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August 20, 2018

Eagles' third preseason game 'will go a long way' toward determining key position battles on defense

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Carroll - Eagles Stock Kamu Grugier-Hill Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Kamu Grugier-Hill during OTAs at the NovaCare Complex.

The fourth and final NFL preseason game typically goes a long way toward identifying the players who will hang on at the bottom of the roster, the guys lower down on the depth chart. The starters typically don't play, meaning more time for those lower-tier players to flash and perhaps steal a roster or practice squad spot. 

But any team, even the reigning Super Bowl champions, have uncertainty higher up on the depth chart. And for some of those guys, their last chance to make a case for a starting spot will come in the preseason's penultimate game, on Thursday night against the Cleveland Browns. 

Two positions on the Eagles defense — slot corner and weakside linebacker — remain up for grabs and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz told reporters on Monday that this week's game will go a long way toward determining who starts Week 1 against the Falcons.

"I think just like everything, we're still a work in progress," Schwartz said when asked about the battle between second-year cornerback Sidney Jones and rookie Avonte Maddox. "Nothing has been settled there. Each guy brings a little bit different skillset, a little bit different strengths and weaknesses to the position. I think the competition is good. This game will go a long way to deciding who is going to be out there in the opener."

With Jalen Mills out, both Jones and Maddox saw time against Tom Brady and the Patriots' starting offense, as Maddox was the victim of Brady's first touchdown pass to Chris Hogan. But that's just the kind of experience Schwartz wanted for his young corners.

"Any time you compete against great players it's going to raise your game up a little bit," he said. "I think whether it's in a pre-season game like that, going against our offense, a lot of times we don't match groups. You'll see a lot of different things. You guys don't watch practice anymore, but I'm sure you saw a lot of times where people were like, 'Wow, that's threes against ones.' That's part of the evaluation process. You want guys that can raise or maintain the same level of play regardless of who is out there.

"When it's all said and done, if you make our 53-man roster, you're going to be on the 46 somewhere along the line. And if you're on our 46, you're going to play. And if you're going to play, you're going to play against guys like Tom Brady and everybody else, and we have to know if you're going to perform and what chances you have to look good."

The other battle to watch against the Browns is at weak side linebacker, a position that was vacated by Mychal Kendricks, who coincidentally will be lining up against his former team on Thursday night.

The Eagles' unofficial depth chart lists safety-turned-linebacker Nate Gerry as the third "starting" linebacker*, but he's been facing tough competition from special teams ace Kamu Grugier-Hill and offseason acquisition Corey Nelson, someone who our own Jimmy Kempski recently noted could be a cap (and compensatory pick) casualty when all is said and done. And to complicate matters further, the Eagles will be without their other starting outside linebacker, Nigel Bradham, for Week 1 as he serves his one-game suspension. 

*We put quotes around that because of the number of times the Eagles line up in nickel (with five defensive backs and just two linebackers). Think of the third linebacker and the nickel (slot) corner as two flip sides of the same starting position coin.


Schwartz, it seems, is still waiting for one of those players to earn the starting job — and is well aware of how this battle could linger into the regular season with Bradham's absence.

"Yeah, I put that same as the nickel [corner]. We got different guys with different skillsets, different strengths. This week, maybe next, but this week will go a long way to determine how we lineup," Schwartz said. "We have another layer to that, is that [LB] Nigel Bradham is going to be suspended for the opener. So, it's not just trying to figure out one, but trying to figure out your best combinations. 

"We have a lot of different personnel packages. What skillset fits best in short yardage, what skillset fits best in third down, what one fits best in all these different things. Yeah, I think that will continue. Again, it's not just one spot. We're going to have two spots there."

With team drills now closed to the media, we'll have to wait until Thursday night to see how these two roster battles play out. 

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