Good morning, Eagles fans. The countdown is on. Training camp begins in almost two weeks and the first preseason game is less than a month away.
This is an offseason edition of the Early Birds newsletter, which will come every Wednesday until camp opens. If your friends haven't subscribed to Early Birds, it's free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
The only punter on the Eagles' roster is Cameron Johnston, a first-year player who has never played in a regular season game. Unless the Eagles make a roster move in the next two weeks, they will enter training camp with Johnston unchallenged – a curious decision considering Johnston's lack of experience.
But to hear special teams coordinator Dave Fipp explain it, Johnston is neither unchallenged nor a lock to be the Eagles' opening day punter. Even if there's not another punter on the roster, it doesn't mean the Eagles aren't looking.
"I always say the most challenging situation is one [in which] there's not another guy here because you're always competing against someone, and it's a whole lot easier when you can watch the guy you're competing against every day and you kind of know where he's at and where you're at," Fipp said. "The harder guy to compete against is the guy who's not in the building. …We'll look at every player who's out there. Obviously, we'll watch [Johnston] and we're going to end up going with the best guy. Sometimes, that'll be the guy we have on the roster. Sometimes, it's not."
However, Fipp emphasized how "great" he feels about Johnston, who impressed the Eagles last summer. Johnston averaged 44.9 yards on 15 preseason punts. He had one touchback and three punts land inside the 20, with a long punt of 61 yards. Johnston, an Australia native, played college football at Ohio State, where his 44.9 yards per punt ranks second in school history. He was a first-team all-American and second-team all-Big Ten as a senior.
When the Eagles cut Johnston last summer and stayed with reliable veteran Donnie Jones, one of Fipp's concerns about Johnston was Johnston's holds on extra points and field goals. Fipp has seen improvement in that area this year. That is an underrated part of the punter's job with the Eagles.
"He came back better than where he left," Fipp said. "I'm definitely excited about him. I think the guy has a lot of talent. I think he'll be able to play in this league."
Considering there is no one else on the roster, Johnston is the front-runner to win the job and will be the Eagles' punter with a strong summer. However, the team will have their eyes on the other 31 rosters and see which punters might be released or traded elsewhere.
"We'll watch everybody and we'll make the best decision," Fipp said. "I know this: We'll end up with a good player here."
The NFL will hold its supplemental draft on Wednesday. Although no player has been selected in the supplemental draft since 2015, there is intrigue this week because it's a more talented pool of players than usual. Western Michigan cornerback Sam Beal, Virginia Tech cornerback Adonis Alexander, and Mississippi State safety Brandon Bryant are the top players available.
The Eagles have eight draft picks in 2019, including three in the first two rounds, and also expect to receive compensatory picks. So if they wanted to be active on Wednesday, they have a deep reservoir of picks to use. But they also have a crowded depth chart – especially at cornerback – so my guess is they try to keep their picks for next year's roster, when they might need more players on rookie deals. If they see a player whom they feel would make the roster as a safety, perhaps they act. Otherwise, it would make sense for them to sit this one out.
Nonetheless, it's worth paying attention to the picks on Wednesday. The Eagles know defensive backs — and cornerbacks in particular — can be difficult to find.
Nick Foles' book, "Believe It," debuted on The New York Times best-seller list. When reading the book, there were a few things that stood out to me. One was just how much the March 2015 trade to St. Louis affected him. He's spoken before how the call from Chip Kelly blindsided him, and he made clear the effect the experience had on his life. Another big takeaway was how valuable the bye week during the playoffs was to get Foles back on track. Foles wrote how he watched every pass completion of 15 yards or longer from 2013 and 2014 to see what worked. At the time, there was much discussion about the Eagles reviewing old film for ideas. But Foles wrote about how those cut-ups allowed him to "rediscover who I truly was as a quarterback."
I'm going with Derek Barnett, and you'll read me mention Barnett often during the next two months. He's poised to be a disruptive player and will see a spike in playing time. Barnett played 41 percent of the defensive snaps last season and finished with five sacks, one forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries. Even with the addition of Michael Bennett, I can see Barnett played about 60 percent of the snaps. He's entering his second season and has the talent and work ethic to continue improving. It's not out of the question for him to reach double-digit sacks. I think he'll become one of the Eagles' key defensive players in his second season.