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Defensive Eagles training camp position battles are limited, but important

Some situational roles are available

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles-Minicamp Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we looked at the lack of roster spots up for grabs on the Philadelphia Eagles offense. Today we’ll look at defense, where there as many jobs to be won as on offense, which is to say not much, but the impact of those roles is much more pronounced: at each position grouping there are key role players that have to be decided.

But first, let’s get the specialists out of the way.

Specialists (3 of 3): Jake Elliott, Cameron Johnston, and Rick Lovato have no competition for their jobs.

That was easy.

On to the harder stuff.

Defensive Line (7 of 10): Last year the Eagles carried 5 DEs and 5 DTs, in 2016 they carried 6 and 5.

At DE, Derek Barnett, Michael Bennett, Brandon Graham, Chris Long, and Josh Sweat are locks. So barring an injury, Danny Ezechukwu, Steven Means, Joe Ostman, and don’t have a chance. Nor would it seem does Aziz Shittu, who the team lists as a DE now.

At DT, Fletcher Cox and Haloti Ngata are the starters, as Tim Jernigan won’t be available to start the season, so we can’t count him.

That makes for three spots up for grabs among the quartet of Winston Craig, Bruce Hector, Elijah Qualls, and Destiny Vaeao. Vaeao would seem to be a shoo-in, but he went from inactive in the first half of the season to playing 30-40% of snaps in the middle of the season to 20% at the end of the season. Clearly the coaching staff is not sold on him. Fortunately for Vaeao, he doesn’t have much competition. Qualls appeared in four games early in the season and then was an afterthought. Craig spent some time on the practice squad last year. Hector is a pass rushing DT, but the Eagles have plenty of guys who can get to QB on the interior so he’s going to have to really stand out. Shittu should be a candidate, having spent the 2016 season on the practice squad and 2017 on IR, but again, the team lists him as a DE.

It’s possible the team carries just four DTs to start the season since Graham and Bennett both can slide to DT on passing downs and lessen the workload DTs, and instead carries six DEs and then sort it out when Jernigan returns. Whatever the plan is, 7 of the 10 spots are already accounted for.

Linebacker (4 of 5-6): Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks have the starting jobs, with Corey Nelson in a backup spot and Kamu Grugier-Hill set as at least a special teamer. That leaves one, possibly two roster spots for Asantay Brown, Nate Gerry, LaRoy Reynolds, Joe Walker, and Kyle Wilson.

That wasn’t the plan though. Paul Worrilow was signed to backup Hicks and play special teams, in May he tore his ACL. Last season Walker started the season as the primary backup to Hicks, but won the job in part if not in full because Gerry suffered a hamstring injury in the preseason, but obviously weren’t thrilled because they signed Worrilow to at least compete if not outright take that spot.

Brown is a hybrid linebacker/safety, while Reynolds is a special teamer who is on his 4th team in as many years. If the Eagles want to carry 6 LBs again, he might take Najee Goode’s role. Wilson was signed after the loss of Worrilow after impressing in tryouts, which means he’s a camp body.

In 2016 the Eagles had just 4 linebackers, in 2017 they had 6. If they carry more players at one position, such as QB and OL, they’ll have to carry fewer at another, and LB could be one.

Cornerback (5 of 6): Ronald Darby, Rasul Douglas, Sidney Jones, Avonte Maddux, and Jalen Mills all have roster spots. In 2016 and 2017 the Eagles carried 6 CBs, so we can assume they’ll once again carry 6. They have every reason to, having spent draft assets on those five, making the 6th spot up for grabs.

De’Vante Bausby is the leader in the clubhouse ahead of Randall Goforth, DJ Killings, and Chandon Sullivan. The coaching staff was very high on Bausby last year, and even though he’s only played 115 career snaps on defense, all in 2016, he’s the most experienced CB they have who can play the slot. Slot is where this camp battle will be won. The Eagles have plenty of options for the outside, but on the inside they lack experience. Barring a trade or waiver claim for an experienced slot corner, the only option the Eagles have is to go through their trove of young corners and see who shines. Whoever starts the season as the slot might not finish the season in that role, so the corner who makes a case for himself as Plan B if not Plan A should have the best chance.

Safety: (3* of 4): Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are the starters, and Chris Maragos will be back as the special teams ace. There’s one spot up for grabs, maybe, among Ryan Neal, Jeremy Reaves, Stephen Roberts, and Tre Sullivan. Neal has safety/corner versatility, but coming from the FCS, may need development time. Reaves also has safety/corner versatility and made the All-Sun Belt team in both of those positions in his final two college seasons. Roberts, you guessed it, has safety/corner versatility as well, though he hasn’t played corner since high school. Clearly you can see what the Eagles want in their safeties.

But none of them might have a chance. Corey Graham didn’t sign until August 3rd last year, and if he returns it will be in a similar fashion, skipping the early stage of training camp. Given the lack of experience of Neal, Reaves, Roberts and Sullivan, it’s a good bet Graham will be back, rendering the whole thing moot. Whoever the 3rd safety is, they’ll get playing time, Graham played 36% of snaps last year.

Like the offense, there aren’t many spots available, 19 of 24-26 roster spots are already accounted for. That speaks to the depth of talent the team has. But unlike the offense, the jobs available are all meaningful roles. The 3rd DT and 3rd safety will see real playing time, while the final CB spot will have a chance to earn playing time as the season progresses.

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