Eagles' good news, bad news

Posted: October 18, 2013

SOMETIMES, PROPER seasoning takes a season or two.

Consider tight end Brent Celek, for instance. Through his first 32 games with the Eagles he managed 43 catches and 11 starts. He had 76 catches in his third season.

Jason Peters entered the league as an undrafted tight end in 2004. Three seasons later, he went to his first of five straight Pro Bowls . . . as a left tackle.

Not every player pops right away in the NFL. It takes time to adjust; it takes more time for some than others. Some never get enough chances. The Eagles have several players who might not get their next chance.

They stand at 3-3. They face three very winnable games in their next five, two against the Giants and Washington, flailing teams that they already beat. The Eagles could be 6-5, maybe even 7-4, entering their bye week, records that would point them toward the postseason for the first time in 3 years.

Those would be deceptive results.

In their performances against Denver and Kansas City, the Eagles displayed deficiencies that would be exploited in the playoffs. Still, this team should be a factor late into the season.

Which, from one perspective, is too bad.

This season should be about rebuilding, re-evaluating, resetting around phenomenal college coach Chip Kelly and his staff.

For instance, an injury to Michael Vick has afforded them the chance to see Nick Foles in at least two or three games. No sane observer who watched Foles go 1-5 as a rookie starter last season expected him to travel to Tampa on Sunday, dissect a tough Bucs defense and emerge as NFC Offensive Player of the Week.

In a diluted conference, atop an abysmal division, the Eagles this season can be a real success story.

This is the sort of success that keeps borderline talents hidden.

Practice and preseason games can show only so much. It takes regular play in regular-season games to accurately evaluate players.

As such, the Birds could miss on a player or two they have nurtured to this point. Who knows?

Perhaps, after two seasons of struggles, inside linebacker Casey Matthews somehow has figured out how to shed a block and efficiently pursue a running back. His grandpa, dad, uncle, brother and cousin all made money in the NFL. His bloodlines are intriguing, aren't they?

"It comes with the more years you play in the league. Obviously, it's a new scheme, but I like this scheme. I feel it fits me," said Matthews - who then indicated that he has been practicing at outside linebacker, too. "It's a totally different position for me, obviously. But if, say, Connor [Barwin] went down, I think I'd be able to fill in for him. I don't think that's a problem."

Perhaps, after three seasons of excess aggression, Kurt Coleman can modulate his craving to attack, can effectively support the run defense and will not sell out on every play-action pass. He is, after all, one of the brighter players on the team.

After all, neither Coleman nor Matthews has had a defensive coordinator for two consecutive seasons. Both were low-investment picks; Matthews, a fourth-rounder; Coleman, a seventh. Both played a lot before this season. That was more by necessity than by merit, but they played, nonetheless.

Both could be much better today than they were a year ago.

"I know I am. I've been able to work on a lot of things I had not been able to work on in the previous years," Coleman insisted.

These days, Coleman said, he spends time on detailed footwork and coverage techniques used by cornerbacks. That is time he did not have the past two seasons, when he spent practices preparing to be a starting safety.

"I feel really good with where I'm at, how I play this game, understanding schemes, breaking down things and being able to match up man-on on a tight end or a wide receiver," Coleman said. "I feel a lot better than I did last year, or the previous year."

He might never get to show his claimed improvements.

Coleman is a free agent after this season. Matthews is under contract for another season, but backup linebackers whose greatest value lies on special teams sometimes are training-camp casualties.

Still greater issues lie elsewhere on the roster, where considerably more investment has been made.

The Eagles used the 13th pick in the first round in 2010 to draft defensive end Brandon Graham, to whom they have committed more than $20 million. Injury, circumstance and, frankly, inconsistent performance have since limited Graham to 12 starts in 54 possible regular-season games.

Running a 4-3 scheme, the Eagles signed Jason Babin to play in front of Graham in 2011. In a 3-4 scheme this season, Graham converted to outside linebacker. However, the Birds signed Barwin to play the left side. Graham cannot displace fellow convert Trent Cole on the right side.

Graham has been in for no more than 23 defensive plays in any game this season. He is participating in just 25 percent of the plays. He is slated to earn almost $1.7 million next season.

At least Graham is getting more chances than defensive lineman Vinny Curry, whom the Eagles took in the second round last season. Curry is 2 years from free agency, and plenty can happen in 2 years, but neither Fletcher Cox nor Cedric Thornton is likely to go anywhere any time soon.

Curry does not contribute greatly on special teams, so he was inactive the first two games. He has been in for 21 percent of the snaps since, in part because Cox and Thornton have been the team's best defenders.

Curry and Graham each have one sack this season, the same as Thornton and one more than Cole, who now is sack-less in a career-high eight games.

The season is young. Players get hurt. All of the aforementioned might get plenty of chances. None is guaranteed to warrant further consideration.

Coleman and Matthews might prove to be short-timers best suited for special teams.

Graham and Curry might be situational pass rushers drafted far earlier than they should have been.

Then again, they could be like left guard Evan Mathis.

He started just 22 times for three teams in his first six seasons, only seven times at left guard. Then, in 2011, Mathis landed with the Eagles, got some coaching and, more to the point, he got a chance to play. He has started 37 games at left guard the past three seasons. He is considered among the best in the business.

The difference: Mathis got his chance with an Eagles team a lot worse than this one.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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