5 under-the-radar Eagles to watch in 2014

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5 under-the-radar Eagles to watch in 2014

You barely heard his name all season. You couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. You’re the biggest Eagles fan in the Delaware Valley and you still wouldn’t recognize him if he stood right in front of you, with a name tag on his chest pocket.

That was Eagles defensive tackle Cedric Thornton before this season, before he emerged as one of the NFL’s best run-stopping defensive linemen.

It could be someone else in 2014.

The Eagles will continue to build their roster through free agency and the draft this offseason, but they also have several in-house candidates who can emerge from obscurity to carve their niche on next year’s team.

The following is a breakdown of five guys on the current roster who either made little or no contributions in 2013 but should challenge for playing time next year. This is based on interviews with Eagles coaches, players and front office personnel from throughout the season.

Matt Tobin, OT/OG
In all likelihood, the Eagles will return all five starting offensive linemen who cleared the way for LeSean McCoy to lead the NFL in rushing, but Tobin developed nicely during his rookie season and could push Todd Herremans at right guard next camp. If you didn’t notice, Tobin leapfrogged second-year lineman Dennis Kelly on the depth chart and was active three times during the season. Tobin, an unsigned free agent out of Iowa, competed at tackle throughout training camp but started taking snaps at guard in practice during the season. He played guard at Iowa before moving to tackle, so he’s not unfamiliar with the position. The team likes Tobin’s athleticism and teammates say Jason Peters took a liking to the rookie, taking him under his wing and helping Tobin pick up some extra tricks of the trade. He just needs to add some lower body strength this offseason. (By the way, I’m frequently asked about offensive tackle Michael Bamiro and I’m frequently told he’s still a work in progress).

Travis Long, OLB
Long, an undrafted rookie from Washington State, spent the entire season on the practice squad, but teammates rave about his size and upside. They compare the 6-foot-4, 252-pound outside linebacker to Connor Barwin for his ability to play multiple roles in a 3-4 scheme and for his pass rush and hand techniques. Long had 9.5 sacks his senior year at Washington State, where he played defensive end/outside linebacker in the 3-4 front before his season ended early with a knee injury that caused him to go undrafted. With Trent Cole facing an uncertain future and Brandon Graham unlikely to return, Long should be competing for a backup spot in camp and could eventually carve his niche in the sub packages.

Joe Kruger, DE
Kruger, a seventh-round pick in 2013, spent the season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury that he suffered in the preseason. The team could have waived him with a settlement but liked his development at training camp and saw enough potential to place him on injured reserve. Kruger probably won’t unseat Fletcher Cox or Thornton but backup defensive end Clifton Geathers is headed for free agency. Either way, Kruger will compete for a roster spot at camp.

Emil Igwenagu, TE
The team faces a tough decision on No. 3 tight end James Casey this offseason. Casey is due $4 million next season, a steep price for a third-string tight end. With the quick development of Zach Ertz and Chip Kelly’s fondness for Brent Celek, the Eagles could cut Casey and move on with Igwenagu, whose skill set is similar to Casey’s. Igwenagu, in his second season, edged Clay Harbor for the No. 4 tight end job out of camp but didn’t stick around long. He spent six weeks on the 53-man roster before being released and re-signed to the practice squad. The Eagles liked Casey because he played fullback and H-back along with tight end, which are also the positions Igwenagu played in college at Massachusetts. (And you know Chip likes his New Englanders).

Keelan Johnson, S
There should be plenty of job competition at safety, especially with three -- Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson -- facing expiring contracts on March 8 and and Patrick Chung likely shown the door. The Eagles promoted Johnson from the practice squad Dec. 17 and played him in two games on special teams. He came over from Miami after the roster cutdown date and needed time to learn Kelly’s program and Billy Davis’ defense. Johnson was a playmaker at Arizona State and will get a better chance to showcase his skills at the OTAs and training camp.

Traces of Andy Reid linger in Doug Pederson's 'physical' training camp philosophy

Traces of Andy Reid linger in Doug Pederson's 'physical' training camp philosophy

It's been 18 years since Andy Reid's first training camp as head coach of the Eagles. Those who were a part of it will never forget it.

"It was brutal," Doug Pederson said recently. "It was hot. It was long. It was physical. It was bruising.

"It was before the rule changes, so we hit all the time. We were allowed to go full two-a-days. They were physical practices. Just tough. Real tough."

Pederson was a 31-year-old quarterback with the Eagles that summer, and those ferocious Reid training camps helped shape the training camps he runs now as head coach of the Eagles.

Reid's first three training camps — 1999, 2000 and 2001 — were insane.

After a walkthrough on the first day the full team was together, the players were put through three consecutive days of full-pads, full-contact two-a-days and then begin the fourth day with another live, full-pads session.

So from 8:30 a.m. on Day 1 until 11:30 a.m. on Day 4, the team was on the field for seven live full-contact practices.

That's roughly 18 hours of contact in the span of 75 hours.

“Ask Duce (Staley), ask any of the guys who were here that summer, they still talk about it," Pederson said "It was hard, it was tough. We hit a lot that first year. I think coach was trying to send a message that we were going to be a physical football team.

"Obviously with the rule changes and the way the CBA is you can’t be that aggressive anymore, but it was tough. It did bring the team together. You learn to protect each other, you learn to practice and play fast, it definitely brought us together."

The rules have changed dramatically. At first, the NFL outlawed hitting in the afternoon practice, then eliminated pads in the afternoon practice, then eliminated the second practice entirely. An afternoon walkthrough is currently allowed, although the total time of both practices has to be less than four hours.

The current NFL collective bargaining agreement limits how often teams can hit during training camp, and Pederson — who worked under Reid as a player or assistant coach with the Eagles and Chiefs for a total of nine years — said he prefers as physical a camp as possible within the current rules.

"The two-a-days to start camp over a 3 ½-day period, obviously you can’t do that anymore," he said. "But at the same time, I can pick some spots and choose some days that we can go live.

"I don’t want to do it a ton in camp, but at the same time, guys have got to feel contact, they’ve got to feel the ground. You know, injuries are part of the game. Whether it’s in training camp or in the regular season, obviously you don’t like to see it, but at the same time we can be smart about it, protect each other and still be in pads and get the work done."

Pederson's 2017 camp gets underway Monday at the NovaCare Complex with rookies, quarterbacks and veterans who finished 2016 on Injured Reserve. The full team will be on the field for the first time Thursday.

We saw last year that Pederson's practices are dramatically more physical than those of Chip Kelly, who didn't believe in tackling to the ground at all.

“I think (practices vary depending on) the philosophy of each head coach around the league," Pederson said. "I just feel like this is what works for us.

"You’ve got to play in pads so might as well put them on and use them. Just getting the soreness out. You’ve just got to get used to hitting. It’s a physical game. You’ve got to learn how to tackle properly. Running backs have to learn how to get hit and protect the football, so I think it’s important to continue to have that.

"I do think there’s a fine line. Don’t get me wrong. You don’t go over the top with it. Plus, you’re only down to one practice a day right now.

"But I think you can maintain that physicality and you can maintain that hitting in camp and just be smart about it. It doesn’t have to be live every single day."

Pederson said there will be three live tackling days during camp this summer, the same as last year.

"I feel like it's important that the guys hit," he said. "It's a physical game, and it's hard sometimes just to show up on game day and just put the pads on and go hit if you haven't at least prepped them for it.

"Three live days, I think, is plenty. I think two of them are before Green Bay (preseason opener on Aug. 10) and one of them is after Green Bay, so it kind of … gets them into that physical mentality that you want, especially early in training camp."

Pederson also said he won't hesitate to make changes as camp continues depending on how he sees the players responding to the daily workload.

“If we need to increase it, we’ll increase it, if we need to back it down, we’ll back it down," he said. "I’m not naive. You stay in-tune with how they’re doing and adjust it however you need to."

What's the best play in Eagles history?

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What's the best play in Eagles history?

Throughout the week, we have asked fans help determine the best play in Philadelphia sports history. Today, upvote below to adavnce one Eagles play to the finals on Friday where five plays will face off to determine the top overall play.

Tune in to Philly Sports Talk at 5 p.m. to see which play will advanace to the final.