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. 

Eagles hoping no-risk, high-reward veteran signings can rekindle past success

Eagles hoping no-risk, high-reward veteran signings can rekindle past success

When you’re in salary cap hell, you have to be creative when building a roster.

And one tactic Howie Roseman used when putting together the Eagles team that begins training camp Thursday is signing a handful of no-risk, high-reward guys.

Players trying to revive their careers. Players trying to reclaim past glory. Players running out of chances.

These are no-risk, high-reward guys. They could become contributors, but if it doesn’t work out? The Eagles can release them before the season with modest or no cap ramifications.

When you’re in salary cap hell, you can’t sign all the free agents you want. So you sign the free agents that you can. And you do that by signing players nobody else wants. Guys with no leverage.

One tool Roseman likes to use is the NFL’s minimum-salary benefit, which gives teams some salary cap relief when they sign veteran players to certain deals.

The minimum-salary benefit can be used only for veterans with at least four years of experience who sign one-year minimum-wage deals with combined bonuses equalling $90,000 or less. 

Here’s a look at four of these no-risk, high-reward players the Eagles added this offseason.

Markus Wheaton

The Eagles signed Wheaton to a one-year deal with a $790,000 base salary (sixth-year minimum) with a $45,000 signing bonus, a $45,000 workout bonus but a cap number of $720,000, thanks to the minimum-salary benefit.

If the Eagles release Wheaton before the season, he would count just $90,000 against the cap, the value of his two bonuses.

Wheaton is only 27 and should be in his prime but has done nearly nothing the last two seasons after two very good years.

In 2014 and 2015, he combined for 97 catches for 1,393 yards, seven touchdowns and a 14.4 average. He had seven catches of 40 yards or more during those two years. Pretty good production.

But the last two years, Wheaton had just seven catches for 102 yards and one TD for the Steelers and Bears.

If he’s healthy and can be even half the player he was in 2014 and 2015, he could really help as a fourth receiver.

Matt Jones

The Eagles signed Jones to a two-year, $1.51 million deal that includes base salaries of $705,000 this year and $805,000 next year with no bonus money, which means no dead cap money if he’s released.

Even though Jones’ deal is not subject to the minimum-salary benefit, his base salaries of $705,000 and $805,000 are minimum wage for a third-year veteran in 2018 and a fourth-year vet in 2019.

Jones was one of the NFL’s best running backs the first half of 2016. Through seven games, he had 460 yards and a 4.6 average with three TDs. In a mid-October win over the Eagles at FedEx Field, he ran for 135 yards, the most rushing yards against the Eagles the last two years.

But he hurt his knee and never got his job back, then was released before last season. He resurfaced with the Colts but had only five carries all year.

Jones is only 25 and is a good enough receiver that he caught 19 passes for 304 yards and a TD as a rookie reserve.

With LeGarrette Blount gone, Jay Ajayi on a pitch count because of chronic knee soreness, Corey Clement’s role still undefined and Darren Sproles likely to be limited on offense at 35 years old, Jones will have a chance to work his way into the mix.

And if it doesn’t work out? No cap hit.

Richard Rodgers

The Eagles signed Rodgers to a one-year, $880,000 contract that includes a $790,000 base salary, a $45,000 signing bonus, a $45,000 workout bonus and a $720,000 cap figure, courtesy of the minimum-salary benefit rule.

If the Eagles release him, he’ll count $245,000 in dead money, the amount of guaranteed money in his one-year deal.

As recently as 2015, Rodgers caught 58 passes for 510 yards and eight touchdowns, which ranked him 12th among all NFL tight ends in catches and fifth in TDs. But he dropped to 30 catches in 2016 and just 12 last year.

Rodgers is only 26 and should be in his prime, but he’s reached only 30 yards twice in his last 31 games.

With Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, the Eagles have a potent 1-2 punch, but if Rodgers can regain his form of 2015, it would give Doug Pederson even more options in a ridiculously talented array of skill players.

LaRoy Reynolds

The Eagles signed Reynolds to a one-year, $880,000 contract that includes a $790,000 base salary, a $90,000 roster bonus and a reduced $720,000 cap figure.

Because there’s nothing guaranteed in his contract, the Eagles would not absorb any dead money under the cap if they release him before the season.

Reynolds, now with his fourth team in four years, has played in 68 games with seven starts. He’s only 27 and is considered an above-average special teamer and adequate depth linebacker.

The Eagles have some big question marks at linebacker, with Paul Worrilow (Reynolds’ former teammate) out for the year, Mychal Kendricks now with the Browns, Nigel Bradham suspended for the opener and Jordan Hicks able to finish one of his first three seasons.

Reynolds will have a chance to work into that mix. If not? No harm done.

More on the Eagles

Eagle Eye: When does a contract negotiation become a problem?

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Eagle Eye: When does a contract negotiation become a problem?

In the latest edition of Eagle Eye, John Clark and Barrett Brooks are pumped for the start of training camp. Following MLB Commissioner's comments on Mike Trout's marketability, the guys discuss if it's on the player or the league to market an athlete? The Falcons said they will not give Julio Jones a new contract. At what point does a public contract negotiation become a distraction in the locker room?

1:00 - Guys are excited for the start of training camp.
4:45 - Is it on a player or a league to market an athlete?
11:00 - When does a Julio Jones contract situation become a locker room distraction?
18:00 - When money starts dividing a locker room.

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