New safety Jenkins fills void for Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles acquired safety Malcolm Jenkins in free agency to help bolster the secondary. — PHOTO/PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

The season begins on Friday, July 25. That’s when the Philadelphia Eagles players report to NovaCare Complex in South Philly. For most Eagles fans, this is a time for excitement as the season everybody has been waiting for is here. It all starts with training camp.

This year’s training camp will have three open practices, including one on Sunday, Aug. 10 at Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin Field was the Eagles home field from 1958 to 1970. Tickets are sold out for the Eagles open practice. There will be two open practices at Lincoln Financial Field on Monday, July 28 and Sunday, Aug. 3. All open practices are free of charge, but unlike last year, the practices at Lincoln Financial Field will not require a ticket for entry.

The practices lead into the preseason schedule. The Eagles first preseason game is on Friday, Aug. 8 against the Chicago Bears on the road. After that, the Eagles will play the New England Patriots on Friday, Aug. 15. That should be a big week for both teams. The Eagles hosted the Patriots at the NovaCare Complex last year. The team will visit Foxboro, Mass., for three days of joint practices with New England leading up to the game at Gillette Stadium. The Eagles will have two home preseason games against the Pittsburgh Steelers (Aug. 21) and New York Jets (Aug. 28). All games will be televised on 6ABC.

The Eagles are coming off a 10-6 season where they won the NFC East. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly helped to turn around a 4-12 team in 2012 to win 10 games last season before losing to the New Orleans Saints, 26-24, in the NFC playoffs at home. Despite the postseason loss, it was a big improvement from the year before.

Can Kelly take the Eagles to the next level in his second season? That’s the big question. In looking at the Eagles offense, they have running back LeSean McCoy, who happens to be one of the best players in the NFL. McCoy finished with a franchise-best and NFL-leading 1,607 rushing yards and 2,146 yards from scrimmage. Quarterback Nick Foles recorded the third-highest quarterback rating (119.2) in NFL history after throwing 27 touchdown passes and two interceptions. The two players became the first pair in NFL history to lead the league in rushing yards and passer rating.

Will they be able to match that effort? The Eagles released wide receiver DeSean Jackson during the offseason. Jackson was signed by the Washington Redskins. He was also a big part of the team’s success. Jackson set career-highs in receptions (82) and receiving yards (1,332) and tied his personal best with nine touchdowns.

Wide receiver Riley Cooper had a big year with 47 receptions for 835 yards and eight TDs. Cooper really benefited from Jackson’s speed and open field play. It’s going to be interesting to see if he can have that same kind of year without a big play receiver on the other side of the field. Jeremy Maclin has returned after a torn ACL after missing all of last year. He has looked good in mini camp and OTAs. The Eagles will take a deeper look at him during training camp and the preseason. The Eagles have drafted two wide receivers, Jordan Matthews from Vanderbilt and Josh Huff from Oregon. Matthews is a big receiver at 6-3. He could be used going across the middle. Huff has the speed to get to the edge.

The Eagles signed two veteran offensive players in running back Darren Sproles from the New Orleans Saints and quarterback Mark Sanchez from the New York Jets. Sproles, 30, joins McCoy as the only two running backs with more than 150 catches and eight receiving touchdowns since 2011. In 2013, Sproles played in 15 games (four starts), carrying the ball 53 times for 220 yards and two touchdowns while tying for fifth among NFL running backs with 71 receptions for 604 yards and two touchdowns.

Sanchez missed the entire 2013 season with a shoulder injury sustained during the preseason. He was originally a first round pick (fifth overall) of the Jets in 2009. He started 62 career regular season games for the Jets, totaling 12,092 yards and 68 touchdowns on 55.1 percent passing while leading the team to the AFC championship game twice (2009, 2010).

On defense, the Eagles started slow last season. But things really picked up as the season went on. The Eagles top playmakers were linebackers DeMeco Ryans (102 solo, 127 total tackles), Mychal Kendricks (81 solo, 106 total tackles) and Connor Barwin (45 solo, 59 total tackles). Barwin had five sacks. Ryans and Kendricks chipped in with four sacks. They could use more of a push up the middle from the defensive line.

In the secondary, cornerback Brandon Boykin tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions. Boykin made the big interception in the win over the Dallas Cowboys to help the Eagles win the NFC East. However, the Eagles signed free agent safety Malcolm Jenkins from the Saints to bolster the defense. Jenkins, a 6-foot, 204-pounder, started 14 games at safety, recording 68 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two passes defended for a Saints team that ranked second in the NFL in opponent’s passing yards a game.

The Eagles open the regular season on Sunday, Sept. 7 at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, the team has a very difficult schedule that features the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Carolina Panthers and the Green Bay Packers. The first Washington Redskins’ game will take place on Sunday, Sept. 21 at home. That will feature the return of DeSean Jackson.

Contact staff writer Donald Hunt at (215) 893-5719 or dhunt@phillytrib.com.

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