Eagles in the a.m.: A look at Arrelious Benn, Alejandro Villanueva, and special teams

Eagles receiver Arrelious Benn. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

**When the Eagles traded for Arrelious Benn in March 2013, they were cautiously optimistic. Benn is a big, talented receiver with run-after-the-catch ability – ideal for Chip Kelly’s offense. But Benn had not been able to stay healthy in his career, which started as a high second-round pick. Benn lived up to that reputation when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament during training camp last season.

The Eagles kept Benn and wanted to see him this season, because they never actually saw him last year. His injury occurred even before the first preseason game. Benn stayed in Philadelphia rehabbing, so he was a part of the team last year. Kelly appreciated that. Jeremy Maclin and Jason Phillips were the same way.

Benn needs to thrive in the preseason to make the roster, but he has a shot. The Eagles could keep six wide receivers, with four spots all but set in stone: Maclin, Cooper, Jordan Matthews, and Josh Huff. Brad Smith has been taking first-team snaps and is likely to make the roster, too. So Benn would need to beat out holdover Jeff Maehl, and a group of other young receivers vying for the roster.

“He's in a lot better shape this year than he was last year coming into camp, and he's starting to show up and make plays like all those guys that I think are battling for three, four, five and six or however many at receiver,” Kelly said. “The ability to play special teams is important and I think Regis' size really helps him from that standpoint. He's a big, physical guy, so he's a guy that we are really excited to see what he's like when we finally get him in a preseason game this Friday night.”

 **Alejandro Villanueva is a feel-good story, and there are many fans pulling for the Army Ranger. His 6-foot-9, 277-pound frame is an asset. But it’s clear that Villanueva is new to the position, and there’s a steep learning curve. He’s in a group with many technically sound defensive linemen, too, so Villanueva has ground to make up.

“One of the things we love about his length is the arm reach and that's why we covet the taller defensive linemen,” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “But he's coming from a wide receiver red zone background and we knew he was a project when we took him on. But the character that he has and the willingness to work and learn; he's a sponge. The offseason without pads is a little bit easier on everybody, especially in the lines, and once you start mixing it up with pads, then your technique you really learn why the technique and the steps are so important. 

“His muscle memory is not there yet and he has reps in front of him but we love the progress he's making, the man he is and the character he brings to our team. We are very excited about growing him as a player.”

 **The answer to so many questions about the final spots on the 53-man roster is special teams, which is hard to determine in practice. The Eagles made an effort to upgrade special teams this offseason, and Kelly cannot even discern if some of those upgrades – Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman, among them – will make the necessary improvement. Friday’s game against the Bears will help in that evaluation.

“That’s where the game is the big part of it,” Kelly said. I think you can get into situations of who is really good at covering punts. “You’re not doing live special teams work in training sessions. You’re going to get your live special teams work in games. So these four preseason games will be huge for a lot of those guys in terms of where we are in terms of covering kicks and punts and being able to see where our return game is, but that’s how important those four preseason games are”


* Nick Foles is working to reduce sacks and throw the ball quicker this preseason.

*The Eagles pass rushers are working with one of the NFL's all-time greats, as Jeff McLane writes. 

*Notes on the depth chart, injuries, and penalties.