The focus has been on free agency and the NFL Draft as the Eagles work to improve the roster for the 2017 season. A breathless first week of free agency has morphed into news tidbits, dribs and drabs as the market withers. In the meantime, the NovaCare Complex is building a buzz ahead of the team’s April 17 start to the offseason conditioning program.
With that in mind, let’s consider a 10-pack of players who have different stories and roles on this team. But all bear watching for a variety of reasons.
NIGEL BRADHAM, linebacker
In his first year with the Eagles, Nigel Bradham led the team’s linebackers with 99 total tackles and a career-high seven tackles for loss. He is extremely sound at the point of attack and he shows good technique making the tackle. Bradham is solid in coverage and he delivered with his pass-rush pressure when called upon to do so last season.
On a team that could use more depth at linebacker, Bradham and Jordan Hicks are two for-sure things. Mychal Kendricks is the starter on the weakside, but the Eagles in 2016 took Kendricks off the field in the nickel and dime personnel times. Bradham played 97 percent of the team’s snaps and maybe the best open-field tackler on the roster. He’s tough and he has a big role in front of him this season.
TERRENCE BROOKS, safety
Maybe not a starter, Terrence Brooks has a chance to be a pretty good player here. He’s only 200 pounds, so he’s got to overcome a lack of bulk, but Brooks showed last season that he can be effective in kick coverage and as a deep cover safety. The Eagles have Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod as the starters, and Jaylen Watkins just signed a one-year contract and Chris Maragos is an invaluable piece on special teams.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the team will address safety before or during the draft to add competition, so Brooks has to step up and earn his place.
VINNY CURRY, defensive end
One of the disappointments of the 2016 campaign was that Vinny Curry, who played a career-high 435 snaps, managed just 2.5 quarterback sacks in a four-man front, which was expected to highlight Curry’s skill set.
In the second year of his contract, then, Curry has to step up. He figures right now – on paper, for whatever that is worth – to be a starter opposite Brandon Graham, and the Eagles need Curry in a big way. Connor Barwin signed with the Rams in free agency. Marcus Smith has not yet delivered on his first-round draft status. Steven Means has had limited game reps to show his skills.
Could the Eagles address defensive end in the draft? Absolutely. The defensive end class is said to be very strong. But it’s tough to step onto the field in the NFL and shine as a rookie defensive end.
The Eagles need Curry to blossom. Right now. He had 9.0 quarterback sacks in 2014 in limited playing time and so the thinking is that more playing time equals more production. Now is the time to deliver on the promise.
DILLON GORDON, guard
The Eagles gave Dillon Gordon a full season as a developmental offensive guard after starting for three years at LSU as a blocking tight end. Gordon is back at the NovaCare Complex and he’s got a huge spring and summer in front of him.
This offensive line is loaded with experienced players from tackle to tackle. It’s unlikely the Eagles will have the opportunity to give Gordon another year to shape his game, to make the transition from tight end to guard or tackle. So he’s going to have to be ready to go. How much did the extremely athletic Gordon learn as a rookie as far as using the right technique on a consistent basis? That’s going to determine the future of a player who, if it all comes together – and that’s a big if – has terrific athletic upside.
DWAYNE GRATZ, cornerback
A position that has lost 2016 starters (Nolan Carroll, signed with Dallas as an unrestricted free agent) and Leodis McKelvin (released) is expected to be addressed in the draft. Maybe even a lot. The Eagles return second-year man Jalen Mills, who played 65 percent of the snaps last season, along with nickel corner Ron Brooks, who is recovering from a 2016-ending quad injury, and not much more than that.
Dwayne Gratz was a third-round draft pick by Jacksonville in 2013 and after four seasons there, split 2016 between Los Angeles and Philadelphia. He needs to learn the defense and then he needs to go out and win a job at a position that has openings. At 5-11, 199 pounds, Gratz has good size. Does he has the speed and the knowledge of the defense to make it here?
BYRON MARSHALL, running back
Signed as a rookie free agent after a stellar career at Oregon, Byron Marshall saw some action late in the year at Baltimore and against Dallas and showed some quickness, a dash of power and hunger. The Eagles have questions at running back. Can Marshall, even if it is in a limited role, be one of the answers?
The offense uses Darren Sproles as a “move” player, someone who can line up in different places around the formation and put pressure on defenses, but maybe Marshall can be the Josh Huff-type player to take jet sweeps and use his speed to the edge. The question is whether he has the quickness and pure speed to be that kind of player here.
ALEX McCALISTER, defensive end
A seventh-round draft pick a year ago, Alex McCalister spent his rookie season on Injured Reserve working on his body and getting fully healthy. He’s put on 15-20 pounds and with those long arms and natural leverage, McCalister has a chance to help at defensive end.
The Eagles need a dominating pass rush. They need consistency. They need a lot more than Graham. It would be an extremely welcomed boost to have McCalister show up in the spring OTAs and in Training Camp proving he can be a major threat off the edge.
DALLAS THOMAS, offensive guard
What a weird career. A third-round draft pick in 2013, Dallas Thomas started 26 games in four seasons for the Miami Dolphins, including all 16 games at left guard in 2016. And then, he was gone from Miami last October.
So now he has a fresh chance with the Eagles and the competition for a roster spot, much less a starting job, will be significant. Thomas is one of those players who could inject himself into the picture. He is an intriguing talent.
DESTINY VAEAO, defensive tackle
With Bennie Logan having signed in Kansas City as an unrestricted free agent, Destiny Vaeao is in position to become a significant part of the defensive tackle picture. Truth is, and not many were aware of it, Vaeao made a bit of an impact in his rookie season. Vaeao played 26 percent of the snaps and had a couple of quarterback sacks and 19 total tackles. The coaches like him very, very much. Vaeao is listed as 299 pounds on his 6-feet-4 frame, so there is room to fill out and add strength.
It’s not clear how the Eagles will replace Logan, or if they plan to sign a veteran in free agency or use a draft pick, but the team wants to see how Beau Allen performs with extended reps. Vaeao is going to be right there pushing for playing time. He has a chance to be pretty darn good.
JOE WALKER, linebacker
A seventh-round draft pick, Joe Walker was on his way to making the team before he suffered a torn ACL in the preseason. Walker has rehabbed relentlessly, so we will see if the injury has any negative lingering impact.
Walker isn’t the biggest guy and he isn’t the fastest linebacker, but he showed that he had an instinct for being around the football in the preseason and that he was tuned into the scheme. The moment was not too big for Walker last year. His injury forced the Eagle to sign veteran backup Stephen Tulloch, who was a nice, but expensive, insurance policy behind Hicks in the middle of the defense.
The Eagles would love Walker to blossom coming off the injury. He’s going to get a long look in the spring and summer.