Two weeks into camp, and things have gone well for the Eagles. The practices have been crisp and up-tempo and physical. Andy Reid has been a vocal, aggressive head coach. He has clearly been more visibly demanding in his 10th camp. How have the Eagles progressed to this point? Who has stood out? Best moments? Players who need to pick it up?
Here is a look around camp with the get-ready-for-the-preseason week ahead ...
Nobody even thinks about the shoulder tendinitis, or the injuries in the past, or the drama that has followed Donovan McNabb for most of his career. When you see McNabb in this camp, you see a player who is at the top of his game, razor-sharp and clearly enjoying himself. McNabb has been outstanding on and off the field and in every way. McNabb has thrown the ball brilliantly throughout the camp. His mobility seems like it is all the way back and, well, he looks like the Donovan McNabb who is one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Make no mistake, McNabb is the key player in this whole picture. And he has clearly taken care of himself in the off-season and is providing a great, great and super-encouraging showing at camp.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Thrust into the starting lineup with Shawn Andrews absent, Max Jean-Gilles has made nice strides as the starting right guard. I've watched Jean-Gilles every day in practice and have seen him greatly improve his footwork and his balance and leverage. In his short NFL career, Jean-Gilles has handled himself well in the run game. He has left something to be desired in pass protection.
Now, the progress is evident. Jean-Gilles is moving is feet so much better now. He has come a long way in two weeks.
Defensive tackle Trevor Laws is coming around after missing time with a foot injury. Safety Quintin Demps buzzes around the ball constantly. Linebacker Joe Mays is a physical presence who has opened eyes with some big hits and good coverage. Bryan Smith, King Dunlap, Andy Studebaker, Mike McGlynn and Mike Gibson have all shown flashes, but they are in the developmental phase.
DeSean Jackson, after seeing him in the spring and now in training camp, appears ready to make an impact.
Jackson is a threat every time he is on the field because of his down-the-field speed and his explosiveness with the ball in his hands. There is every reason to think that Jackson can make an impact in the receiving game as part of personnel packages and, certainly, the Eagles are counting on Jackson in a big way in the return game.
The size isssue isn't one for Jackson. He has superb hands, great body control and the ability to change direction as well as anyone the Eagles have had in a long, long time at receiver.
Andrews' decision to remain absent from camp is a mystery and a disappointment, no question about it. He has put himself ahead of the team, which is always something to frown upon. It just doesn't make sense.
The injury to Victor Abiamiri is a loss to the team and, on a personal level, devastating to a great young man who has worked his tail off in the months since the 2007 campaign. The Eagles hope that Abiamiri shows signs of recovery in the next month, enough to allow the team to keep him on the 53-man active roster rather than spend the season on Injured Reserve.
Who is that guy wearing No. 90 and dominating along the defensive line? It's Darren Howard, who has been nothing short of outstanding both as a right defensive end and as a tackle in the nickel. Howard reported to training camp in great physical condition and has since played lights-out.
Signed as an unrestricted free agent three years ago, Howard has largely been a disappointment. He had five sacks in his first month as an Eagle, and hasn't done much of anything since.
But whatever happened to get Howard back in his groove, well, more power to him for working hard to step up his game. Let's just hope that the way Howard is playing now is the way he plays in September and beyond. Imagine how much a top-of-his-game Howard would mean to this defense. It could be an over-the-top moment for the defense.
LIVING UP TO THE HOPE
With one of the youngest linebacker groups in team history and, clearly, in the NFL today, the Eagles came into this training camp believing that it was time for youth to be served. They thought Stewart Bradley, a prototype strongside linebacker, was ready to transition to the middle. They had confidence that Omar Gaither would be fine moving back to the weak side after starting his NFL career there, then moving to the middle last season. They thought that Chris Gocong was ready to make another stride in the second season of his football career at SAM linebacker. And they saw enough progress in Akeem Jordan, a rookie free agent from James Madison a year ago, to give him the kind of responsibility not many second-year players from Division I-AA schools get.
The fath has been rewarded in camp. The linebackers have been excellent. Their leadership is evident. They are all hard-working young men who are smart, love the game and who have all the physical gifts necessary to be very, very good for a long time.
Brian Westbrook, who is a superstar every day in training camp, ripped off a 70-yard run on the second day of full-team, full-pads workouts and electrified the crowd, and the team. Westbrook waited just an instant for the hole to appear and then burst through, cut to the right sideline and outran the defense for a touchdown that provided evidence that he was ready to go, right then.
It remains to be seen if Westbrook will play much in the preseason. History suggests that he won't be on the field very much. From the very start of camp, Westbrook showed that he was in Pro Bowl form.
Jim Johnson has experimented with a lot of different blitzes from his linebackers and his defensive backs and has had great success. Could JJ be ready to blitz even more this season? The other trend is the use of four ends up front in the nickel -- Trent Cole and Chris Clemons at end and Howard and Juqua Parker at tackle.
If the defensive line is as successful in the season as it has been in camp, the defense will be awesome.
It's hard to argue against the linebackers, who are extremely close, or the wide receivers, who have to endure the daily "Are there enough weapons here?" questions together. But the defensive backs have really pulled together at a time when egos could provide a dividing stake among the players. That hasn't happened at all. The team has embraced Asante Samuel to the locker room. Lito Sheppard has been a total pro and his enthusiasm and high-pitched laugh is a staple of practice. And all Sheldon Brown has done is have a great training camp. He gets the vote as the Most Underrated Player in this camp.
BETTER, WITH MORE TO GO
Reggie Brown drops some passes. No doubt about that. All receivers drop passes, and Brown has to continue to improve that phase of his game. What has been great about Brown is the way he has graduated to a go-to receiver in this offense. Brown wants to start fast this season and the Eagles clearly want to get him a lot of touches now to get him going in September.
What I like about Brown is the way he gets open, uses his body, accelerates off the line of scrimmage and gets down the field on deep routes. Brown is coming, like it or not. He is making progress. He needs to continue to work at it and play with confidence, but there is no doubt that Brown is heading in the right direction.
Another vote would go to David Akers, who lost 20 pounds in the off-season and has great leg strength and accuracy in this camp. His 60-yarder the other day had plenty to spare as it sailed through the uprights.
PLAYERS WHO NEED TO MAKE A MOVE
Winston Justice is playing right tackle and at times looks like he belongs there. At other times, it looks like he might better be served as a guard. The four presason games are huge for Justice, who is by no means a lock to make this team.
The same applies for running back Tony Hunt, who has been unable to push for playing time. Hunt figures to get a lot of touches in the preseason. He needs to take advantage.
Who is the fifth cornerback? Nick Graham, Therrian Fontenot and Kyle Arrington are battling.
At tight end, Kris Wilson needs to come on strong to win a roster spot. Matt Schobel is ahead of Wilson for that third tight end position.
And what about the backups along the offensive line? Are they ready?
Finally, the Eagles don't have an established fourth defensive tackle. Kimo von Oelhoffen, Dan Klecko and Montae Reagor are lumped together battling for a single roster spot.
BEST POSITION COMPETITION
There are a lot of good roster battles, but one that seems about dead even is fullback. Jason Davis, Luke Lawton and Jed Collins are neck and neck and neck, and the four preseason games are going to provide the battleground for a roster spot. Davis has the advantage and has enjoyed a good camp, so he will have to come up big in the game situations.
Lawton could win the job on special teams, though. He has that rep coming from Indy.
With Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter and Lorenzo Booker, the Eagles have the good fortune of having three starting-caliber players at halfback. Westbrook is the superstar, of course, but Buckhalter looks great -- the best he has ever looked -- with his speed and power. And Booker has been a real plus in this camp as a running back/receiver/return man.
Can the Eagles use all three in any formation? Wouldn't that be fun? The Eagles have real options here and they have a lot of talent. Based on what we've seen in camp, the offense wants to have both Booker and ether Westbrook or Buckhalter on the field at one time. Both Booker and Westbrook can move around the formation, and Buckhalter operates well from both the one- and two-back set.
It's an exciting backfield, with a myriad of options. And all three players are going to make big plays this season, from anywhere on the field.
ODDS AND ENDS
- Carolina's suspension of wide receiver Steve Smith for two regular season games obviously is a gutsy, important move for that team. And, of course, we're all watching. Smith punched cornerback Ken Lucas in a fierce fight the other day in camp, and head coach John Fox made the right move in suspending Smith. The star wide receiver will miss Carolina's games against San Diego and Chicago to open the season. This is not the way the Panthers wanted to start the season.
- Congratulations to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2008, which includes former Eagles defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas. Not a more classy and professional man has touched this game.
- I'm keeping my eyes on the Rams, who have a host of injuries early in camp and a very substantial holdout in running back Steven Jackson. It isn't all that far away to September 7, folks.
- Another injury to watch: Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman, who is out three weeks with a groin injury. You know how difficult those things are to heal.