Eagles

With revamped secondary, Eagles confident new unit will be an upgrade

With revamped secondary, Eagles confident new unit will be an upgrade

You know when you're playing Scrabble and you have lousy letters so you just trade them all in?

That's pretty much what the Eagles have done with their secondary.

Nolan Carroll, gone. Leodis McKelvin, gone. Ron Brooks, gone. C.J. Smith, Terrence Brooks and Aaron Grymes? All gone.

The Eagles reshaped their secondary this offseason — and even more during training camp — jettisoning six defensive backs that started 33 games and played more than 1,700 snaps last year and replacing them with a draft pick, a free agent and three guys who weren't even with the team when training camp began.

Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, one of the NFL's better safety combos, both return, but the eight other defensive backs currently on the roster have started a total of eight games combined in an Eagles uniform.

It's a new group, but the Eagles believe it's a talented group, a fast group and an upgraded group.

We'll get our first glimpse of this reconfigured secondary when the Eagles open the 2017 season against the Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field (see five matchups to watch).

“I hope there’s no growing pains and if there are growing pains, I hope they’re little ones," said cornerback Ronald Darby, one of three defensive backs Howie Roseman acquired during training camp.

"But we can’t think about that. We have to go into the game playing fast and if we make a mistake, make it full-speed.

"We have no choice but to make it come together fast. We don't have time on our side, so you have to take the extra time and really stress the little things as well as the big things to make sure you’re on track with everyone else."

Darby and Jalen Mills will start at corner, with another newcomer, Patrick Robinson, the primary slot. Rookie Rasul Douglas is also in the mix at cornerback, as is Dexter McDougle, who joined the Eagles less than two weeks ago. Another rookie, second-round pick Sidney Jones, is currently out with an Achilles injury.

The overhaul was certainly necessary. The Eagles allowed 27 pass plays of 30 yards or more last season, second-most in the league (the Raiders allowed 28).

The Eagles have allowed 25 or more touchdown passes in eight straight seasons, the only team in NFL history to do that.

“I think we’ve got a lot of eager guys, a lot of guys who are very hungry to play in this defense and get on the field, and it shows at practice," Mills said.

"The new guys are active in meetings, asking questions if they don’t know something or certain adjustments, if not asking the coaches, asking the players. So I think those guys are adjusting really well." 

It's easy to assume that when you have this many new pieces, it's going to take some time for the whole thing to come together.

But the Eagles don't have a lot of time. So guys like Corey Graham, McDougle and Darby — who all began training camp elsewhere — had to do plenty of extra work just to catch up and be ready for Sunday.

“It's just guys putting in the time and the effort," said Graham, now in his 11th NFL season. "These guys know defense, you just have to learn the terminology, so for us, it’s tough but you see all the young guys asking a lot of questions, staying later, doing what they need to do, and those are things that help you as a defense play all as one."

Only two of the 10 defensive backs on the roster are Eagles draft picks. Mills was a seventh-round pick last year and Jaylen Watkins a fourth-round pick in 2014 (but was with the Bills in part of 2015).

It's an intriguing group, and not including Chris Maragos — who is essentially a special teamer — only Jenkins has been here since opening day 2015.

“We have a lot of competition," Watkins said. "We have a lot of young guys, but they’re really competitive trying to make their mark on this league, and then our older guys are our hardest-working guys, and the young guys follow them."

The Eagles haven't had an elite pass defense since 2008, when they ranked third in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Not coincidentally, that was their last year with Brian Dawkins on the field and Jim Johnson in the coaching booth.

In the eight years since, the Eagles have allowed 234 touchdown passes — the most any team has ever allowed in an eight-year span.

This group believes those days are over.

“I like where we are,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “Obviously, the proof is in the pudding over the course of the season. …

"There's a lot of different ways we can play. We'll probably have six different personnel packages that we can play in this game, which is a little bit more than we carried last year. And I think a lot of it has to do with some of the flexibility the guys have in the secondary.”

Graham said Jenkins, a Pro Bowl safety two years ago, is the key to the defensive back room because he's so well respected by everybody around him.

"When you have a guy like Malcolm Jenkins in your room, who’s a serious, get-my-job-done kind of guy, then the young guys buy in," Graham said. "If he’s out there joking and playing all the time, then that’s what they’re going to do. It’s all just falling in line with what your leader is doing.”
 
So how does such a new group come together almost overnight?

Think about it: The Eagles signed Robinson on March 28, they drafted Jones and Douglas on April 28, they signed Graham on Aug. 3, they acquired Darby in the Jordan Matthews deal Aug. 11 and they acquired McDougle on Aug. 27.

That's six guys who weren't Eagles six months ago.

"Just guys paying attention to detail, taking it serious, wanting to be great," McLeod said. "I think all of us got something to prove, whether it's Darby being traded over here and being the new guy, whether it's Corey Graham getting a second chance, myself just kind of being underrated, Jenk, maybe he wants to be higher in the (player) rankings. 

"Everybody's been working, holding each other accountable. It's going to be good this year. We have a lot of diversity in the group, a lot of guys who are very interchangeable and it's allowing us to do a lot more with this defense.

"I feel like everybody has something to prove and we all set out for one common goal and that's to win and get to the playoffs and Super Bowl."

Nate Sudfeld has reasons to feel 'very confident' as Eagles' new backup QB

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Nate Sudfeld has reasons to feel 'very confident' as Eagles' new backup QB

Nate Sudfeld stood by his locker on Wednesday afternoon, early in his first week as the Eagles' backup quarterback, and claimed his game-day responsibilities won't change. He'll still be helping the starter to see coverages, go through plays and diagnose pressures. 

The only difference is he'll now wear a helmet and shoulder pads. 

Well, actually, there's one more difference. 

"I won't be dead tired when the game starts," Sudfeld said. 

During the first 14 weeks of the season, when Sudfeld was the Eagles' third-stringer, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo would put him through an intense 45-minute workout before each game. Sudfeld is grateful for those workouts, which helped him with throwing and footwork, but said DeFilippo "kills" him each week. 

Those workouts are over. Because come Sunday, thanks to Carson Wentz's torn left ACL, Sudfeld will be dressing for each game as the Eagles' backup quarterback behind Nick Foles. 

He's now just one play away from being the Eagles' starter. 

"I feel very confident," Sudfeld said. "I mean, I wasn't just sitting back, watching practice all year, just expecting to never play football. I was definitely getting ready in case something like this happened. It's my responsibility as a 3 to be ready to be a 2. One play away and then one more play away. So I definitely feel prepared being here however many weeks, 14 weeks, has really helped. But I've treated each week as if I was going to play. I feel very confident."

But the difference between Foles and Sudfeld is glaring. Foles has been a starting quarterback in the NFL before and even in Philadelphia (see story). He's been to a Pro Bowl. His experience has been lauded all week (see story).

Meanwhile, Sudfeld is 24. A sixth-round pick to Washington last season, he's never played in an NFL game. Heck, Sunday will be his first time dressing for an NFL game. He didn't even join the Eagles' active roster until early November, when the Birds signed him from the practice squad. And that was just to prevent the Colts from poaching him. 

Has the Eagles' faith in him as the backup validated his decision to stay? 

"I mean, I've always wanted to be here since I got here so I'm just very excited that they do think enough of me to give me the opportunity," Sudfeld said. "I'm looking forward to if my name does get called, being ready to go." 

Since joining the Eagles' active roster, he's been inactive every week. But the fact that they were willing to use a roster spot on him, knowing he would be inactive each week, speaks to the way the organization feels about him. 

Foles didn't hesitate during his press conference on Tuesday to include Sudfeld every time he mentioned the quarterback group. The two have grown extremely close during the last few months. 

"Nate's a tremendous player," Foles said. "I'm excited about his future. Really smart, works his butt off, he's got all the tools to be a great player in this league. He's been there. I'm always going to include Carson, me and Nate. That's just sort of how it's been every single day going to work. We're going to lean on that. I'm going to lean on Nate through this process and we have the kind of quarterback room where you can do that, so it's sort of awesome. He's a tremendous player and I'm excited about his future in this league."

While not much will change for Sudfeld on game day — unless of course something happens to Foles — his workload during the week is very different. With Foles now taking all of the first-team reps at practice, Sudfeld gets all the scout team reps. 

While he got a few scout team reps over the course of the last few months, most of his reps with the Eagles have been mental. Sudfeld has been in the building with Wentz and Foles every day to watch film at 6 a.m., the trio would prep for each team and go through everything together, but when they got onto the practice field, the top two guys got to play and Sudfeld became a spectator. 

Fans probably don't know much about Sudfeld. Until this week, there's a good chance most Eagles fans had never even heard of him. Well, Sudfeld was a sixth-round pick out of Indiana last year. He spent the entire 2016 season with Washington, but was cut on Sept. 2. The Eagles signed him to their practice squad the next day. 

What kind of quarterback is he? 

"It's hard to assess yourself," Sudfeld answered. "I'm very confident in my game and I think I can make all the throws. I think I can move if I have to. I think I know the game pretty well. I'm continuing to improve. I'm a work in progress, but excited what I know I can do."

Perhaps the thing Eagles fans might know best about Sudfeld is that he's tall, white and lanky, and folks would probably say he looked like Wentz if he didn't look exactly like Foles. He and Foles look so much alike that their teammates razz them for it and fans confuse the two (see story).

Just last week in Los Angeles, fans got the two confused. Fans thought Sudfeld was Foles, even though the Real Nick Foles was walking in uniform right in front of him. 

When it was pointed out to Sudfeld that no matter how well Foles plays, he'll probably feel it too. 

"True," Sudfeld said. "Hopefully he keeps doing what I know he can do so people love me walking down the street."  

Eagles Film Review: Going back to same play with Nick Foles

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Eagles Film Review: Going back to same play with Nick Foles

Arguably the best and worst play in the Eagles' 43-35 win Sunday over the Rams came on the same call from Doug Pederson. 

The interception in the first quarter and the key 3rd-and-8 conversion late in the fourth were nearly identical. Carson Wentz was the quarterback for the first one, Nick Foles ran the second. 

Give credit to Pederson. The play clearly didn't work the first time, but he went back to it at a pivotal moment in the game. That's trusting the play and trusting the backup quarterback. 

Let's first take a look at that early interception: 

 

It's 3rd-and-5 from the Eagles' 30-yard line. Wentz is in shotgun with LeGarrette Blount flanking him. One tight end on the same side. Alshon Jeffery at the top of the screen, Torrey Smith at the bottom. Nelson Agholor (circled) is being given a cushion by Rams cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman. The aptly named cornerback is the Rams' slot corner in their nickel package. 


The running back and tight end stay in to block, which creates a lot of room in the middle of the field for Agholor vs. Roby-Coleman. Wentz is locked in. The Eagles need to get to the 35-yard line for a first down, so Agholor reaches the top of his route at the 39, before cutting back. 

You can see there's not much of a window here, but this is a back shoulder throw that has to be perfect. 

It's a tight window, and although Wentz hits Agholor in the hands, Roby-Coleman is able to get a paw in there to deflect it to Kayvon Webster, who broke toward the play. Webster picked off the ball on the deflection and the Rams took over in Eagles' territory and scored a few plays later. 

So the play didn't work the first time. Had the throw been absolutely perfect and if Agholor could have made a great catch, it would have. But this is a play that has to be perfect to work. 

The next time, it was. 

This probably looks pretty familiar. It's 3rd-and-8 from the Eagles' 23-yard line. With 1:52 left in a two-point game, they know if they pick up this first down, they can pretty much run down the clock and escape Los Angeles with a win. This is huge. 

Same play. This time, Foles is in shotgun with Blount next to him. The tight end on the same side; both will block again. Jeffery and Smith are the wideouts. But we'll focus on Agholor (circled). He's against Roby-Coleman again and has that cushion. 


Foles is locked on Agholor, just like Wentz was in the first quarter, but there's just not much separation. Really, there's no separation. Roby-Coleman plays this really well. 

Foles needs his pass to be absolutely perfect. He needs to put it in a spot where only Agholor can catch it. 

How's this for perfect? 

On this particular play, Foles actually threw a better pass than Wentz did in the first quarter. Now, Foles obviously isn't going to be Wentz, but this pass should at least give fans some confidence. 

And confidence isn't lacking. At an absolutely pivotal moment of the game, Pederson went back to a play that produced an interception the first time. And he went back to it with his backup quarterback who hasn't really played much all season. It was gutsy, it worked out and it shows the head coach's confidence in his new QB.

On Wednesday, Pederson pointed out Foles and Agholor were able to complete this pass after not working together all week or all season. All those reps have been going to Wentz. Now, Foles will get the chance to work with Agholor and the other starters the rest of the way.