As the Philadelphia Eagles approach their third preseason game, the focus briefly shifts from position battles and competition over the final few roster spots to getting the squad ready for the regular season. Thursday against the Pittsburgh Steelers is the so-called dress rehearsal, where starters play into the third quarter and act like they care what’s happening out there.
The attention also turns to the task ahead because many of these competitions are coming close to an end. While everything is subject to change in NFL, after nearly four weeks of training camp and exhibition games, we have a reasonable sense of where players stand on the Eagles depth chart now. With that in mind, let’s catch up with some observations on the various ongoing position battles.
Barring a major change in the final preseason game, expect Nate Allen to be the Week 1 starter at safety opposite Malcolm Jenkins. The fifth-year veteran has been around the ball a lot more this summer, recording seven tackles to Earl Wolff’s three. Allen also has an interception.
Wolff hasn’t seized the opportunity. When the coaches wanted to get a look at the 2013 fifth-round pick with the first-team defense at practice earlier this summer, Wolff opted to sit out two days with knee soreness. And while Wolff hasn’t made any glaring mistakes through two games, Allen’s made more plays.
Allen was actually serviceable bordering on good over the second half of last season, so his winning the competition is no upset. Keep in mind, this will the first time Allen has spent two full seasons under one defensive coordinator since the Eagles chose him in the second round in 2010. At only 26 years old, the former second-round pick could have some upside left.
We’ll still see plenty of Wolff in certain situations I’d imagine, but Allen is comfortable in the defense and limits his mistakes. He’ll be tough to knock off this year.
With the exception of Jordan Matthews eventually being elevated to No. 1 slot receiver, there wasn’t an expectation that the 2014 draft class would produce any immediate starters. Beau Allen didn’t get the memo.
The seventh-round pick out of Wisconsin has made the most out of his opportunities this summer, splitting first-team reps at nose tackle while Bennie Logan was nursing a hamstring injury. Allen has been impressive in exhibition games, too—not the dominant force his press clippings have made him out to be, but impressive.
What is more likely to elevate Allen to starter than his performance to this point is Logan’s health. The 2013 third-round pick did see action in preseason Week 2, but wasn’t able to create any real push at the point of attack in his 13 snaps. By the looks of things, Logan is not completely recovered.
There’s still time before the regular season opener on September 7, but if Logan’s condition hasn’t shown dramatic improvement by then, I could see Allen getting the nod. Once that 333-pounder goes anywhere, he’s hard to move out.
Nolan Carroll has returned to practice and will play against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday. However, I have to think whatever chances Carroll had of wresting a starting cornerback job away from either Cary Williams or Bradley Fletcher have slipped through his fingertips for now.
It was Fletcher who actually appeared vulnerable during camp, and he could still face replacement somewhere down the line if his play doesn’t improve. That being said, it’s difficult to envision the Eagles inserting Carroll into the lineup now after missing the past couple weeks with a groin injury.
Carroll started 22 games off the bench for the Miami Dolphins over the previous two seasons, so the 27-year-old is no stranger to biding his time. Expect Williams and Fletcher to hold down the perimeters until further notice.
Defensive End Depth
Don’t worry, folks, Vinny Curry is going to receive plenty of playing time this season. He’ll still alternate with Cedric Thornton depending on the situation, but I expect Curry to play somewhere between 40 to 50 percent of the defense’s snaps in 2014.
Where I see some competition brewing is for one of the other defensive end spots. 29-year-old Brandon Bair has had what I would call a monster preseason for a lineman in the 3-4. He’s done an outstanding job of filling gaps and flowing to the ball, particularly versus the run.
Bair is credited with two tackles through two games, which really doesn’t do him justice. He was also in on a blocked field goal.
You have to think fifth-round pick Taylor Hart is going to be on the roster despite his quiet summer. My guess at the odd man out is 2013 seventh-round pick Joe Kruger, who spent his rookie season on IR. There’s a good chance the Eagles could pass Kruger on to the practice squad, which in turn would allow them to keep the productive veteran.
Nothing to see here. Mark Sanchez is cemented as the team’s backup quarterback, and despite some drama, Matt Barkley appears to be firmly entrenched as the No. 3. Nobody wants to trade for either one of them—they likely don’t even have value to anybody but the Eagles at this late stage of the summer.
That’s the depth chart at quarterback, and you should probably feel pretty good about it.
Running Back Depth
The Eagles have an embarrassment of riches at the running back position. Obviously, LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles are household names. However, second-year player Matthew Tucker and undrafted rookies David Fluellen and Henry Josey have really turned some heads this summer.
Tucker, Fluellen and Josey have combined to carry 22 this preseason for 121 yards with an impressive 5.5 average and two touchdowns. They’ve also added four receptions for 60 yards and two more scores.
Heading into the offseason, the third running back spot seemed practically assured for Chris Polk. However, a torn hamstring has prevented the third-year back from practicing or playing most of the summer, which has really opened the door for one of these other young backs to take his place.
Is Polk’s job in jeopardy? Only the Eagles can say for sure. I know it would be a shame to get rid of any one of the six backs on the 90-man roster, though, but there are only three, maybe four openings on the final squad.
Wide Receiver Depth
I’m not sure any Eagles players experienced bigger reversals of fortune during this preseason than Ifeanyi Momah and Arrelious Benn.
At one point, Momah appeared to be one wide receiver injury away from making the team—perhaps the AC sprain that will sideline rookie Josh Huff for an undetermined amount of time. However, for the many strides the first-year wideout has made in his second training camp with the Birds, the miscues are beginning to pile up.
Through two exhibition games, Momah has lost two fumbles and seemingly ran the wrong route on a Nick Foles interception. He also dropped a pass in the end zone that was collected by none other than Benn.
I didn’t think Benn was having a very good camp, and let’s be honest, that touchdown catch—his only reception this summer—was pure luck. However, 2010 second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Bucs certainly helped his cause with a blocked punt in the same game. He made a tackle while playing on the kick coverage unit in Week 1 as well.
Momah or Benn making the team is contingent on the Eagles keeping six receivers anyway, which since Huff reportedly could be ready to play in the opener, that’s not an automatic. If Momah can clean up the mistakes in these next two preseason appearances, he’s still got a chance, but Benn’s special teams contributions might be giving him the edge.
That is, assuming they’re both not stuck behind the great Jeff Maehl.