Philadelphia Eagles News

A Lot To Watch In Preseason Opener

There was a time when Bryon Maxwell needed the preseason to make a roster. He was a sixth-round draft pick by Seattle in 2011, and every rep meant something.

"I knew I wasn't going to be handed anything, so to go out there and play in games and have tape of my play, it was huge," Maxwell said. "It was exciting to get some time on the field and show that I belonged in the NFL."

Maxwell doesn't have to worry about earning a job now. The No. 1 free agent target of the Eagles in March, Maxwell signed a six-year contract with Philadelphia and is in position to start, to be the No. 1 cornerback and to get his name thrown around with the best of the best cornerbacks in the league.

So the preseason games, maybe, shouldn't mean all that much to Maxwell, right? Not true at all.

"I'm excited to get out and play in front of the fans, knock some rust off and get into the flow of the game," Maxwell said this week as the Eagles prepared for Sunday's preseason opener (1 p.m. against the Colts, Lincoln Financial Field, NBC10). "It's football. I want to play."

Finally, after the longest of the long offseasons and then a wait for a few more days as the rest of the NFL opened its preseason slate, the Eagles are set to go against Indianapolis. The will-not-play list includes quarterback Sam Bradford and tight end Zach Ertz and linebacker Kiko Alonso and will likely include several other veterans, but for those who play, it's a critical afternoon -- which, by the way, will include temperatures of plus-90 degrees in South Philadelphia. Jobs are on the line. Position battles are very real, all the way through this roster. Let's take a look, position by position, at what we can expect in the first of four preseason games.

QUARTERBACK

Bradford won't play (Chip Kelly's decision) and will instead get ready for the sessions at the NovaCare Complex next week against Baltimore and the game against the Ravens on Saturday night. Mark Sanchez starts and will probably play a series or two and then turn things over to Matt Barkley and Tim Tebow. Both are competing for the No. 3 quarterback job, and it's a very real and very close competition. The job will be won in the preseason games.

RUNNING BACK

Don't expect to DeMarco Murray much, if at all. Ryan Mathews will probably play sparingly. Ditto for Darren Sproles, if he plays at all.

Instead, the Eagles want to evaluate some young backs to consider to improve the position's depth. Kenjon Barner is healthy and ready to state his case for a roster spot. Rookie  Raheem Mostert is a track star who plays fast, too, and who could factor into the mix in the return game. Villanova's Kevin Monangai is playing catch up after signing with the Eagles in late July.

It's not just how they run the football here. Being a receiver and helping as a blocker is huge, too. Do the Eagles keep four running backs? Who among this group is ready to step up and earn a job?

WIDE RECEIVER

The Eagles have been lining up this way in the training sessions: Riley Cooper and Josh Huff starting on the outside with Jordan Matthews in the slot. There is competition, however, as rookie Nelson Agholor has come on and veteran Miles Austin has played well in training camp. The Eagles are pleased with veteran Seyi Ajirotutu, who is expected to be a leader on special teams as well.

After that group, a handful of young players are trying to impress. Quron Pratt, on the practice squad last season, has had a good camp. Philadelphia's Rasheed Bailey has played good football. G.J. Kinne, in his first year ever at wide receiver after playing quarterback, has natural hands and has acquitted himself well.

It's going to be tough for anyone outside of the projected six players mentioned above -- Cooper, Huff, Matthews, Agholor, Austin and Ajirotutu -- to make the 53-man roster, but there is a practice squad and 31 other teams to consider.

TIGHT END

Ertz is out with a core muscle injury for the entire preseason. Brent Celek might play, but he certainly doesn't need the reps and likely won't play much, if at all. Trey Burton, a second-year man from Florida, has improved a ton and will be the threat here. The Eagles also want to get some extended looks at rookie tight ends Eric Tomlinson, Andrew Gleichert and Justin Tukes. These are developmental-type tight ends who are more in the "blocker" vein than what the NFL now calls tight ends. None of them run particularly well, but a couple of big catches could put any one of them on the radar in a hurry.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Questions, questions and more questions, particularly at the right guard spot. Andrew Gardner is the likely starter Sunday for what is a four-man race. Matt Tobin and John Moffitt will get reps there, for sure. Someone needs to step up and claim the job, starting Sunday.

Of the new Eagles and young linemen, Malcolm Bunche and Brett Boyko are the ones showing the most promise in the early going. The Eagles need some depth to come through behind a starting group that includes left guard Allen Barbre.

DEFENSIVE LINE

A young player trying to make his mark in NFL season No. 2 is Taylor Hart, who was inactive for every game in 2014. He has re-made his body and has impressed and been a camp standout. Can he translate that to a game? And how do young prospects like Wade Kelilkipi and Travis Raciti and seventh-round draft pick Brian Mihalik factor into the picture? Are they ready to push for roster spots?

The Eagles are deep and talented and really, really good up front defensively. They want to keep developing the young talent and building depth.

LINEBACKERS

A lot of attention will be paid to these players, and for good reason. Depth is a question mark, especially on the edge. Second-year man Marcus Smith is going to see a lot of time with starters Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham expected to see very little time. Bryan Braman will play outside in the opener as will Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo and newly signed Deontae Skinner.

Inside, it would be a surprise if Alonso, DeMeco Ryans or Mychal Kendricks plays as they keep their eyes on getting ready for the Atlanta opener on September 14. You will see a lot of Emmanuel Acho and Najee Goode and third-round draft pick Jordan Hicks and Brad Jones.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This is another important group to watch in the opener. It's not about Maxwell, a starter at corner, or safety Malcolm Jenkins. Both are entrenched. Walter Thurmond is the other starting safety and Nolan Carroll starts at one corner position and both want to keep their strong summers going in the right direction.

Some players to watch: Jaylen Watkins, Eric Rowe, E.J. Biggers, Randall Evans, Denzel Rice and newly signed Marc Anthony at the corner spots, and Ed Reynolds, Chris Prosinski and Chris Maragos at safety. Who is the third safety on this roster behind Jenkins and Thurmond? Earl Wolff is a question mark to play and if he can't go, it's a big blow to his chances of making the team. Jerome Couplin is still out as he recovers from an appendicitis.

The Eagles are going to press in coverage and evaluate what they have on the roster. It's all about technique and it's about the young players developing very quickly.

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