The Eagles will open their preseason tonight against the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Linc. Head coach Andy Reid said yesterday that he expects Michael Vick and the rest of his offensive starters to play about a quarter. Don't expect to see much more of Ben Roethlisberger either.
Despite all that, there still should be some pretty interesting things to watch from an Eagles perspective. One will be the defensive line, where Reid plans to play his "starters" for the entire first half. I emphasize starters there because in reality the starters are injured. So it's really the second team that will start and see extra time. That will give fans a chance to get some extra looks at DE Brandon Graham, the Eagles first round pick in 2010 that's spent much of his first two NFL seasons sidelined by a knee injury suffered midway through his rookie season. Back healthy this year, Graham has been one of the standouts at camp and could finally pay off on his promise this season.
Extra time for the starting defensive line also means more time for 2012 top pick Fletcher Cox and 2nd rounder Vinny Curry. We'll also see Darryl Tapp and Phillip Hunt rotating in at defensive end as well Antonio Dixon at DT, who missed most of last season with a triceps injury.
Rookie LB Mychal Kendricks, who has been drawing rave reviews at Lehigh, will also make his debut along with the Eagles most significant offseason addition, LB DeMeco Ryans. While those two are penciled in as starters, the 3rd LB spot on the weakside is still very much up for grabs with Brian Rolle, Jamar Chaney & Keenan Clayton competing for that job.
There's also a pretty notable battle happening in the secondary where Kurt Coleman has so far retained his starting job from last year. However, veteran free agent addition OJ Atogwe and 2nd year man Jaiquwan Jarrett will be gunning for his spot. With presumed starter Nate Allen out with a hamstring injury, all three figure to play major roles tonight.
On offense, amongst the starters the guy to watch will be LT Demetress Bell, who the Eagles signed to replace pro bowler Jason Peters. Peters was lost for the season after tearing his Achilles (and then tearing it again) during an offseason workout at his home in Texas. Peters was a dominant force for the Eagles last season and played a big role in LeSean McCoy's breakout season, so the level to which Bell can replace him will be a big storyline for this season.
There's also an interesting battle going on at RB. LeSean McCoy obviously has the top spot locked up, but 2nd year man Dion Lewis is competing with rookies Bryce Brown and Chris Polk for the backup job. There's only likely to be 3 roster spots available for RBs, so one of these guys will be the odd man out. So far, Lewis has outplayed the rookies at camp while Brown holds a slight edge over Polk for the last spot.
Tight ends may also be an interesting battle to watch with starter Brent Celek sitting this out as he heals from an MCL sprain. Clay Harbor is the incumbent backup with former Penn State TE Brett Brackett mounting a serious challenge for a spot. Brackett has impressed with his size and pass catching ability in camp, but so far has lagged noticeably behind Harbor as a blocker. For a backup TE, blocking is a big deal. So it should be interesting to see which of these two can make a mark tonight.
Finally, the return game will be of interest as it's unlikely that any of last year's return men will reprise their roles from last season. Dion Lewis hasn't returned any kicks in camp and the Eagles prefer DeSean Jackson to focus on WR, with his punt duties scaled back. Rookie Brandon Boykin is the leader for the kick return job with undrafted rookie WR Damaris Johnson leading the way on punts. However, the punt job is still very much up for grabs with Chad Hall and Boykin still in the mix.