Postcard from camp: Eagles
After last season's disappointment, Michael Vick seems more motivated than ever
DeMeco Ryans' poise captaining the Eagles' defense has been impressive so far
With Jason Peters injured, OT Demetress Bell must keep the Eagles' offense rolling
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Don Banks had to say about Eagles camp in Bethlehem, Pa., which he visited on July 27. Read all of our postcards here.
At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., where the Eagles have spent their summer training sessions since 1996. I know the trend in the NFL has firmly swung toward teams staying home for camp, but I can't imagine the Eagles abandoning their annual trek to Lehigh any time soon. It's a really nice fit between the club and the school, and the Eagles do a great job of making it an attractive little day trip for their fans, who faithfully flock here for the chance to get up close and personal with Team Green. Having just moved to the western suburbs of Philly earlier this year, a little more than an hour south of here, I know Lehigh is now on my yearly camp itinerary. Even if I do always get lost at least once winding my way up the hilly campus roads to the practice fields.
1. Michael Vick seems driven in a way that has made people notice the difference this year. Relax, I'm not going to throw one of those hokey storylines at you about the "New Vick.'' How many incarnations of that one have we heard over the years? But everyone has seen and heard a new level of dedication and commitment from him this offseason, as if he realizes after last season's train wreck just how much he has yet to accomplish in this game. From not missing a single opportunity to work on his craft or his training regime this offseason, to the much more active role he has taken in terms of being the locker room leader, the tone Vick has set has been one of urgency and single-minded focus. Will it pay off in 2012? We shall see.
"I feel like I know the commitment level and see with clarity what has to be done,'' Vick told me after the morning walkthrough practice. "I know what I need to do to make myself a better football player. That's why I'm so excited. When you're confident and believe in what you can do and those around you, it gives you that feeling. I wish I would have felt this way last year at this time, but it just wasn't to be. I don't want to leave no stones unturned. I want to be able to retire some day saying I did everything I could to accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish.''
2. The Eagles feel significantly better about their defense this season with ex-Texans team captain DeMeco Ryans in the middle of everything. Both head coach Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman made a point of mentioning how calm Ryans stays even when all heck is breaking out around him at middle linebacker. They think that's going to be a great benefit to the two young outside linebackers who will bracket Ryans: second-year veteran Brian Rolle and rookie Mychal Kendricks, a second-round pick out of Cal.
"There's no panic with him, even when there's motion or shifting on offense,'' Reid said. "He gets everyone lined up, and gets those young guys around him settled down and ready to go.''
Ryans is a smart, savvy veteran and a great fit in the middle of a 4-3, and if he's even close to the same player he was from 2006-10 in Houston, the Eagles' quest to find a playmaker to quarterback their defense will have finally ended.
3. There aren't a lot of hot spots of competition in camp, but two to watch are at punter and backup running back. Philly last week signed longtime Cowboys punter Mat McBriar to compete with second-year veteran Chas Henry, but if McBriar has recovered from the nerve condition that plagued his plant foot in 2011, this really shouldn't be much of a battle. McBriar has twice been to the Pro Bowl and led the league in punting average in 2010. Henry had a so-so rookie season, finishing 25th in gross punting average (42.9) and struggling with consistency. Put your money on McBriar and leave it there.
As far as who will back up the talented LeSean McCoy at running back, rookie seventh-round pick Bryce Brown seems to be ahead of Dion Lewis and others early in camp. There's always a chance a veteran like Cedric Benson or Ryan Grant might make the Eagles' radar screen at some point, but for now it's Brown, an intriguing talent who took a very strange route to the NFL.
He spent time at Tennessee and Kansas State in college, but played in just 13 games overall, with all of four carries for 16 yards since transferring from Tennessee when Lane Kiffin made his hasty departure for USC after the 2009 season. Brown is a solid 6-foot-0, 223 pounds, and he catches the ball well, can block and is versatile enough to line up almost anywhere in Marty Mornhinweg's offense.
Demetress Bell, left tackle. Nothing too difficult about identifying the prime candidate for this category. Bell is being asked to offset the loss of five-time Pro Bowl pick Jason Peters, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in late March, and then tore it again in mid-May. Bell started 30 games at left tackle for Buffalo from 2009-11, and he signed with the Eagles in free agency shortly after Peters' first injury. At left tackle, Bell isn't being asked to protect the blind side of the left-handed Vick, but his is still a big task and he's the only new starter on the offensive line.
Bell is pretty athletic for a guy who goes 6-5, 311, and well-respected offensive line coach Howard Mudd has seemed happy enough with his work so far. If Bell struggles to handle the job, the Eagles likely would turn to fifth-year veteran King Dunlap, the 6-9, 330-pound behemoth who started in place of the injured Peters once in 2011, and has opened seven games at tackle in the past two seasons. In a talented offensive lineup that seems poised for a bounce-back year, the pressure is on Bell to help keep the wheels of the machine rolling.
Todd Bowles, defensive backs coach. The Eagles secondary underachieved mightily in 2011 (see Nnamdi Asomugha, and others), and I predict Bowles is going to clean that situation up and emerge as one of the most underrated additions of the offseason in the NFL. Remember, this is a guy who went 2-1 as Miami's interim head coach after Tony Sparano was fired, and his Dolphins were drilling the Patriots 17-0 at halftime in Foxboro on Christmas Eve before New England rallied to win 27-24. If Miami had prevailed in that game, Bowles might have gotten the Dolphins' full-time coaching job, the same way Romeo Crennel did after going 2-1 as Kansas City's interim, with an upset of the undefeated Packers.
Bowles is a commanding figure as a coach, with a direct, to-the-point manner of communicating and a good feel for and rapport with his players. I think he'll be a head coach again in this league at some point fairly soon. Reid eagerly extended him a job offer after Bowles -- a Temple University product and native of Elizabeth, N.J. -- was not retained by Miami's new staff. Bowles knows his stuff, and he'll make a first-year impact in Philadelphia.
The Eagles have a quirky opener at Cleveland, but only because they will have played the Browns 16 days earlier in the same stadium in the dress rehearsal Week 3 of the preseason. Both teams will be shadow boxing through that one, even more so than usual in the preseason. But Philly in Week 2 starts a pretty demanding stretch in which it plays six 2011 playoff teams over seven games. Only a Week 3 trip to Arizona breaks up that tough run, which includes the home opener against Baltimore in Week 2, as well as home games against the Giants, Lions and Falcons, with trips to Pittsburgh and New Orleans mixed in.
Philadelphia might have slumped to a so-so 8-8 last season, but the TV networks still love putting Vick and Co. center stage. The Eagles will have at least five primetime games, with a pair of Monday night affairs, two more on Sunday nights (division showdowns in Week 4 at home against the Giants, and Week 13 at Dallas), and a Week 15 Thursday-nighter against the visiting Bengals. And let's start looking forward to the potential of a winner-takes-the-NFC-East showdown at the Giants in Week 17. The Eagles wouldn't mind if it comes to that. They've beaten the Super Bowl champs in seven of their past eight tussles, and haven't lost on the road in New York/New Jersey since 2007.