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Lawlor: Encouraging Signs From OTAs

Posted Jun 11, 2017

Every offseason brings change. There are signings, draft picks, and a trade or two. No one expects every move to pan out, but there is usually optimism when every move is made. You want to see the glass as half full, not half empty. Things change when the players hit the field and you start to see who is playing well and who is struggling. That's when you get a sense of which moves worked and which ones are not going as planned.

After several weeks of Organized Team Activities, the Eagles should be very happy with their offseason. The big acquisitions are playing well and that bodes well for the upcoming season. It is obviously way early in the calendar and getting off to a good start doesn't guarantee anything, but it is encouraging.

You have to feel good when you see Alshon Jeffery make a spectacular one-handed catch in the end zone. Did you see any Eagles receiver make a grab like that last year? No. Jeffery was the top receiver on the free agent market for a reason. He played at a high level for most of his time with the Bears. He has come in and looked terrific so far for the Eagles. That's a big deal for the Eagles and quarterback Carson Wentz.

Wentz didn't have a go-to receiver last year. Jordan Matthews was the closest thing and is a good player. He's just not a guy you can force the ball to and expect him to make the spectacular grab. Think back to the painful loss in Dallas last year. Remember Dez Bryant going up over Nolan Carroll to catch that touchdown pass? Carroll had good coverage. Dak Prescott gave his star receiver a chance to make a play and Bryant did just that. It was infuriating. This year the Eagles have a receiver who can make that play. Wouldn't it be somewhat ironic if Jeffery made a spectacular catch over Nolan Carroll to help the Eagles beat Dallas in a critical game this season?

Most football games are very competitive these days. The difference is often a handful of plays. You need an outstanding quarterback or a strong supporting cast to make those plays. Wentz could become a great quarterback one day, but for now, he needs the supporting cast to help him out. He didn't get that kind of help on a regular basis last year. There were third-down, fourth-down and red-zone failures that hurt the Eagles in close games. Jeffery will make a difference this year. You can see his ability in the OTAs. He can make tough catches. He can catch the ball when tightly covered. He can deliver big catches down the field.

It is also important for Jeffery to play well because the Eagles gave him big money and expect him to be a key player on offense. When a key free agent struggles, it can have a negative impact on the team. It became clear pretty quickly that Nnamdi Asomugha wasn't a shutdown corner in 2011 and that hurt the confidence of the team. You need your star players to be just that. He wasn't and that team was a mess for much of that year. Coaches and teammates have to love what they've seen from Jeffery so far. He looks like the real deal.

Torrey Smith hasn't received as much publicity as Jeffery, but he has displayed good speed and the ability to get deep. That's exactly why the Eagles brought him in. He and Wentz have connected on some deep balls. The Eagles struggled to come up with big plays last year so Smith can be a difference-maker for this offense. He doesn't need to catch 75 passes. The key statistic for Smith is yards per catch, not number of catches. Jeffery and Matthews will move the chains. Smith is going to deliver chunk plays. He and Wentz are still working on their timing, but they are off to a good start.

The Eagles spent the 14th pick in the draft on Derek Barnett. He has drawn rave reviews so far. The Eagles' pass rush was highly inconsistent in 2016. There were games when it looked dominant and other games when it disappeared. The team finished the season with 33 sacks, a disappointing total. Barnett was drafted to bring talent and youth to the defensive line.

Barnett has played on the left and right side. He has worked with the starters and the second-team defense. It doesn't seem to matter where they play him or which group he's a part of. Barnett has impressed throughout the OTAs. He has shown serious speed off the edge. The thing that makes him special is his ability to get low as he rounds the edge. Barnett is able to dip under the blocker and go around him, but he doesn't hit the ground. A lot of edge rushers don't have the agility or body control to go real low without falling down. Barnett does and it drives blockers crazy.

Jim Schwartz praised Barnett for his work ethic. Talent and physical skill are not enough to succeed in the NFL. You have to be willing to work relentlessly to hone your craft. It doesn't matter if you are a punter, pass rusher, or a fullback. There is a precision to your job and it takes time to master it. Barnett plays hard, but he also practices hard. When you have a player who can match effort and talent, there is a chance for him to be great.

Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham are the projected starters at defensive end. Barnett is doing everything in his power to steal one of their jobs. That's the mindset you want from any rookie, but especially from a first-round pick. Barnett is going to make it hard for the coaches to keep him off the field. He's not only getting to the quarterback, but he is in the backfield on run plays and he's disrupted screen passes. Barnett has been a standout performer thus far.

The Eagles traded for Tim Jernigan to give them a talented inside pass-rusher and more depth up front. Jernigan has been very disruptive, using his quickness to get the best of blockers. He is exactly what the Eagles thought they were getting when they made the trade with the Ravens. Fletcher Cox is going to draw double-teams. That means the other defensive tackle must make plays. Bennie Logan only had 2.5 sacks. Jernigan is more of a playmaker and is better at finishing plays. He could thrive playing next to Cox.

The one caveat you always have to make this time of the year is that the players are not wearing pads and there is no tackling. That makes it tough on the blockers. It is easier for defenders to shoot gaps and attack upfield in this setting. Still, Jernigan and Barnett have been very impressive.

Rasul Douglas has come a long way in the past year. He was coming off a season which he had a grand total of seven tackles. Douglas was hoping to be a starter for West Virginia at this time last summer. He got that job and ended up with eight interceptions, tied for most in major college football, and plenty of accolades for his outstanding play.

Douglas is now drawing praise from NFL coaches for how good he has looked in the practices. His teammates are impressed. Douglas is getting reps with the starters. It is crazy to see how far he has come in a year. We don't know if Douglas will win a starting job, but he's played well enough that the coaches are looking at him as a potential starter. Cornerback is a wide-open position and Douglas is taking advantage of that.

It isn't even mid-June yet, but the Eagles' key offseason moves are looking pretty good right now. Jeffery and Barnett are the headliners, but they aren't alone. This bodes well for the upcoming season. The Eagles were not that far from being a playoff team last year. If the new guys do their part, 2017 could be a good year.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com.


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