You know things are pretty good when the headline story of cutdown day is which quarterback will win the battle for the number three spot. The Eagles have a very talented roster and expectations are high heading into the 2012 season. One thing I found interesting is how young the Eagles went at some key positions. Is this wise for a team with Super Bowl aspirations?
Nickel corner Joselio Hanson has been a favorite of the coaching staff for the last five years. Hanson might have lacked ideal physical ability, but he was smart, tough, and very reliable. He didn't make mistakes. The coaches could trust him, which was important with him working the slot and having to cover guys all over the middle of the field. The average fan doesn't realize just how hard that is.
On Friday the Eagles decided to make a change, cutting Hanson and giving his job to rookie Brandon Boykin. I liked the move, but it is risky. The stability of Hanson has been replaced by the ability of Boykin. I like the move because I think Boykin is ready for the challenge. He played in the slot most of his senior season at Georgia. He was the backup slot corner from the first mini-camp on. He might not have NFL game experience, but he's played the position. Boykin has a good feel for how to cover guys in the middle of the field.
The reason to be excited by this move is Boykin's ability. He showed excellent recovery speed in the preseason. That means that on plays where he is beaten by a quick cut or good move, Boykin can get back into position and either break up the pass or at least make the tackle after giving up the catch. Last year Hanson started to show signs of decline. He couldn't stay anywhere near Wes Welker in the Patriots game. Hanson wasn't going to get any faster. Boykin has the speed. He's also a smart, coachable young man. I remember seeing him at the Senior Bowl. Players would gather on the field after practice to talk to media and scouts. Most of the star players had agents with them. Boykin was surrounded by his family. You could tell he wasn't a typical jock.
The other thing about playing the slot is that the corner must be tough and physical. Boykin is only 5-9 and 183 pounds, but he is very muscular. He is not slight at all. He had one of the most impressive bodies at the Senior Bowl weigh-in. You can tell he's lived in the weight room in the past. Boykin will hit and tackle. He can blitz. He should be a good run defender. I do hate losing Hanson's experience, but the most simple way to look at this is that Hanson can't get any younger/faster, but Boykin can get smarter and more experienced. He's already got the physical tools to be an outstanding nickel corner.
Left tackle has been a trouble spot since March. The Eagles got a terrible break when Jason Peters suffered and Achilles tendon injury. They went from having an elite player to a huge question mark. The team quickly re-signed King Dunlap to come back as competition and depth. Then the team went and signed free agent Demetress Bell. That seemed like a great solution to a huge problem. Bell wasn't going to be Peters, but he would be a solid, safe starter. And then the preseason came along. Oops.
Bell struggled and lost his gig. That meant that King Dunlap went from being a terrific backup to the starter at left tackle. The Eagles don't know if he can do the job for a full season, but he's got it for now. Bell is on the bench, but the Eagles don't exactly trust him right now. He's a big mystery man. They kept him because they think he can be "fixed", but that will take time. For now, it would appear the top backup tackle is rookie Dennis Kelly.
The Eagles could still look to make a move, but you get the feeling they want to go with Kelly. Howard Mudd loves his potential. The Eagles feel he can be a starting tackle in the future. Kelly had a good preseason, but whether he's ready to face NFL starters is a whole other question. Would you trust him against DeMarcus Ware or Jason Pierre-Paul? Scary thought.
Ideally Bell will have the light go on and he'll figure out Mudd's system. He can then get back the starting job and Dunlap can be the top backup tackle. If an injury happened now, I think the Eagles would put Kelly on the field and not Bell. While Bell has starting experience and a good track record, he's playing with zero confidence. He's hesitant and playing scared. He doesn't want to get beat wide so he sets hard to the outside. Then he's beaten inside. The next play he's on his toes so he can go in or out and the defender can just push him back with ease.
Kelly might not know what he's doing (typical rookie that is learning on the job), but he does play confident, aggressive football. He seems comfortable in the Mudd system. Kelly has seen time at left and right tackle, as well as right guard. The coaches are testing him and he's handled the challenge well. He knows the playbook. He does well with his assignments. Kelly needs to figure out the little nuances that veterans know and he needs a lot of technique work.
Whereas I trust Boykin with his role, I hope Kelly is sitting on the bench for a few weeks, if not the whole year. I don't question that he's got the potential to start in the future, but I'd be nervous about seeing him in game action early in the year. Kelly might come out and show that he's ready to play, but I would be nervous every time Michael Vick dropped back to pass with Kelly protecting him.
Riley Cooper is currently injured. The big three of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant is hopefully headed for a great year. All of them are healthy and happy. With Cooper out, the top backup is undrafted rookie Damaris Johnson. Plenty of fans think this is risky and that the Eagles should have kept Mardy Gilyard around. Gilyard only has six career catches, but he's been around the league for three years. He has game experience. He showed good ability in the preseason and caught nine passes, including a pair of touchdowns.
The Eagles liked what they saw from Gilyard. They just liked Damaris Johnson more. He led the team with 12 catches in the preseason. He had some brilliant moments. He put an incredible move on a corner in the Steelers game to get wide open for a long touchdown. Johnson had a great move in the Browns game that made two defenders miss. Rarely does one cut get the best of two guys. Johnson got behind Sheldon Brown twice in the game. One turned into a 45-yard play. The other just missed being a touchdown. Johnson couldn't quite get his second foot inbounds.
Johnson doesn't have Gilyard's experience, but he did out-play him this spring and summer. Johnson looked quicker, faster, and more elusive. Both guys got a chance as punt returner. Gilyard had a long return of 14 yards. Johnson sprung one for 30 yards. He had another that almost went all the way. He tripped on the play and it was going to be wiped out by a penalty anyway. Johnson just looked more dangerous with the ball in his hands. He won the roster spot.
The Eagles went young at safety. They kept Jaiquawn Jarrett and traded for David Sims, while cutting OJ Atogwe. There is no question that Atogwe has a great track record. The problem is that the injury bug seems to be his new best friend. You can't make the team if you're always hurt, even with minor injuries. Jarrett started the preseason with an awful showing, but got better each week. He flat out played good football against the Jets. Sims had a good summer for the Browns and made several plays. Atogwe was okay when healthy, but never looked like anything special.
Back in the spring the Eagles signed Steve Vallos and Mike Gibson to help with the team's depth on the interior of the offensive line. Both guys could play center and guard. They had some NFL starts and were both athletic. Could one of them turn out to be Evan Mathis, part 2? Uh, that would be a no. Gibson never stood out at all. Vallos flashed good movement skills, but his blocking at the second level was poor. What's the point of getting up to the linebackers if you can't block them?
The Eagles stuck with Dallas Reynolds, the king of the practice squad. Reynolds spent the last three seasons on the squad. He is a limited athlete, but played well in the final two preseason games. He can play guard or center. There isn't much upside (if any), but the coaches trust him. While Reynolds isn't exactly young, he is inexperienced. The Eagles are taking a chance by relying on him. He'll only play if there is an injury, but if he's needed, he will have a key role - protecting Vick. It wouldn't shock me for the Eagles to sign a veteran and cut him, but for now the team is going with Reynolds. Let's hope their faith pays off.
In the modern NFL, you have to rely on some young players. The Eagles made most of the moves in order to go with talent and that's never a bad thing. Experience is great, but hungry, young, talented players can do a lot. Would you rather have Dion Lewis and Bryce Brown or Ronnie Brown? Would you rather have Damaris Johnson or Steve Smith? David Sims or Jarrad Page? I like the Eagles approach this year.