With the draft and initial 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. Here, then, is a look at the top position battles to look forward to as rookie minicamps and offseason practices arrive in May and June and lead up to training camp in July.
We’ll start with the five most intriguing positions today and then go through the rest of the roster later this week:
1. Linebacker: Another summer, another new spin on the position that the Eagles can never quite seem to settle. Only this time, you have to feel better about the options. Barring some offseason nightmare, DeMeco Ryans will be the starter at middle linebacker. We still need to see how close he is to the Pro Bowl form he displayed before his 2010 Achilles tear, but if he’s even near that level he’ll be an upgrade.
The battles, then, will be at outside linebacker. Second round pick Mychal Kendricks and Jamar Chaney will start off on the strong side, but Kendricks already seems to have the inside track. The Eagles love his ability to rush the passer, which would give the team another look that quarterbacks would have to prepare for.
If Chaney is pushed aside, though, he would probably get a shot on the weak side, along with Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews. Rolle had some solid moments last year, but with his height you don’t know if he’ll be a long-term answer. The Eagles invested a fourth round pick in Matthews and will also give him a shot. He was one of the players Roseman raved about Monday for his offseason work. (I can hear some of you groaning, but let’s allow that Matthews A)was put in a very difficult position at the start of last season and B)showed some positive signs when given a second chance).
Keenan Clayton has intriguing speed but has never been able to carve out a niche for himself. He’d seem to make a nice nickel linebacker, but the Eagles would prefer to find a set of guys who can stay on the field for three downs. Clayton may have one last summer to make a positive impression (Another running criticism: that he shows up much more in games than in practices; that’ll have to change).
Akeem Jordan and Moise Fokou have had chances to take control of starting jobs, but neither has made a huge impact the past two years. They may face an uphill battle for roster spots. Same with Greg Lloyd and Monte Simmons.
2. Safety: Nate Allen will start at one slot. Of the safeties on the roster, he has shown the most potential.
But what about his partner in the defensive backfield? Roseman doesn’t sound inclined to add a veteran safety, at least not now. That gives Jaiquawn Jarrett, Kurt Coleman and undrafted free agent Phillip Thomas a chance to show what they can do in minicamps and offseason practices, and to learn by getting more reps. If none of them look up to par, maybe the team examines the position again as training camp nears or when teams cut veterans loose before the season.
For now, it seems clear that the Eagles would love their second round pick, Jarrett, to grab hold of the job, but Coleman has been the better player so far. Even as a rookie who himself missed much of the offseason because of Ohio State’s quarter system, Coleman did far more than Jarrett did in a truncated 2011 season. Thomas, from Syracuse, sounds like an undrafted player who will get a real look in camp. Roseman said the team had him rated higher (of course, it obviously wasn’t high enough for them to use a pick on him).
Tom Nelson didn’t stand out last year. Colt Anderson hopes to be ready by the season opener. If he's ready he'll have a job on special teams.
3. Quarterback: Now we’re talking about backup jobs, because most of the starting spots are locked in. But this is the most important one, because odds are the Eagles won’t have Mike Vick for 16 regular season games.
Roseman hinted that the team could keep four quarterbacks this year, but even for Andy Reid that would seem to be an extravagance. It’s safe to say the Eagles aren’t going to cut Nick Foles after just using a third round pick on him. He’ll be the number three guy.
Which leaves Mike Kafka and Trent Edwards. You know what you’re getting in Edwards. He’s played in the league and been reasonable for a number two QB. No, he won’t carry you in the playoffs, but neither will just about any backup quarterback. Kafka has thrown just 16 career passes but the Eagles say they love his work ethic and smarts. Unlike Edwards, he’s still developing and improving. Feels like Reid is looking for one of these two to show him something at Lehigh.
4. Cornerback: Short and quick is out. Tall, fast and physical is in, at least on the outside where Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are set to start. Two years ago this would have sounded like one of the best tandems in the league. But Asomugha struggled in his transition to Philly last year and Rodgers-Cromartie was lost in the slot.
The idea is that Asomugha will be better with a year to get comfortable, with Juan Castillo having learned how to better use him and with the team playing more press coverage, with Asante Samuel out of town. On the other side the hope is that Rodgers-Cromartie will be strong back on his familiar spot on the outside. That all sounds very plausible. But, to steal a phrase from Roseman, it’s also based on projection, not what was on tape last year. Curtis Marsh will be a backup and get another season to develop.
The real battle will be at slot corner, which is practically a starting job, considering how often the Eagles play nickel. The team looks to have drafted Joselio Hanson’s replacement, but Brandon Boykin, taken in the fourth round, will still have to prove his worth on the field. If he’s fully back from a fractured leg Boykin will almost certainly be on the roster as a return man, and if he can also play in nickel he could fill yet another role. Hanson was cut last season, and has seemingly been on the roster bubble for some time yet has always survived. After taking a pay cut last year he went on to have a solid season.
Still, it’s obvious the team sees immense potential in Boykin and would love to have him emerge this summer.
Roseman spoke highly about undrafted free agent Cliff Harris, from Oregon. He has talent, but his decision-making was often bad on the field and atrocious off of it. He was suspended and eventually kicked off the team at Oregon after building up a litany of offenses, including driving 118 m.ph. on a suspended license. Asked by the police who had marijuana in the car he reportedly responded, “we smoked it all.” The Eagles, though, hope he has straightened out and proves to be a find.
The team liked Brandon Hughes a lot last training camp, but when he got on the field it was against Tom Brady and that went about how you might expect. He’ll be in a battle for a job. Trevard Lindley (a fourth round pick in 2010) and D.J. Johnson round out the group.
5. Defensive End: We know Jason Babin and Trent Cole will be there. We know the Eagles are eager to see if Brandon Graham can justify his first round status this year (which will be one of the big stories of the year) and that second round pick Vinny Curry will get a shot.
After that you have Darryl Tapp and Phillip Hunt. Odds are one of them sticks around because Jim Washburn needs lots of horses for his style of play and you just don’t know what to expect from either Graham or Curry over a full season.
Tapp’s experience cuts two ways. After six seasons in the NFL, you pretty much know what he is: solid rotational guy, a hard-working pro who can help but isn’t a star. Hunt has the thing that intrigues GMs: potential. But he’s unproven. With Graham and Curry also question marks because of their inexperience, maybe the team prefers having another veteran who they already know well. Or maybe they go for the former CFL star and hope to hit the lottery. Training camp will be critical for both of them.
Maurice Fountain is also on the roster but wil have to really stand out to make the team.