When Training Camp began, it seemed that, barring injury, there would be a lack of true competition for starting spots. Oh, there was to be plenty of competition for roles and roster spots, but most of the 22 starting jobs were accounted for, save perhaps for the weakside linebacker position and fullback. But now, with the insertion of King Dunlap into the first-team lineup at left tackle, we have a true camp battle on our hands - one that may extend all the way up to the regular season.
Demetress Bell, the presumptive starter who was signed as a free agent in the offseason once Jason Peters went down with a torn Achilles, has been taking the second-team reps at left tackle since Saturday. Head coach Andy Reid has indicated that there was a plan all along to give first-team reps to Dunlap, who re-signed in the offseason with the expectation that he would have a chance to compete for the starting job. Dunlap has started seven games for the Eagles over the past two seasons, and already has a working relationship with the rest of the offensive line.
"King does a lot of things well," said left guard Evan Mathis, who played next to Dunlap during last year's game against the Buffalo Bills. "He's a very good pass protector. His technique has gotten better and better over the course of the past year adapting to Howard's techniques. That long wingspan, he gets that on guys very quickly and that really helps him in the pass game."
At the heart of the issue for Bell is the difficulty of the transition to offensive line coach Howard Mudd's techniques, which are radically different than those taught throughout most of the rest of the league.
"Physically at the tackle position, it's just completely different than anything he's ever been a part of, I can guarantee that," said Jason Kelce, who noted that the transition to center is much easier because of the lack of space inside. "How aggressive they have to set, how in your face, I mean he's just never had to do it. It's been an ongoing learning process for him.
"He knows that nothing's set in stone as of right now. Demetress was brought in here for a reason, and that reason was really to start. But King has played really well during Training Camp and Demetress is still on that learning curve as far as the techniques and the plays are concerned. That's an ongoing battle and he knows that. Right now, I think they're trying to put a guy in there who knows a little bit more of the system and techniques."
There's also a parallel to be drawn between Bell and Danny Watkins, last year's first-round pick. Prior to Week 1 of the regular season last year, Watkins was demoted from the right guard position in favor of veteran Kyle DeVan, who was familiar with Mudd's techniques from his time with the Indianapolis Colts. The Eagles said Watkins was being given a step back in order to take a step forward, which proved fruitful as Watkins regained the starting job in Week 5 and never looked back.
"I told him he shouldn't be worried about it," said Watkins of Bell. "I think it's a learning process. Camp isn't a cake walk. It's different when the bullets are flying. He's got time, that's the good news. The pressure's kind of been taken off of him and it's good to be able to take that step back.
"He knows that if he doesn't get it corrected that he's not going to be playing," said Kelce, "and I think that's a very influential factor in trying to get someone to try harder and play better."
Meanwhile, the scouting report from someone who has spent all of Training Camp working one-on-one against both Dunlap and Bell suggests that the Eagles are likely to be in good hands with whoever suits up as the starter.
"They're both unbelievable athletes at the tackle ," said Darryl Tapp. "King is so tall and athletic, and then (Bell), he's just as athletic as Jason Peters, so they both pose a lot of problems. I think honestly, especially with those guys, there's such competition off of the line, that Coach Mudd and Coach Reid are just changing guys up, giving everyone a fair chance. I don't think anything's permanent, I think we're just working to get better."
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