In the Trenches: The Five Biggest Positional Battles for the 2009 Eagles
They might be the most underrated part of training camp.
Training camp is not just about getting yourself into supreme physical condition.
It's about competition. Survival.
Many training camp battles are swept under the radar. Only the winner is talked about. The loser is nothing.
Yet some training camp battles receive much publication. In 2006, Sports Illustrated featured centers Jamaal Jackson and Hank Fraley on its front cover, a rare feat for an offensive linemen.
The following five battles will be the most publicized battles of training camp for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2009 season.
5. Tight End: Brent Celek vs Cornelius Ingram vs Matt Schobel
Following a multitude of disappointing seasons as the Eagles' tight end, LJ Smith saw his tenure as a member of the Eagles come to an end.
In six seasons, LJ never produced a season that surpassed or even met expectations. He signed with the Baltimore Ravens in March, leaving the Eagles three potential candidates for tight end next season.
The odds-on favorite to win the starting job is third year player Brent Celek, who was drafted in the fifth round in 2007. Celek developed into a solid receiving target last season, hauling in 27 balls for 318 yards and a score. Against the Seahawks, Celek broke the Eagles' single-game receiving record for a tight end, hauling in six passes for 131 yards.
In the postseason, Celek was an absolute beast. He caught six balls for 56 yards in the wild-card round. He scored a touchdown against the Giants in the divisional round. And he went wild against the Cardinals in the conference championship game, catching 10 balls for 83 yards and two touchdowns.
When the postseason is factored in, Celek was actually the team's best tight end last season.
Cornelius Ingram was drafted by the Eagles in the fifth round of the 2009 draft. Ingram missed the entire 2008 college football season due to injured ligaments in his knee. As a result, he slipped a few rounds in the draft, but has been described by many as the steal of the draft.
Ingram averaged 15 yards per reception in the 2007 season, an unheard-of amount for a tight end. He also has been described as a clutch target, especially reliable in the red zone.
Matt Schobel has been with the Eagles since the 2006 season. Over three seasons, he has hauled in 27 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns. He has been described as a "reliable target" but possesses no real playmaking ability. Schobel turned 30 years old in the middle of the 2008 season and will probably have to fight for a roster spot next season.
The starting position at tight end is Celek's job to lose. Ingram lacks experience at the professional level and Schobel simply can't compete with Celek's playmaking ability. However, a phenomenal training camp by Ingram could earn him the starting position.
On the other hand, a disappointing performance could drop him to third on the depth chart. It would take a virtual miracle for Schobel to enter next season as the team's starter.
4. Return Duties: Quintin Demps vs Ellis Hobbs and DeSean Jackson vs Jeremy Maclin
For the first time in years, the Eagles have legitimate weapons at both kick returner and punt returner. In 2008, Demps averaged over 25 yards per kickoff return, including a 100-yard touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens. Jackson returned a punt for a touchdown against the Redskins in October, and added two other returns of over 60 yards.
In the offseason, the Eagles signed cornerback and kick returned Ellis Hobbs from the New England Patriots. They also drafted wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in the first round of the NFL draft. Hobbs had been a sensational kick returner for the Patriots.
In 2007, he set an NFL-record by returning a kickoff for a 108-yard touchdown. In 2008, Hobbs led the entire AFC in kick return yardage.
Maclin has been described as one of the more explosive return specialists in the game today. Maclin holds the NCAA single-season record for total all-purpose yards in a season by a freshman. He returned a kick for a touchdown in 2007 and in 2008. He had two punt returns for scores in 2007 and another in 2008, giving him five return touchdowns in two seasons.
The Eagles have an unusual situation in 2008. Hobbs, Demps, Maclin, and Jackson are four of the more explosive return men in the NFL. The team only needs one kick returner and one punt returner. Likely the team's number one wide receiver, Jackson is at risk for injury as a return specialist.
Maclin is just a rookie and will likely be the team's DeSean Jackson in 2009, meaning he'll play wide receiver and return punts. Demps will likely not return kicks if he somehow beats out Sean Jones for the starting job. However, if Hobbs somehow beats out Brown for the second spot at cornerback, Demps may still be returning kicks.
The logical choice, assuming that both Hobbs and Demps fail to land a starting job on defense, is to keep Demps at kick returner and give Maclin the punt returning duties.
3. Defensive End: Trent Cole vs Juqua Parker vs Darren Howard vs Victor Abiamiri vs Chris Clemons
This one is complicated.
Trent Cole is one year removed from a Pro Bowl selection and should keep his starting job for the 2009 season. However, Darren Howard played surprisingly well last season, leading the team in sacks. Cole will probably keep his starting job, but if Howard continues to shine, expect Cole to see about two-thirds of the snaps.
Parker was a pleasant surprise last season, tallying five sacks and returning an interception for a game-saving touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers.
However, Parker is now 31 years old and will likely be splitting time with Abiamiri and Clemons next year. Abiamiri is just 23 years old and saw limited action in 2008, recording 22 tackles and two sacks.
He will compete with Parker for the starting job. However, Abiamiri will be pushed by sixth-year player Chris Clemons, who finished with four sacks in the season's final nine games in 2008. Clemons also added a 73-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the season finale against Dallas.
Expect Cole and Parker to keep their starting spots, but don't be surprised if a strong training camp by Howard or Abiamiri (or even Clemons) gives one of them a starting spot.
2. WILL Linebacker: Akeem Jordan vs Omar Gaither
This battle will be intense. Akeem Jordan joined the Eagles as a rookie free agent before the 2007 season and managed to steal Omar Gaither's starting spot at linebacker for the final six games of the 2008 season. Jordan accumulated 52 total tackles last season and helped the Eagles win five of their final six games to earn a playoff spot.
Omar Gaither is an underachieving outside linebacker whose pride suffered a massive hit when he relinquished his starting position in the middle of the 2008 season. Gaither is capable of playing any position in the linebacking corps, but is most comfortable at outside linebacker.
He showed his true potential by leading the Eagles in tackles in the 2007 season. However, a disappointing 2008 season has left Gaither's future as a starter in jeopardy.
This may not be the popular choice, but I expect the determined Gaither to win his starting job back in training camp.
1. Wide Receiver: DeSean Jackson vs Kevin Curtis vs Jeremy Maclin vs Reggie Brown vs Hank Baskett vs Jason Avant
Not a single one of the six is a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. The Eagles don't even like naming a player as a number one wide receiver, preferring to use a mix. And guess what? Nobody cares. All are capable of getting the job done and all six will see significant playing time in the 2009 season.
DeSean Jackson is likely the favorite to earn the title of "number one wide receiver." The second year player caught 62 passes for a team-high 912 yards and two touchdowns in the 2008 season. His speed and playmaking ability helped the Eagles finish one game short of the Super Bowl.
Jackson provided many memorable moments from last season, from a 55-yard reception on his first-ever NFL play to a 62-yard go-ahead touchdown catch to complete an improbable 18-point comeback in the NFC championship game.
Kevin Curtis is the only member of the Eagles' receiving corps to catch 1000 yards in a season. In 2007, Curtis led the team with 1110 yards on 77 catches. He suffered through a disappointing 2008, catching just 33 passes. In 2009, Curtis will likely rebound to top form and will compete for a starting spot.
Jeremy Maclin is the only rookie wide receiver on the Eagles' squad. He is a big play threat, but possesses more ability as a return man. He caught 102 passes as a sophomore in 2008, and will likely contribute 40-60 catches in 2009.
Reggie Brown has been a disappointment throughout his entire career. He lost his starting job to rookie DeSean Jackson in the middle of the 2008 season. He also slipped behind Kevin Curtis and Jason Avant on the depth chart. Brown has a lot to prove in 2009, and could end up as anything from the team's third to sixth wide receiver.
Hank Baskett possesses deceptive big play ability and turns in at least one 85-yard touchdown per season. Baskett made six starts in 2008 and caught 33 passes for 440 yards and three touchdowns. Baskett will compete for a fourth or fifth spot at wide receiver next season.
Jason Avant made a name for himself as the team's third-down receiver in 2008. He has turned 14 of 17 third down catches into first downs. He could enter next season ranked as high as fourth or as low as sixth on the depth chart.
Expect Jackson to relinquish his punt returning duties and serve as the number one receiver. Curtis will probably beat out Maclin for the third spot. I expect Avant to surprise and capture the fourth spot, with Baskett and Brown rounding out the wide receiving corps.
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