Ring the bell. Better yet, light up a few green sparklers. Eagles training camp is officially here and all those long hours the players spent in the gym and training with superstar athlete friends are about to pay off. Well, that’s the eternally optimistic outcome anyway.
For most of the established veterans, roster spots have either already been promised or guaranteed. Guys like Fletcher Cox, Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Zach Ertz just need to show up. There are some in the locker room with a lot to prove, though. The lesser-known Eagles will be heavily scrutinized and torn down over the next 12 weeks. It’s all part of the process, a circumstantial hazing of sorts, and the process must always be trusted in Philadelphia. Let’s take a look at the more intriguing position battles to monitor on the first day.
1. Running Back: Wendall Smallwood vs. Josh Adams
Advantage: Josh Adams, ever so slightly
Bubble burst: Boston Scott, Donnel Pumphrey
Look, there is a good chance both players have impressive camps and still don’t make the final 53. Why? Because the Eagles signed Darren Sproles to a one-year contract with a base value of $1.3 million. That means they aren’t cutting him loose. He will be the team’s punt returner and fourth running back, serving alongside Jordan Howard, Miles Sanders and Corey Clement. But don’t count the Eagles out from keeping five tailbacks, especially with Clement coming back from a season-ending knee injury. They did it in 2017.
Smallwood and Adams both bring interesting skill sets to the table, plus real-game experience. Smallwood has 12 NFL starts (all with the Eagles) and rushed for 364 yards in 2018. The knock-on Smallwood has always been his size — yes, he’s only 5-foot-10 — but that may be overblown since he’s built like a bowling ball at 210 pounds. He’ll have to win a roster spot with his pass-catching ability. Smallwood has doubled his receptions in each of his first three years.
Adams made the most of every snap in 2018 when injuries forced him into a starting role. The undrafted free agent from the Philly suburb of Warrington averaged 5.1 yards per carry from Week 7 through Week 14, a total that ranked seventh-best among running backs with at least 75 carries. More importantly, he broke some big-time tackles and carried defenders for extra yardage. He finished with 511 yards, including consecutive 80-yard games.
2. Defensive End: Josh Sweat vs. Shareef Miller
Advantage: Shareef Miller, ever so slightly
Bubble burst: Dasheon Hall, Joe Ostman
There’s always the chance Connor Barwin gets a late call to join camp, a roster move that has a relatively good chance of happening. While that would certainly further cloud the picture at defensive end, it may bring out the best in these two fourth-round fliers. They are almost clones of each other: 6-foot-5 and pushing 260 pounds. They’ll be fighting for the scraps left behind by outgoing edge rushers Michael Bennett and Chris Long, with the fearsome threesome of Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett already locked in.
Sweat has a long and infamous history with injuries going back to his college days, and last year’s season-ending knee injury did him no favors in combatting that reputation. This is very much a make-or-break year for Sweat, a talented kid whom ESPN compared to the Vikings’ Danielle Hunter. He flashed a high motor last year at training camp, but never transferred that energy over to the regular season.
Miller can do wrong among Eagles fans after trashing the Dallas Cowboys, then asking Meek Mill for new music. Plus, he’s a Philly kid, born and raised in West Philadelphia. Now it’s time for the 138th overall pick to put on the pads and earn his keep on the field. Miller needs to work on the way he attacks the quarterback, better footwork and a more creative rush plan. But he does possess the speed and burst to be successful. He’ll make this squad, it’s just a matter of where on the depth chart.
3. Wide Receiver: Mack Hollins vs. Marken Michel
Advantage: Mack Hollins, not that close
Bubble burst: Charles Johnson, Shelton Gibson
Another skill position stuck in a serious logjam. The Eagles have arguably the most talented collection of pass-catchers in franchise history, when taking into account the tight ends. The team has two 6-foot-3 matchup nightmares in Alshon Jeffery and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, plus the ultimate field stretcher in DeSean Jackson. Opposing secondaries are on their heels — and that’s before Nelson Agholor gets open in the slot. This offense is going to score a ton of points with Carson Wentz throwing to these weapons. Yet … there is room for one more receiver.
Hollins has been the definition of an enigma wrapped in a riddle during his first two years. The speedster has been known to run the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.4 seconds, but there is so much uncertainty surrounding him. In May, Hollins was still rehabbing from complications stemming from a mysterious herniated disc surgery. He showed up to training camp this year riding a bike and claims to be 100 percent after escaping to Wentz’s offseason bonding trip in Houston. The 25-year-old is uber-talented, but how much does the coaching staff trust him?
On the other hand, Michel is a case study in genetics since he is the older brother of Patriots running back Sonny Michel. While the similarities probably end with the last name, the former Canadian Football League star did put on a show at the Eagles’ mandatory minicamp in June. He has great speed and used it to burn top cornerbacks like Avonte Maddox and Rasul Douglas. More importantly, Michel looked good in the slot — a valuable commodity on this team with Agholor nursing a lower-body injury.
4. Cornerback: Rasul Douglas vs. Avonte Maddox
Advantage: Avonte Maddox, not that close*
Bubble burst: Jeremiah McKinnon, Josh Hawkins
Notice the asterisk here. It’s there because the Eagles seem intent on keeping Maddox stationed as their nickel cornerback. In reality, he is too talented not to get a shot at the starting job and winning this battle may go a long way to change opinions. Especially now that there are questions surrounding presumed starter Ronald Darby’s health. Darby has been placed on the PUP list, but he’s expected to be ready for Week 1.
Maddox is an absolute stud and everyone knows it. Pro Football Focus called him the X Factor for 2019, referencing his ability to limit receivers in coverage. The fourth-round pick led all NFL cornerbacks by allowing a reception once every 21.7 snaps. He also limited quarterbacks to a 59.9 passer rating when they targeted Maddox. In 13 games last season, including nine starts, the 23-year-old had two interceptions and four pass deflections. He deserves a chance to start on the outside.
Douglas, of course, has shown his own dramatic transformation after a shirtless photo went viral. The third-year corner had turned into a physical specimen after undergoing a rigorous two-month training program that toned him beyond belief. Douglas was forced into a starting role often in 2018 and proved he could be trusted. He finished with three picks last year and two in 2017, along with 82 total tackles. Perhaps his most memorable (and forgettable) play came in Dallas in Week 14 when he set up perfect coverage on Amari Cooper, only to watch the would-be interception bounce off his hands and into Cooper’s for the game-winning touchdown. That won’t happen again.
5. Defensive Tackle: Hassan Ridgeway vs. Treyvon Hester
Advantage: Hassan Ridgeway, by an outstretched hand on a field goal tip
Bubble burst: TBA (depends on Mike Daniels)
This was one of the training camp battles marked back in May, more for depth than anything else. The defensive line rotation appears to be set, with Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson and Timmy Jernigan firmly entrenched. However, keep in mind one wild-card scenario: the Eagles could sign former Packer Mike Daniels to a one-year, team-friendly deal. According to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, seven different NFL teams have reached out to Daniels and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if one of those calls came from a 215 area code.
With or without Daniels in the mix, the stage is set for a showdown between the hero of the infamous “Double Doink” game and the guy they traded a seventh-round pick to acquire. Let’s start with Hester, the player who barely got his outstretched gloved finger high enough to alter the trajectory of Cody Parkey’s field goal in last year’s playoffs. Honestly, that should be enough to earn him a roster spot. Not sure it will. For starters, Ridgeway is almost two years younger than Hester (24 versus 26) and has 3.5 more sacks. Granted, he has played more games than Hester.
Meanwhile, Hester was cut by the Oakland Raiders before landing on the Eagles practice squad and eventually the active roster last October. He has struggled with keeping his weight down going back to college, needing to shed an additional 20 pounds at one point. Obviously, his hands are good and scouts have long applauded that trait. He’ll also have to be good at jamming gaps and stopping the run to make the Eagles’ final 53.
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