The Eagles have had a frantic Free Agency and as the draft draws closer, excitement for the upcoming season. Amongst all the new signings, draft prospects and contract extensions..its easy to forget that the Eagles have some very promising but overlooked talent. Here are the top four players who you should definitely keep a close eye on in 2016.
4) Denzel Rice
Eric Rowe may be stealing the spotlight in what’s a very young cornerback core, but the hidden gem at the position is Denzel Rice. An undrafted rookie who has been compared to Malcolm Butler and played behind Josh Norman at Coastal Carolina, Rice led the state in High School when it came to interceptions, racking up 12 in total before swatting 12 passes at Coastal Carolina..a team record.
Rice ended up playing 43 defensive snaps in the closing stages of last season following a flurry of injuries that sent the ultimate underdog onto an NFL field. He flashed potential and his quick feet and ability to keep receivers from breaking away was very impressive. At 6″0 and 196 pounds (an inch taler and 9 pounds heavier than new signing Leodis McKelvin), Rice has great size and a huge amount of upside. There’s likely to be quite a lot of competition at the cornerback spot in the Summer so expect to see Rice’s name pop up a lot more frequently.
3) Jonathan Krause
Signed by the Eagles in November of last year, Krause became a factor in the dying moments of the 2015 season, catching 2 of his 4 targets for 11 yards. A former teammate of Jordan Matthews at Vanderbilt, the 5″11, 190 pound receiver was a former New England Patriot before being released due to injury. When Bill Belechick has this to say about you..it’s normally worth taking note:
“Jonathan has both inside and outside flexibility, can play in the slot, can play on the perimeter, runs well, smart kid, works hard, good hands, very dependable player.”
“I think he’s a good young player with a good future. It was a good move by Philadelphia to get him in their system. He’s got a lot of good qualities.”
Under Pederson, Krause could have a huge chance to prove himself at Training Camp, especially with the Eagles looking for some stability and star power at the position. With every receiver on the roster in the same boat in learning a new system, it’s a level playing field..and one that Krause is sure to take advantage of. He hasn’t had a full pre-season to prove himself in the NFL and if he shares a similar work ethic to Jordan Matthews, he could be doing more than turning a few heads.
2) Kenjon Barner
With the DeMarco Murray and running back controversy of last season, Kenjon Barner became a fan favourite as he slowly worked his way into a heavier work load as the season progressed. Barner ended his first season in Philadelphia with 124 yards on 28 attempts, averaging 4.4 yards per carry.
A fumble against the Patriots arguably stunted his progress, but the physical style of running Barner embodies is very similar to how Jamaal Charles runs. During his time at Carolina (behind another physical back in Jonathan Stewart), Barner didn’t really see a lot of usage whilst his experience in Oregon made him a valuable asset in Philadelphia.
With Murray gone, Mathews reportedly being shopped and an ageing Darren Sproles, the Eagles need their running back of the future. It’s easy to say “take Elliot at number 8”, but with Roseman’s inconsistent draft history..it’s more imperative than ever that the Eagles absolutely get this right. They need someone who can become a star in Philadelphia with zero bust potential. Whether Elliot is or isn’t that guy, Barner needs to come out swinging in the Summer and compete for his first ever starting role and regardless of if he gets it or not…you’ll be hearing and seeing much more of him as the year progresses that’s for sure
1) JaCorey Shepherd
Regarded by many as the steal of last years draft, Shepherd tore his ACL during training camp, ending his rookie NFL season before it even started. 12 months later and the Eagles are once again building the position from the ground up. In a young core with a veteran presence, Shepherd could well be set to stun in 2016.
If we were to look it his stats and suitability in the same way we have with Thurmond in comparison to Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod and former Lions safeties, it makes sense to look at Shepherd in the same light since this is one of the most unsettled positions on the team.
In 2014, Shepherd racked up 24 tackles…6 of them being assisted..a 75% solo rate which is a huge selling point. The Eagles need speed from their corners if they’re to flourish under Jim Schwartz and Shepherd ran the 40 in 4.65 seconds…..with a hamstring injury.
Per Pro Football Focus, Shepherd had a 38.6 catch rate at Kansas in his final season, which was the lowest of any in the FBS and he only allowed Quarterbacks to achieve an average 53 quarterback rating, making him one of the top 10 corners.
A force to be reckoned with that’s been chained down with injuries, is this the season the NFL finally bears witness to the abundance of potential Shepherd clearly has? Have the Eagles already got the franchise corner they’re looking for? We will find out soon enough but Shepherd is easily one of the biggest underdogs to keep an eye on in 2016.
photo credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports