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Fan-Demonium: Second-Year Risers

Posted Aug 3, 2013

Fan-Demonium

There is an old adage in football that players make the most progress from the first to the second season. That certainly seems to be true with some young Eagles.

Cornerback Brandon Boykin is the talk of Training Camp. Boykin had a solid rookie year. He played his best football early in the season when the full coaching staff was intact. After the promotion of Todd Bowles to defensive coordinator, Boykin's play was a bit more erratic. I think that had a lot to do with changes the coaches were trying to make on the fly. Rookies aren't meant to deal with different schemes in one year.

Boykin knows the scheme this year and the coaching staff is getting him to play at a high level. The most impressive part of this is that Boykin is seeing time in the slot and on the outside. If he continues this, Boykin could potentially challenge for a starting role. He lacks the ideal size, but he has good speed, athleticism and cover skills. At the very least, it is good for him to push Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher.

Chris Polk was shocked when he was undrafted in 2012. Polk signed with the Eagles and was good enough to make the team. He played in a handful of games, but was strictly a special teams and role player. That was a huge adjustment for Polk. In three years as a starter in college, Polk only had two games with fewer than 13 touches. Imagine going from that to having no touches for an entire season. Wow.

Polk might have been happier than any Eagle when Chip Kelly was hired. Kelly believes in the run game. Kelly will also use a group of running backs. This meant that Polk had a chance to really be a part of the offense. Polk has taken advantage of that. He is down to 215 pounds and in the best shape of his life. He looks quicker and faster than anyone can remember. Polk is breaking off 10- and 15-yard runs on a daily basis. Last year, he was about 10 pounds heavier and just didn't have the speed to get up the field.

The Eagles signed Felix Jones to come in and compete with the running backs. Most people expected he would be the No. 3 runner. The question was whether he could challenge Bryce Brown for the backup role. Polk's emergence has changed all of that. Polk is the No. 3 rusher and he is the one pushing Brown.

Damaris Johnson is another undrafted player from 2012. Unlike Polk, Johnson was part of the offense last year. He caught 19 passes and even ran the ball three times. Johnson showed good flashes. He was quick and elusive. The biggest obstacle for him was adjusting from Tulsa's spread offense to the West Coast offense that Andy Reid used.

Kelly is running an offense that combines the spread and the WCO. It should allow Johnson to use what he learned last year, as well as in college. This offense features a lot of short, quick throws. Those plays are Johnson's specialty. They allow Johnson to get the ball quickly and turn into a runner, which is when Johnson is at his most dangerous. Johnson has improved his game from 2012 and looks ready to take advantage of the new offense. He has gotten snaps with the starters. He has played in the slot and outside. The injury to Jeremy Maclin has opened the door for Johnson to play more and he's ready for that opportunity.

I guess I can't ignore talking about quarterbacks forever. Nick Foles is another second-year player who has taken his game to the next level. The question is whether that's good enough to win him the starting job. 

If you think back to this time last year, Foles had zero chance of starting. Just the notion of that seemed silly. Foles was OK in the Training Camp last year, but he certainly wasn't blowing anyone away to the point that they felt the need to get him on the field. That changed in the preseason when Mike Vick and Mike Kafka were hurt and Foles played a lot. He opened some eyes.

Life is very different this summer. Foles is battling Vick for the starting quarterback spot. There is no clear leader at this point, but Foles has played well. He has shown definite progress from last year. Foles is throwing the ball better. He looks more natural and more comfortable on the field, which you would expect now that he's got some experience. One of Foles biggest issues last year was throwing the deep ball. He's gotten better at that. Just this week, Foles connected on several deep balls in practice.

The big test for both Foles and Vick will be the preseason games. Foles is certainly heading in the right direction. 

Lawlor

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.

Boykin was not the only player affected by last year's midseason coaching changes. They were even more dramatic for Mychal Kendricks. He started off playing on the strong side and ended up as the weakside linebacker. Those are very different roles. Kendricks handled things well. He made plays wherever he was lined up.

Kendricks did have some issues with missed tackles. We won't know if he's been able to correct that problem until the Eagles are in a game situation. The coaches have focused on getting players in the right position and using proper technique, but the players aren't making full tackles during live parts of practice. On a side note, many have asked me about the lack of tackling in camp. I don't see this as a big deal. Reid did lots of tackling last summer and the team struggled with that in the season. There is no correlation between doing full tackling in the summer and doing it well during the season. The real key here is for the coaches to do a great job of teaching technique. You don't need to go full speed to learn this. Think of baseball. Hitters go through batting practice and work on their fundamentals, but face slow pitches. The fundamentals then help the hitters when they do face real pitchers.

Back to Kendricks. He has played well this summer. Kendricks has stood out in coverage. We need time to really evaluate him since Kendricks is now moving to inside linebacker in a 3-4 or hybrid defense. He has some experience with this from college, but we need to see him in a game to really know where he's at right now in terms of development.

Fletcher Cox is another player we may need to see in a game to really evaluate. He played well as a rookie. He's having a good camp, but how good? The hope is that Cox can develop into an impact player this season.

The problem is that we don't fully know what the coaches want to do with him. If he is a 2-gap end in the 3-4, Cox won't make a ton of plays. If they play him as a 1-gap end, he can attack upfield and be disruptive. They can also use him as a 3-technique defensive tackle in the 4-3 under and let him attack into the backfield. I think this is where Cox is the most dangerous.

Two players who I don't have a good read on are Bryce Brown and Dennis Kelly. Brown is the primary backup running back. He's had some good moments in camp, but the daily reports are not singing his praises. They also aren't critical. It is possible that people are watching him play well, but they expect that and it just isn't as interesting as talking about players who are improved. The big question with Brown is ball security. He must show that he can hold onto the ball. This is another issue that we will need live hitting and tackling to truly judge, but the daily rope drills certainly acknowledge that this is being emphasized.

Kelly has been injured and that has made it tough to evaluate how much progress he's made. It would have been good to have him healthy this past week when Jason Peters missed some time. Seeing how the coaches used Kelly would have told us a lot. He could have taken over at left tackle. He could have taken over at right tackle as Lane Johnson moved to the left side. The coaches could have also kept Kelly on the bench and used Johnson at left tackle, Todd Herremans on the right side and Danny Watkins at right guard. As it stands, we really don't know how well Kelly is playing or what the coaches think of him.

Vinny Curry has been affected by the coaching change this offseason maybe more than any other player. He gained about 20 pounds. Curry is changing from a speed rusher to a 285-pound defensive end who must be able to play the run first and rush the passer second. Curry needs to be able to play the 2-gap technique when the Eagles are in a pure 3-4 look. There are other times when he'll be a pass rusher, but one who is carrying more weight than ever before in his career.

There isn't much discussion of Curry up at camp, but don't take this as a bad sign. Defensive end was a primary position in last year's scheme. It is different in the new defense. It is harder to stand out. You really need to be able to study Curry to get a feel for how he's handling the adjustment. We need to see him in a game.

Cedric Thornton and Dallas Reynolds were not rookies last year, but 2012 was their first chance to play in the NFL. Both players made tremendous progress during the 2012 season. The more they played, the better they got.

Thornton has a good chance to start at defensive end this year. Reynolds is hoping to make the team as the backup center. Game tape is really needed to evaluate these guys.

So far, so good for the Eagles and their second-year players.

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