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6 (actually 7) Eagles I’m excited to watch in training camp

My eyes will be on these guys when the team gets back together later this summer for training camp

NFL: Washington Football Team at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not out of line to say the 2021 Philadelphia Eagles season is not as highly anticipated as seasons in our recent past. In fact, even last year, coming off a 9-7 season and NFC East title, there were high hopes.

Carson Wentz hadn’t yet imploded, Doug Pederson was a Super Bowl winning head coach who had been to the playoffs three seasons straight, Jalen Reagor hadn’t fallen flat, DeSean Jackson hadn’t fallen and not gotten up, and the offensive line hadn’t begun processing to the trainer’s room. There was reason to hope we would be in for another fun go-around in 2020, and besides, we were so hungry for live sports during the pandemic, anything and everything was embraced.

Then the Eagles started playing football.

After a 4-11-1 season, Wentz and Pederson are gone, Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts are in, and summertime expectations are as low as they have been in quite some time. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to look forward to. No matter how bad the Eagles have been, and no matter how apathetic or apoplectic the fanbase has gotten, one thing is true.

People don’t want to pay attention to the Phillies.

So when August rolls around, fans will get excited for training camp and, this year, there are a number of interesting players and battles for which to keep an eye out. Below are the six (actually seven, because I’m cheating a bit) players I’m most interested and/or excited to see when training camp begins in a couple months.

Jalen Hurts

Duh. As I wrote about a couple weeks ago, everything about the ‘21 season rides on Hurts’ arm and legs, as well as how he has progressed over the summer following an abbreviated, cameo-like rookie season.

Remember, the Eagles potentially have three first-round draft picks next year that they could use to swing a trade for an established star like Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson, or to move anywhere they want in the draft to select the QB of their preference. So fans, and most assuredly team officials, will be watching his accuracy and decision-making during the summer training session in order to help with future decisions.

Hurts has all the intangibles of being a good quarterback, but this summer will be our first true chance to see how much progress he’s made since the end of 2020.

Devonta Smith

After years of frustrating draft picks, the Eagles appear to have finally landed themselves a potential star.

Everyone is going to want to see just what the Birds have in him, and how good he’s going to be in his rookie season. DeVonta Smith is fast, smooth, and electric, and you don’t need 1,000 words to explain why all eyes will gravitate towards him this summer. What will be interesting is watching how Sirianni will deploy him.

Will he primarily be on the outside? The slot? A mix? If so, how creative can they get? It should be fascinating and fun to watch.

Jordan Mailata/Andre Dillard

This is a two-fer, but a truly important one. The battle for left tackle is perhaps the one true position battle on the offense, and Sirianni will have a very interesting decision on his hands.

Does he go with the former first-round draft choice in Dillard, a guy for whom the Eagles spent picks in order to move up and acquire, even though Dillard has underperformed in the scant few chances he’s had since coming into the league three years ago? ESPN recently said Dillard was the Eagles’ surprise performer from OTAs earlier this spring, which would seem to bode well for him.

The former first-round pick says he has a fire in him like never before after missing the entire 2020 season with a biceps injury. He ditched social media to eliminate distractions and hit the weight room hard over the past year, setting a number of personal records. He is stronger and more confident, and has drawn praise from offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland for his on-field work. He’ll battle it out with former rugby player Jordan Mailata for the starting left tackle spot during training camp. — Tim McManus

The Eagles could go with Mailata, the former 7th-round pick who was one of the few surprise, feel-good stories in a lost season, a player who performed above expectations and has potential but is still very raw. The Eagles’ defensive front should provide a good test for both players in training camp, so this is a camp battle that will be watched very closely.

Kenny Gainwell

Consider me intrigued.

Last year, Miles Sanders rushed for 867 yards in just 11 games, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Those were improvements over his rookie season, when he rushed for 818 yards in 16 games at a 4.6 yard per carry clip. However, his receiving yards nosedived, falling from 509 yards on 50 catches in 2019 to 28 receptions and just 197 yards in the air.

Now, to be fair to Sanders, Wentz’ decline likely had something to do with that, but while Gainwell can run the ball from behind center, he also provides Sirianni’s offense with another potential weapon as a receiver, as he hauled in 51 balls for 610 yards in 14 games last year at Memphis.

Kenneth appears to be a pretty electric player and should be a fun one to watch in camp.

Genard Avery

GM Howie Roseman traded a fourth-round pick for Avery a couple of years ago, but he never panned out as an edge rusher. Now, as new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon takes over for the departed Jim Schwartz, Avery will transition to linebacker, a spot where the team desperately needs help.

He’s currently listed as a starter on the outside by Ourlads but it’s clear he’ll be fighting for a roster spot as a hybrid edge rusher/linebacker with Joe Ostman, Patrick Johnson and perhaps even Ryan Kerrigan. The Eagles obviously saw something in Avery when they traded for him, and perhaps Gannon’s creativity can unlock some of what Roseman saw when he dealt away a fourth-rounder for him.

K’Von Wallace

This was the Eagles draft pick last year I thought had the best chance to be an impact defender right away, but Wallace’s rookie season was quiet and unproductive. He played in 18.3% of the team’s defensive snaps, allowed seven receptions on nine targets and recorded 10 solo tackles on defense, earning a PFF grade of 51.7.

But, to be fair, he was a rookie. Now entering his second season, the former fourth round pick is set to take on a larger role in the defense behind Rodney McLeod, who is coming off an ACL injury, and Anthony Harris as more of a roamer-type player.

I believe Wallace has the potential to be a starter in the NFL, and even if that doesn’t happen this year, I’m excited to see him take steps towards being that kind of player in camp this summer.