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Position Breakdowns: How the Eagles stack up against the Panthers

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Position Breakdowns: How the Eagles stack up against the Panthers

The Eagles and Panthers enter their Thursday night showdown with 4-1 records, though it won't quite be like looking in a mirror when they take the field. Though there are some similarities, these two teams are constructed a bit differently -- or at least, have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

Actually, they are kind of the same when you think about it. Big, mobile quarterbacks surrounded by big playmakers at receiver and tight end, a power running game and quality offensive line. Stout defenses up front with questions in the back end. Coaching staffs that are doing some of their best work in the early portion of this season.

Yet, for all their comparisons, the breakdown gives one side or the other a fairly obvious edge at almost every position. Similar makeup, but different strengths and weaknesses. What will it mean when the Eagles and Panthers take the field?

QUARTERBACKS

Carson Wentz appears to be blossoming into the NFL's next elite quarterback, which is great news for the future of the Eagles franchise. Still, Wentz has a ways to go to reach Cam Newton's level. After a shaky start to the season coming off of shoulder surgery, Newton has been red hot the last two weeks, completing 77.4 percent of his passes for 10.8 yards per attempt with six touchdowns and one interception, and running for 44 yards and a score in back-to-back wins. He's only one season removed from earning the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award and leading the Panthers to a Super Bowl. Wentz is on the right track, but he's not quite there yet.

Edge: Panthers

RUNNING BACKS

At this stage of their respective careers, LeGarrette Blount and Jonathan Stewart are very similar backs. They're big, bruising runners, and if either one gets into the open field, look out. Both are their 30s and don't pose much of a threat as receivers, though that's an area the Panthers may own an advantage. Eighth-overall draft pick Christian McCaffrey has proven an immediate weapon in the passing attack, with a team-leading 27 receptions for 237 yards and 1 touchdown. McCaffrey is their Darren Sproles. Unfortunately for the Eagles, Sproles is out for the year.

Edge: Panthers

WIDE RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS

There will be no shortage of massive targets on the field on Thursday night. Zach Ertz (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) is tied for third in the NFL with 32 receptions and seventh with 387 yards -- as a tight end -- and Alshon Jeffery (6-3, 218) is quietly having a nice year for the Eagles with 20 receptions for 246 yards. The Panthers feature Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 245) and Devin Funchess (6-4, 225), who have a combined 41 receptions, 541 yards and 4 touchdowns, although lack much depth behind their top two receivers. Prolific tight end Greg Olsen is on injured reserve, which is a huge blow. With Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor emerging as weapons for the Eagles, the decision is easy.

Edge: Eagles

OFFENSIVE LINES

Even if five-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil wasn't out with a neck injury for the Panthers, it would be difficult to give them the nod. The Eagles offensive line has simply looked like one of if not the very best unit in the league the last few weeks. Sure, Halapoulivaati Vaitai replaces Lane Johnson (concussion) at right tackle. Vaitai is also experienced, and the line didn't miss a beat last week when he entered the game. Even acknowledging both sides will be without a key member, the Eagles have done a superior job. Look no further than the rushing stats, where the Birds rank fifth in the NFL, and the Panthers are 19th.

Edge: Eagles

DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVENS

This is going to be difficult to evaluate, as Fletcher Cox is a game-time decision for the Eagles with a calf injury. Cox is one of the most disruptive players in the league, but has missed the last two games. The defensive line has held up fine without him, but has also benefited from going against some bad O-lines. Meanwhile, Carolina's front four sports three players with at least 3.0 sacks -- Mario Addison, Kawann Short and Julius Peppers -- compared to only Brandon Graham for the Eagles. Even if the clubs are even in the trenches, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis split six Pro Bowl selections between them, not to mention a Defensive Player of the Year award.

Edge: Panthers

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The Eagles have been pleasantly surprised by what they're getting out of Patrick Robinson. Robinson can play the nickel or move outside, and currently grades as one of the best cornerbacks in the league, while Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas are doing fine. The Panthers are getting nice work from second-year corner James Bradberry, but the rest of the secondary is suspect, especially with Kur Coleman out (knee). The safeties are the difference. Even with Coleman, Carolina is susceptible to the deep ball. The Eagles have Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod patrolling that area of the field, which is a comforting feeling.

Edge: Eagles

SPECIAL TEAMS

There's no other way to say this: the Eagles special teams units have been incredible the past couple weeks. Field goals, punts, returns, coverage, you name it -- they have completed dominated the competition in every phase. On paper, they should do the same to Carolina as well.

Distinct edge: Eagles

COACHING

You have to hand it to Ron Rivera. The Panthers have been tough every year since they've been there, never winning fewer than six games in his first six season. They have four victories already, and are on pace for for their fourth playoff appearance in five years. There was some changeover on Rivera's staff with Doug McDermott leaving for Buffalo, but Mike Shula remains the offensive coordinator. Doug Pederson has been getting in a groove the last few weeks with the Eagles, but simply doesn't have the experience of Carolina's staff, while most probably wouldn't take defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz over Rivera in that role.

Slight edge: Panthers

OVERALL

Two evenly matched teams, both with some fairly distinct advantages in different areas. That makes it really tough to predict a winner. However, the Panthers may hold the upper hand in the two most important categories: quarterback and coaching. Wentz and Pederson may one day be on the level of Newton and Rivera -- that day may even come Thursday night. Right now, it's clear which is the more experienced, more decorated combination. If the Eagles are going to come out of Carolina with a win this week, Wentz will have to play to Newton's level, and Pederson must match Rivera and his staff call for call. That's going to be easier said than done.

Slight edge: Panthers

Mask-wearing pioneer Rip Hamilton has advice for Joel Embiid

Mask-wearing pioneer Rip Hamilton has advice for Joel Embiid

Detroit Pistons star Richard Hamilton wasn't the first player to wear a mask in the NBA but sometimes it feels like he was.

Newsweek caught up with Rip this week to talk about his mask-wearing days and to see if he had any words of wisdom for Joel Embiid. Hamilton first wore a mask for breaking his nose, but he continued to wear it for the remainder of his career.

Embiid made his first playoff appearance of his career last night in Miami while rocking a new mask complete with a custom visor to protect his eyes. It was clearly bothering him but he didn't let it dictate his play.

“It was difficult,” Embiid said of the mask. “But to me it wasn’t really about getting used to it because at the end of the day, no matter how much it bothers me, I’ve still got to be a basketball player."

Hamilton has famously said that he embraced the mask to the point of it becoming his "Batman cape" which allowed him to be more aggresive.

"Over a period of time I started to get used to it. As basketball players, a lot of times you go to the basket and it’s a lot of elbows being thrown, guys are getting poked in the eye," he told Newsweek this week. "You tend to clench up because you don’t want to get hit in the face. Once I started wearing that mask I wasn’t clenching up no more. I was willing to take contact more. I was able to get to the free throw line more because now I’m not scared of getting hit in the face. It kind of made me into a more aggressive and better basketball player."

Hamilton's message to Embiid prior to the series?

"Embrace it. Make it cool. Make it fun. Make it like a prop. Don’t get caught up in saying like, 'I got a piece of plastic on my face. I’m worrying about how I look, I’m worrying about my perception when I shoot.' When you’re out there in, like, shooting drills, don’t be so caught up in putting the mask on and trying to worry about how you shoot with it on. Put it on in the game and just wear it because our game is a non-thinking sport. React. You gotta read and react as quick as possible. The less thinking you do, the better you’ll be."

Rip also took notice of Embiid's frustration with the mask following the game. He encouraged Jo that it only gets easier.

I’ve thrown my mask off numerous times lil bro @joelembiid ...It will get more comfortable game by game ..Trust The Process. #MaskOnMaskOff#YouGotTheJuiceNow #Holdat #Yessir#Mask #TnT #nba #nbaplayoffs #sixers#sixersvsheat #LoveThisGame

Eagles players with the most to gain at OTAs — S Tre Sullivan

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Eagles players with the most to gain at OTAs — S Tre Sullivan

The Eagles don’t hit the practice field as a team for another five weeks, yet each year coaches point to players who distinguish themselves during the months of April and May. These are the players with the most to gain in phases one and two of OTAs.

There isn’t an unheralded prospect in better position to climb the Eagles’ depth chart this spring than Tre Sullivan.

Never mind the fact that vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas just got done lauding Sullivan’s performance in a pre-draft interview on Thursday. The 24-year-old also happens to be one of only four safeties on the Eagles roster for the time being, creating a huge opportunity for an undrafted free agent from Shepherd College.

Competition will come soon enough, as safety is an obvious target for the Eagles in the upcoming draft. Even then, Sullivan could find himself in the mix for a big role with a good spring.

Last season, Corey Graham was the Eagles’ third safety behind Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Graham, a free agent departure, wound up playing nearly 40 percent of the team’s snaps.

This isn’t merely a backup job. There’s serious playing time at stake – and Sullivan can get a jump on the competition.

Sullivan made a name for himself in last year’s preseason opener against the Packers with a vicious hit on wide receiver Malachi Dupre. It was a scary moment, as Dupre was knocked out by the collision, but also a clean play and an example of the defensive back’s physicality.

Sullivan forced a fumble on the hit and finished with four tackles. He would go on to acquit himself well in three other preseason games, eventually landing on the Eagles’ practice squad.

Listed at 6-foot-0, 200 pounds, Sullivan is a relatively average size for a safety, but plays downhill and hits like a truck.

The Eagles liked the instincts and aggressiveness they saw on the field. Now, Sullivan has a chance to work out and learn from coaches in an environment where there really aren’t any other young players right now and he can be the focus of a lot of attention. Phases one and two of OTAs and the two weeks before the draft in particular could be a pivotal period.

If Sullivan impresses during these early stages, it could go a long way toward solidifying his place with the team.

Even if Sullivan is bested for the third safety spot, he could still wind up on the 53-man roster. The Eagles may opt to carry five since Chris Maragos primarily plays on special teams.

Sullivan will likely enter training camp as a player who’s considered to be on the bubble, and what he does when the pads go on will be most important. However, if he showed up and really nailed these workouts, that could go a long way toward how the team views him heading into this summer.