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Fitting New Pieces Into Puzzle

Posted Jun 27, 2014

We see the method to the moves now, how the Eagles' strategy prior to free agency and the draft manifested into some key additions for the current roster puzzle ...

We see the method to the moves now, how the Eagles' strategy prior to free agency and the draft manifested into some key additions for the current roster puzzle.

In the weeks following the loss to New Orleans in the playoffs, the Eagles made some hard decisions. They wanted a new look at wide receiver, and they wanted to continue their defensive overhaul and they wanted big-time upgrades for special teams. How to get there? How to bring in the pieces to make it all work?

Let's take a look back at some of the moves.

Free Agency: Signing S Jenkins

The Eagles wanted a quarterback for the secondary, and they wanted someone with cover skills at the safety position who had versatility. They wanted, as they explained later, a player to fit the defensive scheme. Enter Malcolm Jenkins, a cornerback and safety who had his ups and downs in New Orleans but who was seen as a nice fit here with his range, intelligence, leadership and versatility.

Jenkins was smooth in the spring practices and has been able to handle all of the mental and physical challenges. He teamed well with Nate Allen in the deep secondary. So what does it mean? If Jenkins and Allen are able to continue to mesh, the Eagles have a chance to add some scheme variables to the front seven. Maybe they blitz a bit more. Maybe they move some personnel around. Bill Davis has a lot in his bag, and having a very solid safety group on the back end helps what he can do to attack the line of scrimmage.

Free Agency: Signing S Maragos, LB Braman

Special teams coverage was pretty darn good in 2013, but the Eagles want more now. They want to be dominant in every phase of the game. So while it may have been a bit surprising to see the Eagles involved so early in free agency in Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman, it was important for the team to get the elite special teams players available on the market.

Both Maragos and Braman are tough guys and they play with great energy and enthusiasm on special teams. Adding those two along with Nolan Carroll II, retaining punter Donnie Jones and making a trade for Darren Sproles (see below) dramatically changes the core of Dave Fipp's special teams units.

Free Agency: Signing CB Carroll

If early performance in the spring camps is any indication, Nolan Carroll II is going to thrive here. He was all over the field in the full-team mini-camp and said he felt comfortable in the defensive scheme. Carroll adds a physical presence and some excellent competition at cornerback, and he's also an eager and competent gunner on kick coverage.

Will Carroll emerge as a starter on defense? That remains to be seen. But the Eagles needed depth in the form of a big body here. Now they've got Carroll, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher outside, with Brandon Boykin inside. A handful of young players -- including Roc Carmichael and Curtis Marsh and Jaylen Watkins -- will compete for roles as well.

All of a sudden, cornerback looks quite healthy for the Eagles. Carroll's play in the spring was inspiring.

Trade: Acquiring RB Sproles

One of the most productive players in the league, Darren Sproles is going to be an exciting fit for the offense and special teams. Sproles can run the football and give LeSean McCoy some rest, and Sproles is also a dangerous threat as a pass receiver. The Eagles will find ways to get him the football, and they will game plan each week to run a package designed to put Sproles in space against a player who is going to have a very difficult time in coverage.

Sproles is also a candidate in the return game, but the Eagles looked at a lot of players in the spring, so there are other options.

Sproles looked quick and decisive in the spring. He is an "X" factor that the coaching staff will enjoy finding ways to get the football. It was a strong move for the Eagles to add Sproles and add to the flexibility and the big-play ways for the offense.

Moves: Releasing WR Avant and WR Jackson

Head coach Chip Kelly has termed these decisions as "football moves," and so the Eagles released veterans Jason Avant and DeSean Jackson and a lot of productivity left the roster. The Eagles clearly wanted something different at wide receiver. They were able to keep Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper from entering free agency. Maclin is fully healthy after missing last season with his knee injury and Cooper blossomed in 2013 in his first starting role.

Avant's numbers slid significantly last season. Jackson was extremely productive, with 82 receptions.

Draft: Selecting LB Smith

Marcus Smith II was the team's first-round draft pick and he's made a lot of progress in the defense, working first at the "Jack" linebacker spot where Connor Barwin starts. Smith is to be judged in a long-term way rather than for any immediate impact. He's a smart kid, a good athlete and the kind of long, rangy player the Eagles like.

Smith will get a lot of looks in Training Camp and in the preseason. The Eagles want to make sure he is ready to contribute as a rookie. How much remains to be seen, but the Eagles like what Smith has given them to date.

Smith's selection was the first of five for the defense in the draft. Clearly, the Eagles think they have added some critical pieces for that side of the football over the last couple of offseasons as the D transitioned schemes. How many of the rookies will contribute? That's why camp and the preseason mean so much, folks.

Draft: Selecting WR Matthews, WR Huff

In rounds 2 and 3 of the draft the Eagles bolstered wide receiver with Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff. Both appeared to play well in the spring and both have a chance to get some playing time on the field this year.

There sure was a lot of hoopla about Matthews for the way he played in the spring, and he did stand out. But he knows that spring was just a snippet of what is to come. There is a long, long way to go before the regular season begins and the game is totally different then.

Still, you see the changes in physical makeup at wide receiver. Matthews is a big body with great length and he offers a different look from Avant in the slot. Huff is not quite as tall, but he's a powerfully built receiver. There is not much "small" in this group of wide receivers. The Eagles made sure to get bigger at wide receiver in the offseason, part of the blueprint they designed and then executed leading into Training Camp.

 

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