OTAs/Minicamp Takeaways and the Beat Writer Beat: Philadelphia Eagles
Dynasty fantasy football players who rely solely on push notifications from fantasy apps or the newsfeed of their league’s hosting site to stay on top of the latest news about NFL teams and players are missing out on a lot of valuable information. The little news blurbs they’re reading only provide a fraction of the information and insights being put out by NFL beat writers, especially during offeseason workouts. In this second article of my series on OTAs/minicamp takeaways from the beat writer beat, I take a look at the Philadelphia Eagles.
While there’s no question Carson Wentz has the skills to be a top NFL and fantasy QB, major concerns have persisted for dynasty owners of the Eagles QB going into the 2019 season. With his last two seasons cut short by serious injuries, Wentz started to draw comparisons to Tony Romo, a fantasy QB stud when on the field but who just couldn’t stay healthy. So it must have been with great relief that Wentz owners greeted the news that popped up in their push notifications or newsfeeds that he would begin OTAs with “no limitations.” They also must have been relieved when Wentz signed his big post-rookie contract extension for $30 million. His signing was an indication that the Eagles are all-in on Wentz as their franchise QB (and they paid no heed to some pundits like former Eagles QB Donovan McNabb who suggested that they should draft another QB just in case.)
Because of persisting questions about his health, beat writers were focused on Wentz throughout OTAs and minicamp. At the very start of OTAs, Wentz mostly got lukewarm reviews from beat writers. In an article for PennLive.com, Daniel Gallen stated that at the first OTA practice open to the media Wentz made “some questionable throws during red zone drills in different situations,” but still looked “pretty good.” On the No Huddle Show podcast, Zack Rosenblatt and Mike Kaye, both of NJ.com, thought Wentz looked “a little rusty.” They observed that he missed his first 3 throws, and he had a couple of wide-open misses. But they also noted that he finished 13 of 19, his mobility looked as good as it’s ever been, and ultimately he looked “fine.” On the Birds with Friends podcast, co-hosted by Athletic.com writers Bo Wulf and Sheil Kapadia, the latter asserted that Wentz wasn’t “on fire” nor was he “carving up the defense,” but his early on-field showing was “encouraging.”
But by the second week of OTAs, the assessments of Wentz’s performance from coaches, teammates, and beat writers became more glowing. For example, Reuben Frank of NBC Sports Philadelphia sent out this giddy tweet: “I know it’s only May and it’s only OTAs and no pads…But Carson Wentz looks fantastic. He made some vintage Carson throws today and was firing the ball exactly where he wanted it.” In a presser reported on by several beat writers in early June, head coach Doug Pederson revealed he was blown away by Wentz: “I mean, gosh, he’s strong. His lower body is strong. His arm is strong. You are seeing the things that we saw a couple of years ago when he was healthy, obviously. He’s leading the offense…really doing a nice job out there…[I’ve] been real impressed with where Carson is.”
And near or by the end of OTAs and minicamp, the ratings of Wentz’s performance were sky-high. In an article for PhillyVoice.com, Jimmy Kempski wrote: “Is it getting tiresome to note that Wentz looks really, really good? [At one of the last OTA practices], Wentz was dialed in, as usual, and was dropping dimes all over the field. Wentz is really good, and it’s easy to predict he’ll have a big year if he can stay healthy.” For PennLive.com, Gallen declared that “the expectations for Carson Wentz are [now] sky high” based on how he performed. He elaborated: “He looks smooth. He looks slimmed down. His passes still have zip. Everything points to Wentz returning to the form he showed in 2017 when he was front-runner for MVP. His teammates expect it.” Gallen then quoted Ertz who said in one of his pressers, “’I mean, the guy probably should have won it [the MVP] two years ago, and he’s playing at a very similar level to that right now as he was then, in my opinion. I think the sky’s the limit for him.’”
But there was one beat writer who was a little more circumspect at the end of OTAs and minicamp about Wentz’s performance and his 2019 season outlook, and that was Rosenblatt. Given that he attended every practice open to the media and tracked every single throw Wentz made, his evaluation should be given credence. In his article “Final Carson Wentz Observations after Minicamp/OTAs/OTAs” for NJ.com, Rosenblatt revealed that Wentz went 58 of 86 (67.4%) at OTAs, 35 of 49 at minicamp (71.4%), and 93 of 135 overall (68.8%). He summed up his more balanced view of Wentz by writing: “It wasn’t a perfect spring necessarily for Wentz, but that shouldn’t have been the expectation anyway. More often than not, Wentz was good, sometimes great, and occasionally stellar. He wasn’t always accurate, especially at the start of OTAs, but he’s always going to be a quarterback that takes risks down the field anyway. The Eagles [and their fans] can walk away from the spring feeling pretty good that Wentz is a legitimate MVP candidate if he can stay healthy.”
Given what’s happened with Wentz the last two seasons and the massive void left by the departure of Super Bowl winning backup QB Nick Foles, a lot of beat writers paid close attention to Nate Sudfeld, the 3rd-string QB now pegged for the backup role. And their observations for the most part were not reassuring, especially in the beginning. After the first practice, Rosenblatt and Kaye on their podcast said that Sudfeld looked “indecisive and inaccurate.” His struggles continued into the second week of practice. At one practice, Brandon Lee Gowton of bleedinggreennation.com judged his performance as “up and down.” On one play in particular, he held onto the ball for too long as his receiver ran a crossing route, and he ended up throwing a pick six.
Sudfeld began to show some improvement by the end of offseason workouts, however. In an article for The Morning Call out of Allentown, Tom Moore claimed that on the last day of OTAs Sudfeld showed why “the Eagles’ backup quarterback job is his to lose.” Moore wrote that he was “precise with his throws…[and] he made good decisions, throwing three touchdowns in 11-on-11 red zone work.” Moore also quoted some praise for Sudfeld from his teammate Zach Ertz: “Everyone in this organization’s got a lot of confidence in Nate because of what he’s
shown on the practice field. Every time we’ve asked him to do something, he’s done that full-speed ahead and there’s never been a doubt.”
But just like with Carson Wentz, Rosenblatt’s final assessment of Sudfeld should be given credence as he observed him throughout offseason workouts and tracked all of his throws at practices open to the media. On the surface, Sudfeld’s stats seemed impressive, as he went 45 of 60 at OTAs (75%), 20 of 36 at minicamp (55%), and 65 of 96 (67.7%) overall. But as Rosenblatt pointed out in an another article, a lot of his completions were dump offs and short passes. In his summary, he wrote: “I’m not going to delve too much into Sudfeld, but suffice it to say it was a bumpy spring. I don’t want to go too deep because…[h]e’s still an inexperienced quarterback getting more reps in this system than he ever has. If he’s still inconsistent in his decision-making and accuracy once training camp rolls around, then there will be time for concern.”
If Sudfeld doesn’t pull it together by the end of training camp, then there will be good reason for concern for the Eagles and their fans. Behind Sudfeld are Cody Kessler and 5th round draft pick Clayton Thorson out of Northwestern. Suffice it to say that they both have been unimpressive to the Eagles beat writers. Tom Moore pointed out that an unnamed writer said that Kessler’s passes “look like long snaps—let’s just say they’re not always tight spirals.” As for Thorson, he had a “shaky spring” according to Kaye, but given his draft capital at worst he might end up on the practice squad.
If there was one player who rivalled, if not exceeded Wentz, in terms of beat writer buzz, it was DeSean Jackson, the prodigal WR who returned to the franchise that drafted him. The buzz was partly attributable to the contemplation by many writers of just how much more dynamic the Eagles offense could be in 2019 given his skill set and how well it meshes with Wentz’s. As Rosenblatt wrote in an article for NJ.com, even at 32 Jackson remains one of the NFL’s “very best deep threats” who just last year (and for the fourth time in his career) led the league in average yards per reception (18.9.) And Wentz is a QB with “elite deep ball arm strength.” Ever since he was unceremoniously dispatched from the team by Chip Kelly, the Eagles have been searching for a “legitimate deep threat,” shuffling “through the likes of Torrey Smith and Mike Wallace to no avail.” Jackson, Rosenblatt insisted, will “add a dimension to Pederson’s offense that he hasn’t yet experienced as a head coach.”
Rosenblatt expanded on his thoughts about Jackson’s impact for the Eagles passing game in his podcast. He pointed out that Wentz has never had a receiver “who can catch up to his arm strength,” and Jackson will “bring out a certain level of confidence that he can air it out and know that DeSean will catch up to it.” In an article for 247sports.com, Jeff Kerr pointed out that in 2019, Wentz only went 1 of 15 for 39 yards and a 39.6 passer rating when throwing passes of 20+ yards to the outside right. Kerr predicted that having Jackson line up to his right “should greatly benefit him.” Gallen summed up the dreams of many beat writers when he wrote for PennLive.com: ”The thought of Wentz throwing the deep ball to Jackson early and often in games is tantalizing.”
Interestingly, beat writers didn’t really witness a ton of bombs from Wentz to Jackson during offseason workouts. Judging by the references to bombs from a wide sample of writers, they saw maybe 3-4. But what they did see was enough to keep their imaginations ablaze. The buzz surrounding Jackson, however, was not solely based on a couple of bombs in practice and hopes and dreams of big plays on Sundays. In fact, it’s fair to say that it was more soundly based on how Jackson actually ran routes and caught passes from Wentz on intermediate routes and in red zone drills. Focusing specifically on Jackson himself, Gallen declared on PennLive.com: “Jackson has been as advertised. He’s given opposing corners some trouble. He’s still fast. He’s smooth.” At one practice during the third week of OTAs, Kaye went so far as to say that “…Jackson made Carson Wentz look good…Jackson made a handful of impressive catches and got open with regularity.”
As for the Wentz-Jackson connection itself, beat writers were adamant that it was special and that it crackled with chemistry. Sharing his observations of one practice during the second week of OTAs, Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com exclaimed: “Carson Wentz looks…really good. The obvious thing that stood out was how many times he was able to hook up with DeSean Jackson…Wentz was able to find Jackson on a variety of 10-15 yard in-breaking and out-breaking routes.” He concluded that “[i]t feels a lot like Wentz is going out of his way to build rapport with Jackson, and so far so good on that front.” On Birds with Friends, Kapadia observed that Jackson was running a lot of 20-yard comeback routes, and Wentz’s passes were hitting him “right in the numbers.” He further asserted that “their timing is impeccable,” and “the Wentz to DeSean Jackson connection is the biggest story to come out of these spring practices.”
The Wentz-Jackson connection was so magnificent that it inspired Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Inquirer to stretch his literary muscles and gift us with this fine bit of prose: “The ball seemed to crackle in the heavy air…as No. 11 in the red jersey threw to No. 10 in the green jersey….Jackson always seemed open against the first team defense…[a]nd Wentz always delivered the ball right in front of Jackson’s hands, for at least six strong completions, as if they’d been working together for years instead of days.” (Clearly Bowen is working on a novel in his free time.)
As exciting and dynamic as beat writers made Jackson’s addition to the team seem, he may just turn out to be more beneficial to the Eagles as a team than to fantasy teams. Alshon Jeffery still holds the position as the WR1 who will both move the chains and pose a red zone threat. Jackson will probably serve as the deep threat who will have a few big games but remain inconsistent as a fantasy asset on a week-to-week basis. However, if the intermediate game that he put on display during OTAs and minicamp is incorporated more into the Eagles‘ weekly game plan, Jackson could prove to be more than a boom or bust fantasy player.
Furthermore, his significance for the fantasy outlook of other Eagles players should not be overlooked. Zach Ertz made this plain in one of his pressers: “He’s so complementary to my game. I’m the guy that’s living between the numbers, and he’s the guy taking the top off
defenses. The safeties, they cannot focus on me like they typically do. If they do, DeSean’s going to take a 75 yard touchdown pass.” And if the Eagles run more 12 personnel as many beat writers were predicting, Ertz’s analysis could apply to Dallas Goedert as well.
Speaking of Goedert, he was another standout at offseason workouts. On the No Huddle Show podcast, Kaye raved about Goedert. Attributing to Goedert the desire to get bigger, faster, stronger (a la Kanye West), Kaye proclaimed that he looked bigger, faster, stronger. He said Goedert really “stood out,” and “he caught everything thrown his way.” He went so far as to claim that he has the potential to be a top 10 TE by the end of the season.
The running back situation was also something beat writers monitored. With Jordan Howard, Miles Sanders, and Corey Clement locks for the roster, writers paid attention to the battle for the likely one remaining roster spot between Wendell Smallwood, Boston Scott, Donnell Pumphrey, and Josh Adams. With Adams sidelined with an injury and Pumphrey considered to be sticking around solely because of his draft capital, writers narrowed their focus to Smallwood and Scott. Smallwood did run with the first team along with Jordan Howard, and he even got some love from his RB coach Duce Staley, who had this to say: “Wendell’s having a great camp. [He’s] picked his game up during OTAs. We all know he can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s just getting better within the offense.”
But beat writers had no idea what Staley was talking about. In their view, Smallwood was underperforming to say the least. According to Rosenblatt and Kaye on their podcast, he seemed to fade into the background during most practices they saw. When he did emerge from the shadows and get noticed, it wasn’t in a positive light. More than one beat writer reported that he had several stone-cold drops receiving out of the backfield.
On the other hand, Scott got noticed and always in a positive light. Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia didn’t go into much detail, but in his offseason wrap-up article, he singled out Scott as a player who “looked good in these practices.” Gallen also noticed Scott, who he thought looked “strong and shifty.” In an article for NJ.com after the second week of OTAs, Kaye wrote that Scott was “a standout as a receiver…, [and he] has shown reliable hands during the offseason program.”
Besides his receiving ability, what have really boosted Scott’s chances of making the final roster are his special teams ability (he returned punts and kicks in practice) and Pederson’s lofty comparison of him to Darren Sproles in an early June presser. As Pederson stated: “He’s a guy that can kind of fill a Darren Sproles [role]. He’s in that same body type and same quickness. We’re working him in a couple of different situations as a runner, as a punt returner….[H]e’s kind of been the one that, if you say you’re going to try to replace Darren, which you really can’t, he would be the guy that has kind of taken that role over right now.”
Although Staley’s judgment is a little suspect given his take on Smallwood mentioned earlier, he also had high praise for Scott: “I’m very high on Boston…I’m excited about how quick he is…He does look like a little Sproles at time.” In a roster prediction article for NJ.com, Rosenblatt gave
the edge for that final RB spot to Scott. In his view, the Eagles seemed to be giving Scott every chance to win the job, and even though Smallwood is trusted, “he’s already reached his ceiling.”
The Eagles are loaded right now on offense. A lot of NFL media analysts, not just beat writers, are predicting big things from the offense and Wentz in particular. In a tweet over the Memorial Day weekend that drew a lot of attention, Louis Riddick of ESPN predicted that Wentz would win the 2019 MVP. If the Eagles realize their full potential, a lot of players on that offense are going to be fantasy relevant, if not outright difference makers.