Jim Schwartz aims to keep Eagles' DE rotation more balanced in 2017

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Jim Schwartz aims to keep Eagles' DE rotation more balanced in 2017

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is a big baseball fan. It's why he often uses baseball analogies — pass-rushers as fastballs, players working on pitches, etc. — when trying to make a point. 

On Tuesday, as the Eagles prepare for the 2017 opener, Schwartz was taken a little out of his comfort zone. The press conference went from the baseball diamond to the ice rink when he was asked if he viewed his top four defensive ends as two lines. 

"Oh, now we're going to hockey?" Schwartz said. "I don't have as much hockey. You had the Skipjacks, EHL. We used to go just to just drink beer and watch the fights. I think that's all anybody goes to the EHL for." 

The Skipjacks (now the Springfield Thunderbirds) were the Baltimore Skipjacks from 1982-1993, so it makes sense that a Maryland native like Schwartz spent some time watching them play. But the Skipjacks actually played in the ACHL and then the AHL, never the EHL. Forgive Schwartz, though, he's not much of a hockey guy and there was apparently beer involved. 

Anyway, he at least saw a lesson to apply from hockey to his current defensive end situation. 

"I think there is some shift change in there," Schwartz said. "Hockey is that sport. Nobody can play ... Wayne Gretzky couldn't be out there every single time. It's just impossible to play that way. So they do have to shift. And you do need to rely on other guys."

The Eagles used a rotation at defensive end last season, but it was a little lopsided. Starters Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin played 75 and 70 percent of the Eagles' defensive snaps, respectively, while Vinny Curry played just 42.6 percent. And Marcus Smith, the fourth DE, played just 21.4 percent. 

With Chris Long and Derek Barnett backing up the two starters (Graham and Curry) this season, though, it's possible the rotation will be more balanced in 2017. At least that's what Schwartz says he wants. 

"I would hope so," Schwartz said. "Over the course of my career, whether it was in Tennessee or Detroit, we've always been a rotational group. And I think we've always been at our best when we've been close to 50-50. Keep guys fresh and I know you guys get tired of it but keep throwing fastballs out of the bullpen. But that being said, over the course of the season, you also have to reward production. 

"Here's the way I sort of approach it: Particularly early in the season, rotation can help you get to later in the season. And hopefully, where we are late in the season is meaningful games in December and January and maybe even February. And there's a lot of different layers to rotation. One of those is that it can keep guys durable and keep guys available for a long period of time."

The way Schwartz looks at it is by position. So when looking at the left defensive end position, he's found throughout his career that two players rotating and staying fresh — as long as there's not a major drop-off — will have more production than one. 

Keeping Barnett fresh during his rookie season is a goal too, Schwartz said. But the Eagles aren't going to limit him just because he's a rookie. They're not worried about him, especially after Barnett faced off against Jason Peters and Lane Johnson consistently throughout training camp. 

"I don't worry about his confidence," Schwartz said. "I mean, he's a first-round draft pick. When you get up on that stage and hold a No. 1 jersey, if you're lacking for confidence, you're probably the wrong guy."

While there's been some clamoring from the fanbase for Barnett to start, Graham and Curry are still the first-team ends. And on Tuesday, Schwartz praised Curry, who had a down season in 2016 after signing a $46 million extension. Schwartz said Curry had an "outstanding" training camp and wasn't on the ground nearly as much, which was a problem for him last season. 

With Curry, Graham, Barnett and Long, the Eagles might have four starting caliber defensive ends. But Schwartz made sure he didn't omit the fifth guy. 

"You mentioned four defensive ends," he said. "I'll take that further with five. I think Steven Means is a quality player, whether he's active or not on a weekly basis. I know this much, he'll be ready for when his opportunity comes. Maybe it'll be because of an injury, maybe it'll be because somebody isn't producing as much as they should, but I think Steven Means is also a quality guy. I like a five-man up there."

Where Schwartz's rotation differs from hockey line changes is that it won't always be kept uniform. So it's not like when Graham and Curry come out of the game, Barnett and Long will always replace them together. That might happen sometimes in the middle of a series, but it's too hard to keep it that way. 

So the Eagles will play with a lot of different combinations and the rotation will likely evolve throughout the season. 

Because the fresher the Eagles stay, the more fastballs — or slapshots — will keep coming. 

Getting over gut-punch loss of Chris Maragos no easy task for Eagles

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Getting over gut-punch loss of Chris Maragos no easy task for Eagles

It was late last Thursday night in Charlotte, well after the celebrating in the locker room subsided and well after most of his teammates had already gotten on the bus to take them to the airport. 

Eagles special teams captain Chris Maragos, with a heavy brace on his right leg, emerged from the visitors' locker room and limped through the cement bowels of Bank of America Stadium. The pissed off look plastered on his face as he left the field after injuring his right knee in the fourth quarter had given way to a look of resignation. He knew. 

Maragos was officially placed on injured reserve on Thursday, which means the Eagles will have to continue what they hope will be a magical season without one of their unquestioned leaders. 

"It was rough, man," said fellow special teamer Najee Goode, who collided with Maragos on the play that injured him. "That's my dawg. Chris is a beast. He brings a lot of energy to special teams. But we're going to replace him. He's still going to be there, making sure we do what we need to do." 

If any team is prepared to get over the loss of a player like Maragos it might be these Eagles. They've already survived — thrived, really — after losing Darren Sproles, Ronald Darby, Rodney McLeod, Fletcher Cox, Jordan Hicks, Lane Johnson and Wendell Smallwood for varying lengths of time. 

But like when they lost Sproles for the season, the Eagles are going to miss more than just Maragos' on-field play. He's also the captain of Dave Fipp's excellent special teams group. Maragos, one of five captains on the team, said at the time he was voted a captain that it meant more to him than any other accomplishment in his career. 

And that's saying a lot. Maragos' story is pretty amazing. He was originally a wide receiver in college until then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema saw Maragos track down a DB after an interception and moved him to defense on the spot. Eventually, Maragos worked his way into the NFL as an undrafted free agent and eventually won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks before coming to Philly. 

Early in his time with the Birds, Maragos actually played a significant role on defense. But when the new coaching staff arrived, it was clear his role would be on special teams, so he threw himself back into it. And he's been incredible. 

Last November, Maragos signed a three-year, $6 million extension that goes through the 2019 season and was already off to a good start in 2017. He led the Eagles in special teams snaps with 126 (74 percent) and was tied for the team lead in special teams tackles with six. 

How the heck do you replace that? 

"I don't think you'll ever be able to fill Chris' role," tight end and special teamer Trey Burton said. "He plays such a big role on special teams. He was able to do so much, but we're going to have to do something. Everybody's going to have to step up."

Head coach Doug Pederson said it will be "tough" to replace Maragos, but the team will probably do it with a committee approach at first. That means more Corey Graham and Jaylen Watkins. Even recently signed draft pick Nate Gerry will have a role if he's active. 

Perhaps the bigger loss will be Maragos' leadership. He's one of just five players on the team who has won a Super Bowl, and he's always happy to answer any questions his teammates have — about football or life. 

In his absence, Goode said he and Burton will attempt to fulfill that leadership void as much as possible. 

"It's really tough," Burton said. "That's my best friend. Him not being here, being around as much. It's tough for him too because he's out of the loop on things and doesn't really know. He would love to be here and in meetings and stuff but he's not going to be able to."

While Maragos won't be around for a while, Burton expects him to visit more once he's healed more. And he'll certainly be watching. 

"Heart's heavy, but I lift my eyes," Maragos tweeted on Thursday. "I'll miss being out there with my brothers but I promise you this, I'll be back stronger!"

That's good news for 2018, but the Eagles will have to go the rest of the season without him. Maragos apparently had a message for his teammates. 

"He knows injuries happen," Goode said. "We play full speed and that's something that comes with the game. His whole thing — Chris is a great team dude — was that we keep propelling and keep getting better for the future." 

Eagles Injury Report: Ronald Darby practices again, but Mychal Kendricks limited

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Eagles Injury Report: Ronald Darby practices again, but Mychal Kendricks limited

Updated: 3:16 p.m.

Ronald Darby is practicing for the second straight day. 

The Eagles' cornerback, who missed the last five games with a right ankle dislocation he suffered in the opener, was back on the field on Friday afternoon after being a limited participant in (and a focus of) Thursday's practice. He was again a limited participant on Friday. 

During the portion of practice open to reporters, Darby went through warmups and individual drills. He also spent some 1-on-1 time working on technique with defensive backs coach Cory Undlin. Darby was listed as a limited participant on Friday afternoon on the official report. Earlier in the week, head coach Doug Pederson said the "stars have to align" for Darby to play on Monday night. 

In addition to Darby, it looked like every other member of the Eagles' 53-man roster was on the practice field Friday. While the Eagles have dealt with plenty of injuries this season, they seem pretty healthy heading into Monday's game against Washington. 

The only new addition to the report is linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who was a limited participant with a hamstring injury.

Jordan Hicks (calf) was the only other limited participant. He was also limited Thursday.

Beau Allen (foot) and Tim Jernigan (ankle) were both full participants after being limited Thursday. 

The other full participants listed on Friday's update: Fletcher Cox (calf), Brandon Graham (shoulder), Lane Johnson (concussion), Wendell Smallwood (knee) and Destiny Vaeao (wrist). 

Pederson said on Thursday that the plan for Smallwood was to start him off slow this week and ramp it up, so it was a little bit of a surprise that he was a full participant to begin the week. The Eagles will throw him back into the mix immediately on Monday. Expect him to be their third-down back.