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Eagles Training Camp: Making Sense of the Quarterback Battle, Utilizing The Tight Ends, and Replacing Maclin

Zach ErtzWhile it’s the first post in some time, I’ve saved some of the more unique notes for this article based on training camp thus far. It’s been a very entertaining camp to follow from an evaluation aspect, as every single positional group as a log jam of talent fighting for starting and/or roster spots.

I’ve decided to tackle three big topics on the offense, focusing on the quarterback battle from a scouting/game-planning perspective, how Chip Kelly will use his incredibly talented tight end unit, and how the Eagles have gone about replacing Jeremy Maclin.

Quarterback Battle: Vick for Now, Bracing for Foles, Barkley Soon Enough
Despite losing Jeremy Maclin, this offense has few holes across the entire offense, from a healthy offensive line to depth at tight end, to four solid NFL running backs battling for three spots. But the glaring weakness and instable part of this team is its most vital: quarterback. Although incumbent Michael Vick is seemingly the best option for Chip Kelly’s offense, it’s clear that the position battle is anything but finished yet.

Michael Vick has the edge in a variety of areas to win this job. For one, he has the best arm strength, the most athleticism, the ability to hurt defenses as a runner, and thus far in camp, the most reliable 25+ deep ball. But his susceptibility to injury, lack of pocket presence, poor decision making, and propencity to “take off” isn’t doing him any favors. In my eyes, he’s clearly the best quarterback in camp today. But based on the drills being run and the way the offensive gameplan is shaping up, it’s clear that this offense won’t be designed for Mike Vick.

The offense is being designed for a non-elite running threat, in more ways than one. To start, 90% of the team’s plays have been in the pocket throws, not ideal for a 6’0 passer. Second, the passing offense is mostly reliant on timing and simple progressions after running a read-option first.  And finally, in the option game, the team has endlessly practiced ways for the quarterback to “option” players after keeping it from the running back that DON’T involve running the ball.

Some of those options: Swing pass to the backside running back/H-Back; Tunnel screen to the outside receiver; Inside slant/hitch route by tight end/receiver behind optioned defensive end; Shovel pass/reverse.

For those reasons, the offense seems to be designed moreso for fellow “#1 quarterback” Nick Foles. Foles is easily the most limited athlete at the position in camp, but has always been most comfortable in quick throws where his arm strength and decisiveness from the pocket can be shown off. He hasn’t seized the opportunity yet, but the offensive drills seem to be giving him every chance to succeed.

And that finally brings us to the current 2nd string quarterback (though third on the true depth chart) in rookie Matt Barkley. Make no mistake about how the draft played out, Chip Kelly WANTED Matt Barkley. Kelly and the Eagles knew where he’d fall and were patient in getting him, but he was high on their board and wish-list throughout the draft.

In camp thus far, Barkley has impressed more than some of the “numbers” coming out of camp. He has easily the best velocity control and ball placement within 20 yards. His ball handling, pocket control, and overall footwork has been the best of the quarterbacks. And he’s been controlled and on point in red zone and team drills when given the chance.

Also of note on Barkley is that the team seems to be calling fairly simple, short area plays when he does enter the game. He’s gotten his chance to test defenses deep, but most of his reads have been curl/flat reads and throws within 15 yards. That’s important to note because they are clearly “easing” him into this offense. While the other two quarterbacks are “battling” for the top spot, Barkley is waiting in the wings, growing in this offense, being groomed to take over this team.

It likely won’t come in week one, but I’d be very surprised if Barkely didn’t start four or more games this season, barring unexpected success by Vick or Foles. He’s this team’s quarterback of the future, and fits best with what Kelly’s NFL version of his offense wants to become. But it’s Vick for now, bracing for Foles, and banking on Barkley to be this team’s savior.

Get Excited for Chip Kelly to Utilize His Tight End Talent
Coming into the off-season, the Eagles seemingly had a solid tight end duo in Brent Celek and Clay Harbor, two great Andy Reid finds during his tenure that kept the tight end position a consistent strength.

However, Chip Kelly and his regime decided to add James Casey via free agency and Zach Ertz in the 2nd round, and turned this unit from a solid tight end corps to arguably the most versatile group in the NFL.

Thus far at practice the versatility of this unit has been a focal point offensively. Brent Celek has lead the way as the best in-line tight end, and he’ll likely be the true “Y” in-line tight end because of his blocking ability and overall polish. As for fellow incumbent Clay Harbor, he’s gotten some work on the line, but his value will continue to be as an H-Back. He’s also gotten work at a true fullback spot next to the quarterback in shotgun formations, and may be used as a lead blocker and out of the backfield receiver.

As for the two new additions, they’ll be bringing the flair to this unit. James Casey has likely supplanted Harbor as the lead H-Back, but also getting work as a slot receiver as well. Casey once played seven positions in a single college football game, so this team will be taking advantage of that in a variety of formations. As for Ertz, he’s gotten work at in-line tight end, H-back, slot receiver, and, most uniquely, X-receiver. Of the tight ends, Ertz may get the most snaps per game, especially considering that he may be this team’s best X-receiver with Jeremy Maclin out for the year.

Below is a play they’ve run in team drills a few times that optimizes this unit’s versatility.

Scary thought for opposing defenses when you have three capable pass catching tight ends on one side of the field. This offense may be the new staple of tight end use in the NFL.

Plan Coming Together for Replacing Maclin (and Riley Cooper?)
Besides the quarterback position, the X-receiver is the lone concern this offense has. Every other spot in the offense has ample talent that would rank about the best in the NFC. But replacing Maclin’s role, production, and big play ability in one player is impossible. The offense will need to adjust to something Chip Kelly wasn’t anticipating but certainly seems prepared for.

While on the first released depth chart it has Riley Cooper as the team’s starting “X” receiver, that may be more of an allusion than a precursor to their final depth chart. Cooper has been absent from camp as he undergoes “therapy” after his recent racial slur at a concert. While it is somewhat of a vote of confidence by Coach Kelly to keep Cooper at the starting spot, but more likely it’s a call to the rest of the players on the team that the job is VERY open still. Cooper isn’t an elite talent, and has been a marginal receiver through his career thus far.

Since Cooper’s departure (returning today), four players have stepped to replace him in a variety of formations. Jason Avant, the team’s primary slot receiver, has taken the reigns at times, and could get the job when the team goes two tight ends. Greg Salas is in the mix for the job, but likely only in a backup role. He can, however, play both the X and the Z, and that versatility is a major reason why I think he’s got an inside track on a roster spot.

Undrafted rookie Russell Shepard, who has been a VERY pleasant surprise thus far, has even gotten reps opposite DeSean Jackson. While this isn’t ideal, it shows that Kelly both likes what he’s seen from Shepard and is willing to “play the best players” and adjust his offense than only plug in a guy to a position.

But the most intriguing filler at the X-receiver spot has been 2nd round pick tight end Zach Ertz. Ertz did play some receiver at Stanford last year, and from my view, looked surprisingly technical and developed. He has ample size and hand strength to get off press coverage without losing all of his momentum, has plus ball skills, and is a developed route runner for a guy whose natural position is tight end.

While none of the these guys can replace the vertical speed, shiftiness after the catch, or the developed 2nd and 3rd level route definition that Maclin brought, they can provide bits and pieces of what Maclin could do. And if these four players can combine to “replace” Maclin, that leaves even less of a reason to keep Riley Cooper around.