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.

More NFL Notes: Texans star WR DeAndre Hopkins not at training camp

More NFL Notes: Texans star WR DeAndre Hopkins not at training camp

HOUSTON -- Houston Texans star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins did not report to training camp Saturday.

Entering his fourth pro season, Hopkins is holding out for a new contract. He is scheduled to make $1 million in salary in the final season of his rookie contract, though the Texans have picked up his fifth-year option.

Hopkins can be fined up to $40,000 for every day he misses camp.

He comes off a huge season with 111 receptions, 1,521 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns despite inconsistency at quarterback and few other receiving options on the Texans.

Houston general manager Rick Smith said in a statement: "We are disappointed DeAndre has elected not to report to training camp with the rest of his teammates. He has expressed his position regarding his contract status, and we have been clear with both he and his representatives of ours. Our focus is on the 2016 season and all of our collective efforts and attention will be centered on that endeavor."

Hopkins was the 27th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Clemson. He has started all 48 games in his career, making 239 catches for 3,533 yards and 19 touchdowns. He went to the Pro Bowl last season.

49ers: Offensive lineman Anthony Davis reinstated by NFL
SAN FRANCISCO -- Right tackle Anthony Davis was reinstated by the NFL on Saturday after an 11-month retirement that he planned to come back from all along.

The San Francisco 49ers made the announcement ahead of their first day of training camp Sunday under new coach Chip Kelly.

Davis was the 49ers' first-round draft choice, the 11th overall pick, in the 2010 draft out of Rutgers. He was affected by a concussion late in the 2014 season.

On June 5, 2015, at age 25, Davis announced his retirement in another surprising offseason departure last year for the 49ers. He became the fourth prominent San Francisco player to retire in a three-month span, joining linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland and defensive end Justin Smith. The announcement came four days before the team's mandatory June minicamp.

Also Saturday, San Francisco placed nose tackle Ian Williams on the reserve/non-football injury list (see full story).

Bears: LB Willie Young signs to 2-year extension
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears signed outside linebacker Willie Young to a two-year contract extension on Saturday.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed.

The 30-year-old Young signed with the Bears two years ago after spending his first four seasons with division-rival Detroit. He had a career-high 10 sacks that year before tearing his Achilles tendon in December, but bounced back to play in 15 games with 6 1/2 sacks last season.

Brian Dawkins excited for scout role with Eagles, hopes it leads to something 'bigger'

Brian Dawkins excited for scout role with Eagles, hopes it leads to something 'bigger'

This is how much of a kinship Brian Dawkins has with the game of football.

And it won’t surprise anybody.

“I was in Orlando with my family and we’re passing by a football field, me and my brother in law, to go to the gym,” Dawkins said. “There’s nobody in the stadium. But as I passed by, there’s a certain comfort I have when I see football fields.”

That connection, that bond, to the game he loves and the team he loves has ultimately brought Dawkins back to Philadelphia, where from 1996 through 2008 he firmly established himself as one of the greatest Eagles of all-time.

The Eagles announced Saturday morning that eight years after he was allowed to leave for Denver as a free agent, Dawkins has rejoined the franchise to work in the scouting department (see story).

Dawkins’ initially joins the Eagles' scouting team as part of the NFL’s Nunn-Wooten Scouting Fellowship, a new program aimed at introducing former players to the world of player personnel and the duties of an NFL scout.

As of now, Dawkins is committed to working with the Eagles through the draft in April.

But both Dawkins and Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said this relationship could evolve into a permanent one. And a very important one.

“I’m very excited about this opportunity, I really am,” Dawkins said. “It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while and it just so happened we were able to talk about it and get something done with it.”

Dawkins retired after the 2011 season, his third year in Denver. He worked for ESPN from the fall of 2012 through this past football season. He said ESPN did not renew his contract after last year, which opened up the door for him to explore a return to the NFL.

“I enjoyed my time there, I really did,” he said. “But it was one of those things where everything fell into place for me to have more freedom to do other things, and this was that opportunity and it presented itself and I jumped on it and we’re rolling with a fluid situation.

“This is something that I’ve been thinking for a while. I didn’t know it would come to fruition this fast, but here it is. And sometimes, you’ve got to step out of your comfort zone to really see what you can achieve. And so this is something that I’m really looking forward to, to see if this will move to something even bigger.”

Dawkins is with the Eagles at training camp this week, but he will be based for the time being in Denver, where he’s lived since signing with the Broncos and where his daughter is still in high school.

Roseman, very interestingly, revealed on Saturday morning that he has used Dawkins as an informal player personnel consultant, both when he was general manager through 2014 and again since being re-instated in a similar role with a new title by owner Jeff Lurie after Chip Kelly’s firing.

“I’ve (been) always trying to get him here because he’s got such a bright future, he’s got such a great football mind and a great presence and leadership ability, which translates to the front office,” Roseman said Saturday.

“I always think about (Hall of Fame tight end and Ravens general manager) Ozzie Newsome and how he made that transition, and then talking to (Dawkins) during the coaching search, as we were going into the offseason about the team.

“And then he did more evaluations this year for the draft and (we) continued to try to find the right role for him that he felt comfortable with and when this came along it was a perfect transition for him, and we couldn’t be more excited to have him in the building and helping us as we move forward here.”

Dawkins was a first-team all-pro four times and a Pro Bowler seven times with the Eagles. He made two more Pro Bowls with the Broncos.

It's interesting that the Eagles’ safeties the last time they won a playoff game – 2008 – are now back with the team.

Quintin Mikell, who spent the 2003 through 2010 seasons with the Eagles and made the Pro Bowl in 2009, was a coaching intern last year and currently serves as director of player engagement.

Dawkins said evaluating players comes naturally to him.

“I love it,” he said. “When you get up there in age playing the game, you see young guys come in and you’re hoping they can help the team win that year, so you start to evaluate, even back then.

“So now that I’m out of the game I just take those things that I learned then and apply them now. Evaluating guys and seeing if they can help this team going forward.”

Asked what he wants to accomplish in this role, Dawkins looked up at the NovaCare Complex 50 feet away and spoke in that hyper-intense Dawk whisper we all know so well.

“To bring this place back to someplace when we played, when I played here,” he said. “The energy was completely different. There were expectations every year with what we were going to do, and I’m pretty sure the players would tell you the exact same thing. They want to get this thing back there as well.

“This is a place I feel comfortable. Not just this organization, but the football field, watching tape, having those conversations, I feel comfortable doing those things.”

But Dawkins said he ultimately doesn’t want to limit himself to scouting.

“I’m trying to grasp the whole gamut of football operations, how a team is run,” he said. “So I’m learning about the scouting part of it, but sometimes it’s either you have an eye or you don’t, and I’ve been blessed to have an eye to be able to see talent, so if I can help in that respect I’d love to that, but I also want to learn everything I can about running a football team.”

Roseman and Dawkins both hinted at a major role for Dawkins in the organization moving forward.

Could he one day be the general manager? A team vice president?

Don’t bet against it.

“He’s going to start with scouting and work with Joe (Douglas, vice president of player personnel) and his guys because he’s done that and he’s written evaluations for us,” Roseman said.

“But we don’t want to limit him to that. His ability to communicate to the players … everything that we’re doing that’s different than when he was a player from a strength and conditioning standpoint, from a sports science standpoint, his observations on the team as a whole.

“We’re really going to drop him into a bunch of areas that he’s interested in, but it starts with the scouting department.”

Beyond his individual accomplishments, Dawk played for the Eagles during the most successful period in modern franchise history.

The Eagles have won 19 playoff games, and Dawkins was on the field for 10 of them.

More than half.

“He’s been part of championship-caliber teams, so he understands about what that looks like and the energy and enthusiasm that that has, and he’s been in a defense simiar to this, so he knows the responsibilities,” Roseman said.

“He’s also looking at it from a guy who played the position. When he’s watching DBs … when you sit with him and watch him watch safety play, he’s looking for different things than maybe we are maybe as a scouting staff or guys who maybe never played the position.

“He’s able to come into the meetings and impart what he saw, and that helps all of us as we’re evlauating guys and that’s the biggest part of it for all of us. To be able to pick his brain.”

Where will this ultimately lead? Dawkins just smiles and says he has big plans. Bigger than just working in scouring.

“Bigger is bigger,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “Bigger is bigger. I don’t know what bigger is. I just know bigger is not where I’m standing right now.

“So whatever bigger is, that’s what we’re shooting for.”

NFL Notes: Cheifs, Eric Fisher agree to contract extension

NFL Notes: Cheifs, Eric Fisher agree to contract extension

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs signed left tackle Eric Fisher to a contract extension Saturday, the first day veterans joined rookies on the practice field at Missouri Western for training camp.

The Chiefs didn't announce terms of the extension, but a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press it was a four-year, $48 million deal that includes $40 million guaranteed. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the contract terms were confidential.

Fisher was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Central Michigan, but he struggled to adjust to the NFL his first couple years. He finally came into his own last season, showcasing the talent that the Chiefs hope can make him their left tackle for the foreseeable future.

The Chiefs exercised their fifth-year option on him in May. That means Fisher's total deal spans six years and $63 million.

FALCONS: Jones says injury is minor
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Julio Jones insists the apparent foot injury that has limited him the first three days of Atlanta Falcons training camp is no big deal.

Jones took part in individual work but was held out of team drills for the second straight day Saturday. He was pulled out of the first practice on Thursday. The star wide receiver says the injury is "definitely nothing to worry about."

Jones had his left shoe off and was seen rolling his foot over a ball on the sideline during Saturday's team drills. He has had two surgeries on his right foot.

Jones and coach Dan Quinn haven't revealed details of the injury. Quinn said a key Saturday was seeing Jones "explode and push off it."

Quinn says he expects Jones to have full clearance as early as Sunday.

RAIDERS: GM McKenzie gets contract extension
NAPA, Calif. -- The Oakland Raiders signed general manager Reggie McKenzie to a four-year contract extension.

Owner Mark Davis announced the move Friday night in front of about 100 former Raiders players. Davis said it was time to "reward" McKenzie for the job he had done in his first three years with the team.

McKenzie was originally given a five-year contract back in 2012 to run the team after the death of longtime owner Al Davis. The Raiders struggled at the start as McKenzie tried to rebuild the organization, winning just 11 games his first three seasons.

But a few strong draft classes and the hiring of coach Jack Del Rio last year helped Oakland improve to 7-9 in 2015 and the Raiders are expected to contend in the AFC West this year.

CARDINALS: Nkemdeche, Jenkins out with injuries
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Cardinals coach Bruce Arians says he expects first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdeche to be sidelined for two weeks with a high ankle sprain.

The big defensive Arizona tackle was injured in the first day of rookie camp on Tuesday, but Saturday was the first time Arians has given a timeline for the rookie's return.

Cornerback Mike Jenkins, who signed with the Cardinals on July 19, left Friday's first training camp workout with a broken bone in his hand. Arians said there's no prognosis on how Jenkins will be out.

Tight end Jermaine Gresham left practice Friday with a tight hamstring. An MRI is planned but Arians said the injury is not considered serious.

Defensive tackle Red Bryant sat out Saturday's practice with soreness in an Achilles tendon.