The regular season opener is rapidly approaching and with only one preseason game remaining, the levels competition are higher than ever. From cornerback to running back, there are plenty of battles left unfinished and with just one more opportunity to flash the potential required in order to secure a future with the team, it’s crunch time. But there’s one spot on the roster that has been both clinically underrated and contested all offseason long. One where two players have gone head-to-head in preseason in a constant back-and-forth with the knowledge that only one is likely to make the final 53.
The Eagles made addressing the defensive end position a priority during the offseason. Derek Barnett was drafted by the team in the first round, with the addition of Chris Long replacing Connor Barwin and solidifying the rotation. With Marcus Smith out of the picture, the front four seems to be set in stone…but who slots in to that fifth spot remains a mystery.
Last year that honor fell to Steven Means. After a strong preseason, the former Bucs DE was able to establish himself as an explosive option off the sideline and total 74 defensive snaps along with 3 tackles and a sack last year. But there was one prospect forced out of the equation.
An injury cut the cord on Alex McCalister’s rookie season before it had a chance to start, however he did stand out during the early stages of Training Camp. It would appear that the influx of talent have seen McCalister’s odds of making the roster lengthen…but so has his frame.
McCalister was often regarded as slim for his position so after bulking up and recovering from his injury, he now has a slightly thicker base to help push past offensive linemen at the next level. Entering the league at 239 lbs, he now stands at around 260 lbs, which is a big leap. Add in to this an impressive 36″ wingspan and you have a pass rusher with all the right intangibles. With 12.5 sacks in his last two season’s for the Florida Gators, it was clear that McCalister had a knack for getting to the QB, especially considering that he played in under 40% of snaps during that time.
Means and McCalister both flashed their trademark explosiveness during Training Camp, but it was preseason that showed just how tightly fought this battle is. Through three games and an abundance of second-half snaps, it may be Steven Means leading the charge in QB hurries and PFF analytics, but on a basic stat-line it’s a much closer tale.
And lord help me if Steven Means (51) doesn't make this team… pic.twitter.com/BCAKUpAJXi
— Adam Lefkoe (@AdamLefkoe) August 25, 2017
Jim Schwartz opened up on the progress of last year’s seventh round pick a couple of weeks ago and while McCalister has certainly turned heads, it’s doing it consistently that will be the difference between a roster spot and a walk on a tightrope.
“I don’t think it was a secret.” Schwartz said. “He made some plays in the game, but he was also up and down. It’s a little bit difficult at the end of the game because you don’t have — early in the game you can roll waves of guys through. You get into that fourth quarter and there is nobody else, and they’ve got to stay out there for an extended period of time. That being said, just all those guys need to be more consistent. I think every single guy out there made a play somewhere along the line. But it’s not just about making a play, it’s about making all the plays or making the majority of the plays and being consistent, and Alex is still working on that.”
His competition may not be the most consistent pass-rusher in the world, but he’s consistently flashed during his time with the Eagles. Means continues to drop the hammer and harass opposing quarterbacks, earning praise from Pro Football Focus in the process. of course this comes as no surprise however, Means was rated as the NFL’s best pass rusher last preseason by the analytics site and has carried that trend over into 2017.
Steven Means was a pass-rushing machine for the Eagles on Thursday night: https://t.co/EgQrETzlmU pic.twitter.com/LxQr1lZtbJ
— PFF (@PFF) August 11, 2017
Training Camp is all but concluded leaving just a clash with the New York Jets on the card for both Means and McCalister to show the coaching staff how valuable they can be.
In the Blue corner is a player signed as a free agent two years ago, entering his final contracted season. A player who “means” business and has proved to be more than just a solid special-teams contributor and continued to surprise unsuspecting Offenses late with a burst of speed off the edge.
In the red corner is a player who was drafted by the Eagles just one year ago and suffered a season-ending injury while on the cusp of making the roster. A player who bulked up considerably in the offseason in order to avoid being bullied by offensive tackles at the next level. A player who already showed that he has the intuition and speed to be a threat on the bull-rush in the ruthless Jim Schwartz Defense. A player who was always considered a longshot, but has longevity on his side with the team facing a turbulent offseason of free agent decisions.
The victor? It’s anybody’s guess. Let the games begin.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports