Five positional battles on Eagles roster that have become Head-To-Head duels

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With the second game of the Eagles preseason campaign just a few days away, the battles across the roster are beginning to heat up. Training camp has seen a number of dark horses take the fight to players whose depth chart or even Philadelphia futures remain uncertain..but at this stage, it’s become personal. For some, it’s no longer just trying to stand out from the crowd..it’s a head-to-head showdown with the prize potentially being a spot on the final 53-man roster. Here are the five duels to watch out for in the coming weeks.

5: Taylor Hart vs Destiny Vaeao
I published an article recently depicting how there could well be a changing of the guard at the backup DT position. After the opening preseason game, it’s clear that Taylor Hart is not going down without a fight. Hart spent his rookie season on injured reserve, bouncing back last year to rack up 27 tackles in 14 games. But a change in scheme demands a change in style..and it’s the style of UDFA Destiny Vaeao that’s attracting the most attention.

Vaeao has quietly impressed the coaching staff at Training camp..and it’s not hard to see why.  He was a man in hot demand when it came to pre-draft visits and for good reason. 83 tackles and 19 for a loss, 7 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles during his time at Washington State make the 6’3, 298 pound Defensive Tackle an intimidating player to be competing against.

The man who stands between Vaeao and a spot on the roster?  6’6, 281 pound Taylor Hart. After 22.5 tackles for a loss at Oregon to go with 16 sacks and five forced fumbles..Hart is a run stopping DT who can push the pocket when needed..something he showed on Thursday and was previously unable to under Chip Kelly.

Vaeao played in 47% of snaps on Thursday night in comparison to Hart’s 29%..but it was arguably Hart’s run stopping prowess he once showed at Oregon that stood out the most. The question is, can Hart earn more snaps than Vaeao in the games to come and outshine in him in Training camp? Because if he can’t, that changing of the guard could happen much sooner than anticipated.

 

4: JaCorey Shepherd vs C.J Smith
A battle that was never supposed to open has now become one of the most exciting on the roster. Coming off of a torn ACL before his rookie season had a chance to start, Shepherd faced an uphill battle after a change in system saw the Eagles turn their Secondary on its head for the second year running. Shepherd was once again an outsider to make the final 53-man roster..but then, bad fortune struck once again.

Shepherd has missed valuable Training camp time with yet another injury..and went on to miss the preseason opener. This left the door wide open for someone to stand up and make an impact. Shepherd was listed as the seventh CB on the first unofficial depth chart, but he could sit even lower in weeks to come due to an explosive performance from C.J Smith.

Smith may have played in just 32% of Defensive snaps, but in that time he batted down three passes and hauled in a crucial interception in the endzone. The UDFA out of NDSU stood out massively on Thursday night after a string of impressive Training camp performances.

With the battles raging on from top to bottom at the CB position, Shepherd’s main focus now becomes extinguishing the fire upon his return and reigniting one of his own if he is to have a realistic shot at making the final roster or the practice squad. Smith now looks to be the sleeper primed to cause a few surprises…and if he does so without a response from Shepherd, his future could become very murky.

 

3: Josh Huff vs Paul Turner:
After a disappointing 2015 campaign plagued by drops, Huff started his spring in the same fashion and has been burdened with the same issues ever since. The problem is that with the entire unit struggling, it’s opened the door for an undrafted rookie to step up to the plate..insert Paul Turner.

Turner may not be the fastest, or the strongest..but he’s a crisp route runner and more importantly a safe pair of hands. So much so that he caught 50% of Wentz’s 12 completions on Thursday and led the Eagles in receiving.

After transferring from LSU in 2012, Turner sat out the 2013 season and was expected to be one of Louisiana Tech’s most explosive weapons a year later. However a lingering groin injury meant he missed even more action as he ended the year with 4 TD’s, 514 yards and 42 receptions…still good enough to finish second on the team.

Injuries persisted in 2015 but that didn’t stop him from posting three scores on 45 receptions for 657 yards. The Pro-Day was his time to shine and he did just enough to impress the Eagles, posting a 4.53 second 40-yard dash time and showing off a 39 inch vertical jump.

The pressure has been on Josh Huff for quite some time now..but never quite enough to threaten his spot on the roster. With the emergence of Paul Turner, Huff will undoubtedly be looking over his shoulder. Huff is going to need a strong preseason and some impressive camp performances (something unheard of at this point) if he is to stop Turner from sneaking onto the roster and potentially pipping him out of a spot.

 

2: Marcus Smith vs Steven Means:
The rotation at Defensive End has been an extremely interesting aspect of Training camp to follow. Marcus Smith has been receiving a lot of attention..and rightly so. The former first round pick has had a severely underwhelming career up to this point, recording just 1.5 sacks and 7 combined tackles in 2 seasons. A new scheme that fits his skill set was thought to breathe second life into the career of Marcus Smith and it was..until he fell victim to a concussion in practice and as a result missed a lot of time and the game on Thursday Night.

Smith was listed ahead of one name in particular in the Eagles first unofficial depth chart, 6’3, 263-pound Steven Means. A former fifth round pick of the Bucs, Means played 11 games for Tampa Bay during his two years there before spending time with the Ravens and eventually ending up on the Texans practice squad..from which the Eagles plucked him last year.

Means has had an explosive camp so far in a scheme that screams explosiveness and technique. Two qualities that are key strengths to Means. In his final season at College, Means racked up a stunning 12 tackles for a loss. With Smith absent, Means stepped up after a dominant week of Training camp to play in 58% of total Defensive snaps. The result? Just 31 yards rushing allowed.

A concussion was the last thing Marcus Smith needed in a scenario where competition is vicious and his position is unstable. Jim Schwartz has praised the recent camp performances of Steven Means and his ruthlessness has asserted him in the race for a depth DE role..Smith will now have an even tougher mountain to climb if he is to retain his spot on the depth chart..a spot currently being salivated over by Steven Means.

 

1: Jalen Mills vs Eric Rowe:
The battle at Cornerback from top to bottom is easily the most exciting on the roster..but it has recently taken on a new identity. The struggles of Eric Rowe have oft been documented this Summer. A new aggressive system that has seen Rowe sink below the hype around Jalen Mills and the physical play implemented by the likes of Aaron Grymes. Some have doubted Rowe’s spot on the depth chart while others, his place on the final roster.

The catalyst in what has now become the most intense head-to-head battle on the Eagles roster, was the release of the first unofficial depth chart. Eric Rowe was listed behind seventh round pick Jalen Mills following a stunning summer from the “Green Goblin”. Rowe didn’t take this lightly however and when the Eagles played the Bucs last Thursday, the stakes rose even higher.

Jalen Mills struggled..badly. Jim Schwartz put it down to a heavy workload that involved special teams play, but it was Eric Rowe who shone in the darkness that Mills bestowed. Rowe may not have recorded an interception, a pass defense or even a tackle, but his blanket coverage sent a very clear message. As important as aggression and ruthlessness is to this Defense, man-to-man coverage is still an imperative part of the game..and a part of the game that Rowe simply excels at. It was rare to see a pass thrown in the direction of the Sophomore corner..purely because of his ability to go stride for stride with his receiver  and stick to him like glue with minimal contact.

From misread routes to poor reactions, struggling to jam at the line of scrimmage to reckless tackling..Mills looked like a shadow of the player he looked to be at Training camp.

With Training camp drawing to a close, cuts beckoning and three more preseason games remaining..the battle for what was Eric Rowe’s spot has become a flat out war between a rookie dark horse who has drawn a lot of attention through big camp plays..and a cornerback who may not be the perfect fit, but covers supremely when it matters and shows up when needed. It’s going to be fierce, it’s going to be intense..and it’s going to be without a doubt the most exciting thing to watch in the remaining preseason games.

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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