PHILADELPHIA — One hour into the Eagles’ Sunday morning practice at Lincoln Financial Field, the team dove right in to 11-on-11 drills. Five reps for the No. 1 quarterback. Five reps for the No. 2 quarterback. Then the No. 3 quarterback ran out for his share … and suddenly a round of cheers broke out in the stadium.
Just another reminder that this isn’t your typical depth chart.
The three-headed QB situation in Philadelphia is one of a kind, the result of an offseason in which the Eagles made roster moves that were seemingly independent of each other. First, new head coach Doug Pederson watched film of the 2015 season and decided, “I want Sam to be my starter,” so Philly re-signed Bradford to a two-year, $36 million deal. Next, in free agency, the Eagles offered a three-year contract (with starter’s money) to Chase Daniel. And in the draft, they traded up twice in the first round to select North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz with the second pick.
Pederson has avowed the current depth chart: Bradford, the incumbent starter. Daniel, the back-up who knows the system as well as Pederson after being in Kansas City together for three years. Wentz, the quarterback of tomorrow without the pressure of having to start right away.
“That was my plan all along,” Pederson says, “and I am going to stick to that plan.”
But when will “tomorrow” come?
Two years ago, the Jaguars planned to sit Blake Bortles for the entire season, and he ended up starting in Week 4. In Philadelphia, impatient Eagles fans are already clamoring for their top draft pick. Wentz’s 10-yard run on a zone-read keeper in team drills drew a burst of cheers on Sunday, and after practice, a section of fans hoisting a green-and-yellow North Dakota State banner chanted, “We Want Wentz!” Bradford only fueled this fire by initially reacting to the Wentz selection by staying home from organized team activities in May and requesting a trade, though he changed his posture two weeks later.
No matter how much affection Wentz will be shown in the City of Brotherly Love, the Eagles’ 2016 season will hinge on the health and aptitude of Bradford, which have been great uncertainties throughout his seven years in the NFL. For the first time in three years, however, Bradford has been able to spend his offseason building strength in his body rather than rehabbing after major knee surgery. After tearing his left ACL during the 2013 season, and then again in 2014, his knee was bothering him long after his trade from St. Louis to Philadelphia.
“Last year going into some of the practices, the way my knee felt just wasn’t really in a great place,” Bradford says. “A lot of it was the pain and the swelling and discomfort I was feeling. When you’d go a few days in a row, it would get sore, and that makes it hard to really drive into that front leg and really rotate on it. Small adjustments that you don’t really think about affecting your throwing motion, but then you look at the tape, and you’re like, ‘Wow, it’s different. I can tell I’m really guarded when coming into that knee.’ ”
Bradford says that lasted four or five weeks into the 2015 season. As the pain subsided, his performance appeared to improve accordingly. Over the second half of the season, he threw 10 touchdowns to four interceptions, and completed more than 68% of his passes. But any comfort level he was starting to establish was erased when Chip Kelly was abruptly fired one week before the Eagles completed their 7-9 campaign. Ask Bradford if his physical health gives him confidence he can play the way he’s been wanting to since he entered the league, and he doesn’t just say yes. Suddenly, he turns frank.
“I mean, ideally, I would be in the same (offensive) system somewhere,” Bradford says. “A system that I had been in for a couple years. Just going back, the toughest injury was probably the second ACL in St. Louis. Because it was my third year in that system. I think I probably had my best preseason and camp. Everything just felt good because I was so comfortable in that offense.
“Unfortunately, this is my fifth offense in seven years. It’s a learning process that I’ve experienced and I kind of know now. But at the end of the day, you would still like to be in the same system. You look at some of the guys who have been in this league for a long time and been in the same system. You look at their comfort levels out there, and you can just see it on tape.”
Right now, Bradford has exactly one-third of the training-camp practice reps to build comfort. That’s how Sunday’s practice went, with Bradford, then Daniel, then Wentz, cycling through 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s with equal play counts. Pederson has said Bradford’s reps might increase toward the third exhibition game, when starters get their most extended action of the preseason, but for now the same amount of time to master the offense is being offered to each quarterback.
On Sunday, all three quarterbacks had an up-and-down practice. Bradford’s best throw came on a deep post route to Jordan Matthews in 7-on-7 drills; he hit his receiver in stride after Matthews had beaten cornerback Leodis McKelvin and safety Malcolm Jenkins about 50 yards downfield. On his next set of reps, an out route to Matthews was mistimed and fell incomplete. Matthews had pushed his route farther upfield, but Bradford came over to tell him he thought the defender was far enough off in coverage that Matthews should have cut off the route earlier. “Sam is big on those little things,” Matthews says, “so I have to be big on them, too.”
That’s how it works now, although the current hierarchy is a tenuous one. Pederson points out the mechanics that Wentz needs time to fix, like keeping his feet tighter to the ground, and adopting a posture that’s less stiff and erect. But he also raves about the unusual, off-balance throws that Wentz can make, calling them “Favre-like.”
“I have seen too many young quarterbacks who get anointed early and then fizzle,” Pederson insists. “Obviously there’s unforeseeable conditions that will pop up through the year, whether it be injuries or win-loss record, and you cross that bridge then. But I’m not going to worry about tomorrow when you have today in front of you.”
Tomorrow is inevitable, and Wentz is a fait accompli. The question is: How well does Bradford have to play to make today last?
Five Things I Thought About the Eagles
1) Doug Pederson’s practices are the polar opposite of Chip Kelly’s practices. Sunday’s special session in the stadium lasted a little over two hours, but Pederson said the norm will be about three hours in length. “A normal football game is three hours long, so why not start now, get them in game-ready shape?” While Kelly’s practices were conducted at warp speed, rattling off reps without huddling in between, Pederson prefers to take time in between to make corrections. Sometimes, if a play is run wrong, he’ll send the guys back to the line to do it again. “That’s the only way we are going to get better, if you can get immediate feedback on the field,” Pederson says. The players were introduced to the new normal with a three-hour padded practice last Friday. “People were about to die,” Bradford said. “I think some guys realized, this is what a real training camp practice is like. It’s an adjustment. It’s kind of a new mentality.”
2) Eric Rowe is determined to claw his way back up the depth chart. A second-round pick under Chip Kelly, the defensive back struggled this spring under the new coaching staff. But he started to turned things around early in training camp. Sunday, it was with an interception of a Chase Daniel pass in team drills. “Sexy pick,” linebacker Mychal Kendricks told Rowe on their way into the locker room.
3) The depth at running back is very thin. Ryan Mathews, who has struggled with durability throughout his seven-year career, is on the non-football injury list with an ankle injury suffered while working out on his own. In his place, Darren Sproles has been working with the first team. The 33-year-old is a versatile weapon but not a workhorse back.
4) Philly fans are tough, Part No. 8,367. During 1-on-1 drills between WRs and DBs, Josh Huff made a few nice catches. But when he let one pass get batted away, a heckler pounced. “This isn’t Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks anymore,” the fan screamed.
5) Jordan Matthews is a really good teammate. While at Vanderbilt, the WR played with QB Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Aaron and one of two finalists in this season’s Bachelorette. The reality show’s finale is Monday night, and Matthews told us on video why JoJo Fletcher should pick his old QB. “We had a great relationship,” he said of Rodgers, “so I think they could, too.”
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