By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — The NBA and NHL drafts are in the books. The Phillies, well, maybe next year – or the year after that.
What does all this mean? Football, baby, football.
And in Philly, with all due respect to the Temple Owls, their landlords at Lincoln Financial Field – the Eagles – are emerging as the talk of the town again.
With a new coach, Doug Pederson, there will be a new scheme and a fair share of new faces to go along with some familiar ones.
We are still in the getting-to-know-you phase with Pederson, but early indications are that he is a fairly forthright dude.
Ask him a question and, while not divulging any state secrets and fulfilling his requirement for coachspeak, he will give a straight answer.
He admitted that he has a continual 53-man roster in his cranium that, depending on training camp and preseason and unforeseen injuries and players popping free from other rosters, he is ready to lead into battle.
The preseason will be the best chance to cast our eyes upon that countenance that is Carson Wentz, the quarterback for whom the ranch and most of the usable cattle and acreage was swapped, getting extended snaps in an offense that is vastly different than the one that was often too frenetic for its own good under previous coach Chip Kelly.
If it is true that Pederson pretty much has a 53-man roster that he is comfortable with, and we have no reason yet to believe he has a touch of Pinocchio in him, then we can at least fast forward through the preseason – and the highly unlikely event that injuries won’t wreak at least minor havoc with the best-laid plans – and take an educated guess at your 2016 Philadelphia Eagles.
(Starters designated with an asterisk, jobs up for grabs designated with a “u”)
Quarterback (3): *Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel and Wentz.
Summary: This was rather easy, since only three quarterbacks are on the roster, meaning there isn’t even a fourth guinea pig for mop-up duty in the early preseason games. All that time will go to Wentz, so you better run your DVRs then. If the prized rookie – drafted second overall out of North Dakota State – plays any snaps outside of the fourth quarter of a blowout, something has gone horribly wrong. The reason the Eagles wanted Bradford back is because they believed he can at least get them in that 7-9 to 9-7 range and have a fighting chance in a mediocre NFC East. If – or maybe when – he goes down to injury, Daniel will be next in line. There is zero benefit to “tanking,” as the Cleveland Browns own the Eagles’ first-round pick.
Running Back (4): *Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles, Kenjon Barner, Wendell Smallwood
Summary: Mathews is Bradford Lite. He hasn’t been hurt as much, or as severely, but has had a hard time finishing a season intact. Like Bradford, the former first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers is a skilled player and fingers are crossed he can be the main ball-carrier. Barner was the star of last year’s preseason, earning a roster spot. He seemed to play well enough, albeit in limited snaps, to stake a claim to replace Sproles (left) as the third-down back/return man of the future. But the Eagles doubled down in both the draft, and post-draft free agency, with West Virginia scatback Wendell Smallwood in the fifth round and Oregon’s Byron Marshall as a priority free agent. Marshall had a 1,000-yard season at Oregon as a running back and a 1,000-yard season as a receiver. It remains unclear which position, or both, he will be tried at in the preseason. A dark horse could be Cedric O’Neal, who shattered records at Valdosta State, although a solid preseason could land him on the practice squad.
Fullback/H-Back (1): Trey Burton
Summary: Pederson has let it be known that Burton is learning multiple positions, which will best utilize a skill set for a guy is too small (6-foot-2½-inches, 235 pounds) to play tight end and too slow (approximately 4.65 in the 40) to play outside receiver, but too versatile and athletic to not keep in permanent moth balls as a special teams guy. It remains to be seen how much a fullback will be used, but one snap will be one snap more than Kelly used one in nearly three seasons. Burton can also line up in the slot and as a motion tight end (and also serving as the emergency quarterback). While he won’t be the second coming of Keith Byars, expect him to be matched up against a linebacker from time to time.
Tight End (2): Brent Celek, Zach Ertz
Summary: The snaps will be split, and both will likely be on the field a lot at the same time, especially if Ertz gets time in the slot while Celek stays in as a blocker. If Pederson’s offense is going to reflect that of his mentor, Andy Reid, then take this moment to recall how overachiever Chad Lewis and underachiever L.J. Smith were equally integral in the “time’s yours” era. Chris Pantale, on the practice squad last year, has reportedly impressed in two-hand touch part of the offseason, so he could at least make a case for himself – or not be a reason for total panic if Ertz or Celek are injured.
Wide Receiver (5): *Jordan Matthews, *Rueben Randle, *Nelson Agholor, Josh Huff and Chris Givens.
Summary: Only five? Well, without a receiver drafted, there is no major investment in anyone else. And Pederson will not want upset the apple cart and force defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz into keeping only 24 players on his side of the ball. The presumption here is that Pederson will want to keep 10 offensive linemen, so five receivers – at least on the opening-day active roster – it is. And remember, Burton and Ertz will likely be used in the slot. In addition to Marshall, whose role remains nebulous, the Eagles harvested some potential diamonds in the rough after the draft. That group includes Cayleb Jones (Arizona) and Hunter Sharp (Utah State). Jonathan Krause, who was activated off the practice squad at the end of the last season (1 catch, 4 yards), is also still in the mix.
Still, this is about production at the top. Matthews will move from strictly in the slot and be moved all around as the clear-cut No. 1. Randle, while a bit of an underachiever – given his pedigree – with the rival Giants, will be an upgrade over the dearly departed Riley Cooper. This will be particularly true in the place where games are won and lost – the red zone. Agholor had a dismal rookie season after being selected in the first round last year, but there is still hope he can achieve the potential the last regime saw in him. Huff has a chance to make his mark in the slot and as a return man while Givens is the best deep threat of this group – making him the prettiest girl in Boys Town – and had a bit of good thing going with Bradford when both were with the Rams.
Offensive Line (10): *Jason Peters, u-Allen Barbre, *Jason Kelce, *Brandon Brooks, *Lane Johnson, Isaac Seumalo, Halapoulivanti Vatai, Stefen Wisniewski, Darrell Greene, Matt Tobin.
Summary: With the massive Brooks (6-5, 346) in the fold via free agency, and Peters purportedly eager to play in a more traditional offense, four jobs are set. Barbre’s left guard spot is his to lose, but the likely five backup jobs are up for grabs. While 10 will likely be kept (an Andy Reid staple for a final roster), Pederson would love to only dress eight – or even seven – on game day to free up another spry body for special teams. This is where versatility comes into play. Seumalo (third round) and Vaitai (fifth) are locks because they are draft picks, but being game-day guys may not be immediate roles for them. Seumalo missed the mini-camps to finish school at Oregon State, but he has played all three positions on the line and projects as the left guard in the long-term picture. In the short term, Wisniewski – a grizzled veteran – is likely to push Barbre at left guard and even get consideration at center if Kelce doesn’t get back into Pro Bowl form. Vaitai plays both tackle positions but his likely more raw than some roster holdovers.
That means the likes of tackle-guards Andrew Gardner, Dennis Kelly and Tobin are likely battling for one spot. Greene was a hot commodity – as far as undrafted players are “hot” – after the draft, and the Eagles had to outbid other teams to get him. Placing him on the practice squad would likely mean him being poached by one of those other teams they out-bid. Still, the San Diego State product may be too raw to count on for game days. He will also have to distinguish himself from the likes of Malcom Bunche (last year’s version of Greene) and Josh Andrews (the 2014 version of Greene). Andrews can play guard and center, but so can Rimington Trophy winner Barrett Jones, who played for offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland at Alabama. The fact that Stoutland remains from Kelly’s coaching staff is significant is that a lot of the backup candidates, not counting the two rookies and Wisniewski, have been his pet projects for several years and his opinion may be valued when it comes to the last spot or two.
Defensive Line (10): *Connor Barwin, *Bennie Logan, *Fletcher Cox, *Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Mike Martin, Alex McAlister, Bryan Braman, Travis Long, Marcus Smith.
Summary: This will be an interesting spot to watch, and a lot remains unclear as to how Schwartz will make all the pieces fit. Curry may not start but could wind up playing the second-most snaps – behind Cox, who is considered one of the league’s best inside forces – as he can rotate with Barwin and Graham at end and slide inside next to Cox on passing downs. The last time Graham played in a Wide-9 front, it was the tail-end of the ill-fated 2012 season and he proved to be a lone highlight. He moved to outside linebacker in Billy Davis’ 3-4 defense, and did well enough, but he will be most at home again now at defensive end. Barwin (left), an assignment-sound OLB, has bulked up in preparation to playing defensive end, but remains an option to play linebacker again if there are injuries, as the depth there (see below) is rail thin. Martin, a third-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2012, was a quiet free agent signing. He is familiar to Schwartz, and fits the system better than 2014 draft picks Beau Allen and Taylor Hart, neither of whom is likely to stick. While Allen has always given good effort as a backup nose tackle, he is a pure nose tackle. Hart lacks the girth for inside and quicks for outside in an attacking 4-3 alignment.
McAlister, the seventh-round pick out of Florida, comes in with more potential than production. He will likely make the team but not the game-day roster. With Dave Fipp staying on to coach special teams, it is unlikely Braman goes. He is getting a shot to play defensive end, his college position, but could end up at linebacker. Long, who has had nothing but hard luck with serious injuries, has shown enough to never be an injury buyout and could be if the feel-good story of the preseason – if he stays healthy. He – and 2014 first-round pick Marcus Smith, who may be riding in his last rodeo before being branded as a complete bust – add the theoretical ability to swing between defensive end and linebacker. There are three undrafted defensive tackles – Aziz Shittu (Stanford), Connor Wujciak (Boston College) and Destiny Veao (Washington State) – who can either make a case to keep one less DE/OLB on the active roster or to land on the practice squad.
Linebacker (5): *Nigel Bradham, *Jordan Hicks, *Mychal Kendricks, Najee Goode, Joe Walker
Summary: Bradham is one of several players hand-picked by Schwartz and should fit in well alongside rising stars Kendricks and Hicks, who was in line to win Defensive Rookie of the Year last year before a season-ending pectoral injury. Hicks’ loss was a contributing factor in the team’s downward spiral as last season progressed, and he moves the epicenter of the defense now as the middle linebacker. Kendricks’ kryptonite has been nagging injuries. Otherwise, he is another playmaker likely to thrive with Schwartz calling the shots. The issue is depth, as Goode is the only other linebacker currently on the roster who has stepped on a NFL field. Joe Walker was drafted in the seventh round and should earn a one-year draftee pass onto the roster. A three-down inside linebacker at Oregon, he is likely to be worked in at all three spots. Unless someone like undrafted rookie Myke Tavarres – after putting up surreal numbers at a school called Incarnate Wood – makes the team, expect the depth to come from either a veteran castoff yet to be revealed or one of the several projected defensive ends mention above (Barwin, Long, Smith, Braman).
Defensive Back (10): *Nolan Carroll, u-Eric Rowe, *Malcolm Jenkins, *Rodney McLeod, Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, Jalen Mills, Chris Maragos, Blake Countess, Ed Reynolds
Summary: The Achilles Heel of the defense for what seems like an eternity is hopefully about to get a boost from a consistent pass rush, linebackers who excel in coverage and the combination of substantive veteran additions and the natural growth of roster holdovers. There will be fierce competition here, not only for roster spots, but for a starting job at outside corner and at slot corner. Rowe, a second-round pick last year, seemed to play well enough as the world around him fell apart last season to solidify a starting job. However, nothing is being handed to him. As it stands now, “Schwartz guys” – McKelvin and Brooks – are listed ahead of him at both outside and the slot, but that may be just to get Rowe in synch with the new defense. Carroll will have to hang onto his job as well. On the back end, the signing of McLeod in free agency and placing him alongside Jenkins may give the Eagles one of the better safety tandems they have had in years. Meanwhile, seventh-round pick, Mills, has been the darling of the coaching staff and is getting long looks at corner, slot corner and safety.
Beyond those seven, the other three jobs are up for grabs. Maragos, like Braman and Burton, is a special teams standout. He had a shot to be the third safety last year, but was replaced in the second half of the season by the more athletic – but less physical – Reynolds. Countess is tough and versatile, and the fact that he is an incoming sixth-round pick helps his chances. For now, we’ll give the final three slots to Maragos, Reynolds and Countess but the situation remains fluid. A year ago, the coaches were so enthralled by sixth-round pick JaCorey Shepherd that they handed him the slot corner job and traded away Brandon Boykin. Right on cue, Shepherd tore his ACL, and the Eagles lost games because they were badly exploited in the slot. Randall Evans was also a 2015 sixth-round pick who didn’t elevate himself to active roster until the last game of the season. Denzel Rice was the only undrafted rookie to make the team last year, but was rarely used after a strong preseason. Another player in the mix is Jaylen Watkins, formerly a fourth-round pick of the Eagles who was cut and then re-signed off of Buffalo’s practice squad. He was forced into emergency duty last year at corner and held his own. He is getting a look at safety this year, which could put heat on either Maragos or Reynolds.
Longsnapper (1): u-Jon Dorenbos
Summary: If the new coaching staff wanted to hand the job to the tenured Dorenbos, who is nearly flawless on snaps but may be losing a step getting downfield in coverage, then why would they have undrafted rookie Chris DePalma on the roster?
Punter (1): Donnie Jones.
Summary: Jones may not be Ray Guy, or even Sean Landeta, but he is a steady pro. He is also the holder, although Daniel can handle those chores as well.
Kicker (1): u-Cody Parkey.
Summary: Who would have thought that Parkey, a Pro Bowl kicker as a rookie in 2014, would be locked in a battle for his job with the guy who replaced him when went down for the count early in the season? That guy would be Caleb Sturgis, whose college resume at Florida was impressive enough for the Miami Dolphins to invest a fifth-round pick in him in 2013. His inconsistency forced them to release him last preseason, but he found his form with the Eagles – after some early shakiness – and is now being given a chance to unseat Parkey. Based on the eye test, and the presumption he is healthy, the nod goes to Parkey. This will be one of the more interesting sub-plots – along with analyzing every breath Wentz takes and watching 6-4, 295-pound undrafted Dillon Gordon (LSU) play tight end – during the preseason.
This analysis also appeared at http://www.phillyphanatics.com