Philadelphia Eagles: 10 Best Position Battles to Watch for in Preseason

Randy JobstSenior Analyst IJuly 29, 2012

Philadelphia Eagles: 10 Best Position Battles to Watch for in Preseason

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    Training camp and preseason is the base and foundation for any great season. This is where teams come together. It's where young players start to develop and the veterans start to gain confidence and build chemistry with each other.

    There are also two important things you want to get out of training camp and preseason. You want to stay healthy first of all. There are always a couple really devastating injuries across the league. In 2009, Eagles starting middle linebacker Stewart Bradley was lost in August to a ACL tear. That is the last thing any team wants to have happen. Injuries are always the top worry going into training camp and preseason.

    The other key for preseason and training camp is figuring out position battles and key team roles. You want your players to assert themselves as starters and key role players. You don't want your players to have to think about what their job is and also think about the player behind them on the depth chart.

    The next few weeks will be key for a number of Eagles players. There aren't a lot of starting gigs open this summer, but there are a few a long with several key roles that will play a big part of the Eagles' success in 2012. Here is how these 10 positions and roles will play out at Lehigh.

1. Backup Quarterback

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    We have talked a lot about the backup quarterback situation in Philadelphia. It's pretty hard not to. Michael Vick doesn't have a long history of serious injuries, but he does have a long history of smaller injuries that have cost him a couple starts just about every single season. More than likely he won't miss the entire season, but it is possible that he could miss a couple starts.

    Vick missed three starts in 2011 and was knocked out of two more. The Eagles' record in those five games was 1-4. Clearly the Eagles need an upgrade here. That doesn't mean the Eagles have to go after a veteran quarterback; an improved Mike Kafka could be that upgrade.

    Kafka wasn't bad last season. He fared very well in one relief appearance and struggled in another. He finished the season completing 11 of his 17 passes, but for just 107 and two interceptions.

    The problem with Kafka is his deep ball. He is never going to throw a great deep ball. He has to be properly managed. He is great in the short and intermediate passing game. That is the type of offense you have to run with Kafka as your quarterback. You can sneak in a deep pass every now and then, but it is definitely not the strength of his game.

    Kafka will be competing with not only Trent Edwards for the backup role in Philadelphia, but also with any available veteran quarterback. Kafka has never made an NFL start. He doesn't have the track record that some of the more established backup quarterbacks have. He has to really earn the trust of the coaching staff before he will officially be named the backup quarterback for the 2012 season.

2. The Last Two Running Back Spots

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    LeSean McCoy is the Eagles starting running back. That much we know so far. How the players will fill out the roster at running back and what their exact roles will be is still wide open. Three backs, Bryce Brown, Dion Lewis and Chris Polk are fighting for two roster spots and playing time on Sunday.

    All three players have a great deal of upside, but neither has really proven it in the NFL just yet. Polk and Brown are rookies, while Lewis had just 24 total touches in his first season last year. Lewis may go into training camp as the No. 2 running back, but really the slate is clean and the competition is wide open. Anyone of these three backs could win the No. 2 role if they are healthy and out perform the rest of the field.

    Right now Lewis is the favorite for the No. 2 spot and Brown for the No. 3. Lewis is getting the most reps in camp with the second-team offense and is also getting a few with the first team. Lewis is a very similar back to McCoy.

    Neither is a true power back even though both aren't afraid of contact and possess a lot of lower body strength. If Lewis does win the No. 2 spot, the third running back has a chance to get his share of carries.

    Both Polk and Brown are the more physical type of running backs. Polk is the type of back that you can't really judge until you see him in a game. He doesn't run around defenders, he tries to go through them. You won't get a good feel for any player like that in practice against his teammates.

    Brown isn't a power back or a speed back. He's both. He is a 220-pound back with really good speed. I don't know if he will be able to put that together in preseason games or not, but it will be fun to watch. If he does, he will be getting his share of carries on Sunday. Those type of backs don't usually sit on the bench for long, no matter who is ahead of them in the depth chart.

    Typically, this is what you want out of your backup running backs going into training camp and preseason. There are no washed out running backs like the Eagles had last year. Only raw potential and nobody who has really earned everything. Should be a great battle to watch in the upcoming weeks.

3. Fourth and Fifth WR

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    DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are the starting outside receivers and Jason Avant is the main slot receiver for the Eagles. The two players that fill out the roster at wide receiver is yet to be determined.

    Riley Cooper figured to be a lock to be the fourth receiver, will be out of commission due to a collarbone injury until the first regular season game at the earliest. That leaves the door open at the No. 4 receiver spot and will give extra playing time for the likes of Marvin McNutt, Damaris Johnson, Chad Hall and Ronald Johnson.

    Cooper should be ready by the first or second regular season game, That means that his roster spot will still be used during final cuts unless the Eagles surprising cut ties with Cooper. There might be some speculation that the Eagles keep six wide receivers, but that is pretty unlikely unless the Eagles decide to keep just two tight ends. They won't keep six wide receives and three tight ends.

    It's going to be a really tough call for the fifth wide receiver spot, assuming Cooper already has the fourth spot locked up. Marvin McNutt and Damaris Johnson are the favorites. Chad Hall has the most experience left at the position and Ronald Johnson just seems to catch everything thrown his way at camp.

    McNutt would make sense because he is such a similar play to Cooper physically. Both players at right about 6'3, 220. McNutt is quicker and a smoother route-runner, while Cooper is stronger and a bit more polished at this point. McNutt didn't look great during OTAs but is starting to impress now that the pads are on. Some players just play faster and bigger with pads on.

    Damaris Johnson is a dynamic return man with a lot of speed. He isn't a bad route-runner and doesn't have horrible hands, but his lack of size will put him at a real disadvantage as a receiver. If he wows as a returner, he should make the team.

    Chad Hall and Ronald Johnson have been catching just about everything that has come their way so far at camp. That bodes well for preseason when the second- and third-stringers come in but neither player has as much upside as Damaris or McNutt have.

    This really will be a competition between McNutt and Damaris. Do the Eagles want another red-zone target to fill out the roster or do they want their fifth wide receiver to be a return ace?

4. Tight Ends

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    The battle for depth at the tight end position has become really, really interesting. Brent Celek suffered a grade 1 MCL tear in his right knee. It's not a serious injury and he should be back in one or two weeks. It does, however, give a lot more reps with the first team for the backup tight ends.

    Clay Harbor is the only tight end of this group that has NFL experience. The other two players are rookie Chase Ford and second-year man Brett Brackett. Ford was a standout in junior college before transferring to Miami, where he was rarely used in the passing game.

    Brackett was a wide receiver at Penn State before making the switch to tight end in the NFL. He spent last season on the practice squad, including the Eagles practice squad to finish the season.

    Ford and Brackett are natural receivers. Harbor is a decent receiver but has looked much better as a blocker. Blocking is important for Eagles tight ends. Andy Reid doesn't like giving roster spots to one dimensional players. If either of these players don't block, they won't make the team.

    Ford has done a nice job in camp at blocking on a couple run plays. Doing on a couple plays is one thing, doing it consistently through camp while still asserting himself as a solid receiver will earn him a roster spot.

    Brackett was a slot receiver at Penn State. He was so fluid in his routes. He is already a capable receiver. He has to show the coaches that he can block well. That would make him a very difficult player to cut.

    Harbor has played behind Brent Celek for the past two seasons. He knows the offense and is an established blocker. He will have more athletic competition this year than he ever has before. It's a make it or break it type of summer for Harbor. He has to show some progress this year. Ford and Brackett have shown too much potential to be passed over for a tight end who is just an OK receiver.

5. Left Tackle

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    This is Demetress Bell's position to lose right now. He has looked impressive every since OTAs began in Philadelphia and he hasn't disappointed since training camp began. He is the perfect fit at left tackle in Howard Mudd's blocking scheme. He moves incredibly well for a big man and should be able to assert himself as the team's starting left tackle.

    King Dunlap will be Bell's competition at left tackle. He has made a couple starts there and is already familiar with Mudd's scheme. He isn't as athletic as Bell, but his experience will be a real advantage for him.

    Bell is already getting the majority of the reps with the first team at left tackle. It will come down to how each player performs during preseason. If Bell looks shaky in an actual game, Dunlap will get a chance to steal his spot.

    Bell was shaky at times as the Buffalo Bills starting left tackle. He was in a different blocking scheme that relied more on size and strength and very little on athleticism. A better fit for Bell should do wonders for his game, but there is no guarantee that he will be great right away.

6. Reserve Interior Linemen

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    How many offensive linemen will the Eagles keep on the 53-man roster? It depends on so many things, but if the Eagles want to keep an extra safety, defensive tackle or even an extra running back, they might have to keep one less lineman.

    The Eagles have two offensive tackles that have starting experience at guard. Todd Herremans started several seasons for the Eagles at left guard before moving to right tackle last season. King Dunlap made one start last season at guard as well. That means the Eagles have one starting tackle and one reserve tackle that can move over to guard in a pinch.

    Julian Vandervelde has seen the a lot of reps early at training camp at center. That bodes really well for him. The team invested a fifth-round draft pick on him last season. If he can play all three interior line positions, and play them well, he would be a lock to make this team.

    Ideally the Eagles would keep five starting offensive linemen, two reserve offensive tackles and one reserve interior lineman. Typically teams keep nine or 10 offensive linemen. That would give the Eagles one extra roster spot for a player like Damaris Johnson or Brett Brackett to make the final roster.

7. Reserve Defensive Ends

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    The Eagles defensive line is run much differently than the rest of the league. They run the wide nine scheme under defensive line coach Jim Washburn. He also likes to rotate his players in and out, similar to that of a line change in hockey. His first line is set at defensive end with Trent Cole and Jason Babin. His second line is still wide open.

    Darryl Tapp and Brandon Graham are taking most of the snaps with the second-team defense at training camp. That leaves Phillip Hunt and Vinny Curry playing defensive end with the third team. That has to be one of the better third-team defensive end combos in the history of football.

    Tapp is a player that most people have already written off, at least with the Eagles. He isn't a bad player, but he won't give you much more than three or four sacks as a reserve defensive end. His ceiling is limited, but he is still a really good run defender.

    Brandon Graham has been really impressive so far in camp. This isn't a big surprise to me. He was a great pass-rusher in college and was starting to come into his own during his rookie season before he tore his ACL.

    Last year he wasn't a year removed from his major knee surgery until the very end of the season. You have to wait a year after major knee surgery before you can expect a player to get back to form. I fully expect him to be a key No. 2 defensive end and to rack up anywhere from six to 10 sacks this season.

    That leaves Tapp, Hunt and Curry battling for the final two roster spots and the final active spot on game day. That active spot on game day can change week to week based on injuries and performance, but don't expect the Eagles to keep five defensive ends active on game day.

    Hunt is the rawest of the three players. He has also shown the most improvement. I love his upside but upside alone won't earn you a roster spot.

    Curry is a natural pass-rusher. He needs to work on his technique a lot this summer, especially with lowering his pad level against bigger linemen. Curry is a perfect situational pass-rusher. He can't be relied on every down just yet, but on third and long downs he will be great right away at getting after the quarterback.

    This is a positional battle that will be decided very late in preseason. There is far too much talent and upside to call it anytime soon.

8. Nose Tackle

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    In the Eagles wide nine defensive line scheme, they line up their defensive tackles a little bit differently. The under tackle is usually the better pass-rusher of the two tackles, and lines up outside of the right guard, closer to the right tackle than he is the center. The nose tackle lines up between the left guard and the center. His job is to draw those two interior linemen to him in a double-team to take the pressure off the rest of the pass rush.

    Nose tackle has been by far the worst position for the Eagles this summer. Mike Patterson has been ruled out for all of training camp while he is still recovering from offseason brain surgery. His return is unknown. It all comes down to when doctors would feel comfortable with him taking a shot to the head.

    Antonio Dixon should be the favorite to take over at nose tackle while Patterson is out. He was a great run-stopper in 2010 and has the size and skills to be a really good nose tackle for this defense. He has looked really slow and weak at the same time for a guy of his size. He doesn't look like a second-team defensive tackle, he looks like a player that doesn't belong on this defense.

    Derek Landri has been the lone bright spot at nose tackle. He will never be the biggest or the fastest defensive tackle on any roster, but, man, does he play the game to the fullest every snap and he is also really technically sound. I hope Fletcher Cox really takes after Landri. He would be dominant with his athletic and physical abilities to go along with the fundamentals and energy level of Landri.

    Speaking of Cox, he got some reps as a nose tackle. He is a better fit as an under tackle at this point in his career. He isn't sound enough to handle double-teams on every down. It's good experience for him, but he isn't an ideal nose tackle for the Eagles right now.

    Right now Landri looks like the Eagles starting nose tackle. It's far too early to give up on Dixon right now, but he has a long way to go if he will be able to steal a starting job from a player like Derek Landri.

     

9. Weak-Side Linebacker

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    Weak-side linebacker is the position on defense that seems to be the one position on defense that is wide open. Last year Moise Fokou started the season at weak-side linebacker. He was moved to the strong side when Casey Matthews was moved from middle to weak side in Week 3. Brian Rolle was the weak-side linebacker the rest of the season.

    Rolle played the best at the position and he is the best fit. With Chaney, you have a backup linebacker who can come in and play all three positions. He is a great athlete; he just doesn't have great football instincts.

    Rolle is the perfect player for what the Eagles need at weak side linebacker. He won't have to cover tight ends, that duty will fall to strong side linebacker Mychal Kendricks and maybe DeMeco Ryans, a safety, or Nnamdi Asomugha against two tight end sets. His height won't really be much of a factor as a weak-side linebacker except for the fact that he will be difficult for 6'5" blockers to find.

    You have to love the way Rolle plays. He has heard the same criticism about his lack of height since his days at Ohio State. He plays with a real chip on his shoulder. He gives the Eagles great run support from the weak side. That is really the No. 1 job of the weak-side linebacker in this defense, run support, and Rolle does it very well.

    Chaney still has all the physical tools to be a really good linebacker in this league, but his instincts just aren't at the level they need to be right now. I don't know if they ever will be, but as far as 2012 goes he should be a backup.

10. The Return Men

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    The return game for the Eagles in 2011 was dull at best. They averaged just 7.1 yards on 30 punt returns and just 20.9 on 39 kickoff returns. Outside of one 51-yard punt return by DeSean Jackson, the return game was dead all season long. That will change in 2012.

    The Eagles drafted cornerback and return specialist Brandon Boykin to help out on kickoff returns. They also signed two undrafted players to help out on punt returns, cornerback Cliff Harris and wide receiver Damaris Johnson.

    Right now Damaris Johnson is the favorite to win the punt returner job and Boykin is leader of all players on kickoffs. All three players will get plenty of opportunities to impress in the return game once we get to preseason.

    This is a role that we can't really get a good feel for until the first preseason game on Aug. 9. All three of these players were dangerous return men in college. It will be exciting to see how they will perform in actual games next month.