Eagles rookies are due into town Friday for a rookie mini-camp that begins this weekend. They represent the team's future, and while some will be expected to contribute right away – starting with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, the player the Eagles drafted 12th overall – no one with any sense will try to make lasting judgments on the new kids for at least a couple seasons.
Many veteran Eagles players and coaches, though, don't have the same leeway. What's striking about this Eagles team is how many people enter this season having something to prove right now. Off the top of my head I can point to at least nine coaches or players who face serious questions about their standing and whose play this year will go a long way to determining their futures in Philadelphia.
Part of the pressure comes from so many players falling below expectations last year and who can't expect another mulligan. Part of it is that the team's offseason has looked so positive that another deflating regular season would scream out for a shake up. And part of it is that with a full offseason to prepare, there are truly no excuses to lean on this time around.
We won't get answers about who impresses and who falls short for months and months to come. For now, consider this a quick primer on some of the players we'll be watching most closely as offseason training ramps up and we search for clues about what their 2012 campaigns may hold:
- Andy Reid: The guy everyone wants to know about. In his February press conference Jeffrey Lurie made clear he had to stop and think about Reid's future following last year's 8-8 finish. With an even stronger line up this time around, at least on paper, and a full year to incorporate 2011's new pieces, it's hard to see how Reid could survive without a strong rebound. To many on the outside, that means at least one playoff win, if not more, but Lurie has (wisely) not publicly offered such a clear ultimatum.
- Mike Vick/Juan Castillo: Vick and Castillo represent Reid's biggest decisions, and gambles, since trading away Donovan McNabb and rebuilding his team. The pair both faltered in 2011, drawing their coach's judgment into question. Both will have some improved circumstances heading into 2012: Vick will have a full offseason as the team's starter; Castillo has a faster, more athletic defense, a year of coordinating under his belt and a pair of corners who play a similar style. If Vick is ever going to lead this team deep into the playoffs, now would seem to be the time. No matter how nice the team's offseason moves, none will mean anything if he can't deliver, or at least cut down on turnovers and injuries. Castillo still has to win over many doubters and prove that Reid's faith was justified, and not a massive error.
- Brandon Graham/Nate Allen: Another pair in similar circumstances, each was taken early in the 2010 draft, each showed some signs of promise but were inconsistent as rookies and hampered by the after-effects of injuries in 2011. In year three, each has the experience and health that should allow them to show what they can – or can't – do. This is the year we find out if the team whiffed on these two important picks, or if they simply needed time to blossom.
- Nnamdi Asomugha/Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: Asomugha never seemed comfortable with the Eagles last year, on the field opposite off-corner Asante Samuel or in front of a critical media. Now he has another year to get used to his new home and prove that he really was worth all of the hype leading up to his signing in 2011. If he falls short, questions will grow about whether the Eagles gave a long-term deal to a player who had just hit the wrong side of 30. Rodgers-Cromartie was a smaller investment but has less security. With just one year left on his contract, he has to show he is worth keeping in Philadelphia. If not, he could face the stigma of being deemed expendable by a second team in three years.
- DeMeco Ryans: Two years ago DeMeco Ryans was a Pro Bowl middle linebacker and indispensable part of the Houston Texans. Last year he was a two-down linebacker playing a reduced role and traded for very little return. Now he's back in the system he came up in, the 4-3, and two years removed from his Achilles tear. This is when we find out if he just needed time to get back to form, or if the serious injury has diminished his ability.
- DeSean Jackson: He got the contract, finally. Now there are no excuses for the up-and-down receiver who envisions himself as a superstar but only sometimes plays like one. Jackson signed for less than many expected, he still put his name on the deal. There can be no complaints now about distractions or feeling undervalued or being concerned that he would never get to cash in on his Pro Bowls. Now it's time for Jackson to show that last year's dip on and off the field are things of the past.