The final preseason game will be played Thursday night against the New York Jets. Starters aren't going to see action so some fans may think this is not a very important game. Those fans would be very wrong. While the game will lack star power, it will be of vital importance to the careers of some young players. Only time will tell if any of these players become stars or key players. I probably use this example every summer, but I remember watching a Baltimore Ravens show when the coach talked about how some kid named Priest Holmes secured his spot on the roster with a strong showing in the preseason finale, especially with how well he played on special teams. Holmes went on to have a great career. Who knows what would have happened if he didn't play well that night.
The Eagles know who the top 45 to 50 players are. This game is to find out which players deserve the final few roster spots and also which players are good practice squad candidates. Let's start by talking about the tight end position. Clay Harbor and Cornelius Ingram will play a lot in this game. Each player has a lot on the line. Harbor wants to prove to the Eagles that he can be a good second tight end. The team is probably wondering whether Harbor is ready for that role or if they should go after a veteran player once cuts are made. If you watch the tape you can see Harbor's physical ability and potential.
The Eagles see themselves as a playoff team. They can only go into the season with Harbor as the second tight end if they fully trust him. We need to see results, not just potential. If Harbor blocks well and has a solid game as a receiver, the Eagles might just roll the dice and stick with him. He doesn't have to catch a bunch of passes to be a good receiver. The coaches want to see him run routes, get open, and carry out his assignments correctly. They obviously can't fault him for not having the ball come his way. Any drops or other mistakes will hurt his cause.
Ingram is playing to earn a roster spot. He's been plagued by bad luck, but after having a cyst drained recently there is some hope that Ingram will be able to run better and will look more athletic. Last summer Ingram was terrific prior to re-tearing his ACL. This summer he just hasn't been the same guy. The Eagles still like his long-term potential, but the question is what to do with Ingram. Has he earned a roster spot? Could you put him on injured reserve again? That's a possibility, but I'm not sure another year without football is going to help him out. The practice squad could be an option. That would allow Ingram to practice all season. The downside is that other teams would be able to claim him after he's initially cut.
I don't know that Ingram has shown enough this summer to interest other teams, but that would be a risk you take. I just want to see Ingram go out and play well. He missed all of 2008 and 2009. The guy has worked his tail off to get back to this point. It would be nice if the football gods would throw a bone his way and let him have a good game.
Running back is also an interesting position. We had a discussion over at IgglesBlog on Tuesday about whether Eldra Buckley or Martell Mallett would be the No. 3 back. I think Buckley has earned the job. He isn't the most dynamic runner, but he is a good blocker and good special teams player. Those are important factors for a backup running back. Mallett has shown some potential this preseason. If he has a strong showing in the finale it could cause the Eagles to consider keeping him around and then going light at another position, like tight end or receiver. I don't think this is likely, but the Eagles have surprised me before. Last year they kept seven receivers on the initial roster. I sure didn't see that coming.
Mallett is an ideal practice squad candidate, unless the Eagles think some other team will claim him. This is where the Jets game becomes important. If Mallett has a solid game then he'll probably stay somewhat safe. If he goes out and plays really well, that may be enough to interest some team that is looking for a young runner.
Chad Hall is another offensive player I'll be watching closely. He was terrific in the OTAs and early on at Lehigh. Chad played well in the preseason opener, but has quieted down since then. He needs to show the Eagles something in this game. Hall lacks ideal size and speed, but he is exceptionally quick and is an elusive runner. We have seen that stuff in practices, but not really a game. Big difference. I'm not expecting him to come up with a 60-yard touchdown or anything like that. Give me a punt return of 15 yards. Make the first defender miss. Catch a pass and show some run after catch ability. Turn a short pass into a gain of 10-20 yards. The thing I want to see is Hall use his quickness and elusiveness with the ball.
Wide receiver is somewhat unsettled. Kelley Washington, Hank Baskett, and Riley Cooper are battling each other. There might be a roster spot on the line, but there is absolutely a fight for playing time. I would project Cooper as the No. 4 receiver right now. Beyond that I'm not so sure. Washington has been the more impressive player this summer from what I've seen. Baskett has produced for us before and knows the offense inside-out. We might keep all three players, but I doubt all six would be active on game day. That means someone has to sit. Baskett needs a big play to help his argument for playing time. Washington made a tough catch at a crucial moment last week. That was impressive. Both guys are good special teams players so that won't give much of an edge to either one.
Quarterback Mike Kafka really came alive on the game-winning drive last week. He threw the ball well and did a great job of running the offense. I'm curious to see if that will make him more confident and help his play this week. If he starts off slowly, someone tell him we're down a couple of touchdowns and time is running out. Maybe that'll get him going.
The offensive line is a tough spot to analyze. We'll keep probably nine or 10 players. Right now, we have Jason Peters, Todd Herremans, Jamaal Jackson, Stacy Andrews, Winston Justice, Nick Cole, Mike McGlynn, and Max Jean-Gilles who should make the team. That's eight guys. Rookie Austin Howard has earned a spot. He'll play a lot against the Jets and that's good. Howard was terrific in the opener, but has been more up and down in the last couple of games. He seems to improve as the games goes along. He should play well with extensive time in the finale.
King Dunlap and Fenuki Tupou are probably the guys fighting for the final spot. Dunlap is a big guy with experience and the Eagles might feel he's worth holding onto for another year. Tupou needs snaps. He hasn't played much in the preseason. We need to find out what he can do. Center A.Q. Shipley and guard Dallas Reynolds are battling for a possible spot on the practice squad. Reynolds is bigger and more versatile. Shipley has had a solid summer and might be someone the Eagles want to keep around.
The defense is more settled. Tackle Jeff Owens could play his way onto the roster with a great game. He's played pretty well in the preseason, but is caught in a numbers crunch. We've got four tackles we really like and then we mix in ends in some passing situations.
The situation at end cleared up when Ricky Sapp was put on injured reserve. Newly acquired Pannel Egboh is a big guy that will be interesting to watch, but he's not the kind of pass rusher we normally want. Rookie Eric Moncur did some good things in the Chiefs game. He can certainly help himself with another good performance. I had a lot of interest in Moncur when he was at Miami. Unfortunately, injuries really slowed him down. It would be great if Moncur started to get back to his old self and showed real NFL ability.
Linebacker is one area where there is some wiggle room. The top four spots are completely set. That's the starting trio plus Omar Gaither. After that, it is wide open. Keenan Clayton should make the team. He's shown the kind of athleticism and playmaking ability we wanted to see. He does need work. Clayton must get better against the run. He's fine out in space when he can see a target and attack the ball. Clayton has to play better in tight quarters. He's got to improve his ability to locate the ball, move through traffic, and then tackle in a small area. Clayton has the tools to be a good linebacker. He just needs experience and coaching.
Moise Fokou was projected to be the starting SAM linebacker. Akeem Jordan stole that position away and has played really well all summer long. I'm real excited with Jordan's level of play. Fokou has been erratic in the preseason games. You can see his raw ability. Fokou's career could be summed up by one play from last week. He exploded off the line of scrimmage and got into the backfield. He tackled the runner down for a loss. Great play, except that instead of tackling the guy Fokou tripped him up and was penalized. Fokou just has to play a bit more under control. I think the Eagles like his potential enough to keep him around, but Fokou does need to start showing more progress. He is talented enough to be a starting linebacker in the NFL.
Rookie Jamar Chaney looks like his head is swimming a bit right now. That has made him hesitant. He's not flying to the ball. He's not attacking. Chaney is a fast, downhill linebacker when he's at his best. The guy we're watching now is thinking too much. If the Eagles really love his long-term potential they could squeeze him onto the roster. Once the light goes on for him, I expect Chaney to become a good linebacker.
The secondary went from being a weakness six weeks ago to a pretty solid part of the team. Depth is always a concern and that's why the Jets game will be interesting. Trevard Lindley will play a lot. Based on his summer he could end up being the backup at right corner. Lindley has played well in practice and games. His tacking has been outstanding. He has shown good ball skills. I'd still like to see him tested deep.
Dimitri Patterson has also played well this summer. He is our best gunner on the punt cover unit. Don't overlook the importance of that. Patterson has spent most of his time as the backup at left cornerback. He and Lindley could be in a battle for playing time. We might only have four cornerbacks active on Sundays. If so, that means we'll need one of the guys to sit. Both players have contributed on defense and special teams. Choosing between them won't be easy, but that's the kind of problem coaches like to have.
Newly acquired Jorrick Calvin will get time at cornerback and kick returner. I think he is a practice squad target. I'm interested to watch him play. He missed his senior year at Troy so I haven't seen much of him.
Macho Harris is back at safety now and that will make things tougher for either Quintin Demps or Kurt Coleman. Demps has a shot to be our kickoff returner. Coleman is good on the coverage units, but could easily find himself inactive. Harris was hurt for much of the summer and he needs a good game to help his situation. I hope we get to see him play a few snaps as the slot corner in our nickel defense. I would like the Eagles to find a way to keep all three guys. I liked all of them when they were college seniors and think they can contribute for us as role players.