A football season is a series of phases, and the training camp phase is only a couple of days from ending. The Eagles have a walk-through on Wednesday morning to conclude their time at Lehigh, and then it's off to Pittsburgh for Preseason Game No. 2 (8 p.m., shown nationally on FOX). After that, the preseason continues at the NovaCare Complex.
Here is an update on some key issues surrounding the team, one that is off to a terrific start for 2011 ...
What Is The Injury Update?
There are several key players sidelined, and here is the latest on them ...
- Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin remains away from the team and, really, there is no update other than what you already know. He has an illness. That illness has not been completely diagnosed and it won't be disclosed until the diagnosis is complete. Andy Reid will update the media when he knows. Everyone is hopeful for Maclin's return to good health quickly.
- Wide receiver Steve Smith is rehabbing with the players on the Physically Unable to Perform list and he looked good to my eyes working on the side this weekend. When will he be able to practice? I don't know, but the Eagles didn't sign him last week thinking he would be out for much of the season. I'll go with what Reid said a couple of days ago and look for Smith on the practice field in the next two to three weeks. I'm an optimistic guy, OK?
- Defensive tackle Mike Patterson is working on his conditioning and will continue to do so for the next week or so and then the hope is that he can return to the practice field. Patterson looks good and is in great spirits. It's a very encouraging situation.
- Defensive end Brandon Graham remains on PUP and is working hard to recover from his microfracture knee surgery. I think he looks great, but what do I know? The question is whether Graham practices before the season begins or whether he opens the season on PUP, which means he would miss at least the first six games.
- Offensive tackle Winston Justice is in the same position as is Graham. Justice is working hard on his knee, and it is not clear when he will be able to return to the practice field. The Eagles could really use him, which I will discuss below.
- Defensive tackle Trevor Laws has a hip flexor injury and is missing valuable playing time. The Eagles are deep at defensive tackle and Laws is going to have to fight through some traffic once he returns to the practice field to make the 53-man roster.
- Right tackle Ryan Harris started against Baltimore and seemingly had a pretty good hold on the starting job. But he has not practiced since that game because of back spasms, which throws the position into question. Harris is day to day with the injury.
- Defensive end Juqua Parker left Saturday's practice with a calf injury and did not practice on Sunday. He is day to day with the injury, which fortunately does not appear to be serious.
How Are The Eagles Using Their Cornerbacks?
It has been so much fun to watch this defense. And, really, it's hard to say that there is a specific plan, because the Eagles have so much depth that they are afforded great flexibility in the secondary with Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie moving all around the defense. Joselio Hanson has actually played a lot as the third cornerback, with Asomugha playing some in the slot, as a blitzer off the edge and at safety. Same with Rodgers-Cromartie. The talent at cornerback is impressive.
Beyond those four cornerbacks, the Eagles have young talent in second-year man Trevard Lindley and rookie Curtis Marsh, who has made big-time strides. Young veteran Brandon Hughes is a fine prospect. Jorrick Calvin flashes in practice.
When you look at the 53-man roster and think about cornerback, the numbers get tricky. Do the Eagles keep five cornerbacks? Could they possibly keep six? They have enough talent to legitimately keep seven, but that seems farfetched.
Who Is Starting Along The Offensive Line?
There is no concrete answer at right tackle, so let's say that this position is maybe the biggest question mark on the team right now. With Harris out, veteran acquisitition Evan Mathis and King Dunlap shared reps with the starters on Sunday. When the Eagles play Pittsburgh on Thursday night, it could be either of those players starting. It could be Harris.
Down the line, it could be Justice once he returns from his injury.
The truth is, nobody has stepped up in Justice's absence and put a stranglehold on the job.
Danny Watkins seems to have settled in at right guard and Todd Herremans and Jason Peters are solid on the left side of the line. Jamaal Jackson is the veteran presence at center, but rookie Jason Kelce continues to make a push for the starting job. That appears to be an open competition, too.
Are The Eagles OK At Linebacker?
They seem to be very pleased with the play of an extremely young group. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo Sunday spoke highly of rookie Casey Matthews' maturity and the way he runs the huddle and Matthews had a big day on the field that morning. He is likely to get some increased playing time Thursday in Pittsburgh so the Eagles can learn more.
Jamar Chaney plays the strong side and Moise Fokou is on the weak side as starters. Keenan Clayton is coming on and rookie Brian Rolle was all around the football against Baltimore. Veterans like Rashad Jeanty and Akeem Jordan are proven players on special teams, but you wonder how the new kickoff rules will impact teams as they decide on the 53-man roster. If kickoff returns are going to be reduced so much, how many special teams-focused players can a team keep?
That the Eagles, who still have some cap room and some flexibility, have not added a veteran linebacker is telling. We're less than four weeks from the regular-season opener. I guess my sense is that if the Eagles intended to have a veteran come in and make an impact early in the season, they would have signed him by now.
How Are The Rookie Kickers Doing?
Quite well, actually. Alex Henery kicked two field goals and boomed his kickoffs against Baltimore. He had some misses in practice on Saturday but finished things off with a 58-yard attempt that was good. Henery was 7 for 7 on Sunday.
Punter Chas Henry missed on his final attempt in the preseason opener and that 28-yard punt was one he has to eliminate. He needs to be more consistent. The Eagles are going to stick with the kid, though. He has kicked well in practice, has held great, and is improving his consistency. Three more preseason games are huge for Henry.
Is Wide Receiver As Strong As It Can Be?
There are a lot of things to like about this position, and there are some questions. Second-year man Riley Cooper has been really, really good in camp. He is much improved over a year ago. Cooper is using his body and his strength much more than he did as a rookie and he is catching everything thrown his way. Jason Avant has been outstanding, as usual. DeSean Jackson is spectacular. Chad Hall keeps making plays -- the more I see him, the more I understand how he is going to make things tough when the decision makers figure out the 53-man roster -- and Johnnie Lee Higgins has made substantial strides in the last week. Rod Harper has done a nice job, too.
How are the numbers going to work out? That's the biggest question. Do Maclin and Smith begin the season on the active roster? Are they headed for PUP? How many receivers can the Eagles carry early in the season? If the Eagles were to start Jackson and Cooper, with Avant as the third receivers, for the first six games of the season, would they be able to have the explosive, spread-the-field offense that did so well last year?
Who Is Making His Move For A Roster Spot?
There are a couple of candidates to talk about here ...
- Running back Dion Lewis ran hard, made plays, caught the ball and had an excellent debut. The fifth-round draft pick is the team's third running back at the moment, ahead of Eldra Buckley.
- Defensive tackle Derek Landri plays with hustle and desire and he was productive in the preseason opener. Landri looks like he is going to be a piece of this tackle rotation.
- Daniel Te'o-Nesheim is coming. He had a sack on Thursday night and plays with such a high level of intensity that the coaches love him. But there is heavy competition at defensive end and throughout the defensive line group.
- Jaiquawn Jarrett remains a backup at safety behind Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen, but Jarrett made his mark against Baltimore with an interception and some good play. The rookie is learning in the defense and still has a ways to go, but he is a talent.
- Donald Lee fits in somewhere at tight end, but it isn't clear where. Do the Eagles keep three tight ends? Is Lee ahead of second-year man Clay Harbor on the list for the coaching staff? This position still has some time to position itself for the depth chart heading into the September 11 opener against St. Louis.