Good morning, Eagles fans. Training camp has finally arrived. The players report to the NovaCare Complex today and practice for the first time at noon on Thursday. There will be football news just about every day for the next six months. Follow Philly.com for all the latest information.
This is the final offseason edition of the Early Birds newsletter, which will arrive in your inbox on Friday and continue three days per week during training camp. 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 Eagles will spend the next six weeks preparing for the season, but it won't just be about schemes and lineups. It will also require developing the chemistry and collective personality of the team. When explaining what makes Doug Pederson a good coach, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins emphasized that Pederson knows how to establish culture. Jenkins noted that "a lot of coaches know Xs and Os" and "can run a meeting," but few can develop a culture that sticks.
Listen to the veterans on the Eagles discuss what made last year's team special, and it doesn't take long to realize the culture that Pederson has created. Lane Johnson has been outspoken about how the Eagles are allowed to have fun, and that's not an accident. It's an emphasis of Pederson's, a former player, and it's something to keep in mind when the Eagles go through long practices during the next few weeks.
"I try to make it as fun as possible," Pederson said. "I make it fun for myself. I want to coach and have fun doing it. I don't necessarily think it has to be a grind. We get our work done, as you've seen us. We practice hard. Those summer days are tough, when the pads are on, but at the same time I think you can enjoy the journey."
One lesson that Pederson learned from Andy Reid was to let players' personalities show. Pederson said he believes it's important, which is why he didn't have a problem with the touchdown celebrations last season and doesn't try to muzzle his players. It's not a country club atmosphere – all you need to do is watch the padded practices in the humidity – but Pederson hasn't lost touch with what players want.
"You only get a short window to coach or play in this league, and I want to make sure I maximize that for myself, but at the same time maximize it for our team, our players, and I enjoy having a good time out there with the players," Pederson said. "At the same time, making sure they stay focused and we get our work done."
The Eagles are looking for a weakside linebacker to replace Mychal Kendricks, and newcomer Corey Nelson is a player to watch. Nelson, 26, signed with the Eagles this offseason after four years with the Denver Broncos. Although Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill have experience in the defense, Nelson has more starting experience in the league. He started five games in 2016 and signed with the Eagles hoping to be more than a special teams player.
The spring didn't offer firm clues on who will start because Jordan Hicks was absent at middle linebacker and the Eagles rotated players. Plus, Nelson was new to the system. Nelson said he picked up the defense during the spring and he's versatile enough to play different spots. That could help if he's in a reserve role.
"It got to the point now where I can play all three positions out there, give the calls, make the calls," Nelson said.
But in the base defense, Nelson's best shot of playing time is replacing Kendricks at weakside linebacker. Nelson said it will come down to consistency and avoiding mistakes. On a team without many competitions for starting jobs, though, this will be one battle to monitor.
Former Eagles linebacker/defensive end Connor Barwin will sign with the New York Giants, going to an NFC East rival for his 10th NFL season.
Barwin had five sacks in 14 games with the Rams last season. Barwin provides the Giants with a versatile pass rusher and respected veteran in the locker room. He also reunites with former Eagles outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern, who is now a Giants assistant. Giants coach Pat Shurmur was the Eagles' offensive coordinator in three of Barwin's four seasons in Philadelphia.
Barwin is a popular figure in Philadelphia whose philanthropy in the city has continued even after he his 2017 release. The Giants visit the Eagles on Nov. 25. It won't quite be like Chase Utley returning to Philadelphia, but it will be a worthwhile storyline that week for Barwin's first game back in Philadelphia.
Training camp and the preseason will go a long way to determining this. Patrick Robinson didn't take over the slot cornerback job until midway through the preseason last year. My guess is that Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby remain the starting cornerbacks in the base defense, although the Eagles are in nickel most of the time. In that case, I think the Eagles get their three best cornerbacks on the field and Sidney Jones plays with Mills and Darby in the nickel. Who plays the slot? I'd slide Mills there, but that's what the summer will reveal.
As for the third safety, you're absolutely right – Corey Graham played a big role in the defense, especially in the postseason (60 percent of the snaps). The Eagles could go with Tre Sullivan as the third safety, but I still think they add a safety – perhaps even Graham. It's a deep safety free agent class right now; Kenny Vaccaro, Eric Reid, and Tre Boston are among those still available.