With the draft and most significant burst of free agency behind us, we have a pretty good idea of who the Eagles will be bringing into training camp to fight for spots on the regular season roster. There may be a few tweaks here or there, but for the most part the line up is set. Here, then, is a look at the position battles we have to look forward to as rookie minicamps and offseason practices arrive in May and June and lead up to training camp, which opens July 22 for rookies, quarterbacks and injured players and July 25 for the rest of the team.
I started Tuesday with the five most intriguing positions, including safety, linebacker, quarterback, cornerback and defensive end. Here’s the rest of the roster, in no particular order.
-- Offensive line: The starters are set, with Demetress Bell, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Danny Watkins and Todd Herremans locked in from left to right. The Eagles haven’t ruled out Jason Peters playing this season, but it’s quite a long shot. King Dunlap looks like the primary option as a backup tackle, and we’ve seen him handle that job well, including six starts the past two years plus one start at guard. He may be called upon: Bell has played 16 games just once in his four-year career.
After Dunlap most of the backup experience belongs to interior linemen Steve Vallos and Mike Gibson, who each have eight starts in four and three years in the league, respectively. Julian Vandervelde, a fifth round pick last year, Brandon Washington, a sixth rounder this year, and center Zane Taylor will also battle for jobs on the interior. Dallas Reynolds gets another shot after spending the past three years on the practice squad.
At tackle the only backups aside from Dunlap are fifth rounder Dennis Kelly and D.J. Jones. Handicapping the race for jobs on the line is a dicey proposition: we’ve seen that Howard Mudd is ready and willing to shake up the line up and can mold late round picks into starters (see: Kelce). After Dunlap, it’s a wide open fight for backup jobs.
-- Running back: LeSean McCoy is the obvious starter and will get the vast majority of touches. After that, though, there is a lot of youth and not much proven ability to play behind him. Dion Lewis got all of 23 carries last year. Then there’s undrafted free agent Chris Polk and seventh round pick Bryce Brown, each of whom has potential but questions. Polk was productive but often injured at Washington. Brown hardly played in college but has size and speed. The backup slot is there for one of these guys to go grab. Each one better work on pass protection – a lack of ability there is a deal breaker for Andy Reid. An e-mailer chided me last week for failing to mention Graig Cooper, so, yeah, he’s in there too. If none of these guys can get the job done, maybe the Eagles take another look at free agent options, though they seem more inclined this year to look within after paying Ronnie Brown to do nearly nothing last season. (At least nothing positive).
At fullback the Eagles have two undrafted free agents and one player who was on last year’s practice squad, Stanley Havili. Emil Igwenagu and Jeremy Stewart will try to make an impression, but the Eagles rarely use fullbacks and sometimes line up their tight ends in the backfield, so it wouldn’t be a shock if Reid goes without a fullback this year.
-- Tight end: It seems pretty straight forward here. Brent Celek starts. He can catch, block and run through tacklers – assuming, that is, that he is completely healed from surgeries to repair a torn labrum in his hip and sports hernia. GM Howie Roseman was evasive, though, when asked this week about Celek’s recovery. Celek has not talked much about his rehab. It’s an issue worth keeping an eye on.
Clay Harbor is an athletic number two option whose blocking has improved.
After those two it would be a big upset of either Brett Brackett or undrafted rookie Chase Ford are able to push for a roster spot.
-- Wide receiver: For the first time in several years, there is little drama surrounding this position. DeSean Jackson is re-signed and says he’s focused. Jeremy Maclin will team with him in the starting lineup and Jason Avant will be back in the slot and doing a whole host of other jobs, including punt rushing, serving as a backup holder and even a fourth-string emergency QB.
The fourth and maybe fifth receiver spots (if they keep that many) are where the battle begins. Riley Cooper has been OK as an occasional fill-in in his first two years but the Eagles have rarely used his 6-3 frame to great advantage. In comes Marvin McNutt, also 6-3, and if he proves to be a reliable big target he might make Cooper expendable. Chad Hall has been a nice story, but a marginal contributor. He’ll have a fight on his hands to make the team.
Mardy Gilyard was seemingly brought in to be a return option, but cornerback Brandon Boykin will have the inside track there.
With the first three receiver slots locked in and Cooper and McNutt both bidding for number four, Elvis Akpla, Jamel Hamler, McKay Jacobson, Damaris Johnson, Ronald Johnson, Aaron Pflugrad and Darnell Williams are fighting for, at most, one more spot, if one of them really impresses.
-- Defensive tackle: Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson enter training camp as the starters -- assuming Patterson is ready for camp after offseason brain surgery; he says he expects to be there. Fletcher Cox, if he doesn’t immediately take a starting job, will still find plenty of playing time in Jim Washburn’s rotation. That leaves Antonio Dixon, Derek Landri and Cedric Thornton fighting for one or two roster spots – probably one.
Dixon is the biggest lineman the Eagles have and probably the best run-stopper, and the team liked Thornton’s potential enough to keep him over Landri and Anthony Hargrove a year ago. Landri contributed when he played last year, but he spent awhile on the free agent market before the Eagles brought him back. It seems like he'll have to do something to overtake Dixon. The Eagles initially kept Thornton as a fifth tackle a year ago because they liked his potential, but cut him and moved him to the practice squad when they needed to make another roster move. He might have a hard time beating out any of the top four options at tackle, but he's still eligible for the practice squad after spending most of last season there.
-- Special teams: Alex Henery hit 88.9 percent of his field goals last year, including his final 16 attempts. It looks like he’ll be around for a long time, though we’re still waiting for a make in a high-pressure situation.
Punter Chas Henry ranked near the bottom of the league in average, net and punts inside the 20. The Eagles have brought in Kentucky’s Ryan Tydlacka in what figures to be a true competition for the job.
The team envisions Boykin as their return man, but if for some reason he can’t do it Gilyard and Hall will have opportunities. Special teams may also be the route for players such as Cooper, McNutt and linebackers Moise Fokou, Akeem Jordan and Keenan Clayton to try to stand out and win a job.
Long snapper Jon Dorenbos has been steady, but the team now has another snapper in tow, Matt Camilli. Are the Eagles looking for a replacement? Or just trying to give the veteran some rest?
Colt Anderson hopes to be ready for the season after tearing his ACL in Dec. 1. If he’s ready to go, he’ll have a spot waiting for him.