Narrowing down Philly’s final 53

By Lou DiPietro  |   Friday, July 25, 2008  |  Comments( 18 )

Philadelphia Eagles
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With training camp now underway, the competition to be a 2008 Philadelphia Eagle has officially begun. Last week, we took a look at the three hottest starting battles going on in Bethlehem, Pa., this summer. This week, however, we look at battles that aren’t simply the position of a name on the depth chart; rather, these will determine which names get left off said chart.

WIDE RECEIVER

Kevin Curtis is the No. 1 receiver, and Reggie Brown is apparently still No. 2. Beyond that, it’s a whole lot of wonder. The biggest question is really how many Andy Reid will keep, a query that’s clouded by the muddled running back situation to be dissected later.

Second-round draft pick DeSean Jackson is finally under contract, having come to terms on the eve of training camp. While the smallest of the 11 receivers in camp at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, his biggest contribution will be in the return game; he won the Randy Moss Award for best returner in the nation in 2006, and Jackson’s instantly the best option on the roster. He’s a definite.

That means that unless Reid carries six receivers, at least one of last year’s stalwarts – Jason Avant, Hank Baskett and Greg Lewis – will be banished to either the practice squad or the unemployment line. The odd man out at first glance seems to be Avant.

Lewis has been a solid if unspectacular contributor for five years and is noted for his route-running ability; while not a prototypical receiver, he can make a big catch and can step into an important role – after all, he did start all 16 games in 2005.

Avant and Baskett, meanwhile, are different stories. As my colleague John McMullen noted here last week, both are best timed using an hourglass. Special teams could be the linchpin; while both are excellent there, Baskett was voted special teams MVP by his teammates in 2007. Baskett has also already had more of a role on offense during their three years.

There are five others in camp who will look to push them: Michael Gasperson, who has been on the practice squad for three years; free agent signees Bam Childress and Jamal Jones; and rookies Frantz Hardy and Shaheer McBride. Rookies don’t stand much of a chance in Reid’s system, so that eliminates the latter two. Gasperson, however, has been around the team, and Childress and Jones are speedsters.

In the end, look for Reid to carry six receivers. Jackson will mainly handle return duty, with Baskett again will be a special teams ace. Lewis will continue to be the fourth receiver, and if he plays well in camp, look for Childress – who can also play corner and return kicks if needed – to unseat Avant and win the final job.

RUNNING BACK

There will most likely be two spots behind All-Pro Brian Westbrook, and what has been an easy competition in years past will be brutal this summer.

Correll Buckhalter, the primary reserve in 2007, is back again, and he seems to be over the injuries that cost him three seasons earlier in his career. He filled in admirably for Westbrook in Week 4 last year, burning the Giants for 103 yards on a night when the Eagles couldn’t pass very well.

However, the Birds traded a fourth-round pick to Miami to acquire Lorenzo Booker, a player they coveted in the 2007 draft before the Dolphins took him. Booker played well for Miami at the end of last year, and he fits nicely in Philly’s offense.

That seems to leave second-year man Tony Hunt and 2005 standout Ryan Moats on the outside looking in. Hunt was drafted in the third round last year, almost as a consolation prize after Booker came off the board. Moats, meanwhile, missed 2007 with an ankle injury, but after a stellar end to 2005, he fell down the depth chart in '06 and never recovered.

Booker, Buckhalter and Hunt are very similar backs; the Eagles know what they have – or wanted – in the first two, so Hunt looks ticketed to the practice squad. Moats’ position on the team may depend on the receiver logjam; if Reid keeps six, he’s surely out of a job. But if only five make it, Moats could sneak onto the roster in the final offensive slot.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Coordinator Jim Johnson runs a system defense, and, boy, do his players fit that system well. This year, the Eagles will likely keep nine linemen, although 10 isn’t out of the question. Juqua Parker and Trent Cole will start at opposite ends, with cloggers Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson in the middle.

Three are all but assured of backup spots. Former Raider Chris Clemons, who signed a five-year deal in the offseason, will back up Cole, while Parker’s caddy will likely be Victor Abiamiri – a 2007 second-round pick who played well in the final three games last year and has seen his stock rise. Inside, sack specialist Montae Reagor should be the guy who sees a lot of action in third-down situations.

The final outside job should belong to one of two men – Darren Howard or Jerome McDougle. For a number of reasons, the job is probably Howard’s to lose. He can play either tackle or end, and while he only recorded one sack last year, he knows how to get to a quarterback. McDougle, meanwhile, might not even stay healthy enough to make it a competition; he missed all of last year with a triceps injury, sat out the 2005 season thanks to a gunshot wound and spent half of his 2003 rookie campaign sidelined with leg injuries.

Inside, it’s a bit more of a quagmire. At the center is second-round pick Trevor Laws; the Notre Dame alum is talented, but he didn’t sign until the eve of camp and is currently on the physically unable to perform list because of a foot injury. The Eagles also have free agent signee Dan Klecko and Kimo von Oelhoffen in camp. Klecko looks like the leader at the moment, as he has a great pedigree (son of former All-Pro D-lineman Joe Klecko), local flavor (he is a Temple University grad), versatility (can play DT, LB and goal-line FB) and three Super Bowl rings. Von Oelhoffen saw some time on the Eagles’ line last year, but his best days may be behind him; he’s now 37 years old, and most Eagles don’t live to see that plateau in Philly.

Again, it all depends on how quickly Laws learns the ropes. Should he pick up quickly, he will erase the need for a fifth tackle. If he doesn’t, Klecko has the inside track, although his versatility makes him a hard cut either way. In the end, look for both Laws and Klecko to make it, but the latter will be fighting with the likes of Moats, numerous receivers and DBs for the final overall roster spot.

May the best men win.

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About Lou DiPietro

Lou DiPietro is an accomplished freelance writer who is fascinated with all things sports. In addition to his duties at RealFootball365.com, Lou contributes to TheBleacherReport.com and Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine, and has been featured on "The Sports Buffet with Matt West" on 1080-AM ESPN...
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