Eagles 2009 Training Camp Battles

After months of speculation surrounding NFL teams from the NFL Draft in April to OTA’s, training camp in late July is finally the real barometer regarding roster battles.  Sure on paper and in non-contact practices leading up to training camp, hope springs eternal amongst team management, players, and fans.  But the harsh reality that comes with two-a-days in summer’s blazing sun is that certain players are further ahead than others.  Like death and taxes, the “Turk” surely will be coming on NFL Cut Days (September 1 — Roster cutdown to maximum of 75 players and September 5 — Roster cutdown to maximum of 53 players).

You would hope that positional and roster battles in training camp only come down to who is a better player.  But other factors like where a player was drafted, which player is a coaches “guy” (ex. Veteran RB Keith Byars followed Bill Parcells from team to team), whether a player was selected by the current head coach or was he inheritted from a past regime, and of course contract dollars always creep into the equation.  When it comes to player contracts sometimes making a larger salary can help or hinder a player fighting for a job.  Cutting a player with years and guaranteed money still on their contract can cause serious cap ramifications, but conversely sometimes coaches would rather go with a younger and cheaper player due to their ability to play special teams over a veteran who is past that point in their career.  However I am a firm believer in the old saying, “Follow the Money” when it comes to training camp position battles.  That is why the more a Head Coach/GM/Team has invested in a player in terms of time and most important of all money, the longer the lifeline a player will receive – See Eagles OT Winston Justice a high 2nd rd pick in 2007, who has yet to become a starter but always make the team.

Some of the Eagles Training Camp Battles to keep an eye on at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA are:  (BTW: Rookies report to training camp on July 26 and veterans on July 29)

Number 2 Wide Receiver – If this was a professional wrestling match this position battle for the 2nd receiver spot would be a “Battle Royal” pitting Kevin Curtis vs. Reggie Brown vs. Hank Baskett vs. Jeremy Maclin. Every receiving core in the NFL has the standard X, Y, and Z positions.  Within the Eagles team we already know that emerging 2nd year receiver DeSean Jackson (1st Team All-Rooke w/ 912 receiving yards) is the “X” as the go-to guy and tough over the middle receiver Jason Avant is the “Z” as the team’s best slot receiver.  So a big question going into training camp is “ Who is the “Y” receiver?”  Right now the odds on favorite is former 1,000 yard receiver Kevin Curtis, but the former Rams standout has struggled with a sport hernia that required another surgery this offseason.  Curtis expects to be recoverd in time for Training Camp at Lehigh University, but when I recently attended mini-camp you could sense the team liked what they saw in 2009 first round pick Jeremy Maclin.  The mercurial former Missouri star is lightning fast and as long as he learns his playbook, Maclin should be able to contribute more than just on special teams as a returner in his first year.  Baskett is a nice complimentary guy especially in the redzon plus he also plays well on special teams so I think he has the edge over Reggie Brown.  The former 2005 2nd round pick from Georgia just doesn’t seem interested in football at times and I believe the Eagles will finally give him a fresh start in training camp either through a trade or cutting him.  You can also throw Danny Amendola, Shaheer McBride, and 2009 6th round pick Brandon Gibson in the mix for former Eagles’ receiver Greg Lewis’ last receiver roster spot.  Prediction:  Curtis recovers to claim the 2nd receiver spot opposite Jackson; Maclin backs up both Jackson and Curtis plus contributes in the return game; Baskett, Avant, Gibson (Practice Squad), and McBride make the team; Brown is cut after training camp after no trading partners are found.

Starting Center – Jamal Jackson vs. Mike McGlynn and Nick Cole. Though the center position is not as well known as the quarterback’s blindside protector at Left Tackle, some would say the center is more important to a team’s offense.  The center has to call out all the line calls, snap the ball efficiently (quarterback under center and shotgun), and be a battler against big defensive tackles while blocking.  The Eagles’ center position has been in a state of flux for some time with the likes of Bubba Miller, Hank Fraley, and Jamal Jackson holding down the position for periods of time.  Though each of these men did a professional job, a couple years ago the Birds tried to sign former New Orleans Saints Pro Bowl center LaCharles Bentley to a huge free agent deal.  Unfortunately Bentley went on to join his hometown Cleveland Browns instead of the Eagles – never played a game for the Browns as he tore his knee up and then subsequently had several surgeries for infections that basically ended his career.  With a new lease on his Eagles life former Delaware State undrafted free agent Jackson looked solid enough to merit a contract extension in July 2006 (extended through 2013 with a deal that included a $1.75 million signing bonus).  However in 2007 Jackson struggled with injuries and last year consistency (short yardage blocking) was a big problem causing the team to look at options.  The Birds may look to McGlynn drafted in the 6th round of the 2008 draft to be a utility O-lineman and Cole (played himself into contention by filling in nicely for injured Pro Bowler Shawn Andrews at guard in 2008) to push for the starting job in ‘09.  Jackson will need to report to Lehigh in shape and ready to face the challenge of McGlynn and Cole or he soon could be following Fraley out the door as the Eagles have a lot of depth at interior offensive line this year. Prediction: Jackson gets another chance due to his extension and familiarity of the Birds system, but watch for Cole in pre-season  as he will continue to be a swing player at LG, RG, and Center.  With the roster spot of injured guard Max Jean-Giles up for grabs (probably on I\R in ’09 with a severe leg injury from ‘08), McGlynn will be in a battle for his roster life with 2008 Draftee Mike Gibson, 2009 Draftee Paul Fanaika, and free agent Dallas Reynolds.

Weakside Linebacker – Omar Gaither vs. Akeem Jordan.  For years the Eagles linebackers have failed to make the game changing plays that are so common around the NFL.  As a unit the Birds linebackers (SAM, MIKE, and WILL) only produced 5.5 sacks and 1 interception in 2008.  I know a lot of people will point to teams running a 3-4 system as having playmakers at outside linebacker (Cowboys and Chargers), but some teams running the 4-3 like the Eagles find ways for playmakers in the linebacking unit (Seattle Seahawks).  It is pertinent that the Eagles find a guy at the weakside position who can at the very least get a few sacks on a blitz and grab a pick when they get their hands on a ball.  Gaither was first miscast as a smallish middle linebacker a couple of years ago and then in ’08 the Birds decided that he should start at WLB for the departed Takeo Spikes.  It was abundant early in the 2008 campaign that Gaither also struggled as a weakside backer especially in coverage.  Teams’ tight ends were picking apart the Eagles linebackers and when you looked at the tape quite often it was Gaither who was out of position.  The Eagles finally had seen enough after 10 games when they elevated former undrafted free agent Jordan to Gaither’s starting spot on the outside.  Jordan was solid producing 38 tackles and recovering 2 fumbles in 6 starts, but his play would not make anyone forget Eagles great Seth Joyner.  But going into training camp right now you have to give the edge to Jordan despite a less than spectacular NFC Championship Game (6TKLs) where he struggled in coverage and missing tackles.  Prediction: This is a tough as both players, Jordan and Gaither, maybe better suited for special teams than being a feature outside linebacker.  I will give the edge by the slightest of margins to Jordan, however the Eagles may still hit the waiver wire for another WLB.  Of course there is always the option of moving MLB Stewart Bradley to the outside (experience at Nebraska) and letting hard-hitting Joe Mays start in the Middle.

Tight End – Matt Schobel vs. Cornelius Ingram and Eugene Bright.  After a mini-camp where rookies Ingram and Bright both shined, everyone maybe saying “Forget Schobel’s job, starter Brent Celek should be nervous”.  But any talk of the two emerging youngsters vying for the starting tight end position is too premature.  Celek had a great NFC Championship versus the Cardinals producing a career-high 10 catches, gaining 83 yards and two touchdowns, so he is firmly entrenched in the Eagles starting lineup and there are rumors he will soon getting an extension.  Even with Celek improving, it was quite evident that the redzone was a huge problem in 2008 — tight ends as a whole only caught 66 passes for 626 yards (9.5 ypc) and only 4 TDs  — and the Eagles set out to improve the tight end position this off-season.  The Birds let LJ Smith walk to the Ravens leaving Celek and serviceable veteran Schobel as their second tight end.  But lets face it, Schobel is a journeyman type veteran who is not much of a blocker or receiver (2 catches for 10 yards in ’08).  With an eye on upgrading, the Birds drafted Ingram in the 5th round from National Champion Florida and you cannot help but to be excited to have the physical athletic youngster on the team.  Ingram will need to learn pro techniques in route running and blocking to compete with Schobel, but it is his return from an ACL injury in 2008 that is the big question mark out with him.  However after talking to Ingram at the Eagles recent post draft mini-camp, he seemed fully recovered and you could help but to notice his explosiveness, range of motion with knee, and his hands in drills.  The Eagles might have also found another gem at the tight end position in former local Harriton High and Purdue undrafted rookie free agent Bright.  The former Boilermaker was probably the Birds best target within the redzone in minicamp and he had the sidelines abuzz with some nice catches in traffic.  Right now it is too early to call battle.  The two rookies will need more reps in OTA’s and at training camp to win the battle for the 2nd tight end spot.  I cannot wait to the Eagles put on the pads, so we really can see what Bright and Ingram have in them.  I believe the battle will last well into training camp as Ingram and Bright must prove they are able to handle the playbook, special teams duty and playing in two tight end sets to supplant Schobel. Prediction: The coaching staff likes Schobel, because he is a veteran that knows what to do after years in the league. However if Ingram and Bright have good camps, I could see Schobel cut leaving both rookies to share playing time behind starter Celek.

Free Safety – Sean Jones vs. Quintin Demps.  Hard to believe, but No. 20 Brian Dawkins will not be patrolling the Eagles secondary in 2009.  His spot is up for grabs for the first time in13 years.  The two players competing Demps and Jones are very different as Jones is a savvy veteran and Demps is a young developing player.  Prediction: In looking at this battle I still believe the Eagles are leaning more toward Demps as Jones is only on a 1-year make good contract.  Demps will need to play more controlled in 2009 than he did in the ’08 NFC Championship Game, but expect him to be the starter by the end of training camp.  However Jones will contribute on special teams, also backup SS Quintin Mikell and serve as a valuable security blanket in case Demps stumbles or gets injured. Also watch for youngster Victor “Macho” Harris (5th Rd draft pick from Virginia Tech) to learn as a free safety backup and special teams player.

Other Eagles Training Battles to Watch

Kicker – David Akers vs. Sam Swank.  This will be a fun match-up to watch as the Birds finally have brought in some legitimate competition for Akers – tough NFC Championship Game including missing a 47-yard field goal and an extra point plus sending a kickoff out of bounds right before halftime.  Swank was an All-ACC kicker at Wake Forest and he was getting looks from other NFL teams after the draft before the Birds signed him.  I see Akers hanging on for another season, but the Birds will keep Swank on the Practice Squad as insurance.

Right Offensive Tackle – Shawn Andrew vs. Stacy Andrews…sounds like Mom needs to get the belt again.  I believe this is Shawn’s job to lose as he finally seems healthy and focused after a disappointing 2008 season.  Shawn has experience on the outside playing at Arkansas in college and he has the feet and punch to battle defensive ends.  Look for Stacy to be the starter at right guard if his knee is healed in time for training camp (played some guard for the Bengals).  After the Andrews brothers finish their slotting, I really want to see if the Birds keep enigmatic Winston Justice around as a backup or go with a youngster like King Dunlap.

Fullback – Leonard Weaver vs. Kyle Eckel and Marcus Mailei.  This is a no-brainer as free agent pick-up Weaver should help in blocking and on short yardage plays.  The key question, “Is how many running backs will the Eagles keep?”  I see Brian Westbrook, Weaver, LeSean McCoy, and Eckel right now as the favorites with Lorenzo Booker and rest of the backs on the outside looking in.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award -winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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Eagles Still Searching for the Answer to Their Receiver Situation

(Philadelphia, Pa) — So you want a receiver Philly fans to finally fill the void or is it a ravine that has existed since the departure of — The initials that we dare not say —  T.O.   Sure we can all hear Andy Reid’s 9-year common retort –uh, uh, [Throat Clear], “We are okay with our receivers”.  Coach we all know you are trying to protect your group of handpicked pass catchers, but 16 receiving touchdowns from your entire receiving corps when players like Randy Moss (23) and Braylon Edwards (16) were in their neighborhood or down the block all by themselves is an indicator that an impact player is needed.

Kevin Curtis was scrappy with numbers of 77 catches for 1110 yards, 14.4 yards per catch, and 6 TDs.  But when you take away his 11 catches, 221 yards,  21 ypc, 3 touchdown performance against the putrid Lions secondary in week three, you are left with some average numbers especially the 3 touchdowns the rest of the way — he did have two additional scores off fumble recoveries which proves he has nose for the ball.  NFL personnel guys that I have talked to have continually said that the Eagles have a good nucleus, but no that scares you other than Westbrook on offense especially their receivers.

I believe that for all of his “We are fine there talk”, Andy Reid understands that an upgrade is needed at the position going into 2008 season.  When free agency beckoned in late February, Birds fans had visions of Donovan McNabb throwing to a variety of too good to be true front line receivers.

— Chad Johnson (Proved to not be as unhappy as everyone thought.  Maybe getting great fantasy football numbers receiving from Carson Palmer and getting all of the attention from his antics in Cincinnati is what he really likes)

— Randy Moss (The Birds’ brass was oh too happy to tell their fan base that they made a “run” at the game’s second most enigmatic receiver offering him more than the Patriots on paper, but even coach Reid knew he was going back to Tom Terrific)

— Bernard Berrian (Thankfully the Eagles decided to let the Vikings (Philly Midwest) sign him to the tune of six-years, $42 million dollars.  Which I thought was too much for a guy that has never had a 1,000 yard season)

— Donte Stallworth (The Patriots 3rd receiver was worth seven-year, $35 million contract, with $10 million guaranteed and $17 million in the first four years to the Browns.  May have been the best fit since “he knows the system” and loves to go deep, but the Birds were not about to give that to a guy who had spent a large amount of his time in Philly in the whirlpool)

— Larry Fitzgerald (Though people were constantly telling me that Fitz was coming here after a conversation that BIGPLAY Football had with him last week in Cleveland at the EAS show, I knew he wanted to stay in Arizona.  Sure enough he signed a crazy fat restructured deal of 4 years, $40 Million with $30 Million in guarantees).

You can also throw in lower level guys Jerry Porter (now with Jaguars), Javon Walker (now with Raiders), Patrick Crayton (Re-signed with the Cowboys), Devrey Henderson (Re-signed by the Saints) and others that were also not part of the Birds plans.

However as of mid March there have been many rumors and attempts with little to show for it other than the Eagles gaining “brownie points” with stepford fans for trying.   But the plan facts are Eagles fans are probably still looking at the same receiver group going into the draft.  Sure there are non-descript free agents like Bryant Johnson (rumored to be on the Bucs radar), Keary Colbert, and DJ Hackett left.  But you can almost book it that other than a blockbuster deal that falls in their lap (i.e. Roy Williams) that the draft is the Birds next move at the wide receiver position.

So with the Birds armed with probably 12 or more selections and Lito Sheppard they will have some options going into April, but if you are expecting the Rams to just hand over perennial Pro Bowl receiver Torry Holt for Sheppard and 5th rounder you have eaten one too many cheesesteaks with “wacky whiz”.   There still maybe a play or two out there.  I am hearing rumblings that Jags WR Matt Jones an intriguing former college quarterback that Eagles were high prior to the 2005 draft maybe available.  The Jags have brought in Troy Williamson and Porter and the 24-year old Jones’ mouth and lack of production (only 24  catches in ’07) have made for a very rocky relationship with head coach Jack Del Rio.  I still believe the Eagles will be looking to the draft first for their guy.

This year’s draft class at the receiver position is nice, but there are too many 2nd round choice types that don’t deserving of the Eagles #19 overall pick – You also don’t have to be a genius to know an offensive or defensive lineman will be their first choice.  So look for a solid player that can maybe contribute on special teams, but if you are looking for a Vikings Randy Moss 1998 rookie season (over 1,300 yards and 17 TDs) wake up.

With any rookie receiver patience is a virtual as it usually take three years for these future prima donnas to develop and we all know the Eagles track record for playing rookies, so break out the redshirt.  Also remember it took until the playoffs for Giants receiver Steve Smith to finally get it and where was San Diego Chargers first round selection Craig “Buster” Davis all of last year (20 rec, 188 yds w/ 1 TD).

Some draft options include:

DeSean Jackson, California –    Junior Eligible speedy return man (4.32), who needs to be more consistent catching the ball.  At 6-0,  178 pounds reminds me a little of Carolina tough guy Steve Smith when he came out of Utah. His return ability would be a huge plus for the field position starved Eagles. 

James Hardy,   Indiana  – Huge junior target at 6-6,  220 pounds that could be a great fit in the redzone.  Has Plaxico Burress size and tenacity with adequate speed (4.59)

Malcolm Kelly, Oklahoma – Another big junior (6-4,  218) with average speed.  Will need to prove that he is tougher than he appeared at the combine where he begged off drills due to a quad tweak.

Early Doucet, LSU – A big play receiver that could fit well in the Eagles system.  He can play inside or outside at 6-0,  211 pounds running in the high 4.4’s.  Shined at the Senior Bowl catching the ball better than any of the other targets in Mobile.  To me he could be better than last year’s Chiefs sensation and former LSU teammate Dwayne Bowe.

Devin Thomas, Michigan State – Was undoubtedly the star receiver at the combine showing that he has the size (6-2,  215), Hands (caught ball with hands in drills and I didn’t see a drop), and speed (4.4) to make an impact.  Great second round value player.

Others to keep an eye on are Florida’s  Andre Caldwell, Kevin Kolb’s former Houston teammate Donnie Avery, Virginia Tech’s Eddie Royal (4.39 returnman speed demon), Kansas State rangy wideout Jordy Nelson (reminds me of Ed McCaffrey at 6-3,  215,  4.5’s) and this year’s Wes Welker — Texas Tech receiver Danny Amendola (5’11, 180 with great hands out of the slot).