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Eagles training camp: 4 players in need of a standout day

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We’ve talked about the highs and the lows—but who’s fading into mediocrity?

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

After two days of practice, I had these thoughts:

They were met with widespread curiosity—why’s Gerry struggling? What’s good with Mack?—but also some ardent training camp intellectuals, who reminded me that exactly none of this matters at all.

I don’t disagree. Training camp is not game play, and we evaluate on game play, not camp performance. But I also don’t agree. For 45 members of the Eagles roster, camp really doesn’t matter too much, in that their roster spot is 99% guaranteed. Think of last season’s, who by all accounts pooped the bed in camp. He was going to make the team regardless—the coaches had enough trust in his game tape and physical ability—that his issues learning the playbook, employing the technique, and executing during camp really didn’t have much consequence.

But for the other half of the team vying to make the roster, camp really does matter. You need to start getting on the radar of your position coach; your coordinator; the head coach—and not in a bad way.

So it isn’t enough to list the players who haven’t impressed me thus far. Accordingly, here are some players I think haven’t done anything to hurt themselves, but will struggle to gain preseason playing time if they don’t begin building some momentum for themselves soon:

Matt Jones, RB

It’s been said that Matt Jones is the closest thing Philadelphia has on this roster, in size and style, to LeGarrette Blount. Accordingly, Matt’s biggest opportunities will certainly come when the pads are on, and he can play with physicality.

With that acknowledged, Blount also surprised onlookers often with his agility and body control at his weight. Jones has not done so thus far in camp. He doesn’t take reps with the intensity of a player vying for a highly-contested roster spot, nor does he garner significant playing time in 7-on-7s or 11-on-11s. He catches flare routes thus far, and that’s really the only time I’ve noticed him.

But again, Jones’ will have a better chance of shining when the pads are on; I acknowledge that. On the other hand...

Wendell Smallwood, RB

...should shine without pads on. Instead, he’s been playing the punt team. Not as a returner; as an in-line blocker.

And that’s good! It shows Smallwood’s willing to do all the dirty work necessary to provide value to the team. And the third-year back should be, in that every other role in which he’s been deployed—runner, receiver, returner—have almost categorically proved disappointing.

Smallwood was sold as a bursty back with good receiving ability, but now he finds himself on a roster chock full of that mold of player, with a bad history in the building and, to this point, a camp that indicates he’s squarely on the bubble. As of this moment (BLG screened this sentence and approved, mind you) Donnel Pumphrey has been the most active and notable of all backs vying for the fourth spot. But he certainly isn’t unassailable, and Jones/Smallwood need to start applying pressure if they want to win the roster slot over him.

Adam Zaruba, TE

Let’s start with this: Zaruba’s always been an outside shot player to make the roster; always been a project. But let’s not forget that he was brought in with the same pedigree as Billy Brown—a 2017 UDFA—despite Brown getting far more attention from fans and media. It can easily be argued that, because Brown has more experience playing organized ball, Zaruba’s projection could be higher as he gains further skills.

Tight end, as I see it is, is a fun position to project for the Birds. With Ertz (6-5 250) and Goedert (6-4 260) locked into TE1 and TE2, the instinctual analysis follows: get a good blocker at TE3, and we’re golden. Richard Rodgers (6-4 257), the free agent pick up out of Green Bay, feels like the easy answer—he’s not the best blocker, but he’s servicable and a known quantity.

But with #GodErtz taking a huge percentage, if not a majority of their snaps lined up as wide receiver...well, there’s a pretty solid argument for holding only 5 WRs and 4 TEs on this roster instead of the traditional 6 and 3. The Eagles rocked 13 personnel last season with only three TEs active, but only used four of their six rostered WRs with any remarkable degree of frequency. A 5 WR/4 TE split could lead to more balanced packages/usages.

Which brings me back to Zaruba, the biggest (6-5 265) TE on the Eagles’ roster. I know quite comfortably that he’s better than Josh Perkins, which only gives him Billy Brown to beat out for the TE4 spot that may/may not exist. Unfortunately for Zaruba, I simply haven’t seen any significant receiving reps out of him whatsoever. This is another “eyes on when pads on” player, in that hopefully his size and year of technical refinement have improved his blocking ability, which will be a big step forward in proving his value. But a spectacular catch or two (Billy Brown had a nice one yesterday) could make it known that Zaruba is ready to shake up the depth chart.

Corey Nelson, LB

Corey hasn’t been bad—can’t stress that enough. Really positive dude, enjoying camp with the Eagles, doing what’s asked of him. But between him and Kamu Grugier-Hill—the two horses in the race for WILL, as I see it—Kamu has been involved in more high-quality reps as a coverage man. Corey still seems to be getting his sea legs under him.

Can’t emphasize enough how okay that is. New player, new responsibilities, new system—everything is a learning curve with Nelson. His inclusion here is again to emphasize that, eventually, we need to see a breakout rep for Corey. I think his roster spot is comfortably safe as a backup WILL/subpackage cover man.

But he’s on a one-year deal and has been jonesing for a ‘starting’ job for a while now—it’s why he got out of Denver. He came to Philadelphia within a ‘prove it’ context, and he’s yet to prove much. On the players of this list, he’s the one I expect to eventually have that standout day. The sooner the better, so that this coaching staff can really get a sense of what he brings to the starting roster.