Philadelphia. How could Rodgers go through his frustrations with the Green Bay front office, and then come work for Howie Roseman? Russell Wilson could be available, but I’m not betting on that.

What I will say is this: I think Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler is a truly blue-chip talent. This is the most live arm I’ve seen come out of college since Mahomes/Allen. And if the Eagles’ competitiveness wanes in the back half of the 2021 season as they angle for a Top-3 pick and the potential to draft Rattler, I won’t fault them for it. From what I’ve seen, this dude is special.

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