Good morning, Eagles fans. The good news is today is Friday, the bad news is there wasn’t Eagles football on your television Thursday night. The preseason opener at the Indianapolis Colts was canceled weeks ago. Instead, the team practiced in helmets only, with padded practices starting next week.
Because of the canceled games, those practices will hold more weight than ever. On Wednesday, we looked at some of the biggest position battles set to take place on offense. Today, we’ll look at the defensive side of the ball.
— EJ Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
There’s been more turnover on the Eagles’ defensive depth chart than in recent years, leaving a lot to be determined during the next few weeks. The unit lost its leader and best defensive back when safety Malcolm Jenkins was released and picked up by the New Orleans Saints. The team lost two of its top five tacklers last season, with Jenkins and linebacker Nigel Bradham both in the Big Easy.
Here are a few position battles to watch closely once padded practices begin Monday.
Arguably the biggest camp battle will take place among outside cornerbacks not named Darius Slay. Avonte Maddox, Sidney Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc, and Rasul Douglas will all be competing for a starting spot in the secondary. LeBlanc and Maddox would be better suited to a slot corner role, but the addition of Nickell Robey-Coleman in the offseason means their best hope is on the outside.
Maddox is likely the front-runner heading into practices, with some experience on the outside from last season and the versatility to move around in the defense whenever Slay shadows an opposing receiver. The 5-foot-9, 184-pound defensive back started 15 games the last two seasons, playing inside and outside corner as well as safety as a rookie in 2018.
LeBlanc could edge out Maddox with a solid training camp, as could Jones. Jones, the second-round pick in 2017, fell in the draft because of a torn Achilles. He’s been hampered by soft-tissue injuries his entire career. In the final few games of last year, he made two big plays with very limited playing time, but he’ll have to show he has returned to his college form to make a real case.
The Eagles typically rotate four defensive ends during the season and carry either five or six. Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett are the presumptive starters and locks to make the team. Josh Sweat, who had four sacks and 17 quarterback hurries last season, should have the top backup spot as his to lose.
The Eagles re-signed Vinny Curry to a one-year deal last week, which gives them the option to return the same four-man rotation they had last year. But Genard Avery, Shareef Miller, Joe Ostman, and Casey Toohill will all be challenging for playing time.
Avery joined the Eagles last season at the trade deadline from the Cleveland Browns in exchange for a 2021 fourth-round pick, but he has yet to play much. Miller was the team’s fourth-round pick in 2019 but was essentially redshirted last year. Ostman was a training-camp hero last summer before tearing his ACL. Curry, who played well last season, and Avery are probably the leaders in the clubhouse for the job, but Miller or Ostman could sneak in.
The least decorated faction of the Eagles defense will have plenty to figure out starting next week. The senior of the group is Nate Gerry, who has just one year of starting experience. Sub packages that used just one or two linebackers in favor of more defensive backs have become a big part of the Eagles defense, but the spot next to Gerry is still open.
T.J. Edwards, a year removed from starting four games as an undrafted rookie, has a solid case for the second spot heading into camp as the most experienced in the group outside Gerry. His most seasoned challenger, Jatavis Brown, abruptly retired last week at the age of 26. Brown was signed earlier in the offseason to a one-year deal and would have competed for a starting spot.
Challenging for the second and third spot will be this year’s third-round pick, Davion Taylor, and sixth-round pick, Shaun Bradley, as well as a slew of returning special-teams contributors such as Alex Singleton and Duke Riley. Undrafted rookie Dante Olsen is also in the mix.
Taylor’s draft position could give him an early opportunity to earn a spot, but he was considered a raw player coming out of Colorado, having barely played high school football and two seasons at Colorado.
Carson bulking up — intentional, or did he just catch a dad bod on the offseason? — from Chris Knowles (@chrisknowlestv) on Twitter.
Thanks for the question, Chris. Carson Wentz’s new physique certainly isn’t just a bad case of the dad bod. This is the first offseason in which he’s been completely healthy since he was finishing his rookie year. Because of the time not spent rehabbing a bad knee, back, or whatever else, he said, he spent his offseason lifting weights and adding strength. We haven’t seen him in person yet, but based on videos, I’d say Wentz put on good weight, although it is funny to imagine him overloading on chocolate juniors while binge-watching Netflix with his newborn daughter during quarantine.