Postcard from camp: Eagles
Kevin Kolb's best asset may be his ability to learn from mistakes
Physicality has been the main theme of camp, especially from the defense
Rookie edge rusher Brandon Graham draws comparisons to Dwight Freeney
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Pablo S. Torre had to say about Eagles camp in Bethlehem, Pa. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
The Eagles, garrisoned for the 15th straight offseason in bucolic Bethlehem, Pa., appear to have studied at the Hansel and Gretel School of Navigation. A trail of laminated green arrows, all optimistically pointing north, dot a path through the turns and hills of the leafy Lehigh University campus all the way to Murray H. Goodman Stadium -- a facility which is, despite said leafiness, somehow only 1 hour, 30 minutes west of Canal Street in Manhattan (by most aesthetic measures, it must be said, the exact opposite of the Lehigh Valley).
I arrived here Monday morning, just about when the digital sign standing sentry outside the parking lots read 95 degrees. One team employee later told me -- as I attempted to imitate another reporter and literally squeeze myself into the shadow of a telephone pole -- the heat had been hovering in the 70s and 80s just a day prior. And yet the crowds still came out in full force, packing the bleachers and lining up behind the ropes ringing the two practice fields between which Andy Reid's players cheerily shuffle. Cheerily, at least, until they suffer from dehydration and/or heat exhaustion, as three players (wideout DeSean Jackson and running backs LeSean McCoy and Eldra Buckley) did on my first day here.
1. Shall we be blunt? Trading Donovan McNabb, far more than serviceable at age 33, is the gutsiest trade the NFL has seen in a long time. This team will now live and die with Houston-educated Kevin Benjamin Kolb, a 25-year-old who's saying, if not yet doing, all the right things in camp, so far.
Philly brass liked what they saw of him in limited action last season -- he threw for 718 yards and four scores in his only two starts, when McNabb was tending to cracked ribs -- and Reid has noted the adjustments Kolb's making on the fly in Bethlehem. On Saturday, for instance, Kolb tossed two picks -- one to cornerback Dmitri Patterson, who had cased the would-be eight-yard hitch. Then Sunday, on the exact same call -- and with Asante Samuel waiting -- Kolb pump-faked and made the play. "When Kevin makes a mistake," Reid says, "he learns from it and makes progress."
Kolb already has the arm, his team's confidence in the huddle and the talent to succeed; here's hoping he gets those mistakes out of the way before fans start glancing longingly in the direction of D.C.
2. Then again, maybe the defense Kolb is facing in camp is just that good. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's unit, helmed by middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, has looked decidedly more impressive than the offense. It's also looked decidedly more physical. Eagles camp has been notable if only for the hard, game-quality hits levied by the defense in team drills.
Buckley alone has been legitimately trucked by both Bradley and his partner in crime, Ernie Sims, on separate occasions. ("The thing that stands out to me," Reid would say of Buckley, "is he is an extremely tough human being.") And if the ACL that the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Bradley tore this time last year is no longer an issue -- and Bradley tells me it isn't -- it's easy to imagine the linebacker leveraging his tremendous physical tools and brains to solidify a place among the NFL elite.
3. Bradley, by the way, is 26. Jackson, 23; McCoy, 22. The team's excellent tight end, Brent Celek, is 25. The team's other starting wideout, former Missouri bullet Jeremy Maclin, is 22. And then there are the 13 rookies the Eagles drafted and brought to camp, including early Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite Brandon Graham. Which is all to say: these Eagles are young. And even if they fall short this year, Philly is as stocked with talent for the next five years as anyone. In fact, it's to the point where it's been hard for the veterans here -- whose ranks are missing the big three of McNabb, Brian Westbrook and Brian Dawkins -- to simply remember who everyone is. (This is not a joke.)
Sims -- whom the Eagles got from Detroit for a fifth-rounder in a three-way trade with Denver last April -- is all of 25 himself. And though he racked up only 49 tackles in an injury-marred campaign last season, the fire he brings to practice has at once impressed and unsettled his teammates. That massive hit on Buckley came when the back had gone airborne to try to reel in a catch on a screen play in a passing drill; fullback Leonard Weaver noted that some team elders had to instruct Sims to calm down. Center Mike McGlynn audibly expressed displeasure right after that hit, fearing for his teammate's health. Then ... those are two offensive players.
Bradley is a huge fan of Sims, for one thing; the ever-vocal Samuel essentially went into a seizure of pleasure at the sight, and seems all too thrilled to foster an offense-defense turf war; the same goes for another former Patriots cornerback, Ellis Hobbs. And Sims doesn't exactly shy away from his rep. Pressed later about whether he'd been going for the ball or Buckley, Sims chuckled, wryly. 'Twas the latter.
Graham, taken 13th overall out of Michigan, has already drawn national raves. It's easy to see why the bandwagon is filling up: Graham, 270 pounds and an alleged 6-foot-2, is constructed like a squatter version of Optimus Prime. And on top of having the motor to match, Graham has been busy perfecting his technique (recently the chop-and-swipe made famous by the late, great Reggie White). I don't yet know if he'll wind up being Dwight Freeney -- a guy who shares almost the exact same body type -- but Graham and the underappreciated Trent Cole (12.5 sacks last year) will wreak havoc from the edges.
Simply this: Michael Vick signing autographs to kind words and applause and posing for photographs with little kids at their parents' asking. It's proof, as if we needed any more, that athletes don't even need to win to spark forgiveness or forgetfulness. All you need is a couple years. And yes: If Vick has genuinely turned the page, as Tony Dungy thinks, even better.
1. The third-string quarterback in camp is none other than Northwestern's Mike Kafka, whom Philly drafted in the fourth round. If Vick is knocked down to third-string at some point, I'm obviously going to describe his experience with the Eagles as Kafkaesque.
2. Defensive tackle and Notre Dame product Trevor Laws, who had been dissatisfied by watching film of himself being repeatedly stonewalled by double-teams, has intentionally added both 20 pounds and a mustache to his frame. The Eagles are better for the changes.
3. DeSean Jackson no longer wishes to verbalize thought to the media, it seems. "I just don't want to talk," Jackson said to the press this weekend. "I have nothing to talk about." (He's said to be frustrated by his contract situation, or something.) Personally, I can't decide if it's better to have a player be up front about his general immaturity and/or disdain or have him simply "Both-teams-played-hard" his way through an otherwise horrible interview.
4. If you've been confused as to why some notable former players have been roaming the sidelines this summer while sporting team-issued paraphernalia, wonder no longer: The NFL's admirable Minority Coaching Fellowship Program is what brought erstwhile Eagles tailback Duce Staley back to Bethlehem. (And reunited Terrell Davis with Mike Shanahan in Ashburn, Va. with the Redskins.) The official title is "coaching intern."
5. Jason Avant, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said this morning, has had as good a camp as any wideout he's ever seen. Avant has caught 80 balls in competitive drills against zero -- yes, zero -- drops. Jackson, Maclin, Avant and Celek are on track to be one scary foursome.