This time last year I was questioning why the Eagles even bothered to bring Winston Justice to training camp. They didn't seem thrilled with him and he hadn't shown us much to that point. It seemed to me that the prudent move would be to let him go have a fresh start somewhere else and find a player we wanted. Thankfully, the Eagles didn't listen to my advice. They kept Justice around and soon he was at the top of the depth chart at right tackle. He started there all year and was arguably our most consistent lineman.
I was focused too much on the Jerome McDougle situation. We kept him around for years in hopes that he would become a contributor, even if only as a quality role player. McDougle worked hard and did everything he could, but in the end his long list of injuries took their toll and he never panned out. I should have thought more about Justice's situation. His play had been underwhelming, but he hadn't suffered any major injuries and was still a young player. It was simply a matter of him getting in a comfort zone and having the light go on for him. Thankfully, that happened last summer.
Remember that part of what got Justice on the field was injuries. We know that some players will go down this summer. That's just football. While we all hate injuries, they do open holes for some other players. Justice took advantage of his chance. Now I'm looking at the roster to see if there are similar players to Justice that might emerge as starters or key contributors this year.
I thought about Max Jean-Gilles as a candidate. He's currently playing in place of Todd Herremans. Jean-Gilles is down to 349 pounds after his lap band procedure and we're all hoping he's a much improved player. He is a big, powerful player, but even with his Esquire magazine physique he has an uphill battle to become a really good starter.
There are two players who do have a lot of natural ability and could emerge. Both guys play defense. I'm thinking of defensive tackle Trevor Laws and safety Quintin Demps.
Laws is fighting for the No. 3 defensive tackle spot right now. He is off to a good start. The most important factor for Laws is staying healthy. In his previous two training camps, he missed time with nagging injuries. This summer Laws hasn't had to deal with that distraction. He's stayed on the field and his play is opening some eyes. Laws is making plays. He's shown the ability to get in the backfield. He's also the biggest and strongest he's ever been. Laws' biggest challenge will be showing that he is improved as a run defender. He's been solid in camp, but the real test will be showing he can do that in a game setting. We'll find out about that soon enough.
I'm glad Laws is playing well. I loved watching him at Notre Dame and hated the struggles of his first two seasons. He is a talented player. His emergence could really help our defensive tackle play. We have powerful guys, but the one thing we lack is someone who can penetrate. Laws is good in that area. Let's hope he's able to stay healthy and keep up the good play.
As for Demps, I'm not sure how many fans realize just how gifted he is. Demps has excellent speed. He ran 4.38 in the 40-yard dash prior to the 2008 draft. That's really fast for a safety. He has good hands. At UTEP, he picked off 17 career passes. He has good man cover skills, but also is adept at playing centerfield and using his range to make plays all over the field.
One of the reasons Demps slid to the fourth round is that he was inconsistent as a hitter and tackler. That was a major concern. In his rookie season, Demps really worked on that and got better each week at being more physical and getting players down with authority. I was very surprised to see that part of his game improve so quickly. The hope heading into 2009 was that Demps would be able to match his speed, cover skills, and improved hitting/tackling and that we'd have a good young safety. Obviously things didn't work out so well.
Demps didn't struggle due to any physical issues. He lost focus. All the effort he put into getting the job went out the window once he became the starter. That caused Demps to lose his job. This year he's on the outside looking in. The good news is that Demps was humbled by his demotion last year and is back with a good mindset. He's still physically gifted. We need him to play well so that we have three safeties who can contribute. Demps could steal a starting job with a phenomenal showing this summer. That's not all that likely, but a good showing will keep him in the rotation and keep alive the possibility of him starting for us in the future.
Demps can also be a big help to the team if he can regain his kickoff return form of 2008. He ran one kick back for a touchdown and averaged more than 25 yards per return. We were inconsistent with kickoff returns last year. Demps' re-emergence in that role would give the special teams a real boost.
Training Camp Thoughts
• I am impressed with what I've seen of LeSean McCoy so far. He seems to be running with more quickness and burst than last year. This could be a great sign for us. McCoy was a special running back for Pitt. He was solid for us last season, but didn't have many plays where he looked special. If McCoy can step his game up a few notches that will make us a more effective running team. Brian Westbrook was a big-play threat any time he had the ball. It would be great if McCoy could be anything close to that.
• Undrafted rookie Austin Howard is playing left tackle on the number two offense right now. I like what I've seen from him. He's big. He looks natural in pass protection. Howard has OK feet. He extends his arms and shows some left tackle potential. Remember that he's very raw. Howard was a tight end for half of his career at Northern Iowa. Coach Juan Castillo has had a tremendous impact on Howard in a short time.
• Brandon Graham is fun to watch, unless you happen to be one of the right tackles who has to face him in practice. Graham explodes off the ball. That burst will make him a good pass rusher for us. He's still got a lot to learn about technique and how to beat NFL blockers, but there is no question that Graham has the raw talent to be a very good player. Keep your fingers crossed. Howie Roseman might have made a great move by going up and getting him.
• Speaking of Roseman, I love his aggressiveness when it comes to making moves. If he feels he can improve the roster he does so. I don't want us to start loading up on veteran players, but I like mixing in guys like Kelley Washington and J.J. Arrington to give us better competition in camp. The Patriots have had a lot of success with veteran role players over the years.
• One thing to keep an eye on are the shotgun snaps. Kevin Kolb played a lot in the shotgun in college. I'm not sure how much shotgun the coaches want to play this year, but it has become a regular part of the offense. A bad snap can throw off Kolb's concentration and really affect the play.
• Rookie defensive backs Trevard Lindley and Nate Allen have had some good moments so far. Allen is holding his own as the starting free safety. Lindley is still in the mix for the right cornerback spot. It looks like Dick Jauron has done a nice job with him. Ellis Hobbs is still the leader in the race to start opposite of Asante Samuel.
• Chad Hall has played well. He knows how to get open and seems to catch everything thrown his way. He's getting moved around quite a bit as the coaches try to figure out just what he can do. He even got some time as a role player with the number one offense. Hall remains very much a possibility to make the roster.
• Ernie Sims has looked like the kind of player the organization hoped for when they dealt for him. He has excellent speed and range. He is very active and gets in on a lot of tackles. I'm excited to see him in a game setting.