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July 25, 2023

25 things I'll be watching at 2023 Eagles training camp

A look at the top storylines for the Eagles as training camp kicks off.

Eagles NFL
060223JalenCarterNolanSmith Colleen Claggett/PhillyVoice

Eagles rookies Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith

After a long dead period over the last couple of months, Philadelphia Eagles training camp is finally here, as the team will report to the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday and hold its first practice Wednesday morning. Here are 25 things I'll be watching.

1) After a 2022 season during which he led the Eagles to a Super Bowl and was the regular season MVP runner-up, Jalen Hurts was rewarded this offseason with a monster five-year extension worth $255 million ($51 million per season), including $179.3 million guaranteed. Last training camp, all eyes were on Hurts, and in my opinion he made strides as a passer, notably with his accuracy and decision making, but even after a strong camp nobody could have predicted the season he was about to have.

This year heading into camp, Hurts will try to continue to grow as a mental processor and decision maker while operating as the unquestioned leader of the team and the face of the franchise. How will he handle the pressure of being the $50 million/year man on a contending team? (Note: I already know he'll be fine.)

2) The free agency signing of Marcus Mariota made a lot of sense, since he possesses a stylistic profile similar to Hurts. In 2022 with the Falcons, Mariota did some nice things on a bad team, but he was also wildly inaccurate when he tried to push the ball down the field. Can the Eagles' coaching staff — notably offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, passing game coordinator Kevin Patullo, and quarterbacks coach Alex Tanney — get Mariota to be a more accurate passer like they did with Hurts?

3) Who will win the battle for the No. 3 quarterback job between rookie Tanner McKee and third-year quarterback Ian Book?

In recent years, the Eagles whiffed on a Day 3 quarterback in Clayton Thorson, and they paid decent money to an undrafted but well regarded quarterback in Carson Strong. Both stunk in camp, and never made the 53-man roster. That's the low bar for McKee to clear. The higher bar would be if he showed legitimate promise for the future as a long-term No. 2 quarterback. If McKee can develop into a worthy No. 2, he could save the Eagles a nice chunk of money on the salary cap at that position in 2024 and beyond. But his first challenge will be to beat out Book.

4) The running back situation will be a fun one to try to figure out throughout camp. Running back depth charts are usually shown in terms of RB1, RB2, RB3, etc., but I don't think that's how we should be viewing this group. The Eagles have two different kinds of backs on their rosters — guys who will play on run downs only, and guys who will also have roles on obvious passing downs and in the two-minute offense:

 Running back
Early down guys Rashaad Penny Boston Scott Trey Sermon Kennedy Brooks 
Passing down capability D'Andre Swift Kenny Gainwell   

In 2022, the running back rotation was fairly straightforward. Miles Sanders was the early down back, Boston Scott was his direct backup in that role, and Kenny Gainwell was the third down / two minute guy, with Trey Sermon typically inactive on gameday.

That dynamic will look different in 2023, as the Eagles added Rashaad Penny, who is probably an early down guy only, and D'Andre Swift, who can do a little of everything. It will be interesting to see how much Swift plays in Gainwell's third down role, and how many opportunities Gainwell gets on early downs, and of course whether or not the new guys are making explosive plays in practice.

5) DeVonta Smith on the verge of superstardom after proving that he is the real deal his first two years in the NFL. I think it's worth noting that he showed continuous progression each year during his college career at Alabama. 

 DeVonta SmithRec Yards YPC TD 
2017 160 20.0 
2018 42 693 16.5 
2019 68 1256 18.5 14 
2020 117 1856 15.9 23 

That trend has continued during his first two seasons in the NFL. 

 DeVonta SmithRec Yards YPC TD 
2021 64 916 14.3 
2022 95 1196 12.6 

In training camp his rookie year, it was clear that Smith was a good player, but he wasn't dominant. In Year 2 in camp, we saw glimpses where he was uncoverable. I don't think we have seen Smith's ceiling quite yet.

6) There will a fun battle for the starting slot receiver job between Quez Watkins and Olamide Zaccheaus.

Watkins entered 2022 with an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand, expectations for his play were heightened because of the promise he showed in 2021. On the other hand, he was losing his starting job as a result of the trade for Brown, and his production was surely going to decline even if his play on the field didn't.

What the Eagles asked of Watkins was to make the most of the opportunities that came his way, and he largely disappointed. 

  1. He fumbled after a catch deep down the field in a loss against Washington. The Eagles might have otherwise won that game.
  2. He was directly responsible for interceptions in games against the Bears and Cowboys as a result of sloppy route running, and seemed to lose the trust of the Eagles' staff on any sort of precision or timing routes thereafter. 
  3. In the Super Bowl, the Eagles dialed up a shot play for him that he probably should have made, but didn't.

Watkins finished the 2022 season with 33 catches for 354 yards and (10.7 YPR) and three TDs. Even with all the frustrating mistakes that Watkins made in 2022, he brings a valuable commodity to the table — speed.

A message was sent this offseason when the Eagles signed Zaccheaus, who was used similarly in Atlanta's offense a season ago as a down-the-field target out of the slot. While Zaccheaus has good speed, he does not have Watkins-level speed, but he was a more reliable receiver for Atlanta than Watkins was for Philly in 2022.

If Watkins can win back back some of the trust he lost last season and proves that he (a) can make the plays that come his way and (b) is where his quarterbacks expect him to be in his routes, then he should pretty easily win the starting job. If he falters and Zaccheaus proves to be a reliable presence, then Watkins will tumble down the depth chart.

7) Which deep backup WR will step up? And who might fill the Zach Pascal "enforcer" role in the Eagles' offense?

The Eagles have a 1a and 1b WR combo in A.J. Brown and Smith, and thereafter they have a trio of slot receivers in Watkins, Zaccheaus, and Britain Covey. While Watkins has some inside-outside versatility, the Eagles are thin on outside wide receiver depth. Elite track athlete Devon Allen obviously has speed and undrafted rookie Joseph Ngata is a big, powerful guy who the Eagles paid well to sign in Philly. Ngata could perhaps be an unselfish, dirty work type of player like Pascal, or perhaps that job could go to one or more of the tight ends.

8) Dallas Goedert has become a clear cut top five NFL tight end, but he is still seeking a monster season as a pass catcher. If he can stay healthy there's little reason to doubt that he can become a 1000-yard receiver. Beyond Goedert, Jack Stoll and Grant Calcaterra should be back as the TE2 and TE3, respectively, with guys like Dan Arnold, Tyree Jackson, Dalton Keene, and undrafted rookie Brady Russell trying to make the roster as a fourth tight end. The Eagles haven't typically rostered four tight ends, so they'll have to make an emphatic statement during camp to make the team, or benefit from an injury to one of the top guys.

9) The camp battle I'm most excited to watch is Cam Jurgens vs. Tyler Steen at RG.

Jurgens converted from tight end to center early in his college career at Nebraska, and only played center in games. At OTAs, he said that he weighed around 305 pounds, but wanted to be somewhere in between 310 and 315 for the start of camp. Whether he is able to get up to his preferred weight or not, he'll be undersized for the position. Jurgens has outstanding athleticism, but his ability to anchor against power and to move bodies in the run game will be tested in camp. 

Steen is also new to guard, as he played his entire college career at offensive tackle at Vanderbilt and Alabama. However, the Eagles announced him as a guard, which makes sense, given his thick lower half and his short, 32 3/4" arms.

If Jurgens or Steen is obviously better than the other during training camp, they will start at RG. #Analysis. However, if it's close, I would argue that Steen should win the starting job. Why? Well, he could be the long-term answer at RG. He has a body type that is guard-ready while Jurgens is planning on changing his body in preparation of competing for that spot. For now, Jurgens is not the long-term answer at RG, as he is expected to eventually move to center whenever Jason Kelce retires. Why not just give the job to the guy who is going to play that position over the long haul if there isn't a significant difference in their play? 

Previously, the counter-argument could be that because Steen has guard-tackle versatility, he is more useful than Jurgens as a backup, especially on a Super Bowl-contending team that lost tackle depth this offseason. But after the signing of T/G Dennis Kelly, that's not as compelling of an argument anymore.

10) Nolan Smith is the individual player I'm most interested in evaluating throughout camp. Dude runs a 4.39 40 and vertical jumps 41 1/2 inches at 238 pounds. He's also a physical run defender, he is widely regarded as a team leader, and he's a great quote.

At our first look at Smith in OTAs, he looked bigger than his listed weight, in my opinion. He's rocked up, and is stout in his lower half. If I had no knowledge of his listed height and weight, I would not look at that guy and think, "That guy is small." He was also hustling his ass off like he was an undrafted free agent as opposed to a first-round pick.

But beyond his physical and mental traits, it will be interesting to see how Sean Desai intends on using him within his defensive scheme.

11) This time last year, Brandon Graham was coming off a 2021 Achilles tear, and expectations weren't very high for him to have a big season in 2022. He was a surprise beast in training camp, and then racked up 11 sacks in just 474 snaps during the regular season. Graham is now 35, so once again, expectations won't be super high in 2023, even coming off his most productive sack season as a pro. Can he dominate during the summer once again and prove that regression will have to wait a while longer?

12) Haason Reddick was a slam dunk free agent acquisition by the Eagles last offseason who racked up 19.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, and 32 QB hits in 2022, playoffs included. He was second-team All Pro, a Pro Bowl selection, and he finished fourth in NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting. If the playoffs were included, there's a good argument to be made that Reddick was the best defensive player in the NFL in 2022.

Amazingly, Reddick is only the 13th highest-paid edge rusher in the NFL on an average annual value basis. 

 PlayerAAV Sacks (2020-2022) 
 T.J. Watt, Steelers$28,002,750 43.0 
Joey Bosa, Chargers $27,000,000 20.5 
Myles Garrett, Browns $25,000,000 44.0 
Maxx Crosby, Raiders $23,500,000 27.5 
Khalil Mack, Chargers $23,500,000 23.0 
Bradley Chubb, Dolphins $22,000,000 15.5 
Von Miller, Bills $17,500,000 17.5 
Harold Landry, Titans $17,500,000 17.5 
Cameron Jordan, Saints $17,500,000 28.5 
Chandler Jones, Raiders $17,000,000 16.0 
Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers $17,000,000 21.0 
Emmanuel Ogbah, Dolphins $16,350,000 19.0 
Haason Reddick, Eagles $15,000,000 39.5 

Honestly, he should probably be asking for a bump in pay. It's worth noting that Reddick skipped OTAs. He certainly doesn't need OTAs at this stage of his career, but it's maybe something to monitor?

13) I was wowed by Jordan Davis' sheer size in camp a year ago when he was a rookie, and he had his share of moments when he moved in ways that should be impossible for a 6'6, 340-pound human. However, his regular season contributions were understandably disappointing for some. Pressure will be on for Davis to produce more in the regular defense in Year 2. He flashed as a rookie, but ideally he will look dominant more consistently in camp, like Javon Hargrave did a year ago before his outstanding season.

14) If Nolan Smith is the player I'm most looking forward to evaluating, Jalen Carter is a close second. Carter was widely considered the most talented player in the 2023 draft, but he fell to pick No. 9 because of a variety of incidents that called his character into question. 

The Eagles have strong leadership in their locker room, and Carter will also have some familiar faces around him, like Smith, Davis, Nakobe Dean, and Kelee Ringo. He landed with a team in Philly where he probably has the best chance to succeed. Can he maximize his gifts?

15) The Eagles have a lot of eggs in the Nakobe Dean basket. As you saw this offseason, starting linebackers T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White left in free agency, and Dean is now the team's top linebacker. He will wear the "green dot" helmet, relaying the play calls from Sean Desai to the rest of the defense. In 2022 camp, Edwards, White, and even guys like Shaun Bradley and Davion Taylor made plays regularly in camp, while Dean was very quiet. Edwards and White started, and Dean got just a couple dozen snaps in the regular defense all season. Now that he has his NFL sea legs under him, Dean will be expected to stand out more in camp in Year 2. If he doesn't, that will be pretty serious cause for concern.

16) At the other linebacker spot, free agent signing Nicholas Morrow will battle it out with Christian Elliss.

Morrow is a veteran who has been a contributor for the Raiders and Bears since 2017, and he led the Bears with 116 tackles in 2022. Elliss was an undrafted player in 2021 who looked good in limited action for the Eagles in 2022. He had a strong spring, making several splash plays in OTAs.

The rest of the Eagles' linebackers don't have much of a chance of cracking the starting lineup.

17) Howie Roseman makes a lot of trades during training camp. In fact, since 2016, the year he came back into power as the team's general manager, Roseman has made 17 trades in between the first day of camp and the first game of the regular season.

The Eagles don't have much in the way of potential outgoing players. The best bet is probably Derek Barnett, but even that feels unlikely. But Roseman could look to bolster the roster, particularly at linebacker. It's worth noting that if you include projected compensatory picks, the Eagles hold 10 picks in the 2024 NFL Draft, so they certainly have the ammo.

18) The Eagles have one of the best starting cornerback trios in the NFL in Darius Slay, James Bradberry, and Avonte Maddox, but they're not without questions. Slay's play tailed off a bit in the back half of the season, Bradberry played almost unsustainably well, and Maddox is always a durability risk. It's also worth noting that Maddox missed OTAs after having offseason surgery.

19) The Eagles have enviable cornerback depth.

Zech McPhearson is adding slot corner duties to plate this season after working almost exclusively outside his first couple seasons. That should give him more opportunities to get on the field.

Kelee Ringo is a height/weight/speed specimen who shouldn't have fallen to the fourth round. Will he have a chip on his shoulder, eager to make the teams that passed on him regret it?

Josh Jobe is back after making the team as an undrafted rookie last year.

• The Eagles added a lottery ticket in Greedy Williams, who was a high pick once upon a time.

• They signed a pair of notable undrafted rookies in Eli Ricks and Mekhi Garner.

It will be fun to see who emerges from that group.

20) There's a three-way competition for two open starting jobs at safety between Reed Blankenship, Terrell Edmunds, and Sydney Brown. Blankenship is the only player of the three who was on the team last year (and he played well), Edmunds has by far the most NFL experience of the three, and Brown probably has the highest ceiling. That'll be a fun battle to watch, though I suspect all three players will have a role in the defense no matter who winds up starting.

21) Britain Covey is almost certain to resume his role as the primary punt returner in 2023, with Boston Scott probably the most likely kick returner. I'm curious to see if the Eagles practice fair catches on kickoffs, which would be a strong indication that they intend on doing that during the regular season, content to take the ball at the 25-yard line.

22) We finally have a punter competition, a year too late, between Arryn Siposs and undrafted rookie Ty Zentner. Siposs out-punted Zentner during OTAs, but we'll have the stopwatch handy for hangtime throughout camp. Side note: We usually track field goals throughout camp, but I think at this point that's probably a waste of energy when Jake Elliott has become such a great, reliable kicker.

23) We expect that Sean Desai's defensive scheme won't look significantly different from Jonathan Gannon's, but will we get some hints that he will try more creative/exotic looks from time to time? That may have to wait for the regular season, as the expectation is that he'll keep it vanilla in the media-attended practices. I'm also curious to see his on-field demeanor with the players.

24) The last two seasons, Brian Johnson was always camped out behind the quarterbacks during practice, because, duh, he was the quarterbacks coach. This offseason he was promoted to offensive coordinator after Shane Steichen was hired to be the Colts' head coach. During OTAs, Johnson stood on the sidelines and was coaching up the wide receivers. It was interesting to see him get out of his comfort zone and shift his focus to other parts of the offense. We'll see how well he is able to get into a rhythm as a play caller when the season begins, but it'll also be interesting to see how his on-field time is divided between the quarterbacks and the rest of the offense.

25) The Eagles only have 9 scheduled training camp practices (plus 5 walkthroughs), then likely 2 joint practices with the Browns and one with the Colts. That's only a dozen practices during training camp, which would be the lightest camp I have ever covered. I assume there will be no more quibbling with Nick Sirianni's and the front office's cautious approach to camp, given the team's low number of injuries the last two seasons, not to mention a pair of Week 1 wins.

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