By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — For fans, training camp is a chance to attend open practices and take selfies on their cells phones with their heroes practicing on the background.
It is a chance to see football again in a town that was forced to become fixated on a Little League team because the Major League Baseball team’s only form of consistency was its brutal play.
But the preseason, for coaches, is a little more complicated.
The decisions made during scrimmages in the heat and disjointed preseason games could directly correlate to cold days in November when the goal is to have the right pieces on the chess board to match wits with opposing coaches.
It is a three-pronged process, and a balancing act.
The first is the development of the cohesiveness of the starters, which seemed slow to come around for second-year Eagles coach Chip Kelly prior to Thursday night’s 31-21 calling-card victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Eagles, who saw their second string work against the Steelers’ starters for a quarter and the deep reserves against the Steelers’ second string, built a 17-0 lead by halftime and a 31-7 lead by the end of the third quarter.
The second part of the process involves the back end of the roster, trying to answer who is going to beat out whom – and what positions to go long at – for the final 53-man roster. (And which 10 players are worth keeping around for the practice squad, a unit Kelly takes seriously for reasons of development.)
Lastly, there is the middle of the roster, where coaches evaluate which players are best suited to key situational roles.
While the starting units have likely allayed any major fears for Kelly and Co., sorting out the depth chart and the final cuts remain at issue with the sands running through the hourglass.
Although some moves had already been made – linebacker Jason Phillips was cut and his spot was filled by running back/returner Kenjon Barner, acquired via trade, while running back David Fluellen was swapped to the Indianapolis Colts for kicker Cody Parkey – the first official cuts need to be made by 4 p.m. Tuesday.
While it is seemingly simply to take a sharpie and cross off no-names from your roster, the process can often become more complicated in the chambers of the coaching staff.
Draft picks, for better or worse, get some modicum of preferential treatment. Ditto for free agent signees and veterans who have spent more time during camp in the training room than on the practice field.
Versatility also has to be examined.
Here’s an example of the banter that might be going down: If this guy and that guy go down, who can also slide to another position to get us through a game?
It is not uncommon to issue walking papers to a player good enough to make a team somewhere in the first round of cuts as a humanitarian gesture to improve that player’s chance of catching on with another team, and, at the same time, doing a favor to another player with less of chance by letting the league – or other leagues (Canadian, Arena, etc.) – see him stick around until his name turns up on the final list of cuts.
Cornerback Curtis Marsh, who was singed last week in New England and played so-so against the Steelers, would be a likely candidate for a late sendoff.
Also, don’t be stunned if a player or two cut Tuesday – say fourth quarterback G.J. Kinne or defensive end/war hero Alejandro Villanueva – resurfaces on the practice squad while those cut at the end of the process do not.
This is done because warm bodies at other positions, like offensive line and linebacker, might be needed just to get through practice.
That said, we can logically deduce the following:
- Kicker: “Murder Leg,” we hardly knew ye. Kicker Cary Spear, after doing decently in OTAs after being signed post-draft out of Vanderbilt, struggled in camp to the extent he didn’t even get to boot an extra point in live game action as a keepsake of his visit. Alex Henery, who purportedly has been so accurate in practice that it was embarrassing to watch Spear, continues missing kicks in games. Parkey, who was more highly touted coming out of Auburn than Spear, will get a long and serious look. He booted one point-after kick Thursday that, for what it’s worth, split the uprights.
- Cornerback Nolan Carroll, signed away from Miami as a free agent, is going to play a key role in the defense. He introduced himself to the faithful with an athletic interception Thursday, in what was his first action of the preseason, but he is slated to be a pseudo linebacker on passing downs while Brandon Boykin mans the slot and Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher take care of the outside. Because he can also play in the slot or outside, this plan might allow for one less linebacker to be kept.
- Running back: It is going to be real interesting what the Eagles do at running back, especially after acquiring Barner, the former first-team All-American under Kelly at Oregon. Matthew Tucker and undrafted rookie Henry Josey have had excellent preseasons. Tucker scored twice against the Steelers, giving him four preseason rushing touchdowns, and gained 46 yards on 10 carries. Josey had a long touchdown run negated by a holding penalty on Will Murphy that was hard to detect in super slow-motion. He still led the team in rushing, for the second straight week, with 48 yards on only four carries. Chris Polk, automatically presumed to be the third back behind McCoy and Sproles, has not played a down yet because of nagging injuries. With McCoy nursing his thumb, and no real reason to expose Sproles next Thursday against the Jets, look for the battle to continue. For sure, the Eagles will keep four backs on the active roster. Josey could be placed on the practice squad, but could be targeted by teams thin at the position. If Barner can distinguish himself as a returner, and if Turner can continue to run hard as a power runner, might Polk be in jeopardy of being cut or placed on injured reserve?
- Receiver: Like running back, it will be interesting to see what happens at wide receiver. With the return jobs still in question, the two correlate. If Barner stays, for example, one less receiver – i.e. Damaris Johnson or Brad Smith, both with some return-game chops – could be kept. All Kelly would say, when asked, was that five receivers are needed to suit up on game day. Three spots are filled by Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and rookie Jordan Matthews. There is no way rookie Josh Huff is jettisoned, but his rather severe shoulder injury, suffered after a foolhardy attempt to return a kickoff from deep in the end zone, is likely to land him on IR to start the season. B.J. Cunningham, a practice squad player dating back to the Andy Reid era, has seemingly played his way ahead of likely practice squad assignee Ifeanyi Momah and into the picture with the likes of Smith, Johnson, Jeff Maehl, oft-injured Arrelious Benn (left Thursday’s game with a “head injury” and has concussions on his long medical chart). These are the candidates – along with me, you and a dog named Boo – for the final receiver spots. It’s not really a plethora of talent as much as it is a bunch of guys with similar, albeit marginal, skill sets.
- Tight end: A surprise name in the cuts, unless he’s traded, could be tight end James Casey. He makes a decent salary after being signed as a free agent last year and then being reduced to a small role in the offense after the drafting of budding star Zach Ertz. While he has contributed on special teams, starting the season with two tight ends – Celek and Ertz – would allow room for kick-coverage mercenary Bryan Braman, who is not really an option to play at linebacker, to stick as a special teams specialist. And the encouraging play of rookie free agent Trey Burton has likely earned him a spot on the practice squad, meaning a third tight end is available if Celek or Ertz were to be sidelined for an extended period of time.
- Defensive line: While the offensive line looks settled – with guard/tackles Matt Tobin and Dennis Kelly, along with center David Molk, playing well enough to secure backup jobs (along with tackle Andrew Gardner, at least until Lane Johnson returns from suspension after four games) – the defensive line bears watching. Behind starters Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton, there are as many as six ascending talents vying for three or four jobs. Vinny Curry, who recorded a sack against the Steelers, remains a man possessed. Rookie Beau Allen, though drafted in the seventh round, is more of a prototypical nose guard than Logan and has played his way onto the active roster. Brandon Bair, after a year of seasoning on the practice squad last year, started strong and keeps getting better. Another former Oregon Duck, he has height (6-foot-7) and a nose for the ball, traits that can’t be taught. If those six make it, what becomes of second-year man Damion Square, a blue-collar type who made the squad last year as an undrafted rookie from Alabama? Last year’s seventh round Joe Kruger, who is also 6-7 and has made some plays in the preseason, might be a practice squad stash – but one that other teams would have on their radar. And they have likely seen enough positives from fifth-round pick Taylor Hart not to cast him aside easily. Villanueva, away from football for several years, is also trying to learn a new position (at 6-9, he mostly played receiver at Army before going into active duty). All in all, he has held his own and shown hustle. He is worth the practice squad, but the question would be if he would ever crack this young lineup anyway. Ditto for rookie free agent Francis Mays, who is also 6-9.
- Linebacker: Linebacker and secondary come down to numbers and how to get to 53 with what’s left. Behind inside linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks, perhaps only one backup is needed. With Phillips gone, it leaves three guys – Casey Matthews, Najee Goode and Emmanuel Acho – in the mix. All have NFL experience. Matthews, with the Oregon advantage, is also from the famous football-playing Matthews family, and pedigree is weighed heavily in the NFL. To that end, Acho is the brother of Arizona’s Sam Acho. Goode was trusted to start last year and seems to be the most athletic, but the fact is that – like backup receiver – none seem like burgeoning talents. The Eagles have worked Travis Long, a head-hunting outside linebacker, on the inside recently. On the outside, behind starters Connor Barwin and Trent Cole, there is also a logjam. They are locked into work-in-progress first-rounder Marcus Smith, and Brandon Graham has played too well to ignore. He remains the most trusted to start in the event of injury to Barwin or Cole. Then there is case of Braman, who looks lost in the defense but is needed on special teams. And what of Jake Knott, who is suspend for the first games? Unlike Lane Johnson, he has barely practiced because of injury. Cut him now with an injury settlement or wait until four weeks into the season and survey the landscape then?
- Secondary: The biggest issue in the secondary is safety, as the five corners – Williams, Fletcher, Boykin, Carroll and rookie Jaylen Watkins – are set in stone (sorry Curtis Marsh fans). Realistically, only four safeties are needed but five names are in the mix. Neither Nate Allen nor Earl Wolff has claimed the starting job alongside Malcolm Jenkins. From the naked eye, it would seem that Wolff is more active and willing to stick his nose into the fray while working with the second team than Allen is with the first. Hard to say what the coaches see, but they seem to remain supporters of Allen. Chris Maragos is similar to Braman, in that he was signed to primarily help on special teams. However, he is a viable option to play some safety in a pinch. The Eagles also have fifth-round pick Ed Reynolds, who got a late start because he missed OTAs while finishing up his schooling at Stanford. Given that obstacle, he has shown up reasonably well, albeit in garbage time, of preseason games.
PREDICTION: Expect these 15 names on the cut list by Tuesday (*practice squad possibility): Spear (K), Murphy (WR) *Kinne (QB), Blake Annen (TE), Kadron Boone (WR), Roc Carmichael (CB), Josh Andrews (OG), Emil Igwenagu (TE), Josh Kaddu (LB), *Davon Morgan (S), *Quron Pratt (WR), Julian Vandervelde (C, injury settlement), Karim Barton (OL), Keelan Johnson (S) and *Wade Keliikipi (NG)
This analysis originally appeared at http://www.phillyphanatics.com