Chip Kelly Update: Training Camp Madness? Not Really

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After the long but quiet summer break, the Eagles opened training camp in humid 90-degree Philadelphia weather. News broke that they traded cornerback Brandon Boykin to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a fifth round pick. (If he plays 60% or more of the snaps this year, that changes to a fourth round pick.)

Boykin is an excellent nickel corner with long arms and great hops. He has been great value for the Eagles, playing on his rookie contract; the guy had six interceptions in 2013, but saw a major drop off last season.

Was it because his play dropped off, or because teams were scared to challenge him over the middle? Statistics can’t answer that question, but there is a third possibility to keep in mind: there was no need to challenge him because the Eagles outside corners were so terrible last year. Opponents just threw long against the outside corners for easy touchdowns, over and over, especially during the three-game losing streak toward the end of the season that eliminated them from playoff contention.

In any case, Boykins’ rookie contract expires at the end of this upcoming season, and he made it clear that he wouldn’t re-sign unless he was moved to outside cornerback, a position with more visibility and a higher average salary.

The problem is that he’s only 5’9″ at a time when teams are drafting big outside receivers. Receivers range from 5’11” to 6’5″, and Chip Kelly just doesn’t like starting out at a physical disadvantage like that of Boykin. It’s a tough situation with no easy solution; there’s a whole chapter (“The Boy King Dilemma”) about it in my new book “Controlled Chaos.” As great as Boykin is, it’s hard to imagine him successfully defending receivers such as the Dallas CowboysDez Bryant (6’2″ and pretty good at jumping himself).

15,000 - 20,000 fans attended open practice on August 4th

Mark Saltveit

15,000 – 20,000 fans attended open practice on August 4th.

So the Eagles traded Boykin for a mid-round pick. They lost one year of a great player, but he was going to walk away at the end of the season and the Birds would have received nothing in return.

After all of Chip Kelly‘s hyperactive horse-trading, this is a very different team that lost its best quarterback, wide receiver and running back, as well as both starting guards and a lot of crappy defensive backs.

They were replaced by a strong corps of WRs and RBs, a high-risk, high-ceiling quarterback in Sam Bradford and several “he might work” guards — placeholders until the team can find long-term solutions.

The team also added six DBs. Expensive free agent Byron Maxwell looks solid, and returning safety Malcolm Jenkins is a perfect system fit. The rest are ”he might work” types, except these are mostly young players who could blossom into multi-year starters. Ballhawk JaCorey Shepherd is already penciled in to replace Boykin at nickel CB, and injury-prone former Oregon CB Walter Thurmond is moving to safety (for the first time ever) to fill the hole there. The second CB position is a battle between veteran Nolan Carroll and rookie Eric Rowe (out of Utah).

Right now, there are six starting positions with unproven players — the second safety, outside and nickel cornerback, both guards and QB. Bradford is still recovering from his second ACL tear in two years, yet his performance so far in training camp demonstrates why Kelly traded for him. He gets the ball out quickly, places it beautifully all over the field, and is mobile.

Critics cite the risk of reinjury (10-12% according to an outside expert the team brought in), but I’m more concerned about his psychology after two season-ending injuries. Will he be able to stand tall in the pocket facing the NFL’s brutal pass rushers? Nick Foles seemed to lose his nerve last year over the summer without any triggering incident at all.

Chip Kelly's press conference on Tuesday

Mark Saltveit

Chip Kelly’s press conference on Tuesday.

Beyond those question marks, the team is rock solid, especially across the defensive front. Kiko Alonso was a great addition at inside linebacker; his playmaking and pass coverage ability should cure the team’s severe weakness on 3rd-and-long over the last two years.

The front line was already great and young, ranking second in the league in sacks last year, and Alonso’s addition turned the last remaining weak spot into a strength. Even if the secondary turns out to be average, this should be a very stingy defense. Add another year to build and it could be a famously tough unit.

With all the new pieces, this team may take some time to gel, and problems with Bradford could make this a very long season for offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.

This year, “offensive guru” Chip Kelly may have a team like the Seattle Seahawks, which doesn’t score a lot, but doesn’t really need to. With what many are calling the best trio of running backs in the league — Demarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles — and former Duck Josh Huff looking great in training camp, a rusty Bradford, Mark Sanchez or even Tim Tebow may be able to score enough points to win.

Featured photo by Mark Saltveit

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Mark Saltveit

Mark Saltveit

Mark Saltveit's newest book is "Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly's Football Revolution" (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of "The Tao of Chip Kelly" (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.

  • Trist Vanquish

    I’m just worried about the O-Line. Bradford can be as healed up as he wants to be but if opposing defences start beating on him I imagine that triggering incident of Foles’ might just happen to Bradford.

    • Mark Saltveit

      It’s a good point. Then again, guard is the easiest position to replace. Todd Herremans just wasn’t that good in 2014, even before his injury, though he was great for many years. And Evan Mathis is pretty clearly overvalued by ProFootballFocus, since no team has signed him and potential suitors (Miami, NYJ) are saying straight out that he’s asking for too much money.

      It’s really a shame, I think Evan Mathis got greedy and outsmarted himself, perhaps believing his PFF ratings too much. He was perfect for the Eagles’ system, playing LG in a zone scheme, despite the fact that he was the oldest starting guard in the NFL. But the Jets need a RG for example, and for power blocking schemes he’s a bit small. I imagine he really regrets not signing that $1 million/year raise the Eagles offered him, to $7.5million. He’ll be lucky to get half that much as it turns out.

      The fact that no one is leaping sign Mathis is also a sign that it might not be that hard to replace him.

      • Trist Vanquish

        I think his slimy fish of a player rep talked him into it. He absolutely stepped in it. Just hope we keep Sam upright. Maybe they can scout the teams that are beating QB’s up strong pass defence and blitzing teams and let Tim take the lumps running the read option with Sproles, Matthews and Murray.

  • hokieduck

    As usual, you rock, Mark. Thank you so much for these Eagle insider pieces. I think Chip is set up for next season (if not this one). If Bradford can recover his OU form (and of course stay healthy), he will almost be the perfect fit for Chip’s game. He does not have the running chops that turn the zone reads into stilettos to the gut, but he is mobile enough to run this offense well.

    The O line and the secondary are still the unknowns, but I am pretty amazed at how much Chip got done with addition by subtraction and taking injury risks in free agency. Of course, it could all fall apart if these players go down, but it is well worth the risk IMO.

    Go Ducks. Go Eagles.

  • xmbk

    Good stuff, though I’ll bet you a month of Seattle rain that Kelly’s playcalling will never let the Eagles look like the Seahawks. Also think the upside on this young WR corps is going to be seen sooner rather than later.

    • Mark Saltveit

      You can have the month of Seattle rain whether that pans out or not. But I agree on the WR Corps. Unless Cooper is playing, there will always be a talented receiver open on every play — to go along with two great running backs.

  • Trist Vanquish

    Mark I’m curious to what you think. If Sam is able to go three scores up on an opponent would you think it was an option to bring in Tebow with a slow ground game to grind down the clock by possession? Not necessarily trying to run up the score but simply control the ball? He showed he could do that in the GB game he was in for 9 minutes and controlled the ball for over 6. On the last drive he took a knee on second down to run out the clock but they were moving the ball. If they did that it would expose Sam a lot less. He is the key to the post season.