PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — I know all eyes are on the offense and the intriguing three-headed quarterback situation in Eagles camp, but my sense is Philadelphia will only go as far in the NFC East as its Jim Schwartz-coordinated defense takes it this season. In part because the offense is such an unknown quantity, there’s an expectation this will be a defensively led team, and Schwartz is making early strides in instilling the attacking mentality that his defenses have been known for.
“It’s kind of nice that no one’s really talking about the defense, and we’re kind of building something that nobody knows about yet,’’ said veteran defensive end Connor Barwin, after Saturday morning’s workout at the team’s NovaCare Complex. “There are still some mistakes being made, but you’re seeing moments where where it’s like, ‘Oh, man, when this all comes together, this is how it’s supposed to look and this is how good it can be.’ I really like our group, and I do think the way he wants us to play, the people in Philadelphia will enjoy that type of aggressive mentality.’’
Schwartz gave me about 20 minutes or so Saturday and he’s clearly relishing the challenge of molding his Eagles defense into a unit that takes on his never-back-down style. He’s living just three miles (and “29 lights, straight down Broad Street’’) from the team complex, and after a year spent away from NFL coaching in 2015, the former Lions head coach has essentially been tossed the keys to the Eagles defense by new head coach Doug Pederson and told to get it done.
Philly has some nice pieces to work with at all three levels of the defense, but clearly the depth at defensive line is the strength of the unit, with the talent shortages at cornerback and linebacker being more pronounced. The safety tandem is very solid with ex-Ram Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins, but the tone will be set by the guys up front, where players like Barwin, Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham are going to love getting after the quarterback in Schwartz’s 4-3 formation, rather than the 3-4 employed by ex-Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis.
“We’ve got good pass rushers,’’ Schwartz said. “And some of the guys I think we’ve put in a little better fit than they were in the previous defense. If you’re a defensive lineman, you’d rather attack and be asked to rush the quarterback than to two-gap and hold blocks and things like that. You go back to Graham, Curry, Fletch, they were all drafted with (a 4-3) in mind, but they didn’t get to play in that defense, and it was a tough match and just a little bit of a different fit for some of those guys.’’
The Eagles are reportedly in negotiations to sign veteran linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who played for Schwartz in both Detroit and Tennessee, and his addition would add quality depth in the middle of the defense. But the cornerback situation still must sort itself out, among the nondescript group of Leodis McKelvin, Nolan Carroll, Eric Rowe, Ron Brooks and others, and Schwartz said plenty about his depth chart when he said: “We got enough (bodies), but who was it that said if you’ve got a lot, you don’t have....,’’ letting what he didn’t say speak volumes.
Eagles fans are known for their brutal honesty and hell-bent loyalty and that’s why they’re going to find themselves a kindred spirit of sorts in Schwartz, who could well endear himself to a franchise that has been searching for answers at defensive coordinator since the beloved Jim Johnson died in 2009. Chances are, the identity of this Eagles team is defined by its defense and Schwartz’s fiery temperament.
“Philly fans are savvy enough football fans that they know what a good product is,’’ Schwartz said. “That’s part of the fun of this. If you work hard, if you play tough, they’ll love you. This is an old-school town. There’s probably not a lot of fantasy football played here. They want their Eagles to win, they want their Eagles to do well. And that’s cool.’’
More news and notes from Eagles camp
• It’s almost Carson Wentz time in Philly, and by that I mean the preseason opener is looming, with Tampa Bay scheduled to face the Eagles Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field. According to the plan at quarterback, August might be the only time we get to see much of Wentz in action during his rookie year, if he indeed is inactive as the No. 3 passer on game days during the regular season.
“His time is now,’’ Pederson said. “This is the time for Carson to show us what he’s capable of doing, and how much he can understand. This first game will be a nice little test for him, because we scaled back the game play. It’ll really be the first time we see him in live action, processing the same information and making the same reads.’’
If Wentz looks sharp against the Bucs, even if it’s Tampa Bay’s third-team defense he faces, prepare for some Eagles fans and the media to start agitating for the future to be now. We’ll see how deep the commitment to incumbent starter Sam Bradford goes if the rookie dazzles in the preseason, or even if his QB draft classmates like the Rams’ Jared Goff or the Broncos’ Paxton Lynch make early strides in winning their team’s No. 1 jobs.
“Carson really made a huge jump from where he was in the spring to summer, and he continues to grow,’‘ Eagles VP of football operations Howie Roseman said. “But we have a plan and we’ll stick to it. I think that’s the hardest thing about being part of running a sports team, but you have to have a plan and a process and understand there’s going to be highs and lows.’’
• Sometimes it’s a veteran defender who can give you the most honest and straightforward opinion on a team’s quarterback situation, which is why I made sure to ask Barwin to handicap the three-man field for me.
“To me it looks like Sam has the most control, and then I can’t really speak much on Chase (Daniel),’’ he said. “Carson has looked like a rookie. He has moments where you see him make incredible throws and he flashes with his athleticism running out of the pocket. That’s when you can see why he was drafted and why he was drafted so high. And then sometimes he’ll make a bad throw and he looks like a rookie.’’
• Not to belabor the team’s three-year Chip Kelly era again, but the Eagles roster could sure use a LeSean McCoy or DeSean Jackson on offense about now. I don’t see any home run hitters that Pederson has at his disposal, just a bunch of guys who can produce solid doubles. If there’s an overriding question that hovers in Eagles camp, it centers on whether the team has any real difference makers on offense?
Maybe running backs Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles or rookie Wendell Smallwood will thrive in this offense. At receiver and tight end, it’s up to Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Chris Givens, Rueben Randle, Zach Ertz and Brent Celek. The Eagles’ collection of skill position talent has to rank last in the NFC East, with no Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr. or Jackson at No. 1 receiver.
“Nobody expects us to do anything, and I’m alright with that,’’ Pederson told me. “In Kansas City in 2014, we went through the whole season and didn’t throw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver, and it was a national story. But we were still finding ways to win games. I go off the scheme and I go off an intelligent quarterback who makes good accurate decisions and doesn’t turn the ball over. I think there’s some matchup possibilities and capabilities out there, and you move your playmakers around and put them in a good position.’’ Sounds good, but for now, consider me skeptical.
• Everyone in Eagles camp understands what’s at stake for 2014 first-round pick Marcus Smith this summer. He either cuts it and learns to contribute in Schwartz’s defense, or he probably gets cut. At least he’s back at his collegiate position of defensive end in Philly’s 4-3 formation, rather than being miscast as a linebacker as he was the past two seasons, when he totaled just eight tackles and 1.5 sacks in 21 games, playing just 194 snaps.
“He’s had his best camp since he’s been here, but he’s a man having a camp where he’s fighting for a roster spot now,’’ Barwin said of Smith, who suffered a concussion in Friday’s practice and is currently sidelined. “I think he’s moved past the pressure of being a first-round pick and now he’s just fighting to make this team.’’
Said Schwartz: “He’s flashed all the talent that got him drafted, but we’ve made it simple for him. Scheme-wise there’s not a lot for him to do other than attack and hit his aiming points and go. This gives him the best opportunity to be successful.’’
5 Questions with Chase Daniel, Eagles backup quarterback
Q: What do you make of a quarterback depth chart like this one, where the quarterback ahead of you (Sam Bradford) is the present, and the quarterback behind you (Carson Wentz) is the future, and you’re in the middle of those two realities?
CD: My whole thing when I signed here is (head coach) Doug (Pederson) wanted to bring me in and financially they made it worth while, and all I can do is put my best foot forward and let the front office work their plan. The guys in the quarterback room, we trust in that plan. Everyone in that room wants to play but we also know, whoever they name starter -- as in Sam, who they have named the starter -- we’re going to get behind him and make him ready to play Week 1. And if things change in the meantime, so be it. They always change in the NFL. We understand that in that room.
Q: Can you give me your assessment of Bradford’s camp thus far?
CD: I think he’s been spectacular. I mean, there hasn’t been a lot of balls touch the ground, really by all three quarterbacks.
Q: And what have seen so far from the rookie, Wentz?
CD: Carson has truly surprised me with how smart he is, and how well he’s picking up not only the offense but the protections as well. That’s one of the hardest things as a rookie to come in and understand protections, being able to take it to the field from the classroom, getting us in the right plays at the right time.
Q: You’ve played for Pederson, in Kansas City, so what can you tell your new teammates about their new head coach that they don’t know for themselves just yet?
CD: Guys are constantly asking me about Doug and how to respond to him. Doug has done a good job portraying to the team that he is very much laid back. But he understands for a team to be good, you need accountability from its players. He was a little bit like that (in Friday’s practice). He was on one (Friday). He expects greatness, he really does, and he doesn’t mess around. When we’re sloppy out there, he’s going to correct us and make us do it again and again and again until we do it right.
“We were a little bit sloppy to start on the group install period, and that’s when you want to be the sharpest, because you’re going against air. But I think it was great, because he showed that (demonstrative) side to players and players responded well to it and we had a really good practice. As Doug progresses as a head coach he’s going to get way more comfortable with the team and how to push it a certain way. Every team is different and a head coach has to have a good vibe on that and I think that’s what Doug does best.
Q: There are concerns the Eagles don’t have enough play-makers on offense. Do you see any validity in that as a potential weak spot?
CD: I say that absolutely we do (have enough playmakers). The thing about Doug’s offense is, he’s going to play to our strengths and put them in the right spot to make plays at the right time. And right now it’s all simple formations and stuff. But once we get into the season, we’re going to put our best players in the best spot, whether it’s (Darren) Sproles or Chris Givens, Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz, or Brent Celek. Everyone is going to be put in the perfect position to be successful. That’s what these coaches do a good job of, putting us in the position to make plays.
Biggest Turnaround: The contact is back in practice
One of the big themes this season in Philadelphia is that with the hiring of Pederson, the Eagles are trying to recreate Eden, or at least the relative Eden of the Eagles’ highly successful Andy Reid era. Pederson both played (Philly) and coached (Kansas City) under Reid, and that means making a comeback is the practice of full-pad, live tackling during some training camp workouts. Pederson said the approach has always worked well for Reid, and he sees no reason not to hit the same way, even though the Eagles never practiced with full contact under Chip Kelly.
There was some grumbling Friday from Zach Ertz that a few of the rookies needed to stop hitting low and do more to protect their teammates, but make no mistake, the tackling is here to stay.
“He’s asking them to do something they haven’t done in four years, and it’s been a very physical camp,’’ Roseman said. “It’s an adjustment, but he’s been through it, and its been proven to him to be a successful formula, and he’s explained to them why he’s doing it and why he believes it’ll help them going forward. We had a tremendous amount of success and have the utmost respect and appreciation for (the Reid era), and it would be a beautiful thing if we could recreate a lot of the success that we had.’’
Drawing Some Buzz: Safety Rodney McLeod
In reality, both McLeod and fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins have stood out through the first two weeks of camp, but we’ll single out McLeod because he’s the newcomer of the group, signed away in free agency after spending four seasons with the Rams.
McLeod has made numerous interceptions in camp, and between his well-known willingness to hit anything that moves and his penchant to find the ball, he has quickly earned Schwartz’s trust.
“The guy’s a really good player, but he gets a little bit disrespected because he wasn’t a household name and didn’t get drafted coming out of (Virginia),’’ Schwartz said. “The scouts all thought he was too slow to play cornerback and too small (5-10, 195) to play safety. But he goes to the NFL and becomes a starter and doesn’t miss a game. He’s played a real high level and we’re really fortunate to have him and Malcolm together back there, because they’re both multi-dimensional. That’s really going to help us solidify the guys in front of them and to be able to help the corners.’’