By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — Is there a downside to being the defending Super Bowl champions?
Since no team has repeated in 13 tries, overcoming the odds would be one negative, but not on a par with trading it away for experiencing the ultimate thrill of victory.
A related downside is that most defending champions, even during the salary cap era of more turnover, head into that repeat season without a whole lot of healthy roster competition – or intriguing storylines – when the training wheels come off for training camp.
Nonetheless, while starting jobs may not be at stake, there will be roster battles for the world-champion Birds when the blocking sleds and Gatorade bottles come out.
In the case of the Eagles, some intrigue involves key players returning from injuries that kept them on the sidelines while earning rings for the run to glory.
Is that enough to make the 2018 preseason read like more of a page-turning mystery?
Let’s take our annual position-by-position look and search for clues:
Quarterback: Still not sure why Carson Wentz missing the final three games of the regular season – especially when the final game meant nothing – disqualified him from MVP consideration, especially when it would not have if he missed the first three games and then came on strong, but that’s just a quirk in the system. The truth, while not getting too biblical here, is that Wentz was like Moses, leading us to the precipice of The Promised Land, while Nick Foles – Super Bowl MVP – was Joshua, who led the people there (after Moses died). The good news for the Eagles is that, while some trade offers for Foles were entertained, the trigger was not pulled. They have the best insurance policy this side of Lloyd’s of London. Nate Sudfeld, who some dumb-dumbs out there wanted to start in the playoffs after an OK performance in the regular-season finale, returns in an apprentice role while some guy named Joe – Joe Callahan – is the fourth arm with a ceiling of maybe sticking on the practice squad.
Running Back: This is the most crowded picture heading into camp and an area of the most intrigue. Counting on the healthy return of Darren Sproles, the Eagles will have a three-headed backfield of Jay Ajayi as the main ballcarrier and Corey Clement as the do-it-all No. 2 and Sproles hoping to reprise his role as the quintessential third-down back. How many backs will be carried is the main question? The choices range from dinged-but-talented Wendell Smallwood, last year’s fourth-round disappointment Donnel Pumphrey, journeyman Matt Jones and undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame – by way of CB South High School – Josh Adams. Sproles never played much in preseason before, so it’s doubtful he will this year. Ajayi has a bad wheel, so he won’t see the field much, either. The coaching staff will likely not want Clement, last year’s feel-good story out of camp who ended up with 100 receiving yards and a touchdown catch in the Super Bowl, carrying too much of the preseason load. That leaves the others with plenty of touches to separate the contenders from the pretenders for what could be one roster spot.
Wide Receiver: Because of the nature of preseason, where defensive units are usually hodge-podge messes playing vanilla coverage, this is often a time when no-name wideouts get a little bit of love – especially from those who can’t count up to 53 and don’t realize that eight receivers can’t make a roster. This year, with the Eagles, the main four spots are set with Alshon Jeffery and newcomer Mike Wallace outside, Nelson Agholor in the slot and emerging second-year man Mack Hollins, a special teams standout, all mortal locks. The question then becomes how many more receivers are kept? The answer may hinge, in part, on how many running backs are kept and/or how much the coaching staff plans to use tight ends in non-traditional ways. The next group of choices include another well-traveled veteran in Markus Wheaton, last year’s fifth-round pick Shelton Gibson and 49er-turned-Eagle-turned-Brown-turned-Eagle Bryce Treggs. Greg Ward Jr., who was on the practice squad last year as a converted quarterback, is a sleeper to back up Agholor in the slot while Rashard Davis could make a name for himself as a return man. There will be a lot of interest in a local player, Tim Wilson, who played at East Stroudsburg, but the beat writers would be best served to get their mandatory feature stories filed on him before the first cuts are made.
Tight End: The Eagles didn’t bring back Brent Celek and had no choice but to let Trey Burton walk in free agency, where the Bears made him the eighth-best paid tight end in the league. Behind emerging superstar Zach Ertz (left), veteran Richard Rodgers was signed from the Packers to ostensibly replace Celek while Dallas Goedert was drafted in the second round to replace Burton. That leaves little roster space for a plethora of tight ends in camp. Billy Brown was a record-setting possession wide receiver in college, albeit at Division III Shepherd, and spent last season learning the tight end trade while on the practice squad. Adam Zaruba is a total project as a Canadian rugby player, while Joshua Perkins is a hybrid tight end/receiver who has been on the practice squad of the Falcons.
Offensive Line: If the Eagles don’t have the best offensive line in football, the unit is pretty close. Pending Hall of Famer Jason Peters returns at left tackle after missing more than half the season with what was presumed to be a career-ending knee injury. On the other side, Lane Johnson, is widely considered the best right tackle in the league. In addition to his speech for the ages at the Super Bowl parade, center Jason Kelce had an All-Pro season while guard Brandon Brooks – playing between Kelce and Johnson, earned a Pro Bowl nod. Stefen Wisniewski settled the unit down when he became the starter at left guard. Locks to make the team are third-year man Halapoulivaati Vatai, who will go from starting at left tackle on a Super Bowl winner to the bench as the third tackle, and versatile third-year man Isaac Seumalo. It will then come down to how many more linemen the Eagles feel they need to keep, which may also be about how heavy they want to go at other spots. Likely to see plenty of preseason snaps, along with returnee at guard Chance Warmack and tackle Taylor Hart, are rookie sixth-round pick Matt Pryor, a guard-tackle, and seventh-round Jordan Mailata. Measuring in at 6-8 and 345 pounds, Mailata is an Australian rugby player learning football. Others to watch are Darrell Greene, a pure guard who has been close to making the team and has instead been on and off the practice squad since 2016, and center Jon Toth, who was added to the practice squad last season.
Smelling Salt Alert: The Eagles are to be commended for going out of the box in selecting Mailata. However, reality sets in. No way he’s ready to play this year, but there is no way he won’t draw interest from another team if placed on the practice squad. They could concoct an injury and place him on IR or PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) or they could make him the 53rd player on a 53- man roster. That would mean going light another position, and that could take a bite out of the skill positions. If Goedert is all he is made out to be, Rodgers could be axed and two of the “other” tight ends could be stashed on the practice squad to supplement. Same thing at receiver. Beyond Hollins, there really is no reason to keep more than four on the 53-man roster – especially if Ertz, Goedert and Sproles line up outside – and don’t be shocked if Pumphrey is made into a hybrid running back/slot receiver and no other backs make the team beyond Ajayi, Clement and Sproles. Any combination of these scenarios would allow for 10 – or even 11 – offensive linemen.
Defensive End: Brandon Graham, after his crucial strip sack of Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, should probably be signed to a lifetime contract. Not realistic, but it’s a thought. As it is, while never having to pay for a meal in this town again, he returns at defensive end while the guy who recovered Brady’s fumble, then-rookie Derek Barnett, moves into the starting lineup in place of Vinny Curry (now with the Buccaneers). Perennial Pro Bowler Michael Bennett comes in from Seattle and will likely line up a lot inside, as did Curry, on passing downs. Chris Long, coming off of back-to-back Super Bowl rings with the Patriots and Eagles, decided to play one more year. That was enough to keep deep reserve Steven Means in the house while drafting Josh Sweat in the fourth round and signing Joe Ostman as a priority undrafted free agent.
Defensive Tackle: As healthy as the end position looks, the inside is in a bit of a state of flux. Starter Timmy Jernigan is going to miss training camp and the start of the season with a herniated disc in his back. Meanwhile, Beau Allen has moved on to line up alongside Curry with the Bucs. That appears to leave less support for All-World tackle Fletcher Cox. Massive veteran Haloti Ngata (6-4, 340) was signed from Detroit to ostensibly fill the role of place of playing 15-20 snaps per game left by Allen’s departure. In the short-term, Ngata may even be an upgrade. However, even with Bennett and Graham able to slide inside on passing downs, a temporary starter will need to be found from a secondary group of guys who have only shown brief flashes – Destiny Vaeao, Elijah Qualls and Aziz Shittu. A dark horse, with a strong camp, could be Winston Craig.
Linebacker: A year ago, Mychal Kendricks asked to be traded. His wish wasn’t granted, and he ended up playing extra snaps after talented-but-brittle middle linebacker Jordan Hicks suffered yet another season-ending injury. This year, with Hicks reportedly well again and Nigel Bradham remaining in the fold, Kendricks was released outright. In his place will be either Corey Nelson, a free agent from the Broncos, second-year man Nathan Gerry or third-year man Kamu Grugier-Hill. Meanwhile, another player with injury issues – but effective when healthy – is Joe Walker, who will play behind Hicks in the middle. If all stay healthy, we are looking at a young and talented group with Bradham as the veteran anchor. Even Nelson, after four years in Denver, is just 26.
Cornerback: This is the year it goes completely over to the younger players to sink or swim. Ronald Darby, acquired from Buffalo last year – ostensibly to be the No. 1 corner – was a 2015 draft pick by the Bills. Jalen Mills, in his third year, returns on the outside while the slot corner job will go to either Sidney Jones, who was drafted in the second round last year despite a torn Achilles, or one of the following: offseason standout De’Vante Busby, fourth-round pick Avonte Maddox or street free agent DJ Killings. Rasul Douglas, who held his own as a spot starter after being drafted in the third-round last year, is more likely be a sub outside or get a look as a hybrid corner/safety to take advantage of his size (6-2, 209).
Safety: While set with starters Malcolm Jenkins (left) and Rodney McLeod, some of the most compelling intrigue, in terms of competition, may come behind them – not only in who makes the team but in terms of how many safeties are kept. Will it be four? Will it be five? It’s up to the players themselves. The Eagles are reportedly infatuated with hard-hitting Tre Sullivan, who made an impression last preseason by knocking a Green Bay Packer out of a game with a lethal hit. Meanwhile, Jeremy Reaves and Stephen Roberts were both aggressively pursued and signed after going undrafted and should be getting long looks. A year ago, it was corner-safety hybrid Randall Goforth, who spent the year on IR and who will also be in the mix. What will this mean for Chris Maragos, the veteran special teams demon who was sidelined with a knee injury, remains to be seen.
Smelling Salt Alert: Ever since rosters have been at 53 players, there have been handshake agreements between offensive and defensive coordinators to each get 25 slots, with the other three going to special teams for a kicker, a punter and a long snapper. However, there are some extenuating circumstances going on. In addition to the self-created Mailata conundrum, it remains to be seen what will happen with Bennett after allegations surfaced over a strange off-field situation at Super Bowl before last. On top of that, there is the scenario with Jernigan. This all could mean the season starting with 26 defensive players and 24 on offense. At linebacker, expect Nate Gerry – drafted to be converted to linebacker after playing safety at Nebraska – to be one of the most improved players on the team. However, don’t be surprised if there is a revolving door of veteran linebackers coming through after they are released by other teams. After losing free agent Paul Worrilow for the season, the Eagles already grabbed the well-traveled LaRoy Reynolds for a look. While a defensive tackle job is up for grabs, expect the Eagles to take advantage of their depth at defensive end and keep six (Graham, Barnett, Bennett, Long, Sweat and Means). The secondary, particularly safety, will be intriguing. Do they play it safe and keep Maragos, and maybe even bring back Corey Graham, or do they open it up some younger guys (Sullivan, Reaves, Roberts). And be prepared to be a bit disappointed in Jones, as he is ostensibly still a rookie, while Darby may turn some heads after playing on one leg down the stretch last season.
Kicker: Jake Elliott
Punter: Cameron Johnston
Long Snapper: Rick Lovato
Smelling Salt Alert: There is no competition for any of these guys, and there probably won’t be. This doesn’t mean all is well in the land of specialists. As stoic as Elliott was a year ago as a rookie, second-year kickers have often struggled. One bad kick leads to another bad kick and, suddenly, there is an issue from the shoulders up. And while Johnston – a 26-year-old from Ohio State by way of Australia – showed a strong enough leg last preseason to get an invite back to replace Donnie Jones, he and Elliott will need to develop a rapport as holder and kicker. Lovato, on the other hand, was just about flawless as year ago.
This analysis originally appeared at phillyphanatics.com