THEY WERE the subject of almost comical speculation before and during training camp. Thursday, in the last rehearsal before cuts today, they were the two best players on the field.

Granted, that's not saying much.

Matt Barkley, less than 3 years removed from Heisman Trophy candidacy, should be able to operate an NFL offense.

Brandon Graham, 4 years removed from being a first-round pick, should be able to push around the Jets' backups.

Certainly, nothing either did Thursday night elevated them past their current station in their football lives. Just as certain, though, both Graham and Barkley reaffirmed the contention that they belong on the Eagles' roster. More than that:

They further established their inarguable importance to the team.

Even as a backup outside linebacker, Graham might be the team's most dynamic pass rusher.

Even as a third quarterback, on a team on which injury (Nick Foles) and ineptness (Mark Sanchez) have historically been issues, Barkley could see 50 or 100 snaps this season.

Occupying those spots is no small thing. The Eagles are a playoff team that, in light of the putrid nature of the NFC East, should return to the playoffs. Any team that makes the playoffs can win it all. Any team that can win it all must use all 53 roster spots judiciously; there is no room for the luxury of players with potential.

All of them must be able to play. Graham and Barkley gave every indication that they can play.

You knew Graham could play, at least a little. He hasn't been in this position before - both healthy and playing in the same defensive schemes two seasons in a row.

Despite Graham's health challenges, and despite the fact that he has been ill-suited for every scheme the Eagles have run, he has been effective. Graham played under five different defensive coordinators in four seasons but still managed 11 1/2 sacks in 48 games, only 12 of which he started.

He got three sacks with no starts last season. He was drafted in 2010 as a left defensive end in a 4-3 scheme to complement pass rusher Trent Cole, but had to convert to outside linebacker last year when new coach Chip Kelly opted for a 3-4 setup.

Graham has converted enough to be integral.

Considering his position, Barkley has at least as much gravity securing his slot on the team.

The Eagles, desperate to rebuild a tattered roster, nevertheless used a fourth-round pick on Barkley last year knowing full well his injured throwing shoulder would hinder him to third-string status in 2013. And, it did.

He was a luxury: a football nerd, an epic college quarterback, but an NFL luxury.

His performance and his statistics from last season should be ignored. Thursday night, really, was his time to shine; his chance to show he knows the offense, can make quick, correct decisions and deliver the ball, on time, with pace and with little danger of the defense touching it.

Barkley started shaky: 4-for-10 for 63 yards and an end-zone interception.

He finished strong: 17-for-23 for 190 yards, a passing touchdown and a running touchdown.

"I didn't make any bad decisions today," said Barkley, who explained the interception as a miscommunication. "The game was slow."

Barkley had been groomed for Thursday since he was able to spread his fingers on the laces. He is a quarterback the way Louis CK is a comedian, perhaps not the most dynamic or the most talented, but, certainly, fitted into the right hole.

It's just that he hasn't been able to show it. Not in the NFL. Not since he sprained and separated his right shoulder late in his senior season.

The last time he felt this good and knew an offense this well?

"The last [game] of my college career," Barkley said. "I feel like I'm progressing. Knowledge of the offense. General quarterbacking. Moving in the pocket. My arm feels a lot better than it did last year, that's for sure."

Barkley wasn't perfect, and the Jets' defense was, according to their coach, Rex Ryan, "awful," but Barkley has looked bad against worse. He might not have gained much Thursday night, but he didn't lose anything, either. Even his 43-yard touchdown mortar to Arrelious Benn was slightly late and a little short, but Barkley let it rip and it all worked out.

"I got all excited and put it out there for him," Barkley said.

Bombs generally do not secure employment.

Great quarterbacks win games, but third-stringers aren't expected to be great. Competent quarterbacks don't lose games. Barkley is approaching competence.

Consider his 7-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. What he could have done was force a pass into traffic. What he did was tuck it and run.

"We had everyone flowing to the left. I went through everyone," Barkley said. "I almost pulled the trigger; it would've been a pretty big collision, maybe a tipped ball. So I just tucked it, made a sound decision."

Graham effectively squelched the third Jets possession on successive plays. He smothered running back Daryl Richardson on second-and-10 for a 3-yard gain, then drew a 10-yard holding penalty.

He helped end the fourth possession, too, when he ran down Alex Green on second-and-8 for a 2-yard gain.

But Graham has done this sort of thing before.

You have to take Barkley on faith. So, which Barkley do you believe in?

The one who threw that end-zone interception on the Jets' 9-yard line that took at least three points off the board? The one who woefully underthrew Ifeanyi Momah on the next drive?

Or the Barkley who settled in and found Benn for that 43-yard touchdown?

The Barkley who then, with his heels just outside the Eagles' goal line, hit Demaris Johnson for 15 yards . . . with 288-pound Tevita Finau in his chest, just about to body-slam him?

Who then rose and hit Jeff Maehl for more 32 yards?

Barkley's best throw might have been a 23-yarder to Maehl with 35 seconds to play in the first half. That one, he threw before Maehl came out of his break. It appeared to surprise Maehl.

"It feels great to be out there and be healthy and be able to make those throws," Barkley said.

He might be asked to do more than that before this season ends.

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch