A lot of the excitement right now is focused on rookies Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy and Cornelius Ingram. That's understandable. You watch the highlight clips of them in college and can't help but get excited about what they will do in the NFL. We're all like kids on Christmas morning and those guys are our new toys.
That's all well and good, but you can't count on significant impact from rookies. The adjustment from college to the pro game is very tough. For every DeSean Jackson there are several players who struggle to even get on the field, let alone offer much in the way of real impact.
Let's take a look at the draft class of 2008. That is the group that we need to step up this year. These players have been around for a season. Some played, some didn't. Most got to practice. They all got exposed to the NFL and the Eagles' way of doing things. The mental side of things should be less of a challenge this time around. That will allow the young guys to play faster and more naturally.
Trevor Laws was the first player picked last April by the Eagles. He got regular playing time as a rookie. He finished the season with 16 tackles and a fumble recovery. Laws played more and more as the season progressed. The biggest problem Laws had was closing plays. He would almost get a runner in the backfield. He would just miss getting the quarterback. If the game does speed up for him this year, Laws should be more of a playmaker. He's got the motor and quickness to be a finisher.
Laws has a pair of very good starters in front of him in Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley. It is Laws' job to challenge them. He can't accept that he's a backup. He needs to come to Lehigh with the attitude that he will do his best to take one of their jobs. I trust Laws when he's on the field. There have been some guys in the past that you didn't want playing in crucial situations. That isn't the case with Laws. I think of him as a third starter. Now, he needs to take the step from effective player to good player. Make some plays. Be disruptive. Laws will get on the field as much as he deserves it this year.
DeSean Jackson was the next player selected, just two spots after Laws. He had a great rookie year. The question with him is whether he can take the next step and become a special receiver. While Jackson made a ton of plays last year, he did have some costly mistakes. He dropped a third down pass in the red zone in the Week 2 loss at Dallas. His biggest drop was the deep ball against Washington late in the year that would have been a game-tying touchdown. If Jackson is going to be a Pro Bowl type of receiver, he needs to make those kinds of catches.
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It will be very interesting to see how much stronger and more physical Jackson is this year. He came into the league at just around 170 pounds. He wasn't very strong. Jackson was able to use his speed and quickness to get open and make plays. Some teams did shut him down pretty well. The Redskins and Giants limited him to seven catches for 83 yards in four games. Both teams have big, physical cornerbacks. Jackson reportedly looks bigger and stronger this off-season. If true, that's good news.
Fighting complacency will be tough for Jackson. I hope he realizes that teams now have had plenty of time to study him and he will get a lot more attention from defenses in 2009. Jackson needs to step up his game, since the opponents will be approaching him in a different way.
Third-round pick Bryan Smith didn't play at all. He was buried on the depth chart at defensive end and just couldn't get on the field. The five guys ahead of him are all back. So what will happen? He had a very uphill battle last year. Smith was adjusting from I-AA football to the NFL. He was bulking up from the 230-pound range to the 250-pound range. Those factors shouldn't be an issue this year.
Smith controls his own fate in a certain way. If he plays lights out this summer, the coaches have to find a way to get him on the field. The Eagles love pass rushers. They won't ignore him. If he just looks ""pretty good"" that complicates things. Smith would then have to rely on someone ahead of him getting hurt or struggling.
I wonder if the Eagles' dream scenario would be to have Victor Abiamiri and Smith play great this summer. The team could then deal Juqua Parker for a draft pick. Abiamiri would start on the left side and be backed up by Chris Clemons. Trent Cole would start on the right side and be backed up by Smith. Darren Howard could play almost exclusively at defensive tackle. I'm sure Smith is chomping at the bit to show what he can do this year. I can't wait to see him play.
Mike McGlynn was the first of three picks in the fourth round. He got some playing time, but not much. He played guard in some mop-up time late in games. He also played some on special teams. The off-season additions of Stacy Andrews and Jason Peters, as well as the return of Shawn Andrews likely means McGlynn will be a backup this year. The thing I'll be interested to see is where they use him. He was the backup left guard last year, but also saw time at center with the third team. Stacy Andrews isn't healthy right now. That means Nick Cole gets his spot at right guard. I assume that makes McGlynn the backup center for now. No matter where he is, McGlynn is the type of player who will give his best and will make it tough on the coaches to keep him on the bench.
Quintin Demps could be the starting free safety this year. Right now, he's on the top of the depth chart at that position, but it won't shock me if Sean Jones gets that job sometime this summer. Jones is more of a strong safety, but the Eagles will want to get the best player on the field. Quintin Mikell is entrenched as one starter. Jones and Demps will battle for the other spot. Demps made huge strides over the course of last season. He struggled on defense in the preseason. We all loved his kickoff return ability, but his tackling needed polish. He worked at it and got better each week. By the end of the season, I had no worries about Demps making tackles.
Unfortunately Demps played his worst game of the year in the NFC title game. His emotion and excitement got the best of him and he made some crucial mistakes. We have to hope that he learned from that game. I think Demps can be a very good free safety. He's got excellent speed. He can cover man-to-man or zone. His tackling was solid last year. He showed he could blitz. The skills are there. Now Demps just has to show he can put them all together and be a consistent, productive starter.
With the increased time on defense, I'm not sure if he'll retain his kickoff return duties. The Eagles may want to give that job to Maclin. Demps was terrific last year, averaging just over 25 yards per return. He was the lone bright spot of the Ravens debacle with his 100-yard touchdown return. Demps could be a very good returner if allowed to keep the job.
The biggest mystery man from the 2008 class is cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu. He suffered a devastating knee injury while training for the Combine last year. He missed the entire off-season and regular season. His first activity as an Eagle came at the mini-camp a couple of weeks back. Ikegwuonu hurt his hamstring and that limited his playing time during that weekend. Prior to his injury, Ikegwuonu looked like a late first-round pick and a terrific cover corner. Think Sheldon Brown, but with a bit more speed. The depth chart at corner is suddenly crowded. Ikegwuonu is the fifth corner. He'll need to look really good this summer to get on the field. That could happen or he could spend another year on the mend. There is no guarantee that he'll even make the team. It all depends on his knee and how much speed, quickness and athleticism we see.
The Eagles didn't have a fifth-round pick. Mike Gibson was the first of the sixth-round selections. He mainly played left guard on the third team over the course of last summer. Gibson had a nagging shoulder injury and spent the year on Injured Reserve. He's all good to go now. He's got an uphill battle to make the team because of the depth on the line. He might get snaps at guard and center this year. Gibson is an ideal candidate for the practice squad.
Joe Mays was somewhat of an afterthought last April. That ended when he got on the field at Lehigh. Mays was all over the place, hitting everything he could. That carried over to the preseason games. He really had a good summer. Unfortunately, he didn't get on the field during the year except for a few games where he played special teams. Mays was trapped as the backup middle linebacker behind Stewart Bradley. This year Mays needs to play even better. He's got to push Bradley for time at linebacker. Mays also needs to get on the field on special teams. With his physical style of play and ability to tackle, Mays is a natural for playing on the kick and punt coverage teams. He was a lot of fun to watch last preseason. I hope he's able to play well again and get on the field this year.
Mays could actually be important to the roster configuration this season. If he plays well enough that the Eagles are comfortable with him being a key special teams performer, that could cost Tracy White his job. Nobody is cheering for White to go. He was good last year. There is a numbers crunch in terms of roster spots. If White becomes expendable, then that frees up a spot at running back or defensive back, for example.
King Dunlap was the lone seventh-round pick. He was the backup left tackle last summer. Dunlap showed a lot of potential. He also showed some limitations. He dealt with a nagging foot injury and had surgery on that, which put him on Injured Reserve for the season. Dunlap is now healthy and returns as the backup left tackle.
It will be interesting to see how much progress he's made since last summer. Dunlap absolutely looks the part of a starting left tackle. He's got ideal size and long arms. He looks fairly natural as a pass protector. However, size and potential doesn't guarantee Dunlap a roster spot this year. He's got to come in hungry and show improvement from last year. Dunlap could be a candidate for the practice squad. The only problem is if he looks good, the Eagles would risk losing him to another team. Dunlap is the kind of guy I think the Eagles will really want to keep around. Let's hope he shows enough this summer that keeping him looks like the smart move.