Finally, football is almost upon us. Training camp isn't as good as the regular season, but it sure beats the heck out of talking about Michael Vick, Brett Favre, or Donovan McNabb's plans for the 2011 season. We get to talk about some actual football.
Most experts have listed the Eagles as either the best team in the NFC or one of the best teams. The team itself is very excited about the upcoming season. I'm being told that the vibe in the NovaCare Complex is the same as it was in the summer of 2004. That doesn't guarantee a thing, but it is interesting to hear that the players, coaches, and staff have that kind of a feeling heading into the season.
Training camp won't tell us anything too definitive about the team. This is a time for the guys to get accustomed to hitting and to work on some things. The team has had a few camps since the draft, but they have been "non-contact." Those sessions are good for acclimating the new players to the playbook and working on some real basic things. You can't have real football if you can't hit or tackle at full speed.
The time at Lehigh is meant to help the players get their bodies used to the physical and mental grind of football. Working out as an individual and doing limited team activities is tough, but playing full-contact football in 95 degree heat is a whole other level of fun. Football isn't a pleasant sport. It is a lot of fun, but it is tough. Some teams run very passive training camps. Dallas doesn't do live tackling in team sessions. The Buffalo Bills run a lax camp. They practice at night several times and try to take it easy on the players. Both of those teams had very poor showings in December (combined 2-6 record). I think Andy Reid is smart to push his players hard. The Eagles do a lot of hitting and practice in the heat. That helps to toughen up the team. I also think it can help build chemistry. Players love to get together and complain.
Training camp can also be important for individual players. It allows them to work on certain areas of their game or to show how far they've come from the previous season. Obviously, rookies finally get some sense of what NFL football is really like. You can see which guys are ready and which guys will need some time.
Here are the players I'm focused on:
RB LeSean McCoy
Brian Westbrook has gone under the knife a couple of times this off-season. I'm confident that he'll be fine for the season, but Westbrook always misses a game or two. McCoy may not get the starting nod in that case, but he will need to be able to contribute in those situations.
I've heard mostly good things about McCoy so far. The coaches love his physical ability. We knew he was a gifted runner, but he's also been very impressive as a receiver. He's working hard and has the right attitude. The only question to this point is the mental side of things. Does he know the playbook? Is he ready to be an important part of the offense? I'm told he has shown a good football IQ and that the coaches are happy with his progress.
I'm not too concerned with how McCoy runs the ball. I think he'll be fine. The things to watch at Lehigh are his pass blocking and how well he handles his assignments. We need to see that McCoy can pick up blitzers. We need him to line up in the right spots and show a good knowledge of the playbook.
TE Cornelius Ingram
Ingram is projected to be the primary backup at tight end. That alone would put a lot of pressure on a rookie. Now add in the fact that Ingram has to make the transition from the spread offense to an NFL attack. That complicates things. Ingram also is coming off an ACL injury. He tore it about a year ago so he's had plenty of time to recover, but he last played in a game on January 1st 2008. He will probably be a little bit rusty at first.
Ingram is a gifted receiver. I'm sure that he will do some very impressive things athletically and he will make some crazy catches. That part I'm excited to see. Blocking is the biggest concern. Ingram has to be able to line up next to the tackle and at least slow down the defender. I'm not expecting him to be Mark Bruener, but we need to be able to trust him to at least be effective as a blocker. That means engaging the defender and holding the block for at least a second. We'll worry about him getting movement and sustaining blocks in future years.
The other area where Ingram might need some work is in getting a good release. At Florida he was out in space and got to run freely most of the time. In the NFL he will have a defender right on top of him a decent amount of the time. The defender will try to jam and hold him initially to throw off the timing of the route. Ingram has to learn how to get free and into his route. Coaches will teach him some simple techniques and Ingram has to learn how to master them. Timing can be critical for some routes. Getting into the route quickly is important.
FS Quintin Demps
Brian Dawkins is gone. Right now Demps is in line to start at free safety. Dawkins was a special player who should end up in the Hall of Fame. Demps can't worry about replacing a legend. He simply needs to show that he can be a good starter. Remember, Dawkins didn't become a star player until 1999, his fourth season. Demps is entering his second season.
Demps will bring his own set of strengths to the position. He adds speed to the middle of the secondary that hasn't been there for several years. That is a good thing. He also has good ball skills and has a good feel for the passing game. Our defense is predicated on turnovers. Dawkins was great at forcing fumbles, but only had two interceptions in his last two seasons combined. I think there is a good chance Demps can get three or four in a year with his range and ability to play the ball.
There isn't one specific area to focus on with Demps. His tackling was a major issue last summer, but improved greatly over the course of the year. We need to see him play at a starter's level from an overall standpoint. That means making plays against the run and pass. It means blitzing effectively when you get the chance. He has to be comfortable in zone and man coverage. Demps will only keep the job as long as he plays well. Any struggles from him will open a door for Sean Jones.
DE Victor Abiamiri
I've mentioned a few times this off-season how critical this year is for Abiamiri and how important he is to the defense. We need someone to emerge at the left defensive end position. Right now we have a mixture of role players who do a solid job, but Abiamiri wasn't drafted to be a role player. He was brought in here to be the left end, and a good one at that. He was a rookie in 2007. Injuries slowed him down last summer. This year the pressure is on.
Abiamiri is a good run defender. That part of his game is something I have complete faith in. His pass rushing is another story. That's the area where we see potential, but no consistency. Abiamiri needs to stand out at Lehigh to make me happy with his progress. He has the size, athleticism, and ability to get six to eight sacks a year. I don't expect him to be in the backfield every snap this summer, but he needs to show some serious improvement. He also needs to stay healthy, since no player wants the ""injury prone"" label.
WLB Akeem Jordan
Not all fans and media members are sold on Jordan as the starting weakside linebacker. Personally, I'm fine with him. He played well when the defense was at its best. Others wonder if the Eagles should have tried to upgrade the position. That kind of speculation will put some outside pressure on Jordan. The team seems completely comfortable with him. They didn't bring in any young challengers and didn't pursue any veteran linebackers in the off-season.
One fair question with Jordan is how he'll handle being a starting linebacker from the get-go. There wasn't much pressure on him last year. He replaced Omar Gaither at midseason. Had Jordan struggled people would have said it wasn't a big deal and that he was only meant to be a backup. 2009 is a different story.
There are now expectations on Jordan and his level of play. Last year was nice, but we need to see more this year. He tackled well and did a good job of battling lead blockers. Now he has to be more of a playmaker. The weakside linebacker needs to come up with sacks, interceptions, and fumbles. Making tackles isn't good enough anymore. Jordan needs to have a strong camp in order to show that he's up for the challenge.
I left off Jeremy Maclin, and I'm sure some people will say I'm crazy for doing that. Maclin was the first round pick in the draft and has a very bright future, but the team is deep enough at wide receiver that he doesn't have the pressure of immediate expectations. The coaches love his talent and potential. They'll mix him in this year, but there isn't pressure on him to win a starting job. That doesn't mean Maclin can't go and win playing time with a strong summer. The team would love to have the problem of figuring out how to get all these talented receivers plenty of playing time.