Perhaps there has never been more optimism surrounding a team coming off a .500 season than there is with the Eagles this summer.
It’s not as if the Eagles are a young up-and-coming team. The Eagles aren’t old. There are plenty of young players being counted upon to contribute. But the roster is filled with key veterans, starting with quarterback Michael Vick and including middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and offensive tackle Todd Herremans.
And the .500 season wasn’t a step forward in their development. Instead, it was a significant step backwards, particularly when one considers that the Eagles had to win their final four games to reach 8-8.
The optimism results, in part, from the belief that last season was an aberration. The logic is that the lockout eliminated many offseason activities, preventing the Eagles from integrating all their new players and coaches into their system until the latter part of the season. The rest of the optimism emanates from the belief that the Eagles had a terrific offseason, trading for Ryans and drafting players such as defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and linebacker Mychal Kendricks, both of whom are expected to contribute right away.
Training camp and preseason games aren’t necessarily the best place to find answers to questions, but we don’t have much of a choice. Until the regular season starts on Sept. 9, training camp and preseason are the only place we’ll find answers to our questions.
With veterans reporting to training camp by Wednesday night, the following are 10 questions to consider while observing training camp and the preseason:
1. Will Michael Vick be better this season than last season?
Vick regressed last year after a terrific 2010 season. Whether that was the result of not being able to work with head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg due to the lockout is a matter of conjecture. Vick can answer that question with his performance this year. This question will largely remain unanswered until the regular season when Vick faces more complex defenses and must make decisions about whether to pass or throw it away – or run or slide.
2. If Vick gets injured, who will replace him?
This is an answer we should be able to ascertain during training camp and preseason. The Vince Young disaster is in the rearview mirror. The candidates to back up Vick are Mike Kafka, who spent last year behind Young on the depth chart, third-round pick Nick Foles and veteran Trent Edwards, who wasn’t even in the NFL last season. It might be a moot point anyway if Vick misses more than a game or two with injuries, but if one of these candidates doesn’t rise above the others during training camp and earn the backup quarterback position, it could spell trouble for the Eagles down the road.
3. How much better will the linebackers be this season?
Linebacker has been a perennial problem for the Birds. It’s almost taken as an article of faith that this unit won’t get any worse. The hope is that Ryans and a host of young linebackers will improve this unit. Keep an eye on Ryans during the preseason. He battled injury problems last season and it didn’t cost the Eagles very much to pry him away from the Texans. Watch Ryans’ mobility and speed. If he’s moving well, the defense might be much better than last season. There should also be some good battles for starting and backup positions among the new and returning linebackers. If Kendricks doesn’t earn a starting spot, it will be a disappointment.
4. Will the safeties be better?
The safeties were even worse than the linebackers last season. The safeties had difficulty tackling and in coverage. That’s a bad combination. The Eagles are basically counting on the same cast, with veteran O.J. Atogwe replacing Jarrard Page, to get the job done. Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen are penciled in at starters. Jaiquawn Jarrett is still trying to get on the field. Watch the preseason games to see if there is any improvement.
5. How much will the Eagles miss Jason Peters?
It’s unfair to expect anyone to equal Peters, who will miss this season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Demetress Bell draws the assignment of replacing Peters at left tackle, just as he did after Buffalo traded Peters to the Eagles. Watch to see if Bell is able to handle defensive ends and linebackers by himself or if the Eagles have to devote resources to helping him protect Vick.
6. Is Andy Reid smaller or did his moustache get bigger?
Both. Reid has shed a lot of weight, maybe in excess of 50 pounds. His walrus-like moustache, however, has grown considerably larger.
7. Will the cornerbacks be better than last season?
It’s usually a mistake to read too much into the performance of veterans during preseason. The cornerbacks, however, are a different matter. After last season’s poor performance, both Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have something to prove. If they don’t provide blanket coverage during preseason, that would be a bad omen.
8. Who will return kickoffs and punts?
This is a recurring question at practically every Eagles training camp. Dion Lewis handled kickoffs last year. Another player to watch is cornerback Brandon Boykin. As for punt returns, the Eagles don’t want to risk having DeSean Jackson as the main returner, but they also don’t want a high risk of turnovers. All I can say is watch who gets the most repetitions during practice and see who makes the fewest mistakes during games.
9. Who will be the punter?
Chas Henry was inconsistent last season. It’s still his job to lose, but the Eagles have brought in some competition.
10. Will Juan Castillo be better in his second season as defensive coordinator?
Given how hard Castillo works, it seems likely he will be better. The question is how much better. Teams generally employ vanilla offenses during preseason, so this is one question we probably won’t be able to answer until the regular season, when Castillo will have to make more in-game adjustments.