Philadelphia Eagles News

Updating Some Key Position Battles

The magic word for an NFL coaching staff is C-O-M-P-E-T-I-T-I-O-N. It makes every team better. Knowing there are battles to be won and that quality players are in the mix for those jobs is a delight for the coaches. They want to see the best against the best. On this Eagles team, there are a few potential battles that should make the coaching staff very happy this summer.

Some simply aren't man against man. Some are about fitting in talent on this roster, getting those players on the field and putting them in position to be productive. Some are very much defined as man vs. man for a starting job, so let's discuss some of the scenarios right here ...

NICK COLE, AND WHERE HE FITS IN

It's going to be interesting to see what becomes of Cole throughout training camp. He lined up at right guard in the post-draft mini-camp after showing last season that he is a starting-caliber player in this league. At first glance, it would seem that Cole is a good stopgap until Stacy Andrews is healthy and ready to get back on the field. But Cole doesn't look at that way. And maybe the coaches don't, either.

In any event, Cole has to be a factor along the offensive line. The Eagles know they don't have to rush Stacy Andrews back because Cole has shown himself at right guard. And if Shawn Andrews remains the right tackle, perhaps Cole will have a starting spot on the line until he is beaten out otherwise.

Could Cole slide over to center and challenge Jamaal Jackson at some point in the preseason? Absolutely. Cole could be a factor at both guard spots and at center. He is a good football player who has a role on this team. What that role is will be determined in training camp.

*WILL LB: JORDAN vs. GAITHER *

This may be the best battle in training camp between two fine young linebackers. Akeem Jordan overtook Omar Gaither midway through 2008 and then played well down the stretch and in the playoffs at the weak-side linebacker spot. Jordan, in his second year after not being drafted, is a terrific athlete and he has spent his off-season getting stronger and learning more and more about the scheme. He is ready to defend his turf.

But Gaither is prepared to win his job back, too, having lost 10 pounds in the off-season to play quicker and faster. Gaither is hungry to get his job back and Jordan is eager to remain a starter, so the stage is set for a terrific man vs. man challenge.

Both players are good in coverage and both use their leverage well against the run. Jordan made a lot of plays when he got on the field last year and Gaither has been that kind of player in the past. Gaither gives the Eagles a player who can play at both WILL and at SAM, but he sure would like to get a foothold as the starter and stay there.

BACKUP RB: McCOY AND THE GANG

A myth is out there that rookie running backs can't make an impact in this offense. It's true that Tony Hunt bombed, and that Ryan Moats was not a long-term solution, but in the Andy Reid era Correll Buckhalter played a lot as a rookie, Brian Westbrook was able to excel in limited time -- limited only because the Eagles had so much talent in front of him in 2002 -- and even Moats flashed in his 2005 campaign.

The Eagles think LeSean McCoy will be ready to play this year. He ran with the second-team offense in the mini-camp, and he graded out well in terms of his mental assignments. McCoy, in fact, shined more than expected in the camp, and the Eagles are eager to get more work in with him during upcoming camps.

So is McCoy going to stay at No. 2 behind Westbrook? There is going to be some competition, including second-year Eagle Lorenzo Booker, who has a similar skill set, and newcomers Eldra Buckley and Walter Mendenhall. Kyle Eckel is a swing player in the backfield who can help at halfback and at fullback.

All eyes are on McCoy. He instantly impressed in his first test, and when the pads go on, the Eagles are going to make sure they find out everything they can about a player they hope elevates the expectations of rookie running backs in this system.

*DEMPS: IS HE READY TO START AT SAFETY? *

Again, there should be excellent competition at safety. Quintin Demps is the second-year man in the crosshairs and he enjoyed a good performance in the mini-camp. Demps is a great athlete who clearly wants to take advantage of this situation, and he has been at the NovaCare Complex throughout the off-season digging into his new job with great vigor.

But the Eagles are well stocked at safety. They have Pro Bowl candidate Quintin Mikell, Demps, former Browns standout Sean Jones -- who is probably more of an in-the-box strong safety -- Rashad Baker, who gained valuable experience in Oakland last season, draft pick Macho Harris and even former CFL star Byron Parker.

Clearly, though, Demps is on the spot. The Eagles are giving him the first look at free safety. He was strong last weekend. But training camp and the preseason games will tell a more accurate tale of where Demps is in his maturation process.

PARKER AGAINST ABIAMIRI AT LDE

Both Victor Abiamiri and Juqua Parker split reps with the starters at left defensive end in the mini-camp and they are both likely to do the same throughout training camp. Abiamiri is bigger and younger and could be more of a force against the run, while at the same time giving the Eagles push in the pass rush. Parker is a high-energy end who has started his last couple of seasons strong, only to lose some steam as the season went along. In a perfect world, both players would see a lot of time and contribute.

But we're looking at starters here, and this is a battle to watch. Abiamiri must stay healthy and show that he is ready to take the big leap forward in his third season. Parker is a good technician who goes out and does his job. He is not at all spectacular, but Parker comes hard off the edge and plays with great desperation.

*MACLIN AND HIS PLAY-MAKING SKILLS: READY AS A ROOKIE? *

Don't expect first-round draft pick Jeremy Maclin to line up as a starter in training camp. Maclin is going to have to play his way into the lineup, and he has a lot of talent in front of him to leap. Maclin had a very good mini-camp and also has a long road in front of him, as is the case with every rookie wide receiver. What DeSean Jackson did last year was not the norm for NFL rookie receivers. It takes a long time to learn this game.

Maclin, in fact, could make his earliest mark as a punt return man. The Eagles will give a lot of players looks there as Jackson becomes the go-to man in the passing game. Look, the Eagles are going to do everything they can to get Maclin ready. He has great, great, great talent. He showed a lot of that in the mini-camp with the way he snatched passes and absorbed the X's and O's so quickly.

But there are good players already at wide receiver with Jackson, Kevin Curtis, Jason Avant, Hank Baskett and Reggie Brown. All have had success at this level. Maclin starts down the food chain here.

* THE TALENT SPOT: CORNERBACK *

How many cornerbacks will the Eagles keep? They generally keep five, and you can write in four of them right now with a great degree of certainty -- Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown, Joselio Hanson and Ellis Hobbs. Who starts remains to be seen, but Samuel and Brown are coming off good seasons and both played well last weekend.

What's great about cornerback is that the Eagles can cover any group of wide receivers in the league with this kind of depth at the position. The Eagles have some size, speed, experience and big-play ability among this foursome. It is, on paper, a wonderful group that will push each other through training camp.

Should the Eagles keep a fifth cornerback, it could be Harris, who lined up at free safety in the mini-camp, or second-year man Jack Ikegwuonu, or Dimitri Patterson, or Courtney Robinson or Trae Williams. *That's *where the true, roster-spot-or-waiver-wire battle will be waged, even though most eyes will be on the Brown vs. Hobbs story.

*DT DEPTH AND THE PUSH FOR PLAYING TIME *

Most of us think Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley are going to start, hands down. And most of us, then, are probably correct. But the Eagles didn't draft Trevor Laws last year in the second round with the intention of getting themselves a backup defensive tackle. They expect him to challenge to start this year, and that is where the competition at this position will be most significant.

It is a subtle, but very important, battle. The Eagles need to know that Laws can be a dependable, productive starter. So they want him to push for the job, the starting job. It wouldn't be surprising at all if the Eagles give Laws a couple of reps with the starters in camp, just to give him a look in that rotation.

BACKUP OL: BATTLE OF THE YOUNGSTERS

We're talking about depth here, folks, and the Eagles have a chance to gain some excellent numbers along their offensive line after drafting late-round linemen each of the last two Aprils. Mike McGlynn, Mike Gibson, King Dunlap, Paul Fanaika and Fenuki Tupou are five draft picks who are going to try to win jobs on this roster. Combine them with the likes of Cole, Max Jean-Gilles, Winston Justice, Chris Patrick and even rookie Dallas Reynolds (who ran with the second team offensive line at the mini-camp at the center position) give the Eagles some promise in the ranks behind the starters.

The Eagles like to use those late-round picks on players to develop. Juan Castillo's insistence on detail makes all of these players better contributors, and a few of them won't make it here, but could make it with another team.

Those late moments in the preseason games are important, and the coaches value each of the four preseason games to sort through this kind of logjam on the offensive line.

**JOE MAYS: TIME TO MAKE HIS MOVE?

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Among the backup linebackers, Joe Mays be the most intriguing. He made a ton of plays in the preseason games last year, and then played hardly at all during the season. What gives? Mays' first step is to win a job on special teams and he will try to gain some tread as a backup to Stewart Bradley in the middle.

Mays knows the system now, so he should be in position to make even more plays in the preseason. But it is his performance on special teams that will dictate whether he A) Makes the team and; B) Dresses and plays on game day.

Mays is a good prospect who is still climbing the ladder on a defense chock full of talent.

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