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Eagles training camp position battle preview: Roster bubble players

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles-Training Camp Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Eagles training camp opens this week, and 90 88 players will nominally be fighting for 53 spots. In reality, about 40 of those roster spots are already secured, because all but the worst teams go into camp with their minds already made up. This was best highlighted in the first Bengals Hard Knocks, when Jim Lippincott pathetically woke a player up before dawn to cut him after he did well in practice, and then made further roster cuts in a hallway while teammates that were safe walked by. Teams aren’t usually so callous, but they all know over half their roster before even OTAs started.

The Eagles are no different, they and we know who most of the starting lineup and key backups already are. Look at a 53 man roster projection and even the most conservative count will hit the high 30s of number of players who are completely safe.

There’s likely about a dozen roster spots truly up for grabs. We previously took a look at the few true positions where a starting job is up for grabs, and some of them have roster implications. The loser of the kicking job will certainly be unemployed and the veteran loser of the starting left guard spot may be as well. But there are also backup jobs that are on the line. Today, we’ll look at the various bottom of roster bubble spots that are up for grabs.

FULLBACK

The hiring of Doug Pederson means that the Eagles will occasionally run plays that feature a position not seen in an Eagles uniform in years: fullback. Only problem is, they don’t have a real fullback on the roster.

Journeyman TE Chris Pantale made stood out this spring catching the ball and taking first team reps at fullback. He’s the early favorite to fill that role, but his job is far from secure. In his favor is that the Eagles haven’t brought in a true fullback, so there’s no real competition. 3rd string TE Trey Burton has college experience at FB, but the team seems set on keeping him at TE. Not working in Pantale’s favor is his lack of experience, if he doesn’t demonstrate he can handle the position in pads, the team may choose to bring in a true fullback when they start getting cut in August.

2nd string front seven. Like, all the spots.

The Eagles defense starting line up is practically set in stone, the only positions up for grabs is one of the cornerback spots. Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Connor Barwin should rotate at DE so frequently that starter is just a nominal title. But many backup spots are not, especially in the front seven.

Defensive end The Eagles will probably keep five DEs, and Curry, Graham and Barwin take up three of them. With the amount of snaps they will play, backups here are a little less important than others. Bryan Braman probably has one of them even if he struggles due to his standout special teams play.

The last spot is probably between two players: Marcus Smith and Alex McCalister. Smith will play with his hand in the ground after spending the last two seasons on the bench as a linebacker, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all if he is released. McCalister has impressive athleticism but wasn’t been able to put it all together at the college level. It’s easy to envision a scenario where the team holds on to Smith to see what they can get out of him while McCalister makes the practice squad, but it’s just as easy to see a scenario where Smith shows nothing worth keeping and McCalister or someone cut from another team gets the spot.

Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan are a top tier DT duo, but their backups are TBD. Mike Martin has a leg up on the competition being the only free agent or draft pick at the position added by the Roseman/Pederson/Schwartz staff, but nothing’s certain. The fourth and final DT spot will probably come down to Taylor Hart and Beau Allen, both of whom are better suited for a 3-4 defense. That opens the door for UDFAs Destiny Vaeao, Connor Wujciak and All-NFL Name Team star Aziz Shittu to make a case for themselves, none of whom is considered one of those immediate post-draft “UDFA steals”.

Linebacker Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Brabham are the starters on the outside and with Jordan Hicks on the inside. We’ll lump the backup linebackers together because we’ll assume they will only carry two, so versatility will be a major consideration for the coaching staff. That gives Najee Goode an advantage, and Joe Walker being a 2016 draft pick gives him one too. But advantages don’t guarantee anything. Walker is undersized and inconsistent and was only a 7th round pick, 7th rounders get cut all the time. And Goode looked... (don’t make the pun don’t make the pun) fine as a backup in Billy Davis’ 3-4 which doesn’t necessarily translate to a 4-3. In their favor is that there isn’t anyone particularly notable waiting in the wings. Deontae Skinner has spent most of his two year career on the Patriots practice squad, Steven Means is on his fourth team in as many years and believe it or not Travis Long is still on roster after consecutive ACL injuries. The rest of the LB depth chart is rounded out by UDFAs Quentin Gause and Myke Tavarres, like DT, neither was considered a steal.

When the starters are out of the game in the preseason, pretty much everyone on defense is worth watching because pretty much everyone is fighting for a job.

Swing tackle

The Eagles will probably keep 10 OL, but only dress 8 on game day. We know who over half of them are already: starters Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson, and draft picks Isaac Seumalo and Halapoulivaati Vaitai are guaranteed a job. That leaves four spots open. While it’s possible that either Allen Barbre or Stefen Wisniewski is cut if they don’t win the starting left guard spot, their positional versatility probably keeps them safe, which takes the count up to eight OL. There’s plenty of bodies on the interior but at tackle the picture is murky. While Vaitai will make the 53 man roster, he would have to have an impressive camp to make the 46 man game day roster, at least to start the season. The Eagles will need two tackles for game day, and it’s between three players: Matt Tobin, Dennis Kelly, Andrew Garner. Barbre’s experience as a backup tackle will play his favor. Tobin, who practiced as Peter’s backup, and Kelly, who played at RT when Johnson replaced an injured Peters last year, are the leaders in the clubhouse. With time catching up with Jason Peters, expect a lot of long looks at his backups.

Befitting their offseason, Eagles training camp should be a little strange. The team is rebuilding but has most of the starting jobs set in stone, and across the roster have young players who need development and with it practice reps, but most of the backup spots are veterans. And perhaps befitting their regular season, none of these battles are exciting.