Making the Call on the Philadelphia Eagles' Hardest Remaining Cuts
The Philadelphia Eagles made their first player transaction since May on Tuesday, announcing the release of interior linebacker Jason Phillips, which later made way for the addition of running back Kenjon Barner, per PhiladelphiaEagle.com. Of course, Phillips is just the first of many to go—and one of the easier choices at that. Balmer is likely to follow, eventually.
As the Eagles move down from the current 90-man roster to 75 and eventually 53, they’ll face far more difficult decisions than those along the way. There are plenty of athletes deserving of roster spots, they just won’t all make it here.
While two preseason games still remain, the coming moves are starting to take shape before our very eyes. You can tell who’s on the bubble, whom the team genuinely likes and wants to keep and who isn’t really a part of the plan. That doesn’t mean it will work out how we think it should, either, because every spot is important and the competitions are so tight.
That’s never stopped us from guessing, either. Ahead, we take a look at nine of those so-called bubble players who for one reason or another will be difficult to release, and based on their performances at training camp and in exhibition games, we attempt to predict the survivors.
Remember, there is still time left for these players to change their future—but not much.
RB Chris Polk
Entering training camp, it was widely assumed Chris Polk would be the Eagles’ third running back behind LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. But as the old saying goes, you can’t make the club from the tub.
Polk has been unable to practice since suffering a hamstring injury on July 27, so almost one month ago now. The third-year back is expected to miss Thursday’s preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and as he relayed to Martin Frank for The Delaware News Journal, he doesn’t anticipate being 100 percent when he does return to action next week.
For what it’s worth, Polk understands his predicament better than anybody, as Frank reported on Tuesday.
"I wasn't drafted. I'm not LeSean McCoy or Nick Foles," Polk said. "I'm not guaranteed anything, so I have to go out there and act like it's my last day.
In the meantime, second-year back Matthew Tucker and undrafted rookies David Fluellen and Henry Josey have been making the most of their opportunities. The three have combined to carry 22 times for 121 yards—a 5.5 average—with two touchdowns. They’ve also added four receptions for 60 yards and two more scores.
Polk has been effective in limited opportunities, becoming the first back in NFL history to run for three touchdowns on only 11 carries in 2013. That being said, if he’s not healthy, the Eagles have to move on. Simply put, they have other options.
RB Henry Josey
Regular readers may recall my mentioning Henry Josey several times over the course of the summer as a dark-horse candidate to make the Eagles' 53-man roster. As training camp wore on, however, it became clear the undrafted running back out of Missouri was buried on the depth chart.
With Tucker and Fluellen inactive due to injuries, Josey finally caught his big break in Week 2 of the preseason against the New England Patriots. Josey shouldered the bulk of the workload in the second half, carrying eight times for 56 yards (7.0 AVG) and capping off his performance with a 27-yard catch-and-run.
Josey presumably started at the bottom of the depth chart because he doesn’t contribute on special teams. Pass protection is likely a concern as well. Of course, there are also concerns over his knee, the very reason Josey went undrafted in the first place.
With all of that in mind, Josey looked like the best pure runner on the squad behind McCoy. He’ll be difficult to stash on the practice squad with that tape out there, although with Polk possibly on his way out, a roster spot could be opening. Tucker probably maintains a slight edge overall, but the Eagles are one more big play away from falling in love with Josey’s explosive ability.
Verdict: Makes the Team
WR Ifeanyi Momah
Of all the decisions the Eagles have to make to get down to 53 players, Ifeanyi Momah might be the most difficult.
On one hand, the 24-year-old wideout looks worlds better than he did this time one year ago. He’s been able to separate from coverage with reported 4.4 speed, while using his massive 6’7” frame to box-out smaller defensive backs. Momah has come so far since spending the past season out of football again, he even started preseason games one and two with Riley Cooper on the inactive list.
Then again, Momah came up short in those games. He ran a bad route in the preseason Week 1 game that contributed to a Nick Foles interception. The following week, Momah lost a fumble, plus he dropped a pass in the end zone.
For all of his progress, Momah is still incredibly raw. He hasn’t played in a meaningful football game since September 2011 when he was at Boston College, where he recorded 39 career receptions. As big and athletic as he is, Momah hasn’t demonstrated he can be counted on in a tough spot.
Perhaps Momah will get one final chance to prove himself against the Pittsburgh Steelers. As of this moment, however, I feel he would need some help from an injury to a receiver at the top of the depth chart.
WR Arrelious Benn
After a quiet summer, Arrelious Benn got back on the radar in a big way against the Patriots last week. Not only did Benn reel in Momah’s end-zone drop for his first and only catch of the preseason, but to top it off, he also blocked a punt—a potential game-changer when deciding on a fifth or sixth wide receiver.
While those were nice moments for Benn, especially after missing all of last season with a torn ACL, do they make up for an entire training camp that’s produced few highlights?
From what I could see at camp, Benn struggled mightily to get any kind of separation from all but the deepest cornerbacks on Philadelphia’s depth chart. Whether it’s because he hasn’t completely recovered from the ACL, or it’s the collection of injuries that sidelined the once-promising wideout for most of the past two years, it’s just not happening.
The writing appeared to be on the wall back in May when the Eagles released Benn so they could re-sign him at a cheaper salary. Special teams is one path to salvation, but it’s going to take more than one blocked punt and a lucky catch to reverse his fortunes.
OL Michael Bamiro
To suggest Michael Bamiro will not make the 53-man roster is not exactly going out on a limb. He’s been running with the third-string offensive line after being converted from offensive tackle to guard.
What makes this such a difficult cut is what the Eagles invested. After he unintentionally avoided the 2013 draft, Philadelphia won a bidding war for Bamiro’s services last summer that reportedly included nearly $250,000 in guaranteed money—far more than he would have received as a mid- to late-round pick.
The 23-year-old comes in at 6’8”, 340 pounds, but that has translated to dominance on the field. Bamiro did come from little-known Stony Brook University, so the difference in the levels of competition is almost as big as the man.
That being said, potential and economics alone aren’t enough to hold somebody’s roster spot. The Eagles managed to stash him on the practice squad following last year’s camp. The only question is will they want to a second time around?
DE Alejandro Villanueva
Not entirely unlike Bamiro, Villanueva will be a difficult cut more because of what he stands for than his ability as a football player. The difference is releasing Villanueva will be hard not because of some financial obligation but, instead, because he’s a genuine American hero.
Villanueva is a former Army ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan before joining the Eagles in June.
As impressive a human as Villanueva is—even physically, standing 6’9”, 277 pounds—unfortunately, his particular set of skills doesn’t necessarily translate on the football field. He hadn’t even played organized football since 2009, when he was a wide receiver for Army, so there’s a lot of learning/catching up to do.
Actually, his height almost works against him at his position, as smaller offensive linemen are able use their smaller center of gravity as leverage, as if the transition to defense wasn’t difficult enough.
Villanueva seems like a candidate for the practice squad, anyway, but who wouldn’t have been thrilled to see this man make an NFL roster? No matter what happens, at least he recorded a sack in the preseason—ironically, it came against the Patriots.
DE Brandon Bair
Nobody has benefitted more from these preseason games than Brandon Bair. The defensive end out of Oregon has been a two-gapping machine, disrupting running plays in the backfield or otherwise limiting their damage.
There’s just one problem. Bair is going to be 30 in November, and he has yet to appear in an NFL regular-season or playoff game.
One might think the Eagles would be better-served awarding a roster spot to almost anybody else by default. That’s an old player to be taking on now rather than somebody like 22-year-old Joe Kruger, a 2013 seventh-round pick.
If the coaching staff is basing its decisions on who is playing the best right now, though, Bair has to be in the conversation. You’re never going to get elite production from him, but he understands his role and is proving he can get the job done.
In addition to his strong performances on the defensive line, Bair also got in on a blocked field goal against the Chicago Bears in Week 1. Special teams performances always go a long way toward determining the final few roster spots.
I could see the Eagles shying away from Bair due to his age, but they’re trying to win now, not just next year. Kruger would likely clear waivers to land on the practice squad anyway. As far as 2014 is concerned, Bair appears to be the right man for the job.
Verdict: Makes the Team
OLB Brandon Graham
Let’s just say hypothetically the Eagles released Brandon Graham. Ask yourself, who would replace Trent Cole at right outside linebacker if the two-time Pro Bowler was injured?
First-round draft pick Marcus Smith? He’s primarily worked on the left side behind Connor Barwin this summer, and from the looks of things during the preseason, he’s a long way from offering much in the way of pass rush in the NFL.
Bryan Braman? Spent three seasons with the Houston Texans prior to joining the Eagles via free agency, playing a grand a total of 99 snaps on defense, according to the game-charters at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Travis Long? He spent last season on the practice squad after joining the team as an undrafted rookie last July, and head coach Chip Kelly has indicated the Washington State product is "pushing" for a roster spot.
That being said, between Smith, Braman and Long, not one of them has a single sack in the NFL. Graham may be a first-round bust who’s miscast in a 3-4 defense, but he’s the only one of the bunch who’s proven he can pressure pro passers over four seasons.
If Cole were to go down, Graham is still the best option to replace him in the “predator” role that’s predicated on rushing the passer. That’s why barring a trade, Graham should be on the roster come September.
Verdict: Makes the Team
OLB Travis Long
It all started back at OTAs in June. Chip Kelly was asked about Travis Long, an undrafted outside linebacker signed the previous summer, and the head coach revealed the 23-year-old was pushing for a roster spot. Via PhiladelphiaEagles.com:
He's really improved. I think obviously when we got him, he was coming off of an injury. Spent a year on the practice squad and didn't miss any time, but you could tell he was still recovering from the injury, but has really made some great strides and is a guy that's really pushing hard to make this football team.
I think he'll be able to contribute from a special teams standpoint, obviously adding some depth at the outside linebacker spot. So he's definitely a guy you have to keep an eye on right now.
With that declaration, Long was suddenly a media “it” guy once training camp got underway. Of course, had Kelly been pressed about any of his 90 players at the time, he probably would’ve offered some chance such-and-such had a chance to make the roster. He actually said it out loud about Long, though.
That being said, Long hasn’t really stood out to me in these preseason games. He did record a sack in Chicago, but all that proved was he can get to the quarterback if he’s completely unblocked.
Long has a shot at making the team if he can play multiple linebacker spots, which would allow defensive coordinator Bill Davis to use him like a moveable chess piece.
Otherwise, what does he offer that Graham or Smith don’t? Add in the fact that Long would probably clear waivers for the Eagles to stash him on the scout team again, and I really don’t see the need to hold a roster spot for him.