Philadelphia Eagles Sleepers to Watch in Training Camp
Every year in training camp across the league, it's the superstars, over-hyped rookies and newly-acquired players that get all the attention. Training camp is important for them, just like everyone else, but it's the lesser-known players that you need to keep an eye on. It's the sleepers that you might not have expected to take on a big role in the upcoming season that deserve more attention.
Last year, Derek Landri was a player that was really impressive all throughout training camp and preseason. He eventually was released during final cuts, but was brought back in Week 5 after Antonio Dixon was lost for the season. Landri is now the favorite to earn a starting defensive tackle role, at least until Mike Patterson is cleared to play.
Either way, he is now one of the reliable veterans a year after he was one of the training camp sleepers.
This year, there are plenty of sleepers to keep an eye on during camp. Some are rookies, some are veterans and some are already starters who are quietly making the jump for just a starter to elite.
Here are the 10 "sleepers" to key an eye on for the duration of training camp and preseason.
Twenty-one teams passed on Bryce Brown in the seventh round of last April's NFL draft; every team passed on him at least five or six times.
Brown was the 22nd pick of the seventh round in the draft. He was an extraordinary talent who showed a lack of commitment in college. Now, he is an extraordinary talent who is showing plenty of commitment to his NFL team.
It's amazing what a six-figure paycheck can do.
Brown has been outstanding all summer long. He is a 220-pound back with a lot of speed and natural running ability. He is projected to be the third-string running back, but it will be hard not to give him touches on Sunday,
Brown has been torching first and second-string defenses in practice. He just looks like an NFL running back already.
As good as he has looked already, it's scary to think where he will be in a couple years. He only played one season at Tennessee before transferring to Kansas State, where he played in one game before leaving the team.
It will be exciting to see what kind of a player he will develop into with some consistent coaching, something he prevented himself from receiving in college.
You can make the argument that the Eagles have done a better job in the late rounds of their drafts and their undrafted free-agent pickups than some teams have done with the entire draft.
In 2010, the Eagles drafted key reserve linebacker Jamar Chaney and projected starting strong safety Kurt Coleman, both in the seventh round.
In the sixth round of last year's draft. the Eagles found two starters in center Jason Kelce and linebacker Brian Rolle.
Now, in 2012, the Eagles may have found a really good prospect at running back in Bryce Brown and an electrifying return man from the undrafted free-agent pool, Damaris Johnson. Johnson has already been named the Eagles' No. 1 punt returner going into preseason.
Johnson finished his career as one of the best return men in the history of college football. In three seasons at Tulsa, he finished with 571 career punt return yards, averaging 12.1 yards per return with two career punt return touchdowns.
Johnson is incredibly small at around 5'8, 170 pounds, but he makes up for it with a lot of speed, quickness and a natural ability as a return man. The Eagles return game was clearly dead last season, and they have responded by adding some capable returners. Johnson should be able to add a lot of excitement in the return game this season.
Most people around the NFL have no idea who Brett Brackett is. Two years ago, he was an unknown slot receiver for Penn State, and last season, he spent the entire season on the practice squad. Now, Brackett is trying to make a name for himself while he battles for a spot on the roster as the third tight end.
Brackett is a natural receiver, but a very unpolished blocker. At times this summer, he has been thrown around like a rag doll. His technique needs to get better. His progression as a blocker is something worth watching.
If Brackett can hold his own as a blocker, he will be a lock to make the team. The Eagles are expected to run a lot more two-tight end sets. They don't have a proven red-zone target. Tight ends are often the best targets inside the 20.
Brackett should be able to help in that department. He can line up as a slot receiver and as a tight end. His progression as a NFL tight end will be something worth watching this summer.
Dallas Reynolds was thought to be a long shot to make the roster. He has spent most of his career on the Eagles practice squad since being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He isn't the athletic type of offensive lineman that usually thrives in Howard Mudd's blocking scheme.
Despite all of that, Reynolds has seen a lot of time with the second-team offense and has also seen a lot of time with the first-team offense while Evan Mathis was dealing with an illness.
I don't know if the Eagles are giving Reynolds more time with the first and second-team units because they see him as a great fit on the roster or because they want to see what he can do. It might be a little bit of both. I fully expect the Eagles to keep just two reserve interior linemen.
The Eagles already have two offensive tackles in King Dunlap and Todd Herremans who have starting experience at guard as well. Keeping three more reserve interior linemen doesn't make sense with all the talent on the roster.
Reynolds can play both center and guard. He was promoted from the practice squad in 2009 after Jamaal Jackson tore his ACL. How he performs in preseason will determine if he can finally crack the 53-man roster or not, especially if he plays well as a center.
Danny Watkins isn't your typical "sleeper" candidate. He was a first-round draft pick last year and started 12 games last season. However, he struggled as a starter and seemed to over think far too often instead of just making blocks.
Watkins is still relatively new to football. He didn't play organized football until junior college. He didn't play guard until last season. Last year was a big adjustment for him. He had to adjust to a new position and the speed and talent of the NFL.
2012 has been a different story for Watkins. He know what his blocking assignments are, and he has a better feel for the NFL in year two.
Watkins has been dominant in training camp thus far. He isn't holding off his man anymore; he is moving him out of the play. That is the player that the Eagles drafted last year, and that is the player that has showed up this summer.
The sky is really the limit for Watkins. He didn't play high school football. He was really raw coming into college and was still a little raw coming into the NFL. Now he is far more polished. He won't have to think so much this season. He will act on instincts and react.
Watch for the running game to start to run behind Kelce and Herremans on the right side of the line. Last season, the running game primarily ran behind the left side with Jason Peters and Evan Mathis. This season, the right side of the line should also be a strength of the offense.
Cedric Thornton was a long shot to make the roster last season as an undrafted free agent, but he impressed the coaches enough to land a spot on the practice squad. Now, in year two, he is starting to really push for a roster spot, especially with Cullen Jenkins missing time in practice.
Thornton is more of an inside pass-rusher than he is a run-stuffer, which fits in right with the wide-9 scheme. He played a lot of defensive end in college. He is a natural pass-rusher who is trying to prove he belongs with the likes of Fletcher Cox and Jenkins.
The key for Thornton will be penetration. He will line up outside of the right guard as an under tackle. With the nose tackle taking up two blockers, his main job will be to beat the right guard. If he can do that in preseason, he might earn a roster spot as the fifth defensive tackle.
If he plays at a high level in preseason, then the coaches will know he won't last too long on the practice squad this season. Teams are always looking for pass-rushers, especially inside pass-rushers.
Right now, Thornton is a "sleeper" player with a chance to make the roster.
The Eagles have eight defensive ends on their roster. Six of them are good enough to be on an NFL roster. Five of them will make the team, but only four will be active on game day.
Where exactly does Vinny Curry fit into the Eagles' plans at defensive end? Well, he will make the roster, but past that, it's hard to say.
Curry is still a pretty raw player. His technique isn't great, but he is still beating first and second-team offensive tackles in practice. He is a natural pass-rusher even if he isn't a polished one. He also plays every snap with extreme effort. Blockers have to match that intensity, or he will beat you.
Curry has really taken to the coaching of defensive line coach Jim Washburn very well. He is progressing very quickly in training camp. The pass-rush will be the key for Curry during preseason.
The Eagles aren't going to turn him into a complete defensive end right away. He will be a situational pass-rusher. The better his pass-rush is in preseason, the more snaps he will see early in the regular season.
A funny thing happened last week during training camp: Linebacker Jamar Chaney was on the field with the first-team nickel defense with DeMeco Ryans.
Does this mean that Mychal Kendricks is having a really bad camp?
No. Kendricks is the starting strong-side linebacker and is expected to be the nickel linebacker next to Ryans. But it is still worth noting that Chaney is getting work with the first-team nickel defense. His football instincts and coverage skills last season were non-existent.
The coaches have always been high on Chaney since he was drafted in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL draft. They thought enough of him to trust him to takeover middle linebacker late in his rookie season after Stewart Bradley dislocated his elbow. They also thought enough of him to move him to the strong side in year two.
Chaney might see a lot of time in practice in at a lot of different linebacker positions with the first-team defense. He is a very versatile linebacker. He can play all three positions. He isn't a starting caliber player just yet, but his size and athletic ability allow the coaches to move him around when needed.
It will be interesting to how the coaching staff lines up Chaney in these next four weeks.
Last week, the Eagles traded away linebackers Moise Fokou and Greg Lloyd to the Indianapolis Colts for cornerback Kevin Thomas. Neither linebacker was expected to make the roster this season, but Thomas should compete for a roster spot as a backup outside cornerback.
Thomas is a physical corner at 6'0", 192 pounds. He lost his rookie season in 2010 to an ACL injury, but was able to play a little less than half the snaps last season with the Colts. If Thomas is healthy, he should be able to challenge Brandon Hughes for a roster spot.
The key for Thomas will be his speed. Can he stay with some of the faster outside wide receivers in this league?
The Eagles won't give a roster spot to a player who will be a liability in man coverage. He will get tested against some of the fastest wideouts in the NFL everyday in practice, Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson.
Jaiquawn Jarrett has been a hitting machine all summer long. He was one of the most physical defensive backs coming out of the draft in 2011.
This is a great sign for Jarrett. His coverage skills will be a work in progress, but you can cover that up on the field. You can't cover up bad tackling.
Jarrett is getting the bust label before he plays his first preseason game in his second season. It's too early to judge him. He didn't get much coaching during the lockout-shortened offseason last year. He also wasn't an NFL-ready prospect either.
He is a great tackler, but not a complete safety just yet. With more leveled expectations and more time to learn how to be a safety this season, the outlook is much brighter heading into the 2012 season.
Jarrett is a player to keep an eye out for during the preseason. How has he improved in pass coverage? Is he better in the open field? Is he starting to read offenses and quarterbacks better? These are the things that you want to see out of your safeties.
These are the things to watch for with Jarrett.