Five under-the-radar Eagles to watch in 2017
Joe Walker and Destiny Vaeao are among the lesser-known Eagles names to keep an eye on.
By this point of the offseason, the top of the Eagles' depth chart becomes more clear. The draft might change how some positions look, but the Eagles also will give young, under-the-radar players a chance to impress this summer.
In past seasons, I've looked down the depth chart for some of those names. This is a good time to check out those players this season. I limited it to players who didn't start last year (so no Wendell Smallwood) and were not significant contributors (Beau Allen, with 40 percent of the defensive snaps, is too well known).
Here are five to watch for 2017:
Joe Walker, linebacker. Before Walker tore his ACL last August, he was in line to be the backup middle linebacker. After the injury, the Eagles signed veteran Stephen Tulloch to fill that role. Tulloch was not re-signed and the Eagles didn't add anyone at the position, so you can do the math. Walker, 24, must show he's healthy, but the 2016 seventh-round pick could be Jordan Hicks' backup this season. Walker, who is 6-2 and 236 pounds, also can contribute on special teams. He spent last season in team meetings while recovering from the injury. During training camp, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz identified Walker as a young linebacker who was standing out to the coaching staff. A full year in the building will give him a better understanding of the defense.
Dwayne Gratz, cornerback. The Eagles obviously need cornerbacks, and the draft is expected to add at least two to the depth chart. But of the returning players at the position, Gratz is an oft-forgotten cornerback who could factor into the roster mix with a good summer. The Eagles signed Gratz last December, and it wasn't to make a 2016 contribution -- it was to have him on the roster for the offseason. Gratz, 27, started 25 games for Jacksonville from 2013-15. He is 5-foot-11 and 199 pounds and was a 2013 third-round pick. So there is talent for the Eagles to use, along with starting experience. Most of his playing time came on the outside; the Jaguars moved him to the slot before moving on from him last year. After Patrick Robinson, he's the second most-experienced cornerback on the depth chart. His contract is not guaranteed this season, so Gratz will need to impress the Eagles to make the team. But Jalen Mills is the only cornerback likely assured a roster spot this point, meaning there is an opportunity for Gratz.
Destiny Vaeao, defensive tackle. As an undrafted rookie last season, Vaeao played 268 defensive snaps (26 percent) and had two sacks. That shows how bullish the team was on his development last season. The Eagles' front office scouted defensive tackles hard for last year's draft – it was a strength of the class – and expected to take one. When they didn't, Vaeao was a priority free agent. The 23-year-old earned his playing time last summer and could continue to play a role in the defensive-tackle mix this season. The Eagles added Tim Jernigan and lost Bennie Logan. Beau Allen is expected to miss the summer because of a pectoral injury, meaning Vaeao could be the third defensive tackle during training camp and the preseason. Behind him are only practice-squad holdover Aziz Shittu and Justin Hamilton, who was signed to a reserve/future contract after the offseason. The Eagles could still add a defensive tackle in the draft, but look for the 6-4, 299-pound Vaeao to continue to push for playing time this season.
Dillon Gordon, offensive lineman. The Eagles converted Gordon from tight end to an offensive lineman last spring. They kept him on the 53-man roster throughout the season even while they remained thin at other positions. The reason was the potential the Eagles saw in Gordon, who is 6-4 and 322 pounds and has good athleticism for the position. It's unfair to compare any player to Jason Peters, who was also a converted tight end, but the Eagles are clearly investing in Gordon's development. He was active for one game last season and saw action as a fullback. The offensive-line depth chart is even more crowded this season than last year, so there will be a roster crunch. But Gordon will have a full summer to show how much he progressed. Considering it's a weak offensive-line draft class, the Eagles could pass on taking one and view Gordon as their developmental player. He could take on a bigger role in future years when some of the aging players on the Eagles line move on.