Philadelphia Eagles: Top Position Battles to Watch in Training Camp
I don’t know about you, but my favorite part about training camp—besides the fact it signals football season is back in full swing—is the competition for roster spots. Like every team in the NFL, the Philadelphia Eagles have plenty of battles to hash out of their own before hitting the gridiron for games.
Of course, there are clashes taking place all over the roster, particularly on the back end among players just gunning for one of the final spots in the 53-man roster. The Eagles are anticipating a handful of high-profile competitions, however, on top of the typical smaller fracases.
With camp quickly approaching—the full squad reports to the NovaCare Complex on July 25—we’re dissecting the five top battles to monitor at camp this summer. Place your bets!
Nate Allen vs. Earl Wolff
If the season began July 15, Nate Allen would be starting at safety opposite Malcolm Jenkins. That being said, the first game is almost two months away, and the Eagles made Allen no promises when he re-signed on a one-year deal back in March.
Allen will have to fend off 2013 fifth-round pick Earl Wolff if he intends to keep his job. Wolff appeared in 11 games during his rookie season, starting in six. He certainly wasn’t a liability or anything of the sort, nor did he really set himself apart, either, finishing with five pass breakups and an interception.
Of course, Wolff is only 24 years old and has his entire career ahead of him. Now entering his fifth NFL season, Allen is still trying to shake the dreaded “draft bust” label despite coming off a solid campaign.
Allen improved gradually as last year went along, to the point where his performance ranged somewhere from “competent” to “good” on a consistent basis. Impact plays were lacking, however, as Allen registered one sack, one interception and one forced fumble over 16 starts.
The Eagles apparently flirted with moving on from Allen, waiting nearly a full week into free agency before bringing him back. If nothing else, he makes for a fine insurance policy in the event Wolff isn’t ready to seize the opportunity.
I feel like Allen may be on the upswing yet himself, though. A second-round pick in 2010, Allen is only 26, and last year was the first time since he was a rookie Philadelphia’s defense was remotely stable. Wolff better be prepared for a fight.
Nolan Carroll vs. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher
One name that’s gained quite a bit of traction before training camp has even gotten underway is cornerback Nolan Carroll. Signed by the Eagles to a two-year deal during free agency, Geoff Mosher for CSNPhilly.com remarked that Carroll looked excellent at spring practices:
Even during the spring camps, where it’s next to impossible for defensive backs to excel with no real pass rush in front of them, Carroll managed to impress his coaches and teammates by always being around the ball. Carroll had several breakups during last week’s three-day minicamp.
Carroll started 22 games for the Miami Dolphins over the past two seasons, but with Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher under contract, it seemed the new arrival might have been brought to Philly to provide depth. With Carroll's glowing performance in spring practices, Williams and Fletcher—a pair of free-agent additions themselves just last offseason—may want to watch their backs.
Mosher assumes Carroll will compete against Fletcher on the left side. In fact, I actually felt Fletcher was the better of the Eagles’ starters last season. He finished tied for 17th in the league with 15 passes defensed in 14 games.
That’s not to say Williams was bad, but he seems the more vulnerable of the two. Williams turns 30 in December, which means some decline in his middling skill set is likely right around the corner.
Whose job Carroll might take is sort of beside the point. Williams could be a cap casualty in 2015, the final year of his contract, while Fletcher is scheduled to become a free agent next year. Carroll can line up on both sides of the defense, so if either one of the incumbents isn’t cutting it during camp, the new guy might get the call.
Mark Sanchez vs. Matt Barkley
It was widely assumed when Mark Sanchez came to the Eagles that he was to serve as the backup quarterback to Nick Foles. That may very well be the case, provided he can beat out Matt Barkley for the gig.
Sanchez certainly holds the advantage in experience. As bad as his career totals seem, Sanchez started 68 regular-season and playoff games for the New York Jets, including a pair of conference title games. He has a 37-31 record.
Barkley is an intriguing prospect, though. He appeared in three games last season after falling to Philly in the fourth round of the draft, and while his numbers weren’t very good, either, Barkley appeared poised.
Both signal-callers have been a victim of circumstance to an extent. The Jets never surrounded Sanchez with much talent on offense, perhaps stunting their former franchise quarterback’s development. And all four of Sanchez’s interceptions last season came when behind in the fourth quarter—games in which he was inserted with his team already trailing.
Sanchez isn’t likely to all of sudden start living up to his status as the fifth overall pick in the ’09 draft, and Barkley has a lot of work to do before the Eagles can feel comfortable relying on him in a pinch. However, there is a fair amount of talent between them, so perhaps a competition will bring out the best in both of them.
While Sanchez seems like the favorite to win, Barkley will have an opportunity to state his case with a strong preseason.
Alex Henery vs. Carey Spear
By far the most wide-open head-to-head battle on the roster will take place at kicker, where Alex Henery is attempting to prove he’s better than a kid off the street. Honestly, that description isn’t too far removed from reality.
The Eagles signed rookie free agent Carey Spear to a contract after the draft—and to a surprising amount of fanfare at that. With a nickname like “Murderleg,” is it really any surprise?
Unfortunately, Spear’s pseudonym stems from his propensity to run down the field on kickoffs and attempt to lay out the returner, not because he’s murdering kicks through the uprights. That much was evident during spring practices, where Spear received a harsh review from Jeff McLane for The Philadelphia Inquirer:
I’d hate to kill “Murderleg” after just one bad kick, but his pull hook of a chip shot field goal during 11 on 11s makes me wonder if he has any legit shot to push Alex Henery. ... Carey Spear deserves more time and the Eagles will surely give it to him, but the whole kicker competition seems like a facade right know.
Spear does hold one distinct advantage, that being his leg strength on kickoffs. Henery has never ranked better than 20th in touchback percentage in three NFL seasons, while Spear’s touchback rate his senior year at Vanderbilt would’ve been good for sixth.
The kid will have to at least approach Henery’s accuracy on field goals, though, if he is to have any chance at unseating the veteran. Given that Henery ranked 23rd in that department last year as well, I’d say it’s far too early to rule Spear out.
Then again, they could both lose. Don’t be surprised if the Eagles make a move in late August or early September should another viable option become available.
Wide Receiver Battle Royale
We have a fairly complete picture already of the situation at the top of the depth chart as it pertains to the Eagles wide receivers. Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper will start, and second-round pick Jordan Matthews is expected to serve as the primary slot receiver. Fellow rookie Josh Huff will make the team as well.
As for the final spot—or spots—it’s wide open. Philadelphia will carry at least five, possibly as many as six receivers, to be divvied up between nine players competing for a job.
Ten-year NFL veteran Brad Smith appears to possibly have an inside track to an opening. At least, he was last spotted taking first-team reps over Matthews during OTAs, per Rob Edwards of the South Jersey Times.
Signed midway through last season, Smith can line up at receiver or in the backfield and is even a threat to attempt a pass. He can also return kicks or help out on the coverage team—valuable versatility out of one of the final 53 spots.
If it’s upside the Eagles want, the team may look to Arrelious Benn or Ifeanyi Momah instead. A second-round pick in 2010, Benn’s career has been derailed by injuries, including the torn ACL that knocked him out last season, but he’s posted respectable numbers when healthy. Though raw, Momah is a physical freak, reportedly able to run a 4.4 40 at 6’7”, per Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly.com.
I could even envision undrafted free agents Kadron Boone out of LSU or Quron Pratt out of Rutgers making a push with standout special teams performances. Second-year head coach Chip Kelly has made numerous decisions based on the impact they would have on special teams during his brief tenure.
Jeff Maehl and Damaris Johnson made the team last year, B.J. Cunningham has spent the past three years bouncing around the Eagles’ practice squad and Will Murphy player under Kelly at Oregon. There are plenty of viable candidates in the mix, but not nearly enough jobs to go around.