Breaking Down Philadelphia Eagles' Biggest Training Camp Battles
Fresh off a 4-12 season, no job on the Philadelphia Eagles is safe.
It’s safe to assume every player is fighting for his job.
Veterans like Jason Peters and Evan Mathis are all but guaranteed a starting spot, but there will be some intriguing camp battles. The quarterback competition will be noteworthy. Any of a handful of players could wind up as starters in the secondary and the return game is up for grabs.
The following training camp battles are the ones most worth keeping an eye on.
Quarterback: Michael Vick vs. Nick Foles
The most publicized battle of the Philadelphia Eagles will be the quarterback competition between Michael Vick and Nick Foles. Chip Kelly may be seeing what a little camp duel can bring out in his two signal-callers, or he may really not know which one he wants as his starter against the Washington Redskins.
ESPN’s Ron Jaworski just rated Vick 25th in his quarterback rankings, citing Vick’s turnovers as the biggest concern. Jaworski says Vick should excel in the two-minute offense under Kelly, considering the success Vick has had with it in the past. And if you don’t remember the potential Vick has to put some points on the board, watch this to refresh your memory.
What will ultimately make or break Vick, like always, is his turnovers. If Kelly believes Vick can’t limit his interceptions and fumbles, Foles becomes the guy. Plays like this one against the Steelers last year may be why Kelly hasn't yet announced Vick as his starter.
Foles doesn’t have the speed of a typical Kelly quarterback, so he will have to make the offense click on high-precision passing and a hurry-up offense. Foles has the weapons around him, as DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin have the potential to give opposing coordinators a headache.
Kelly will have to decide how much stock to put in the preseason performances of each player, but that may be the deciding factor in which player gets to start in Week 1.
Slot Receiver: Jason Avant vs. Damaris Johnson vs. Arrelious Benn
Barring a preseason injury, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin will resume their roles as the top two receivers, the fifth such season the Philadelphia Eagles have boasted the same duo.
What will be interesting is whether Jason Avant can return as the slot receiver.
Avant is one of the more underrated players in the NFL, and he’s been reliable to the point that the Eagles have him locked up for two more seasons at $2.71 million and $3.96 million. That’s a lot of money for a guy that only plays in the slot, but Avant’s consistency and receiving averages (49 receptions, 622 yards, and one TD per season since 2009) are intriguing.
Catches like this one have also given Avant his share of playing time.
But Chip Kelly prides his offense on versatile receivers with a lot more speed than Avant has. That puts Arrelious Benn and Damaris Johnson in the picture.
Benn is a former second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who was acquired via a trade this past offseason. He’s a bigger receiver, but he still possesses good speed. He just hasn't been able to stay healthy, missing 11 games the past three seasons.
Johnson is a former undrafted free agent who saw playing time as a rookie last year. He caught 19 passes for 256 yards and returned 26 punts for 291 yards, including a 98-yard touchdown. He has impressive speed and quickness, and he’s an ideal slot receiver.
Expect Avant to start the season as the primary slot receiver, but Benn and Johnson will certainly see their time as they possess one key ingredient Avant doesn’t: speed.
Starting Tight End: Brent Celek vs. Zach Ertz
This job is Brent Celek’s for now, but Zach Ertz is ready to take over, maybe as soon as the season opener.
Celek’s long-term deal is because he’s been an integral part of the offense for a handful of years. He’s a solid pass-catcher and an improved blocker. Celek has seen a spike in his drops though (eight last year), and he’s not as versatile as Kelly prefers for his tight ends.
Ertz was made for a Kelly offense. The Eagles grabbed the Stanford product with the 35th overall pick in the draft, adding a tough element to their receiving corps. Ertz can line up as a traditional tight end as well as slot receiver or even a receiver out wide.
Check out the above picture in which Ertz lines up at the very top of the screen against Kelly's Oregon Ducks. That's not a traditional sport for a tight end, and it's doubtful Celek has don't that too many times in his career. But Ertz has great speed and excellent hands, and the result of this play was a quick strike to Ertz on a slant for a first down.
You will likely see Celek’s name atop the depth chart when the regular season starts, but fast forward six weeks and that may not be the case.
Starting Cornerbacks: Cary Williams vs. Bradley Fletcher vs. Brandon Boykin vs. Jordan Poyer
By allowing Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to walk, the Philadelphia Eagles are hoping for addition by subtraction. But the problem is that Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher don’t have near the upside the former two did.
Williams was brought over from the Baltimore Ravens, fresh off a Super Bowl championship. He picked off a career-high four passes and registered 17 passes defensed, although he was burned repeatedly in pass coverage. Williams was inked to a three-year, $17 million contract, one that assumes he’s a starter at cornerback.
Meanwhile, the other spot could really go to a handful of candidates. There’s free-agent acquisition Bradley Fletcher from the St. Louis Rams, last year’s nickelback Brandon Boykin and seventh-round pick Jordan Poyer.
All could conceivably start in 2013.
Fletcher played well in coverage for the Rams last year, allowing just a 55.6 passer rating in the nickel and dime role. It’s a lot different covering slot receivers than 6’4” receivers on the outside, and Fletcher will have his work cut out for him in that role.
He also displayed a propensity for committing penalties, registering five in just 374 snaps, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That eventually led to Fletcher’s demotion to the dime spot.
Boykin will have every opportunity to compete with Fletcher for the starting spot opposite Williams. Boykin played regularly as the nickelback in his rookie campaign in ’12, playing well given the lack of pass rush from the Eagles’ front four.
His finest play came in a Week 2 win over the Baltimore Ravens, when Boykin covered Jacoby Jones on a deep ball in the middle of the field. Boykin jumped as high as a 5'9" cornerback can possibly jump, knocking the ball away while helping to preserve a 24-23 Eagles' win.
Poyer is a long shot, but he was seen as a potential second or third-round pick before this past year's draft. The fact that the Eagles were able to grab Poyer in the seventh round constitutes a steal for the franchise. There should be a solid competition between Fletcher, Boykin and Poyer for the cornerback spots.
Starting Safeties: Nate Allen vs. Kurt Coleman vs. Kenny Phillips vs. Patrick Chung vs. Earl Wolff
This could turn into one of the most interesting camp competitions, seeing as there are conceivably five different players vying for two starting spots.
Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman were last year’s starters, which certainly doesn’t boost their resumes. Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung are former high draft picks of Super Bowl teams, but each fell out of favor after a plague of injuries. And Earl Wolff is the fifth-round rookie looking to make an immediate impact in an underachieving unit.
Allen showed a knack for getting to the ball when he was a rookie, recording three interceptions in his first month in the NFL.
He has struggled to regain his form, though, following a devastating knee injury. He will likely make the roster and provide depth, but he's not the best bet to start from Day 1.
Coleman was simply overmatched for all of last season. He has great heart, but heart won’t help him in coverage or in stopping the run. Coleman winning a starting job would mean an injury to one of the other safeties and an outstanding summer for Coleman.
Even that may not be enough.
Phillips’ knee has already started acting up, which may be the reason the Philadelphia Eagles gave him a contract with no guaranteed money. If healthy, he’s a very good player in pass coverage. When the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in 2011, Phillips played an integral role as a free safety.
If Phillips can come close to duplicating those numbers (no touchdowns allowed, four interceptions), his one-year deal becomes a steal for the Eagles. But given the problems he’s already experienced with his knee, that’s doubtful.
Who will be the starting safeties in 2013?
Chung may or may not win the starting job. He was a second-round pick of the New England Patriots in 2009, and he’s had his moments under Bill Belichick.
Check out his highlights from one game against the Miami Dolphins. This would be a fine best game ever for a Hall of Fame safety. Chung will hopefully make his mark again playing special teams, but if he can provide a spark in the secondary, it will be welcomed.
Wolff is the sleeper to win a starting spot, and he will likely become a fan favorite if he does.
He’s a fifth-round pick, but he already saw first-team snaps in OTAs. That doesn't mean too much given the way Kelly has rotated his players thus far. What will give Wolff the opportunity to play is how he fares in preseason games. He will likely compete with the backups in August, so he will see extended action in the preseason contests. That will be his opportunity to shine.
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