5 Training Camp Battles To Watch
Following three days of sheer madness, the 2020 NFL Draft has wrapped, and the Eagles managed to come away with an impressive talent haul while addressing several areas of need. The focus now shifts to minicamps, where most of the roster battles decided in the dog days of summer often begin. Let’s take a look at five position battles to monitor throughout the offseason.
(Second-year LB T.J. Edwards will be locked into competition this summer with newcomer Jatavis Brown for a starting linebacker spot)
Middle linebacker Contenders: T.J. Edwards, Jatavis Brown
When glossing over candidates who currently make up the second level of the Eagles’ defense, you’ll notice that there isn’t a household name among the group. As recent history has shown, this is par for the course. That said, one of the more pertinent training camp battles will center around the middle linebacker position, where second-year pro T.J. Edwards figures to be in competition with fifth-year pro Jatavis Brown.
Edwards, despite coverage limitations and lacking lateral quickness, turned out to be a good find for the Eagles as an undrafted free agent. The hard-nosed, instinctive, disciplined linebacker played in all 16 games as a rookie (4 starts), notching 30 tackles. As the season progressed, the Wisconsin product appeared more comfortable within the defense. On the other hand, Brown is an interesting player. Though just 26 years old, he's battled a myriad of injuries throughout his career, but has been a productive player. Vastly undersized at 5-foot-11, 221 pounds, Brown’s game is predicated on speed to elude blockers and his sideline-to-sideline range. He thrived at times as a run-and-hit linebacker for the Chargers but has a tendency to over-pursue and take himself out of plays.
I like Brown to make the roster, but as a special teams ace, not starter.
Prediction: T.J. Edwards
Contenders: Will Parks, Jalen Mills Six weeks ago, Rodney McLeod, and Jalen Mills were free agents and Malcolm Jenkins had refused to play under his deal. The only safeties under contract were Rudy Ford and Marcus Epps. Yet, suddenly, the team has a logjam of talent at the position. While McLeod is set to reprise his role as the free safety, the search for his complement figures to be one of the more intriguing camp battles.
Philadelphia native Will Parks came over via free agency from the Broncos, while Jalen Mills is converting from corner to safety. Parks is a lengthy, rangy defender who can cover ground, come up in run support, and play multiple positions on the back end. Mills, a seventh-round success story, has endured his share of ups and downs at cornerback, but a switch away from the boundary should serve him well. An intelligent, instinctive, competitive defensive back, Mills should be a better fit at safety, where his aggression and lack of top-end speed won’t be as detrimental.
Not sure that Mills is equipped to be an every game starter, but I envision him playing upwards of 50 percent of the defensive snaps as the third safety.
Prediction: Will Parks
Right cornerback Contenders: Sidney Jones, Avonte Maddox I’ve been in Sidney Jones’ corner through his ups and downs. I remember watching many Washington games, and Jones was often the best player on the field, silencing some of the country's top wide receivers. Though he has yet to tap into those innate skills at the professional level, he has the intangibles to become a top-tier starter.
That said, this is a make-or-break year for Jones. His competition this year will come from third-year cornerback Avonte Maddox, a gritty, undersized defensive back who has flashed over the past two seasons. Maddox has struggled with big-bodied pass catchers but has the fluidity and sound technique to match-and-mirror with receivers of all shapes and sizes.
Jones came on a bit late last season, but his career so far has been dismal, riddled with injuries and inconsistency. If he manages to overcome the mental hurdles and stay healthy, the fight could very well come down to the wire.
Prediction: Avonte Maddox
No. 3 running back Contenders: Corey Clement, Elijah Holyfield, Michael Warren The Eagles officially turned over the backfield to Miles Sanders when they allowed Jordan Howard to walk in free agency, and if the Penn State product continues his upward trajectory in 2020, the team figures to be rewarded immensely.
Boston Scott, buried on the depth chart at this time last year, finds himself in the driver’s seat to assume the role of Sanders’ backup in 2020. The diminutive runner had an opportunity to showcase his talents during the stretch run and dazzled with his tough running, elusiveness in space, and as a pass catcher.
But, beyond Sanders and Scott, there is much uncertainty.
Elijah Holyfield was signed to the Eagles’ active roster on New Year's Eve for the playoff run but did not see any game action. Cincinnati’s Michael Warren signed as an undrafted free agent, and Super Bowl hero Corey Clement signed a 1-year deal to return after briefly testing free-agent waters.
Of the trio, Holyfield remains the most intriguing. A violent battering ram who craves contact, Holyfield has outstanding contact balance and patience at the line of scrimmage. The second-year running back could be a reliable option to grind out the tough yards. Prediction: A veteran free agent not currently on the roster
Slot cornerback Contenders: Nickell Robey-Coleman, Cre’Von LeBlanc
I anticipate Avonte Maddox earning the starting nod on the outside, so that leaves a vacancy at the nickel position.
Cre’Von ‘Strap’ LeBlanc is a tremendous story and has been a fan favorite since arriving in Philadelphia via waivers in 2018. He’s held down the nickel before, playing with toughness and an admirable resolve that endeared himself to Eagles fans. He demonstrated his tackling prowess, instincts, and plus-ball skills in limited opportunities.
Robey-Coleman, who signed a 1-year contract with Philadelphia in March, has been one of the premier slot defenders in the NFL for the past five seasons. Though vastly undersized for the position at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, Robey-Coleman more than makes up for it with his tenacity, ball skills, fluidity, and football intelligence. The USC alum is a fearless competitor and should become a fan favorite this summer – en route to taking over slot duties.
Prediction: Nickell Robey-Coleman
-Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com. He also writes for Pro Football Network.