Philadelphia Eagles: 5 Things to Watch for in First Preseason Tilt

Alec NathanFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2012

Philadelphia Eagles: 5 Things to Watch for in First Preseason Tilt

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    As is always the case, Thursday's preseason opener will be a showcase of players fighting for roster spots.

    Starters figure to be limited to a series or two at the most, giving a talented group of rookies, young guns and undrafted free agents a brief moment to shine in the preseason spotlight.

    Although the Eagles are loaded with talent, there are still some intriguing battles taking place at key positions. Of the spots up for grabs, the kick and punt returning duties figure to be among the most compelling.

    Here are five things to keep an eye on when the Philadelphia Eagles take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday evening.

Battle for Final Receiver Spots

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    With Riley Cooper sidelined due to a fractured collarbone, the reps for guys like Chad Hall, Marvin McNutt and Damaris Johnson have increased markedly.

    All three players seem to be making the most of their opportunities, but with Cooper seemingly a lock to make the roster as the team's No. 4 receiver, there are some serious decisions still left to be made.

    For the majority of the 2011 season the Eagles carried five receivers on the active roster, and if that's indeed the case again this season, only one of Hall, McNutt and Johnson figures to snag a roster spot.

    Although it's still early, the odds-on favorite to take the No. 5 receiver job has to be McNutt, thanks to his size, leaping ability and overall potential.

    However, should the Eagles choose to keep six receivers on the final roster, that's where things could get interesting. Chad Hall has been extremely consistent throughout the early stages of training camp, catching nearly everything thrown his way.

    Johnson, on the other hand, is considered the favorite to win the punt returning job, making him an indispensable piece of an improving special teams unit.

    Keep an eye on all three of these guys, and even some lesser known names like Mardy Gilyard, as the preseason gets underway.

Competition at Corner

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    While Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are locked in as the Eagles' starting outside cornerbacks, there's still a bit of uncertainty surrounding reserve roles in the secondary.

    Rookie Brandon Boykin entered training camp as a popular name to replace Joselio Hanson as the team's primary nickel cornerback, but don't hold your breath for change in the slot.

    Head coach Andy Reid has indicated that the job is still firmly in Hanson's possession, but that doesn't mean Boykin won't be able to help his cause with some extended playing time over the next four weeks.

    As for the team's No. 3 outside cornerback, Curtis Marsh is an interesting candidate with loads of potential. Marsh will be entering his second season as a pro, and at 6'1'' and 197 pounds, has the athleticism and raw tools necessary to make an impact at cornerback.

    Although many have already pegged Marsh as a bust, Philly.com's Jeff Mclane expects the second-year corner to have an expanded role during a crucial sophomore campaign.

    Another name to keep an eye on Thursday night: Cliff Harris, an undrafted free agent out of Oregon.

Return Game

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    For a team that finished with dismal numbers in both the kick and punt return game last season, the Eagles could use a jolt on special teams.

    According to the Delaware County Times, rookies Brandon Boykin and Damaris Johnson are atop the depth chart for kick and punt returning duties respectively.

    In 2011, the Eagles averaged 7.1 yards per punt return and 20.9 yards per kick return. Essentially, the Eagles could have averaged similar numbers had they just taken a touchback on most occasions.

    Setting the NCAA record for all-purpose yardage at Tulsa, Johnson could be an immediate replacement for DeSean Jackson (who will only return punts on a part-time basis) as the team's primary punt returner. 

    As previously mentioned, Johnson is facing an uphill battle to make the roster, but his versatility as both a receiver and standout return man could significantly aid his cause.

    Boykin was impressive returning kicks in his time at the University of Georgia, and should benefit a previously mediocre special teams unit.

Battle for No. 3 Running Back Job

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    The Philadelphia Eagles' No. 3 running back figures to play a very small role during the regular season, but will be one of the hottest position battles throughout the preseason.

    According to Philly.com's Zach Berman, second-year running back Dion Lewis looks like the man for the No. 2 job, leaving rookies Bryce Brown and Chris Polk scrapping for the third-string spot.

    Brown, a seventh-round pick out of Kansas State, enters his first ever preseason tilt with limited collegiate experience, but plenty of room to grow.

    Polk, on the other hand, has an impressive collegiate pedigree, one that could ultimately help him win the No. 3 job.

    Both players are nearly identical in stature, with Polk standing at 5'11'' and 222 pounds, and Brown playing at 6'0'' and 223 pounds.

    Expect the battle for the No. 3 job to continue into the final days of the preseason.

Depth at Safety

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    Arguably the biggest question mark on the Eagles' roster, the safety position is loaded with depth, but not enough elite talent.

    Starting free safety Nate Allen has yet to play a full 16 games since entering the league in 2010, and while strong safety Kurt Coleman has shown impressive instincts in the past (five career interceptions), his inconsistency both in coverage and in the box has been concerning.

    When the Eagles selected safety Jaiquawn Jarrett out of Temple in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, many figured he would slot in as the team's starting strong safety. However, in a truncated and complicated offseason, Jarrett never got his legs under him, leaving him with very few opportunities as a rookie.

    Now, with a full summer of training camp and a complete understanding of the playbook, Jarrett figures to prove he was worth the Eagles' early round consideration.

    Lastly, free-agent signee O.J. Atogwe should not be overlooked. Atogwe is far and away the most experienced safety the Eagles have to offer, but it's clear that at 31 years old his best days are behind him.

    I wouldn't expect Atogwe to vulture a starting job, but don't be surprised if he impresses throughout the preseason.