As we all know, training camps around the league begin next week, and there are plenty of things to look for on both sides of the ball when practices begin at Lehigh, Albany, Ashburn, and Oxnard. Over the next few days, we’ll take a look at the most pressing questions, beginning with the team that opens up camp first, the Eagles:
1) Is Mike Kafka ready to be the backup QB?
In his rookie season, Mike Kafka looked lost in training camp. His arm was weak and inaccurate, and he was trying to learn an NFL playbook. In year two, I felt that Kafka was the most improved player at Lehigh. So far in year three, observing him at minicamp, he looks like he is continuing to progress, and even appeared to have improved arm strength. Per Kafka, “I feel like I’ve definitely gotten my arm a little stronger over the past offseason.” He added, “Once you get more comfortable with (the offense), you’re able to throw on time, in rhythm, and you also know the receivers that are out there a little bit better, so you’re able to mesh with them.”
As of right now, Kafka is the clear-cut backup behind Michael Vick. The team brought in Trent Edwards to compete, but by the time minicamp was over, Edwards looked so bad that he wasn’t getting any reps at all in 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 drills. The other QB in the mix is rookie Nick Foles. Foles is far ahead of where Kafka was his rookie season, but he is probably not ready to seriously challenge Kafka for the #2 spot this season.
Perhaps the biggest worry for Eagles fans heading into 2012 is whether or not Michael Vick can stay healthy for a 16 game season. If the Eagles need to rally behind Mike Kafka for four games, can they steal two of them? For the first time in his NFL career, Kafka will be the #2 QB in training camp, which means a lot more reps, and a better opportunity to evaluate his progression.
2) Who will be the backup running backs to LeSean McCoy?
Last season, Dion Lewis was the #3 RB behind LeSean McCoy and Ronnie Brown. He was also the kick returner, although a very ineffective one. This year he enters camp as the front-runner to be LeSean McCoy’s primary backup. Beyond Lewis is 7th round pick Bryce Brown and undrafted free agent Chris Polk. The Eagles are likely to keep two of the three.
Bryce Brown is an intriguing prospect. In 2009, Brown was the #1 high school recruit in the nation according to Yahoo Sports’ recruiting arm, Rivals.com. He spent a year at Tennessee as a backup, transferred in 2010 to Kansas St., losing that year of eligibility, and ended his college career for good, quitting the team after three games with Kansas St., after receiving just 3 carries. His talent is obvious. He has an explosive burst that Lewis and Polk do not have, but the big question will be his maturity. Three weeks of hitting in 90 degree heat at Lehigh will be a good test of his mettle.
Chris Polk, on the other hand, was a very productive college player, but not as gifted athletically. In his last two years at Washington, Polk amassed 2903 yards and 21 TDs. I had a chance to watch Polk at the Senior Bowl, and he was unimpressive in comparison to some of the more shifty backs in attendance. In fairness, Polk’s game is breaking tackles and getting tough yards, so he was difficult to evaluate at a venue like the Senior Bowl, where there is no tackling in practice. Andy Reid is already on record saying that the 2012 camp will be much tougher than the 2011 camp, which should help Polk.
Also worth a mention is 2nd year player Stanley Havili, who is essentially competing against himself at FB.
3) Is Clay Harbor a lock to make the roster?
Clay Harbor did not look good in minicamp. He had a number of opportunities to make tough catches, but wasn’t able to bring them in, and he had his share of drops. Penn State alum Brett Brackett got some buzz in minicamp, and there was some thinking that the #2 TE spot was up for grabs. Chase Ford will be in the mix at TE as well. While Harbor struggled, it was not as if Brackett or Ford looked like Tony Gonzalez out there either. Most importantly, we have yet to see Brackett or Ford try to block anyone. That time will come at training camp. I think it is too early to call that a true competition at this point, but it is well worth watching to see if Harbor can turn in around up at Lehigh.
4) How much of a drop-off will there be from Jason Peters to Demetress Bell?
There’s no doubt at all that there will be a drop-off. It is just a matter of how big. Jason Peters was arguably the best left tackle in the game last season. In minicamp, there was so little contact allowed that it was pointless trying to evaluate the offensive and defensive lines. Training camp will be the first true test for Bell, who signed as a free agent from Buffalo. It is critical that Bell plays well this season because the Eagles face more than their share of impressive pass rushers. A quick sampling of some players Bell will face in 2012:
- DeMarcus Ware twice: 66 sacks and 15 FF the last 4 seasons.
- A mix of Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora, twice: JPP was, in my opinion, the best defensive player in the NFCE last year. Umenyiora is a strip sack master, with 12 of them the last 2 years.
- Brian Orakpo twice: 28.5 sacks in his first 3 seasons as a pro.
- John Abraham: 22.5 sacks the last 2 seasons.
- Carlos Dunlap: 14 sacks in his first 2 seasons as a pro.
- Will Smith: Beginning to slow down. 12 sacks the last two seasons.
- James Harrison: 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. 9 sacks, 2 FF in a down year in 2011.
- Kyle Vanden Bosch: Jim Washburn’s all time favorite defensive lineman. 8 sacks, 4 FF last year.
- Adrian Clayborn: 7.5 sacks and 3 FF as a rookie
- Sam Acho: 7 sacks, 4 FF as a rookie.
5) How far along are the two 2nd year interior offensive linemen in comparison to last offseason?
Last offseason, Danny Watkins was late getting into camp in an already shortened offseason, and it really affected the first half of his season. Watkins was so ineffective in the preseason games that the Eagles had to sign Kyle DeVan off the street and insert him into the starting lineup, with disastrous results. Watkins would eventually take over as the starter in Week 5, but on the whole, as the Eagles’ 1st round pick, his rookie season has to be considered a disappointment.
This season, Watkins and second year center Jason Kelce have had their first full, normal offseason. Kelce will be making the offensive line calls this season instead of Michael Vick, which should free up the QB to focus on the other numerous pre-snap reads required in the NFL. With a year under their belts, both Watkins and Kelce will enter camp far more comfortable with the offense than last year. It should be interesting to watch their progression.