THE EAGLES go into training camp this weekend with few starting spots in question. Right now, only two starters seem at all shaky — Brian Rolle at weakside linebacker, who will have to fight off Jamar Chaney, and Kurt Coleman at strong safety, who will be challenged by free-agent signee O.J. Atogwe. You could throw fullback in there, if you deem that a true starting position; the Eagles employed a fullback on only about 16 percent of their snaps last season. The incumbent, Owen Schmitt, departed for Oakland in free agency.
Several other battles for roles could end up being important — given that the Eagles spent about 46 percent of their snaps in their nickel defense last season, vs. 41 percent in base, according to Pro Football Focus, it matters a lot whether veteran Joselio Hanson or rookie Brandon Boykin is the slot corner. Other situations are a bit more esoteric. There is a huge logjam at defensive end, and unless injuries intercede, somebody with talent eventually will get cut, but will it really matter that much whether Darryl Tapp or Phillip Hunt is the fifth DE? Other than to Darryl and Phillip, and their families, I mean?
One thing we can be sure of — fans care. As the roster battles rage in the sun at Lehigh, scrutiny will attend Riley Cooper's attempt to defend his roster spot against Marvin McNutt and whomever, far beyond a fourth or fifth wide receiver's power to influence the season. Hey, what else are you going to follow? The games that matter are still nearly 2 months off.
Let's take a stroll through some of the more interesting situations that will be addressed before the first real kickoff of 2012, Sept. 9 at Cleveland:
Brian Rolle, a sixth-round rookie last year, showed solid instincts and played much of the season as the weakside starter. But he's generously listed at 5-10, and this spring, Rolle wasn't part of the nickel package, which featured DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks as the LBs. So if the weakside linebacker is going to be on the field mainly for running downs, it might make sense to start Jamar Chaney, the middle linebacker deposed by the acquisition of Ryans. Chaney is at least a couple of inches taller and about 20 pounds heavier than Rolle. This will be a tough choice — between two guys who will work hard every day and compete.
The Eagles insisted all spring they were copacetic with Kurt Coleman opposite Nate Allen, backed up by 2011 second-rounder Jaiquawn Jarrett, who barely got on the field as a rookie. Then, after reviewing all the spring tape, the Birds signed veteran O.J. Atogwe. I'll be shocked if Allen doesn't start, but after that, who knows? Coaches built up Coleman all spring — not sure anybody works harder to improve — but he was a 2010 seventh-round draft pick for a reason. He isn't big or fast, and he misses tackles. Coleman is a guy you want on your team, maybe not as a starter. Atogwe, franchised by the Rams 3 years ago, is 31 now, and he was cut loose in January by a 5-11 Redskins team. He missed all the Eagles spring work and will be learning the defense from scratch at Lehigh. The guy I think is on the roster bubble here is Jarrett, the former Temple star, who as a rookie didn't seem to have the frame or the quickness to back up his big hitter rep. It's not that big a deal, in a lockout year, for a rookie not to get a lot of snaps from scrimmage, but Jarrett couldn't seem to make himself useful on special teams. That's a red flag.
If LeSean McCoy is healthy, the identity of his backup probably won't much matter. It would be nice if the backup avoided handing the ball off to the opponents at the goal line — in the wake of Ronnie Brown, the bar is set low. It's a little surprising the Eagles didn't scare up another vet like Brown to at least compete for a spot. They have 2011 rookie Dion Lewis, the fire-alarm scourge of upstate New York, and a couple of project-type rookies, seventh-rounder Bryce Brown (6 feet, 223) and free agent Chris Polk (5-11, 222). Both looked like players, with good size and quickness, wearing short pants in spring work. Lewis, who almost certainly won't retain his kick return job, needs a good camp.
The real logjam is at defensive end, but the way the Eagles like to slide guys around between DE and DT, maybe we'd better throw everybody in the same pot. Exceptional talent here. I suspect we'll be talking in late August about how many d-linemen you can possibly carry on a 53-man roster, and whether it would be possible to trade someone instead of just watching them get snapped up on waivers. The four starters are set, unless Mike Patterson's offseason surgery to untangle blood vessels in his brain sets him back more than he or the Eagles predicted. In June, Patterson expected to be full-go right around the start of training camp, more or less. But then you have first- and second-round rookies, in Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry, and 2010 first-rounder Brandon Graham, along with 2011 injury victim Antonio Dixon, Phillip Hunt, Derek Landri, Darryl Tapp and Cedric Thornton, a practice squad standout who finished last season on the roster. That's a solid dozen, not including a few other guys you've never heard of, competing for what, maybe 10 spots?
Veteran slot man Joselio Hanson probably has the wiles to hold off rookie Brandon Boykin, especially with the team already exchanging savvy Asante Samuel for younger Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. I think Boykin is the early leader to return kicks, so he needs to win a nickel or dime role to be sure of being activated every week. Curtis Marsh was a reach as a third-round pick last year and might have a hard time sticking, given that the Eagles like Brandon Hughes and signed an intriguing undrafted free agent in Oregon's Cliff Harris. Harris missed all the spring work, because Oregon is on the quarter system and his class hadn't graduated.
When the Eagles signed Trent Edwards, it sure seemed they wanted someone behind Michael Vick more experienced than Mike Kafka, who has 16 career NFL pass attempts. But Edwards got almost no reps in the spring. It could be they signed him just to give him a little boost in getting back into the league. We'll see what his role is when camp gets under way. Right now, Kafka is your clear-cut backup, third-round rookie Nick Foles is No. 3. Fans will like Foles' arm.
It will be either Stanley Havili, of Southern California, or undrafted rookie Emil Igwenagu, from UMass, assuming the Eagles carry a fullback. Igwenagu had a strong spring.
Behind Brent Celek, Clay Harbor will have to show steady improvement to fend off former Penn Stater and practice-squad member Brett Brackett, who caught everything in spring work.