On The Edge Blog

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Eagles soar on draft weekend

A few weeks ago, I admitted that I was a draft junkie. I love the buildup, analyzing all of the stats and sifting through the rumors and mock drafts.

However, most years, after more than 250 selections go by, the Eagles always disappointed me. They never pick the players I wanted, or did anything to make me think they knew what they were doing.Seriously, how excited can you get over a 340-pounder who may or may not pan out? The only way I can judge if an offensive lineman is having a good game is if I don’t groan that he stinks more than twice that afternoon.

Then came the 2009 NFL Draft. Not only did the Eagles pick players at exciting positions, they picked the right players at those positions!

Last week, I wrote that I wanted to see the Eagles come away with a wide receiver, a running back, a tight end and a cornerback, and the Eagles filled all four positions with meaningful players who could contribute week 1.

Going into Saturday, the draft was already a success because they traded for two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters a week earlier, but adding Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy with their first two picks, and then basically stealing tight end Cornelius Ingram in the fifth round was beyond anything I could imagine.

While Maclin is not a big wide receiver, he was considered the top wide receiver on more draft boards than any other receiver, including Michael Crabtree, because of how explosive he was in just two years at Missouri.

Maclin put up extremely rare numbers for a guy who didn’t make it to his junior year, topping 1,000 receiving yards as a freshman, and then following that up with 102 catches and 1,260 yards as sophomore. He also had more than 2,600 yards and five touchdowns returning kicks and punts, showing that he was a threat to reach the end zone at any time.

In combination with DeSean Jackson and Kevin Curtis, the Eagles could have the fastest set of wide receivers in the NFL, and all three are smooth route runners with great hands. No team in the NFL is going to have the ability to run with these three receivers, and their speed will open things up underneath for guys like Brent Celek, Jason Avant and Brian Westbrook.

Moving to the second round, LeSean McCoy isn’t the big running back that everyone wanted, but he is a player who can make the Eagles more dangerous just by showing up and keeping Brian Westbrook fresh.

McCoy is cut right out of Westbrook’s mold, with great hands out of the backfield, having caught 65 passes the last two seasons, but he can also pound the ball inside, carrying the ball an astounding 584 times the last two seasons, which is more carries than Westbrook has had in any two-year span in his career.

Perhaps the most important number on McCoy’s stat sheet is 35, because that’s the number of rushing touchdowns he racked up in two seasons, including 21 in 2008. That shows that he can pick up the short yardage while preventing Westbrook from taking a pounding during the season.

With the additions of Maclin and McCoy, I now see an Eagles team that, for the first time in my life, is filled with talented players that are a threat to score from any part of the field, and from any down and distance. Individually, it would be tough to shut down Maclin, McCoy, Westbrook, DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis or Brent Celek, but putting five of those six players on the field at one time presents nearly impossible matchup problems for any defense.

The only things that could stop this offense in 2009 are execution and balance, but let’s not worry about those issues right now.

Quick thoughts on the NFL Draft:

* People are wondering why cornerback Ellis Hobbs only cost the Eagles two fifth-round picks, but the Patriots are in bad shape when it comes to the salary cap, as multiple players need to be re-signed in the next year.

* When the New York Giants took one of my sleepers from last week—Ramses Barden—in the third round, I couldn’t completely slam their draft, but I feel like taking Hakeem Nicks and Barden is overkill, considering Kenny Britt was taken the very next pick after Nicks. At 6-3, Britt would have been the possession receiver that Nicks is, while also providing the big target in the red zone they hope Barden becomes. In Britt, they could have used just one pick to fill two holes in Eli Manning’s arsenal.

* Even though I went to Maryland, I can’t justify taking Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh pick in the draft, but JaMarcus Russell can’t throw anything but a deep ball, so maybe having the fastest receiver in the draft running under a bunch of bombs won’t be so bad. The Raiders will still be terrible, but at least their offense should be good for fantasy football purposes.

* Anquan Boldin was apparently never really available or the Eagles, Giants and Titans would have pulled the trigger on a trade with the Cardinals instead of grabbing unproven receivers in the first round.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Eagles draft preview!

We all knew that the Eagles weren’t going to select two players in the first round of the NFL Draft this weekend, we just didn’t know that they were going to wind up with a two-time Pro Bowl left tackle, and still have the 21st pick in the first round.

When the Eagles traded for Buffalo’s Jason Peters, they solidified their offensive line, while simultaneously guaranteeing that their draft weekend would be considered a success.

It would have taken both of the Eagles’ first round picks, and maybe more, to get high enough to draft either Jason Smith or Eugene Monroe to play left tackle, but the Eagles only spent one first round pick to get a proven player in the prime of his career, instead of potentially the next Robert Gallery or Mike Williams. By the way, if those two names don’t make you shudder, how about our own offensive line busts, such as Kevin Allen, Bernard Williams, Antoine Davis and Winston Justice. Doesn’t that make you cherish the fact that we don’t have to sit back and hope a lineman develops?

Now that the offensive line has six guys fighting for five spots (with Nick Cole pushing Todd Herremans and Jamaal Jackson for a starting position), the Eagles probably won’t be taking an offensive lineman before the fourth round. This means the Eagles might use their first few picks to actually draft people that excite the fan base!

Here is how I handicap the potential options for the Eagles on Saturday:
* Stay at 21 and draft Knowshon Moreno, Darrius Heyward-Bey (four inches taller than DeSean Jackson, and ran a faster 40-time), or Kenny Britt - 40 percent.
* Use second day picks to trade up a few spots and draft running back Chris “Beanie” Wells - 20 percent.
* Collect more picks and trade out of the first round to draft a lesser running back - 20 percent.
* Draft tight end Brandon Pettigrew out of Oklahoma State—10 percent.
* Trade the 21st pick plus either a third round pick or Reggie Brown for Anquan Boldin—10 percent.

Personally, I would love to see Heyward-Bey, Britt or Boldin catching passes from Donovan McNabb, and then have them use a second round pick on a running back like Andre Brown from North Carolina State. Brown is 224 pounds and runs a sub-4.5 40-yard dash, but more importantly, returned kickoffs in college, which is now a vacant position because Quintin Demps is too valuable to play on special teams.

After running back and wide receiver, the Eagles need to come away with another cornerback—in case Sheldon Brown sulks his way through training camp—along with a big defensive end and a tight end.

Draft weekend sleepers:
* Sean Smith, CB/S: I mentioned this 6-4, 214-pound defensive back on WBCB in March, and I’m convinced that he is the steal of the draft no matter when he gets picked. Smith, a junior out of Utah, would be the bigger than any wide receiver in the NFC East, while faster than most, running a 4.49 40-yard dash. The Eagles would have to move up to the early to mid-second round to get Smith, but he would also give the Eagles the upper hand in their showdown with Sheldon Brown.
* Ramses Barden, WR: At 6-6, 229 pounds, Barden immediately becomes a huge red zone target for whichever team selects him in the fourth or fifth round on Sunday. Barden hauled in 18 touchdowns in his senior year, scoring at least one touchdown in every game for Cal Poly, and scored 50 TDs in his four seasons with the Mustangs.
* Devin Moore, RB: At 5-9, 185 pounds, Moore isn’t the typical size for a running back, but he reminds me of San Diego’s Darren Sproles. He runs a 4.4 40-yard dash, and put up 1,301 yards as a senior for a Wyoming team that always found itself trailing by double-digits.

Like the On the Edge Blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will preview the NFL Draft weekend, and throw in some Flyers and Sixers playoff analysis.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Flyers prepare for their archrivals

When the Flyers squandered a 3-2 lead to the New York Rangers on Sunday evening, it cost them home-ice advantage in the first round of the NHL playoffs, but more importantly, it gave their opponents, the Pittsburgh Penguins, a chance to continue their recent hot streak from the comforts of Mellon Arena.

We all know that the Penguins are led by their two superstars, Evgeni Malkin and Sydney Crosby, who ranked first and third in the NHL in scoring this year, but this is not the same team that sent the Flyers packing in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. These Penguins are not nearly as deep or as dangerous as the one that reached the Stanley Cup Finals and revitalized a franchise.

Last year, the Penguins had five scorers top 50 points for the season, and this year, just Malkin and Crosby reached that plateau, and the team's power play plummeted from fourth in the NHL last year to 20th this season.

In addition, the Penguins allowed 23 more goals this season, and Marc-Andre Fluery's goals against average jumped from 2.33 to 2.62, which could be a sign that he is wearing down after playing in 32 more games this season than a year ago.

Switching over to the Flyers, both the numbers and the players are looking stronger this season, as the Flyers boast six 25-goal scorers for the first time in franchise history, and have improved their power play and penalty kill units from last year.

Compared to last year's team, these Flyers are far more dangerous because of their depth. Last year, the Flyers were a team of guys who needed to make perfect plays with everyone in sync to score, but this year is entirely different.

Since being ousted by the Penguins last year, the Flyers' offense has added Simon Gagne, who scored 34 goals this year while compiling a plus-22 rating, and Forsberg-esque rookie Claude Giroux. They have also received huge boosts from Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Scott Hartnell, who all set new career highs in goals and points. These players all have stepped up their games, and, unlike last year, have shown the type of individual explosiveness that is necessary to put the team on their backs for a shift or a period or an entire game.

Moving to the ever important man between the pipes, thanks to the improved offense, Martin Biron shouldn't need to stand on his head like during last year's playoffs, but he will need to be solid. The most important thing for Biron to do is continue his solid third period play. This year, the Flyers were 26-3-2 when taking a lead into the third period, and as a team, they had a league-best +27 goal differential in the third period. If the Flyers are going to make a deep playoff run, Biron, along the guys in front of him, will need to continue their third period dominance and close out the games the way Brad Lidge slammed the door in the ninth inning for the Phillies.

While all of the statistics are nice to use as indicators of what might occur, the players actually have to play the games, and thankfully, the Flyers are (knock on wood) a healthy team. When the Penguins knocked out the Flyers in five games last year, Gagne had already been shut down with a concussion, and Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn had each missed most of the series due to injury.

In addition to health, the Flyers now have experience. Look at how the Phillies' young stars came through in October after a playoff let down the previous year. Guys like Richards and Carter know what it is like to make a deep run in the playoffs and come up short, while young defensemen like Ryan Parent and Braydon Coburn know how much more intense the playoffs are compared to the regular season.

Last year, a stronger Penguins team overpowered a shallow Flyers roster to move onto the Stanley Cup Finals. This year, the Flyers, despite stumbling a little down the stretch, can match up with any team in the league as long as they come out strong and stay healthy. As long as they stay healthy...

Prediction: Eight scorers are better than two, and the Flyers dispose of their cross-state rivals in six games.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The day our voice went silent

“The 0-2 pitch, swing and a miss, struck him out! The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World Champions of Baseball!”
~Harry Kalas (1936-2009)

I have written a column every week since the Phillies lost their 10,000th game in July 2007, and throughout the last 21 months, I have analyzed some epic wins and a few crushing losses, but never a loss like this one.

When Harry Kalas passed away on Monday, April 13, shortly after 1:20 p.m., he took with him the Hall of Fame voice that was always there for us.

I was only fortunate enough to have met Harry one time, but I still remember shaking his hand and seeing how genuinely happy he was to meet me, along with each and every Phillies fan. I went to the third to last game of the 2007 season, and Harry and Jim Jackson were doing a pre-game show from the lower level of Citizens Bank Park, so my friends and I stopped to watch. When the show went to commercial, I walked up to Harry, shook his hand and told him he was the greatest and that it was an honor to meet him.

He could have told me to get lost or shook my hand and said nothing, but that wasn’t Harry. He shook my hand, thanked me for wanting to shake his hand, and then did the same for my friends, as well as for every fan that shook his hand that night or any other night for the 38 years he was a member of our family.

And it’s true, Harry was a member of our family. He may not have watched any us grow up, but we all grew up into baseball fans by watching him. When I was young, Harry’s voice taught me about baseball and told me everything I needed to know about the guys with classic baseball names, like Michael Jack Schmidt, Terry Mulholland, Mickey Morandini and Andy Van Slyke. (Just listen for a moment, and I'm sure you can hear Harry calling their names in a way that only he could.)

When I was in high school, Harry’s voice was the only sound while I was studying, and when his voice rose, I knew to look up because the Phillies were doing something good. When I went away to college at the University of Maryland, I remember saying that when I came home, I wanted to sit down with a cheesesteak and Harry Kalas’ voice announcing the Phillies.

Even back in October, as I screamed my head off in section 428, I remember that as Brad Lidge’s slider hit Carlos Ruiz’s glove, I yelled Harry’s famous call of “struck him out!” Right then I realized that the only thing missing from that most perfect of moments was hearing Harry call our Fightins the World Series champions. The following morning I finally caught the clip of Harry calling the final out of the game, and the World Series seemed complete.

When I saw the video footage, it was clear that he was just as excited as I was, and maybe that’s the reason that Harry holds a permanent place in the heart of every Phillies fan.

When you watched a game, you just knew that Harry was as emotionally invested in the outcome as you were. In a day where we have emotionless announcers, who care more about their own voice than the teams on the field or the fans in their living rooms, Harry was always there to lead the charge when the Phillies were pulling off a comeback, or to console you after your heart had just been ripped out after a loss. No matter how bad it got, you knew it was going to be okay and that the Phillies would get it back the next day or the next season because Harry told you that it would happen.

In the end, the Phillies will play at least another 155 games this season, but no matter how many they win and how many they lose, each one will be incomplete because Harry’s voice didn’t tell us how it happened.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A friendly and gentler fan base?

I don’t really understand what is happening in the Phillies Nation. There was a strange joy on Sunday evening, which, despite a 4-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves on opening night, did not go away as the evening progressed.

This was the third consecutive opening day that I have attended, and all three of them ended in defeat (I’m not a jinx!). However, for some reason, I didn’t see the same look of despair on the 45,000 fans leaving Citizens Bank Park that I saw the previous two seasons.

Maybe it was because this year’s loss wasn’t the result of a bullpen meltdown that helped the Phillies snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Or maybe it is because winning a World Series after an up-and-down season has given fans a little perspective and the knowledge that every game and every at bat isn’t life and death. The one downside to this was that, unlike after last season’s opening day, I wasn’t handed free tickets to the following game by a dejected fan!

Starting at the beginning of the evening, I walked into Citizens Bank Park on Sunday with an unknown feeling. I felt very content with last season, and watching the red 2008 flag rise above Ashburn Alley (at an even height with the American Flag, which I’m pretty sure is against the law), I was filled with mixed emotions about the 2009 season. All the normal season-opening emotions were there on Sunday night except the rage. We had the first pitch, the first reference to the movie Major League, the first opposing homer thrown back onto the field, the first Ryan Howard strikeout, and countless other firsts of the season, but no anger. Maybe the World Series has made me a more mellow and rational fan.

Even the fact that three Braves players were tied for the league lead in homers after Sunday night’s game couldn’t bring me down and make me boo. That’s right! I decided that I’m not going to boo our Phillies until at least May, because it is a long season, and as I realized through a text message conversation with a Mets fan, it’s not how you start the season, it’s how you finish.

Midway through opening night the Phillies trailed 4-0, and my friend, who is a die-hard Mets fan, texted me to say, “If only baseball was a one game season.” To which I accurately replied, “We’re not an April team,” and he responded saying that it is “more important to be a September team.”

After seeing smiling faces leaving Citizens Bank Park on opening night, maybe that is a lesson that myself and thousands of other Phillies fans have learned, even though yet another season has started with a notch in the loss column.

Quick observations from opening night:

* Why hasn’t Ryan Howard learned that every 3-2 pitch he sees will be knee-high on the inside corner, and after he watches it go by, the umpire will call it a strike? He also has yet to learn that every one-strike pitch he sees will be in the dirt.

* Brett Myers didn’t actually pitch as poorly as people think. If he gave up two runs in the third inning and two more in the sixth inning, nobody would have complained about his outing. People would have even praised it a “gutsy” performance if the Phillies’ offense had actually scored a few runs and won 5-4.

* How sharp did the Phillies’ bullpen look? Jack Taschner, Scott Eyre, Chad Durbin and Brad Lidge combined to toss three perfect shutout innings, picking up where the 2008 bullpen left off.

Like the “On the Edge” Blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will talk about the first week of baseball, and the Flyers’ push for the playoffs.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Are the Phillies prepared to repeat?

We are just days away from the start of the baseball season, and that means seven months of the Phillies being called the “defending World Series champions.”

I’ll be honest, it’s much easier to write a column about the underdog, because all I’m doing is looking at the best-case scenario, and hoping it plays out. With the Phillies filling the role of the defending champs, the “Can they repeat?” column needs to look at the worst-case scenario, as well as have a little more realism than the eternally optimistic columns from last year.

So seeing that we are Philadelphia sports fans, let’s look at the potential negatives first, which, as always, revolve around pitching.

To start with the obvious, Cole Hamels’ 262 1/3 innings pitched last year, and his already sore elbow, are immediate concerns. The Phillies need Hamels to anchor this starting rotation and contend for a Cy Young Award, or 2009 will be a disappointment.

Last year, the Phillies were able to survive meltdowns by Brett Myers, Adam Eaton and Kyle Kendrick, but they always had their ace to stop a long losing streak or rescue an overworked bullpen.

The Phillies have the offense to survive a short stint on the disabled list by Hamels, but not even the most delusional fan could imagine another October run without the reigning World Series MVP.

The other foreseeable pitfall to a successful title defense is that the Phillies’ bullpen most likely won’t be the unstoppable force that it was in 2008. Last season’s crew of relievers compiled a 3.22 ERA, which ranked second in the majors, and as we all know, closer Brad Lidge didn’t blow a save all season.

This year’s bullpen is already at a disadvantage, as setup man J.C. Romero will sit out the first 50 games due to the lamest steroid suspension in the sport’s pathetic history of juicing. In addition to losing Romero, Lidge will lose a few games this year (I assume he can’t be perfect again), and the Phillies should not expect a repeat performance out of guys like Chad Durbin and Clay Condrey, who combined to toss 156 outstanding innings last year.

Enough with the bad, because this Phillies team has the potential to be even better than the 2008 squad, and it all starts with an offense that, despite lofty run totals, underachieved last season.

Last year, Jimmy Rollins suffered an ankle injury, which cost him 25 games and limited him all season, as he posted some of his lowest offensive totals in years. Rollins racked up just 76 runs, 59 RBIs and 58 extra base hits in 2008. Those totals were his lowest since 2003, 2005 and 2003, respectively.

Along with Rollins, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino and Pedro Feliz all missed time due to injury, and Chase Utley’s MVP season was derailed by an ailing hip. Because of these injuries, the offense slumped horribly as the Phillies spent a month writing Geoff Jenkins, Eric Bruntlett, Carlos Ruiz and the pitcher in the six through nine spots in the lineup. Assuming that trio never bats in front of the pitcher in 2009, the Phillies’ offense should not suffer from the lengthy slumps that peppered the 2008 season.

The final aspect of the improved Phillies offense is the swapping of Raul Ibanez in place of Pat Burrell. The only reason fans are down on Ibanez is because he is signed for $14 million dollars more than Burrell, who is in Tampa Bay, but it’s not my money, so I don’t care.

All I care about is that Ibanez will hit at least 30 points higher than Burrell, while knocking in more runs and actually moving guys over with less than two outs. Ibanez has hit at least 30 doubles in each season since 2002, knocked in more than 100 runs in each of the last three seasons, and hasn’t hit below .280 since 2000.

Having Ibanez batting behind Utley and Ryan Howard will do far more for the Phillies than having Burrell taking walks to set up double play balls by Jenkins, Feliz and Ruiz.

Switching back over to pitching, we will no longer be forced to suffer through outings by Eaton – who is with the Baltimore Orioles – or Kendrick – who is now an Iron Pig. The two starters combined to compile a 5.62 ERA in 49 dreadful starts, along with three relief appearances.

In their place, the Phillies should get a full season of Joe Blanton – who led the Phillies to a 12-4 record in his 16 starts after leaving Oakland – and Chan Ho Park, who has been excellent this spring, and would provide more consistency than the shaky Kendrick.

I would add in the fact that Myers will probably avoid another season in which the Phillies are 4-13 in his first 17 starts, but I expect some regression from 46-year-old Jamie Moyer, who allowed three earned runs or less in 26 of his 33 starts. The Phillies should roughly combine to win about the same number of games out of their starts.

I know that the road back to the World Series is hard, as no National League team has repeated since the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s, but if they can stay healthy, the Phillies have as good a shot as anyone at raising the World Series trophy in seven months.

Like the “On the Edge” Blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will preview the Phillies’ season opener, and talk about Villanova’s chances in the Final Four!
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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
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