They toil here at the NovaCare Complex every day, working hard to break through and gain some publicity. They are, in a lot of ways, the Unknown Eagles, and they are the kind of players who fascinate me and who could truly impact the football team this season. Some of them are reasonably well established -- Juqua Parker has been a starter here for years -- and some of them may not even make the team. But for the sake of conversation on a slow, off-season day, let's kick around a few names on the Eagles roster ...
JUQUA PARKER, defensive end
I probably haven't given Parker his due over the years. The truth is, Juqua Parker has been a pretty darn good defensive end who has been productive, who has been durable, who has been reliable and who has been technically sound. He is the starter at left defensive end right now, and while Brandon Graham is going to come in and challenge for playing time, the rookie isn't going to walk in and take the job from Parker. No way at all. He's going to have to earn it.
Parker recorded a career-high 8 quarterback sacks last season and played with high energy throughout the season. He could benefit from a few less snaps to save the wear and tear on his body, and the hope is that the Eagles have added enough through the draft and through the off-season to give both Parker and Trent Cole some rest.
Bottom line: Parker is a good player, one who has made a nice career after signing with the Eagles late in the summer of 2005. The man weighs 250 pounds and is in his 10th NFL season. Think about how impressive that is.
**MARLIN JACKSON, defensive back
Is he is a cornerback? Is he a safety? Is he even healthy enough to play this year? All of the indications are that the Eagles expect Marlin Jackson to be on the field and ready to compete in training camp, so that is extremely encouraging. Somehow, I think he's going to be a pretty important X-factor here. I just don't know what position he is going to play.
Jackson comes across as supremely confident in his skill set and in his return to good health, as if there is no doubt that he will help this defense. I admit his confidence makes me feel like he is going to be somebody to watch later this summer. When the Eagles signed Jackson to a two-year deal the thought here was that his biggest contribution would come in 2011. Now, well, Jackson bears watching in 2010.
**MIKE BELL, running back
LeSean McCoy was a workhorse in college and he has attacked the off-season conditioning program vigorously this spring. He is in the best shape of his life. So is Mike Bell, signed to a one-year contract as an unrestricted free agent. Bell is extremely motivated and he wants to have a great season and see what happens as far as a contract goes next February. It worked perfectly for the Eagles and fullback Leonard Weaver last year, so why not think it could happen again this time around?
Bell has the size to play both halfback and fullback and he gives the Eagles some versatility in the backfield. He is picking up the system quickly and he has been at the NovaCare Complex working out in Barry Rubin's program. Once the pads go on, we will get a sense of what the Eagles have in store for Bell. He could very well be a key, key piece of the offense this season.
**OMAR GAITHER, linebacker
Still not all the way back from his Lisfranc injury, Omar Gaither is kind of a forgotten player in the Eagles' linebacker corps. He shouldn't be. Gaither provides key depth at all three positions and, along with Akeem Jordan, is a fine special teams player. Before it is all said and done, I'm telling you, Gaither will be hard to keep off the field in 2010, assuming he is 100 percent healthy.
**JASON AVANT, wide receiver
This is such a no-brainer, isn't it? Jason Avant delivers on every down. He is an outstanding blocker, he is a terrific on special teams and he catches virtually every ball thrown to him in an extremely tight window in high-traffic areas. There are no players tougher than Avant, and there are no players more appreciated in a locker room and by a front office.
Avant signed a well-deserved long-term contract in the off-season and will continue his role as one of the very best slot receivers in the league. It will be interesting to see how much Kevin Kolb goes to Avant from one week to the next. No question Avant needs to be a target in every game to keep defenses from paying too much attention to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.
Avant should make every All-Joe, All-Underrated team there is. He is that good. You don't see many tough-guy receivers come along like Avant.
**WINSTON JUSTICE, offensive tackle
Yeah, he was the starting right tackle last year, but how much did he really *earn *the job? Ask the Eagles and they will tell you that he was one of the most-improved players they have seen in a long, long time.
Think about Winston Justice's situation: A year ago many of you -- raise you hands, please -- figured Justice wasn't worth keeping on the 53-man roster. Then Shawn Andrews was injured and, boom, Justice was the starter. Not only was he the starter, but Justice played well enough to earn a contract extension, a handsome one at that. That's how much the Eagles valued his improvement.
Justice has been diligent in his off-season approach. He looks great. At the post-draft camp, I watched him a lot and I saw a quicker, more confident Justice. I saw him using his hands very, very well. He looked like he had a great punch with those hands. Am I crazy to think Justice, always considered a very talented player, could be in the Pro Bowl some season soon?
**MICHAEL VICK, quarterback
Has there every been a more publicized No. 2 quarterback in Eagles history? Maybe, maybe not. Ron Jaworski after Randall Cunningham became the starter, perhaps ... anyway, Michael Vick is in his second year here and the Eagles have an opportunity to put him in position to make a lot of plays. I smell more of the "spread" look in this offense if the group can sustain drives, and that means giving Vick some running lanes to use and some one-on-one passing chances, too.
He looked tremendous at the post-draft camp. He is a completely different player than he was a year ago. Vick can be a huge asset here -- running and using his quickness, and throwing to his great group of receivers down the field.
**MIKE PATTERSON, defensive tackle
Tough, durable and always in the right place, Mike Patterson is going to have a big season if the blueprint for success comes true for Sean McDermott's defense. Patterson needs to improve his sack numbers to gain some publicity, but he is very sound inside and he commands respect. Look, I know the defense had its troubles the last two weeks of the season. So did the offense. So did everybody here. The Eagles have revamped this defense and have welcomed back the likes of Stewart Bradley, and players like Patterson are going to benefit from that.
So make sure you keep an eye on Patterson and see how many more tackles he makes with a better defense around him. I would not be at all surprised if Patterson has what some call a "break-out" season in 2010. The truth is, he has been a good player all along. It may be the time that some people take more notice of his performance.