By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE – Cue up picture of the USS Enterprise with standard background music. The seen is bridge, where there are concerned looks on faces …
Captain Kirk: Captain’s Log, Stardate 93164.67. Our path to the Eagles’ opening of training camp has been obstructed by the appearance of some alien beings. We are in a holding pattern.
Mr. Sulu: Look, Captain, there’s another one.
Captain Kirk: Spock? Advise.
Mr. Spock (raising one eyebrow and appearing unfazed): Highly logical, Captain, and not without precedent. Without Andy Reid as the coach, there would be no reason to panic. It appears we are encountering the off-the-radar players who will shake up the depth chart once training camp and the preseason begins.
Dr. McCoy: Dammit, Spock! I don’t need anyone to shake up my depth chart. Just give me my flask of whiskey and a few snowballs to throw at Santa Claus – or Jimmy Johnson.
Captain Kirk: Are they dangerous, Spock?
Mr. Spock: To the contrary, Captain. They can be very helpful. Remember Trey Burton last summer? They may or may not make the team, but they are worth examining and pose little risk.
Mr. Chekov: I never understood that sport.
Dr. McCoy: That’s because you grew up with soccer.
Captain Kirk: Scottie, can you get us around this?
Mr. Scott: No way around it, Captain. I’ll need more time.
Lt. Uhura: I’m picking up a signal Captain, they wish to reveal themselves.
Captain Kirk: Spock, McCoy, Mandatory Expendable Extra in a Red Shirt … we’re beaming down.
Dr. McCoy: Oh no, not me, Jim.
Captain Kirk: Yes, you, McCoy. There could be injuries.
Mr. Spock: It’s football. Impossible – and highly illogical to assume – that there won’t be injuries, which means more opportunities for these beings.
With that, they are transported to the Planet NovaCare to investigate the players (indicated in bold letters) who are currently deep on the Eagles depth chart but are likely to rattle a few cages and make final cuts difficult. One or two, like Burton, might make the 53-man roster. Several will earn spots on the practice squad or get stashed on injured reserve. Others will, at the least, make the team better by creating competition (and giving us something to talk about besides Tim Tebow).
LINE: The Eagles are entering the season with the belief that All-Pro tackler Jason Peters will remain in top form and former first-round pick Lane Johnson will evolve to that level, giving them two bookends at the tackle position. Add in Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce, and the theory seems to be that average lunch-pail types like Allen Barbe and someone else – likely Matt Tobin, Andrew Gardner or Dennis Kelly – and they will be good to go. So much so, that Evan Mathis was allowed to walk for no compensation and no linemen were added in the draft. This opens up two or three roster spots, depending on how many active linemen they want to keep and on their versatility — for some guys whose jerseys are not exactly hot sellers. However, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has put a great deal of overtime drilling the likes of Kevin Graf and Josh Andrews (no relation to Shawn or Stacy), during their stints on the practice squad a year ago. Graf (6-6, 309) was a four-year starter at USC before signing with the Eagles as an undrafted rookie in 2014. He was even on the active roster for a spell. Graf was a college tackle but has likely worked inside. Andrews (6-2, 311), a guard out of Oregon State, has taken snaps at center. Stoutland also has connection to Jared Wheeler (6-5, 320) from Miami (Fla.), who is a guard/center. That versatility gives him a chance to beat out David Molk, who is strictly a center (except in an extreme emergency) or the more undersized center/guard Julian Vandervelde (6-2, 300 and no relation to the Flyers’ fourth-line forward Chris VandeVelde).
RECEIVER: The first five would seem to be set with Jordan Matthews, rookie Nelson Agholor, Riley Cooper, Josh Huff and Miles Austin. If they keep six receivers, special teams ace Seyi Ajirotutu, would likely have the edge over Jeff Maehl (despite Maehl’s Oregon connection). But training camp and preseason games, by nature, offer extended auditions unknown receivers. A year ago, Quron Pratt – unsigned out of Rutgers – did just that and earned a paycheck on the practice squad. The Eagles signed three undrafted free agents with intriguing size and upside in Philly native Rasheed Bailey (6-2, 205; Delaware Valley College), John Harris (6-2, 218; Texas) and Devante Davis (6-3, 215; UNLV).
TIGHT END: A year ago, the aforementioned Burton played so well in the preseason – catching every ball thrown his way and tackling anything that moved on special teams – that an exception was made and four tight ends were kept. After third tight end James Casey was released, it would have seemed logical that they would save the roster spot and go with three, with Burton getting an expanded role in the offense. However, the Eagles have brought in three tight ends – an excessive number– to likely battle it out for one practice squad spot. Eric Tomlinson (6-6, 263; Texas-El Paso) would not only seem to have the inside track, but also the chance to rival Kelce for the wildest beard.
RUNNING BACK: Again, it comes down to math, and how many Chip Kelly wants to keep on the active roster. The three-headed monster of DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles projects as the best in a league loaded with “by-committee” approaches. With each playing a vital role in the rotation, and given Murray’s and Mathews’ health histories, look for a lot Matthew Tucker and Kenjon Barner in the preseason. Neither is really an unknown, though. Tucker spent the last two years on the practice squad and could be eligible for one more. Barner was a standout for Kelly at Oregon who was in training camp briefly, cut and then brought back under the cover of darkness to the practice squad. The hard-running Tucker (6-1, 227) has always been a preseason standout and Kelly has mentioned Barner, who is more of a third-down back/return man (he is 5-9, 185), by name several times this offseason.
QUARTERBACK: N/A … We know the names, we are just sure who will be playing.
LINE: Last year, the Eagles kept seven and six rotated enough to keep the unit highly effective on a weekly basis. The odd man out was fifth-round pick Taylor Hart, who was on the roster but never active on game day. While seventh-round pick Brian Mihalik is likely ticketed for seasoning on the practice squad, two guys who could press for a roster spot are Frank Mays and Travis Raciti. When players are cut but brought back a year later, it means the coaches saw something they liked. Such is the case with Mays (6-9, 291), who barely played until his senior year at Florida A&M but was likely asked to work on some skills on his own. Meanwhile, Raciti (6-5, 285) was rated as a high as a mid-round draft pick after racking up 14.5 career sacks as a two-year captain at San Jose State but somehow slid out of the seven-round meat market, only to be scooped up by the Eagles. For either, sticking would mean beating out Hart, or maybe even Brandon Bair, for the seventh spot. A tall order – given that Bair played well in a reserve role last year and that a draft pick and a year of development was invested in Hart – but not impossible (even though both Bair and Hart are Oregon guys).
LINEBACKER: So we have Kiko Alonso, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans and rookie Jordan Hicks inside and the outside is set with Pro Bowler Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham, last-year’s first-round bust Marcus Smith and special-teams ace Bryan Braman. Free agent Brad Jones, who can play inside or outside (and has some starting experience in Green Bay), would be there for insurance. Well, not so fast. Don’t count your eight or nine linebackers until they are hatched. Two players coming off injury, Travis Long and Najee Goode, are well-liked by the coaching staff. A year ago, Long (6-4, 255) had the team made, probably over Goode and certainly over Casey Matthews, having learned to man inside linebacker while still showing his pass-rusher burst from the outside. But the injury bug caught up to him yet again. A shoulder injury hurt his draft status in 2013, despite a solid career at Washington State (20 ½ sacks, 42 for a loss), and he tore his left knee ligament in the 2014 preseason finale. Assuming he stays healthy, which is a big assumption, his better grasp on the defense could push the likes of Smith onto the street. And with other special-teams specialists on the roster, one has to wonder if Braman becomes more expendable. Goode (6-0, 244), placed on injured reserve after the season opener last year, is a solid special teamer – lauded by Kelly for his “extra gear” — has played in 18 NFL games (making one start for the Birds in 2013) and could press Braman , or even Jones, for a roster spot.
SECONDARY: We have free agent prize Byron Maxwell at one corner and either Nolan Carroll or rookie Eric Rowe at the other. Brandon Boykin, much to his chagrin, is the slot corner and Malcolm Jenkins will likely be joined at safety by Walter Thurmond. All other spots are up for grabs, although one would think last year’s fourth-round pick Jaylen Watkins and special-teams standout Chris Maragos would be fairly safe. A guy to watch is 2014 fifth-round pick Ed Reynolds, who got a slow start last year because he was out of Stanford and missed all the post-draft mini-camps. In preseason games, he seemed active in pass coverage and a willing tackler, but was kept on the practice squad while more shovel-ready safeties – Jerome Couplin III and Chris Prosinki — were signed. While both those guys are back in the fold, Reynolds would seem to have to overtake 2013 fifth-round pick Earl Wolff to avoid a second year on the practice squad. Don’t be surprised if he does just that.
PUNTER: While veteran punter Donnie Jones would not appear to be in any immediate danger of being out of work, he did slip a notch last season. It was enough for the Eagles to bring in a second leg in rookie Kip Smith of Oklahoma State. The 235-pound Smith, who can also double as a kickoff specialist, will get plenty of preseason work. If he excels, he could be kept around as an eventual heir apparent.
RETURNERS: Well, Sproles made the Pro Bowl last year as the return specialist (he was also used on offense more than he was by Kelly as the season wore on), and Huff showed promise after taking a kickoff back 106 yards (a franchise record). Meanwhile, Agholor was a lethal punt returner at USC and can handle kickoffs. That doesn’t mean others who are more expendable – like Barner — won’t get chances in the preseason, where long and exciting returns are the norm. It becomes a prime vehicle to get noticed. The ability to make something happen can tell coaches they have a “football” talent, even if they chances of them ever being regular-season options as returners are low. Sixth-round pick JaCorey Shepherd, a defensive back from Kansas State, is a former wide receiver and was a decent kickoff returner in college. And Raheem Mostert, a high-end backup running back at Purdue, was signed as an undrafted free agent for his return game prowess (26.0 yard average on kickoffs, including two for touchdowns, and is the school’s all-time leader in return yardage). He’ll also get some early-game snaps in the backfield.