The Eagles preseason finale is just around the corner. For many it sparks excitement for the regular season, but for the players who will see plenty of action against the Jets, it’s among the biggest nights of their lives. The Eagles still have plenty of battles raging throughout the roster and with the cuts looming, intensity is only going to thicken. Doug Pederson met with the media today to give his take on some of the positional ponders he still has ahead of the season opener.
“I think the corner position, corner-nickel position is going to be an interesting battle this week. Pederson said. “Even the running backs. I think it’s exciting. I thought they all did a great job the other night in that game. It will be interesting this week to see how that plays out.”
“Got a couple young tight ends that I’d be interested to see in this last pre-season game. You look on offense, and again there’s a couple of young offensive linemen. [T] Dillon Gordon, [T] Taylor Hart, guys like that that are competing for spots. It’s going to be fun to watch these guys, not only in practice this week, but, again, on Thursday night.”
While the Eagles Head Coach certainly shined a light on some battles, there are plenty that will hit new levels of competition this week. Here are the top 5 battles to keep an eye on over the next seven days.
5 Running back
While it’s the lowest ranked battle, that doesn’t take away from the excitement. In fact, the Eagles battle in the backfield may have the most unanswered questions ahead of the team’s fourth preseason game. Whether it’s the LeGarrette Blount debate or if it should be Wendell Smallwood who carries the weight of the position on his shoulders so the grizzly veteran can shine in short-yardage situations, there’s a lot to be decided.
Then of course there’s the added intrigue of Corey Clement. The former Wisconsin Badger has had an impressive training camp and in the absence of Wendell Smallwood, led the Eagles in rushing yards in their first two preseason contests. His powerful style and electric speed was a stark contrast to what we saw from Blount, sparking even more intrigue over whether the Eagles will carry another running back on the final 53.
Beyond the workhorse competition lies a war in versatility. Darren Sproles hasn’t played at all in preseason and rookie Donnel Pumphrey finally flashed the production he showed at SDSU in an impressive showing against Miami. Byron Marshall has been doing all he can to remain in the picture and has made some big plays along the way, but there’s a tall Mountain to climb.
While the depth chart is predictable, it’s anything but certain. Let the games begin!
4 Offensive line
As Doug Pederson mentioned, the Eagles still have some interesting battles along the offensive front. After the Eagles traded Matt Tobin, their depth at tackle has become scarce. Beyond Big V lies little in the way of reenforcement. Dillon Gordon is joined by Taylor Hart and UDFA Victor Salako…and that’s it. Vaitai has continued to struggle throughout and while the team are high on Dillon Gordon, the transition of Taylor Hart to the offensive front carries a lot of weight. If Jason Peters were to go down, do the Eagles have enough firepower to man the trenches? If they do, which player is going to step up to the plate? One last shot against the Jets should provide the answer to that question.
Tobin wasn’t the only player to be traded however. Allen Barbre is now in Denver, meaning that the spots behind Isaac Seumalo could also be up for grabs, especially with Chance Warmack’s preseason struggles in pass protection. Could former Dolphins guard Dallas Thomas force himself into the equation, or are the team confident in Darrell Greene? Stefen Wisniewski may be the backup to Jason Kelce, but is he the plug-n-play guard they need after he signed an extension? Again,only time will tell…but this last game is going to be crucial for the entire offensive line.
3 Defensive end
I wrote extensively about arguably the most underrated positional battle on the roster just yesterday. Here’s a quick summary of a piece that sees two players who have had similarly impressive preseason campaigns competing over one last spot in the rotation.
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.
The Eagles have had plenty of questions surrounding their linebacker depth ever since last season ended. Sure, Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham are a dominant tandem, but with a lack of coverage prowess in Mychal Kendricks, the team was forced to roll out the nickel formation more often than not last year. Stephen Tulloch barely played and Mychal Kendricks felt just as unloved, with a career-low in snap percentage and numbers.
Preseason has painted a very different picture however. Kendricks has totaled three interceptions and been a complete terror in opposing backfields. Has Jim Schwartz decided to tailor his Defense to embrace the skillset of Kendricks, or is this a spot of preseason form that may not be replicated? Either way, Kendricks has done everything in his power to force his way into rotation…but the questions don’t end there.
When Jordan Hicks missed the game against Miami, it was Najee Goode who filled his spot. Did that mean he was above Joe Walker on the depth chart? Regardless, Goode didn’t exactly have a strong showing and with an injury that could potentially keep him sidelined next week, the Eagles linebackers are in a position to make one last thunderous impact before the curtain falls.
Jim Schwartz said special teams could play a huge role in deciding the Eagles linebacker depth and with their leading special teams ace potentially injured, it will be down to the likes of Kamu Grugier-Hill and Joe Walker to step up and prove they can be more than just contributors in Fipp’s prestigious unit. Roster spots are hard to come by, especially at a position where the starters are so deeply entrenched. This battle is crucial.
1 Nickel Corner
This battle may carry the most weight of all those left remaining. A few weeks ago, it was Ron Brooks and Aaron Grymes who seemed entrenched as the slot-tandem for the season to come…but with the arrival of Ronald Darby shuffling some pieces around, it’s forced Patrick Robinson, who was having a disappointing camp, into a position of strength.
Robinson is no stranger to working out of the slot. In fact, it was with the Chargers in 2015 playing in the position that he had arguably played his best season of his career, with 49 combined tackles, an interception, a FF, and 8 passes defensed. His numbers weren’t amazing, but a 55.9% completion rate allowed absolutely was. In his lone year there, Robinson showed the potential he had flashed at times playing for the Saints.
According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed 8.9 yards per catch during that lone season with San Diego, the best among corners targeted 40 times or more. When lined up in the slot, he allowed 0.78 yards per coverage snap, the second best among corners targeted over 200 times in the slot.
Along with CFL standout Aaron Grymes (who has had another strong offseason) there’s now another new player at the table. Enter newly traded-for cornerback, Dexter McDougle. Having dropped 14 pounds since last season, the 26-year old has enjoyed a strong preseason for the Jets working out of the slot, totalling three tackles and showing some impressive coverage looks along the way.
One starting role, four contenders. It’s going to be one very…very interesting preseason finale for the Eagles secondary.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports