Updating Philadelphia Eagles' Key Position Battles Early in Training Camp
Training camp for the Philadelphia Eagles this year won’t be quite as newsworthy as last year’s camp. In Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach, a daily quarterback competition between Michael Vick and Nick Foles stole the headlines.
The 2014 camp will lack the publicity, although there are a handful of position battles set to take place.
These battles more provide depth; outside of safety, none of these competitions will determine a starting spot. But football games are frequently won and lost by role players, and getting a strong performance when it matters the most could be key for the ’14 club.
Safety: Nate Allen vs. Earl Wolff
You can count on Malcolm Jenkins as one of the starting safeties; after all, the five-year veteran signed a $15 million deal in free agency to be a veteran presence in the secondary. Jenkins’ best asset is that he’s not Patrick Chung, but he’s also a former first-round pick, a Super Bowl champion and he has the ability to play both cornerback and safety.
Opposite Jenkins will be a battle between Nate Allen and Earl Wolff. Allen is a 2009 second-round draft pick who played his best football last year under coordinator Billy Davis, and he was re-signed to a one-year deal in the offseason. Wolff turned in a solid rookie season as a 2013 fifth-round selection.
In terms of playing style, Allen and Wolff are opposites. Allen is a veteran who excels in pass coverage; Wolff is a younger player who lines up more in the box and stops the run.
Allen appears to have the edge for now, although training camp and preseason contests will allow Wolff an opportunity to win the job.
Nate Allen in there as safety with 1st team #Eagles— Eliot Shorr-Parks (@EliotShorrParks) July 26, 2014
It took Allen five years to finally put up his best season, which still wasn’t much more than a league-average safety. Wolff may have the higher upside. Even if Wolff does begin the season as the backup, he’s an injury away from seeing playing time, and he will still see action to spell Jenkins and Allen.
Outside Linebacker Depth: Brandon Graham vs. Travis Long
Trent Cole and Connor Barwin are scheduled to be the starting outside linebackers for the 2014 Philadelphia Eagles, and first-round pick Marcus Smith will fill in as a pass-rushing specialist on third downs.
Free-agent acquisition Bryan Braman was brought in from the Houston Texans to be a special teams ace, and he should be a good bet to make the 53-man roster. That likely leaves Brandon Graham and Travis Long battling for the final spot, and it should be an interesting camp competition.
Graham is the former first-round pick, a player the Eagles infamously picked instead of All-Pro safety Earl Thomas. Graham has had his moments—on a per-play basis, he was rated by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the most effective 4-3 pass-rusher in the league in 2012.
Still, Graham has registered just 11.5 sacks in 48 career games, and he’s miscast as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Graham’s $3.4 million cap hit for 2014 and $3.2 million cap hit the following season may make him difficult to cut; the Eagles would have to pay about a season’s salary in dead money if he fails to make the roster.
Graham’s main competition is 2013 undrafted rookie Travis Long, who spent last year on the practice squad. Long has never played an NFL snap, but he fits the mold of a typical Kelly pass-rusher—long and lean—and he did play his collegiate career in the Pac-12, which certainly helps his chances.
Look for Graham to win the spot, simply because of his fairly high salary and the fact that he’s probably a better pass-rusher than Long is.
Backup Quarterback: Mark Sanchez vs. Matt Barkley
The backup quarterback position doesn’t really project to be much of a battle. Mark Sanchez is a six-year NFL veteran with plenty of starting experience, including a handful of playoff contests. Matt Barkley is a second-year player who played minimally as a third-string quarterback in 2013.
Still, Kelly is big into competition, and Sanchez hasn’t exactly been lighting it up in organized team activities or training camp. As it turns out, Barkley seems to lack the ideal arm strength as well, which means the Philadelphia Eagles may be in a world of trouble if Foles gets injured.
Foles did break his hand at the end of 2012 and suffered a concussion last year, which means durability is still an issue for him. It would be helpful for the Eagles if either Sanchez or Barkey would prove to be a solid option as the backup quarterback.
Starting Cornerback: Bradley Fletcher vs. Nolan Carroll
Cary Williams seems to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 cornerback, and he played fairly well in 2013 under coordinator Billy Davis. Opposite Williams, the Philadelphia Eagles will have a camp competition between veterans Bradley Fletcher and Nolan Carroll.
Fletcher was the incumbent starter from last year, while Carroll is a free-agent signee from the Miami Dolphins. Fletcher is an adequate player with a $3.6 million cap hit for 2014, which does mean he may be released for salary-cap purposes if he fails to make the team. Carroll played extremely well in ’13, limiting opposing quarterbacks to just a 47.8 completion percentage and 65.0 passer rating, per PFF.
Expect an intense competition between Fletcher and Carroll to be the starter opposite Williams, while last year’s nickelback Brandon Boykin retains his role as the slot corner. Look for the loser of the Fletcher-Carroll battle to be the fourth corner behind Boykin, with Fletcher as a possible candidate to be released.
Final Running Back Spot: Matthew Tucker vs. Henry Josey vs. David Fluellen
The Philadelphia Eagles have arguably the best running back in the game in LeSean McCoy, an All-Pro coming off a 1,607-rushing-yard season. Backing up McCoy is veteran Darren Sproles, a multidimensional back who also can play slot receiver, and third-year back Chris Polk, a former undrafted free agent.
Fighting for the final spots will be Matthew Tucker, Henry Josey and David Fluellen. Tucker is a second-year pro who saw limited action on special teams a year ago, although he’s never actually carried the football in an NFL game.
Josey and Fluellen are undrafted rookie free agents. Josey rushed for over 1,100 yards and 16 touchdowns a year ago at Missouri, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Josey suffered a serious injury at college, but he came back and posted a 4.43 time in the 40-yard dash.
Fluellen is likely the final running back on the current depth chart, and he would need an injury to Tucker or Josey. Fluellen is a big, 225-pound power back who ran just a 4.72 40-yard dash, which means he will need to show he’s a goal-line runner to make the team.
Then again, the Eagles could just go with three running backs in McCoy, Sproles and Polk. In that case, these three players will be fighting for a spot on the practice squad.