Eagles Training Camp Notebook: Offensive Position Battles by Matt Lombardo

The Eagles revamped their defense but by and large the offense remains intact from a year ago. There are still heated battles being waged for several key positions that must be settled before the season opener in St. Louis on September 11th.

As the Lehigh portion of Eagles training camp has come and gone, the roster is beginning to take shape. On the offensive side of the ball the Eagles are the rare exception across the league in that many of the starters who finished the 2010 season playing a key role have returned. However, there are several starting jobs up for grabs and hotly contested battles taking place lower on the depth chart at several key positions.

There will be some tough calls to be made by Head Coach Andy Reid, GM Howie Roseman, and Team Executive Joe Banner before the “Turk” comes calling (August 30th, 75-player limit and September 3rd, final 53-player limit)

The offensive line became a focal point in last season’s final three weeks as teams schemed cover two defenses and corner blitzes to counteract Michael Vick’s success, so it’s no surprise that there has been turnover there. Also depth battles at running back, tight end and even wide receiver are fascinating as one of the league’s high powered offenses takes shape entering the 2011 campaign.

At right tackle, arguably the most important position on any football team that’s headed by a left-handed quarterback, the man charged with protecting Vick’s blind side is to this point a mystery. Winston Justice remains on the Physically Unable to Perform list and has yet to take a snap in any practice or the team’s first pre-season game against the Ravens.

In place of the team’s NFLPA Player representative has been the platoon of Ryan Harris, who was signed from the Broncos as a free agent, and King Dunlap. Harris is a talented and prototypical lineman for offensive line coach Howard Mudd’s system. He appeared to have the inside line on the starting job until a bout with back spasms sidelined him for the last several days. In steps Dunlap who is a behemoth, standing at 6’9 330 pounds but the 2008 seventh round choice out of Auburn appears both raw and too rough around the edges to succeed as the line’s anchor. At this point the Eagles may not have any other choice but to start Dunlap who gets the nod in the pre-season game against the Steelers on Thursday.

Had Harris remained healthy it was, and still is, conceivable that he would replace Justice full time at right tackle. Now it appears that the door has been reopened for Justice once he returns.

Meanwhile at center, a hotly contested battle is on between incumbent Jamaal Jackson and rookie Jason Kelce. Jackson is attempting a comeback from an off-season microfracture surgery and until Kelce’s arrival seemed on pace to retain his job. However, the 6-3 282 pound sixth round pick from Cincinnati has quickly caught Mudd’s eye and has been drawing comparisons to Indianapolis’s Jeff Saturday who Mudd turned into an All-Pro keeping Peyton Manning upright. Jackson and Kelce split time with the first team against the Ravens but Kelce looked inconsistent, appearing solid in run blocking but his pass blocking left much to be desired. As a rookie though, that is to be expected.

However, in practice on Sunday Jackson worked on the side with Vick while Vince Young took snaps on the sidelines from Kelce, read into that what you will. It wouldn’t be surprising for this position to be in flux right up to the season opener on September 11 against The Rams.

By and large at the skill positions the starting jobs are set in stone. LeSean McCoy will be the feature back one again following a 1,080 yard seven touchdown campaign in 2010. Vick for the first time since signing in Philadelphia is the incumbent starting quarterback. And assuming that Jeremy Maclin returns in time for the season opener he will line up opposite DeSean Jackson at wide receiver. It’s also assumed that Jason Avant will remain the Eagles slot receiver, though he is being pushed for the second straight camp by Riley Cooper. Finally at tight end Brent Celek is the unquestioned starter despite a subpar 2010 where he was asked to assume more blocking duties to supplement the wildly inconsistent Justice last year.

With all of that said, that doesn’t mean jobs aren’t about to be won and lost in the final days of camp.

Behind McCoy it appears that the Eagles finally have a worthy compliment in Ronnie Brown, who not only can lighten McCoy’s load but also spread defenses when both are on the field. Brown is solidified as the team’s number two back. However, Dion Lewis and Eldra Buckley are currently battling it out for the team’s third running back position. The diminutive Lewis who is 5’8, 195 pounds was drafted out of Pittsburgh and had the look of a quick footed, shifty runner in the team’s pre-season opener. Buckley is the incumbent at the position and the fact the he, like Lewis, can return kicks makes this battle all the more intriguing. Buckley has three years in Andy Reid’s offense under his belt, but Lewis looks to have more upside. This is certainly a battle to keep an eye on because either player is talented enough to land on an NFL roster.

Wide receiver is where these depth battles are very interesting. Jackson and Maclin (if healthy) are the obvious incumbents. Maclin led the Eagles in receiving a year ago and Jackson is one of the most dynamic players in the league, who just happens to have a great rapport with Vick. This duo headlines the most talented receiving corps in the league.

However behind Jackson and Maclin it’s a log jam. The steady and sure handed Jason Avant is seemingly locked in as the third receiver, he tallied 51 catches, 573 yards and one touchdown last season and has caught everything thrown his way in camp. Avant though is being pushed by the big and athletic second year receiver from Florida, Riley Cooper. Cooper was in the un-envious position being Vick’s target on last year’s season ending interception against Green Bay, however he continues to progress and catch everything thrown his way. Cooper has shown the speed to stretch the field, the athletic ability to make leaping catches and has the size to be the red zone target this offense has lacked for years. But, there is a wealth of talent at this position after the signing of former Giants Sinorice Moss and Steve Smith. Moss is having a solid camp and Smith is two years removed from a Pro-Bowl. It’s uncertain where Smith will fit at this point, but the Eagles signed him for the purpose of getting him on the field. Whether or not Moss even makes the team remains to be seen.

Needless to say Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg now have the ability to run five wide receiver sets with all five commanding almost equal attention.

Finally, amid the flurry of free agent signings there was one addition that went largely unheralded but could pay dividends for this team; tight end Donald Lee. No question that Celek is the starter, and he should have a pro-bowl caliber season amid the talent around him at receiver opening up underneath routes. In adding Lee the Eagles inked Super Bowl experience and one of the premier blocking tight ends in the league. Lee hauled in 11 catches for 73 yards and three touchdowns for the Packers a year ago. There’s a chance that Lee’s addition spells the end for second year tight end Clay Harbor because it seems unlikely that the team will carry three TEs into the season.

Given the amount of turnover on defense and questions surrounding whether or not that unit will gel quickly enough to make a Super Bowl run, the strength of this year’s team will be the offense. In the second pre-season game against Pittsburgh all of these battles will be front and center as the roster begins to fall into place.

Matt Lombardo is a reporter and host for 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, NJ. Matt can be reached on Twitter @MattLombardoPHL

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