It’s one of the most anticipated events on the sports calendar in the Delaware Valley – the start of Eagles training camp.
The irony is that almost nothing happens in camp that the typical fan can see because all but one of their practice sessions are closed to the general public. And there’s really not much action anyway since they almost never hit each other and most practices resemble two-hand touch instead of hard-nosed, tackle football.
So, the media will flood that public with stories about old vets holding on and young rookies trying to make their marks. And, as always, there will always be one or two undrafted free agents who beat the odds and make the team and those can be interesting stories in camp, even though those long-shots will only play on special teams on game day, and that’s if they’re even activated.
So, for the most part, we’ll have to settle for reading and hearing stories about the fierce competition between veteran quarterback Cody Kessley and rookie quarterback Clayton Thorson for the No.3 quarterback job.
Still, Eagles fans have had this day circled for a long time – actually, ever since their 2018 season ended in New Orleans eight months ago. And this Eagles camp has more excitement and anticipation surrounding it since, well, last year, when they were coming off the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship. We all know how last season went, with all of its early disappointments, late-season heroics and final-game heartbreak.
And now, after what appears to be a very good off-season – on paper, of course – Eagles fans once again have Super Bowl fever.
Naturally, most of the focus in camp will be on the return of quarterback Carson Wentz or, more to the point, the health of quarterback Carson Wentz. He has been injury-prone ever since he was in college and his NFL season ended prematurely the last two years because of injuries – a knee in 2017 and his back in 2018.
That’s disconcerting because that’s the definition of injury-prone – lots of different injuries to different parts of the body. So, Wentz will have the spotlight on him throughout camp and the preseason, and fans (not to mention coaches and teammates) will hold their collective breath every time he appears to wince in pain.
There are other interesting storylines on offense, including the durability of All-Pro tackle Jason Peters and the return of speedy wide receiver DeSean Jackson. But all eyes will be on the QB.
Still, even though you probably won’t know it from what happens at training camp or the reports you’ll hear from it, the biggest question mark is on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Whereas there are just a few questions on offense, there are plenty of them on defense, and one part of the defense in particular.
As usual, it all starts up front and that’s especially true of the Eagles defense since coordinator Jim Schwartz would rather pluck out his nose hairs with a rusty pair of tweezers than blitz a linebacker or defensive back. And that’s fine as long as his front four can maintain consistent pressure and get to the quarterback on a regular basis.
Well, the middle of the d-line looks formidable, thanks to the off-season acquisition of former Jacksonville Jaguar Pro Bowl tackle Malik Jackson. The combination of him and All-Pro Fletcher Cox give the Eagles an enviable one-two punch in the middle, and if veteran Tim Jernigan can return to his 2007 form, the Eagles will be as solid there as any team in the NFL.
But the outside of the defensive line is a different story, and how that story ends will say a lot about how the Eagles’ season ends. The starting ends are Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett, and on paper they look pretty good. But Graham is 31 and even though he always plays with a lot of energy and consistently puts pressure on the QB, he had just four sacks in 16 games last season. As for Barnett, he’s a huge question mark. He had a solid rookie season in 2017 and was off to a pretty good start in 2018 before a shoulder injury ended his season after just six games and 2.5 sacks.
Barnett has shown flashes in his one-and-a-half seasons in the NFL, but you could count the number of Pro Bowl votes he’s received on one hand. The fact of the matter is that nobody knows what to expect from the former first-round pick in his third season. He could be great, he could be a bust, or he could fall somewhere in between.
The real problem is the lack of depth at this critical position. The back-ups include Vinny Curry, who was released last year by the Eagles before being re-signed this year. Curry had nine sacks for the Eagles in 2014, but the most he’s had in a season since then is just 3.5, and he had 2.5 in 12 games last season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The other veteran back-up is Josh Sweat, a fourth-round pick last year who played in nine games and had one tackle and zero sacks. And the other top reserve is rookie Shareef Miller, a fourth-round pick who, of course, has no NFL sacks.
So, the top four (at least for now) defensive ends on the Eagles roster combined for 6.5 NFL sacks last season, in a league where 48 (!) individual players had at least seven. The talent and production at defensive tackle should help the ends and maybe Barnett will have a breakout season. But as strong as most of the Eagles team looks on paper, their defensive ends look weak on paper.
That’s why it’s puzzling the Eagles didn’t make more of an attempt to re-sign end Michael Bennett, who had nine sacks in his only season with them. Instead, he signed with the New England Patriots, and if Pats coach Bill Bilichick thinks Bennett is worth a roster spot, it’s perplexing that the Eagles didn’t also feel that way.
There are lots of other questions on defense, mostly regarding some new linebackers and some returning-from-injury defensive backs, but none of that will matter if enemy quarterbacks have time to pick apart the defense.
Time will tell, and that time is not now – but at least we’re getting closer to it.