With Mandatory Minicamp in the books, it’s time to take one more deep breath before football season is upon us. Training Camp is just over a month away, which means preseason is now slowly fading into our thoughts. After weeks of rigorous OTA and Minicamp action, some players have seen their value rise, others have perhaps seen the opposite. Here’s my first look at how the roster could potentially shake out by the time that the Eagles open their regular season campaign against the Redskins.
Quarterback: 2 (2)
There isn’t much in the way of a surprise here. It’s plausible that the Eagles could keep former Raiders QB Matt McGloin around for development purposes, but the far more likely option is that the Eagles sign someone like UDFA QB Dane Evans to their practice squad. Carson Wentz will lead the Eagles in 2017, while his backup returns to the City of Brotherly Love to finish what he started after Pederson played a large role in the fateful night he was drafted by Philadelphia.
Running back: 4 (6)
The main name missing from this list is Ryan Mathews. If his future was uncertain before, the signing of veteran three-down back, LeGarrette Blount, all but put the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence that’s written on the wall. The duo of Pumphrey and Sproles will cause headaches for Defenses in split backfield situations, with both backs having the ability to contribute in the passing game. Second year rusher Wendell Smallwood appears to have bulked up slightly, maybe giving him some more leverage as a change-of-pace back, but the Eagles don’t have much room to spare.
Although recently moved outside, Byron Marshall is likely to fall victim to overcrowding here, while Wisconsin’s Corey Clement emerges as a prime practice squad candidate.
Offensive line: 9 (15)
The Eagles should have the flexibility to go fairly deep on the offensive line this year. Much of the starting rotation is already set in stone, with the battle at left guard being the one question mark looming as Training Camp beckons. I can personally see Isaac Seumalo coming into his own once the pads are on. He’s been splitting reps with Allen Barbre so far, but with a potential cap saving of $2.1M holding more value than ever, it may force the Eagles to get younger, faster.
The main names to note here aside from the starters are Vaitai as the backup tackle. Versatility is key on the offensive line, and with Wisniewski playing up and down the trenches during his 2016 campaign, his presence should still be felt prominently moving forward should injuries factor into the play of the offensive line. Chance Warmack is able to re-ignite the fire Jeff Stoutland once lit, while UDFA Tyler Orlosky rebounds from an injury that kept him sidelined during OTA’s, to show his value as an athletic backup to Jason Kelce.
Tight end: 4 (19)
This could be one of the most underrated areas to watch. Sure, Celek and Ertz have their starting positions locked in, while Trey Burton’s 327 yards and first career touchdown last year didn’t go unnoticed. The team value Burton as a four-core special teams contributor who can act as both a receiving tight end and a blocking one…not to mention his potential role as a fullback.
With Celek nearing the back-end of his career and Burton only signed on a tender, adding some security here makes sense. Enter UDFA Billy Brown, who at 6’4, 255 lbs, brings a scary amount of athleticism to the position. He followed his 89 receptions, 1,492 yards and 10 TD’s, in 2015, with 99 catches, 1,580 yards and a ridiculous 22 TD’s, in the 2016 season for Shepherd. This garnered him All-MEC , First-Team All-Super Region (Division-2) honors, as he was considered one of the best D-2 players in college football. Don’t sleep on Brown, who has had a bumpy road since signing with the Eagles to what I’ve heard from numerous sources to be injury related setbacks. By late July however, the landscape could completely change.
Wide receiver: 6 (25)
This is definitely the hardest position on the roster to predict. Expect the unexpected has almost become the mantra when it comes to this stage of the year, and a certain Howie Roseman. Jordan Matthews is entering his contract year and with two top wideouts on prove-it deals, nothing is a guarantee at this stage. However for our first prediction, we’re playing it safe.
I think that the Eagles will retain only Matthews and Agholor from last season, accompanying their talents with their free agency additions and two rookies, Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson. While Gibson has struggled with drops in the Spring, it’s far too early to make any kind of judgement. Gibson has garnered a reputation as someone who shows up when it counts…and if that means dropping a few balls in practice, while developing in such a competitive environment, so be it.
The other factor here is that last year the Eagles didn’t have a SINGLE wideout who contributed on special teams. Hollins and Gibson could likely make waves as gunner’s and contribute in more than one facet, giving them leverage over the likes of Bryce Treggs and Dorial Green-Beckham.
Defensive tackle: 5 (30)
Although it’s clear Jernigan and Cox are the starting tandem for this year at least, it’s worth noting that Beau Allen and Destiny Vaeao combined for over 60% of Defensive snaps last year. A DT effort by committee to keep legs fresh makes a lot of sense in such a ruthless Defense, and the addition of Elijah Qualls will only broaden that horizon.
Defensive end: 5 (35)
This is another position that’s tough to predict. It’s clear Graham will have one more year to try and earn his big payday before entering a contract year, while the combination of a driven Vinny Curry and rookie Derek Barnett add some scary levels of explosiveness to the rotation. Beyond that, things get murky. Chris Long should be a lock to secure a rotational role, leaving 1-2 roles left up for competition.
As it stands, it’s down to Mr Offseason himself, Marcus Smith, Alex McCalister, and Steven Means. Both McCalister and Means flashed numerous times during OTA’s, and the perks of keeping Means would be yet more special teams dominance, while being able to jump into a game at a moments notice with a year of experience under his belt.
McCalister was very much a wildcard going into last offseason and if it wasn’t for an injury setback, Means may not have been given the opportunity he reaped the rewards from and then some. I think it comes down to those two, but can see a bulked up Florida product who can split out into the slot in the blink of an eye winning on a versatility count.
Linebacker: 5 (40)
Linebacker is also a position that could be subject to a surprise face or two come the start of week one. Hicks and Bradham were able to put up staggeringly impressive seasons, cementing their role in the heart of the Jim Schwartz Defense where Simba now rules the kingdom.
Nate Gerry has been able to turn a few heads since dropping down inside the box, and given that the transition is still in its very early days, that’s a very encouraging sign. The big name to watch here though is Joe Walker.
Walker ended his 2015 campaign leading the Oregon Ducks in tackles with 87 and recorded 6 for a loss as well as 2 sacks. He may not have the best size for the position, but a 40-yard dash time of 4.56 and a 6’2, 236 pound frame make him incredibly elusive. In a very gritty and aggressive system implemented by Jim Schwartz, Walker stood out in Training camp and flashed during his first taste of preseason action, before a torn-ACL saw him watch the 2016 season from the sidelines. If he is able to shine as he did one year ago, the role as the third linebacker in situations when outside of nickel formations could be his.
Former Patriots LB Kamu Grugier-Hill has shown his value as a special teams standout during his time with the Eagles, meaning Fipp’s unit is able to sleep easy…and the Eagles linebackers are no longer left with a severe lack of depth, one year after being forced to turn to either Kendricks or Tulloch.
Cornerback: 6 (46)
As things stand, cornerback isn’t exactly the Eagles biggest strength, but I really don’t see it as the weakness many portray it to be. Sure, Sidney Jones is likely to redshirt the year, but with Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas likely starting outside, it gives the Eagles a perfect balance. Mills plays extremely tenaciously and while he can be a little overzealous in his anticipation sometimes, the development from week one to week sixteen last year was stunning. Partner that with WVU’s Douglas, a prototypical Jim Schwartz cornerback, and you have a tandem that if supported by a dominant pass rush, should be able to hold its own.
In the slot, I can see the first surprise at the position. The Eagles will part ways with Ron Brooks in favor of starting Patrick Robinson, the 29-year old corner who allowed just a 55% completion rate when last playing full-tme in the Nickel during the 2015 season. However, while Robinson is a cleaner tackler than Brooks, that isn’t the reason he could be displaced.
Enter Aaron Grymes. The former Edmonton Eskimo is simply built for this style of Defense and after talking to two former coaches, who explained why both Grymes and White shouldn’t be overlooked in this fight, it simply makes too much sense to keep Grymes as a rotational corner, or somebody who can roll inside at a moments notice.
For the second offseason in a row, Grymes flashed day in and day out, while former Grey Cup winner, Mitchell White, has made some big plays of his own.
The Eagles aren’t stacked with current talent at the position, but they’re loaded with young potential…and the final spot with that in mind should go to C.J Smith. Smith earned a role on the practice squad last year and was later called up to contribute on special teams. A strong offseason could see him prove his value once again to Dave Fipp, giving the Eagles even more optionality.
Safety: 4 (50)
Three of the four positions at Safety are locks. Now with some nickel relief, the tandem of Jenkins and McLeod could be finally set to wreak the havoc originally intended, while Chris Maragos leads as captain of Fipp’s esteemed unit. However it’s that backup spot that’s up for competition.
Jaylen Watkins shined as a cornerback in 2015, keeping the Cardinals quiet when targeted and forcing a wild DeSean Jackson away empty handed. One season later, he transitioned to Safety in order to keep his spot on the roster and would go on to play a crucial role in wake of the nickel responsibilities adapted by Malcolm Jenkins. Watkins kept the ship afloat when waters began to rise…and that’s all that matters, right?
Well, DB Terrence Brooks may have something to say about that. His crucial INT against the Giants was followed up by an extremely strong Spring and the battle for that final spot is well underway. Watkins was only signed on a tender, so it may make sense for the Eagles to seek security at the position…but it’s all going to come down to camp. If momentum continues to swing, it could be Brooks who ends up unseating Jaylen Watkins.
Special teams: 3 (53)
The safest area to predict of all, Donnie Jones, Super Sturgis, and the magic man all return to their veteran roles…and they all lived happily ever after…right?
Do you agree with this prediction? Are there any sleepers who you would like to see make the roster? Let me know in the comments!
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports