Camp Competition: Sizing Up Birds Summer Battles
Merely weeks away from the commencement of the first training camp of the Nick Sirianni era, a slew of pivotal position battles figure dominate the storylines. Sirianni, a staunch proponent of competition, will undoubtedly have some tough decisions ahead. Here are the most prominent battles to monitor this summer:
Andre Dillard vs. Jordan Mailata
Perhaps the most prominent storyline of training camp is centered around two players with vastly differing backgrounds.
It's been well documented that Dillard, the 22nd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, has underwhelmed two years and 16 games into his NFL career. A biceps injury deprived him of his 2020 season, but the 6-foot-5, 315-pound tackle appears to be healthy and primed to seize the opportunity. His comments during a Zoom call earlier this month suggests he’s turned the corner, entering his third training camp with a fresh perspective.
A remarkable story of development and perseverance – given that he’d never even played the game of football prior to being drafted in 2018 – Mailata is coming off a season in which he started 10 games at left tackle.
In addition to his unworldly athletic traits, fluidity, and power, he mammoth-sized offensive tackle also possesses the versatility to serve as a swing tackle. His 733 offensive snaps last season were his first as a pro.
Make no mistake, the Eagles would love nothing more than Dillard to win the job outright, and he will be afforded every opportunity to do so. However, it’s tough to assess Mailata’s impressive body of work without wondering what could be in store in 2021. Though Mailata’s versatility might ultimately be a detriment come decision time, the former rugby standout has shown far more promise in 10 games than anything we’ve seen from Dillard to this point. He’s an ascending player with an infinitely higher ceiling. For now, I’ll give the nod to Mailata.
No. 2 Cornerback
Avonte Maddox vs. Zech McPhearson vs. Michael Jacquet
The most glaring hole on the roster might not be resolved until the latter stages of the preseason – via trade.
With Darius Slay occupying one cornerback spot, expect the player opposite him to be under siege for much of the season. Neither Maddox, Jacquet, or the fourth-round rookie McPhearson are equipped to handle the added attention. Maddox is best utilized as a position-less defender, where he can roam the secondary and make best use of his football intellect. The third-year player was incredulously miscast as a perimeter defender last season and was preyed on mercilessly by opposing quarterbacks.z
While hopes are high for McPhearson, the learning curve at the cornerback position can be especially steep for a young player. It would be malpractice to overburden the rookie, which could ultimately sting his confidence. McPhearson will contribute in Year 1, but the best approach would be to ease him along gradually.
Jacquet flamed out relatively early and tumbled down the depth chart, but the 6-foot-2, 210-pound second-year pro boasts the size, athleticism – and an 82 1/8 wingspan – to keep himself in the running this summer. Now that he’s had time to reflect and process his rookie campaign, he’ll need to work with the coaching staff to iron out his deficiencies.
It's hard to be overly optimistic about the prospects of any of the aforementioned players’ futures, sans McPhearson. Of the players listed, Jacquet’s odds are better than most, but a late-summer trade seemx inevitable.
Alex Singleton vs. T.J. Edwards vs. Davion Taylor
Assuming free-agent addition Eric Wilson’s starting spot is etched in stone, all eyes will be fixated on a trio of linebackers vying for a spot to shoulder the bulk of the snaps alongside him.
Singleton burst onto the scene last season, tallying 120 tackles (5.0 for loss), an interception, and two fumble recoveries across 16 games (11 starts). However, now that extensive film of him exists, Singleton must demonstrate progression and continue to elevate his game. What he lacks in overall athleticism, he more than makes up for with tenacity and instincts.
Edwards, a former undrafted free agent, entered last season with promise, but his limitations ultimately surfaced. Sure, he managed 70 tackles (5.0 for loss) and 2.0 sacks over 12 games, but he’s proven to be a liability in coverage and lacks adequate lateral quickness to be an every-down linebacker. That said, Edwards offers a valuable skill set as a hard-nosed, run-defending linebacker who can pressure the quarterback. He has a shot to seize the opening but is best suited for a rotational role.
As for Taylor, I slotted him as a fifth-round pick ahead of the 2020 NFL Draft. Though I was enamored with his athletic traits, it was clear that he had a long way to go before becoming a viable option on defense. As enticing as his athleticism might be, it still feels like he’s a year away from becoming a prominent contributor. It’s hard to justify force-feeding an inexperienced, raw, second-level player simply because of his speed. It's hard to see him ever living up to third-round billing but he should see the field in sub packages this season.
Singleton has shown more ability than any of his challengers, provided stability, and has demonstrated a knack for finding the ball. Barring something unforeseen or scheme change, Wilson and Singleton should see the majority of the snaps in 2021.
Greg Ward vs. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside vs. Quez Watkins vs. John Hightower
The three players expected to sit atop the depth chart – Jalen Reagor, Devonta Smith, and Travis Fulgham – provide balance and an intriguing blend of skills to the aerial attack.
Many have written off Arcega-Whiteside, as the former second-round pick has reeled in just 14 receptions for 254 yards and a touchdown in 24 games and has seemingly squandered every opportunity. The team selected the 6-foot-2, 225-pound receiver hoping he would evolve into a red-zone mismatch and contested-catch specialist, but has instead witnessed uninspired route-running, insufficient separation, and missed opportunities. Perhaps Sirianni and his coaching staff can work with Arcega-Whiteside to unlock his potential and to scheme up his strengths.
Ward, the team’s most consistent pass-catcher for the better part of the past two seasons, can contribute in a multitude of ways. Though his slight build suggests he can only align in the slot, the former collegiate quarterback proved he can also make plays on the outside. However, Ward finds himself at a distinct disadvantage this time around. He doesn’t have the height or potential red-zone prowess of an Arcega-Whiteside, nor does he provide the explosiveness or vertical element that Hightower or Watkins can bring. However, Ward is as tough as they come, sees the game through a quarterback's eyes – evident in his route-running – has a knack for finding soft spots in zone, and provides added value as a punt returner. There’s a place for Ward on this roster, it's just his role is probably less prominent than we’ve seen over the past two years.
Watkins and Hightower are second-year speed demons who also offer special-teams ability. Whereas Hightower appeared overwhelmed and unprepared for the spotlight as a rookie, Watkins came on late in the season and flashed in limited opportunities. Both players can open the vertical passing game and can be electric in the open field, so it wouldn’t surprise if Hightower and Watkins fought to the finish for the WR4 spot.
Due to his age, production and upside, Watkins might have the nod. No one's suggesting Watkins will suddenly transform into a target monster, but it's fair to anticipate a second-year leap.
No. 2 Running back
Kerryon Johnson vs. Jordan Howard vs. Boston Scott
If used in a limited capacity, Johnson could provide immediate dividends as a complement to Miles Sanders. Injuries have restricted his explosiveness and burst, but the 211-pound Johnson is a tremendous pass protector, can still churn out tough yards between tackles, and can consistently catch from the backfield.
Howard might be the most unexciting option of the players listed, but he's also a sound pass protector and will grind out tough yards. He’s mostly a plodder at this point and is hardly a threat to rip off a long run, but he’s a known commodity who can contribute in short yardage situations.
Scott was miscast as the No. 2 option behind Miles Sanders last season and his limitations were exploited. But in a less-prominent role, Scott can provide a spark as a change-up runner, rumble for yards after the catch, and find the crease to move the chains. Scott is an ideal No. 3, which is where he's likely to end up.
If healthy, my hunch tells me that Johnson wins this job running away.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.
Listen to the latest "Inside The Birds" podcast with Adam Caplan and Geoff Mosher here:
Or watch on YouTube;