February 14, 2024   7 MIN READ

Beneath The Surface

2nd Year Birds Flying Under Radar


After a once-promising season that inexplicably went awry, the Eagles promise to have eventful months coming. They have 19 pending free agents, giving them difficult personnel decisions to mull.

New faces will replace those who depart on the open market, altering the landscape from months earlier. Reinforcements will arrive in April’s draft, as the team currently holds nine selections.

Turnover is inevitable this time of year, as the roster churn continues.

But in refurbishing the roster, the Eagles would be remiss to ignore the strides made by several younger Eagles, some with whom the public might not be acquainted.

Many of them were rookies pressed into duty due to circumstance, essentially learning on the job and working through growing pains – players forced to navigate difficult terrain and unfair scrutiny as the season torpedoed.

Young players often require time – and patience – to develop. Everyone progresses at a different rate.

As a result of the on-the-job training, those younger players were afforded an opportunity to make mistakes and grow, perhaps positioning themselves to carve out a recurring role next season. Amid the roster shakeup, many of those players might now be counted on as cost-effective depth and special teams contributors.

Here are four under-the-radar Eagles I’m optimistic about in 2024:

Mekhi Garner

GETTY IMAGES: Hybrid Eagles DB Mekhi Garner can play multiple positions in the secondary.

CB Mekhi Garner

For perspective, Garner was a player I literally spent days deliberating over while I labored through the depth slots on my final 53-man roster. He was someone I followed through the college ranks – from his early days at Louisiana-Lafayette through his final season at LSU – and monitored throughout training camp.

An imposing presence in the defensive backfield, Garner plays the game in the mold of a throwback, setting the tone with physicality and bone-jarring hits, maintaining an edginess. His confidence never seems to waver, a critical characteristic when playing such a high-variance position.

Garner didn’t crack the initial 53-man roster, but the versatile defensive back still appeared in three regular-season games, accumulating 27 defensive snaps and 45 on special teams. He was also active for the playoff loss in Tampa, logging a tackle and contributing 18 special teams snaps.

The sample size is small, for sure, but the on-the-job experience will be invaluable as Garner approaches his second NFL season. At 6-foot-2, 212 pounds, Garner – a cornerback by trade – boasts the frame and versatility to moonlight as a safety, which is actually where I project his long-term fit.

The positional versatility should boost his chances at contributing in 2024, as the Eagles presumably look to replenish the defensive backfield with a balanced mixture of veterans and intriguing developmental talent. Garner will be a name to file away.

Tristin McCollum

GETTY IMAGES: Another hybrid defensive back, Tristin McCollum made his NFL and Eagles debut this past season.

DB Tristin McCollum

If you’ve been paying attention, you know about McCollum’s elevations from the practice squad to the Eagles’ active roster last season – and you shouldn’t be surprised by his inclusion in this piece. While overshadowed by the preseason headlines made by some of his secondary teammates, McCollum – who joined the Eagles via a reserve/future contract in January of 2023 – proved steady and consistent and served as a core special teamer throughout the exhibition season.

The numbers at his position(s) forced the Sam Houston State product on the outside looking in during cutdowns, but McCollum was later rewarded for his diligence on the practice squad. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound defensive back maxed-out his three-game practice squad elevations in the regular-season, like Garner did, totaling six tackles across 29 defensive snaps and 59 on special teams.

He was also elevated for the NFC Wild Card matchup against the Bucs. But it was the regular-season finale at MetLife Stadium that unveiled McCollum to a larger audience, as he entered in relief of injured safety Reed Blankenship and registering six tackles.

Now up 10 pounds from his listed 195 pounds, McCollum offers the flexibility to rep at safety and cornerback. The 24-year-old is a lengthy defender who provides range, tackling prowess, and a high football IQ. He’s also scheme-versatile. McCollum also established himself as a trusted, impactful entity on special teams.

A year in the building, coupled with four games of experience to grow from — and a legitimate opportunity to win a spot this time around — are reasons why McCollum is a name to become familiar with.

Joseph Ngata

GETTY IMAGES: Second-year WR Joseph Ngata was known for contested catches in college.

WR Joseph Ngata

Ngata has been on my radar since arriving at Clemson in 2019. The big-bodied wideout was even my college football breakout pick back in 2020. So when Ngata, an undrafted free-agent signing by the Eagles, emerged as an early training camp sensation, it was a storyline I had anticipated.

The 6-foot-3, 217-pound pass-catcher demonstrated a knack for tracking the football and reeling in contested catches, while showcasing nifty body control. For a while, it seemed Ngata had the inside track at seizing the final receiver spot. Consistency – especially as an undrafted rookie – is paramount, however, and Ngata endured the typical rookie growing pains, at the most inopportune time.

All was not lost for Ngata, who landed on the practice squad for the duration of the season, shifting his primary objective to providing the starting defense with the best possible look as a member of the scout team.

Ngata, who looked noticeably stronger by season’s end, was signed to a reserve/future contract, as the Eagles doubled-down on his development. With Quez Watkins and Olamide Zaccheaus poised to hit the free-agent market, a path is potentially there for Ngata to build off his progress and secure a roster spot.

All signs point to the return of wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead, which helps from a continuity standpoint. The addition of a new offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore, should also present a fresh perspective. Special teams will likely be a determining factor here, but Ngata’s size, athleticism, and ball skills – combined with his work ethic – seemingly give him the early inside track at finishing what he started.

Ben VanSumeren

GETTY IMAGES: Undrafted rookie LB Ben VanSumeren got some playing time this past season to build off.

LB Ben VanSumeren

To fully appreciate VanSumeren’s otherworldly athleticism, it’s worth noting the Michigan State product’s eyebrow-raising Pro Day numbers ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft, which included a 42 1/2-inch vertical, 10-foot-11 broad jump, 29 reps of 225 on the bench press and 4.4 40-yard dash time.

The raw ability was apparent in the preseason finale against the Colts, when VanSumeren resembled a Tasmanian devil en route to racking up 17 tackles. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound VanSumeren, learning behind veterans Nicholas Morrow and Zach Cunningham along with second-year pro Nakobe Dean, honed his craft on the team’s practice squad before maxing out his elevations and eventually signing to the Eagles’ 53-man roster in late November.

VanSumeren, demonstrating improved instincts and anticipation to complement his inherent athleticism, flashed in his lone start against the New York Giants on Christmas Day, producing six tackles across 36 snaps. In total, VanSumeren appeared in nine games, logging 50 defensive snaps and 180 on special teams.

VanSumeren was a prospect I was bullish on last spring, fully realizing that his development would take time. VanSumeren, to his credit, acted as a sponge in absorbing the knowledge from those around him. Through the grind, the traits-laden athlete has become an NFL linebacker, gradually adding instincts, nuance, and discipline to his growing skill set.

While the team is sure to alter its linebacker landscape this offseason, the reality is that only Dean and VanSumeren are under contract for 2024. Regardless of approach, VanSumeren has made his case in factoring into the team’s long-term plans, whether his role come via special teams or sub packages under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

The sample size is small, but I trust what I see. And in talking to VanSumeren throughout the season, I’ve seen his growth. And the affinity for film study is also evident. You bet on players like that every time.

– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.

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