Eagles Training Camp Preview: Offense

Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Is training camp less interesting or more interesting this season?

I think it’s probably both.

It’s less interesting because you’re returning the majority of a Super Bowl-winning team, so it’s not like you’re gonna have as many summer question marks and positional battles. On the other hand, you could say interest is higher because of the Carson Wentz rehab situation and the general scrutiny of anything and everything that comes with being the top dog in Philly sports and the National Football League.

Camp starts Thursday at NovaCare, so let’s begin with a look at the offensive personnel and some of the storylines that will receive media and fan attention.

Quarterbacks

Carson Wentz, Nick Foles, Nate Sudfeld, Joe Callahan

All indications point to Wentz being ready for week one, but something about the short window of recovery concerns me. I don’t know why.

I know that sports medicine and rehabilitation has evolved over the years, but it just feels very strange that a guy would be ready to return from a combo ACL/LCL tear less than 10 months after it occurred. Still, the guy is 25 years old, a phenomenal athlete and a hard worker who takes care of himself. I think we’re looking at a situation where we’re going to be recoiling after every hit he takes, similar to the feeling you got when you saw Joel Embiid land on the floor this season. You’re pretty confident that the guy is close to 100% health, but it’s gonna take some convincing before you feel totally comfortable with it.

Maybe Wentz looks rusty when he hits week one, assuming he doesn’t play at all in the preseason games. That opens up a ton of snaps for third-stringer Nate Sudfeld and South Jersey native Joe Callahan, who has bounced around the NFL since entering the league as an undrafted free agent back in 2016.

Truthfully, Wentz, Sudfeld, and Callahan are unknown quantities at this point, the former because of his health and the latter two because of a lack of reps and true experience. Good thing the second-stringer is a reliable Super Bowl MVP.

Questions:

  • is Wentz really healthy? and if he is, does he show rust?
  • if Foles is stuck on the bench, does he eventually wind up on the trade block?
  • can Sudfeld and Callahan be legitimate backups in this league? (to the point where you’d be comfortable entertaining trade offers for Foles?)

Running Backs

Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Darren Sproles, Matt Jones, Donnel Pumphrey, Wendell Smallwood, Josh Adams

There are a bunch of intriguing candidates in the “who will replace LeGarrette Blount” sweepstakes.

But before we get into that, the top of the order looks pretty stable with the return of Ajayi, Clement, and Sproles.

Some people might be wondering what Sproles has left in the tank. He’s 35 years old and coming off a torn ACL and broken arm, both which were suffered on the same week three play. Sproles did, however, look very good in the limited action we saw from him last year, and he was Doug Pederson’s go-to running back before the Birds got the ground game going after a slow start. If nothing else, he’s a good third option, the same small and speedy guy who can hit smaller holes and turn upfield in a way that the rest of that group might not be able to. He’s still a valuable asset as a shifty guy who can double as a returner and improve an average special teams unit.

Ajayi looks set to carry the load this season, now the #1 guy after joining the Eagles via trade midway through last season. I’m in the camp that thinks a full offseason and some settling will be a big positive for the 25 year old, who I think can match his 2016 Pro Bowl output running behind the NFC’s best offensive line. The main thing that will probably keep him from a 1,000 yard season is Pederson’s penchant for spreading the ball around and distributing snaps fairly evenly. No issues there.

Honestly, though, I really think Corey Clement is the guy that Eagles fans should be most excited about. He was so clutch as a rookie, coming up with big third down and fourth quarter plays, showing reliability and savvy in a way that made it seem like he was a 10-year veteran. He falls between Ajayi and Sproles in size and weight, so he’s big enough to run downhill but agile enough to hit that off-tackle outside zone in addition to catching screen passes and dump downs out of the backfield. I’m really interested to see how many snaps he gets in weeks one and two.

Beyond those three guys then, it gets really interesting.

This feels like a make or break preseason for Donnel Pumphrey, who came in as a fourth round draft pick last year and was sort of seen as Sproles’ successor before going down injured with a torn hamstring.

Wendell Smallwood is also in a tough spot, a guy who played some meaningful minutes last year but suffered a knee injury and was squeezed out of the rotation with the addition of Ajayi and the emergence of Clement as a legit NFL player.

As for Jones, he’s the veteran of the group, which seems stupid to say since he’s only 25 years old with three years of NFL experience. He had a pair of okay seasons in Washington, running for 950 yards and 6 touchdowns total before moving to Indianapolis last year and seeing very little of the ball. He’s had fumbling issues throughout his career.

Adams might be the most interesting name on the list, the Notre Dame standout and Central Bucks South alumnus who went undrafted in April. He logged 1,430 yards and 9 touchdowns for the Irish as a junior, ranking 14th in yardage among all FBS players. He’s a pretty straightforward type of talent and doesn’t offer too much in pass protection or the receiving game:

So you’ve got a true mix here, with four different guys that each have something to prove. I don’t know exactly what the Eagles need in a fourth running back, because it feels like they have enough power/speed/versatility in Ajayi, Clement, and Sproles, but I’m certainly intrigued to see how it plays out.

Questions:

  • can Ajayi be the #1 guy?
  • what does Sproles have left?
  • how does Clement handle an expanded role?
  • who wins the battle for the fourth RB spot?

Receivers

Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Mike Wallace, Markus Wheaton, Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson, Bryce Treggs, Greg Ward Jr, Marquess Wilson, Tim Wilson, Anthony Mahoungou

Jeffery is back with a fully healed shoulder and Agholor is a bona fide slot receiver who has flourished in the role.

That means the only real issue is sliding Mike Wallace into Torrey Smith’s WR2 role and letting everyone else battle it out for the WR4 spot.

It doesn’t seem like a tough transition for Wallace, who put up 748 yards and 4 touchdowns on an okay Ravens team last year. He’s years removed from his 10-touchdown seasons in Miami and Pittsburgh, but the 31 year old really only needs to replace the 430 yards and 2 touchdowns that Smith contributed in the regular season. With the Eagles heavily reliant on Zach Ertz in the passing game, they really don’t need 800 yards and 8 touchdowns from their third receiver.

As for WR4, Wheaton comes in as a total question mark, a guy who suffered a 2016 shoulder injury in Pittsburgh before playing one ineffective year with the Bears that was also marred by health issues. He’s three years removed from a career best 749 yard, 5 touchdown season.

Hollins seems like the sentimental favorite to win the job. He’s reunited with Gunter Brewer, the North Carolina assistant who takes over for Mike Groh as the Birds’ new receivers coach. Hollins had 226 yards and a touchdown playing a bit part role in 2017:

Gibson is another guy in the Smallwood/Pumphrey mold who is looking to prove that he belongs. If he fixes his drop issue and continues to show an ability to stretch the defense, he could emerge as a candidate for the WR4 spot. Gibson played some special teams towards the end of the last year.

The rest is a crop of practice squad types who are looking to make the 53 man roster this time around. Rashard Davis had a good Spring and looks like he might get a chance to compete for slot and punt return reps. Treggs has been around the block and Ward is a converted college quarterback. Marquess Wilson showed some flashes in Chicago.

Questions:

  • how does Wallace fit with the team?
  • who wins snaps at WR4?
  • can Jeffery and Agholor carry their stellar 2017 form into this season?

Tight Ends

Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, Richard Rodgers, Billy Brown, Josh Perkins, Adam Zaruba

One surefire bet and two question marks.

Ertz is among the best tight ends in the NFL, the Eagles’ leading receiver in 2017 and the #1 target of both Wentz and Foles.

Behind him, you’ve got your top draft pick in Dallas Goedert and Green Bay reclamation project Richard Rodgers.

Goedert looks like he has all of the tools required. He’s 6’5″, 255 pounds with a highlight reel full of contested catches and clutch plays. There’s always a question mark as to whether FCS players faced tough enough competition to prepare them for the NFL, but I think the success of Wentz coming from a similar situation makes Eagle fans feel extremely comfortable with using a second round pick on a guy who played college ball in the Missouri Valley conference.

For what it’s worth, Goedert did perform pretty well against the FBS and top-end FCS teams that he played against:

  • 12/2/17 vs. Northern Iowa: 6 receptions, 83 yards, 1 touchdown (FCS playoffs)
  • 12/9/17 vs. New Hampshire: 1 reception, 19 yards (FCS playoffs)
  • 12/16/17 at James Madison: 5 receptions, 43 yards, 1 touchdown (FCS semifinal)
  • 9/3/16 at TCU: 5 receptions, 96 yards, 1 touchdown
  • 12/3/16 vs. Villanova: 8 receptions, 92 yards, 1 touchdown (FCS playoffs)
  • 12/10/16 at North Dakota State: 6 receptions, 55 yards (FCS playoffs)
  • 9/5/15 at Kansas: 2 receptions, 49 yards

As for Rodgers, he had one of the most boring introductory press conferences that I can remember. He’s coming off a couple of underwhelming seasons, with his targets dropping from 85 in 2015 to 46 and 19 in the past two years. Some of that can be attributed to the Aaron Rodgers injury, for sure, plus the addition of Lance Kendricks and Martellus Bennett, who took some snaps early on before he went to New England.

Either way, Rodgers isn’t far removed from a 510 yard and 8 touchdown season, so maybe Philadelphia is the cure-all for whatever malaise fell over him in Wisconsin:

Questions:

  • does Goedert establish himself as a legitimate NFL player?
  • can Rodgers get back to his 2015 form?

Linemen

Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks, Jason Kelce, Stefen Wisniewski, Jason Peters, Big V, Aaron Evans, Darrell Greene, Taylor Hart, Jordan Mailata, Ian Park, Matt Pryor, Isaac Seumalo, Jon Toth, Chance Warmack, Toby Weathersby

The best unit in the NFC, if not the NFL.

There really are not a lot of issues here at all. You’re returning the core of Lane Johnson (Pro Bowl), Brandon Brooks (Pro Bowl), Jason Kelce, Stefen Wisniewski, and Jason Peters. The left guard rotation is no longer a thing and you’ve got a legit backup left tackle in Halapoulivaati Vaitai.

The Eagles carried eight offensive linemen last season, so assuming that’s the case this year you’re looking at Big V and Isaac Seumalo as likely shoe-ins for spots six and seven. Seumalo gets the nod simply for his ability to play any spot on the offensive line and jump in as an extra blocker in jumbo packages. Chance Warmack would be next on the list as far as first-team experience goes, but I don’t know if he impressed many people at left guard last season, despite being serviceable as a second option to Wisniewski.

So you’ve got some interesting choices beyond that, beginning with Mailata, the 6’8″ rugby guy who has literally never played a snap of American football. Pryor is the sixth round draft pick out of TCU, a guy who played both guard and tackle in OTAs. Taylor Hart is the former defensive end who has been on and off of the Birds’ roster for several years now.

I’d be surprised if any of these fringe guys do anything beyond being camp bodies, but it feels like that 8th spot behind Seumalo and Big V might have the capacity to turn into an interesting positional battle.

Questions:

  • Does Jason Peters play at his typically all-Pro level at 36 years old and coming off the ACL/MCL injury?

That’s it. That’s really the only question I have surrounding the offensive line.

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