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Lawlor: Which Players Are In No Man's Land?


Training Camp is important to different players for different reasons. Veterans usually feel confident in having a job so they use camp to hone their game. Rookies are simply trying to get used to life in the NFL. They also feel the need to impress the coaches, in hopes of winning a starting job or at least getting some playing time.

Some players, we'll call them young veterans, are in No Man's Land. They aren't rookies, who might have two or three years to develop. They aren't proven veterans who can point to a strong track record as proof of what they can do. For these players, the pressure is real. Let's talk about some of these players for the 2016 Eagles.

There hasn't been enough of Training Camp to make any conclusions, but tight end Trey Burton has been one of the pleasant surprises so far. He has two solid years under his belt as a special teams star and role player. That sounds good, but the problem is that Burton has only scratched the surface of what he can do. Burton has three career catches. One of them came last Thanksgiving and went for 43 yards, showing the kind of potential he's got.

Burton looks like he has taken the next step this offseason. He is getting open on a regular basis and catching just about everything that comes his way. He has made more than a few impressive grabs in the practices. Burton is a lock to make the team because of what he does on special teams, but for the first time, he might be carving out a role on offense. Burton isn't going to jump past Brent Celek or Zach Ertz this season. What he can do is practice so well that the coaches feel obligated to mix him into the game plan on a regular basis.

One of the reasons that Burton has taken time to develop is that he played multiple positions at Florida. He was a quarterback, running back and receiver. In the NFL, he's played almost exclusively tight end. Burton did get some work at running back due to injuries, but the Eagles have mostly kept him at tight end. This has allowed Burton to work on the positional skills that it takes to get on the field. He's always been a terrific athlete. He had to learn how to run routes and catch NFL passes. Burton also had to learn how to block at the line of scrimmage. Blocking in space is one thing, but lining up across from a defensive end and engaging him at the snap is a whole other challenge.

That's one area where Burton will need to show Doug Pederson that he can be trusted. All the catches from minicamp and the first week of Training Camp are nice, but Burton must be a functional in-line blocker if he is to get regular playing time. Burton is a tough guy who is willing to do the dirty work. He had to get bigger and stronger, as well as improve his technique. We'll find out soon enough whether Burton is now a consistent enough blocker to be on the field for run plays as well as pass plays.

Marcus Smith has been a disappointment since the Eagles picked him in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Smith played linebacker for his first two years, although you can actually point out that he didn't play much at all. That's the real problem. Smith has NFL athleticism. He has solid size and strength. Something just wasn't clicking as Smith tried to make the shift from college defensive end to professional linebacker. With Jim Schwartz now running the defense and the Eagles moving to the 4-3, Smith is back to playing end.

A simple position change won't change Smith's fortunes. He struggled to get on the field on special teams. When he did, Smith didn't do anything to stand out. Smith has to take things up a notch. He has to play better and with more of a sense of urgency. I do think the change to end has helped him. On Saturday, Smith had a couple of sacks in practice. Smith is comfortable at end and starting to play better.

The Eagles hosted their first Open Practice of 2016 at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday. Take a look at some of the best photos from Day 7 of Training Camp.

The new scheme allows Smith to stop thinking and start attacking. As a 3-4 linebacker, he might be charged with setting the edge on one play. Another might have him firing off to get the quarterback. He could drop into coverage and even that wasn't easy. He had to play some zone and some man coverage. There were a lot of responsibilities. Schwartz has a simpler job description for Smith: play the run on the way to the quarterback. That's it. Fly off the ball on every snap and get into the backfield. Smith seems to be embracing the change and it's bringing out the best in him. That should help him play with more confidence, which could also help him to be more effective on special teams.

This is a critical year for Smith. He has to show the coaches that he's got potential for the future, but can also contribute to the 2016 Eagles. Every practice is a chance for Smith to impress Chris Wilson (his position coach), Schwartz and Pederson. A lot of eyes are on Smith, so he must show definitive progress.

Some people think the Eagles are thin at running back. Kenjon Barner would probably disagree with them. Ryan Mathews is going to be the starter. Darren Sproles is going to be a key role player. Barner doesn't want to just make the team. He wants a chance to show what he can do. Barner got everyone's attention last summer when he had a pair of punt return touchdowns and a 50-yard pass play in preseason action. He showed big-play ability and surprised people by earning a roster spot. Barner ran for 124 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry during the regular season. He won't be headed to Canton any time soon, but showed he could be part of a running back rotation.

This summer Barner is a man on a mission. He wants to be a regular part of the offense. He wants to show the coaches he's part of the solution to the question about depth at running back. No one questions Barner's ability to run. He has to show the coaches he can be an effective pass blocker and receiver. Pederson loves to use his backs in the passing game, so running is only part of the equation. Barner has impressed people so far, but the big test will be how he does with the pads on. Barner is hungry. He sees a huge opportunity and will do everything in his power to get on the field and get the ball in his hands.

Ron Brooks is new to the Eagles. He's not new to the NFL. Brooks has played in 46 games over the past four seasons. He only has three starts and a lot of his action has come on special teams. Brooks wants a job to be sure, but he also wants to play on defense. He would love to challenge for a starting role, but would likely be happy even if he was coming on the field in nickel or dime situations. To put things in perspective, Brooks has 74 career tackles. That's about how many Walter Thurmond had last year for the Eagles.

Brooks was signed because he had experience playing for Schwartz. That got his foot in the door, so to speak. Brooks has played well, even earning some time with the starters during the spring. Brooks has to keep that level of play up if he's going to hold off young players like Eric Rowe, JaCorey Shepherd and Jalen Mills. They are more naturally gifted, but Brooks has more experience so that does help his cause. Brooks is hungry to show what he can do. He'll do everything he can to impress the coaches on special teams, but the thing Brooks really wants is a chance to prove he can be a good cornerback.

There have been moments when Josh Huff has looked like an outstanding young player. His catch and run for a score against the Saints was impressive. He made an incredible catch in the end zone against the Dolphins. Huff had to really stretch to haul Sam Bradford's pass in for the score on that play. Unfortunately, those moments have been too few and far between. Huff has 35 career catches, with three of them going for touchdowns.

The Eagles are somewhat thin at receiver this year. Huff could solidify a starting position with a strong showing. He could also find himself pushed to the side if he doesn't impress. Pederson and his staff didn't draft Huff. They want him to succeed, but won't be blindly loyal to the young man. Huff has to earn reps and touches with how he performs this summer. It will be really interesting to see how he does. Huff played in Chip Kelly's up-tempo scheme for four years at Oregon and then his first two NFL seasons. This is Huff's first chance to play in a different offense since high school. Maybe that will bring out the best in him and help Huff to live up to the potential that made him a top-100 pick in 2014.

Most attention will go to rookie Carson Wentz or stars like Fletcher Cox and Jason Peters. I get that and it makes total sense. Just don't overlook how important this camp is to some of the young veterans, players who could offer a huge boost to the Eagles in the upcoming season.

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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