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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 26: Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles Introduce Chip Kelly Getty Images

Should we be skeptical or optimistic about the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles?

Both feelings seem appropriate. Not buying into the Eagles? We can’t blame you. No team has disappointed more in the last two seasons. The much-hyped 2011 squad finished .500, while last year’s club managed a mere four wins in a playoffs-or-bust year for coach Andy Reid.

With Reid gone, Chip Kelly inherits a roster that’s lately looked better on paper than on the field. But let’s look on the bright side. Can you imagine Kelly’s fast-paced offense with the Eagles’ skill-position players?

And let’s consider the Eagles’ division. The NFC East doesn’t  have one team that stands above the rest. Every one of the clubs seems capable of playing that role in a given week, but in recent years, this division has been contested all the way until the end.

Of course, if the Eagles are to be competitive down the stretch, they must improve on their surprisingly poor recent form.

Strengths.

The Eagles’ depth chart has some top-end skill players at running back (LeSean McCoy) and wide receiver (DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin). Their offensive line could be very good if left tackle Jason Peters stays healthy and rookie right tackle Lane Johnson proves a quick study. The Eagles will be strong inside, with guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans an above-average tandem. This could be a dynamite running team; McCoy and Bryce Brown are a nice 1-2 punch, and Kelly oversaw impressive rushing attacks at Oregon.

Even in areas where the Eagles don’t have clarity, they at least have some viable options. Case-in-point: Michael Vick or Nick Foles each have the potential to be serviceable at quarterback — and perhaps more than that. Also, the Eagles should be able to get a solid pass rush from outside linebackers Connor Barwin, Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, even with Cole and Graham transitioning from defensive end.

Weaknesses.

The Eagles have committed a combined 75 turnovers in the last two seasons. One positive: Eagles quarterbacks threw 10 fewer interceptions in 2012. Prudent passing and better ball security could give the Eagles — who outgained opponents last season despite finishing 4-12 — a bit of a lift.

The Eagles also need to get better in the red zone; they scored touchdowns on just 44 percent of their trips inside the opposition 20 a season ago, fifth-worst in the NFL.

From a personnel standpoint, quarterback is the greatest concern for Philadelphia, which enters training camp without a clear-cut starter. That’s never a particularly comforting feeling. Also, the Eagles’ pass defense could be vulnerable even after investing in the secondary in free agency.

Changes.

The Eagles’ changes aren’t just confined to offense. Their defense is different, too, with a new coordinator (Bill Davis) and a new base scheme (the 3-4). The scheme change necessitated a couple front seven additions in free agency, as the Eagles signed the ex-Texan Barwin and former 49ers nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. However, the Eagles are trying to run the 3-4 primarily with the personnel brought in for various versions of the 4-3 the club employed under Reid and his defensive coordinators.

The Eagles are starting over in the secondary. Cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are gone after disappointing two-season stints, replaced by Cary Williams (ex-Baltimore) and Bradley Fletcher (ex-St. Louis). At safety, the Eagles signed Patrick Chung from the Patriots and Kenny Phillips from the Giants to push incumbents Nate Allen and Colt Anderson. Considering how lackluster the Eagles were against the pass in 2012, wiping the slate clean would be perfectly understandable, but with so many new faces comes the prospect of everyone needing time to get on the same page on the back end of the defense.

On offense, there’s great anticipation about what Kelly has planned. At the very least, the Eagles are likely to play at a quicker-than-average pace. They would also figure to employ some read-option concepts, too. That said, the Eagles’ new offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, is grounded in the West Coast scheme. Philadelphia would seem to have the schematic and personnel flexibility needed to show numerous looks on offense.

Camp battles.

Vick and Foles are the primary contenders for the starting quarterback job, with rookie Matt Barkley seeming likely to hold down one of the reserve roles. Vick, 33, has just one year left on his contract, and he took a big paycut earlier in the offseason. Miscues (15 turnovers in 10 starts in 2012) are the major concern with Vick.

Foles, who’s nine years younger than Vick, got some valuable experience late last season. While Foles did show some potential in a six-game starting stint, he too had some issues with turnovers, and he faltered against a very good Cincinnati defense late in the campaign.

Other positions where there could be competition are safety, cornerback, outside linebacker and defensive end. The Eagles need stability to develop at the secondary positions.

Prospects.

Every team could use 1) a good start to the season and 2) some injury luck. Well, the Eagles really could use these things. Half of the Eagles’ road games are in the first six weeks of the season, including three straight games away from Philadelphia, with trips to the Broncos (Sept. 29), Giants (Oct. 6) and Buccaneers (Oct. 13) in Weeks Four through Six.

The Eagles open the season at defending NFC East champion Washington on Sept.9 — the first of three games in 11 days for Philadelphia. Home tilts vs. San Diego (Sept. 15) and Reid-led Kansas City (Sept. 19) are games the Eagles have to believe they can win — and they may very well need to win them with that challenging road stretch thereafter.

The Eagles do not get their bye until Week 12 — hence the need for that run of good collective health — but they do have the benefit of having their week of rest sandwiched between three home games: Washington (Nov. 7), Detroit (Dec. 1), Arizona (Dec. 8).

By then, we’ll have a good idea of how Kelly’s offense looks. If Kelly’s personnel takes to his scheme and opposing defenses are caught a little off-guard, the Eagles could be a sleeper in the NFC East. However, if the Eagles sputter early, they could be left with too much work to do down the stretch.

The other major storyline to watch, of course, is whether a quarterback emerges as a solid starter. If not, the focus turns to how the Eagles address the position in 2014.

For now, though, there’s the matter of whether Kelly can get more out of a team that’s left us wanting more the last two seasons.

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Dwight Freeney still shaking the rust off

Houston Texans v San Diego Chargers Getty Images

San Diego Chargers linebacker Dwight Freeney appeared in just four games in his debut season in Southern California before a torn quad tendon tear ended his year.

Freeney is back at practice for the Chargers in training camp but fully admits he has some ground to cover before he feels he’s back to himself on a football field.

According to Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Freeney is working to shake the rust off.

“My last time actually playing football was in September, so I have a lot of rust I’m trying to get off,” Freeney said. “That’s what this process is about. That’s why you come out here.”

Freeney started all four games but had just two tackles and 0.5 sacks before his season came to an end. Freeney is entering his 13th NFL season and is coming off a pretty significant injury. The Chargers hope Freeney can shake the rust off enough to be a significant contributor this fall.

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Report: Josh Brent seeks reinstatement, will meet Goodell

Dallas Cowboys v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

Former Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent is reportedly attempting to resume his NFL career.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to meet with Brent by the conclusion of next week, Brent’s agent, Peter Schaffer, told ESPN’s Adam Schefter in a story published Wednesday.

The 26-year-old Brent served a 180-day prison sentence earlier this year after being convicted of intoxication manslaughter in a December 2012 accident that took the life of Cowboys teammate Jerry Brown.

According to ESPN, Brent officially petitioned for reinstatement on Tuesday, the same day he concluded a stay in rehabilitation. Schaffer told ESPN that Brent reached out to Brown’s family for their permission to seek a return to the game, and the family consented.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones indicated Wednesday that the club would weigh bringing back Brent, who retired in July 2013. However, Jones also expressed uncertainty about the reinstatement outcome.

“Well, I will look at that, but I don’t want to get ahead of our self in any way to look presumptuous relative to the commissioner or anybody else in the National Football League,” Jones said. “I don’t want to do that, because I don’t know that he can be reinstated.”

According to Jones, Brent is “contrite” about the accident and “has a lot of resolve” to resume his NFL career, the Cowboys’ owner said Wednesday. The question now is whether Brent will be granted that opportunity.

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Seahawks not revisiting Jermichael Finley after injury to Anthony McCoy

Green Bay Packers v Baltimore Ravens Getty Images

Seattle Seahawks backup tight end Anthony McCoy is likely lost for the season after suffering an apparent torn left Achilles tendon in practice on Tuesday.

With the injury to McCoy, the Seahawks may be in search of some added tight end depth for the roster. However, they won’t be kicking the tires again on free agent Jermichael Finley.

A league source told PFT’s Mike Florio that the Seahawks would not be revisiting discussions regarding the former Green Bay Packers tight end.

Seattle had Finley is for a visit earlier in the offseason but moved on after getting starter Zach Miller to agree to a restructured contract.

One likely complication barring the Seahawks from pursuing Finley is the $10 million insurance policy Finley could cash in on if he doesn’t play football again. Seattle, currently unwilling to budge on Marshawn Lynch’s contract, likely can’t give Finley enough money to provide incentive to forgo a claim on his insurance policy.

Seattle also has a few young tight ends in Cooper Helfet, RaShaun Allen and Morrell Presley that could seize hold of the third tight end spot on their roster.

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Seahawks Jesse Williams carted off field after suffering knee injury

Jesse Williams, Richard Sherman AP

Defensive tackle Jesse Williams was a dominant force for the University of Alabama but slipped to the fifth-round of the 2013 NFL Draft due to injury concerns regarding his knees.

After missing all of his rookie season due to a knee injury, Williams was beginning to turn heads of the Seattle Seahawks coaching staff in training camp with his power to disrupt at the line of scrimmage. However, the injury bug appears to have jumped up and caught Williams again.

Williams was carted off the practice field on Tuesday and the team confirmed to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times that Williams had suffered a knee injury. No further update was given on Williams’ condition or the severity of the injury.

Williams was trying to work into the defensive line rotation for the Seahawks behind starting defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel.

“The thing going into this camp was could he stay healthy and could he play?” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said following practice. “For us right now with Jesse, we can see the strength at the line of scrimmage has not changed, and he actually got a little bit leaner. So for us, we can’t wait to see what he can do. He’s as strong as he ever has been, but still a little leaner so his mobility is better.”

The Seahawks will have to wait for the results of further testing to determine the full severity of the injury. However, leaving the practice field on the back of a cart is never a good sign.

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Antonio Brown unhappy after Emmanuel Sanders critiques Big Ben

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown AP

Former Steelers and current Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders said recently that his current quarterback is a better leader than his former quarterback. One of his former teammates isn’t happy about that.

Responding to Sanders saying that Peyton Manning is “a far better leader” than Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown lashed out at Sanders.

That was terrible,” Brown said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “You don’t throw the quarterback under the bus, the guy who makes you what you are.”

After realizing he had stirred up a controversy, Sanders took to Twitter to try to clarify.

“I never said Ben wasn’t a leader,” Sanders wrote. “I just said Peyton is a better one. I have nothing but respect for Ben as a man and as a player.”

But when a fan asked Sanders about Brown’s comments, Sanders seemed to take umbrage.

They throw dirt on my name-that means they still dig me,” Sanders wrote.

The folks in Pittsburgh won’t dig Sanders’ comments about Roethlisberger, but Sanders was just giving his honest assessment: He’s in a position to know, and he says Manning is a better leader than Roethlisberger.

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Packers add WR Gerrard Sheppard

Baltimore Ravens Rookie Camp Getty Images

In the NFL’s lone successful waiver claim Wednesday, the Packers added first-year wide receiver Gerrard Sheppard, according to the league’s transactions.

Sheppard (6-2, 211) had been waived by Baltimore on Tuesday. The 23-year-old Sheppard signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and earned a spot on the club’s practice squad as a rookie. Sheppard played collegiately at Connecticut (2008-2010) and Towson (2011-2012).

Sheppard’s addition gives the Packers 11 wide receivers, 10 of whom can practice, as rookie wideout Jeff Janis is on the non-football illness list. The move also puts the Packers at the 90-player roster limit.

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Jim Harbaugh annoyed with questions about Aldon Smith

jimharbaugh AP

The 49ers didn’t have linebacker Aldon Smith at practice today because Smith was in Los Angeles, dealing with the fallout from an April incident in which he was accused of making a bomb threat at Los Angeles International Airport. Coach Jim Harbaugh wasn’t in the mood to talk about it.

As reporters questioned Harbaugh, he was having none of it. Here’s the transcript:

Is LB Aldon Smith here today?
“No.”

He’s in Los Angeles?
“What’s that?”

He’s in Los Angeles for his meeting there?
“He’s not here today.”

You can’t say where he is?
“No. Is that my responsibility to tell you where he is?”

You’re the head coach of the football team.
“Yeah, OK. Well you seem to already know. He’s going through a process.”

Then there’s a couple of places he could be. New York being one of them, Los Angeles being the other. He’s in the latter.
“OK. I don’t know if that was a question or a statement?”

Harbaugh answered five follow-up questions without providing reporters with any relevant information. Bill Belichick would be proud.

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Jones: Cowboys “committed” to keeping Dez Bryant “for life”

Stephen Jones AP

Tyron Smith might not be the only young Cowboys star cashing in.

Team vice president Stephen Jones said the Cowboys were “working hard” to get a long-term deal for wide receiver Dez Bryant done next.

We’re totally committed to make Dez a Cowboy for life,” Jones said, via Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Our plans from Day 1, . . . figure a way to get Dez and Tyron extended.”

The 23-year-old left tackle signed an eight-year extension which will keep him with the team through the 2023 season.

Bryant, 25, is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and will make $1.78 million this year, but Jones wasn’t going to speculate on when anything might happen.

“I don’t guess on when things get done,” he said.

The only certainty is that when it happens, it will be big. Although getting Smith done now allows them the possibility of using the franchise tag, giving them a bit of starting-point leverage.

 

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Jim Leonhard reunites with Mike Pettine in Cleveland

Jim Leonhard AP

Safety Jim Leonhard said recently that he had spoken to the Packers about coming aboard for the 2014 season, but the Wisconsin native never reached agreement on a deal with the team.

He won’t have to leave the Midwest to play football this year, though. Leonhard tweeted on Wednesday afternoon that he has signed a contract to play for the Browns.

The move reunites Leonhard with Browns coach Mike Pettine, who was an assistant on Ravens, Jets and Bills teams that featured Leonhard. That year with the Bills came in 2013, when Leonhard started seven times and played all 16 games for a defense coordinated by Pettine. Leonhard had 41 tackles and four interceptions in Buffalo.

With that kind of familiarity and a thin group of backup safeties, the late start to camp shouldn’t hurt Leonhard much. Donte Whitner will hold one starting safety job for the Bills and Tashaun Gipson is pencilled in alongside him, although Leonhard could change that if Pettine decides to go with what he knows come the regular season.

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Bengals CB Chris Lewis-Harris suspended two games

Chris Lewis-Harris AP

The NFL has suspended Bengals cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris for the first two games of the 2014 regular season under the league’s substance-abuse policy, the team said Wednesday.

The 25-year-old Lewis-Harris appeared in six games for Cincinnati in 2013, recording three tackles. He’s vying for a reserve role with Cincinnati, which is deep at cornerback.

Lewis-Harris can play in exhibition games, but the earliest he can return to an active NFL roster is Monday, September 15.

A Tennessee-Chattanooga product, Lewis-Harris is one of 10 cornerbacks on Cincinnati’s roster.

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Cassel, Bridgewater begin even split of first-team reps

Bridgewater AP

The Vikings have a trio of quarterbacks about whom offensive coordinator Norv Turner periodically has raved.  With camp in full swing and the preseason games approaching, Turner has officially narrowed his focus to a pair of finalists for the Week One starting job.

Via multiple reports, veteran Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater have begun equally splitting first-team reps, with former starter Christian Ponder working exclusively with the reserves.

It’s unclear when a starter will be picked.  Appearing on Wednesday’s PFT Live, tight end Kyle Rudolph said that he and the other pass catchers prefer that a decision be made as soon as possible, so that the pass-catchers can focus on working with the guy who’ll be throwing the passes when the season begins.

For more from Rudolph, click the thing in the thing below.

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Gordon’s appeal is indeed all or nothing

Cleveland Browns v St. Louis Rams 8-8-2013 Getty Images

Despite a belief in some league circles that the person designated to handle the appeal of Browns receiver Josh Gordon’s one-year suspension can split the proverbial baby by imposing a suspension somewhere between zero and 16 games, the NFL characterizes the substance-abuse policy in a way that makes clear the absence of discretion.

“The disciplinary penalties were negotiated by the NFLPA and NFL more than 20 years ago and there has never been a proposal to change them,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy tells PFT via email.  “When they were first established, the union expressed the strong view that they needed to be stated and mandatory to ensure that all players be treated the same regardless of position, experience, level of ability, or competitive considerations.  On appeal, the hearing officer’s responsibility is to determine whether the violation was established and, if so, he is bound by the agreed-upon sanctions.”

For players in Stage III of the program, a positive test automatically triggers a one-year suspension.

For Gordon, then, only two options exist:  full-year suspension or no suspension at all.

If the terms of the policy are applied as written, Gordon could indeed be facing a one-year suspension, no matter how unfair or heavy-handed or otherwise wrong.  Or maybe the hearing officer will, consciously or otherwise, broaden the lens and consider the reaction to a one-year suspension for Gordon versus a mere two-game suspension for Ray Rice and his far more heinous conduct.

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Brandon Browner gets heated at Patriots practice

Brandon Browner AP

The Patriots signed Brandon Browner this offseason because he’s a big, physical cornerback capable of keeping wide receivers from doing exactly what they want while running their routes.

On Wednesday, the Pats offense got an up-close view of how Browner makes that happen. Browner shoved wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins to the ground after a pair of plays that saw the duo matched up one-on-one and then got into a shouting match with receivers coach Chad O’Shea that ended when other members of the team separated the two.

Browner said afterwards that he came into practice with the mindset of being more aggressive after the defense “gave up a few easy balls” in Tuesday’s session. He said that he and O’Shea “hugged it out” after practice and explained why he thought the scrapes would make for a better team.

“It gets us both better,” Browner said, via CSNNE.com. “Guys on the other side of the ball, it’s what [opponents are] going to do in guys in games. And it’s what they’re going to do to me in games … That’s my style of play. Play aggressive. You don’t want to cost your team any penalties, but we’ll let the officials do their job.”

Browner will have to cool his jets for the first four games of the regular season while serving a suspension for violating the league’s drug policy, leaving the Patriots to hope that his summer work helps his teammates enough to make the absence less of a hindrance for the defense.

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John Harbaugh: I’m proud of Ray Rice for how he’s handled it

johnharbaugh AP

The Ravens are continuing their public support of Ray Rice, the running back whose two-game suspension for a domestic violence incident has been widely criticized.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said today that he continues to support Rice and believes that Rice is making the most of a bad situation.

“I love the way he’s handled it,” Harbaugh said. “I hate what happened. What happened was wrong, flat out. The thing I appreciate about it is how Ray has handled it afterwards by acknowledging that it was wrong and he’ll do everything he can do to make it right. That’s what you ask for when someone does a wrong thing. So I’m proud of him for that, from that standpoint. And for anybody out there who’s going to misconstrue that and just write, ‘John Harbaugh is proud of Ray,’ then shame on you. I’m proud of him for the way he’s handled it, OK? Disappointed in what happened, but you go forward. You know, you go forward. That’s what we’re going to do as a football team, and that’s what we’re going to do as an individual, he’ll do as an individual.”

Although Harbaugh was careful to explain that he means he is proud of the way Rice has responded since his February arrest, and not that he condones what Rice did to result in the arrest, that distinction may not change the fact that some people simply don’t want to hear the Ravens continuing to support Rice publicly. The Ravens’ full-throated support of Rice has — like the NFL’s two-game suspension — struck many as insensitive to victims of domestic violence.

Harbaugh declined to talk about the backlash to the suspension, which has been widely decried as an indication that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t grasp the seriousness of domestic violence.

“There’s no way I’m going to comment on the length of it, but I know this: Those that make those decisions do so with great seriousness. They aim to be just and fair and they aim to do right by all parties involved,” Harbaugh said.

But Harbaugh did say that he thinks opening the season without Rice will be tough for his team to overcome.

“It’s going to be tough for us,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be two games without one of our very best players. But we’ll move forward and deal with it. Beyond that, there’s really nothing else to say.”

Harbaugh may have nothing left to say, but Rice is expected to address the media on Thursday. His comments will surely be scrutinized by those who believe Rice has yet to show genuine remorse — and who believe both the Ravens and the NFL have been far too supportive of Rice.

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Colts guard Donald Thomas leaves practice early

Joe Reitz, Donald Thomas AP

The Colts need to do a better job of protecting quarterback Andrew Luck, and that job didn’t get any easier today.

According to Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star, guard Donald Thomas is believed to have re-injured his quadriceps, and left the practice field early. He’s expected to have an MRI to determine the severity.

Thomas played just two games for the Colts last year before tearing his quadriceps tendon, sending him to injured reserve. The rehab process also kept him from participating in OTAs this year.

The Colts signed him to a four-year, $14 million deal last offseason, and haven’t gotten much of a return on that investment.

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