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August 04, 2020

Five Eagles training camp battles to watch

Eagles NFL
40_01052020_EaglesvsSeahawks_JJ_Arcega-Whiteside_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

J.J. Arcega-Whiteside during the Philadelphia Eagles wild card game against the Seattle Seahawks.

The Philadelphia Eagles began actual physical activity at training camp on Monday, and will continue their ramp-up period with on-field walk-throughs until they begin holding full-team, on-field practices on August 12. Let's take a sneak preview at contributing roles that are up for grabs, and who is fighting for them.

1) The X receiver spot: Jalen Reagor vs. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside

While the Eagles wait for Alshon Jeffery's foot to heal, the "X" spot in the Eagles' offense will be an interesting position to watch. 

About a month ago, Doug Pederson said that Reagor would focus in on learning the "Z" position in the Eagles' offense, behind DeSean Jackson. More recently, Reagor contradicted that by revealing that he will also be learning the "X" position, which has been held by Jeffery over the last three seasons.

Arcega-Whiteside possesses the size and skill set (or at least a skill set he showed at Stanford) that more closely mirrors Jeffery than Reagor, and is thus theoretically a more natural fit at the X position. But certainly, if Reagor shows that he can make plays, he's not going to sit behind Arcega-Whiteside if Arcega-Whiteside fails to make substantial improvements from Year 1 to Year 2.

There is perhaps some reason to believe that Reagor can handle some of the more physical requirements of the X spot. To begin, according to PFF, despite his lack of ideal height, Reagor made more contested catches than any of the other receivers chosen in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

He also possesses impressive strength. In his annual "freaks" post in 2019, The Athletic's Bruce Feldman noted that Reagor boasted "a 620-pound squat, a 380-pound bench and a 380-pound clean." At the Combine, Reagor put up 17 reps on the bench press, a decent number for a wide receiver. While weight room prowess is less important than other athletic measurables for a wide receiver, what it does potentially show is that Reagor isn't some frail weakling who will constantly get bullied by press corners. The ability to beat press is a necessity at the X spot.

#JimmySays: It probably won't be as simple as, "This guy will play this spot, and that guy will play that spot," but the bet here is that Reagor will get more playing time than Arcega-Whiteside, and quickly.

2) No. 2 quarterback: Nate Sudfeld vs. Jalen Hurts

As we noted in our quarterback preview, there are only three No. 2 quarterbacks in the NFL who have been with their respective teams longer than Sudfeld has been with the Eagles. As such, Sudfeld has a major advantage over Hurts in terms of knowledge of the playbook.

The feeling here is that Sudfeld isn't some scrub, as he has some legitimately intriguing skills. He throws a pretty deep ball, he has nice touch, decent enough arm strength, and better mobility than you might think of a 6-foot-6 guy. In my view, he can be a perfectly useful No. 2 quarterback.

However, when you draft a quarterback in the second round, the expectation is that he better overtake the "useful No. 2 quarterback" in quick and emphatic fashion. While Sudfeld has more experience in the league, Hurts obviously has a more dynamic skill set, who can make plays both with his arm and his legs.

In a normal training camp, this would have been a really fun battle to watch. It still may be, but the guess here is that the staff is going to give the lion's share of the reps to Carson Wentz, as ramping up for the season is likely to take priority over the evaluation of younger players.

#JimmySays: Let's say Wentz gets hurt, and is going to miss a game or two. If you're an opposing team, would you rather face Sudfeld or Hurts? You're probably kidding yourself if you say Hurts. The bet here is that Sudfeld will be the in-game replacement for Wentz, at least early in the season, but if there's a decision to be made on who will start a game, should the Eagles need a backup to do so, Sudfeld won't be the obvious choice.

3) The No. 4 DE: Genard Avery vs. Shareef Miller vs. Joe Ostman vs. Casey Toohill

"No. 4 DE" doesn't sound like a super-important position on paper, but it kinda is. Below is a chart showing DE snap counts in each of the last four years. If you'll note, the fourth DE each year has gotten their fair share of playing time.

 20162017 2018 2019 
 Brandon Graham, 765 (75.0%)Brandon Graham, 666 (64.6%) Brandon Graham, 753 (72.5%) Brandon Graham, 793 (76.6%) 
 Connor Barwin, 713 (69.9%) Vinny Curry, 578 (56.1%) Michael Bennett, 716 (69.0%) Derek Barnett, 715 (69.1%)
 Vinny Curry, 435 (42.6%) Chris Long, 496 (48.1%) Chris Long, 613 (59.1%) Vinny Curry, 397 (38.4%)
 Marcus Smith, 218 (21.4%) Derek Barnett, 424 (41.1%) Derek Barnett, 234 (22.5%) Josh Sweat, 353 (34.1%)

Even in 2016, Jim Schwartz wanted no part of putting Marcus Smith on the field, and he still played 21.4 percent of the snaps.

As you can see above, Sweat was the No. 4 DE a year ago. He'll move up to the No. 3 DE, and then it's anyone's guess who will be that fourth DE. The candidates:

Genard Avery: Small (6'0, with short 31" arms) but explosive athlete whose ideal role is as a hybrid linebacker / pass rusher who can stand up and rush from all sorts of spots along the line, ideally as a blitzer. However, because of his severe lack of size, he cannot be counted on to stop the run, and I don't think you can line him up on the edge and expect him to get a high percentage of one-on-one wins.

Shareef Miller: Miller was a 2019 fourth-round pick who was active for two games as a rookie, and he didn't play a single snap with the regular defense, when six other defensive ends were able to get on the field ahead of him. The shortened offseason won't help.

Joe Ostman: Ostman was having a very good camp in 2019 and was going to make the team before he tore his ACL in training camp. The Eagles tried using him in a variety of ways, including a Joker role. To be determined how far Ostman has come along in his recovery, and if he can impress in 2020 camp the same way he did a year ago. Schwartz likes Ostman, so maybe he's sort of an under-discussed player?

Casey ToohillToohill is another undersized-but-athletic DE that the Eagles took a flier on in the seventh round of the 2020 draft because of his athleticism. His path to making the roster in the short term will have to come via special teams, but he's probably a longshot to have any impact in 2020.

#JimmySays: I'll go out on a limb here and go with Ostman as the DE 4. Of course, there's Malik Jackson, a DT who could get some DE snaps this season if none of the above guys pan out.

4) The linebacker opposite Nate Gerry

If you're a pessimist (or even a realist), you can easily look at the Eagles' linebacking corps, and go, "Uh oh, that's not great." If you're an optimist, you can maybe point out that the group as a whole is very young, and has room to grow. The Eagles' linebackers, by age:

  1. Jatavis Brown: 26
  2. Alex Singleton: 26
  3. Nate Gerry: 25
  4. Duke Riley: 25
  5. T.J. Edwards: 23
  6. Shaun Bradley: 23
  7. Dante Olson: 23
  8. Davion Taylor: 22

Gerry was second on the team in tackles in 2019, behind only Malcolm Jenkins, and he was a rare example of a player who made notable improvements from 2018 to 2019. Still, the idea of Gerry being the only real candidate to be a three-down linebacker on this team is unsettling to some.

Beyond Gerry, the only other linebacker on the roster who got notable playing time in the Eagles' 2019 regular defense in 2019 was Edwards, who was a stud against the run, but who is untested in the passing game. The belief here is that Edwards will see a significant increase in playing time, but it's doubtful you'll see much of him in nickel or dime.

If that's right, that leaves an open spot next to Gerry in nickel, which is essentially the Eagles' base offense. The candidate for that role:

Jatavis Brown: Brown had an encouraging start to his career with the Chargers, but he really struggled in 2019 and saw a drastic decrease in playing time.

Duke Riley: After taking over as special teams captain when Kamu Grugier-Hill went on IR, Riley feels like a lock to at least make the roster, but he only played 35 snaps in the regular defense last season.

Davion Taylor: Taylor was a third-round pick, but he is a project. The Eagles would love to see him stand out in camp, but that's probably wishful thinking. He'll more likely compete for a bigger role in 2021, while playing on special teams in 2020.

Shaun Bradley: Again, Bradley's contributions as a rookie will likely come on special teams.

#JimmySays: Edwards will have a bigger role, but I don't think Schwartz will want him on the field on obvious passing downs because of his lack of athleticism. With Taylor and Bradley not having adequate time to simultaneously learn the defense and get acclimated to life in the NFL, the battle for the leftover linebacker snaps will likely come down to Brown and Riley, and I'll give a slight edge to Riley heading into camp.

It's also possible that the Eagles will play more dime this season than they ever have, or maybe add another linebacker, possibly via trade?

5) The outside corner opposite Darius Slay: Avonte Maddox vs. Sidney Jones

This isn't really a training camp battle, in my view, as the starting outside corner opposite Slay is almost certainly going to be Maddox, but we'll include it because there are some who believe that Jones has a real shot at that spot. Comments from Howie Roseman form back in March about each player were pretty telling about the hierarchy of the corner position.

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