The Eagles begin preseason play against Chicago tonight, and the results don’t matter one bit — for the standings. Chip Kelly told a press conference that the starters will probably only play 10-15 snaps, as long as they look reasonably competent. (If they go three and out more than once, they’ll have to stay in a bit longer.)
But these games are not unimportant. They’ll go a long way toward deciding which of the 90 players now on the roster make the final 53-man squad (46 game day players plus 7 on the practice squad.) Practice is fine and all, but in previous years, Kelly has mocked reporters impressed with how his teams performed “against air.” You can’t see how players are doing for real until you’re tackling to the ground.
Recent Oregon graduate Taylor Hart is one of those whose destiny will be decided by the preseason skirmishes. He continues to impress reporters in camp; most recently both Jeff McLane of the Inquirer and Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com were struck by his skill. Kempski wrote:
“Rookie fifth round pick Taylor Hart is beginning to generate a lot of buzz. On the occasions I’ve watched him, I can see why. At a minimum, he holds his ground in the run game. I’d be shocked if Hart doesn’t see legitimate action as early as Week 1.”
Josh Huff, on the other hand, has struggled lately, especially in comparison to overachieving WR Jordan Matthews, who was drafted one round ahead of him. Huff may have felt he could cruise into the NFL with the knowledge he gained playing for years under Kelly at Oregon; he has learned a lesson about the complexity and talent level of the pro game. Then again, as Kempski notes, Huff’s game is physicality, which he can’t demonstrate in practices with limited contact.
One player who does not need to battle to make the roster is 2-year veteran Brandon Boykin, a stud for Kelly’s Eagles last year. Even though he was stuck in the slot cornerback position — limited to the nickel package due to his 5’9″ height, and consequently playing barely half of the defensive snaps — “the Boy King” was one of the best playmakers in the NFL. His 6 interceptions were tied for second in the entire league — only superstar (and full time corner) Richard Sherman had more (8). Boykin also had a slew of pass breakups to boot.
For the last year, reporters have been talking about the difficulty that Boykin presents to Philadelphia. On the one hand, he is a proven playmaker and a big part of the improvement in this team’s turnover ratio. Every head coach promises to do better on turnovers, but Coach Kelly has delivered on that promise both at Oregon and in Philadelphia, and Boykin is a big reason.
At the same time, the Boy King has bigger ambitions, and the Eagles don’t want to fulfill them. He wants to be a starting outside corner — with all the extra money and glory that position brings — rather than a slot CB, and that’s understandable. But Kelly sees NFL receivers and corners getting bigger and more physical all the time, and he is furthering that trend by releasing DeSean Jackson — who is Boykin’s size — and replacing him with Matthews (6’3″, 212) and Huff (a very physical 6’0″ and 205).
Chip loves having Boykin in the slot but wants taller outside corners to deal with the Dez Bryants and Calvin Johnsons of the world. Philadelphia’s beat reporters are constantly speculating that Boykin won’t accept that, hinting strongly that he would leave Philadelphia when his rookie contract expires in two years. They hint so consistently that you have to suspect that Boykin (or perhaps his agent) is telling this to reporters “off the record” — in other words, the reporters get the information but aren’t allowed to say who told them.
This dilemma is getting worse, not better. Last year, a big factor in the Birds’ playoff loss to New Orleans was a bit of Kelly’s own strategy turned back at him. The Saints’ used a spread concept, playing 3 wide receivers and forcing the Eagles into their nickel defense — only to run the ball against the Birds’ smaller, pass-defensing sub-package. This was how they ground out the final drive that iced the game.
Defensive Coordinator Billy Davis told reporters that with Malcolm Jenkins at safety now, instead of Patrick Chung or Roc Carmichael, the team is versatile enough to stay in its base defense in these situations. Unlike the woeful Chung, Jenkins can cover a WR as well as stuff a runner, letting the team keep a bigger linebacker in to stop the run. Unless the defense is reconfigured, that will leave Boykin on the bench for even more snaps, despite his talent — thus the dilemma.
So what are the options? The Eagles could try to groom Boykin for the outside corner position, bucking the trend of bigger receivers and corners, but it’s clear Chip doesn’t want to go that way, given Seattle’s success with big DBs. They could simply pay him outside corner money to play slot CB, which — given the importance they assign to the role, and the team’s careful money management — might be worth it. Or they could actually try to trade him, even though he’s one of their best players. For one thing, the team has upgraded their secondary with CB Nolan Carroll, safety Jenkins and draft pick Jaylen Watkins, who plays both positions.
It seems criminal to give up a player of the Boy King’s talent, but with his talent and two years left on his rookie contract, he has high trade value. If you can get a high draft pick and avoid compromising on your ideal player size, it might be worth it.
The smartest move might be to match up situationally. Against a team that does NOT have two big, tall wide receivers, let Boykin move outside, even in base. When facing a team that does not have a great front line, stick with the current nickel, perhaps putting in rookie linemen Beau Allen or Hart up front for added beef. But against a New Orleans or Detroit, teams with big passing threats and a strong run game, Boykin might need to sit more, while the team replaces ILB Demeco Ryans — a great leader and run stuffer but who is becoming a coverage liability as he ages. The Eagles are slowly developing some younger LBs such as Najee Goode and Travis Long, who might be a better option.
The important thing is, the long wait is over. The Birds play their first game of this season at Soldier Field tonight and the pace of the season will only will accelerate until January. That’s when the real test of this squad will begin. Making the playoffs is no longer good enough. Most pundits have placed the Eagles in the Top 10 of the NFL, and CBS’ Cris Collinsworth has them pegged for the Super Bowl. Anything short of the Divisional Round will be a disappointment.
Lead photo: Boykin ending the Cowboys’ season (from video, NFL Game Rewind)
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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