Another summer of action at Lehigh University is in the books. Let's review some of the top performers from training camp and what they accomplished.
If you had to choose just one star from Lehigh, I think Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would get the crown. He was squarely under the spotlight after the Asante Samuel trade. The Eagles let go of a good starting corner only because they had such faith in Rodgers-Cromartie. Training Camp was his first chance to prove to fans and the media that the Eagles made the right choice. To this point, it sure looks like they did.
Rodgers-Cromartie seemed to make multiple plays every day. He mixed in both pass break-ups and interceptions. He showed the cover skills to stick with receivers on short and intermediate routes. He showed great speed as he ran with them down the field. On those few occasions when he did get beat, Rodgers-Cromartie flashed the recovery speed that makes him so special. The receiver can be open and the ball can be in the air, but that still leaves time for him to close and get a hand on the ball at the last second.
I don't think anyone will mistake Rodgers-Cromartie for Brian Dawkins, Wes Hopkins or Andre Waters due to his hitting and tacking, but he did play with more physicality this summer than he did last year. I think playing in the slot in 2011 got to his head and left him so lacking confidence that it affected something as basic as tackling. He doesn't need to be great in that area, but he must be "good enough."
Remember the rumors of Visanthe Shiancoe and Jeremy Shockey? The thinking was that the Eagles wanted to bring in a veteran tight end to push Clay Harbor to play better, not necessarily to replace him. The Eagles did not sign either player, and Harbor had a terrific camp. He played the best football of his young career.
Harbor struggled in the mini-camps and OTAs. He wasn't terrible, but dropped too many passes for a player of his ability and experience. The Eagles hoped he would take a big step up this offseason. It appeared the opposite was true as of early July. Thankfully, Harbor kept his focus and changed things. He caught passes every day after practice. Brent Celek got hurt and that meant extra reps for the tight ends. Harbor looked at that as just more chances to show what he could do.
The hard work paid off. Harbor might have had a couple of drops in the entire training camp. Back in the spring, that would have been a single day's worth of mistakes. Harbor looked really athletic and played fast. He made plays in the drills and team sessions. It finally appeared that his natural athleticism was matched by NFL positional skills. The challenge for Harbor now is to show that he can carry this good play over to the regular season.
I had some questions about the wisdom of going with Dion Lewis as the primary backup running back. He lacks ideal size. He lacks experience. Can you trust him to block? Is he really meant to be a top backup, especially on a team with high expectations? Lewis took these questions and basically beat me upside the head with them. He was lights out at Training Camp.
Every day you saw Lewis with at least a couple of big plays. He might bounce a run wide and go for a huge gain. He became deadly on passes. Get Lewis in space and some defensive player is going to look stupid. Simple as that. Lewis burned young guys and old ones. He got the best of linebackers and defensive backs. He was simply too much to handle out in the open field.
I am now glad the team passed on adding another Ronnie Brown or Lamar Gordon (remember him?). Lewis looks more than ready to handle the challenge. He still has to prove himself in the regular season, but so far he looks like a player you want to get the ball to. He's quick, fast and elusive. Lewis went to Training Camp with a chance to prove the Eagles right and boy did he ever.
Damaris Johnson is a young player that keeps blowing me away. Here is what I wrote about him after the Eagles signed him: "I think he’s got a legit shot to make the roster, but he must come up big in the return game and show that he can be functional in the offense. Johnson did come to the NovaCare for a pre-draft visit."
So what do you think - does he look functional in the offense? He was the target of the very first snap of the preseason, and from Michael Vick no less. Forget about functional. We have moved onto the point where we now have to talk about how flat-out talented the young man is. Johnson got everyone's attention in the mini-camps. He was outstanding. The question we all had was whether he could maintain that with pads on and with guys trying to hit and tackle him. Yes. He just continued to make plays. He is lightning quick. He is faster than I anticipated. Johnson also doesn't look like a rookie. He plays with the confidence and certainty of a veteran. Training Camp wasn't even a speed bump for him.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.
Derek Landri went off to camp and the question some had was whether he could keep a roster spot with the Eagles being so loaded on the defensive line. Landri had a whole other idea. He wanted to show the world that he was a player who deserved to be on the field, not just the roster. Mike Patterson missed camp with his injury situation and that opening is all Landri needed. He was the best defensive tackle at Lehigh and gave the offense fits each and every day. For now, Landri is a starter for the Eagles. His goal is to make the other 31 teams regret not signing him in the offseason. The Eagles are sure glad they did.
Rookie Mychal Kendricks looked good running around in shorts during the spring. Eagles fans got excited by the possibility that the team might have finally drafted a stud linebacker. The test for him at camp was to show that he could handle the physical side of things. Guys like Quinton Caver and Matt McCoy all looked great in shorts. Things changed when the pads went on. Would that happen again? No. Kendricks was more than ready for the challenge.
Kendricks was fast and physical. He showed the ability to hit and be tough against the run. He also was good in coverage and as a blitzer. This is the best an Eagles rookie linebacker has looked in a long time. The coaches have aggressively mixed Kendricks into things. He was put at the top of the depth chart and has shown that he deserves to be a starter.
Another guy who looked great in the spring was running back Bryce Brown. I thought camp might prove to be a challenge for him. First, the off-the-field stuff had me curious. Brown hadn't been part of a football team since last summer. Could he handle the grind of camp? Many people don't realize that practice is just part of it. Players have meetings to go to. Players have to study before and after them so that they are prepared for classroom sessions and practice. This isn't easy stuff.
Brown seemed to do fine with that angle. He flat out lit it up on the field. His speed and running skills were simply outstanding. You can see quickly just how gifted he is. Brown did have some ups and downs as a pass catcher. He made the tough grabs, but had some easy drops. Over time, those went away and he became more consistent. His blocking is still a major issue. He's working at it, but is nowhere close to where the coaches want him to be.
Phillip Hunt went to Lehigh to prove that he belonged as part of the regular rotation and not just as some situational rusher. Hunt looked great. He flew off the edge and beat blockers on a regular basis. He was regularly disruptive. He was dominant at times in the one-on-one drills. He's short, but wisely takes advantage of that by staying low and making it tough for blockers to get to him. The Eagles are dealing with some injuries and Hunt is now starting. He's come a long way in one year.
You could say that exact same thing about Cedric Thornton. He was a talented, but raw rookie in 2011. He only weighed 289 pounds and was new to playing defensive tackle. It showed. Thornton came to Lehigh this year to earn a roster spot and show the coaches that he was more than just a project. Thornton is now closer to 300 pounds and he's in terrific shape. He is as quick as ever, but is playing with better strength and power. He also knows what the heck he's doing out there. I think Thornton is a lock to make the roster. He's had a great summer. The Eagles now have the challenge of finding him playing time.
Some players struggle when the pads go on. Others come alive. Marvin McNutt belongs in the latter category. The sixth-round pick had a disappointing spring. He wasn't fast. He wasn't athletic. He didn't handle press coverage well. He suddenly seemed like a major project. That all changed when McNutt got to Lehigh and put on the pads. He looked like a completely different player. McNutt didn't do anything spectacular, but he made catch after catch and didn't make mistakes. He's not a lock to make the team, but he's playing well enough that the coaches are going to have a really tough decision.
Danny Watkins is another guy who didn't do anything spectacular. Heck, he basically flew under the radar. That's actually a good thing when you play right guard. That's a position where players only get noticed for mistakes. Watkins was a mess in the summer of 2011. This year, he went up to Training Camp and handled his business like a veteran football player. Watkins is off to a strong start in his second year.
2011 was a wasted year for Brandon Graham. His knee wasn't healthy and he was out of shape. Graham reported to camp this year in top shape and had a huge chip on his shoulder. He was bound and determined to show fans, the media and the team that he could play. Graham did just that. With Jason Babin out, Graham got a lot of reps, some with the starters. Graham looks like he is back to his old level of play. I don't know that he'll ever have his total speed back, but he's pretty close. Graham made his share of plays this summer and did what every good edge rusher is supposed to - be disruptive.
Dennis Kelly went to Training Camp hoping to secure a spot with the team. The fifth-round rookie moved from left tackle to right tackle. By the end of camp, he was even playing right guard. Howard Mudd took a real liking to Kelly. Any time Mudd has a rookie playing right tackle with the second-team offense and right guard with the third team, that's a good sign. It shows that Mudd wants the player cross-trained, that he wants him to get maximum reps and that he trusts the rookie. Mudd is pushing Kelly to see how much he can handle. I don't know where Kelly fits in the immediate plans, but you can bet that Mudd sees him as a future starter.
Finally, Cliff Harris went to Training Camp under big pressure. Harris missed most of the spring because Oregon hadn't graduated yet and NFL rules prohibited him from practicing until the class did graduate. Harris had to show up and Lehigh and get the coaches to notice him (in a good way). Harris did that by making multiple plays every day. He covered well and showed excellent ball skills. Harris looked like a natural. An ankle injury cost him some time and has him back in a tough spot. Cornerback is a deep position for the Eagles. Harris has to light it up in the preseason to win a job. At the very least, he will get strong practice squad consideration. Simply put, when you watch him play, you see NFL cover skills.