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May 15, 2023

An early look at five Eagles' upcoming camp battles

Eagles NFL
051523QuezWatkins Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports

Quez Watkins will try to hold off newcomer Olamide Zaccheaus for his starting slot receiver role.

Training camp is a couple of months away, but the Philadelphia Eagles' roster is mostly set, with perhaps a tweak or two to come at linebacker. Let's take an early look at some of the camp battles we'll have to look forward to.

1) RG: Cam Jurgens vs. Tyler Steen

Steen exclusively played at tackle during his college career at Vanderbilt and Alabama, but the Eagles listed him as a guard when they drafted him. Nick Sirianni was asked during the weekend of the draft if Steen would have the opportunity to compete for the starting RG job that was vacated by Isaac Seumalo, who left in free agency, and he said that "the best player will play."

The favorite to start at RG for the Eagles in 2023 is 2022 second-round pick Cam Jurgens, but the Eagles aren't just handing him that job. He'll have to beat out Steen. The Eagles like Jurgens, but he was drafted to be Jason Kelce's long-term replacement at center. I'm sure they want to get him on the field even if slightly out of position at guard after picking him in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft. He will be the favorite to land the starting RG job heading into training camp.

If Steen were to win the starting RG job, that might actually be a good thing, as the Eagles would then have a long-term answer at that spot, with Jurgens serving as a backup at center until Kelce retires, Jack Driscoll as a backup swing tackle, and either Driscoll or Sua Opeta the backup at both guard spots. If Jurgens wins that job, Steen would probably be the first backup off the bench at both guard spots, assuming he's not a disaster in training camp.

Prediction: Jurgens has the built-in advantage of already having been through an NFL training camp, and Steen will be trying to get up to speed at a position that he has not played.

2) S: Terrell Edmunds vs. Reed Blankenship vs. Sydney Brown

Sean Desai has shown in the past that he likes to utilize three-safety sets, so there's a good chance that all three of Edmunds, Blankenship, and Brown see significant action in 2023.

Edmunds is the biggest of the three safeties at 6'1, 217, and before the 2022 season he had never missed a game due to injury. He was a 2018 first-round pick who has impressive athleticism and plenty of starting experience (75 career starts).

Blankenship was probably the Eagles' most impactful rookie last season, collecting 34 tackles, two pass breakups, and one INT. He made the team out of training camp as an undrafted rookie free agent, and began the season as the No. 4 safety. At some point during the season, he leapfrogged K’Von Wallace for the No. 3 safety role, and was called on to start after Gardner-Johnson went down with his kidney injury against the Packers. In that Packers game, Blankenship intercepted Aaron Rodgers and made several nice plays in run defense.

With Gardner-Johnson out, Blankenship would start against the Titans, Giants, Cowboys, and Saints, playing well overall in those four games. Upon Gardner-Johnson's return to the lineup, Blankenship still kept a role. Gardner-Johnson started at safety in the base defense but moved to the slot in nickel with Blankenship coming off the bench to play safety.

And finally, there's Brown, who the Eagles selected with an early third-round pick. Like Edmunds above, Brown is an impressive athlete, though he does not have Edmunds' ideal size. He was a highly productive player for Illinois in 2022, making 60 tackles, 6 INTs (plus a pick-six), a forced fumble, and a fumble return for a TD. He makes plays, he's a big hitter, and he is thought of as a smart, high-character player.

Prediction: Edmunds and Brown start, with a sub-package role for Blankenship.

3) Slot receiver: Quez Watkins vs. Olamide Zaccheaus

After a rookie season in 2020 during which he had seven catches for 106 yards and 1 TD, Watkins made significant strides in his second season in 2021. He had a fantastic training camp and earned a starting spot in the Eagles' offense. On the season, Watkins had 43 catches for 647 yards and one TD. He ranked third on the team both in receptions and receiving yards, with a big gap between himself and the rest of the Eagles' receivers below him.

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 A.J. 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 should have made, but didn't.

Watkins finished the 2022 season with 33 catches for 354 yards and (10.7 YPR) and three TDs.

This offseason, the Eagles signed another slot receiver in Zaccheaus, who formerly played for the Falcons. Zaccheaus' 2022 usage was similar in many ways to Watkins' usage in 2021. Both Zaccheaus and "2021 Watkins" were their teams' No. 2 wide receivers in run-heavy offenses, getting significantly fewer targets than a rookie No. 1 (DeVonta Smith for the Eagles, Drake London for the Falcons) and a talented tight end (Dallas Goedert for the Eagles, Kyle Pitts for the Falcons). Zaccheaus got 61 targets in 2022. Watkins got 62 targets in 2021.

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. Both players were used similarly, as Zaccheaus was often a down-the-field target in Atlanta's offense.

Prediction: The Eagles have steadfastly proclaimed that they believe in Watkins, but the signing of Zaccheaus is a clear signal that he needs to be much better in 2023. Watkins will be given every opportunity to keep his WR3 job, so we'll give him the edge for now.

4) QB3: Tanner McKee vs. Ian Book

Because the Eagles claimed Book off of waivers near the start of the 2022 season, we (as in, the media) never got a chance to see him compete in practice during training camp. As such, I have no strong opinions on what he is as a player. However, if the Eagles were high on him, they wouldn't have signed Marcus Mariota and drafted McKee.

Prediction: McKee is the favorite. If neither McKee nor Book are worthy of a roster spot, the Eagles could also just roll with just two quarterbacks on the active roster, and a third guy on the practice squad.

5) Arryn Siposs vs. Ty Zentner

In his first NFL season in 2021, Siposs struggled mightily down the stretch, with several Shankopotomus punts in the final two games. Against Dallas Week 18, in "crush the ball deep" territory, Siposs had punts of 21 and 24 yards, both of which led to Cowboys touchdowns on their ensuing drives. Against the Buccaneers in the playoffs, once again in "crush it" situations, Siposs hit punts of 27 and 36 yards, with the latter leading to a Bucs touchdown on the ensuing drive.

During the offseason, the Eagles made the baffling choice not to give Siposs any competition during training camp, basically handing him the job. He was better during the regular season in 2022 than he was in 2021, but he once again had a disastrous performance in the playoffs. 

In the second half of the Super Bowl, Siposs was supposed to punt the ball to the left side of the field, but he shanked a line drive to the right side. As you can see in the video below (if you can stomach re-watching it), the Eagles' gunners are running down the field as if they expect the ball to have been punted to the left. When the Eagles' punt coverage over-pursued to the right, Kadarius Toney made Zach Pascal miss and then found wide open spaces with a convoy out in front of him. 

That was obviously a devastating play.

The Eagles signed Zentner as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Kansas State. In 2022, Zentner averaged 44.5 yards per punt, and a net average of 41.9. He has a strong leg, as you can see in his highlight reel: 

A question that needs to be considered in this competition is what the Eagles value more, "pin them deep" punting, or "open field, blast away" punting. If it's "pin deep" punting, Siposs probably has the advantage. If it's "open field, blast away" punting, then it's probably Zentner.

"I think that’s an almost year-by-year study about what is most important," special teams coordinator Michael Clay said. "Obviously, you kind of want to base it on how the offense is moving. So, say you got a high-powered offense, most of the time they are going to stall out maybe near midfield. So you probably think a plus-50 punt is going to be the most important. So say for some odd reason the offense is struggling you are going to get more backed-up punts and you want to flip the field for your defense. So I think it's almost in that case of what's going into it the most. I think that would be my answer. It's almost like a case-by-case study of where the offense is finishing on their drives."

It appears that they favor "pin deep" punting, which they perhaps shouldn't given that Nick Sirianni and the Eagles are extremely aggressive in fourth down "go for it" decisions when they get close to midfield.

Prediction: Siposs. 😬

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