Philadelphia Eagles: 10 Training Camp Battles We're Looking Forward to
The 2012 Philadelphia Eagles don’t take the field for another four months, but much of the work to set the stage for the season will be done in training camp in August. That’s when players will be given the opportunity to fight for spots on the team.
Of the near-90 players on the team, just 53 will make the official roster. Some of the spots are guaranteed—Michael Vick is going to be the starting quarterback (barring a preseason injury) and LeSean McCoy will be the star at running back.
But there are a handful of battles that should be entertaining to watch in training camp, notably the following 10.
Candidates: Nick Foles vs. Mike Kafka vs. Trent Edwards
The battle for backup quarterback will be a three-way competition between rookie Nick Foles, third-year man Mike Kafka, and former Buffalo Bills castoff Trent Edwards.
Foles was selected by Andy Reid with the 88th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft after an impressive career at the University of Arizona. Foles is big and athletic and possesses an NFL-caliber throwing arm, but he is raw and could use several years of training before he is ready to start full-time. That is, if the Eagles plan to use Foles as their quarterback of the future at all.
Kafka is entering his third season with the team, and that gives him a significant advantage over the other two who are both entering year one with the Eagles. Kafka was a fourth round pick in 2010, and while his physical skills limit him and suggest he probably won’t ever be a starting quarterback in the NFL, Kafka is remarkably intelligent and he has mastered the West Coast offense. The Eagles’ assistant coaches have raved about his maturity and what he brings to the team, although Kafka struggled when asked to fill in for an injured Michael Vick in 2011.
Meanwhile, Edwards was a former starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, where his penchant was to hold onto the ball until he got sacked. Edwards is physically talented although he lacks mobility in the pocket, and with the drafting of Foles, Edwards is probably the odd man out to even make the official 53-man roster.
Foles is a lock to make the team since the Eagles spent a third round pick on him. That means Kafka and Edwards will battle for the third spot, and the loser will probably be cut, although there’s always a chance the Eagles will keep four quarterbacks on their roster, especially with Vick’s recent injury history. Still, I don’t see that happening.
I expect Edwards to be cut at the end of camp, and I think the Eagles will go with Kafka over Foles as the backup simply because Kafka has been around the system and knows the offense.
Backup Running Back
Candidates: Chris Polk vs. Dion Lewis vs. Bryce Brown
Chris Polk was a steal in the draft, especially considering the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t even have to draft him. He was an undrafted rookie free agent signee, and he will have every opportunity to win the backup running back job in 2012, especially after Ronnie Brown’s miserable year in ’11.
Dion Lewis was just mediocre in the third running back spot, running for 102 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry, although he didn’t show much explosiveness and may be a stretch to step into the role should LeSean McCoy get injured.
Bryce Brown was another undrafted rookie free agent, and he has major character issues that caused all 32 teams to pass on him in the draft. Brown was the number one rated high school player in 2008, and he has the talent to be a major asset in the NFL.
I predict Polk wins the backup spot, Lewis stays in the third running back role for another year, and Brown gets cut in preseason.
Fifth Wide Receiver
Candidates: Riley Cooper vs. Chad Hall vs. Mardy Gilyard vs. Damaris Johnson
DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant are a terrific 1-2-3 wide receiver combination, and sixth round pick Marvin McNutt was a steal for where the Eagles got him, and I think he is all but a lock to be the fourth receiver.
That means Riley Cooper, Chad Hall, Mardy Gilyard, and Damaris Johnson are the main candidates among a slew of players fighting for the final receiver spot. The Eagles could conceivably go with six receivers, especially since they will likely have just two tight ends on the roster, but until Andy Reid does that, I’m not projecting more than five to make the team.
Cooper has been on the team for two seasons, although I haven’t been impressed with his performance. He has provided little in terms of a jump ball receiver—supposedly his strength as a player—and I would like to see the Eagles part ways with Cooper. Hall was utilized as a Danny Woodhead type of runner/receiver, but he just lacks the size to make an impact in the NFL.
Gilyard is an electrifying kick returner but if he makes the team it will likely be because of his ability to return kicks, certainly not for his skills as a receiver. And Johnson is probably the best of a group of receivers that are trying to make the team as undrafted free agents—a list that also includes McKay Jacobsen, Jamel Hamler, Elvis Akpla, Ronald Johnson, Aaron Plufgrad, and Darnell Williams.
For now, I’ll give the edge to Cooper because he has been with the team and knows the offense, although he really hasn’t shown me a lot on the field.
Candidates: Julian Vandervelde vs. Brandon Washington vs. Mike Gibson
Danny Watkins and Evan Mathis are locks to begin the season as starters—barring unexpected injuries—which means Julian Vandervelde, Brandon Washington, and Mike Gibson will likely be fighting for two spots.
Vandervelde was a low draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011 and he appeared in just one snap as a rookie.
Washington was a steal of a sixth round pick, and he can play both tackle and guard.
Gibson was previously drafted by the Eagles in 2008 as a sixth round pick. He spent his rookie season on Injured Reserve with a shoulder injury, played briefly in 2009, and then started eight games—plus two more in the playoffs in 2010—for the Seattle Seahawks before spending most of last season out of football.
Washington is probably the favorite of the three because of his versatility and his draft status which suggested he could have gone as high as the fourth round.
That leaves Vandervelde and Gibson battling it out. I’m torn as to who I think will make it, but I have to give the edge to Gibson because he has starting experience. That means Vandervelde will either be released or spend the season on the practice squad.
Candidates: Steve Vallos vs. Dallas Reynolds vs. Zane Taylor
The starting center battle between Jamaal Jackson and Hank Fraley heading into the 2006 training camp was significant enough to land the two on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
This year, Jason Kelce has the starting spot guaranteed after beating out Jackson last year in training camp, but the fight for the backup center spot should be interesting. The likely three candidates are Steve Vallos, Dallas Reynolds, and Zane Taylor.
Vallos has starting experience in the NFL; after being a seventh round selection of the Seattle Seahawks back in 2007, Vallos started five games late in 2008 when starting center Chris Spencer suffered a season-ending injury. Vallos has spent the last several seasons bouncing around the league, but he does bring experience and the versatility to play both guard and center.
Starting Defensive Tackle
Candidates: Cullen Jenkins vs. Mike Patterson vs. Fletcher Cox
Cullen Jenkins is a Pro Bowl caliber defensive tackle, and he should play a formidable part of the Philadelphia Eagles’ interior defensive line for the remainder of his contract with the team. I think the battle for the other starting spot will be between Mike Patterson and Fletcher Cox.
Patterson was a first round pick back in 2005, and he is the longest tenured member of the team. He has never been a star, but he is a solid player that gives the team 16 good starts a season, having missed just two games due to injury in seven seasons.
Cox was selected 12th overall by the Eagles this year, as Andy Reid traded up three spots to select the Mississippi State star.
Cox is a pass-rushing extraordinaire, especially for an interior defensive lineman, and he has the ability to make an impact for the Eagles for the next decade or more. He is said to be one of the safest picks in the draft, and he has the versatility to play both tackle and end.
Defensive line coach Jim Washburn has already said Cox was born to play in the wide nine defense, and as an Eagles fan, I haven’t been this excited about a rookie since DeSean Jackson was picked in the second round back in 2008.
I predict Jenkins and Patterson begin the season as starters, but I think Cox will edge out Patterson for the other starting tackle spot by midseason. That doesn’t mean Patterson won’t play, as Washburn utilizes his linemen in a heavy rotation that allows so many members of the line to see extensive action. But I think he will realize the potential and athletic ability of Cox, and that will put Cox in the starting lineup.
Final Defensive Line Spots
Candidates: Antonio Dixon vs. Derek Landri vs. Phillip Hunt vs. Darryl Tapp vs. Cedric Thornton vs. Maurice Fountain
Anyone who knows anything about Andy Reid knows he loves his defensive linemen, and his ideal roster would probably consist of 53 defensive linemen. Realistically, the Eagles probably won’t keep more than nine or maybe 10 players, especially since the team utilizes such a rotation of its players, and new first round pick Fletcher Cox is versatile enough to play both tackle and end.
Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Mike Patterson, and Cullen Jenkins are the projected starters, with Cox, Brandon Graham, and second round pick Vinny Curry all as locks to make the team. That’s seven guys right there, which means the six candidates at the top are fighting for anywhere from one to three spots.
Maurice Fountain has spent so many consecutive years in the AFL and UFL that he will probably be stashed on the practice squad for now.
Cedric Thornton is a long shot to make the team and Darryl Tapp’s $2.45 million base salary will make him a salary cap casualty in training camp.
That leaves Antonio Dixon, Derek Landri, and Phillip Hunt battling it out for the final two spots.
I think Hunt will make it because he is the lone defensive end of the three, which puts Dixon against Landri for the final tackle spot.
Landri had a strong season in the wide nine in 2011, rating as the fourth-best defensive tackle in the entire NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Meanwhile, Dixon spent most of the season on Injured Reserve after tearing his triceps, so I think the Eagles will choose to go with Landri for the final spot.
Candidates: Casey Matthews vs. Keenan Clayton vs. Akeem Jordan vs. Moise Fokou vs. Greg Lloyd vs. Monte Simmons
Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles had a dreadful linebacker corps that cost the team a handful of games and ultimately a playoff berth. Andy Reid has made two key moves this offseason to improve the unit, first by trading for DeMeco Ryans and then by drafting Mychael Kendricks.
Brian Rolle impressed as a starter last season and Jamar Chaney is probably a lock to come back as at least the nickel linebacker. That leaves a handful of players fighting for a few spots—Casey Matthews, Keenan Clayton, Akeem Jordan, Moise Fokou, Greg Lloyd, and Monte Simmons.
Simmons is probably the biggest long shot and I don’t envision Lloyd making it after being a seventh round pick last year.
Fokou and Jordan are similar players. The team needs one or the other but not both.
Keenan Clayton is very replaceable and Casey Matthews had an extremely disappointing start to his NFL career but showed a little promise at the end.
I envision the linebacker corps next year consisting of the three starters plus Chaney, Fokou, and Matthews.
Candidates: Brandon Boykin vs. Joselio Hanson vs. Curtis Marsh
I like the fact that the Philadelphia Eagles traded Asante Samuel. I just don’t like that he went to the Atlanta Falcons or that the Eagles only got a measly seventh round pick (!) in return.
Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be the starters in 2012 and new fourth round draft pick Brandon Boykin will likely be the nickel cornerback. Boykin has outstanding speed, excellent agility, and a tremendous vertical leap that will make him a ballhawk. He’s also undersized, so his small frame makes him best suited for the slot man, as opposed to the outside.
Joselio Hanson and Curtis Marsh have a chance to surpass Boykin for the role, but I doubt that will happen. Hanson has spent six seasons as the backup, and he really regressed last season in pass coverage. I think he will be a veteran cut in training camp.
Meanwhile, Marsh showed absolutely nothing as a rookie. The team knew they had a project when they drafted the former college running back, and it may take several seasons before he can be productive in pass defense.
Unfortunately—and I hope I am wrong—I don’t see Marsh ever contributing. I envision him being cut in training camp in 2013.
Candidates: Dion Lewis vs. Brandon Boykin vs. Chad Hall vs. Damaris Johnson vs. Mardy Gilyard vs.Bryce Brown vs. Cliff Harris vs. Chris Polk vs. Anyone Else You Can Think of
The Philadelphia Eagles have struggled to have dynamic kick returners in the Andy Reid era. Brian Mitchell was good for several seasons and J.R. Reed and Quintin Demps had their moments, but the team really struggled last year with the combination of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Dion Lewis returning kicks.
DRC averaged 26 yards per return but he only took two kicks back, and the team doesn’t want him to have to step into that role, especially now with him starting.
Lewis had every opportunity to show he was the man for the job, but he averaged just 21.6 yards on 33 returns, with a long of only 33 yards.
Lewis will probably have a chance to win the job again, but Brandon Boykin was a dynamic returner in college, and returners are best when they’re fresh out of college because they’re still explosive and have all their speed. I think Boykin will win this job.
Then again, Chad Hall’s best chance at making the team is to make it as a kick returner, and he will be fighting for the chance to do so.
Damaris Johnson is one of a handful of receivers competing for a chance on the 53-man roster, and he broke the NCAA career record for kick return yardage.
Former St. Louis Rams receiver Mardy Gilyard likely won’t make it as a receiver, but his best chance as well is to outdo his competition in the kick returning game.
Then again, Bryce Brown was an absolute sensation in high school and he could be an option to return kicks, and so could either Chris Polk or Cliff Harris, although Harris is probably a long shot to make the team.
Hopefully whichever player wins this role will be able to hold down the spot for several seasons. My money is on Boykin.