The Philadelphia Eagles formally kicked off Summer this past week—no offense, Memorial Day weekend—and quenched an early-summer thirst for meaningful sports talk when they gathered in South Philly for organized team activities (OTAs). While the NBA Draft lottery & Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. provided some recent water-cooler fodder, both were over shadowed the minute Eagles Head Coach Chip Kelly began his epic press conference on Tuesday. At that moment, football season began in the Delaware Valley. We were just beginning to digest Kelly’s comments when the media-frenzy open practice at Novocare on Thursday began & was followed by interviews with following roster members: quarterbacks Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez, and Tim Tebow; running back Demarco Murray; new defensive backs Byron Maxwell & Walter Thurmond; center Jason Kelce; etc.
All of the guys listed above have something to prove to both Kelly & the thirsty fan-base. The expectations have been set high—thanks to Byron Maxwell—and everyone who lands on the final 53-man roster will be on the hook for fulfilling Maxwell’s “dream team”-esque guarantee. But which Philadelphia Eagles have the most to gain—or stand to lose the most—based on their performance in the early-going? There are roster battles to be waged, starting positions to be won & contract-extensions to be earned. Below is a list of the guys from the 90-man roster who have the most at stake in the early summer:
Mark Sanchez (QB): Despite Chip Kelly claiming there is an “open competition” at the position, there is wide speculation that this is quarterback Sam Bradford’s team. The logic is, admittedly, well-reasoned. In trading a cheap Nick Foles AND draft picks for Bradford AND his $13M one-year contract, the franchise has invested a lot of resources into the oft-injured former Sooner. Even still, Bradford will be learning a brand new offensive scheme while rehabbing this summer. Sanchez, now in his second offseason with the Eagles, could come in and steal the position from Bradford outright with improved accuracy & decision-making. Sanchez will get all of the first team reps until Bradford comes back. If you don’t think that is significant, then look at wide receiver Jordan Matthews’ numbers after Sanchez replaced Nick Foles last season. In games started by Foles, Matthews caught 32 passes for 313 yards & 3 touchdowns. With Sanchez starting under center, 35 catches for 559 yards & 5 scores. Matthews spent all last summer in camp catching passes from Sanchez while learning the system with the second team. The point is this: chemistry matters & Sanchez has until Bradford is healthy to build it with the starters.
Josh Huff (WR): Chip Kelly insinuated the NFL got inside Huff’s head as a rookie claiming that his former-Duck & current-Eagle WR came to camp “more mature” this year. After missing preseason reps because of an injury, often showed on the playing field. Huff had some truly electric moments as a rookie: like his 107 yard kickoff return to start the Titans game. He also had some moments he’d like to forget. The fumble in the red zone against the Cardinals—which was followed by a post-game spat with fans on Twitter—stands out as the best example. Huff has the raw playmaking ability to supplant Riley Cooper as a starter on the outside... who doesn’t? If he doesn’t make strides to that end this summer, especially after Chip Kelly let DeSean Jackson go & didn’t pony-up for Jeremy Maclin, some people are going to look with (even more) glaring eyes at Kelly’s penchant for drafting former Ducks: pointing at Huff as a classic example. A full offseason could see him make a big second-year leap & become part of a starting WR corps that could be special for years to come.
Zach Ertz (TE): The former Stanford Cardinal entered the 2014 season, his second in the NFL, with a lot of promise. Though he improved statistically in Kelly’s offense, he still managed to fall short of expectations. He has yet to supplant veteran TE Brent Celek as the lone starter on the team because his blocking ability lacks the same luster he provides as a receiving threat. Until he turns into a well-rounded end, it is going to be hard for Kelly to trust him. Ertz is halfway through his rookie contract. Both he & Celek have two years left on their deals. If Ertz can prove himself as a viable blocker this summer & continue trending upward as a pass-catcher, we could see him transition this fall into the TE of the future.
Evan Mathis (LG): Here we swing the other way and go onto a player with a lot to lose. As of now, he is all in against the house (Chip Kelly) & hoping that no one at the table (namely Allen Barbre & Matt Tobin) aren’t holding a better hand than he is. Mathis knows how valuable he is to the success of this offense moving forward. Kelly wants to begin his offense with a physical rushing attack & that starts with offensive line play. Kelly didn’t exactly do himself any favors by missing out on drafting Mathis’ replacement in the recent two straight drafts. Mathis wants money that a 30+ year old left guard isn’t going to get. Why? Because he is already setting the salary bar high for guys in that demographic. A raise just isn’t in the cards. So what if Barbre & Tobin live up to the expectations the coaching staff have for them? If they turn into viable NFL starters, Mathis could find himself on the streets fast…where he won’t find a salary nearly what he is equal to what he is currently being paid in Philly.
Others to consider: Allen Barbre (OL) & Matt Tobin (OL) - take the Mathis argument and spin it in a positive light & that’s these guy: next man up…Riley Cooper (WR) at some point he is going to be displaced by younger, cheaper, and better talent. For him, it’s all about staying in a city that has moved past his past…Sam Bradford (QB) has already made more money he could hope to spend this lifetime but, for him, this offseason is about getting his glory back.
Walter Thurmond (DB): Defensive back, huh? Not Safety? Ok…Thurmond saw the writing on the wall and, when approached by the coaching staff about a possible position change, jumped at the chance to make Safety his primary position. The Eagles loaded up on secondary talent this offseason but have a serious void on the back end outside of Malcolm Jenkins. Thurmond noticed the glaring hole in the marketplace & is opening up shop for himself. After missing last season with a torn pectoral muscle, he is healthy & ready to contribute. If he can play up to expectations, he’ll be a starter for the first time in his career & could see big money follow. If not, it’ll be up to the likes of Earl Wolff, Jaylen Watkins, Jerome Couplin, Chris Margaros, etc. to pick up the pieces. Thurmond has everything to gain…the fans, everything to lose.
Mychal Kendricks (LB): What does he have to gain? How about his own starting position back? He has seen his share of injuries since entering the NFL & Chip Kelly, for one seems tired of his being unavailable. After trading LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso, there is now a surplus of starting-caliber inside linebackers on the roster. Some combination of DeMeco Ryans, Alonso & Kendricks will start. Ryans just got an extension & Alonso was acquired at no small price. Kendricks needs to read the tea leaves & have an unbelievable summer to secure a starting spot. If it is alongside Alonso, we’re all the winners as they would be among the most athletically skilled & dynamic duos in the NFL.
Marcus Smith III: How early is too early to be labelled a “bust”? The 2014 first round pick recorded zero (ZERO!) tackles last year. He is playing with a loaded linebacker corps and could easily be seen as a cap casualty next offseason if he doesn’t make an impression in the next 12 months. At least he has a mentor in Brandon Graham in the position meetings. Graham made a career out of being “not Earl Thomas” and was extended this past-spring. Smith needs to have a stellar summer to get his name back on the radar.
Vinny Curry (DE) & Cedric Thornton (DE): Both these guys get one season to make an impression. If they don’t earn big deals with the Eagles, then they will with some other NFL franchise. Both of these guys have talent in droves and are already impact players on this roster. So what’s to gain? Oh…just millions of dollars.
Others to consider: Brandon Boykin (CB) has little chance he gets a shot in this city with the free agent & draft the Eagles just had. This could be his last year in Philly unless he has the best preseason of his life. Jaylen Watkins (DB) & Earl Wolff (DB) are in the conversation for safety but only if Thurmond can’t win the job. They’ll each have to make a hell of an impression or a “special teamer” label is waiting.