The NFL off season is completely different than college football’s in one significant way: the NFL team gets to pick its players through the draft, the trade and free agency, and fans get to speculate endlessly over who they should or shouldn’t choose. For a college team, it’s more like being an old-fashioned high school girl at a dance, trying to look pretty and hoping the hot guy picks you.
So we argue over freakishly athletic, undersized players, ‘tweeners and the upside of raw Division III guys. Or who sucks and should be cut. None of our endless talk probably changes anything in real life, but neither does arguing about politics and that never seems to stop anybody.
The last two weeks have been ridiculously eventful for Philadelphia Eagles fans, between the NFL Combine and a chunk of re-signings that went down at the end of February. Chip Kelly isn’t saying much, but he’s in the thick of his first full off season and taking a crucial step forward in building his NFL team.
People in Philadelphia have certainly noticed that Chip has brought in a lot of ex-Ducks, from off-season “camp bodies” such as Isaac Remington to free agent safety Patrick Chung and bottom-of-the-roster survivors such as Jeff Maehl and Casey Matthews.
Results have been mixed. Matthews is unfairly despised by Eagles fans because previous coach Andy Reid (who drafted him) unwisely chose to start Casey his rookie year, and he just didn’t pan out. He is a valuable special teams player though, an area Chip emphasizes, and, for example, Matthews recovered a fumble in Game 2 against the Chargers.
No ambiguity with safety Patrick Chung: he was terrible last year and will be cut. Not only did he give up a lot of big plays in the backfield, he twice knocked other Eagle DBs off of receivers. Larry Fitzgerald of Arizona scored an easy touchdown on 3rd-and-20 after Chung tackled the Eagles’ young star CB Brandon Boykin off of him.
At the Combine, attention was focused on Colt Lyerla, the very athletic — and very troubled — ex-Duck tight end. I see other Ducks who would help the Eagles a lot more, including Josh Huff, who would fit in nicely as a slot receiver, and DeAnthony Thomas, who could reprise his TAZR role for Chip. DAT’s combine scores were not strong, but Chip knows exactly what he can do, and that poor showing should make him a better bargain for the Birds.
Some people are in love with Lyerla’s potential. I’m not one of them, as I expressed in a recent, controversial column (390 comments so far). I’m done with this guy.
Bottom line: he never really produced at Oregon (43 total yards his final year in college?), and then he walked away from the team for no good reason. His output has actually declined steadily since his junior year in high school (which was spectacular — 39 touchdowns, 1,500 yards rushing and another 850 receiving).
But since then, he’s been coasting on his size and talent, and that’s not going to fly in the NFL. 6-foot-4 is not big for a pro tight end — he would only be the third biggest TE on the Eagles, after starters Brent Celek and Zach Ertz. As I wrote in that column, there were 22 tight ends at the Combine, and Lyerla was only bigger than six of them.
At the next level, he’s a fast, slightly undersized TE who can jump well — but has horrible work habits and attitude, and more red flags than the old Soviet Union. People act like players are fixed and mechanical tools, drill bits you can pop into your Makita and put away when you don’t need them, so there’s “no risk” in trying a messed up guy if you can get him as an UDFA.
I disagree. Teams are more dynamic and alive than that, like a motorcycle gang that rides together. You can’t wait for a guy to catch up, or worry that he won’t be around to watch your back.
These are very young guys, so constantly growing and maturing is part of the job description. They’re coming into their own amid very intense competition, which is what creates that team bond, and they all help each other develop — off field as well as on. If someone’s not keeping up, they don’t just fail alone; they’re not contributing their share of that mutual reinforcement, and the team suffers.
The Richie Incognito fiasco should have made that clear. It’s not just that he bragged about “breaking” a young player who had issues with depression. Incognito was the veteran and leader on that offensive line. Why the heck wasn’t he helping a young rookie get better?
The Eagles’ front line is the opposite of that dysfunctional Miami OL: an accomplished, close-knit group that performs well, teaches each other, and moves its blocking downfield at an astonishing rate. They have a rare chemistry, and the Eagles just recognized that by signing Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters and gifted young center Jason Kelce to multiyear extensions (Evan Mathis, Lane Johnson and Todd Herremans are already signed through 2016 at least).
Smart move. Chip has now built a rock solid core for the team, with strong offensive and defensive lines. These are hard-working guys with good attitudes, who love what Chip is doing for the team. On February 27th, right after the extensions were signed, half of these guys were in the Eagles’ weight room together working out. Drama might sell newspapers, but this kind of no-drama chemistry wins Super Bowls.
The next step is wide receivers. This is an interesting year, with one of the deepest classes of big, fast WRs to come out of college, ever. Star DeSean Jackson and underperforming slot receiver Jason Avant are signed up, but breakout star Riley Cooper and No. 2 WR Jeremy Maclin — who missed last year with an ACL tear — are free agents. [Ed. note: Cooper has since been resigned to a multi-year contract.]
Maclin is small and speedy — basically another DeSean Jackson who’s not quite as good. One knock on him is a lack of toughness after the catch; some call him “self-tackling.” Forgive the sacrilege, Duck fans, but I think OSU’s Brandin Cooks would do everything Maclin does, with much better toughness and yards after catch, plus he returns kicks which the Eagles also need (Maclin doesn’t).
It might be tough for the Eagles to get Cooks though, unless they splurge with their first round pick (No. 22 overall). After his excellent combine — including the fastest 40-yard dash — there’s not much chance he’ll be available at the end of Round 2. So unless Philadelphia trades back for two lesser picks, that might only be a daydream.
Riley Cooper, on the other hand, is a must for Philadelphia as I wrote recently. He’s not much to look at on paper — slow, tall, and not great at separation — but he and QB Nick Foles have chemistry for some unexplained reason, and you can’t throw that away when it falls into your lap.
Cooper is outstanding in the red zone — eight touchdowns last year — and consistently efficient. If you look at his 2013 numbers, Cooper will get his three to four receptions every single game, and usually on five, or seven, or even three targets. That’s exactly what you want from a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver.
His connection with Foles was clearest in the Detroit “Snow Bowl” game last year. The Eagles had nothing on offense through most of three quarters, until Nick decided to trust Riley. He basically just launched a 44-yard bomb into a raging blizzard, and somehow Cooper found it, coming out of the snowflakes like a plane landing in the fog. That play turned around the entire game; the Eagles were down 14-0 one moment, then scored 34 points in the last 20 minutes to win.
I like Mike Vick a lot, but Nick Foles has a special thing, especially with Cooper. Foles can throw it into an area where Cooper might appear, but isn’t yet, and somehow he does this while maintaining one of the lowest interception rates in NFL history. A fast WR can be stopped by a faster DB, but how do you stop a mystical WR?
In that Riley Cooper column, I compared this Eagles team to the 1989-1992 Portland Trailblazers. There’s something special about a group of unheralded, humble, hard-working players — Kersey, Porter, Drexler — coming into their own together on a team. The Blazers called that their “core” that they built around, and it grew into an intuitively-connected, spontaneous unit that was awesome and fun to watch.
Chip Kelly is building just such a core in Philadelphia — and I can’t wait to see how it develops.
Top Photo by George Pankewytch and katdaned
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.
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