Eagles

5 under-the-radar Eagles to watch in 2014

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5 under-the-radar Eagles to watch in 2014

You barely heard his name all season. You couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. You’re the biggest Eagles fan in the Delaware Valley and you still wouldn’t recognize him if he stood right in front of you, with a name tag on his chest pocket.

That was Eagles defensive tackle Cedric Thornton before this season, before he emerged as one of the NFL’s best run-stopping defensive linemen.

It could be someone else in 2014.

The Eagles will continue to build their roster through free agency and the draft this offseason, but they also have several in-house candidates who can emerge from obscurity to carve their niche on next year’s team.

The following is a breakdown of five guys on the current roster who either made little or no contributions in 2013 but should challenge for playing time next year. This is based on interviews with Eagles coaches, players and front office personnel from throughout the season.

Matt Tobin, OT/OG
In all likelihood, the Eagles will return all five starting offensive linemen who cleared the way for LeSean McCoy to lead the NFL in rushing, but Tobin developed nicely during his rookie season and could push Todd Herremans at right guard next camp. If you didn’t notice, Tobin leapfrogged second-year lineman Dennis Kelly on the depth chart and was active three times during the season. Tobin, an unsigned free agent out of Iowa, competed at tackle throughout training camp but started taking snaps at guard in practice during the season. He played guard at Iowa before moving to tackle, so he’s not unfamiliar with the position. The team likes Tobin’s athleticism and teammates say Jason Peters took a liking to the rookie, taking him under his wing and helping Tobin pick up some extra tricks of the trade. He just needs to add some lower body strength this offseason. (By the way, I’m frequently asked about offensive tackle Michael Bamiro and I’m frequently told he’s still a work in progress).

Travis Long, OLB
Long, an undrafted rookie from Washington State, spent the entire season on the practice squad, but teammates rave about his size and upside. They compare the 6-foot-4, 252-pound outside linebacker to Connor Barwin for his ability to play multiple roles in a 3-4 scheme and for his pass rush and hand techniques. Long had 9.5 sacks his senior year at Washington State, where he played defensive end/outside linebacker in the 3-4 front before his season ended early with a knee injury that caused him to go undrafted. With Trent Cole facing an uncertain future and Brandon Graham unlikely to return, Long should be competing for a backup spot in camp and could eventually carve his niche in the sub packages.

Joe Kruger, DE
Kruger, a seventh-round pick in 2013, spent the season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury that he suffered in the preseason. The team could have waived him with a settlement but liked his development at training camp and saw enough potential to place him on injured reserve. Kruger probably won’t unseat Fletcher Cox or Thornton but backup defensive end Clifton Geathers is headed for free agency. Either way, Kruger will compete for a roster spot at camp.

Emil Igwenagu, TE
The team faces a tough decision on No. 3 tight end James Casey this offseason. Casey is due $4 million next season, a steep price for a third-string tight end. With the quick development of Zach Ertz and Chip Kelly’s fondness for Brent Celek, the Eagles could cut Casey and move on with Igwenagu, whose skill set is similar to Casey’s. Igwenagu, in his second season, edged Clay Harbor for the No. 4 tight end job out of camp but didn’t stick around long. He spent six weeks on the 53-man roster before being released and re-signed to the practice squad. The Eagles liked Casey because he played fullback and H-back along with tight end, which are also the positions Igwenagu played in college at Massachusetts. (And you know Chip likes his New Englanders).

Keelan Johnson, S
There should be plenty of job competition at safety, especially with three -- Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson -- facing expiring contracts on March 8 and and Patrick Chung likely shown the door. The Eagles promoted Johnson from the practice squad Dec. 17 and played him in two games on special teams. He came over from Miami after the roster cutdown date and needed time to learn Kelly’s program and Billy Davis’ defense. Johnson was a playmaker at Arizona State and will get a better chance to showcase his skills at the OTAs and training camp.

Eagles-Cowboys predictions by our (cough) experts

Eagles-Cowboys predictions by our (cough) experts

The Birds are back.

And fresh off the bye week, they hop right into a doozy Sunday night against the divisional rival Cowboys at AT&T Stadium (8:30 p.m./NBC).

Will the Eagles (8-1) push their win streak to eight games? Or will the Cowboys (5-4) answer the bell at home and keep things interesting in the NFC East?

Here are our expert predictions for the Week 11 matchup:

Reuben Frank (9-0)
Eagles 38, Cowboys 11. Usually, I work my way up to the actual prediction and try to build up a tremendous level of anticipation with a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about matchups, trends, analytics and whatnot before getting around to the pick. 

But not this week. I’m not messing around here. The Eagles are going to crush this team. 

Here’s a stat I love: Since 2000, the Cowboys have lost 21 games by at least 22 points. Ten of them — almost half — have been against the Eagles. And five of their seven home losses since 2000 by 22 or more points have been at the hands of the Eagles. Don’t believe me?

2000 at Texas Stadium — Eagles 41, Cowboys 14
2001 at the Vet — Eagles 40, Cowboys 18
2001 at Texas Stadium — Eagles 36, Cowboys 3
2002 at the Vet — Eagles 44, Cowboys 13
2002 at Texas Stadium — Eagles 27, Cowboys 3
2003 at the Linc — Eagles 36, Cowboys 10
2004 at Texas Stadium — Eagles 49, Cowboys 21
2008 at the Linc — Eagles 44, Cowboys 6
2011 at the Linc — Eagles 34, Cowboys 7
2014 at AT&T Stadium — Eagles 33, Cowboys 10

Big Red used to crush the Cowboys, didn't he? Even soon-to-be-Florida head coach Chip Kelly had himself a rout of the Cowboys — it got the Eagles to 9-3 on Thanksgiving Day in 2014. 

So here’s the funny thing: I picked 38-11 and then decided to change my prediction to the averages of those 10 routs and it turned out to be … 38-11. That's fate. Eagles will return to Philly Monday morning 9-1 with an eight-game winning streak and a virtual lock on the NFC East. This one's going to be fun!

Eagles 38, Cowboys 11

Dave Zangaro (7-2)
No Sean Lee. No Ezekiel Elliott. And a banged-up Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith (at best). 

Even if all of them were completely healthy, I'd probably lean toward picking the Eagles. Without them? No-brainer. 

Now, maybe the Eagles come out of the bye week a little rusty. It could happen after a long layoff, especially after a flight to North Texas for the game. But the Eagles have proven time and time again that their focus just isn't an issue. There's no reason to expect that to be a problem Sunday night. 

And the Birds are getting healthy. Ronald Darby is back. As well as the Eagles' other corners fared while he was gone, there's a reason he's a starter. And they get back Zach Ertz, who just happens to be one of their most important offensive weapons. 

Games against division rivals are not normally easy, so maybe the Eagles don't blow them out. But I think this is a win. 

Eagles 27, Cowboys 20 

Derrick Gunn (8-1)
Now that their bye week is over, the Eagles are focused on wrapping up the NFC East. Dallas is licking its wounds after getting manhandled down in Atlanta. Elliott is serving his suspension. Lee is out with a hamstring injury, and the Pro Bowler Smith is ailing with a groin injury. 

It all sounds too easy for the Birds, but with Prescott on the other side, they’re not about to overlook this one. And they still remember what happened in Dallas last season.

Without Elliott and Smith, trying to establish a ground game against the Eagles’ top-ranked run defense will be near impossible. 

Dallas is 0-2 in games Lee hasn't played in this season. 

Carson Wentz will spread the wealth through the air, and now that Jay Ajayi has had extended time to get familiar with the offense, the Birds' running attack should be even more diversified. 

If the Eagles' defense can make the Cowboys' offense one-dimensional, it's game over.

Eagles 27, Cowboys 17

Ray Didinger (8-1)
The Otho Davis Scholarship Fund dinner was held this week, honoring the late Eagles trainer and awarding scholarships to students pursuing careers in sports medicine. The room was full of former Eagles players and Philadelphia fans and, of course, there was a lot of conversation about Sunday's big game against Dallas.

The confidence level was high. I heard a dozen variations on "This will be a blowout." The thinking goes something like this: No Elliott, no chance for the Cowboys. Their pitiful performance in last week's loss to Atlanta was all the evidence the Eagles fans needed. And, yes, if that same Cowboys team shows up Sunday night, the Eagles will be in fine shape.

But my guess is the Cowboys will play much better this week at home. I'm still not sure it will be enough because right now the Eagles are playing better than any team in the NFL. I'll take the Eagles, which will virtually wrap up the division title, but I don't think it will be as easy as some folks think.

Eagles 28, Cowboys 20

Andrew Kulp (8-1)
With all their injuries and suspensions, the Cowboys really don't look so hot. 

Arguably their three best players — Smith, Elliott and Lee — are all out. They won't be able to run the ball, they'll struggle to protect Prescott, and the defense will struggle to slow down Wentz and the Eagles' offense.

All the stuff about this being a division rival on the road or the possibility of the Eagles coming off their bye week flat are going to fade pretty quickly with one simple reality. The Cowboys are an inferior opponent right now. Maybe not 49ers bad, or even Broncos bad, but at this point, they could struggle to finish .500.

Eagles 38, Cowboys 23

Corey Seidman (6-3)
No Zeke, no Lee, maybe no Smith, banged-up Bryant … the Cowboys are oozing with "nobody believes in us" potential this Sunday night. And just when one team is so undermanned that all hope looks lost (see: Giants-Broncos earlier this season), things turn out in an unexpected way.

Still, I'm not taking the Cowboys in this game. If they had Zeke, I think I would. But Alfred Morris is in that Rob Kelley mold of plodding running back who tends to struggle against the Eagles, and that'll make the Cowboys' offense one-dimensional. With Bryant at less than 100 percent, I just don't see Dallas keeping the pace.

Eagles 34, Cowboys 17

Doug Pederson uses last season's losing streak to motivate Eagles

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Doug Pederson uses last season's losing streak to motivate Eagles

This time last year? The Eagles actually still had a winning record and were thinking playoffs.
 
Then disaster.
 
The Eagles were 5-4 going into Week 10 a year ago and proceeded to lose their next five games, the first three in blowout fashion.
 
It was the Eagles' longest losing streak since an eight-game streak in 2012, Andy Reid's last year, and third longest since a seven-game streak spanning 1998 and 1999.
 
More importantly, it was the team's longest losing streak that began with a winning record that late in a season since the notorious 1994 collapse in Rich Kotite's final season — a 7-2 start turned into a 7-9 finish.
 
A losing streak like that can either destroy a team's character or make it even stronger.
 
And Doug Pederson knew it could go either way.
 
"I look back at that, and I just kept reminding the team that you put in the hard work and the preparation, and you believe in each other, you believe in yourself, you trust the process, and that's not cliché," he said Friday.
 
"You have to trust what I'm talking about, what the coaches are talking about, and just stick together, and there's no pointing fingers. That's what they did. They hung together."
 
That losing streak began with a home loss to Seattle. Although the final score was 26-15, it was a 26-7 game until a Dorial Green-Beckham touchdown in the final minutes. (Really.)
 
After that came a 27-13 loss to the Packers at the Linc and then the low point, an embarrassing 32-14 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati, a game the Eagles trailed 29-0 late in the third quarter.
 
"That was sort of a defining moment at that point," Pederson said. "I guess we were as low as we were going to be as a team and organization coming out of that game. The guys responded well.
 
"(The) messaging was the same. We practiced the same after that. Lot of pride, too. Lot of pride in the coaches. Lot of pride in the players and this organization. …
 
"We needed to change it. We needed to fix it. Even though we didn't win a couple games after that, you saw steady improvement (and then) we figured out a way at the end of the season to win those two games and finish on a high note."
 
The Eagles rebounded to show some fight in close losses to the Redskins and Ravens, then closed out the season with wins over the Giants and the Cowboys. Granted, the Dallas win was over a bunch of scrubs, but after a five-game losing streak, any win was welcome.
 
Pederson said Friday that pushing through that five-game losing streak and coming out and staying together as a team was instrumental in this team's 8-1 start going into Sunday night in Dallas.
 
"I think it directly affects the team this season," he said. "Things happen for a reason, and you learn from them, especially in this business. And really, in life in general. Things happen, and you learn from them. You make the necessary corrections and you move on.
 
"You don't dwell in the past, but you remember, and you reflect from time to time. So I think it's a direct correlation to where the team is today, learning how to finish games and learning how to play together and understanding that they are a good football team."
 
The Eagles are atop every NFL poll these days. They have the NFL's best record and share the longest winning streak with the Saints, and Pederson said it's not always easy for the players to ignore all the praise being lavished on them.
 
"Well, it is hard because the team, rightfully so, is being praised in a lot of areas and they're well deserved of the credit and the praise," he said.
 
"But at the same time, we understand that we can't look past this week. We can't look past this game. It's a division game on the road, national spotlight again. It's two teams that are undefeated in the NFC East. I'd like to say that every game is important, but none more important than the one we're faced with Sunday night."
 
Sunday night starts a very difficult stretch, with four of the next five games on the road and three of those road games against teams with winning records.
 
A year ago, the Eagles were 1-7 on the road, finishing with seven straight losses.
 
This year, they go into AT&T Stadium Sunday 3-1 away from Philly.
 
"Four out of the next five weeks we're traveling, it's kind of like the start of the season," Pederson said.
 
"This is sort of a tough stretch, but at the same time, it's one that we welcome. If we want to separate and become a good football team and a consistent winner in this league, these are the stretches that you have to go through and find ways to win games."