Although I tend not to allow the preseason to affect my viewpoint of a team in any way, it was certainly nice to see the Eagles lay a beatdown on the Pittsburgh Steelers last Thursday night. The Eagles lost their first two preseason games before winning the most important one, the one in which starters played into the third quarter.
There's one more preseason game until the start of the 2014 season, during which a number of the bottom roster battles still need to be settled. I already predicted the 53-man roster a little less than two weeks ago but oh so much has changed since then. Here's my second (of three) attempt at predicting the 53 players the Eagles will keep on their roster this season, plus the 10-man practice squad.
There are no changes from my previous roster prediction. Foles was lights-out in the team's third preseason game, easing the concerns of some doubters who felt that his performance in the first two preseason games was a sign of things to come this season. Mark Sanchez has been dominant, even earning the unofficial (meaningless) title of preseason MVP from a few experts. And Matt Barkley should be able to hold off G.J. Kinne for the third quarterback spot. You don't cut a fourth-round pick from just a year ago this early even if he hasn't quite progressed as expected.
Which running backs make the team after McCoy and Sproles?
Running Backs (5): LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, Matthew Tucker, Henry Josey, Kenjon Barner
The top two running backs are set in stone. After those two, however, the Eagles will have some very interesting roster decisions. I ended up keeping five running backs on my roster, while putting Chris Polk, a virtual lock to make the team as of a month ago, on IR with the same hamstring injury that's been affecting him during camp. Tucker, by virtue of a strong preseason (four touchdowns), earns the No. 3 job, meaning he would handle the bulk of the carries if McCoy went down. Undrafted rookie Henry Josey has shown flashes of potential. Former Oregon standout Kenjon Barner was just acquired via trade and will probably handle kick return duties with the injury to Josh Huff. Expect either Tucker, Josey or Barner to be released when Lane Johnson returns from his suspension in Week 5.
There's the obvious three wide receivers on the roster. After them, things become interesting. I think that the Eagles place Josh Huff on IR due to his shoulder sprain. It's a nice way of red-shirting a player who clearly isn't ready for the NFL yet. It's obvious that veteran Brad Smith will find his way onto the roster again. He can play receiver, both outside and in the slot, and can line up in the backfield and serve as an emergency quarterback. My fifth receiver spot goes to Arrelious Benn, Tampa Bay's former second-round pick. Benn has played well on special teams this preseason, which is the deciding factor when it comes to comparing him against Jeff Maehl.
Tight Ends (3): Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, James Casey
There's basically no chance of any surprises at tight end. If you look at my last roster projection, I had Brent Celek as the starter. I've thought about it and decided to put Ertz as the starter. He's the breakout candidate for this year and he's probably going to play more snaps than Celek this season. It really doesn't matter, though. Both are valuable members of the offense.
Offensive Line (8): Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans, Allen Barbre, Matt Tobin, David Molk, Dennis Kelly
The five starters are all set in stone, with veteran Allen Barbre slated as the starter at right tackle during Lane Johnson's four-game suspension. But if Barbre keeps playing poorly like he has during the preseason, the Eagles may use Matt Tobin, PFF's top-rated offensive lineman this preseason, at right tackle. An impressive preseason earned Molk the starting job over Julian Vandervelde, who was just waived with an injury settlement. I picked Dennis Kelly over Andrew Gardner as my final offensive lineman based solely on the praise Chip Kelly gave Dennis Kelly Tuesday.
Will Vinny Curry end the season as a starter?
Defensive Line (7): Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry, Beau Allen, Taylor Hart, Brandon Bair
The big question on the defensive line is whether Vinny Curry can play well enough to unseat Cedric Thornton as a starter at defensive end. Personally, I'd rotate the two but Curry would be my starter. Thornton is a tremendous run-stopper but rushing the passer is more crucial and that's what Curry brings. Beau Allen has the backup nose tackle spot locked up. Rookie Taylor Hart sure hasn't impressed during the preseason but he won't be cut (plus he's from Oregon). The addition to the line is veteran Brandon Bair. The 29-year-old has flashed during the preseason and Kelly says the Eagles "look at snaps, not age," per Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com.
Linebackers (9): Connor Barwin, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans, Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, Marcus Smith, Najee Goode, Bryan Braman, Travis Long
No surprises at linebacker. The big question is whether the Eagles trade former first-round pick Brandon Graham to a team that needs a 4-3 pass-rusher. I don't think they will. He's too valuable to the Eagles and if they released him, the Giants, Cowboys or Redskins would undoubtedly snatch him up in a second. I'm predicting a breakout year from Graham. I have limited expectations for rookie Marcus Smith. He might record one or two sacks this season but he's still a project. Najee Goode is the top backup at inside linebacker and Bryan Braman was signed to play special teams. My recent addition is Travis Long, a former college star who went undrafted because of a torn ACL as a senior. He can play both outside and inside linebacker. The Eagles love versatility. I think Long makes this team.
Will Nolan Carroll start at corner?
Cornerbacks (5): Cary Williams, Nolan Carroll, Brandon Boykin, Bradley Fletcher, Jaylen Watkins
The individual battles haven't been settled but there won't be any surprise cuts. In the next two weeks, we'll learn whether Bradley Fletcher or Nolan Carroll is the No. 2 corner. The loser will be demoted below nickel corner Brandon Boykin to the fourth corner spot. Rookie Jaylen Watkins really hasn't stood out at all in camp. I'd expect him to play more at safety than corner as a rookie.
Safeties (5): Malcolm Jenkins, Nate Allen, Earl Wolff, Chris Maragos, Ed Reynolds
Malcolm Jenkins is the unquestioned leader of this defense. I think he leads the Eagles in defensive snaps in 2014. Nate Allen has been a star during the preseason, easily beating out Earl Wolff for the other starting safety spot (although the Eagles haven't announced the winner of the battle yet). Chris Maragos was signed to play special teams. Fifth-round rookie Ed Reynolds is actually my sleeper pick to be placed on the practice squad. I haven't heard his name once during training camp. But I think the Eagles keep five safeties, with Reynolds finding his way onto the roster.
Will Alex Henery be the team's kicker in three months?
Special Teams (3): Alex Henery, Donnie Jones, Jon Dorenbos
Another missed field goal in a preseason game certainly won't help Alex Henery's cause. But can the Eagles really bring in a veteran like Rob Bironas, Jay Feely or even David Akers? I don't think so. Henery looks to be the guy this season, unless the Eagles decide they like Cody Parkey better.
IR (2): Chris Polk, Josh Huff
Practice Squad (10): GJ Kinne, Ifeanyi Momah, BJ Cunningham, Trey Burton, Andrew Gardner, Josh Andrews, Wade Keliikipi, Emmanuel Acho, Jake Knott, Cody Parkey
Fan favorite Ifeanyi Momah earns a practice squad bid, as does suspended linebacker Jake Knott. Some close roster cuts (Gardner and Acho) find their way onto the practice squad as well. The interesting selection is Parkey, who could look to unseat Henery next offseason.