It’s only OTAs, but it’s never too early to start speculating about who’ll be starting for the Eagles come Sept. 10 in Washington. The draft and free agency have shaken up the team and left new position battles in their wake, while some old competitions still exist. Here are three key battles to watch this summer:
It’s strange to think about the defensive line as anything but a strength for Philadelphia. For just about as long as Eagles fans can remember, a fierce pass rush has been a fixture in Philly. But despite entering 2016 with Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry and Connor Barwin ready to run down quarterbacks, the team regressed. Curry in particular struggled, posting just 2.5 sacks, his lowest total since his rookie season.
Enter the offseason and enter first round draft pick Derek Barnett and signing Chris Long. Barwin, a poor match for Jim Schwartz’ 4-3 defense, is gone, and with him 31 sacks over the last four seasons. But this remains a tremendous investment in the defensive end position one year after the Eagles invested $47 million in Curry. He is likely most in danger of losing playing time to the new arrivals. Graham was named second-team All Pro in 2016 despite a seemingly low 5.5 sack total, showing recognition for his impact on games.
At the same time, Schwartz has said Curry was “very disruptive” in 2016 but “on the ground a little bit too much around the quarterback.” Curry was most effective for the Eagles in 2014, recording nine sacks despite limited playing time, and perhaps the Eagles will get more out of him if he is returned to a more rotational role than he has seen the past two seasons.
Perhaps the player with the most opportunity lost due to the investment here is a different first round pick: Marcus Smith. Smith was finally able to get on the field and contribute in 2016, when he had as many sacks as Curry. But it’s hard to see him taking playing time from anyone discussed here, and starting OTAs as a no-show won’t help him at all.
Left guard and center
For the second season in a row, these two spots seem the most open to competition on the offensive line. Jason Peters and Lane Johnson can be penciled in as the tackles, and Brandon Brooks has right guard nailed down despite the signing of Chance Warmack, who played the position with the Titans.
At center, Doug Pederson has said Kelce, who has started every game — when healthy — for the team since being drafted in 2011, remains the starter and he has performed with the first team entering OTAs. Despite that, his 2016 performance and the Eagles’ ability to save $3.8 million by moving him has led to trade speculation, most notably with the Saints after their center, Max Unger, injured his foot.
While center stays constant, change is in the air at guard. Second-year pro Isaac Seumalo has been taking first team snaps at left guard, a position where he started four of the final six games in 2016, while Allen Barbre nurses an injury. If Seumalo is allowed to settle in at left guard, that could become the clear future for last year’s third round draft pick, who has also been floated as Kelce’s natural successor at center.
Barbre has started 28 games, mostly at guard, the last two seasons in Philadelphia, and was the first choice to stand in for Johnson at right tackle when his suspension began. While he was reportedly given permission to seek a trade this offseason, his positional versatility makes him an extremely valuable piece for the Eagles, even as a potential backup.
The same is true of the last player battling for significant playing time at these two positions. Stefen Wisniewski started six games at guard and played in all 16 last season after signing a one-year contract. He re-upped for three more seasons this offseason, and the implicit promise for a player with 83 career starts seemed to be more competition for playing time, be it at center or guard.
We know what to expect from Alshon Jeffery and Jordan Matthews, and we know they’ll see their names at the top of the depth chart. But beneath them lies a free for all. Competition between three different groups: the veteran Torrey Smith, high-end draft picks trying to avoid being labeled busts Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham, and new rookies Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson.
Smith is looking for a resurgence after two dismal seasons in San Francisco. The Eagles are hoping he can be the deep threat his 17.0 career yards-per-reception suggest. Also up for that role are the two rookies, and the pick of Hollins has seen a lot of praise thrown the Eagles’ way. A 6-foot-4 threat with enough deep speed to average over 20 yards a catch in college, you can expect to see Hollins on the field this season.
Between Agholor and Green-Beckham, bet on the former. He’s off to a good start in camp while Green-Beckham is off to anything but. He’s also the Eagles’ homegrown talent rather than a bargain-bin trade, and they’ve always been privy to a bias where those players are concerned.