The Eagles roster is fairly set. General manager Howie Roseman will constantly be on the lookout for players who can improve the team, but those changes tend to involve players at the bottom of the roster and not starters. The 2014 Eagles are going to win or lose based on the players on the team as of now.
While the roster is mostly known, one of the unknown factors for the upcoming season is how the new players will perform. Think back to a year ago. Did you expect Cedric Thornton to be such an outstanding player? Did anyone think Riley Cooper would be such a productive receiver? Who expected Brandon Boykin to become such a big time playmaker? Who thought a journeyman player like Allen Barbre would turn out to be a good backup left tackle?
The players deserve a lot of credit for playing as well as they did, but they got help from the coaching staff. All of the players played the best football of their careers. That isn't an accident. They fit the schemes the Eagles used and the coaches did an excellent job of focusing on fundamentals. Chip Kelly put together a staff of teachers. Football is about blocking and tackling, whether at the pee-wee level or in the NFL.
The Eagles did not do live tackling in Training Camp last year, but Kelly had the coaches teach tackling techniques every single day. That carried over to the season. Tackling had been an issue in recent years, but improved quite a bit in 2013. Andy Reid ran tough, physical camps. There was plenty of hitting and tackling. The problem is that the players were practicing bad tackling. There wasn't a focus on technique.
Kelly believes that if you do something in practice over and over, it will show up in games. Teach the fundamentals. Teach the techniques. Have the players repeat the basics until they become second nature. Then, in the heat of the moment, the player won't have to think about what to do. His muscle memory will kick in. Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
As much as the coaches taught the basics last year, they also had to install the schemes and do a lot of X's and O's coaching. There will be less of that this time around since the schemes are already in place. Returning players have a foundation. They know the schemes and their jobs. That will allow the coaches to focus on the new players when scheme is being taught. More importantly, it will allow the coaches to focus on techniques and fundamentals. This should really help some young players.
Think about a player like tackle Michael Bamiro. He was signed by the Eagles in mid-July after the NCAA refused to grant him an extra year in college. Bamiro was a late addition and came from a small school. He had to learn the scheme, his position and try to adjust to NFL competition in six weeks. Not surprisingly, the results were less than ideal. Bamiro flashed NFL ability, but also struggled at times. Pass blocking was a major issue. This spring and summer the coaches can really work on his footwork, balance and pad level. It will be up to Bamiro to show whether he can take that coaching and translate it to the playing field. The Eagles need youth on the offensive line so they would love Bamiro to step up and win a job.
Defensive end Vinny Curry has the quickness and ability to be a disruptive player. The Eagles’ base defense, however, requires players to use the two-gap technique. That is when the defender engages the blocker, reads the play, sheds the block and then goes for the ball. Curry adjusted and improved quite a bit during the season. With all spring and summer to work on his technique, can Curry become good enough at two-gapping to see even more playing time in 2014? You can bet defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro will work with Curry every day on getting better at the little things. Curry must become consistently good in the base defense for the coaches to get him on the field more.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.
Linebacker Travis Long is another player who joined the Eagles in the summer of 2013. He was coming off an injury and so he signed later than other college free agents. Long was behind schedule in learning the scheme and the subtleties of playing outside linebacker. He showed promise, but needed a ton of work. This summer, Long knows the scheme and his role. The goal is for him to improve enough to make the roster.
Joe Kruger is another defender who could be vastly improved. He spent the year on Injured Reserve due to a shoulder problem, but is healthy and ready to go. Kruger was used in a variety of roles when he played for Utah. He will be a defensive end for the Eagles. Kruger has bulked up to 290 pounds so his body is where it needs to be. There is no question that Kruger has the raw physical talent to play in the NFL. He must show that he's got the positional skills to be counted on this year. Kruger is a real wild card.
The defender who could make the biggest leap this year might just be safety Earl Wolff. He proved to be a quick learner last year, but still had his share of rookie moments. Wolff started six games in 2013 and showed real promise. He has a terrific foundation in place. The coaches can work on very specific issues with him. If Wolff learns as quickly this year as he did last summer, he could take a major step forward. Wolff will battle Nate Allen for the starting spot opposite of Malcolm Jenkins.
The Eagle who could be more improved than anyone is Matt Barkley. He had the challenge of learning the most difficult position in all of sports, quarterback. Barkley was hindered by a shoulder injury that affected his throwing. This year, Barkley knows the playbook. His shoulder is completely healthy. Barkley got enough playing time last year to get a feel for the speed of the game. Training Camp and preseason action will seem slow to him. His confidence should be much higher this time around. I expect him to look like a much better player.
I've talked mainly about the players to this point. Since practice is closed, there is no way to really judge the coaches in action. You basically have to sit back and study the players. If Long and rookie Marcus Smith II play well this summer, you'll know that outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern is doing a good job. And that's just fine with assistant coaches.
You don't become an assistant coach for glory. You do it because you love football. You want to teach young players how to get better. I'm sure Rick Minter was very happy when inside linebacker Najee Goode had to step in for Mychal Kendricks due to injury and Goode played well. Minter didn't have a full offseason with him, but was able to get Goode up to speed so that he could essentially be a starter for two games. The defense played well and the Eagles won both games.
Kelly chose his coaching staff very carefully. He wanted veteran coaches who knew how to teach fundamentals. Think about how many of them have college backgrounds. That isn't an accident. Fundamentals have to be taught in college. Some NFL teams focus more on scheme than technique. Kelly didn't want guys who would obsess on X's and O's. He wanted teachers.
This spring and summer, the Eagles assistants will spend a lot of time going over the basics. It will be Football 101. That's just what many young players, and even some veterans, need. To some fans, this may seem like the boring part of the football season. Assistant coaches feel very differently. They don't have a lot of distractions and can get to the business of teaching. The big plays of the regular season will be built on the techniques that the coaches pound into their players for the next few months.