Philadelphia Eagles: Sizing Up the 2009 Position Battles

Lou DiPietroAnalyst IMay 21, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 18:  Tight end Brent Celek #87 of the Philadelphia Eagles catches a six-yard touchdown in the third quarter during the NFC championship game against the Arizona Cardinals on January 18, 2009 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

For a team that lost half its offensive line, had tremendous upheaval in the secondary, and drafted three skill position players with their top three selections, the Philadelphia Eagles are actually pretty well set in terms of who will be starting when kickoff comes in September.

However, there will still be a few battles when training camp opens.

Even though Jason Peters and Stacy Andrews will slide right in to replace long-time tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas, they might not be the only new faces that see a lot of time along the revamped offensive line.

For sure, the Eagles are in a very good position—no matter who officially wins the battles. They will be very well set for depth at numerous positions.


Biggest offensive starter battle

Tight End: Brent Celek vs. Cornelius Ingram

Perhaps it speaks of how well the Eagles upgraded every other offensive position in the offseason that tight end is the biggest spot of worry on the offense. But the backfield is set, as the addition of true fullback Leonard Weaver and second-round pick LeSean McCoy give the Birds the big back they need for short situations and the perfect complement (and replacement, if he misses time) for Brian Westbrook.

And even though the “starting” wide receivers may be a constant carousel, the Eagles are confident they have five quality guys, all of whom have a unique skill set, to match up accordingly against defenses.

So that leaves tight end, which may end up being quite the non-battle. LJ Smith is gone, leaving the starting job as a toss-up between “incumbent” Brent Celek and fifth-round pick Cornelius Ingram.

If past history is any indication, this should be Celek’s job to lose. He played well last year filling in for Smith, including an impressive 10-catch, 83-yard, two-touchdown performance in the NFC Championship Game.

Even without that, rookies very rarely flourish on Andy Reid’s teams, as he prefers to break them into the system gradually. Despite possessing tremendous talent, Ingram hasn’t played a game since the 2008 Capital One Bowl; a torn ACL cost him his senior season at Florida. He will probably be number two on the depth chart over long-forgotten Matt Schobel, but barring a monster pre-season and/or injury or sever ineffectiveness on Celek’s part, Ingram will not be on the field with the starting offense.


Biggest defensive starter battle

Safety: Sean Jones vs. Quentin Demps vs. Rashad Baker

Quentin Mikell will start, we know that much. He’s penciled in at the same spot he played most of last year, strong safety—but that’s not 100 percent set in stone. Mikell’s 2008 emergence was a huge boost to the Eagles’ secondary, and his ability to play either safety spot will be of major importance to the Eagles defense.

Why? Well, because with longtime anchor Brian Dawkins and former competitor Sean Considine gone, it’s the free safety spot that’s open for the first time in a decade—and Mikell still could win it. Safety is the biggest concern for the Birds on defense, but with only two of their draft picks going to defense (a linebacker and a corner), they had to look to free agency to fill those spots.

The Eagles brought in one of each, signing FS Sean Jones from Cleveland and SS Rashad Baker from Oakland. They also have one internal candidate, Quentin Demps, who often spelled Dawkins last season but struggled a bit more than Andy Reid would have liked.

This is shaping up to be the big battle, although Jones has the inside track early on. Baker was a bit player in Oakland last year after a couple of forgettable years in New England, but he is a ball hawk that recorded three interceptions in 10 games last season. Demps had a good season, recording 18 tackles and a sack in limited duty, but made a lot of rookie mistakes that drove Reid nuts.

Jones, meanwhile, is the most polished of the three. Although an injury cost him the first third of the 2008 season, those are the only games he has missed in his four year career. He came on strong, recording 50 tackles and four interceptions in the final 11 games as Cleveland’s starting free safety. He too is a ball hawk, and his 14 career interceptions fit in well with the Asante Samuels, Sheldon Browns, and Ellis Hobbs of the world.

The wild card here is movement. Sheldon Brown is unhappy with his contract, and the large contract extension signed by third corner Joselio Hanson combined with the addition of Hobbs from New England can’t help that.

But when the Eagles had three All-Pro corners last year, there was talk about possibly moving Brown inside to safety. Similar talk abounds about fifth-round draft choice Victor “Macho” Harris, who would need to put on weight but has the range and frame to move from corner to safety.

For now, though, it appears as if Hobbs will be a backup, leaving Brown and Samuel as the starting corners. So, if Jones wins the battle as expected, he will line up at free safety with Mikell in his usual strong safety spot.


Biggest depth battle

Offensive Line: Spots six, seven and eight

I list no versus tablet because the participants are just too numerous to name. Even with Peters and Stacy Andrews aboard, the Eagles’ offensive line is like a swimming duck—strong and serene on the surface but chaos underneath.

The starting five is, as mentioned earlier, set. Jason Peters and Stacy Andrews will step in at tackle, book ending the now healthy trio of guards Todd Herremans, Shawn Andrews, and center Jamaal Jackson. Beyond that, though, who knows.

Last year’s backups are assured of nothing. Center/guard Nick Cole is back under a one-year restricted free agent deal, and he‘s the closest thing to a sure thing. He took over as the starting right guard late last year, and his ability to spell Jackson at center makes him almost a lock.

Guard Max-Jean Gilles, however, is in trouble, as is tackle Winston Justice. Gilles stepped in for Shawn Andrews last year and finally showed flashes of brilliance, but a mangled ankle suffered late last season ended that experiment. With Andrews again healthy and Cole’s good play in his stead, the Eagles may finally give up on Gilles.

Same goes for Winston Justice, whose claim to fame so far as an Eagle is his first career start—Week Four of the 2007 season, where Osi Umenyiora torched him for six sacks.

So who will they turn to? For one, it could be former Mike McGlynn. The former Pitt star saw a lot of action in his second season, becoming the top backup by the end of the season. While that was due mostly to injury, he played well and can spell four of the five positions.

The Eagles also have guard Mike Gibson and tackle King Dunlap, a pair of 2008 draft picks who spent their rookie seasons where most Eagles rookies do: The practice squad. 2009 draft picks Paul Fanaika and Fenuki Tupou will replace them there this year, leaving Gibson and Dunlap to compete with Justice, Gilles and McGlynn for the seventh and eighth offensive line spots.

Of course, there will be others looking to make a statement as well; 2008 draft pick Jack Ikegwonu is healthy and will look to break into the secondary, Dan Klecko is a man seemingly without a position and undrafted free agents will look to impress.

No matter what happens though, the Eagles are very deep—something that could help them once again reach the NFC Championship Game and beyond.