The long, slow, dull days of winter are over and Chip Kelly’s Eagles are crackling with activity. He drafted a solid if unflashy group of players (including Ducks Josh Huff and Taylor Hart), added a number of UDFAs (such as a savage-tackling kicker nicknamed “Murderleg”) and wielded some innovative technologies that caused a stir around the league.
Better yet, Chip’s long silence was washed away in a flood of comments, during seven separate press conferences during the draft process. Kelly spelled out what he looks for in players: toughness, versatility, intelligence, athleticism and true NFL size (especially height, arm length and hand size).
The coach was wonderfully blunt about the limits of this crazy but crucial draft circus. Asked if he was happy with his draft picks, Kelly said,
“Honestly, I have no idea because literally … no one knows. Three, four years down the road, we’re going to be, hey, that guy turned out to be a good player, there’s going to be somebody that surprises everybody, us included. It’s an inexact science, and if someone thinks they have a formula or a metric that can get you there, I haven’t seen it yet.”
Amen. That said, Chip and GM Howie Roseman, did everything possible to maximize their chances of success. Before the draft, they met individually with each player picked except Josh Huff. Two of the draftees (Huff and Hart, plus UDFA Wade Keliikipi) know the program very well because they played for Chip at Oregon; all of them were smart, versatile team players with good attitudes.
With a low pick in every round (N0. 22), the Birds traded down for extra picks and found scheme fits undervalued by other teams. The Eagles play a 3-4, 2-gap defense shared by few other NFL teams (San Francisco, Pittsburgh). First round pick Marcus Smith (an OLB from Louisville) and Oregon’s huge DE Taylor Hart (fifth round) were rated lower by most teams, but most teams run a 4-3 and don’t need them. It was a shrewd move for a team that struggled on defense last year.
The Eagles also grabbed and all-time leading SEC receiver Jordan Matthews in the second round and the Ducks’ clutch WR Josh Huff in the third round, to help replace DeSean Jackson and Jason Avant, both released, — and two defensive backs: Stanford safety Ed Reynolds and Florida’s Jaylen Watkins (who plays both cornerback and safety). The haul ended with huge(6’2, 330) nose tackle Beau Allen of Wisconsin.
There were so many Ducks involved that the Eagles were forced to bring me in for a draft day interview on their telecast. But the favorite addition of Philadelphia fans and writers wasn’t drafted at all.
Vanderbilt kicker Carey Spear is statistically a mediocre kicker (as is incumbent Alex Henery, against whom he’ll compete in training camp). But he has two traits you’ve got to love: 1) his nickname is “Murderleg,” and 2) that name understates his savagery as a tackler.
Usually, a kicker tackling the returner is a sign of desperation, but for the Commodores, Spear was the enforcer. There are lots of great video clips; check out this one. Pretty awesome, huh? Here’s another (slamming Cordarrelle Patterson). And another. You get the idea. It’s a shame he kicks even shorter and wilder than Henery.
What is it with Chip Kelly and kickers? He is so methodical about getting great players but loses big games every year (from Stanford in 2012 to New Orleans in the playoffs this year) because he always has a weak kicker. It’s a peculiar blind spot, the one consistent flaw on his teams.
A hectic couple of weeks ended with a silly controversy. Draftee Allen told a reporter he met Chip Kelly (at his pre-draft interview) when the coach crashed a radio-controlled car into his leg. Uh, why was Chip playing with an RC car? ”They use it out on the field because they can’t do motions,” he told Tim McManus of Birds 24/7.
I wrote a column goofing on the idea and wondering what “they can’t do motions” meant. My colleague at Bleeding Green Nation, Brandon Lee Gowton, figured this was a way around restrictions on the earliest Phase 1 practices, which are supposed to be for conditioning only. That sounded reasonable, so I proposed the theory in print.
A lot of websites picked up the notion, from Yahoo Sports and Bleacher Report to the official websites of the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL itself. But some wondered if this was a violation of league restrictions, and hotheads on Reddit started talking about NFL penalties on Chip and the Birds. It was all ridiculous — it’s a toy car for heaven’s sake — and when I dug into it further, it turned out that the car wasn’t used until Phase 2, when all was OK. Still, it was a good excuse for some silly jokes and photos.
All of this, from criticism of draft picks that other teams didn’t see the value in, to squabbling over toy cars, just shows how off-kilter Chip is – trying things that other people don’t think of, or are afraid to try. It’s easy to make fun of him with tired jokes about personalized smoothies and sleep monitors, except that he keeps winning (and having fun with his team while he does it).
After a year in the NFL, Chip Kelly’s lifetime record as a head coach is 57-14. That’s not a bad start.
Feature photo from video, courtesy of PhiladelphiaEagles.com.
Mark Saltveit’s latest book, “Chip Kelly’s Total Pressure Football,” will be released by Diversion Books in August, 2014.