20 of the 22 starters who will open the 2012 season for the Philadelphia Eagles are all set, barring injury. There are two starting positions that are open for competition and several key backup and role player positions that need to be sorted out.
The winners of these training camp battles will surely impact the outcome of the 2012 season, good or bad, with some having more of an impact than others.
The two starting spots that will be decided in the heat of summer are at strong safety and strong-side linebacker. The other four key positions to be determined are backup quarterback, backup running back, slot cornerback and the 5th wide receiver.
The backup quarterback competition between Mike Kafka and Trent Edwards deserved isolated attention so I decided to write about that particular position battle here. Andy Reid has a critical decision to make as far as who his No. 2 QB will be.
So, let’s take a look at the other five intriguing position battles and who might be the odds-on favorite to win them.
- Photo: Philly.com
Early during the free agency period, there were rumors of the Eagles being interested in LaRon Landry so that seemed to indicate that they were looking for an upgrade at this position.
Given that, and the shaky play at the safety position in general last year, some folks thought that Eagles might address the problem with a high pick in the 2012 draft after missing out on Landry.
Since none of that panned out, the Eagles say they’re happy with their current safeties. Nate Allen will be the starter at free safety, but the strong safety position will end up being a battle between the incumbent Kurt Coleman and 2011 second-round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett.
Since the team invested such a high draft pick in Jarrett (albeit probably too high), logic dictates that he will be given every opportunity to win the job. However, in limited playing time last season, Jarrett appeared to be lost and failed to show even a glimpse of potential.
In 254 snaps played last season, including two starts, Pro Football Focus graded Jarret out with a -8.6 overall. Granted, he was a rookie and didn’t have the benefit of a proper offseason and training camp, so we can’t be too quick to judge based on what we saw last year.
As far as Coleman goes, we have a pretty decent idea on what he brings to the table. And for a seventh-round pick (2010), he’s been a pleasant surprise. However, I’m not convinced that he should be the full-time starter.
As the starter last season, Pro Football Focus graded him out with a -6.9 overall after posting 75 tackles and four INTs. However, three of those INTs came in one game against the fabulous duo of Rex Grossman and John Beck of the Redskins.
Then, who could forget Coleman’s horrendous missed tackle on Victor Cruz that sprung him for a 74-yard TD? I believe it was that play that firmly implanted the notion that we needed a new safety.
Overall, Coleman is a solid player and does bring some physicality to the defensive backfield. Unfortunately, he has limited athleticism and size which means he’s likely better suited to be the No. 1 backup.
Unless Jarrett has a terrible training camp and/or preseason — which isn’t out of the realm of possibility — he will be the starter come opening day. However, I’d still give Coleman a puncher’s chance.
Strong Side Linebacker:
The struggles at all of the linebacker positions for the Eagles has been well documented. However, to close out the end of 2011, Brian Rolle seemed to have a grasp on the weak-side position so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he’ll be the starter there.
Then the Eagles traded for Demeco Ryans who will man the middle. That leaves the strong-side still wide open for competition.
Last season, the Eagles rotated players such as Jamar Chaney, Moise Fokou and Akeem Jordan on the strong side. None of them performed well enough to put a lock on the job which is one of the reasons the Eagles employed a linebacker rotation.
In addition to those three players, new second-round draft pick Mychal Kendricks has already been declared by Andy Reid to be in the competition for the strong side position.
Prior to the draft, I had strong side linebacker rated as the biggest need for the Eagles. I was hoping they’d address it with their first round pick (Luke Kuechly) but when they didn’t, Kendricks was on my short list of players to target in Round 2.
Kendricks has all the tools you want in a linebacker. He’s athletic, is able to hit and tackle well, is able to cover tight ends and running backs and has good read-and-react instincts. The only knock against him is his height (5′ 11″), but if he were two inches taller he would have been a first round pick.
The main competition for the job is going to be between Chaney and Kendricks. Unless Kendricks has trouble grasping the scheme and therefore struggles in camp, I fully expect him to be the starter come opening day.
Backup Running Back:
This will be an interesting position battle to watch. As of yet, the Eagles have not signed a veteran running back to play second-fiddle to LeSean McCoy. Right now, second-year man Dion Lewis is slated to be the No. 2 guy.
However, I see that changing. Lewis, at 5′ 8″ and 195 lbs (seems generous), isn’t the type of ‘back that the Eagles typically like to have as the second guy — who is supposed to also serve as a change-of-pace ‘back.
They usually like to have somewhat of a “thunder and lightning” approach and right now, they only have the lightning. Who’s going to supply the thunder?
As of this moment, that battle will mainly feature seventh-round draft pick Bryce Brown and undrafted free agent Chris Polk.
Chris Polk appears to be the early favorite since the Eagles apparently had a fourth-round grade on him. He’s also built and plays like the thunder-type ‘back that the Eagles like.
He stands at 5’ 10″ and weighs 224 lbs. He put up good numbers in college and many scouts see him as having the talent to be a starter in the NFL. He slid in the draft due to injury concerns, but if he checks out okay medically, he could end up being the No. 2 guy.
Bryce Brown is the mystery player here. For a good read about his situation, check out this article by Tom Jackson over at Eagles Eye. Here is another good article on him by Paul Domowitch over at Philly.com.
The low-down on him is that he’s had exactly three carries in the past two years and only played one full season of college football, which was his freshman year in 2009. Since then, he’s quit on two college football programs (Tennessee and Kansas State).
The reasoning for Brown leaving two schools isn’t clear, all we know is that he was apparently “dealing with issues.” However, Howie Roseman and Andy Reid did their homework on him by speaking with numerous people, including his former college coaches.
They heard enough good things that they felt comfortable with spending a seventh-round pick on him instead of allowing him to hit the free agent market where he could have signed elsewhere.
Brown was the top-rated running back in the country coming out of high school, and for what it’s worth, Trent Richardson was behind him at No. 2. What a difference a college career makes, right?
Nonetheless, the Eagles spent a draft pick on the 6′, 220 lbs player who ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at his pro day. His potential is there, and if he can get his act together, he might very well end up being the steal of the draft.
Besides Brown and Polk, there is still a chance the Eagles will sign a veteran free agent. Players like LaDainian Tomlinson (though he may retire), Justin Forsett and Ryan Grant are still available.
The Eagles did appear interested in signing a veteran as they supposedly had interest in Marion Barber III and put in a waiver claim for Deji Karim. It would be un-Reid-like to go into the season without a veteran backup RB, but Polk and Brown have enough potential to make that a possibility this year.
At this point, Polk has the edge to become the No. 2 guy due to his size, ability and college acumen.
The Eagles drafted Brandon Boykin in Round 4 of the draft and immediately projects as a slot corner in the NFL. However, he will have to overcome the incumbent slot guy Joselio Hanson as well as 2011 second-round pick Curtis Marsh, Brandon Hughes and Trevard Lindley.
The slot corner is an important position since he is on the field usually between 50 – 60% of the team’s snaps on defense. Hanson was actually released by the Eagles during the final roster cuts last season.
However, they re-signed him just four days later and released Trevard Lindley instead.
This could be the most competitive position outside of the backup quarterback competition come training camp. Boykin is the shiny new rookie who comes in with a good college resume, but the Eagles actually spent a third-round pick on Curtis Marsh last year so I’m sure they’ll want to see what he’s learned after a season of experience.
Hughes and Lindley will be in the mix but they’ll more than likely be battling it out for the fifth CB spot. The competition to be the slot corner will be predominantly between Boykin, Marsh and Hanson.
Hanson has the experience, Marsh has the draft status and Boykin has the pedigree.
Of the three players, Marsh is the biggest at 6′, 197 lbs. He has the physical talent, but the knock on him was that he only played cornerback for two years in college after converting to the position from running back.
Some folks also see him better suited to play on the outside rather than inside.
Hanson has been a reliable, if unspectacular slot corner for the Eagles since 2006. However, he hasn’t been quite the same player since he was suspended in 2009 for violating the NFL steroids policy.
Whether or not his dip in play is related to that is unknown. He’s still “okay”, but the Eagles could use an upgrade at this position.
This is where Boykin comes in. I believe he’ll be given every chance to earn that slot corner role. He’s already slated to be a top candidate to be the return man on special teams, but he also comes in as the highest rated slot corner from the 2012 draft.
If he can parlay that onto the field and pick up the defense well enough, I think it’s his job to lose.
The Fifth Wide Receiver Spot:
This is the least important roster battle of the six I’ve mentioned, but it should be interesting nonetheless. Since Steve “I just robbed the Eagles” Smith is long gone after fleecing the Eagles for $2.281 million, there is an opening on the roster.
The Eagles usually keep five wide receivers on the 53-man roster. DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and Riley Cooper are all locks to make the team (Cooper is less of a lock but he’ll make it).
That leaves potentially just one spot open. The Eagles currently have several wide receivers on the roster after the top four guys such as Aaron Pflugrad, Darnell Williams, Elvis Akpla, Jamel Hamler, Damaris Johnson, and Ronald Johnson.
However, the best that all those guys can hope for is a spot on the practice squad.
The real competition for the fifth wide receiver position will be between 2012 sixth-round draft pick Marvin McNutt, Chad Hall and Mardy Gilyard.
Hall is the interesting situation here. He was activated to the roster last season in November, about four weeks before Steve Smith went on injured reserve. That means the Eagles ended up juggling roster spots because they released Jarrad Page to make room for Hall.
So, for about four to five weeks last season, the Eagles did have six wide receivers on the roster. Will they do that again this season or stick with their usual five? That will all depend on how Andy Reid feels about Hall.
Basically, Hall is Reid’s version of Danny Woodhead up in New England. He likes to use him as a utility type of player who will act as a receiver, running back and emergency punt returner.
Over the past two seasons, Hall has posted 14 catches for 135 yards and two TDs. He also has 10 punt returns for 107 yards (10.7 yard per return average, not too shabby). However, his particular role has far from cemented him as having a spot on the roster.
Mardy Gilyard is somewhat interesting. He was a 2010 fourth-round pick of the St. Louis Rams but was limited all season due to some nagging injuries. He posted only six catches for 63 yards his rookie season.
He didn’t survive the final cut last year with the Rams and was picked up by the Jets, but released five days later. He never caught-on with another team last year and was signed after the season ended by the Eagles.
The best thing he has going for him is his ability as a kick returner, where he has 16 returns for 356 yards a 22.25 yard per return average. However, the Eagles have other options for return men so this may not be enough to keep him around.
McNutt is the most intriguing player of the three main competitors. He had great size at just under 6′ 4″ and weighing 215 lbs. He doesn’t have great speed but shows good skill in using his size to his advantage when taking on cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage.
He has a strong chance to push for playing time, perhaps even ahead of Riley Cooper. McNutt’s prowess is as a red zone threat where he can use his size, physicality, leaping ability and good hands to his advantage.
He also has the talent to eventually push Jason Avant for the slot receiver position. This is why I can’t see the Eagles cutting him because he will not clear waivers and make it to the practice squad.
Unless they decide to keep six receivers — or if the team decides to release Cooper — I fully expect McNutt to claim the fifth wide receiver position.
- Photo: lehighvalleylive.com
Now, out of all six of these roster battles, who will make the biggest impact?
Whomever wins the backup QB competition will be in a position to have the biggest impact on the 2012 season. That’s, of course, due to the likely games-missed by Michael Vick.
However, if Vick somehow remains healthy all season, the backup QB will have no impact. This means that the players out of the aforementioned five roster battles should make more of an impact in 2012.
Any one of those players could end up having the biggest impact. Brandon Boykin could be the favorite since he may double as a slot corner and return man. However, if, say, LeSean McCoy goes down, Chris Polk or Bryce Brown could end up carrying the load and making significant contributions this season.
Logic would dictate, however, that either Mychal Kendricks or Jaiquawn Jarrett would have the biggest impacts since they could end up being starters.
Let’s just hope all of them — except the backup QB — end up having a big positive impact on the 2012 season.