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Eagles' latest Achilles heel emerges in preseason

Eagles' latest Achilles heel emerges in preseason

Right when the Eagles get finished plugging one potential hole, another springs up.

For months, cornerback was considered by far the greatest weakness on the Eagles' roster, but Howie Roseman appears to have taken care of that with the trade for Ronald Darby. Now, all of a sudden, the Eagles' secondary has the potential to be a strength in 2017.

Yet, just as the plan at corner is beginning to take shape, another concern is emerging halfway through the preseason, at a position many fans thought Roseman solidified in May. Running back looks like it could quickly become a serious problem for the Eagles if it hasn’t reached that point already.

It’s only preseason, and the offensive line hasn’t done him any favors, but LeGarrette Blount has nine carries for 17 yards with a fumble in two games. Fifth-round draft pick Donnel Pumphrey – who the coaching staff seemed enamored with this spring — has 14 total touches for 34 yards. After a strong start at training camp, Wendell Smallwood has yet to play in an exhibition game due to a hamstring injury. And by now, everybody is aware 34-year-old Darren Sproles isn’t an every-down back.

The best any running back has looked in exhibition games is undrafted rookie Corey Clement, by far. Whether that’s a testament to his development or a commentary on the state of the backfield is a matter of perspective.

Regardless, you could’ve seen this mess coming from a mile away.

The Blount signing was met with tremendous enthusiasm when it really should’ve been met with tremendous skepticism. Though he rushed for 1,161 yards and led the NFL with 18 touchdowns in 2016, Blount averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, sat by in free agency as the Patriots moved to replace him, and turns 31 in December. He’s never been a threat as a receiver, and even his gaudy numbers last season with the Super Bowl champions were an outlier compared to the rest of his career.

The reality is Blount is not a mortal lock to make the Eagles' roster. He likely will, because he still has value in short yardage and at the goal line, and most of all, because the competition hasn’t made enough of a push. However, releasing Blount would only cost the Eagles $400,000 against the salary cap, according to OverTheCap.com, while his age and the limitations of his skill set are worth reiterating.

The question is what then?

While the Eagles have toyed with getting Pumphrey and Sproles on the field at the same time, projections as to how prevalent those designer packages would be always felt ambitious as well. Listed at 5-foot-9, 176 pounds, Pumphrey has not looked like an NFL-ready player through two games. Even if he is ready to contribute, that is not an offense designed with running the football in mind.

The Eagles’ ability to let Blount go would seem to hinge almost solely on Smallwood. Of course, it was an unwillingness to rely on a second-year player with 83 touches that caused the club to seek veteran help in the first place.

Smallwood is not an unimpressive prospect. A fifth-round draft pick from West Virginia a year ago, Smallwood has the size and athletic ability to handle the bulk of the work. He was running with authority in camp. He simply hasn’t been able to stay healthy, which is his biggest shortcoming at this point, aside from inexperience. It’s impossible to tell whether Smallwood is in line to finish with the most touches in this backfield (regardless of Blount’s presence) or if he’s fighting for his job.

Clement is the bright spot in all of this and arrives as a more polished pass protector than Smallwood was as a rookie. Seeing as inexperience was one of the primary reasons the Eagles weren’t willing to entrust Smallwood as the primary ball carrier, it’s difficult to imagine Clement could be the guy the in September.

Again, some of the culpability for Blount’s struggles falls on the offensive line. Some. Blount’s last season in New England was far from the norm, and for most of his eight-year career, he’s been purely a situational player. Even under optimal circumstances, expecting him to recreate last season’s numbers, or come close, never made much sense.

And while it would be easy to chalk up the pitiful ground attack as a symptom of the preseason, the fact is these games have exposed a problem that’s been lurking beneath the surface. Blount is old and not an ideal fit for the Eagles' offense. Pumphrey is an undersized rookie. Sproles is Sproles. Smallwood is a mystery.

Up until a week ago, everybody was worried about the cornerbacks. Before that, it was the wide receivers, until the Eagles made significant investments in talent over the offseason. All along, there’s been an underrated need at running back, or at the very least, an uncertainty.

Try as he might, Roseman can’t seem to find a solution for every hole on the roster — and it’s beginning to look like running back is the spot the Eagles might spring a leak.

The 700 Level's 2018 Philadelphia Sports Awards

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AP Images

The 700 Level's 2018 Philadelphia Sports Awards

Thank you for joining us for The 700 Level’s fifth annual, almost-didn’t-happen-this-time Philadelphia Sports Awards. If you’re wondering why you don’t recall reading or hearing about any of our first four outings, that’s because we’ve rebranded for 2018, moving away from “The KULPYs” due to the writer’s lack of marketability or relevance. Pretty sure that guy is covering the food scene somewhere over in the Middle East these days.

In other words: New title, slightly different format, same shtick. Now that we’ve suckered you in, let’s get down to business.

It’s been a big year for the Eagles, as you might imagine.

Philadelphia Athlete of the Year: Carson Wentz
Runner-up: Joel Embiid

Prior to suffering a torn ACL, Wentz was enjoying an MVP-caliber season. He set an Eagles franchise record with 33 touchdown passes – and only needed 13 games to do it. And while the team managed to win the Super Bowl without him, Wentz helped secure home-field for the playoffs with an 11-2 record as a starter. He was the most consistently dominant athlete in the city over the past year.

Comeback Athlete of the Year: Nick Foles
Runner-up: Claude Giroux

Let’s make sure Foles gets his due, though. Pretty much everybody left his career for dead after an ugly stint with the Rams, and even as late as the second quarter of divisional playoff game against the Falcons, few believed he would ever catch lighting in a bottle again. Sure enough, Foles regained his 2013 form just in time to post one of the most incredible postseason runs in NFL history, completing 72.5 percent of his passes for 860 yards and six touchdowns to one interception over his last 10 quarters of action. Unlike ’13, we’re pretty sure this isn’t a fluke – he has the ring to prove it.

Rookie of the Year: Rhys Hoskins
Runner-up: Ben Simmons

What’s the KULPYs without a little controversy? Simmons seems like the obvious choice, but his unwillingness or inability to shoot the basketball caused him to get exposed in the end. Then there’s the whole debate over whether he’s even truly a rookie or not after missing his first year with an injury. Hoskins hasn’t lit the world on fire in 2018, though he’s still hit 32 home runs in his first 586 plate appearances, with a supporting cast that isn’t making things any easier. We'll operate under All-Star Game rules and select Hoskins on the basis the Phillies need a little representation here.

The Andrew Bynum Award for Most Disliked Sports Figure: Robert Covington
Runner-up: Gabe Kapler

Covington signed a four-year contract worth $62 million in November, then fell out of favor with fans almost immediately. He began the ’17-18 season with a hot shooting hand, but cooled off and became extremely streaky from beyond the arc. What’s worse, RoCo’s defensive effort seemed inconsistent at times as well, which he could always hang his hat on previously when the offense wasn’t there. Now, there’s no question a good portion of fans would like to see him moved, though the reality is the Sixers might be stuck with that contract for awhile.

The Chip Kelly Award for Most Nonsensical Scandal: Bryan Colangelo
Runner-up: Markelle Fultz

Take your pick from a host of Sixers screw-ups. From Embiid constantly feuding with management over playing time, to trading hometown hero Mikal Bridges during his introductory press conference, it’s certainly been an interesting year. Yet, Colangelo’s wife’s numerous Twitter burner accounts releasing sensitive information and defending the former GM’s choice in shirt collars was the most bizarre thing to happen in Philly sports in the last 12 months, probably longer. By the way, the Sixers are still seeking Colangelo’s replacement, which means the repercussions of this stupidity are still being felt.

Dumbest Philly Sports Take: Mike Lombardi
Runner-up: Colin Cowherd

If Lombardi had merely insinuated Doug Pederson mat not have been the greatest choice to lead the Eagles, few would’ve strongly disagreed with that statement a year ago. But even at the time, after Pederson won seven games as a rookie head coach, claiming he was “the most unqualified coach” in NFL history was over the top. Few hot takes have ever aged so poorly so quickly, with Pederson leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl. The truly ironic part is Lombardi is a failed NFL executive and out of the league – maybe he should’ve realized he isn’t necessarily the greatest judge of talent.

The Competency Award for Best Coach or Executive: Sam Hinkie
Runners-up: Doug Pederson, Howie Roseman

What would the KULPYs be without some good ol’ fashioned trolling? Obviously, Pederson, Roseman or even Jay Wright are all worthy choices here. Then again, after watching the Sixers win 52 games and coast to the second round of the playoffs with a coach (Brett Brown) and core (Embiid, Simmons, Dario Saric) Hinkie put in place, the former GM’s sacrifice deserves remembrance. Maybe the day will come when we can leave Hinkie in the past. Then again, if there were any justice in the world, the Sixers would probably rehire him to take Colangelo’s place right now.

Philadelphian of the Year/Lifetime Achievement Award: Jason Kelce
Runners-up: Not applicable

There wasn’t even a close second. Kelce’s profanity-laced speech at the Eagles victory parade was the single greatest moment a lot of people from this area will ever witness in their lives. More than that, it cemented Kelce as not only one of the legendary players in Philly history. It demonstrated he's one of us to the core. Ranting and raving? Check. Gratuitous swearing? Check. Visible intoxication? Check, check, check.

That’s all we have. Sorry, Flyers, better luck next year.

Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at linebacker?

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AP Images

Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at linebacker?

Jordan Hicks is back after missing much of the previous season with an injury, but his return helped push Mychal Kendricks out the door.

Kendricks was released and signed with the Browns. Hicks is working his way back from a major injury. Did the 2018 Eagles linebackers take a step forward as a result of the swap, or gamble breaking up a dynamic Super Bowl-winning tandem?

Better

Playmaking

Kendricks enjoyed a resurgent season in 2017, coming off the bench and performing serviceably in his enhanced role after Hicks’ injury. Yet, the big plays were largely absent from the Eagles’ linebacker corps as a result of the switch. Kendricks recorded zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles and zero fumble recoveries, including playoffs.

That’s unlikely to be the case with Hicks, as long as he’s healthy. The Eagles’ middle linebacker showed a knack for coming up with big plays his first two seasons, racking up seven interceptions, one forced fumble and five recoveries.

Hicks is attempting to recover from a ruptured Achilles, so there’s always a chance he’s slowed by the injury or not quite 100 percent when the season begins. Then again, he’s so much more of an instinctive player than Kendricks, even losing a step, Hicks is likely to wind up with the football in his hands more frequently. It may be only a handful of plays, but those are the ones that swing the outcomes of games.

Worse

Pass rushing

One area where Kendricks might be superior to Hicks is behind the line of scrimmage. Kendricks’ 2.0 sacks in ’17 match Hicks’ career total, and he has 14.0 in six years. Kendricks also graded as the most productive pass-rushing 4-3 outside linebacker by Pro Football Focus with 13 total pressures in 49 blitz attempts.

Of course, therein lies one of the problems with Kendricks’ ability. Under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the Eagles don’t really make full use of his elite athleticism, often preferring to rush four rather than send the house.

It’s difficult to gauge how much of a loss Kendricks’ speed off the edge will be considering he was in line to play about 25 percent of the snaps if he stuck around. Regardless, his departure creates a void in that role.

The same

Nigel Bradham

At least the Eagles managed to retain reliable Bradham, who was their biggest priority in free agency this offseason. A case could be made the seventh-year veteran is the team’s best linebacker, too — not injury-prone, like Hicks, but consistent and always plays under control, unlike Kendricks.

Bradham will miss opening night due to a one-game suspension for an off-field incident, but when he returns, the Eagles have a reliable defender who can play strongside — his natural position — or in the middle. The seventh-year player posted 205 tackles, 3.0 sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles in two seasons with the club.

The unknown

Weakside linebacker

Kendricks’ departure does create a void at weakside linebacker, and it’s currently unclear who the Eagles will choose to fill it. Corey Nelson was signed away from the Broncos in free agency, but played special teams for most of his four seasons there. Special teams ace Kamu Grugier-Hill and 2017 fifth-round pick Nathan Gerry are also in the mix, and even more unproven than Nelson.

Fortunately, the weakside spot is only on the field roughly a quarter of the time, so it’s not the biggest of holes. It was also a job in which Kendricks didn’t particularly excel.

Better or worse?

Given Kendricks’ struggles in the weakside spot in previous years, how Nelson or the competition will fare probably isn’t the greatest of concerns. The top two linebacker spots are what matter most here, and getting Hicks back is a huge boost. Kendricks does a few things very well, but is more of a liability in coverage, and the Eagles’ lack of urgency to use his ability to attack made him a poor fit. The linebackers may be only marginally improved given their depth is still a question mark, but Hicks is an upgrade. BETTER

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