DiCecco: Position Battles To Watch At Training Camp
Open roster spots and undrafted rookie discourse typically accompany most training camp storylines.
However, training camp for the Eagles – who’ve worked diligently to assemble a balanced roster largely absent of an overarching deficiency – will lack that luster this time around.
But that’s not to suggest there won’t be position battles to monitor at the team’s NovaCare Complex this summer, with the proverbial dust yet to settle for several positions that have starting jobs up for grabs.
Here are three pivotal positional battles to follow this summer:
Contenders: Cam Jurgens, Tyler Steen*, Jack Driscoll
The battle royale of training camp primarily centers on Jurgens and Steen, but one could make a case that Driscoll could be added to the fray. While Driscoll is best equipped to serve as the Eagles’ all-important swing tackle, the fourth-year pro is also the only of the aforementioned who has taken snaps at right guard.
Jurgens, drafted 51st overall two years ago, was hand-picked to be the heir apparent to five-time All-Pro center Jason Kelce, the presumption being the highly touted Nebraska product would assume the reins in ’23 after redshirting as a rookie. Kelce, however, had other plans and will reprise his role for a 13th season.
Where does that leave Jurgens?
The 23-year-old currently has the inside track at playing opposite Kelce, at the guard spot vacated by free-agent departure Isaac Seumalo. I attribute Jurgens having the upper hand due to his year of seasoning under offensive line guru Jeff Stoutland.
It’s also difficult to envision the Eagles shelving Jurgens for another season given his talent and athleticism. The question then becomes how the team projects Jurgens’ ability to withstand the rigors of a full 17-game slate along the interior despite boasting an undersized frame.
Steen, on the other hand, is an interesting case. The former Vanderbilt and Alabama lineman started 46 games as a collegian, including 34 games at left tackle and 12 at right tackle.
Like Jurgens, the rookie Steen is also a novice in terms of playing right guard, though he impressed at the position at the Senior Bowl and was announced as such when the Eagles turned in their card last month and made him the No. 65 pick in the NFL Draft.
While Steen’s less-than-ideal arm length likely relegates him to playing inside, his size (6-6, 321) is prototypical to what the team generally covets from interior linemen. Steen, however, will have just a few months to convince both the Eagles and Stoutland that he’s the best man for the job.
Prediction: Jurgens comes out on top
No. 3 Wide Receiver
Contenders: Quez Watkins, Olamide Zaccheaus
On the surface, it wouldn’t appear as though a battle to determine the team’s fourth option – at best – in the passing attack would be a catchy storyline entering training camp. But a closer look reinforces just how vital – or detrimental – that candidate could be despite a cameo role.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, one could argue that the incumbent Watkins had a prominent hand in as many as four losses last year because of faulty ball security, lackadaisical route-running, and that ill-fated misjudgment on a precision deep shot from Jalen Hurts in Super Bowl LVII.
The fourth-year wideout entered the 2022 season with heightened expectations on the heels of posting a career-high 43 receptions for 647 yards and a touchdown on 62 targets. But last year he managed just 33 receptions for 354 yards and three touchdowns on 51 targets last season.
In fairness, calls for Watkins to be traded or released are premature. If nothing else, his blistering downfield speed should be perceived as a valuable commodity, one that teams desperately covet.
Watkins vowed to learn and improve upon his shortcomings during his locker clean-out. If we’re taking his words at face value, we should expect to see a refined Watkins this summer.
It remains to be seen if the fourth-year pro has the ability to contribute as a core special teamer – typically a prerequisite for a depth pass-catcher – but at a minimum, Watkins will undergo a deserving and thorough audition in an effort to maintain his place in the pecking order during camp.
if Watkins emerges as the winning candidate, he will have earned it.
Rather than presumptuously banking on his improvement, the Eagles added competition in 25-year-old free-agent signing Olamide Zaccheaus.
Zaccheaus (5-8, 193), a St. Joseph’s Prep (PA) alum, comes off a career season with the Falcons in which he managed 40 receptions for 533 yards and three touchdowns on 61 targets. He finished second on the team in targets, receptions, and yards last season, trailing only wide receiver Drake London in those categories.
Working in Zaccheaus’ favor are his sure-handedness – he’s credited with a mere three drops on 151 career targets – and ability to maneuver the short-to-intermediate areas of the field.
Zaccheaus would essentially serve as a valuable, chain-moving safety valve for Hurts. His short-area quickness and knack for churning out yards after the catch while working the middle of the field alongside tight end Dallas Goedert would ideally make the offense more rhythmic and cohesive.
While he might not possess Watkins’ signature speed, Zaccheaus is hardly a possession receiver. He also offers the dual ability to contribute as a returner on special teams, though he hasn’t worn that hat since his rookie season in 2019.
Prediction: Zaccheaus unseats Watkins by summer’s end.
Contenders: Terrell Edmunds, Reed Blankenship, Sydney Brown*
When the Eagles’ defense took the field in Super Bowl LVII, it felt like the final time we’d see the Marcus Epps-C.J. Gardner-Johnson tandem in Philadelphia, with each slated to hit the open market in March.
But even most worst-case scenarios predicted at least one returning.
As it were, the Eagles lost both – Epps signing with the Raiders, Gardner-Johnson with the Lions – and were forced to restock the cupboard with free agent Terrell Edmunds and third-round pick Sydney Brown.
Reed Blankenship, an undrafted free agent holdover who appeared in 10 games (4 starts) last season, remains.
Barring something unforeseen – such as Edmunds failing to cement his roster spot in camp – I’d wager the one-time Steelers first-round round pick seizes one of the starting jobs.
Edmunds, 26, has appeared in 79 career games (75 starts), providing sorely needed experience and leadership to a young room. While largely viewed as one dimensional, Edmunds – dependable and steady through his first five seasons – should be able to offer production similar to the since-departed Epps.
The Eagles’ most recent undrafted success story, Blankenship, emerged from the depths of a deep roster last summer to earn a roster spot. The Middle Tennessee State product accounted for 45 percent of the defensive snaps, even staking claim to becoming the team’s first defensive undrafted rookie to ever start a playoff game.
Still, pairing Blankenship alongside Edmunds would be redundant, leaving the Eagles vulnerable to opposing passing attacks. That’s not to suggest that Blankenship won’t have an important role. I foresee the second-year pro enjoying a breakout campaign with added responsibilities as the No. 3 safety. He also projects as a core special teamer who could not only start in a pinch but potentially start full time by 2024.
When the Eagles drafted Brown, they not only stumbled on tremendous value, but landed a three-down defender with immediate starting potential.
Brown, who boasts an incredibly astute football IQ along with an enforcer’s mentality and sideline-to-sideline range, brandishes a more well-rounded skill set than any other player in the room.
His 2023 outlook will ultimately be determined by how quickly he can acclimate to coordinator Sean Desai’s defense and limit the inevitable training blunders that follow most rookies. But if his collegiate career and Senior Bowl performance were any indication, he’s an immediate reinforcement for the team, and an upgrade.
The way I see it: Edmunds and Brown emerge as starters; Blankenship remains heavily involved as a sub-package defender.
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.
Listen to the latest “Inside The Birds” podcast featuring Adam Caplan and Geoff Mosher:
Or watch on YouTube: