The mostly boring Hall of Fame game is finally behind us and real preseason action begins on Thursday. For almost every team, there are at least two roster spots up for grabs that are decided towards the last preseason game. The Philadelphia Eagles are no different. While they boast one of the most complete rosters in the league, the Birds have positions that need to be filled with quality depth. Thursday’s game against the Steelers won’t be an optimal time to get a good, long look at the starters, however fans can start to see how some of the depth chart battles are panning out.
Who will be the fifth DE?
One of the key units on the Eagles roster is their defensive line and the depth of impact players rotating in. Super Bowl 52 hero Brandon Graham is currently nursing an ankle injury, allowing a perfect opportunity for either Steven Means or Josh Sweat to step up. Sweat has exceeded all expectations based on his draft position. The fourth-round pick out of Florida State has been trying to prove a gruesome knee injury suffered in high school has not inhibited his play. He overcame a scare in training camp after getting caught at the bottom of a mass of tangled bodies. However, the injury sustained was a minor high ankle sprain and nothing knee related.
Despite Steven Means bouncing around five separate teams, his resilience has shown and is something everyone in the organization respects. Means has flashes where it looks like he’s an elite edge rusher ready to make the Eagles rotation. But there are other plays where he seems lost or to be not putting in maximum effort. After Means has racked up only eight tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in 14 games with the Eagles over two years, it could be the Florida State rookie’s time to shine. Sweat (6-5, 251 pounds) is a physical freak and already has the admiration of his coaches and fellow linemen. Another huge bonus for the rookie is his ability to pick the brains of the veteran d-linemen. In an interview with Les Bowen, his confidence and willingness to be mentored really stood out.
“I know I have something to offer – speed, combination of strength and length, and all that. I know I have value to the team. I’ll find work. “I’m learning a lot from [the other D-ends]. That’s the biggest thing for me this year, learning. And obviously, I really think I’m going to play a lot, anyway, so I’m not worried about being a starter. … I know I can help the team this year. But I’m not worrying about who’s ahead of me, I’m just going.”
11-year veteran and two-time Super Bowl champion Chris Long spoke on Sweat’s play throughout camp:
“He’s just got great quick-twitch. Really good length that he can use already, with that long arm, using his speed and transitioning into power. For somebody who’s not very heavy, creating that momentum vertically helps him transition into power. He’s a good kid, he likes to learn, asks a lot of questions.”
The final WRs
With four wide receivers essentially locked into the roster, that leaves about two spots for nine players. The Eagles signed Markus Wheaton in May after his disappointing season with the Bears. He was somewhat lost in the shadows of the Pittsburgh offense from 2013-2016 and does not possess elite speed for his size (5-11, 189 pounds). On the opposite side, young journeyman Bryce Treggs has been dubbed the Practice Player of the Year. With Alshon Jeffery rehabbing his shoulder, Treggs has given the Eagles staff a glimpse of the speed he possesses. It’s almost a daily occurrence that someone’s head turns mid conversation to watch #16 flash like lightning during drills. Personally, I think the Eagles keep six wide receivers with both Wheaton and Treggs making the roster. The only knock on Treggs is that he does not provide special teams value, providing a potential opportunity for someone that can. Still, Bryce Treggs is a must-watch player throughout preseason.
Who is WILL?
The most uncertain and interesting starting roster spot will be who plays weakside linebacker in Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 scheme. Some beat writers say one person has the edge, others say someone else does. The only people who really know are on the Eagles coaching staff, and I’m not entirely sure that even they have decided just yet. Kamu Grugier-Hill signed with the team in 2016 and has all the speed to get from sideline-to-sideline (4.45 40) and tremendous initial instincts. At 6-2, 220 pounds, KGH lacks the typical size to be a run thumper in the middle, but could carve out his spot with athleticism and high football IQ. Rookie Nathan Gerry was drafted in the fourth-round by the Eagles as a converted safety. The Nebraska product stands and weighs about the same as KGH and has since transferred to weakside linebacker as well. Gerry has been getting some first team reps despite being a rookie. But then again, Schwartz has made it clear he is willing to rotate as many players as needed on defense to get the best unit out there. Gerry can play at the line of scrimmage and get after runners, but typically is a straight-line runner with not a lot of redirection. Being a converted strong safety, Gerry is a natural zone coverage defender, but his lack of speed and reaction will limit him in man-to-man coverage. Both KGH and Nathan Gerry are special teams aces, which furthers their chances of making the team.
The third challenger for the WILL linebacker spot is former Denver Bronco Corey Nelson. The Eagles and Nelson agreed to a one-year deal in March, and after the release of Mychal Kendricks, many assumed the fourth-year linebacker would fill his role. Coming off surgery to repair a torn bicep, Nelson’s name hasn’t been mentioned much throughout training camp. He has a history of injuries as his draft stock slipped after a pectoral tear at Oklahoma. Nelson also provides an important special teams presence, as well as a quick burst that Schwartz can use in exotic blitz packages. The thing that scouts rip Nelson for is his less-than-average ability to diagnose a play, causing him to get lost in the shuffle at times. With all that being said, I expect all three of these linebackers to make the 53-man roster. But who will get the most playing time and start? We’ll have to wait and see.