In a blog post last week, I wrote about why safety Keelan Johnson is an under-the-radar player to watch. This drew emails from readers wondering who else would fit that profile for the Eagles. The bottom of the roster, practice squad, and injured reserve often include players who are developing into contributors. Cedric Thornton went from practice squad to reserve to starter. Quintin Mikell and Jamaal Jackson are past examples of players whose roles increased as they developed.
Looking through the roster and my notes, I identified five players to watch this offseason. This is not to suggest they will be major contributors or even are locks to make the roster, but they fit the profile of under-the-radar players who could play bigger roles than anticipated.
Joe Kruger, defensive lineman: When the Eagles spent a seventh-round pick on Kruger last season, they did not necessarily view the pick with 2013 in mind. Kruger left Utah after three seasons, and the team believed that Kruger would have been a higher pick had he returned for his senior season. They like the size and skill set, but Kruger needed to get bigger. He was placed on injured reserve, which essentially created a redshirt season for Kruger. Although he was not allowed at practice, Kruger was at the facility and around the team. He added muscle to his 6-foot-6, 269-pound frame, and Kruger told me in January he expected to be at 290 pounds by the offseason program.
At 6-6 and 290, Kruger fits the perfect frame for a five-technique defensive end. That's how the Eagles can use him.. He is also the youngest player on the team, not turning 22 until June. Consider Kruger almost like an extra addition to the 2014 draft class. And with Clifton Geathers leaving in free agency, I expect Kruger to be the front-runner to replace Geathers in the defensive line rotation. Remember, Geathers was active for all 16 games last season and played 21 percent of the Eagles' snaps. So if Kruger fills that role, he would be a contributor on the Eagles' defense.
Travis Long, outside linebacker: The Eagles need to add edge rushers, and Travis Long could be one of those under-the-radar players who plays his way onto the roster as an edge rusher. Long spent all of last season the practice squad, so he was at practice, in meetings, and on road trips. The only thing he didn't do was dress on Sundays.
The Eagles signed Long during training camp last season when Long had just recovered from a November 2012 knee injury. At 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds and with a long body, Long fits the prototype for an edge rusher. The Eagles had him on their radar throughout their offseason last year, but the injury was the issue in signing him. Tom Gamble worked in San Francisco with former Washington State coach Paul Wulff, who recruited Long and offered insight on Long during the pre-draft process. Chip Kelly game planned for Long when Long was at Washington State, and knew Long's talent in college. Once the medical checked out, the Eagles wanted to sign him.
After a full season on practice squad, Long could make the jump to the active roster in 2014. There will be spots open at the position. He must show he can be valuable on special teams.
Chris Polk, running back: Polk contributed last season, rushing 11 times for 98 yards and three touchdowns. The Eagles' backfield is even more crowded this season with the addition of Darren Sproles, but look for Polk to earn more playing time in 2014. Polk joined the Eagles as an undrafted rookie in 2013 and made the roster, but he remained behind Bryce Brown on the depth chart. Both Polk and Brown are talented players – I think Brown has the better chance of being an impact starter in the NFL – but Polk is an intriguing player. He improved from his rookie year to his second season. He has a rugged running style that produces positive yards, and the coaching staff wanted to get him on the field.
I'm curious to see if the Eagles move Brown on draft day. He has the talent to start elsewhere, with an age and a contract that would be appealing for a team look for a cost-effective running back. Sproles will be used mostly as a pass catcher, so he shouldn't take too many carries. Polk will certainly get the opportunity to be the No. 2 rusher next season, and he would fit well in that role.
Matt Tobin, offensive tackle: There are two offensive linemen I could see on the list: Tobin and Michael Bamiro. I went with Tobin because he's more developed and has a better chance of being a backup lineman in 2014. Tobin was an undrafted rookie out of Iowa in 2013. He came from a program that has a strong reputation for developing offensive linemen. Tobin was active for the final game of the season and in the playoffs. He offers the versatility to play guard or tackle, which is valuable as a backup offensive lineman. In that respect, he's similar to Allen Barbre.
The Eagles had remarkable health from their offensive line last season. The same group started all 16 games, and only Barbre needed to take meaningful backup snaps. Considering the age of the group, that's a difficult feat to duplicate. Even if they do, the Eagles need to develop their young linemen, especially on the interior. Tobin might fill the same role in 2014 as he did in 2013, but he'll be closer to game-ready than he was an undrafted rookie.
Najee Goode, inside linebacker: The Eagles did not add Goode until after the preseason last season. Goode played 16 percent of the defensive snaps, including almost two full games during Mychal Kendricks' absence. With Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans back, Goode does not have a spot in the Eagles' lineup. Still, I put him on the list because the Eagles like his potential. An industrial engineering major at West Virginia, Goode quickly picked up the Eagles' defense and has nice speed for the position. The Eagles need depth at inside linebacker, and there will be spots open. I would expect Goode to remain on the team in 2014 and continue to earn the trust of the coaching staff. Ryans took 1,157 snaps last season, which is a major haul for any player at that position. If the Eagles play more of a rotation 2014, Goode can take more snaps.
Other returning players to watch: T Michael Bamiro, WR Arrelious Benn, QB G.J. Kinne, DL Damion Square, CB Roc Carmichael