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Early Thinking On Some Roster Battles To Watch

There is no official depth chart, and the way the Eagles are going to approach the formation of one is to see how it all plays out on the practice field in the months ahead. Just so we get that out of the way … We’re approaching mid-May, and it’s slow on the news side here for a while. The Rookie Camp happens this weekend. The Organized Team Activities start later in the month. Let’s have some fun and project some Positional Battles to Watch …

CORNERBACK: YOUNG AND TALENTED AND COMPETITIVE

Is anything set in stone here? It’s hard to imagine anything close to that with the plethora of talented players the Eagles have in the cornerback room. While much focus has been on the nickel cornerback position, manned so well last season by Patrick Robinson, the truth is that the cornerback position is wide open. How can it not be? The Eagles need to see how far Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas have come as they move into their second seasons. They need to see Ronald Darby in his first full offseason/season in the system. They need to see where Jalen Mills in on the outside, and maybe take a long look at him on the inside. They need to see draft pick Avonte Maddox and get a feel for how quickly he can transition into a nickel role as a rookie.

There’s a lot going on here. The Eagles have loaded up on cornerbacks. There is a lot of talent on the roster. There is playing time to be earned. Of all the positions to watch this summer – and we’ll be watching them all – cornerback is going to be perhaps the most fascinating with all of these young players competing for time.

RUNNING BACK: AJAYI MOVES INTO LEAD ROLE, OR DOES HE?

Jay Ajayi, in theory, will be in position to be more of a “lead” running back than he was a season ago after the Eagles acquired him in a trade from Miami. He’s in the offseason conditioning program here for the first time and he will have a full comprehension of the entire scheme. It’s exciting to think what Ajayi can accomplish in the offense. But he’s going to be pushed for playing time as the Eagles likely continue to rotate their backs to keep them fresh and to maximize the best matchups on the field. Corey Clement is in his second season here and if you believe that an NFL player makes his biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2, then Clement has a lot of great things ahead of him. He’s a versatile, smart, and explosive back. How many touches is the optimal number for Clement in the year ahead?

There is a lot to consider at running back. What role will Darren Sproles have? Can Wendell Smallwood stay healthy and provide a day-in, day-out element in this offense? How much better will Donnel Pumphrey be as he enters his second season? The Eagles have a good situation in the offensive backfield.

WIDE RECEIVER: EXPECT A PUSH FROM YOUNG GROUP OF VETERANS

Mike Wallace is here in place of the traded Torrey Smith, and the Eagles feel good that they’ve improved their wide receiver picture with Wallace’s production, his competitiveness, and his deep speed. Alshon Jeffery is recovering from his rotator cuff surgery and is expected to be fine for the season. Before then, though, the Eagles are going to have some fierce roster and depth-chart competition. Really, only Jeffery, Wallace, and Nelson Agholor are in fairly set roles, with some creative thinking likely to enhance them. What about Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson, Bryce Treggs, and Greg Ward, all of whom now know the system and are ready to challenge for time?

There is also the “young veteran” tier to think about, a group that includes Markus Wheaton, Marquess Wilson, Dom Williams, and Rashard Davis. Maybe someone emerges from that group. Isn’t it usually the case that somebody kind of comes from nowhere in the summer?

SAFETY: WHO BACKS UP THE STARTERS?

We know that Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod form an outstanding tandem. Who backs them up? Last year the Eagles signed veteran Corey Graham in August and he did a nice job all season and through the playoffs. Now? Chris Maragos is back and healthy and, yes, he helps on the back end. Tre Sullivan showed a physical presence last summer in the preseason, and he’s back and more familiar with the defense. The Eagles will add to safety when the list of undrafted rookies is announced, but right now it’s a thin group and one looking for depth.

DEFENSIVE END: HOW DOES ALL THIS TALENT PLAY?

How will reps be divided among Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett and Chris Long and Michael Bennett and Steven Means and rookie Josh Sweat? Can the Eagles keep six ends on the roster? This is a wonderful challenge to have, as the Eagles are deep and extremely talented at a premium position in the NFL. There simply aren’t enough quality defensive ends in the NFL, and the Eagles are loaded with them. So the level of competition is going to be incredibly high for this summer and throughout the year. If talent makes talent better, then look out. This group is going to be dynamite.

PUNTER/HOLDER: IT’S CAMERON JOHNSTON AND …

At the moment, there is no competition, as Cameron Johnston is the lone punter on the roster. He’s a talented guy and the Eagles are going to give him every chance to win the job as the punter and at the same time prove he can be an outstanding holder. At some point, however, you would think the Eagles will bring in some competition. We shall see how it plays out at this critical position.

MIDDLE LINEBACKER, WITH HICKS’ HEALTH THE KEY

If Jordan Hicks is fully healthy and stays healthy, then this is his job, no questions asked. He is a perfect fit in this defense. But Hicks is coming back from a torn Achilles tendon, so … Paul Worrilow is an experienced player. Joe Walker knows the system. The Eagles will have the depth covered here. But there is going to be some competition, either behind Hicks or for the starting job if he’s not right to go.

WEAKSIDE LINEBACKER: DOES NELSON CHALLENGE KENDRICKS?

The Eagles signed linebacker Corey Nelson for a reason: He’s young, he plays very fast, and he can make an impact in coverage against the passing game. Nelson is here to challenge at the weakside linebacker position, manned by Mychal Kendricks. It’s as straight-forward as that: Kendricks has a challenge on his hands in the person of Nelson, who is here on a one-year contract intent on proving that he deserves a long-term contract in this league. The Eagles survived the Hicks injury last year at linebacker and Kendricks had a good season in the defense, but in the pursuit adding speed to the defense, Nelson was an early priority in free agency. Good battle to come here.

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