5 Philadelphia Eagles Veterans Who Could Be Camp Casualties
Enthusiasm abounds during the early proceedings at Philadelphia Eagles training camp. Not too far off in the distance, however, looms the ugly aspect of camp—the casualties. At some point, the Birds must trim their roster from 90 to 75, then finally to 53 players prior to the regular season.
Most of the players who won’t make it already know they have long odds—so-called camp bodies. They’re rookies or young guys trying to gain footing in the NFL, just hoping to put some good tape together and maybe land on the practice squad or with another team, perhaps even in another league. Some could be invited back by the Eagles in the event of injuries or for another camp next year.
Inevitably, though, several of the players who don’t make the cut will be veterans who for some reason or other will be out of work. Either their ability has declined, they can’t stay healthy or maybe they were plain beaten out for a job and are no longer worth the paycheck. Whatever the reasoning, they become camp casualties.
In the Eagles’ case, the vast majority of their veterans are relatively safe. Quite a few of them played at a high level in 2013, and even in instances where their play is starting to slip, many are indispensable due to the lack of depth at certain positions.
That being said, there are always a few surprises around the NFL on cut-down day. While not everybody on this list is likely or even has a better than 50-50 chance of getting the boot, we’ll explain why the following five veterans have reason to look over their shoulder once the calendar is approaching September.
Nobody can argue Brandon Graham’s NFL career has been rife with opportunity. A first-round pick in 2010, Graham suffered a devastating knee injury toward the end of his rookie campaign, the effects of which lingered into his second season. By the time he was recovered in 2012, Graham was buried behind Pro Bowlers Trent Cole and Jason Babin on Philly’s depth chart.
2013 brought about more of the same. The Eagles switched to a 3-4 alignment under new head coach Chip Kelly, which meant a position change from defensive end to outside linebacker for Graham. He remained Cole’s backup, while Connor Barwin was signed to help ease the transition into the new scheme.
Now heading into his fifth and potentially final season with the Eagles—there is a club option for 2015, according to Spotrac—Graham still appears to be stuck in a limited role. Game charters at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) have him playing just 27 percent of the defensive snaps last season, and the team went ahead and used its first-round pick in the draft on another outside linebacker in Marcus Smith.
In addition to Smith, the Eagles signed free-agent special teams ace Bryan Braman, an outside linebacker by trade. Plus, Travis Long—an undrafted player picked up last July—is pushing for a roster spot as well after spending the past season on the practice squad.
My read of the situation is Graham is probably safe. Braman lined up for a grand total of 99 snaps on defense in three seasons with the Houston Texans, per Pro Football Focus, while Smith and Long have no NFL experience, obviously. That’s a lot of question marks behind Cole and Barwin.
Meanwhile, Graham can pressure the quarterback when he manages to get into a game. PFF ranked him seventh among 3-4 outside linebackers in pass-rush productivity for 2013 (minimum 25 percent of snaps played). If Long or Braman seize bigger roles with strong camps, Graham certainly is expendable, but that would require this coaching staff to put an awful lot of faith in the unknown.
Cornerback depth wound up being a big issue for the Eagles in 2013, rearing its head at the worst possible time. When Cary Williams had to come out for one play on a 3rd-and-12 during Philadelphia’s first-round playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints, quarterback Drew Brees promptly went after backup Roc Carmichael for the long first-down conversion.
So the Eagles signed Nolan Carroll during free agency to help shore up the corner position. Carroll isn’t necessarily a reserve, though. He started 22 games for the Miami Dolphins over the previous two seasons and is expected to compete for a role in the Birds defense.
That’s where Bradley Fletcher comes in. While Fletcher arguably had the better season of the Eagles’ starters at cornerback last season, he’s also the more expendable of the two.
Williams is viewed as one of the club’s leaders on defense, plus Philadelphia would have to eat $8 million in dead money against the salary cap if they wanted to release him this year, according to OvertheCap.com. Fletcher, on the other hand, is scheduled to become a free agent in 2015, so there’s no loyalty there to begin with—not to mention he can be dumped right now without financial consequence.
Of course, for any of that to matter, Carroll would first have to beat out Fletcher for a job. That could be easier said than done. Fletcher finished tied for 17th with 15 pass breakups in 14 games in ’13, and anecdotally speaking, he generally provided tight coverage. And while there was much hype about Carroll’s performance during spring sessions, per Geoff Mosher of CSN Philly, Fletcher’s practice on Wednesday was one of the strongest of camp so far in my humble opinion.
Plus, just because Fletcher is demoted does not demand his instant release. There’s still an issue of depth.
Regardless, I don’t think Fletcher is losing his spot on defense any time soon, anyway—but if he did, it would be a situation to monitor.
Casey Matthews probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of veterans, yet remarkably, 2013 would be his fourth season in Philadelphia. For being a completely ineffective linebacker—to phrase it mildly—he’s managed to beat the odds up to this point.
Matthews’ luck could finally run out this summer, though. One reason he was retained last year was to help bolster the special teams. However, you have to wonder if the Braman signing, coupled with the return of Jason Phillips from a torn ACL, renders Matthews inessential.
His role on defense was likely nixed as well. The Eagles deployed Matthews as an outside linebacker last season, but as was detailed in the Graham slide, there have since been additions and further developments at the position.
Where Matthews might have a slight chance of catching on is at interior linebacker, where depth remains an issue. After DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks, only Najee Goode seemingly has a roster spot locked down. Assuming the club carries at least four, Phillips, Jake Knott and Emmanuel Acho are battling Matthews for the final vacancy.
Signed as a free agent from the Carolina Panthers last offseason, Phillips seemingly has the inside track if he’s healthy. Knott was on the team last year, but his four-game suspension for a performance-enhancing-drugs violation may be hard to overlook when setting aside roster spots for reserves. Acho spent last season bouncing around NFL practice squads, including with the Eagles.
As you can see, Matthews’ competition is not insurmountable. Then again, there are better special teamers, and there are players with greater upside. Matthews’ time in Philly finally could be running out.
While he may have a clear leg up in the kicking competition against Carey Spear, Alex Henery’s roster spot is not assured just yet.
For one thing, I thought Spear had a much better showing at Monday’s practice than he did on Saturday. Henery still bested him in field goals, making all five of his attempts compared to four for Spear, as well as kickoff distance. However, the undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt didn’t have any of the horrible shanks I saw on kickoffs two days prior, which is another step in the right direction.
Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer doesn’t seem to be allowing for the chance that the rookie could continue to improve gradually over the course of camp, calling the competition a “facade,” as I’ve noted previously. From what we’ve seen so far, Henery still has the upper hand, but if Spear continues to get better, maybe he climbs back into this fight.
Even if Henery winds up running away with the competition, that still doesn’t guarantee his roster spot at the end of camp. Fourteen other teams around the league are carrying two or more kickers right now, which means some interesting names could become available after cut-down day.
Although, it is worth pointing out that Eagles special teams coach Dave Fipp apparently believes Henery is “roughly the 14th-best kicker” in the league, as he told Reuben Frank for CSN Philly back in June. Maybe the team isn’t as dead set against Henery as I am.
Still, it’s telling the Eagles felt the need to bring in Spear to begin with and are giving him a chance to work through what has been a rough start to his NFL career. Henery isn’t necessarily out of the woods just yet.
Arrelious Benn has managed to stay out of the trainer’s room thus far at camp, so that’s a good sign. Unfortunately, cracking the 53-man roster is a goal that might be becoming increasingly more distant regardless.
The Eagles were hoping they landed a diamond in the rough when they sent a sixth-round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last offseason for Benn. However, the oft-injured wide receiver battled injuries last summer before a torn ACL ended his season in camp.
Now Benn is trying to make up for lost time, only the deck has been stacked against him. Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper were re-signed in the offseason. Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff were selected in Rounds 2 and 3 of the draft. That leaves one opening, maybe two, at receiver, and the competition is stiff.
If practice has been any indication, Brad Smith is pretty much a lock as well. He’s been running out of the slot with the first-team offense while Matthews gets up to speed and has looked very confident and good while doing it. He brings a different dimension to the offense with his ability to take a handoff or throw a pass as well, in addition to being a strong presence in multiple phases of special teams.
That leaves one more opening for Benn if the Eagles carry six, which they did not exiting camp a year ago.
You might say the writing was on the wall for Benn already back in May. The Eagles already released him for a week then so they could bring him back at a reduced price. Barring some strong outings during the preseason, it’s difficult to envision the club setting aside a roster spot for Benn now given his health issues over the past few seasons.
All observations from Eagles training camp were witnessed firsthand by the author, except where otherwise attributed.