Philadelphia Eagles News

Time Is Now For "Next-Step" List

It is a list that could be longer and could, in fact, include every player on the roster. The coaching staff wants every player to take "the next step" and play at "the next level," but for the purposes of space, here is the list from this perspective as the Eagles enter the final two weeks of the offseason program.

MARCUS SMITH, defensive end

The 2014 first-round draft pick describes his two-plus seasons as a "roller coaster" and a series of "lessons learned." Marcus Smith did not earn much playing time as a standup linebacker in the 3-4 scheme under then-coordinator Bill Davis, but he's been moved to defensive end in the Wide 9 alignment and says that works well into his skill-set.

"It works to my strengths tremendously because I like to pass rush. I like to just go get it and not think about anything," Smith said. "Sometimes we drop into coverage, but not as much as we did before. Playing defensive end, you want to go get the ball. You want to hit the quarterback because, ultimately, that's what changes games."

We'll see how Smith's game works for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. The Eagles want to keep it simple for the ends and have them get off the ball, win the edge and "play the football on the way to the quarterback," Smith said. With Vinny Curry, Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham ahead of him, Smith is going to have to come on strong to earn some reps. And with seventh-round draft pick Alex McCalister a prospect with his long arms and quick get-off, Smith has nothing guaranteed. This is a new coaching staff, which means a whole new set of eyes to impress.

JOSH HUFF, wide receiver

Josh Huff's two seasons here have been a tough read. He's shown moments of impressive explosiveness with the football in his hands and there is no doubt that he's got the burst and the physical toughness to excel in the NFL.

But like all of the Eagles' receivers, Huff needs much more consistency to make it in this offense. That he has 35 receptions in two seasons seems inconceivable, especially with a receiving corps so badly in need of another wide receiver option to take some of the load off of Jordan Matthews.

Huff could have a nice role here running crossing routes and taking screens and bursing up the field. We'll see how the coaching staff uses him. He's caught the ball consistently in the spring.

KENJON BARNER, running back

No player took his offseason approach more seriously. Kenjon Barner is in great shape and he's out to prove that he deserves some playing time in the regular season for a backfield that has some legitimate question marks.

"I just worked hard, ate right and got my body in the best shape possible," Barner said. "I want to have a chance to help this offense and I know I can do that. I know I can play in this league. I feel like my time is now."

Ryan Mathews is the lead horse in the running game and he has to, of course, stay healthy to gain the most carries. It hasn't been easy for Mathews to do that in his NFL career.

Barner has a legitimate chance to play and get some carries. We'll see how he looks with the pads on and the action live, but Barner has been outstanding on the field through the Organized Team Activities.

ERIC ROWE, cornerback

After some rocky moments in the preseason, Eric Rowe came on during the regular season when called upon and then was the best cornerback on the team in the final five games of the year when he started in place of the injured Nolan Carroll.

Now, nothing is going to be handed to Rowe. He's going to have to earn a starting job in a room bolstered in free agency and the draft. Rowe, though, came such a long way in a short period of time last season and he has a chance to take his game to a new level in 2016.

"It's all hard work and improving my technique and just studying hard and being very critical of myself," Rowe said. "We have a lot of great players here. I know I've got to earn it."

With Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks in as free agents and Carroll retained after he tested the market, the Eagles have some experience at cornerback. They also want to see some of the younger players like Denzel Rice and JaCorey Shepherd and Jalen Mills push for roster spots and playing time. So Rowe is going to have to step up his game, which is a good thing for every player.

MYCHAL KENDRICKS, linebacker

All of a sudden Mychal Kendricks in his fifth season as an Eagle. What do we really know about him? He's quick, he's sudden, he's athletic and he's a big-play guy. He's also not put together a 16-game performance that reflects all of his positive traits.

Is this the year? Kendricks is going to play downhill on defense, which means he's going to attack. That seems to fit what his skills are -- go find the football and blow things up. Maybe Kendricks will have more of an opportunity to play in space and use his speed and elevate his game to a level among the best in the league at outside linebacker.

BENNIE LOGAN, defensive tackle

One of the more underrated players on this defense, Logan must transition to the attacking style, rather than the two-gap approach in his previous seasons here. So Logan has to get off the line of scrimmage and get up the field and cause some havoc. It will be interesting to see how he fares.

Logan is a tough guy, a good player against the run and a leader for this defense. He's playing in the shadow of All-Pro Fletcher Cox, but Logan will have chances to make plays in this defense and gain a name for himself this season.

BRANDON GRAHAM, defensive end

He's back where he belongs, as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end after playing as a stand-up linebacker iin the 3-4. Graham deserves a lot of credit for making the transition and becoming such a productive player -- he had a career-best 6.5 quarterback sacks and a career-high 63 tackles last season -- in that scheme.

Graham will work in the rotation at defensive end and should find success. Is he a double-digit sack end? His time is now.

NELSON AGHOLOR, wide receiver

It was not the rookie season most expected from Nelson Agholor, who caught 23 passes for 281 yards and a single touchdown last year. Agholor, though, is being pushed by receivers coach Greg Lewis, a big fan of Agholor's when Lewis coached in New Orleans in 2015.

"I'm a much better player now than I was last year in every phase," Agholor said. "I'm more confident. I know what to expect. I have to improve in every part of my game and I'm focused on that."

Much like Huff, Agholor has a chance to earn a significant role in the offense with Matthews, Rueben Randle and Chris Givens, among others. 

SAM BRADFORD, quarterback

There is no doubting the strides that Sam Bradford made last season after he knocked off the rust from nearly two seasons of inactivity. Bradford threw the ball with so much more command and confidence in the final month of the year. He's carried that over to this spring and has been on point, according to the coaching staff that watches and grades each of his throws.

Bradford should have no problem mastering this system, having played in a version of it when he was a rookie in St. Louis in 2010. The Eagles have a good coaching staff around him and they've fortified the offensive line and provided depth to the receiving corps.

A healthy Bradford should have success in the scheme. He's certainly playing with that kind of expectation in the spring.

ZACH ERTZ, tight end

The numbers have jumped each season -- from 36 catches to 58 and then to 75 receptions last season. Is there any reason to think that Zach Ertz, who has made major strides in all parts of his game -- can't be among the top pass catchers in the NFL this season? He's got the hands and the route-running ability and everything you want in a tight end, and he's in an offense that should give all of the tight ends ample chances to make plays.

Ertz is a rising player who needs to be a focal point in the passing game week in, week out. We should see it this season -- that big step up for a player who has gotten better in each of his three NFL seasons.

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