Globe NFL writer Albert Breer is touring select training camps around the East Coast, and will report from each one he visits. To review his previous reports, check out his training camp tour page.
It took me three years of covering training camps , but I finally made it yesterday morning to Bethlehem, Pa., to see one of the league’s signature summer sites. And I can confirm that the Eagles and Lehigh do put on one of the more intimate, fan-friendly settings in football.
The people are very, very close to action – close enough where us media types are routinely asked to move over for a minute so they can get a picture of the action on the field. Mountains surround the practice facility, which is in the middle of Lehigh’s pretty extensive athletic complex.
The Eagles really got after it in the morning, coming out in full pads and spending much of the sessions in full team drills, 9-on-7s and 7-on-7s. Practice is efficient, as you’d expect from Andy Reid, and competitive. During a one-on-one drill, one coach chided Asante Samuel – matched against super-sized rookie Riley Cooper – asking if he could find a smaller receiver for the corner. Samuel responded later, “I brought my big-boy pads today, coach.”
THREE THINGS TO SORT OUT
Putting the defensive pieces together: The Eagles defense dealt with a lot last year (not the least of which was the death of respected coordinator Jim Johnson), and finished a respectable 12th in the NFL. But things fell apart against Dallas in the regular-season finale and wild-card playoff round, and the Eagles have invested big to upgrade. First-round pick Brandon Graham might start, fellow rookie Daniel Te’o-Nesheim is playing with the first defensive group in nickel looks, and Seahawks import Daryl Tapp has opened some eyes as well. Adding that depth to established rusher Trent Cole gives second-year coordinator Sean McDermott a lot of freedom to dial up the kind of blitz packages his predecessor was known for.
On top of that, the talented but uneven Ernie Sims gets a fresh start at linebacker, joining middle man Stewart Bradley, who is making a comeback, and rookie Nate Allen has been a revelation at safety. How will all these moving pieces fit? That’s what camp’s for. But two things seem certain now – they’ll blitz a ton and the talk of switching to more 3-4 fronts was a bit overblown in the offseason.
“Yeah, tell people we run a 3-4,” joked Bradley. “We have a lot of different packages, that’s for sure. But I think at the end of the day, if we’re gonna play one base defense, it’s gonna be 4-3.”
Fronting the offense: The Eagles’ idea to get younger on the offensive line last year was solid. Its implementation? Less so. Philadelphia has an emerging group of young skill players and confidence in its 25-year-old quarterback, Kevin Kolb. But all that might not matter if the line doesn’t sort its issues out. Jason Peters will be left tackle, and seems to be primed to return to his Pro Bowl form. The rest is unsettled.
Starting center Jamaal Jackson and guard Todd Herremans are on the physically unable to perform list and question marks to start the season, and Nick Cole (a guard who moved over and replaced the injured Jackson last season) was banged up recently as well. Stacy Andrews is expected to have a big second year in Philly at guard, but really, the problems on the interior of the line remain. Getting Jackson and Herremans healthy would go a long way as the offense breaks in Kolb.
Into the frying pan: Donovan McNabb played in six Pro Bowls, five NFC championship games and a Super Bowl in his 10 years as Philly’s starter. And yet, he became one of the city’s most maligned figures. So it goes for an Eagles quarterback. The coaches and staff here really believe that Kolb’s cool will carry over if he has a rough week and the buzzards descend on him, but it’s hard to really know how he’ll handle the micro-analysis of every mistake until he actually goes through it. The good news is, he’s pretty aware of his surroundings.
“Donovan had a lot of ups and downs,” Kolb said. “And (the way he handled it) is one thing that everyone respects him for.”
TYING IN THE PATRIOTS
Ex-Patriot Ellis Hobbs has overcome a litany of injuries to earn, to this point, a starting assignment opposite fellow former New Englander Asante Samuel at cornerback. He’s overcome a lot, but there are certain things about his exit from New England that continue to rub him the wrong way.
“I gave a lot to that organization, as far as with my body, playing when I was hurt, seriously hurt, and doing things and not getting the credit for certain things and not having people defending me,” Hobbs said. “I was doing above and beyond what was asked of me, when I saw other players taking less and doing less. It’s one of those things where that’s the way of the world. You move on and you learn from it.”
Hobbs did add, “I loved playing for (Bill Belichick),” and “I definitely appreciate the fans and all the support that was given,” but it’s clear that he departed with a little something to prove to the Patriots organization. Finally healthy, he thinks this is the year to do.
THE QUOTE THAT CAPTURES
“The standards haven’t changed. If the outside world doesn’t feel like that, all that matters is what we believe in within this organization. The coaches, the players, down to the trainers, the owner, we all have one common goal and that’s to get to the promised land and hopefully come up with a ring.” — WR Jeremy Maclin
About two months ago, I swore off US Air after a terrible trip to Dallas for the owner’s meetings. I wound having to spend a night in Charlotte without access to my luggage. That was after taking threats from an airline flunky who said that if I caused a problem because I couldn’t get my bag, he wouldn’t hesitate to have me tossed in jail. Only reason I booked US Air in the first place was because I’d been screwed by them so many times, I figured the law of averages would take over and help me on this one. Which didn’t happen. To fly back to Boston, I was booked on United out of Philly. I get to Terminal D to check in. And they tell me to go to Terminal C.
“Sorry, sir, your flight today is being operated by USAir.” So now, United makes two on my no-fly list.
THE GUY TO WATCH
DT Trevor Laws. The 2008 second-round pick has gotten minimal playing time up to this point, was a healthy scratch several times last season, and was thought to be on the roster bubble going into this summer. But he’s come up big in camp, and looks like he might be a good interior disruptor – something he was seen at in college at Notre Dame. He’ll fight for playing time behind established starters Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson.
There’s a lot to like about Kolb, and I believe the Eagles made the right decision to go with him at the time they did, no matter what team McNabb landed with. But the ball he throws isn’t the most impressive of the Eagle quarterbacks. That distinction belongs to Mike Vick, who looked very sharp and accurate in this morning’s practice, and seems to have developed a touch on the deep ball I don’t remember from him. … Safe bet: Maclin will emerge as a star in the Eagles offense this year. His year of transition coming from Missouri being in the books will help, as will the attention defenses pay superstar DeSean Jackson. … It’s early, but this looks like it could be a foundation rookie class for Philly. No less than four neophytes – Graham, Te’o-Nesheim, Allen and tight end Clay Harbor – should contribute right away. Allen will likely start and Graham, who’s gotten rave reviews from everyone here, could as well. On the downside, Ricky Sapp has been a bit of a disappointment so far. … All this said, if Bradley can return to his 2008 form, he may be the biggest addition to the team. He was medically cleared for everything in April, coming off last summer’s ACL. And he thinks everyone will benefit from having a year with McDermott.
“This year, instead of Sean having tweaked Jim’s defense, it’s more kind of how he wants to call it,” Bradley said. “Now he’s had the whole offseason to change the playbook up, and there are definitely things that are different than they were last time I was playing, which was with Jim.”