Carson Wentz itching for contact, chemistry in preseason opener

Carson Wentz itching for contact, chemistry in preseason opener

Carson Wentz strolled to the podium Tuesday after Eagles practice with a cut hand and bloody towel. No big deal, but a reminder of the fragility that comes with playing football and limited Wentz to 24 preseason passing attempts a year ago. A fractured rib in his first game as an Eagle knocked him out for the rest of 2016’s exhibitions. 

A lot has happened in the year since. The Eagles traded Sam Bradford to Minnesota and promoted Wentz from third-string rookie to full-time starter. Come Thursday, when the Eagles take on the Packers in Green Bay for their first preseason game of 2017, the team will be cautious with its franchise quarterback. Wentz will start, head coach Doug Pederson said, but it would be a surprise if he played more than a series or two. 

It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of it all. For the first time in what feels like forever, Wentz will wear a jersey that is not red. He grew up as a fan of Brett Favre and will play at Lambeau Field, the stadium Favre roamed for years. He'll get a chance to try out his new toys on offense and possibly get knocked down to shake off the cobwebs. Then he’ll likely watch at least three quarters of Matt McGloin and Dane Evans running the offense.

“Obviously, he’s not going to play a ton in the preseason,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Monday. “It’s more about the consistency of practicing every day, where last year he missed so much time.

“But there is something to build on the chemistry with your guys in the huddle and having some success. You want to build that confidence.”

That chemistry is part of the preseason’s appeal. Wentz has new weapons in wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and running back LeGarrette Blount. But Jeffery hasn’t participated in team drills in a week because of a shoulder issue, and Blount missed three days last week because he had to tend to a personal issue. 

Thursday night will be everyone’s first chance to get acclimated to how the other operates on game day. Not to anyone’s surprise, Wentz said he’s excited.

“Just get out there with the new faces in the huddle,” Wentz said of what he plans to get out of the game. “Get used to these game situations. I think situational football is a big part of the NFL and being smart in those situations.”

And if the situation entails throwing the football, Wentz will face pass rushers who can actually hit him. That’s not the case even when the Eagles include live tackling during practice, which itself is rare. Wentz could get hit and that’s a good thing. Last year’s injury hasn’t affected his mindset.

“If you're scared to get hurt, you wouldn't play this game, ultimately,” Wentz said. “I think the live pass rush will be good to go out there and start feeling some things. In practice, you try to make it game-like, you try to react the way you would, but when you're live, things are a little different.”

The situation with Wentz’s protection could contribute to how often the Packers infiltrate his pocket. Starting right guard Brandon Brooks missed practice Tuesday with what Pederson called an ankle strain. Chance Warmack has filled in so far.

“The good thing about what we did this offseason was we got some depth up front,” Wentz said. “So whoever it is that'll step up on Thursday night, I know they'll be ready.”

Wentz sounds like he will be ready, too. He just won't have to be ready for much.

New Eagle Corey Graham practices at safety, but will he stay there?

New Eagle Corey Graham practices at safety, but will he stay there?

Corey Graham said he had the chance to sign with other teams. His agent talked to several suitors. His arrival in Philadelphia halfway through training camp wasn’t something that “came out of nowhere.”  

When the newest Eagle was asked why he chose to play here, he spoke without hesitation.

“[Eagles defensive coordinator] Jim Schwartz,” Graham said after his first Eagles practice Sunday at the Linc. “He allows you to really play fast. You don't gotta overthink things.”

Graham, who signed with the Eagles Thursday, started nine games at cornerback under Schwartz in Buffalo in 2014. He has played the position for most of his 10-year career. But he started every game for the Bills over the last two years at safety, and that’s where the Eagles will put him — for now. How long Graham remains there is not cemented.

His timing is not conventional for someone guaranteed a roster spot, which Graham is likely not. He said he didn’t want to sign earlier because his wife had a baby a month ago. Now, Graham finds himself as a safety competing in a secondary that has only two clear-cut starters in Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, both safeties. 

Graham dodged the ideas of whether he's walked into a competition or a promised job. But with the Eagles’ lack of depth at corner and his familiarity with Schwartz, you’d have to think he has a decent chance to stick around, especially if the team values experience over potential.

“It helps a lot,” Graham said of his history with Schwartz. “Obviously, I was in the system for a year. I know some of the terminology and that's the biggest thing. When it comes down to the techniques and the coverages and stuff like that, football is football.”

The 32-year-old veteran split time with Terrence Brooks as the safety opposite Jaylen Watkins for limited reps with the second unit during 11-on-11 Sunday. Like all defensive backs, though, he participated in 1-on-1s with wide receivers. Schwartz said before practice that he’ll probably give Graham some “guest appearances” at corner. 

“I played it for eight years in this league. I enjoy playing corner,” Graham said. “So it's not really a big deal to me. If you've done it, you can always play corner.

“If they ask me to play it, I'll play it.”

Graham will do just about anything. Most of his experience is at corner, and Schwartz called coverage one of Graham’s strong points. But he’s played nickel. He recorded 91 tackles two seasons ago. He made the 2011 Pro Bowl on a special teams bid and said he’s willing to still be on the punt and kickoff teams.

“When you start out on special teams, it's in your heart,” Graham said. “I'll always enjoy playing special teams. It's what got me in this league. It's what made me who I am today.” 

Schwartz touted the fact Graham is a “multi-dimensional player.” His presence could allow the defense to go with more three-safety packages, something used “out of necessity” last season. Schwartz would like to do so on his own terms this year.

“He's a reliable player,” Schwartz said. “He's smart, he makes quick adjustments.”

Schwartz stressed the reliable part. Graham missed the first three games of his 2007 rookie season in Chicago but has played in every game since —157 straight. 

He’ll get a much smaller window of four preseason games to show the Eagles what they can rely on.

LeGarrette Blount returns to Eagles practice with his role still unclear

LeGarrette Blount returns to Eagles practice with his role still unclear

After the Eagles’ light practice Friday, a crowd of players gathered in the locker room. A loud beat played through the sound system. Some attempted to freestyle rap, others gave a quick dance move after exiting the showers. Many laughed, including running back LeGarrette Blount.

From a football perspective, most of the moment was trivial. But not that last part. Blount missed three days of practice because of a personal issue but returned Friday. It’s hard to see someone perform well on the field if their mind isn’t right off it.

“Obviously, being away from the guys for a little bit, you miss them a little bit,” Blount said. “It felt good to be back out.”

Blount wouldn’t go into specifics but said his absence was family-related. He kept in touch with running backs coach Duce Staley and head coach Doug Pederson, as well as Darren Sproles and some of the other backs. Blount claimed to have worked out while he was away. He’ll be here for the remainder of camp, he said.

The question arose of whether the few days off, while certainly not ideal because of their cause, might have benefitted Blount. He will turn 31 in December and is coming off a season in which he rushed 299 times — 98 more than any other season since going undrafted out of Oregon in 2010.

“You want to be here,” he said. “You definitely want to be here when you're learning new plays.”

That question had an answer. But with Blount, there are plenty more that remain unanswered.

For starters, there’s his weight. The Eagles’ training camp media guide lists him at 250 pounds. Reports earlier this summer suggested his one-year contract includes a clause that would land him some extra cash if he showed up to camp between 240-245. Is that true? If so, did he meet the weight requirement?

“We’ll see,” Blount said. “... My contract is my contract, right?”

More importantly, much has been said about his role in the running back rotation. Coaches can claim to have plans, but the fact is that there are three backs on the team — Blount, Sproles and second-year player Wendell Smallwood — who figure to get touches. That doesn’t even include rookie running back Donnel Pumphrey, who set the NCAA FBS record for career rushing yards but will likely need some time to become a reliable option. Pumphrey could end up being a sort of Sproles Jr.

Blount, though, is coming off a season in which he led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns and tallied 1,161 yards on the ground. From that angle, it’s hard to say he hasn't earned the title of featured back. But at the same time, Blount has never been a receiving threat (46 career receptions) and is a short-yardage scorer. Only two of his 18 touchdowns last year came from more than 15 yards out. Eleven of them were from the one-yard line. 

“I'm still not 100 percent sure,” Blount said regarding what the offense will ask of him. “We gotta get into the games. ... I think it'll go based on game plans, so you never know.

“I'm excited about having them open a lot of doors that haven't been opened. They're open to a lot of things. They're not just putting me in a box on my own with what I can do. The opportunities are out there.”

The offense’s leader seemed excited too. Quarterback Carson Wentz said Blount’s presence will be especially helpful in the red zone and short-yardage situations. But, just like seemingly everyone else at this point, Wentz veered away from any limitations.

“We've seen him out here in the open field,” Wentz said. “I feel bad. I'm like, 'Man, if I was that safety, I wouldn't want to tackle him.' The way he moves has been a lot more impressive than I would have thought.”

We likely won’t get a true taste of Blount’s impact on the offense until the preseason is a memory. Blount said he just wants to contribute to wins. We'll see if that overlaps with his personal vision.

“I see myself as an 18 to 20 carry back in any offense,” he said.