With training camp set to begin tomorrow, let’s take a look at the five position battles that will play out over the next few weeks.
The competition to replace Mychal Kendricks is the one camp battle that can be considered a tossup. Between Kamu Grugier-Hill, Nate Gerry, and Corey Nelson, all three players vying for the spot have a legitimate shot at winning.
When I wrote on this competition last month there wasn’t really a leader and that status hasn’t changed. Grugier-Hill has been in Schwartz’s system the longest (2 season) and seems to be the people’s choice—if you go by Twitter buzz. He plays fast and is solid in coverage, but, like every player competing for this spot, has very limited film to glean from.
Nate Gerry is a converted safety from Nebraska who spent his rookie season learning the ropes at linebacker. The coaching staff has raved about him this offseason, and last month I predicted he would ultimately win this battle. Much like Grugier-Hill, Gerry plays fast and has been solid in coverage. Both players are unproven against the run, but for a position that will mostly see the field on passing downs that shouldn’t be a major concern here.
Corey Nelson is the one player in this competition who has previous experience to take into consideration. He spent his last few seasons as a backup in Denver and was occasionally forced into a bigger role due to injury. By all accounts he was below average overall and terrible against the run. He is solid in pass coverage and that’s why the team brought him here. If I had to guess, I would say that Schwartz is banking on either of Gerry or Grugier-Hill to seize this role and is treating Nelson as a fallback option.
I’ll stick with my previous prediction that Nate Gerry wins the job, but it’s truly a tossup.
This spot on the roster typically isn’t worth keeping an eye on, but given Schwartz propensity to use Malcolm Jenkins all over the field, it has become a fairly prominent role in the Eagles secondary. Corey Graham filled this spot well last season, and I’ve hollered and complained for the team to bring him back on a 1-year deal. Graham is 32 years old and is still a free agent—maybe I’m missing something, but the decision to re-sign him seems obvious. Graham is a proven commodity as opposed to the alternative options here.
Tre Sullivan, Chris Maragos, and Jeremy Reaves are the three players currently on the roster that are vying for this spot. Sullivan has earned impressive reviews all summer long, but the reality is that he spent last season on the practice squad/scout team. Is it reasonable to expect Sullivan to make such a big step forward in only one offseason? I won’t rule it out—but again, considering Graham can be had for pennies, I don’t see why the team would be willing to roll the dice here.
Maragos is a little more proven than the Sullivan or Reaves only in the sense that we know he’s a special teams ace. He hasn’t been anything more than that throughout his career, and there’s just no reason to expect that to change. On top of that, his return from a serious knee injury should erase any wishful thinking that this would be the year he becomes a contributor in the secondary.
Reaves is the long-shot here. He’s an undrafted rookie from South Alabama who has a chip on his shoulder. The coaching staff is very high on him for an undrafted player, and I actually do like his chances to make the roster despite that fact, but I don’t think he can realistically win this job. At the risk of sounding like a broken record—why start an undrafted rookie when you can bring back the proven-commodity in Graham.
I wouldn’t necessarily consider this a “battle” in the sense that we know which players will be filling these spots, we just don’t know how they’ll be situated. It’s safe to say that Sidney Jones, Ronald Darby, and Jalen Mills will be the three starting corners this season. But the major question mark is which player will get the nod at nickel corner to replace Patrick Robinson?
I’ve been vocal about the value Robinson had in the secondary last season. And I’ve maintained since the Draft that the team and fan base have grossly underestimated the impact of his loss. It was the entire basis for my argument that the Draft was a failure.
Regardless, the team has made clear their belief that one of either Jones, Darby, and Mills will be able to fill the nickel corner role, and that’s really what’s worth keeping an eye on here.
Mills spent one week at the nickel spot last summer before the team decided he wasn’t the answer—I’m not sure why we would expect that to be any different this offseason. There hasn’t been much buzz about Darby sliding inside, as he has spent his whole career on the outside, but I think he has the instincts and quick-twitch tools to at least compete there. And then there’s Sidney Jones. I have high expectations for Jones’ career, and I think he can become a lockdown corner in the near future. While the jury is still out on his ability as a nickel corner, given his impressive tools, it’s reasonable to think he would be fine in such a role.
Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz are playing the numbers game here. They have three bodies who can capably start on the outside, and the idea is that one of them will be able to translate that ability to the nickel spot. Nobody expected Pat Robinson to perform the way he did last season, and the team seems to be banking on a similar emergence this season.
Second boundary receiver
Howie and Doug brought in Mike Wallace to replace Torrey Smith, and that’s what will likely happen. But we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of either Mack Hollins or Markus Wheaton breaking out and taking the job for themselves. Wallace is a heavy favorite, but is by no means a lock here.
Backpack Mack is a fan favorite and the coaches rave about him every chance they get. It’s easy to get excited by his combination of size and speed, but his ability to contribute depends on how the rest of his game develops. His blocking is above average, and if he continues to sharpen his route running then it’ll be hard to keep him off the field. I like Mack a lot—I won’t bet on him beating out the veteran Wallace, but it’s more of a possibility than people think.
A long-shot possibility here is Wheaton. He may not even make the roster at the end of the day, but there’s no denying his talent. In back to back seasons in Pittsburgh he posted 40+ receptions, 600+ yards, for 14.4 yards per catch. That type of production would be more than welcome from whoever ends up filling this role. For comparisons sake, Torrey Smith produced 430 yards on 36 catches last season. Wheaton’s talent has never been the issue; he felt out of favor in Pittsburgh after an injury in 2016, and for whatever reason, he was a non-factor last season in Chicago. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for him to recapture the promise he displayed early in his career and outperform both Wallace and Hollins. That’ll be worth keeping an eye on throughout training camp.
Backup Defensive Tackle
Schwartz uses a deep rotation along the defensive line, and he usually likes to have three defensive tackles in that rotation at all times. With Timmy Jernigan out for a large chunk of the season, and Beau Allen moving on to Tampa Bay, the third tackle spot is up in the air to start the season.
The man that they signed to fill that role, Haloti Ngata, will be forced to start alongside Cox to begin the season. This leaves a gaping hole in Schwartz’s rotation. The players vying to fill that hole are Elijah Qualls, Destiny Vaeao, Winston Craig, and Bruce Hector. All of these options are unproven and less than ideal.
Qualls and Vaeao are my favorites to earn this spot. Qualls is athletic, shifty, and capable of being an above average pass rusher from the inside—he flashed an ability to get to the quarterback last preseason with six hurries.
Vaeao has contributed some these past two seasons (around 20% of defensive snaps) but has been very inconsistent. He fell completely out of the rotation during the playoffs for the most part, and he’ll need to have a strong training camp to lock down a roster spot. I feel like Vaeao is what he is at this point, and each of the alternatives here have slightly more long term promise.
Hector is an undrafted free agent from South Florida. He is considered undersized for a prototypcal 4-3 tackle, but he is strong as hell and has great footwork—a solid package of tools to build off of. Much like Reaves at safety, Hector isn’t considered the roster longshot that most undrafted players are usually tagged with. I think he’ll make the roster, but I don’t see him winning the third spot in the rotation.
Winston Craig is also an undrafted player but he is less polished than Hector and probably doesn’t have the same shot at making the roster.
My money is on Qualls having a semi-breakout season and earning this spot. I even think it’s possible that he eats into Ngata’s reps when Jernigan returns. (There’s a reason Ngata was available for cheap).
Weak-side LB — Nate Gerry
Third safety — Corey Graham
Nickel cornerback — Sidney Jones
#2 Outside WR — Mike Wallace
Third DT — Elijah Qualls