The 2014 version of Philadelphia Eagles training camp begins this Friday when all players and coaches are to report to the NovaCare Complex. Unlike last year, there doesn’t appear to be many starting positions up for grabs.
Hell, by my count, I can really only see two spots amongst the starting 22 that will be decided by training camp and preseason performance. But, there are two other position battles that should be interesting to watch this summer…
The 5th and maybe 6th WR spot(s)
Last year, the initial Eagles 53-man roster had five WRs. I pretty much expect the same initial roster number this year, but there is a small chance they keep six.
Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff are all locks. Some folks see Brad Smith as having a pretty good shot at being the fifth guy here, but I’m not sold on that idea even though he seemed to be higher in the pecking order of mini-camp reps.
Smith’s chances to make the roster will largely depend on whether or not any other players step up to be the punt and kick returners. Special teams are Smith’s real niche and he does have some versatility with gadget-type plays on offense.
However, if the Eagles feel good about guys like Sproles or Huff (or someone else) being the primary returners, that could make Smith expendable.
His main competition will be Jeff Maehl and Arrelious Benn with outside shots going to everyone’s favorite longshot Ifeanyi Momah and UDFA Kadron Boone.
Of those guys, Maehl has good special teams ability and has the benefit of knowing Chip Kelly’s offense from his days at Oregon. Benn is a guy they traded for last offseason only to see him miss the season due to a torn ACL.
Momah is said to be improved over last year and he brings the one thing none of the others have: incredible size. Though size is not everything, if he shows enough improvement during camp, I could see Kelly taking a flier on a player with such a unique physical makeup.
Boone was stuck behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry at LSU and could be a diamond in the rough. After the Eagles signed him, Geoff Mosher quoted an AFC Personnel man as saying this about Boone:
“He can run. He has good hands. Very competitive guy,” the personnel executive said. “You’ll see. He’s definitely gonna show up. It wouldn’t surprise me if he makes the team and actually contributes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he outplays Huff. It wouldn’t surprise me.”
“He’s gonna make that team.”
Who knows how good this “AFC Personnel man” is at evaluating talent, but if he works in the NFL it should be a better opinion than most. With that said, Boone will have to “wow” the coaching staff this summer to earn a spot on the roster and should still be considered the longest of shots of the above-mentioned WRs in this competition.
It may not be popular opinion, but I think the 5th spot will go to Maehl or Benn, provided he stays healthy. If they do keep six, then perhaps Smith is safe.
Brandon Graham vs. Travis Long, the roster numbers game and scheme fit
Any way you want to look at this, Graham has a tough fight ahead of him. He’s been the subject of trade rumors earlier this offseason and I still think he could be dealt this summer.
Furthermore, here is a quote from Chip Kelly from late May on whether or not he sees Graham as a fit for the defense going forward (quote from Eagles press release):
Yeah, I think he obviously has the skill set to rush the passer and set the edge. And when he’s been in there, he’s been productive. The issue is that the other guy’s really productive, too.
How many times can you get them all on the field together? If you put Brandon in, do you take Trent [Cole] out; if you put Brandon in, do you take Connor [Barwin] out? It’s really the pecking order. I think both our depth at outside linebacker, we’ve added to it by adding Marcus Smith and Bryan Braman. But I feel confident we’re better at that position right now than we were a year ago because of who we added.
That doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement. He mentions Smith and Braman, both of whom are locks to make the roster. Last year, the Eagles only kept three OLBs on the roster and now they have four.
Will they keep a fifth? That is the main question. If not, Graham has no shot. If so, then he will have to battle it out with Travis Long, whom the Eagles are said to be high on. If they see Long as having more upside, more versatility and as a better scheme fit — which I think they do at this point — Graham will be the odd man out unless Long really struggles in camp.
With that said, even if he didn’t have a player like Long standing in his way, he has to fight the perception that he doesn’t fit their vision at the OLB spot. Plus, there is a real chance that they don’t keep five OLBs and decide to dedicate that roster spot to depth at another position.
Any which way you cut the mustard, Graham will be a story to watch. Can he defy the odds and make the team on merit? Will he make it by default because of injuries? Will he be traded? Or will he be flat-out released during final cuts?
At this point, my money is on one of the latter two possibilities.
Nolan Carroll vs. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher
This one should be interesting. When Carroll was signed, it was relatively met with “he’s a depth signing” outlook. However, that’s not exactly the case.
Both Kelly and DB coach John Lovett have said that Carroll will compete for a starting position. And based purely on the buzz from mini-camps, he has a very realistic shot at beating one of them out.
At first, I didn’t really think there would be much of a chance of this happening. Williams and Fletcher weren’t terrible last year, but they weren’t great either. They seemed to be a middle-of-the-road tandem at CB.
Furthermore, the perception of how they played was likely skewed due to a meager pass rush and incompetent play at Safety. They obviously weren’t bad enough to make Howie Roseman run out and grab the best CB available in free agency or select one before Round 4 of the NFL Draft in May.
They signed an “under-the-radar” guy in Carroll to a relatively modest two-year contract and drafted Jaylen Watkins in the fourth round and view him as an OCB/SCB/S hybrid. These were not slam dunk moves that screams they wanted a new starter at CB.
However, the coaches were highly impressed by Carroll in mini-camps and love his ability to play press-man coverage. He has the requisite size they covet on the outside and plays physical.
Even though they’re talking him up pretty good, I’ll still be somewhat surprised if they actually demote Fletcher or Williams to start the season. However, I could see a situation where Carroll gradually takes over one of the starting positions or earns more playing time as the season progresses.
Nate Allen vs. Earl Wolff
This should be the real grudge match of training camp. Allen is the early favorite based on the fact he ran with the starters during mini-camps and that he steadily improved his play last season.
The fact that the Eagles let Allen test the free agent market and ended up only signing him to a one-year contract with only $750,000 in guaranteed money, tells me that they don’t see him as a slam-dunk starter.
On the flip side, Wolff was merely a fifth-round draft pick investment last year so there’s no pressure from within for the coaches to “get him on the field.”
This is about as even as a battle as you might find.
Allen came to the Eagles in 2010 and ruptured his patella tendon towards the end of his rookie season. He seemed slow to recover the following year while being mired in the catastrophe that was the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
He showed signs of life towards the end of last year and was solid, if unspectacular. Wolff, on the other hand, was doing some on-the-job learning last year and while he had his struggles, he showed some promise.
Neither player graded out well in 2013 if you believe in the Pro Football Focus grading system. Allen came in at 51st and Wolff at 55th in their rankings of Safeties that played at least 25% of their team’s snaps.
Hopefully this competition won’t be about picking the best looking pig in a pool of slop or just going with who stinks the least. Hopefully, one of them will stand out and seize the job with truly impressive play.
Wolff has good speed, athleticism, range and shows some pop when he hits. It’s unfortunate that he suffered a knee injury that marred his rookie campaign and didn’t allow us a longer look at him.
Allen is the underwhelming incumbent and Wolff is the potential up-and-comer. I’m hoping Wolff wins the job and never looks back. Allen would then make for an adequate backup.
The NFL season is like a horse race and teams want to enter with as many thoroughbreds as possible. Let’s just hope that the Eagles aren’t entering the 2014 race with a bunch of donkeys at Safety.