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Building the Eagles from scratch, one position at a time

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The battle to crack the Eagles’ 53-man roster is well underway at the NovaCare Complex, where 2017 training camp and Year Two of the Doug Pederson/Carson Wentz regime has kicked off in full steam.

The cut-down to the 53 will be swift this fall, too, with the NFL eliminating the preseason jump from 90 to 75 players and opting for a more drastic axing before Opening Day.

What if, however, teams were required to cut all but one player at each position on their roster? What if the cut-down was further expanded so that the survivors of a depth-chart trimming were the sole positional building blocks allowed for the future?

(Can you tell someone’s ready for live-action games to arrive?)

In the hypothetical scenario, actually completing the exercise — whittling, in this case, the Eagles down to a mere 16 players — is easier said than done. Simply retaining the most accomplished starter at each position doesn’t account for expectations of another player’s unproven but longer-term potential.

But if the Eagles really did have to endure such a task, building themselves from scratch one position at a time entering 2017, here are the calls I’d make:

Quarterback: Carson Wentz

Plenty to improve. Lots to love. Sounds about right for a second-year QB. If face-of-the-franchise status was defined purely by poise and character, he’d already be a long-term lock as “the guy.”

Running back: Donnel Pumphrey

Is it wrong not to take Darren Sproles here? It feels like it, even if Sproles is 34, because he’s never down on effort and would make for a top-tier mentor. Something tells me Pumphrey is worth a shot, though, as a utility man and future fan favorite.

Wide receiver: Alshon Jeffery

He’s yet to take a single snap in Eagles green, but he’s already the undoubted No. 1 out wide. Anything close to his best Chicago Bears days, and Jeffery is instantly the most formidable (literally and figuratively) Philly WR in years. The gamble with him seems well worth it.

Tight end: Zach Ertz

He’s been “breaking out” for three years, but Ertz is still just 26. And while his contract demands elite numbers, he’s by far a better and more reliable pass catcher than many critics suggest.

Offensive tackle: Lane Johnson

The indefinite suspension possibility is dark, but where else do you go here? Best-case scenario: Johnson becomes a Pro-Bowl left tackle for years to come.

Offensive guard: Brandon Brooks

Oh, I’m sorry, did you want Dallas Thomas here? Brooks is relatively highly paid and at an admitted risk of missing some action, but he’s as sure of a steady, road-grading interior starter as you could hope for.

Center: Isaac Seumalo

Those calling for Jason Kelce to be traded mostly for the sake of Wentz-Seumalo chemistry probably overlooked the fact that Jamaal Jackson didn’t fully take over as Donovan McNabb’s center until 2006. Still, Kelce is approaching 30 and has an injury history.

Defensive end: Derek Barnett

Brandon Graham makes lots of sense here for plenty of reasons: He should have tread on his tires thanks to a late emergence as a full-timer, and he isn’t overly dependent on speed-rushing skills that could fade in a moment’s notice. Still, Barnett is eight years younger and just comes off like the solid if unspectacular prospect that Marcus Smith has proven not to be. Lots of faith in an unknown, I know, but his grittiness is enticing.

Defensive tackle: Fletcher Cox

The Eagles gave Cox 103,000,000 reasons to keep proving he’s the center of matchup nightmares on the interior.

Outside linebacker: Nigel Bradham

Partly because I think he gets a little too much criticism, I briefly considered Mychal Kendricks here. But as soon as I realized Bradham, an instant tackle machine under Jim Schwartz, is just a year older, my mind was made up.

Middle linebacker: Jordan Hicks

There’s an argument to be made that Hicks, right now, is the best player on the team.

Cornerback: Sidney Jones

Maybe the toughest position to narrow down, which is ironic considering its general lack of aptitude. Jalen Mills’ confidence is hard to pass over, and Rasul Douglas almost — and somewhat inexplicably — seems like the safest of long-term prospects. If we’re building from scratch, though, we’ll eventually need the closest thing we can get to a true No. 1, and post-injury Jones, while a big gamble, offers hope for that.

Safety: Malcolm Jenkins

Rodney McLeod, at a spry 27, was very nearly the pick as more of a long-term center fielder. Jenkins, though, seems too much like the organization’s rock to let loose. No. 27 has embraced his role with the Eagles like no other recent free-agent addition, his game attendance record is spotless and even a future slip in speed shouldn’t prevent him from hunting in the flats or being back-end tackle insurance.

Kicker: Caleb Sturgis

If I would’ve told myself early in 2015 I’d be embracing Sturgis with confidence, I’m not sure what I would’ve thought.

Punter: Donnie Jones

This beats the days of Chas Henry.

Long snapper: Jon Dorenbos

Just know that, had Dorenbos retired to pursue full-time show business, Trey Burton would’ve been a lock as the emergency guy.

***

This and that:

  • On the Jordan Matthews front, I’m of the belief No. 81 deserves more credit than he gets and is generally someone you want on your football team. BGN’s fearless leader has eloquently and cautiously explained that stats probably inflate Matthews’ value, but I think J-Matt deserves both: 1.) respect for shouldering the 2015-2016 load of an otherwise dismal receiving corps and 2.) an opportunity to benefit from playing alongside more formidable counterparts. All this to say, I, a Matthews proponent, find the wideout’s practice absence — and Coach Doug Pederson’s odd explanation — curious and indicative of either deeper injury concerns or a move stemming from Matthews’ uncertain Eagles future beyond 2017.
  • Nick Foles often gets a bad rap because of how average he appeared after drawing staunch support in 2013 (Act One of the abbreviated Chip Kelly trilogy), but count me among those eager to see him take up clipboard duties behind Wentz. I like to say Foles was never truly as elite a quarterback as a locker-room character, but if I were Coach Pederson, I also wouldn’t be the least bit concerned if Nick had to step in, with this supporting cast, to relieve Wentz in 2017.
  • Two weeks until Eagles (preseason) football is back. Another thing that has “twos,” the Eagles and should elicit excitement: Sidney Jones out at practice in a No. 22 jersey — with, of course, the dreadlocks to round out Asante Samuel flashbacks.