[Originally Posted At 2 Minutes to Midnight Green]
For a fan, there's nothing better than opening week. That first game ends months of frustration and hanging on to any kind of football fix he/she can get (i.e. the draft).
For a player, there's nothing better than being in a battle. A battle with a person you see every day, a person wearing the same colors as you.
Going in every day knowing that if you're not at the top of your game on that practice field, you'll never see that playing field. No player cares to know how that bench feels.
The stress is incredible, the mental toughness must be at its highest level, and your body must be at its peak.
It's that time from a couple weeks after the draft right up until the Saturday before that first game. It's that time that will make or break a season, a career.
Every season there are a few key battles during camps (mini-camp, training camp, etc.) that will shape the team for the coming year, and this year is no different for the 2009 Philadelphia Eagles.
In fact, there may be more for the Eagles this year than any prior year. Old faces are gone, new faces are ready to step in, but how will it break down?
Free Safety - Sean Jones vs. Quintin Demps
Jones is the veteran, Demps is the young guy. However Demps has a year on Jones as far as seniority with the Eagles is concerned.
Jones has been highly underrated during his time in the league with Cleveland. If you've been an Eagles fan for more than five minutes, you've seen the stat that he's third in the league over the past three years in interceptions by a safety with 14 (behind Ed Reed and O.J. Atogwe).
Jones is a ballhawk. He's a guy who can change a game with that key interception or deflection. He played well on a bad Cleveland defense, so what might he be able to do surrounded by the third-best defense in the league?
Demps is coming into his second year after being drafted in the fourth round out of UTEP (Texas El-Paso). His key role with the team in his rookie year was in the return game, and he did a decent job. He had one return for a touchdown, but unfortunately it came in a game that will only be remembered for the benching of Donovan McNabb.
In some spot duty last season, Demps looked lost at times. He also made some dumb rookie mistakes.
For examples of both, just look at the NFC Championship game vs. the Arizona Cardinals. His late hit on Kurt Warner was wrong, stupid, costly, and if I were Reid he wouldn't have seen the field again.
Then there was the triple pass from Warner to Edge to Warner to Fitzgerald 60 yards down the field. Demps falls over himself and Fitz walks into the endzone. Can Demps be trusted this early in his career?
I don't believe so.
Starter: Sean Jones - Demps will be a starter at some point, but now is not that time. I think the Eagles keep him as a returner and maybe give him some time in the defensive backfield.
Dark Horse Candidate(s): Rashad Baker, Victor Harris
Cornerback - Sheldon Brown vs. Ellis Hobbs vs. Joselio Hanson
Brown is the incumbent starter, but due to his recent contract squabbles may find himself out of favor with Reid & Co. That's not to say that he would be sat simply because he's complaining about his status on the team, but it could cause some mental lapses for him (like Lito Sheppard last year).
The key here will be if Brown can separate football from business and just shut up and play. If he can, he should be fine, but if not he'll be in trouble.
Hobbs is a guy who the Eagles just traded for over this draft weekend. Two fifth-round picks is a steal for a guy who has started for a team like the New England Patriots over the past few years.
The knock on Hobbs is his size. At 5'9" it will be difficult for him to cover some of the taller receivers. He, like Brown, also has issues with his contract and may or may not throw a fit as well.
His contract was a main reason for his trade in the first place. Hopefully he doesn't bring it up until after the season.
Hanson is really a dark horse in all of this, but is a guy who cannot be overlooked either by the media or Brown and Hobbs. Since they both have contract issues and are looking to get paid, Hanson may be able to beat them out by simply focusing on only football and overplaying them in camp.
Hanson got his payday, so there's nothing to worry about on that front. He stepped up big time last year while taking advantage of Sheppard's situation. He got paid, and now looks to fight off new competition and keep his spot.
Starter: Sheldon Brown - I don't believe that Brown will allow his contract situation to distract him. I think he keeps his job for this year and probably gets unloaded next year. Look for Hobbs and Hanson to battle it out, but probably wind up splitting time in the nickel anyway.
Dark Horse Candidate(s): Jack Ickegwuonu, Victor Harris
Linebacker - Omar Gaither vs. Akeem Jordan
Gaither has been a starter since halfway through his rookie season. He's taken over for a Philly icon in Jeremiah Trotter, and also was the reason Takeo Spikes was sent packing after only one season.
After being a fifth round selection out of Tennessee, Gaither has far outperformed his expectations. He's football-savvy, and a blue-collar, hard-working player. However after the debacle vs. Baltimore last season, Gaither was inexplicably deemed the scapegoat and benched in favor of Akeem Jordan.
Jordan was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2007 out of D-1AA James Madison in Virginia. Jordan is somewhat undersized at 6'1" and 226 lbs, but he makes up for it with his speed off the edge and his vision to get through to the ball-carrier.
After replacing Gaither in 2008, Jordan impressed by coming on quickly. A huge thing for a new starter is not having that one bad play that sticks out, and I can't recall any for Jordan.
All that means is that he did his job. He wasn't spectacular, but he did his job and that's really all that can be expected of a young player.
Starter: Omar Gaither - While I liked the way Jordan played last year, I think that Gaither is just a much more polished linebacker who's not finished getting better. I do not believe he has hit his ceiling quite yet, and the trade talk surrounding him is ridiculous. Look for Gaither on the weakside in '09.
Dark Horse Candidate(s): Charleston Hughes, Moise Fukou, Tank Daniels
Left Defensive End - Juqua Parker vs. Darren Howard vs. Victor Abiamiri
Parker, formerly known as Juqua Thomas, has been the starter for the past couple of years, and has done an admirable job in his role. He is a big guy who plays well against the run and can get some pressure on the quarterback.
His weakness is the latter portion of the season. His production drops off significantly after Week 8 or so, and can cause problems for the defense trying to push for a playoff spot in a tough division.
Howard was a big free agent acquisition a few years back after becoming a big name in New Orleans, however his time with the Eagles has been average at best. Howard had bulked up to around 290 in order to be able to play both end and tackle in Jim Johnson's defense.
In 2008, he dropped about 20 pounds and played around 270. The drop really showed and paid off as he led the team with 10 sacks and played like the elite player he was in New Orleans. The problem with Howard is that he will turn 33 during the season, and is a little old to be a starting end.
Abiamiri was a second round pick in 2007 and has a lot of high expectations from the Eagles' coaching staff. He was having a promising training camp last year before a wrist injury sidelined him for a few weeks.
He didn't seem to ever fully recover from injury, playing in only 10 games and was only able to muster two sacks. He's still a young guy, but a guy that the Eagles want to see develop into the player they thought was worthy of a second round pick just a couple of years ago.
Starter: Juqua Parker - I think Parker will get the nod again this year because he's really the best option. Abiamiri is untapped potential at this point, and Howard really is in the back-end of his career. Parker will start, but the rotation will probably be heavier than ever, with all three of these guys seeing time.
Dark Horse Candidate(s): Bryan Smith, Chris Clemons
Center - Jamaal Jackson vs. Nick Cole
Jackson has been the starter at center ever since 2006 when he beat out Hank Fraley for the spot and even having the competition showing up on the cover of SI magazine (pictured above).
After two sub-par seasons from Jackson, who played like a Pro Bowl guy in 2006, the Eagles coaching staff and fans have put him on notice. At this rate, Jackson may find him on the SI cover again. However this time he may not like the outcome.
Cole impressed the staff (and the fans) last year by filling in for Max Jean-Gilles who was filling in for Shawn Andrews at right guard. Cole played extremely well and really surpassed expectations by playing well in the run and pass.
He really helped to calm the nerves of an anxious city after seeing a Pro Bowl right guard and his backup both go down with season-ending injuries. Cole is a good player and certainly deserves his shot.
Starter: Jamaal Jackson - This may be a surprise, but overall I believe Jackson is the best player here. Granted, he hasn't played well over the past couple of years, but that could have been because of the lack of competition. Yes he should have been able to perform regardless, but competition pushes players to play better. He knows he's on a short leash.
Dark Horse Candidate(s): Mike McGlynn
Battles Not Determining A Starter:
Wide Receiver - Jeremy Maclin vs. Reggie Brown vs. Hank Baskett
This is assuming that Curtis and D-Jack have the one and two spots locked up, with Avant having time guaranteed somewhere.
Maclin, this year's first round pick, is a guy who may take a couple years to develop, or he'll be an instant sensation. The reason he may take a couple years is because of the offense he ran at Mizzou. I don't think the kid ran a single intermediate route, something a receiver must do a lot in the west coast offense.
He will be a good receiver, whether that is '09 or as late as '11, we'll just have to wait and see. His success will be contingent upon learning the playbook. From there, it's all on his talent, and there's no shortage of that.
Brown may be as good as gone in the minds of Philly fans, but I'm not so sure that Reid & Co. feel the same way. There's a reason they made him a second round pick, and he's shown flashes of that throughout his short time here in Philly.
In his first two years, he accumulated 89 receptions, 1,387 yards, 12 TD's, and one rushing touchown for 13 total. That's not bad for your first two years in the league.
2006 was by far his best season with 46 receptions for 816 yards and nine total touchdowns, including one rushing. He looked to have the speed, the burst, the hands, and the football intelligence to be a successful receiver in the league.
Even in 2007 he had a pretty good year, with a career-high 61 receptions for 780 yards and four touchdowns.
The point being that I do not believe Reggie should be cut or traded or whatever else because he comes out and has one bad year, the first really bad year of his career. He was banged up last year, and should be given another shot to compete.
When healthy, I believe Reggie has a very high ceiling. He may never become more than a two or three, but he certainly warrants a spot on this roster and another chance to prove himself.
Baskett is a guy who I feel is extremely underutilized. They have not used him in positions where he would be a fantastic asset, such as the redzone.
The guy is 6'4" and a huge target. They thought enough of him to trade for him as an undrafted rookie free agent before he had even gone to mini-camp, so they must have had a plan for him.
He's a good combination of size and speed, as evidenced by the fact that he's only one of six players in NFL history to have two or more touchdown receptions of 90+ yards.
Battle Winner: Jeremy Maclin - DeSean Jackson's success last year has hopefully opened Reid's eyes to the fact that receivers can contribute right away. As I said, Maclin may be a bit raw in the route-running department for the first year, but that's something that can be coached up. He's got too much talent to sit on the bench.
Dark Horse Candidate(s): Brandon Gibson (after talking to some people from WSU, it would appear that Gibson may be a steal in the sixth), Shaheer McBride
Running Back - Lorenzo Booker vs. Kyle Eckel
Booker was not given a large role in the backfield last year, and therefore was not able to do much, only getting on the field during garbage time of a huge win. Booker was brought in because of his similarities to Brian Westbrook with the thought being that he could spell Westbrook.
That never came to fruition, and now Booker's place on this team is being questioned, especially with the addition of second round pick LeSean "Shady" McCoy. However, having sunk a fourth round pick into him, Booker will get every chance to succeed before being let go.
Eckel was a mid-season signing, and like Booker, did not get many opportunities. However, unlike Booker, Eckel made the best of his opportunities. He was brought in as a fullback, but used more as a big running back for short-yardage situations.
While he did a good job on offense and special teams, Eckel may not have a place on the roster because of the signing of Leonard Weaver from Seattle. Reid does not like to usually have the same kind of player at the same position, but both of these players fit into that category.
Battle Winner: Kyle Eckel - This is a close call, but I believe Eckel edges Booker here because of his ability to also play special teams. Eckel is a blue-collar guy who Reid will fall in love with because he'll stick his nose into any pile, and player, and will run fearless on the field.
Eckel may be similar to Weaver, but it boils down to contribution, and he will contribute more between offense and special teams, whereas Booker would only play offense. Reid already has a Westbrook-clone in McCoy.
I believe Booker can be a good player, and will be a good pickup for another team after being released in a numbers game.
Dark Horse Candidate(s): Eldra Buckley, Walter Mendenhall
All of these battles warrant some attention, as they will shape the team not only for next year, but years to come. This is the most important time of the year for teams around the NFL to find out what they have on their roster.
The Eagles are no different. Stay tuned, it promises to be an exciting time.