It is one of Doug Pederson's favorite sayings: "Iron sharpens iron." He says it when he's talking about competition, when Pederson is discussing the importance of players challenging players on the depth chart.
As the Eagles take their physicals on Monday at the NovaCare Complex and prepare for a three-day minicamp that wraps up what has been a whirlwind offseason, Pederson is focused on the big picture for the football team, one that needs players to push each other at every position.
"It's important that you have that across the board," he said. "That's how you build depth and that's how players get better."
So what are the positions that merit some real scrutiny? We know that, for example, Sam Bradford has enjoyed an offseason productive enough for Pederson to say the other day that Bradford has distanced himself from the quarterback pack.
"I look at what Sam's done and he's taken this thing and run with it," Pederson said. "It's unbelievable what he's done. I'm so excited about the direction he's going, and the stuff that he's doing on the field right now are the things that I expected and what I saw at the end of the season last year from Sam Bradford. And my message has always been, 'Don't look over your shoulder, look forward,' and that's what he's done. He's embraced it."
There is more to this team than the quarterback position, of course, so let's talk about anything and everything Eagles as the final week of the offseason begins ...
- It's too early to get a real read on anything until we see the players in pads, but the Eagles are genuinely excited about the prospects at running back, even without that "workhorse" back. Ryan Mathews is going to be involved in a lot of collisions and his style invites pain and punishment, but if he can stay healthy he's going to be the go-to back in the offense. Don't look for him to get a steady diet of 20-plus carries, though. The Eagles want to see how Kenjon Barner works into the rotation, they like what they've seen from rookie Wendell Smallwood and Darren Sproles is going to be a big part of the offense both as a receiver and a ballcarrier. Is there a star here? Well, Mathews has that kind of ability, but he's got an injury history. Otherwise, you're looking at a lot of players getting a lot of reps in the summer.
- Who ends up starting at wide receiver? Good question that won't be answered until late in the summer. Jordan Matthews is going to get his, both as a slot receiver and when he lines up outside, and the Eagles really need both Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff to step up. Rueben Randle has all of the talent, but he's got to be really consistent here and make the most of his opportunities. Chris Givens will be a home-run threat when he's on the field. That's five receivers. Who is the sixth, should the Eagles keep a sixth? Don't know. And I'm not sure about the numbers, either, because the tight end position with Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, Trey Burton and Chris Pantale, who has taken reps when the Eagles use a fullback, is impressive. Could the Eagles keep five wide receivers and four tight ends?
- One thing we don't yet know is how the Eagles are going to treat kickoffs. Let me remind you of what I think is a significant rule change for this season: Touchbacks will come out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line. The belief here is that defenses are not going to give away 5 yards so easily and that instead of touchbacks, you're going to see a lot of kicks that land inside the 5-yard line and give the cover teams a chance to pin offenses deep in their territory. The kickoff, as I see it, is going to be a major play in the NFL this season.
- The key to Jim Schwartz's defense is going to be how his front plays at the line of scrimmage. The Eagles have some talent up front, no doubt, and Schwartz's scheme creates havoc and pressure. Connor Barwin is going to have his hand in the ground a lot, but look for the Eagles to stand him up and maybe even move him around to give different looks. Barwin, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are going to have a lot of chances to win the edge and get to the quarterback this season. Behind them? Marcus Smith, Bryan Braman and Alex McCalister are going to have to prove that they can give good reps and play both the pass and the run at defensive end.
- Can't wait to see the cornerbacks when the pads go on. They haven't been allowed to use any press coverage in these spring practices, but that changes once the pads go on. The Eagles have a lot of numbers and, admittedly, some questions at the position. Can Leodis McKelvin become a top corner again? Is Eric Rowe ready to take the next step in his second season? Will Ron Brooks seize the moment in the Schwartz defense? Is Nolan Carroll able to rebound from injury? How about JaCorey Shepherd? Some other kids to consider: Denzel Rice and a longshot who has played well this spring, Aaron Grymes. He played in the CFL for three seasons and has been around the football a lot in this spring.
- As for the quarterbacks, they've all earned high marks from the coaching staff. The practice script for this camp doesn't change much from the previous OTAs, so the quarterbacks are going to be in comfortable territory again. They've played well. That's a real positive. One more strong week for the quarterbacks, for the team, is ahead.