As the preseason and training camp come to an end, teams are now trimming down their rosters to 53 players for the start of the regular season. For the Eagles, pretty much every starter is set in stone for the opener (except for QB, obviously). The Eagles do have a handful of roster decisions that need to me made though.
There’s three position battles/roster decisions that immediately come to mind; the fourth running back spot, weak outside linebacker, and whether or not to keep Jordan Mailata on the active roster. There hasn’t been a clear-cut favorite at any of these battles throughout camp and the Mailata situation becomes more intriguing with every solid performance he puts out during the preseason. Each one of these battles has been close, and I’m sure the coaches are waiting to see what these players can do in this final preseason game before they make their final decision.
The Fourth Running Back Battle:
First, let’s look at the battle in the back field. The first three running backs are already set on the depth chart; Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, and Darren Sproles. The fourth and final spot has been up for grabs all camp long, yet none of the backs fighting for that spot have really stood out. The three main candidates for the final roster spot at running back are; Wendell Smallwood, Josh Adams, and Matt Jones.
I’m starting to think that Matt Jones has already squandered his opportunity because of his abysmal play during the preseason. Through three games, Jones has accumulated 31 yards on 9 carries along 62 receiving yards on 12 catches. He’s also fumbled once and has dropped a few passes. Not to mention he hasn’t looked particularly strong in pass protection, which can make or break a running back who’s fighting for a roster spot.
I believe the coaches will favor the two younger backs, Smallwood and Adams, over Jones. Not just because they’re younger, but because they’ve just played better than Jones in nearly every facet.
With Jones out of the picture, the coaches will have a tough decision to make. Smallwood has been here since his rookie season and it feels like the coaching staff is just waiting for him to pop and have a breakthrough camp. It hasn’t happened for him, not yet at least.
Smallwood can also contribute on special teams, in both the return game and just as a gunner on kickoff/punt. Adams hasn’t shown that ability yet, which leads me to believe that the coaching staff will lean towards keeping Smallwood over him. Adams has done enough to earn himself a spot on the practice squad though, and that’s where he’ll most likely end up.
Weak Side Linebacker:
After Mychal Kendricks was cut, the weak side linebacker position became wide open. During the offseason, Howie did bring in Corey Nelson from Denver to help solidify that position. But, Nelson was recently cut after doing next to nothing during the preseason. So far this preseason the battle for the vacant weak side linebacker spot has boiled down to Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nate Gerry.
After watching the third preseason game last week against the Browns, it was clear that the defensive coaching staff is leaning towards starting Grugier-Hill at that spot. He played the most snaps of any defender that night (45), which leads me to believe that he’ll most likely end up as the starter there.
Regardless of who starts at the WILL position, the Eagles rarely run a defensive set with three linebackers. Most of the time (about 75% of the snaps) the Eagles are playing nickel defense, which means there’s only two LBs on the field (Hicks and Bradham) with three corners (Mills, Darby, and Jones).
With Nigel Bradham being suspended for the first game, Grugier-Hill will play a pivotal part in that gameplan for the season opener. But other than that, barring any major injuries to the linebacking corp, we likely won’t see Grugier-Hill on the field much this season.
If you would’ve told me that this rugby player we drafted would have a serious shot to make the roster come September, I would’ve laughed in your face. But here we are, debating just that.
This wouldn’t be much of a debate if Big V had performed better this preseason; even if he had played average this probably wouldn’t be a discussion. Vaitai has looked lost and completely overmatched at left tackle this preseason. It’s starting to become abundantly clear that he is not the future at left tackle once Jason Peters hang up the cleats.
Although Mailata hasn’t seen any starting-caliber talent this preseason, the development he’s made is really starting to show and it’s quite remarkable. From not knowing what the sport of football was less than a year ago, to playing well in an NFL preseason game is pretty unbelievable. If he’s made these kinds of strides in just one offseason of work, who’s to say he won’t be good enough to start next season or the season after that? I’m starting to think that there may be a future with Mailata at left tackle.
I would imagine that the Eagles front office would like to keep Mailata on the roster if possible. Not only because they need the depth up front, but another team would likely sign him off of the practice squad right away if Howie decided to go that route.