Philadelphia Eagles: Updating the Eagles' Key Position Battles in Training Camp

Randy JobstSenior Analyst IAugust 12, 2012

Philadelphia Eagles: Updating the Eagles' Key Position Battles in Training Camp

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    The first-team offense and defense had a performance in the preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers that they would rather forget. Very few starters for the Philadelphia Eagles did a lot to impress, but we are still very early in the preseason. The starters will get more snaps in the second preseason game on August 20th and should be able to pick their game up against a much less physical team in the New England Patriots.

    As unimpressive as most of the first-team unit was, the backups played great for the most part. Of course they did it against second-, third- and fourth-stringers, but they were impressive nonetheless. Some less-than-stellar play from a couple starters and some encouraging play from some of the backups really open the door in the training-camp position battles.

    Players like Mike Kafka, Demetress Bell and Mat McBriar did a lot to hurt themselves while Nick Foles, King Dunlap and Chas Henry put themselves in a great position to steal a roster spot in the final week of training camp and the final three weeks of the preseason.

Backup Quarterback

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    It would be insane to believe that Mike Kafka has already lost his backup quarterback role because of what Nick Foles did against a bunch of third-stringers or even what Trent Edwards did against fourth-stringers. Kafka is still the backup, even if he won't be able to play in anymore preseason games because of a broken non-throwing hand.

    It did open things up a little bit and give Foles a chance to move up on the depth chart if he really wows with the second-string offense over the next three weeks. Foles is still a project at this point and will have to prove his worth on the field before he can be seriously considered for the backup job.

    Both Foles and Edwards were impressive in their debuts with the Eagles Thursday night, but impressing for one quarter against a bunch of backups doesn't really tell us much. If Nick Foles does it again against second-stringers rather than third-stringers, Kafka might be in jeopardy of losing his job. Andy Reid is going to place the second-best quarterback on the roster as his backup quarterback based on how they play now, not on how long they have been with this offense.

Fullback

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    The Eagles have a three-man race at fullback now that Jeremy Stewart has been released. It will be between Stanley Havili, Emil Igwenagu or nobody. Yes, it is still possible the Eagles could keep zero fullbacks on the 53-man roster and just depend on a tight end or maybe even a reserve lineman as a lead blocker. They could also use a bigger running back like Chris Polk in that fullback role.

    Right now the Eagles' plan at fullback is a mystery to me. Igwenagu has as good of a chance as Havili does. If anything, Igwengu might be the dark horse to win this position. He is about 10 to 15 pounds bigger and has the versatility to play tight end as well. The Eagles could use him as their third tight end and only fullback. That is great value for a position that is becoming less and less of a need in the NFL.

    If either of these players win the fullback job, it will be because of their blocking skills. The Eagles aren't going to keep a fullback that is a mediocre lead blocker at best. The Eagles would be keeping a slower running back who won't get many touches. Blocking is the key here.

Depth at Wide Receiver

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    It's safe to say that DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and even Riley Cooper are all safe bets to be on the 53-man roster. That leaves one or maybe two roster spots open for the nine remaining wide receivers on the Eagles' roster.

    Damaris Johnson and Marvin McNutt are the favorites to make the final roster, while Chad Hall and Mardy Gilyard are making a case as well. Only Hall has experience in this offense.

    Johnson had four receptions for 85 yards and three punt returns for 18 yards, including a 25-yard return that was called back. Gilyard had a 44-yard touchdown catch and a 14-yard punt return. Hall had one 11-yard reception while McNutt didn't touch the football.

    What does all of that mean? Four touches on offense for Johnson is a lot for one preseason game. The Eagles have been searching for a small but quick player to get a lot of touches. They tried Hall in the past, but he didn't really scare anybody. They also tried to sign Darren Sproles last summer. Maybe Damaris Johnson can be that type of player.

    McNutt not making a catch doesn't mean much. McNutt struggling to get open against second-string corners does. He struggled to beat some of the beater cover corners in college. All of those type of corners are now in the NFL. He has to prove he can get open in the NFL to secure a roster spot.

    Gilyard has a shot to make this team. He is a bigger receiver than Johnson at around 6'0", 195 pounds, and he can be a standout on special teams both as a gunner and as a return man.

    None of these four players is a lock to make this team at this point. It will come down to what they can offer the team on offense and special teams, as well as how they are performing in games late in the preseason.

Third Tight End

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    The battle for the third tight end position is a lot like the battle for the fullback spot in that the players aren't just trying to prove they are the third-best tight end on the roster, they are also trying to prove their worth as the third tight end. Andy Reid could easily elect to keep just two tight ends on the roster if he doesn't feel there is a third tight end that could have a big enough impact on the offense.

    Fullback is going to play a big part in this as well. Fullback Emil Igwenagu can also line up as a tight end, as he did in college. He isn't a great blocker, but his versatility allows him to play two positions, thus adding another roster spot for a defensive linemen or a cornerback.

    Outside of Emil Igwenagu, who is still on the outside looking in, Brett Brackett and Chase Ford are the main candidates for the third tight end spot. Neither player has really stood out so far, but both players have a lot of potential in the NFL as receivers.

    Neither player is a great blocker. Blocking will be important for the third tight end, if the Eagles decide to keep that many. It will be crucial for either Ford or Brackett to continue to get better with each day of practice as a blocker. They won't make the roster as just a good receiving option.

Left Tackle

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    Demetress Bell appeared to be a lock as the starting left tackle for the Eagles. They signed him as a one-year replacement for injured Jason Peters with a chance for him to take over at left tackle for the long term. All Bell had to do was work hard in practice and prove his worth on the football field.

    After just six plays in the preseason opener, he opened the door for some serious competition at left tackle. He was passive in run blocking and was beaten badly in pass protection. It left a lot of doubt in everyone's mind about the actual ability of Bell as the Eagles' full-time starting left tackle.

    In comes King Dunlap. He has never been a full-time starter in this league, but he has made a few starts at both tackle spots. Ideally he is better served as a backup because he can play both tackle and guard spots coming off the bench.

    If Bell continues to struggle in the preseason, Andy Reid won't hesitate to promote Dunlap as the team's starting left tackle. Dunlap is already getting reps in with the first-team offense just in case. The second preseason game on August 20th against the New England Patriots might make or break Demetress Bell's season.

Defensive End

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    How many defensive ends will the Eagles keep in 2012? Your guess is as good as mine. I doubt that Andy Reid even knows at this point. It isn't really up to him. The better they play, the more likely the Eagles are to keep six.

    The key variable in all of this is that defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins can play both end spots as well. If the Eagles kept six defensive ends they would really be keeping seven, or six and a half. There is always a possibility of the Eagles trading one of their defensive ends like Darryl Tapp, but teams aren't as likely to trade for a player they know will probably be released during final cuts.

    We know the starters will be Jason Babin and Trent Cole. We know that the Eagles won't be releasing Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry. The Eagles spent a first-round pick on Graham in 2010 and a second on Curry last April. Both players have looked great thus far at camp and in the preseason opener.

    That leaves Phillip Hunt and Darryl Tapp. Hunt had two sacks in the preseason opener and forced one fumble. It's important to note that he was going up against the first-string offense as well. He has shown a great deal of potential. How do you cut a player like that?

    That really leaves it up to Tapp. Does he impress the coaches enough to earn a roster spot? Does he impress an opposing coach enough to warrant a trade? The next three weeks will be huge for Tapp. He won't be unemployed, but where he goes and what his role will be are still very much up in the air.

Defensive Tackle

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    Defensive tackle might be harder to figure out than defensive end. Mike Patterson is a huge question mark at this point. He should be cleared to return to football at some point this season, but when is still very much up in the air. If he isn't back by the start of the regular season, then how many tackles do the Eagles keep until he comes back?

    The smart answer would probably be four, with a fifth making the practice squad. Derek Landri is going to make the 53-man roster. He has been a monster all summer long and was dominant against the Steelers. He is so quick off the line and so tough to keep out of the backfield that he should be the starting defensive tackle next to Cullen Jenkins until Patterson comes back.

    That leaves two open spots. Fletcher Cox will be one. He has shown flashes of greatness already. The other spot should go to Antonio Dixon, but he keeps giving the coaching staff reasons not to keep him. He is really slow off the line and offers absolutely no pass rush. I don't see how the Eagles keep a player like that in the wide-nine scheme.

    The next-best tackle on the roster is Cedric Thornton. He was outstanding in the pass rush in the preseason opener. The problem with Thornton is the Eagles need another tackle like Landri who can handle double-teams. If the Eagles feel that either Cox or Jenkins can handle that, then Thornton will make the roster. If not, they might have to keep Dixon just until Patterson comes back.

    The remainder of the summer will be crucial for Dixon and Thornton. Both players are fighting for one roster spot. I like Thornton, but Dixon still has a really good shot if he starts to play better in the wide-nine.

Weak-Side Linebacker

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    Since last January, I have been pretty confident that Brian Rolle will be the Eagles' starting weak-side linebacker for the foreseeable future. After the first preseason game, I have my doubts. Rolle was abused at times against the Pittsburgh Steelers' power running game.

    It's only one preseason game, but it is still a reason for concern. Good coaches don't ignore bad performances like that from their younger players. It opens the door for Jamar Chaney and Keenan Clayton at weak-side linebacker. Rolle is still the lead dog, but Clayton and Chaney may have gained some ground.

    It's key for Rolle to play more physical against the New England Patriots in the next preseason game. It's one thing to get bullied a little bit by a very physical rushing attack like the Pittsburgh Steelers, but to do it consistently against a more pass-orientated team would be very costly.

Slot Corner

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    Joselio Hanson appeared to have played his last meaningful game with the Eagles after they spent a fourth-round draft pick on a fellow slot corner in Brandon Boykin. The Eagles, a team that likes to use corner Nnamdi Asomugha on the inside at times, can't really keep two slot corners, can they?

    It might not matter, Hanson has been playing at too high a level to cut. He tackles well and is one of the best slot corners in game right now. He will give up shorter receptions over the middle, but he rarely gives up anything more than that.

    The Eagles don't know what type of a slot corner Boykin will be in year one. With Hanson you know what you have: an excellent slot corner with one year left on his current deal who could also serve as a great mentor for Boykin.

    Hanson has to keep playing well to earn his roster spot. The Eagles could easily give it away to a player like Cliff Harris or Kevin Thomas, who are younger and may have more potential. Last year the Eagles cut Hanson during final cuts only to re-sign him just days later. We will see if he can better solidify his roster spot this summer.

Return Game

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    The return game is going to be a position to watch all preseason long, although Brandon Boykin might have just locked up the kickoff duties with maybe the greatest kickoff return the Eagles have had since Brian Mitchell. Boykin took his first kickoff 46 yards to the 38-yard line, while making two defenders miss on the way.

    The Eagles will still experiment with different players at both return spots. They got very little out of their return game last season and want to make they have the best two men for the job, or possibly the best man.

    Damaris Johnson and Mardy Gilyard are battling it out for the punt return duties. The winner of that battle will also have to secure the final wide receiver spot as well. Both players are off to a good start.

    Johnson had 85 yards receiving and 18 yards on three punt returns. He also had a 25-yard punt return that was called back. Gilyard had just two touches the whole game, but they were impressive. He caught a 44-yard touchdown from Nick Foles in the third quarter and also had a 14-yard punt return as well.

    Johnson is probably the favorite between the two players, but he will have to prove it on a consistent basis, just as any of these players will. Failing or succeeding in one preseason game is one thing, but doing it consistently for three or four games is a little more telling.