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Lawlor: Three Battles To Keep An Eye On


As you study the Eagles' roster, you see some spots where the team is loaded and has outstanding players. There are some other areas on the team where things are not as settled. You can pencil in a starter for now, but nothing is close to being cemented.

Uncertainty isn't always a bad thing, though. A year ago, the Eagles weren't sure who would play at the safety spot opposite of Malcolm Jenkins. They had hopes for Jerome Couplin, but injuries got the best of him. Earl Wolff had some experience, but injuries got him too. Ed Reynolds improved, but not good enough to earn a starting role. Free agent cornerback Walter Thurmond was moved to safety in May to see what he could do. Thurmond started there all year long, finished fifth on the team in tackles, picked off three passes and made some big plays. The question eventually resulted in a good answer.

In a fantasy world, the Eagles would have a quality starter at each position. That's just not reality. Due to all the player movement these days, teams always have holes to fill. The coach and general manager must find players to compete for the open positions. Not just camp bodies. The team needs players capable of playing well and pushing each other. Doug Pederson, Howie Roseman and the scouts have assembled a good collection of players to compete at the spots where the Eagles do have openings.

1. Left Guard

Let's start by talking about left guard. Pederson recently said Allen Barbre is at the top of the depth chart. Barbre started all 16 games at left guard last year, but he wasn't pushed for the job. When the team let go of Evan Mathis, Barbre became the left guard and the coaches focused on a competition for the right guard spot.

Barbre will have his hands full this summer. He will be battling against veteran Stefen Wisniewski, second-year player Malcolm Bunche and rookie Isaac Semualo. Barbre is the oldest of the group and is in his fourth year with the Eagles. He has played between left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce, giving him familiarity with them. That can make a difference when it comes to offensive line play. Bunche is the biggest of the group at 6-6 and 320 pounds. He can physically manhandle defenders. He has to show that he can play well on a consistent basis and that he can be an effective pass blocker. Wisniewski has the most experience of any of the group with 77 starts. Most of them came at center, with others at guard. Wisniewski has to show he can play left guard well enough to beat out other players. Seumalo has the biggest upside of the group. He's also got the biggest challenge since he is a rookie.

This should be a good competition. The Eagles have a variety of guys involved. It isn't just two players trying to outdo each other. At that point, all you have to do is be better than the other guy. When there are four players, you have to do something to stand out. It also gives you insurance in case someone gets hurt. I think the fact the players have different strengths helps as well. The coaches can figure out who is playing the best and also which skill set they prefer.

2. Wide Receiver

Wide receiver is another position where things aren't set. Jordan Matthews will be the workhorse of the group, but the other two spots are somewhat open. Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff are returning players likely to get most of the playing time. Don't overlook free agent additions Chris Givens and Rueben Randle. T.J. Graham was a late free agent addition and Cayleb Jones was a priority undrafted free agent. They are here to push for playing time as well.

The Eagles have high hopes for Agholor, who is entering his second season. As much as the team likes him, they can't just blindly count on him to take a big step forward. Huff is in a similar situation. He is a third-year player and did have some real good moments last season, but he has yet to become consistently productive. The Eagles are giving Agholor and Huff a chance to be starters along with Matthews (assuming the team goes with a base set of three receivers).

Those jobs will have to be earned. Randle is a former second-round pick and is coming off a season where he caught 57 passes, including eight touchdown grabs. Huff and Agholor have combined for four career touchdown catches. Randle is legitimate competition for them. Givens played with Sam Bradford back in St. Louis. Givens had his best season in 2012, when Bradford started all 16 games. Givens is one of the fastest receivers on the Eagles, having run a 4.41 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine. Graham also ran a 4.41 at his Combine. He can stretch defenses. Jones is one of the biggest receivers at 6-3 and 209 pounds. He is tough and physical and can make contested catches. Huff and Agholor are going to be pushed this summer.

3. Cornerback

Cornerback is the spot on defense that is the most open. Nolan Carroll started 11 games last year before he got hurt. Eric Rowe took over for him and started the final five contests. Leodis McKelvin started five games for Buffalo last year. Those three guys are the front-runners at corner, but they will be pushed by others. The Eagles were very high on JaCorey Shepherd last year before he got hurt. Jalen Mills is a rookie, but has impressed the coaches so far. Ron Brooks played for Jim Schwartz in Buffalo so he knows the scheme, as does McKelvin.

I'm sure the Eagles want Rowe to be a starter. He is young and has excellent size. That's a guy you want on the field. Carroll had the best season of his career in 2015. The staff and scheme have changed so both Carroll and Rowe will have to earn jobs based on this summer and not what they did in the past. McKelvin had the best season of his career playing for Schwartz in 2014. He has 60 career starts so this is a player used to being on the field. It is possible that Rowe and McKelvin could start outside with Carroll playing the slot.

Shepherd and Mills will have something to say about that. Some thought Shepherd would win the slot job last year. He got hurt and missed all of 2015, but he is a hungry young player who will do whatever he can to get on the field. Mills started all four years at LSU. I can't stress how impressive a feat that is. He is not a player to be taken lightly. It is easy to focus on the fact that both players were late-round picks, but that sells them short. Shepherd stood out last spring and Mills has done that this year. Both players have very good instincts, which allows them to play beyond their athleticism and their experience.

This summer provides a great opportunity for a lot of players to win starting jobs or key roles. Any time there is a coaching change, competition becomes a huge thing. The coaches don't have favorites. They will let the players battle it out and then give the winner the job. Coaching changes also usually mean scheme changes. That can put players on level ground, where veterans are learning just like rookies and other young players.

Competition can be a good thing if it brings out the best in some players and helps the coaches to see who deserves to be on the field. It is important to have good players competing for those jobs. The Eagles have put together a good group. Now it is up to the players to go impress the coaches and win jobs.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.

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