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Fan-Demonium: New Questions To Answer

Posted Jun 1, 2014

The Eagles began Organized Team Activities this past week and optimism is in the air. That's the way it should be in spring. Fans of all 32 teams should feel good. Bad teams think they can break through and start winning. Teams like the Eagles think they can advance in the playoffs and become title contenders. A couple of teams believe they will win the Super Bowl.

There is definite reason to be optimistic about the Eagles. The team is coming off a strong season and they added talent in free agency and the draft. One of the most important additions is linebacker Marcus Smith. We found out that he's practicing at the Jack linebacker spot for now. That's interesting news. I anticipated Smith being the backup to Trent Cole, but the Eagles are working him behind Connor Barwin for now.

Smith has the size and skills to play either linebacker spot. He has the talent to rush the passer or drop back in coverage. Barwin plays a critical role in the Eagles defense because of his versatility and we got very lucky last year that he never got hurt. There was no real backup for him.

I don't know where the Eagles see Smith in the future. I think he could be a standout performer at either linebacker spot. There is a lot of wisdom in putting him on the left side for now. Should anything happen to Barwin, the Eagles could slide Smith into that role. Also, it is more difficult to learn that spot so the more time he spends there, the better. The other benefit of playing Smith at the Jack position right now is that all the practices up until Training Camp are non-contact. Having him drop into coverage about half of the time is smart. Cover skills are something you can really work on in a non-contact setting.

Another reason for optimism is the return of injured players. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is front and center in this category. He tore his ACL last summer. That was a good news/bad news situation. No one wants to get hurt, but if it happens, you want it to happen early so you're all the way back for the next season. Maclin was a full-go in practice.

Maclin is the Eagles’ most talented receiver and has a chance to have a big season. It is great that he's all the way back and practicing well. It is important for Maclin to get as many reps as possible. He practiced all last spring so he knows the playbook, but he doesn't have the same feel for things as players who got to play in the system all season long. Maclin should have good chemistry with Nick Foles already since they worked together back in 2012.

Another receiver coming off injury is Arrelious Benn. Benn, too, was full-go at practice. That's very encouraging to hear. There is a lot of competition for roster spots at the wide receiver position.

Benn is a big physical receiver who fits what Chip Kelly is looking for. Benn has good run-after-catch skills. He is a good blocker. He also can help on special teams, as a returner or on the coverage units. Benn just has to show the coaches that he's all the way back from his injury. It certainly sounds like he's off to a good start.

Another receiver who is fighting for a roster spot is Brad Smith. He joined the Eagles about midseason in 2013. Smith had some good moments on offense and special teams. He would like to win a roster spot, but also show the coaches that he can be a key role player. Smith could also help fill the leadership void with Jason Avant gone. Smith is 30 years old and can help the young players as they adjust to life in the NFL.

Lawlor

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.

One area of the team where the Training Camp battles should be fun to watch is the backup offensive line spots. This week the Eagles were playing Matt Tobin at left tackle, Allen Barbre at left guard, Julian Vandervelde at center, Michael Bamiro at right guard and Dennis Kelly at right tackle. Barbre is the most experienced member of the group. He did an excellent job last year when he filled in for Jason Peters at left tackle. He has played both guard and tackle in the NFL.

Tobin surprised me last summer with how well he played. I think he is a more natural fit at guard so it is interesting to see the Eagles giving him more time at left tackle. They could be trying to see what kind of progress Tobin has made from last year. It would be great if Tobin could show the potential to play some tackle if needed. The Eagles weren't able to draft any offensive linemen this year so they need some of the young guys already on the roster to step up.

Bamiro spent last summer at right tackle, but did get some practice reps at guard during the regular season. He has shown the potential to be an outstanding run blocker. Guard might end up being the best position for him, especially early in his career. Bamiro needs to show real progress this year. This is a critical time for him. Kelly is a mystery man. He played some guard and tackle in 2012, but didn't get on the field last year due to injury. Kelly and all the other backup linemen will make or break their own fate with how they perform this spring and summer.

The Eagles have come a long way in a year. Last May and June, the questions were about the starting lineup, not the backups. Who was going to be the quarterback? Who would start at linebacker? What was going on at safety?

Many of those questions were answered in 2013 and then general manager Howie Roseman did a good job of using free agency to plug some roster holes. That pushed the focus to depth questions. This is the part of team building where there has to be trust. You must trust that the scouts found some prospects who can be developed. You must trust the coaches to develop those players. You simply can't have “sure things” at all 53 roster spots.

Last year, the Eagles witnessed players like Tobin, Damion Square and Jake Knott emerge in practices. They became backup players. Now the question is whether they can take the next step and get better. Some players can grind it out and win a roster spot, but then struggle to get better. Others make steady progress over time and eventually become key players, whether as starters or backups. The best example of this is Quintin Mikell. He went from an undrafted afterthought to key special teamer to starting safety over the course of five years.

Few players work out like Mikell. Most are going to lose out to someone who is younger, bigger, stronger, faster or just more talented. Fortunately, the players get a chance to show what they can do on the field. It will be exciting to see which players emerge for the Eagles this summer and which guys are able to get even better and show they deserve more playing time.

Roseman and Kelly aren't dealing with the same questions as last year, but it is still important to develop the depth of the roster. That is going to help the Eagles take the next step in the second year of Kelly’s tenure with the franchise.

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