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'Unknowns' Trying To Get Known

Posted Apr 9, 2014

They emerge from the deep, dark corners of an NFL roster: Players unknown to the general public who are suddenly on the field and making plays and, well, "known." Who could be the next "known" player on this roster? ...

A swollen NFL roster of 90 players is narrowed to 53 by the start of the season and then you count in injuries and performance issues and a player taking advantage of an opportunity and, yeah, going from "unknown" to "known" isn't uncommon at all.

Ask Cedric Thornton. Not drafted in 2011, he spent three-quarters of that season on the Eagles' practice squad before a late-year promotion. Two seasons later, Thornton led the defensive line in tackles and ranked third on the defense with 5 tackles for loss.

A nice rise.

A great story.

Who is next in line for the Eagles? Here are some candidates to consider ...

B.J. Cunningham, wide receiver

See how difficult it is to make the transition from the college game to the NFL? B.J. Cunningham left Michigan State as the school's all-time leading pass receiver, yet he's still not yet found a niche in the bigs.

Cunningham was a sixth-round draft pick by Miami in 2012 and didn't make it with the Dolphins. He was picked up by the Eagles and has been active for two games since. What does Cunningham need to do to make it at this level? That's the big question. He runs well, he's got a big body (6 feet 2, 215 pounds) and he has strong hands.

Cunningham should be thick in the competition in the summer. The Eagles have obviously changed the dynamic at wide receiver, and Cunningham is still here for a reason. He has to show he can play fast and thrive in an offense that creates a lot of opportunities and favorable matchups for the receiving corps.

Matt Tobin, offensive lineman

Interesting prospect who, with a strong spring and summer, could go a long way toward providing some needed depth inside and at tackle along the Eagles' offensive line. Matt Tobin wasn't drafted in 2013 but he impressed offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and now has a chance to be a prime backup or, if he really comes through, push guards Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis.

Tobin isn't the most massive lineman, but he has good athletic ability and he's going to get a long, long look in the preseason. The Eagles have some age to consider with Herremans and Mathis. Is Tobin someone who could be counted on as a starter some day?

Damion Square, defensive lineman

At 6 feet 3, Damion Square has some room to build up from his listed weight of 286 pounds. He probably weighed in a lot closer to 300 pounds toward the end of his rookie season, during which he played in 10 games, and Square may have room to add bulk.

Square had enough of a taste of the NFL last year to know how far he needs to improve to make an impact. Can he be a nose tackle inside with Bennie Logan? Can Square play as an end and handle guards and stop the running game?

He's got some explosiveness to his game, and Square is certainly a player to keep an eye on when the players start the team's conditioning program on April 21. Square has the perfect role model in Thornton in the same defensive line room every day.

Keelan Johnson, safety

Why not consider Keelan Johnson as a rising prospect for the Eagles' secondary? He was on the practice squad for much of last season before a promotion to the active roster, and he had a couple of tackles in the blowout victory over Chicago. Johnson knows the tempo of the game, and he's built at 212 pounds to withstand the rigors of the position.

Can Johnson run well enough and cover in space? Is he versatile enough to play in this scheme? What kind of work did he put in during the offseason to improve?

A job is open in the secondary. The Eagles have only five safeties on the active roster, although history says they will add more to the 90-man roster. Johnson is most definitely in the mix after his outstanding career at Arizona State. Johnson was signed by Miami as an undrafted rookie in 2013 and then joined the Eagles after Miami released him.

Add his name to the candidates of young players the Eagles hope to emerge on defense. There are two good prospects to consider at safety for the team -- Johnson and Earl Wolff, a fifth-round draft pick last year.

Matthew Tucker, running back

There is a reason that a team that appears so loaded at running back still has Matthew Tucker on the roster. Clearly, the Eagles think that Tucker can develop. He's a big back at 6-1 and 227 pounds. Tucker was active for two games last year after joining the active roster and he worked hard to loosen up his hips and run with explosiveness.

How does the running back depth chart look? Well, from this perspective there isn't a team in the league with a better situation. LeSean McCoy is among the best 1-2 running backs in the league. Darren Sproles is a versatile player who drives defenses crazy in every way. Bryce Brown has all the talent in the world and came on last season once he got his chance. Chris Polk is a bruiser who was productive when called upon in 2013.

And then there's Tucker, who is still here for a reason. The reason is that the Eagles see something they think they can bring out. Let's see how this running back picture clears up. The Eagles have a position of great strength here.

Michael Bamiro, offensive tackle

The obvious question with Michael Bamiro is how to get that 6-8, 340-pound body in sync with the extreme demands of playing the position of offensive tackle. The job requires artistry in footwork and hand placement, and of course the requisite timing and intelligence and strength.

Bamiro is a hard-working young man who made nice strides after the Eagles signed him prior to the 2013 training camp. He has to prove he can get all the technical parts down and that he can make the jump from Stony Brook's level of competition in college to the NFL.

He has a long way to go, but a season spent redshirting on the team's practice squad will pay off. Bamiro will be physically stronger and more ingrained in the nuances of what Stoutland is teaching, so he can push for roster spot in the summer.

This a huge project, literally, as the Eagles knew when they signed him. A full year of work in the weight room and on the demands of the position will greatly aid Bamiro's progress.

Travis Long, linebacker

After starting 47 straight games and offering terrific production for Washington State, Travis Long suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and missed his final collegiate game. With that injury, of course, any chance Long had of being drafted went out the window.

The Eagles signed him after the draft -- early in training camp after he was able to work out sufficiently, to be exact -- and kept Long arond on the practice squad. Now they want to see what Long can do fully healthy and with a working knowledge of the defense.

Can Long, at 6-4 and 245 pounds, regain the speed he had in college and cover in space? Can he be an edge pass rusher (he had 20 1/2 quarterback sacks in college) and offer some punch off the edge?

Long looks great in a uniform and he plays with an edge and toughness, so we'll see. He could be one of those post-injury players who takes off after a full season of rehabilitating and taking advantage of a year of prep work.

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