Out goes Nate Allen, in comes Kurt Coleman. One rookie replacing another in Sean McDermott's defense. That's the way it is for this young roster, and that is the way it is going to be in the final half of the season as the Eagles rely more and more on their 2010 Rookie Class. For an exceedingly young roster -- average age 25.5 years -- the coaching staff is leaning heavily on the kids to grow up quickly.
Coleman is likely to start at safety this week should Allen -- who suffered a sprained neck against Indianapolis -- not play. Coleman is ready for the challenge. He reported late to the spring camps, if you remember, following the guidelines of an out-of-touch NCAA rule that doesn't allow rookies to report to their respective NFL teams until their classes have graduated. In Coleman's case, Ohio State's schedule overlapped with the Eagles' spring workouts, so Coleman missed those crucial weeks following the post-draft camp all the way until training camp opened.
But because Coleman is a smart kid, and a driven one, and because he could arrange some time with defensive backs coach Mike Zordich and catch up as much as possible on the mental part of the complex Eagles defense, Coleman was able to play well in training camp and in the preseason and earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
Now he is on the verge of starting his first NFL game. On Monday Night Football. In a key NFC East game.
"If that's the way it works out, I'm OK. I'm ready. I've worked hard to get to this point and I've gotten great coaching to learn the system," said Coleman, a seventh-round draft pick. "You really have no choice but to be ready to play. Everybody wants that opportunity to show what he can do."
The Eagles used nine of their 13 draft picks in April on defensive players. Allen was a starter from day one, along with defensive end Brandon Graham. And while Graham is now a reserve behind Juqua Parker, he is still playing just as many snaps as the rest of his linemates and has back his "fresh legs," says McDermott. Cornerback Trevard Lindley has played some and is more of a factor with Ellis Hobbs sidelined. Coleman has played a lot. Fourth-round draft pick Keenan Clayton saw his first action in a quasi safety-linebacker hybrid role. Third-round pick Daniel Te'o-Nesheim has played some, too, bolstering the inside pass rush and dropping back into coverage in the team's fire-zone scheme.
How do the rookies factor into the plans for the rest of the season, and maybe even beyond? Let's take a look ...
**BRANDON GRAHAM, defensive end
Graham has a bright, bright future. He is going through what every rookie experiences -- the long, grueling NFL season -- for the very first time. Graham looked much better on Sunday playing defensive end and defensive tackle. He was active and quick off the ball. The Eagles would love for him to get hot and contribute down the stretch as a consistent pass rusher.
An ankle injury and the "rookie wall" slowed Graham's progess, and he has to bounce back and help the depth of the defensive end rotation. It doesn't appear that there are plans to bring Victor Abiamiri off the Physically Unable To Perform list, so the Eagles have five ends on the roster and they are rotating four on game days.
In the big picture, the Eagles believe Graham has all the tools to be a standout defensive end. He is going to have to prove that he can play the run and stand up to the size difference against NFL offensive tackles. Graham has an array of moves to reach the quarterback, but he also has to refine his technique and develop his game. The ceiling is a high one. It will help immensely if Graham takes off in the second half of this regular season.
*NATE ALLEN, safety *
The talent is there, the maturity is there and the work ethic is there. Nate Allen is just having a tremendous rookie season. He has had some downs among his many ups, but that is the nature of the beast. The Eagles have found their long-term solution at free safety, and Allen has every skill needed to be a big-time player in this defense for many years to come.
Alas, he is battling the neck injury so this is also part of the discovery process: How quickly can Allen return from injuries and will there be a longer-term impact from the injury?
*DANIEL TE'O-NESHEIM, defensive end/tackle *
A limited contributor to date, Te'o-Nesheim still has a lot to prove. He is like most rookies playing along the defensive line in the NFL. It is a huge adjustment to a land of stronger, bigger, faster players. The experience level is very difficult to overcome. Te'o-Nesheim has incredible drive and he plays hard, but he may not be in position to contribute a whole lot in the near future, barring injuries. The Eagles have a pretty good rotation going up front, especially with Brodrick Bunkley back at defensive tackle.
Te'o-Nesheim is one of those players who will face an ultra-critical off-season between his first and second NFL seasons. He needs to continue to work hard in the weight room and work on his techniique, on getting off the ball with explosiveness.
He is a talented kid and a driven young man. And if the Eagles need Te'o-Nesheim to step up, he has to be ready. Right now, when you look at him, though, you see a player who has work to do in the future. His best days are coming.
*TREVARD LINDLEY, cornerback *
A strong cornerback who can play in press coverage, Lindley has made contributions to the Eagles defense as a reserve. With Hobbs battling his hip/back injury, it's possible Lindley could be called on to play some cornerback in the coming weeks. He is ready for duty, it appears. Lindley has made good strides and he helped seal the deal in San Francisco with the late-game interception.
How good can Lindley be in the long term? Well, he seems to run well enough. He has the body and the size. With a good off-season and attention to detail, Lindley would have to be considered a factor in the team's cornerback picture for 2011 and beyond.
*KEENAN CLAYTON, linebacker *
The big-picture view of Clayton takes into account his fit into the defense. Clayton played well in the preseason, proving he can cover in space and make plays around and behind the line of scrimmage. At 229 pounds, Clayton still has some growing to do. He has to gain strength. The off-season is huge for Clayton. And while he played a couple of snaps as a safety against the Colts, it would be a stretch to think he could slim down and play safety here, as he did at Oklahoma.
But who knows? Sean McDermott is a creative guy. He values speed. Maybe he can make Clayton a kind of "hybrid" player until Clayton's body matures and fills in. Clayton certainly is an intriguing talent who buzzed around the ball against Indy.
It was great seeing him on the field, honestly. Maybe he projects as a WILL linebacker here. Maybe he is something else. In the short term, McDermott will use Clayton in spot duty. In the long term, the off-season is critical for Clayton's development.
*MIKE KAFKA, quarterback *
Mike Kafka is on the field on Tuesday morning, working with tight end Clay Harbor and practice-squad receiver Rod Harper, staying as sharp as possible. Kafka only gets limited reps in practice these days, when he operates the scout team to give the defense a good look at the upcoming opponent's offense. Kafka's job, honestly, is to throw interceptions.
So how does he improve? He stays late after practice. He works during his time off. He absorbs the mental part of the game.
Next spring, of course, Kafka could very well be in a different position. Who really knows what the team's quarterback situation will look like then? Kevin Kolb is signed through 2011, but he is currently the No. 2 quarterback here. Michael Vick's contract expires after the 2010 campaign.
The Eagles like Kafka a whole lot. He progressed nicely in the preseason appearances he had. At some point in his career, Kafka is going to bump up the ladder here, and he is going to have to be prepared to play.
*CLAY HARBOR, tight end *
This is a watch-and-learn season for Clay Harbor, apparently. He dressed only for the Green Bay game and has since been replaced as the team's backup tight end by Garrett Mills. Harbor is working hard in the weight room and with tight ends coach Tom Melvin improving his blocking technique and his route running.
Harbor is a athletic, fluid receiver who should be a whole lot better with some experience. Can he become a starter here? Well, Brent Celek is an upper-level player at his position in the NFL. But Harbor can get vertical and can do some damage after he catches the football.
*RICKY SAPP, defensive end *
On Injured Reserve after suffering a knee injury in the preseason, Ricky Sapp is working hard in his rehab and should benefit from a year of lifting and becoming stronger. He has some burst off the ball, but to play at this level as an edge rusher, Sapp needs to refine his technique, needs to become stronger and must wrap his head around the idea that he is an end here, not a roaming pass rusher as he was in college.
No doubt that Sapp has talent. How much he develops between now and next summer will dictate his chances of making the Eagles in 2011.
*RILEY COOPER, wide receiver *
This young man is a football player. We saw that in his outstandnig performance at Tennessee and we have seen it through the days of practice in the spring, summer and in the preseason games. Riley Cooper is a big, strong kid who snatches the football out of the air very nicely. He separates from coverage and creates space. He runs good routes.
Cooper is the team's fourth receiver and he is a key contributor on special teams. The Eagles are counting on Cooper to continue to play well in every phase of the game and to step up his production in the second half of the season. Big picture for Cooper? He has a chance to be a starting-caliber wide receiver in this league, no question about it.
*JAMAR CHANEY, linebacker *
Jamar Chaney is gaining experience on special teams and is the backup middle linebacker here, and his play in the preseason was impressive enough that the Eagles traded Joe Mays to Denver for a future draft pick. Chaney has range and he tackles well, and he has been an important part of the special teams coverage units.
He has a good future. Chaney needs to learn more within the scheme and he has to gain strength. We will know more about Chaney next season, of course, but for now he has to contribute when he has the opportunity to do so.
*JEFF OWENS, defensive tackle *
Very strong and a hard-working player, Jeff Owens is on the team's practice squad where he continues to develop his technique and his strength. He is an interesting player because of the force with which he plays. Does Owens figure into the long-term plans here? We shall see. Owens is eligible to be signed and added to any team's active roster, and with injuries happening around the league, you never know.
**KURT COLEMAN, safety
Expected to start should Allen miss Monday night's game, Kurt Coleman is an aggressive young safety about whom we are going to find out a whole lot against the Redskins. Coleman made some big plays in the preseason and then he played well in a reserve role against Peyton Manning and the Colts on Sunday.
You can be sure the Redskins are going to try to isolate Coleman on Monday night. They want to make the kid prove he can cover in space. And they want to see how well he holds up to the power running game. And, of course, they want to try some play-action fakes and see if Coleman bites, allowing a receiver to get open deep down the field.
Coleman started for three seasons at Ohio State, so he shouldn't be fazed by the bright lights on Monday night. It is a big spot, and a big test, for the rookie safety.