Will Derek Barnett really compete to start for Eagles in 2018?

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Will Derek Barnett really compete to start for Eagles in 2018?

Last week, Eagles defensive line coach Chris Wilson was in the middle of singing Derek Barnett’s praises, when he eventually gave an answer that piqued my interest. Wilson was saying Barnett had a great offseason after already seeing significant growth during his rookie season, aided by an increased football IQ. 

So after hearing all that, I threw an obvious question Wilson’s way: What’s fair to expect from Barnett in Year 2? 

And Wilson’s answer was interesting. 

“You’d like to see him compete as a starter,” he said. “And that’s what it is. You want to see him compete as an every-down player and that’s the expectation. And I think that’s the expectation for any second-year guys, especially guys that are drafted at his status. I believe he has the ability to be a three-down guy and that’s what we’re looking for.”

The answer isn’t interesting because of Barnett. He showed enough promise last season to think that he can live up to being a first-round pick. He showed star potential. 

It’s interesting because there appear to be barriers in Barnett’s path to becoming a starter. They’re named Brandon Graham and Michael Bennett. But during the spring, Graham didn’t participate after ankle surgery and Bennett didn’t show up until the mandatory minicamp. 

“I haven’t set starters. I really haven’t,” Wilson said. “I know that’s a cliche for coaches, but you know, this has been voluntary and I just coach the guys who are here. The biggest thing that I look for is who’s improving. Nobody’s got a locked-in [job].”

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter who is on the field at the start of games for the Eagles because they rotate so much. The difference is that the guys on the field at the start are trusted to stop the run as much as they are to rush the passer. We saw that from Graham and Vinny Curry last year. Becoming a complete player is the next step for Barnett. 

Because defensive ends — fairly or not — are always judged by sacks, let's take a look at that area. Barnett had five as a rookie, which is a pretty solid number. It’s the highest total an Eagles rookie has had since Fletcher Cox picked up 5 1/2 in 2012. 

While it’s fair to expect growth from players in their second season, of the seven players who had at least five sacks as rookies in 2016, just two of them had more sacks in Year 2 in 2017. 

Sack numbers aside, Barnett should improve in his own Year 2. For starters, he won’t be dealing with a sports hernia that required offseason surgery. For what it’s worth, Wilson said if the injury was bothering Barnett, he didn’t know. 

But the area where Wilson seemed most pleased with Barnett’s growth was his strength. Barnett worked hard since the Super Bowl to improve his overall strength and to develop a good power move. Coming out of college, he was known more as a finesse player, respected for his incredible bend. 

Now, he’s working to get more powerful, which would certainly make him a much more viable option to be a starter, barriers or not. 

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Could Super Bowl hero Jay Ajayi be returning to the Eagles?

Could Super Bowl hero Jay Ajayi be returning to the Eagles?

Jay Ajayi, who hasn’t played football in more than a year, will be at the NovaCare Complex Friday for a workout with the Eagles, NFL Network reported Thursday.

Ajayi, who was huge for the Eagles down the stretch during the 2017 Super Bowl run, has been out of football since his rookie contract that he originally signed with the Dolphins in 2015 lapsed following last season.

He's battled injuries most of his career but he's only 26 and when healthy has been terrific. He has a 4.5 career average, 5th-best in the NFL since 2015 among running backs with at least 500 carries (behind Mark Ingram, Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry).

The Eagles acquired Ajayi from the Dolphins on Oct. 31, 2017, in exchange for a 4th-round draft pick. He ran 70 times for 408 yards and a TD with a 5.8 average in seven regular-season games in 2017, then ran 42 times for 184 yards (4.4 average) in the three playoff games, including 9-for-57 in the Super Bowl win over the Patriots.

AJayi was 45-for-184 with three TDs in four games last year before going onto season-ending Injured Reserve on Oct. 8 with the latest in a series of knee injuries.

Ajayi's 5.15 rushing average in an Eagles uniform is fifth-highest in franchise history, behind quarterbacks Michael Vick (6.7), Randall Cunningham (6.6) and Donovan McNabb (5.7) and 1940s running back Ernie Steele (5.18)

Ajayi made the Pro Bowl in 2016 for the Dolphins with 1,272 rushing yards and eight touchdowns but has played in only 18 games since.

He hasn’t played since getting hurt against the Vikings on Oct. 7 of last year.

Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard have been terrific, but Howard and Darren Sproles are both dealing with injuries going into the Patriots game Sunday.

Sproles missed practice Thursday with a quad injury, and Howard has been limited in both practices this week with a shoulder injury. 

Sproles missed the Vikings, Cowboys and Bills games with a quad injury. He played against the Bears -- 10 snaps on offense, 8 on special teams -- but apparently seemingly aggravated the injury at some point.

Sproles, 36, has played in only 15 of a possible 46 games over the past three years because of a series of injuries.

The Eagles already lost Super Bowl star Corey Clement, who’s on Injured Reserve with a shoulder injury of his own.

Because of his oft-injured knees, Ajayi probably can't handle a huge workload these days. But in a limited role a healthy Ajayi could could definitely help the newly run-heavy Eagles.

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Alshon Jeffery misses 2nd straight day of Eagles practice

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Alshon Jeffery misses 2nd straight day of Eagles practice

Alshon Jeffery missed practice for the second straight day with an ankle injury on Thursday, putting his status for Sunday’s game against the Patriots very much in question. 

It’s rare for an Eagles player to miss the first two days of practice in a week and play that weekend. 

On Wednesday, head coach Doug Pederson said Jeffery was “day to day” with the ankle injury he suffered in the Bears game before the bye week. He left that game early, but then had an extra week to rest. 

Earlier in the season, Jeffery suffered a calf injury early in the game against Atlanta. It’s possible he’s been playing through injury for most of the season, which would help to explain his drop in production. 

In eight games this season, the 29-year-old receiver has just 34 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns. He’s on pace for his worst statistical season since his rookie year in 2012. 

On Wednesday, I asked Pederson about Jeffery’s dip in production. 

“Well, I think with having Dallas [Goedert] a little more involved in the offense, the ball gets spread around a little bit more. The times we have gone to Alshon, he's made plays,” Pederson said. 

It’s worth noting that Jeffery is tied for the team lead in drops with three. He’s one of five Eagles with three drops this season. 

“His value to the offense has been very good,” Pederson continued. “The ball's going to find the open guy. Sometimes he's the primary, sometimes he's not. He might be the secondary or the third guy in the progression. He's a guy that gives of himself to the team. That's who Alshon is. He doesn't gripe or complain. He does battle through injury. He's battled through it his whole career. He's battled through it here. He's a tough kid.

“We continue to game plan. We game plan for him every week. Again, it's my job to try to dial up as many plays as I can for him.”

If Jeffery doesn't play on Sunday, look for J.J. Arcega-Whiteside or Jordan Matthews to have a big role. 

The only other notable player missing at Thursday’s practice was Nigel Bradham, who will likely miss his fourth straight game this Sunday with an ankle injury of his own. 

Jason Peters (knee) and Jordan Howard (shoulder) were both practicing Thursday after being listed as limited on Wednesday. 

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