Saturday was cut down day, where the Eagles had to reduce the roster down to 53 players. Back in 1999 this meant choosing the best 45 or so players and then scanning the waiver wire to find guys to fill out the roster. Times have changed. The Eagles could have easily kept 58 players this year. I've never seen a tougher year for having to make roster decisions.
There weren't any huge controversies. Defensive tackle was the spot that generated the most discussion. The Eagles cut veterans Anthony Hargrove and Derek Landri, instead opting to keep Trevor Laws and rookie Cedric Thornton (initially). Hargrove played well this summer. He also was a major hit in the locker room. He became a leader right away and the other players responded well to him. Landri had a terrific preseason. It seemed like he spent half of his time in the backfield. If they gave out Pro Bowl honors in late August, Landri would have been one of the leading candidates.
Before getting into the decisions there is something important to keep in mind. Vested veterans (players with four or more years of experience) who are on the roster as of Saturday September 10th at 4 p.m. are guaranteed their salary for the season. General manager Howie Roseman told Dave Spadaro on Eagles Live that the team likes to keep flexibility at the bottom of the roster. That means the Eagles want the freedom to be able to cut players as different situations arise. As an example, the Eagles actually cut A.J. Feeley for a few days early in the 2002 season when an injury situation came up and they needed a roster spot. They quickly re-signed him and of course he became the starter by the end of that year.
The Eagles don't want to be on the hook for a veteran player's salary if they have to cut him to make room at another position. The trick here is that after the first game, players can be signed and the team then pays them on a week-to-week basis. Nothing is guaranteed. The roster could look different on Tuesday after the season opener than it does now.
I had doubts on whether the Eagles would keep Laws. He was injured for much of the summer and didn't get much of a chance to play in the new system. He never stood out when he did play. Laws was good in the preseason finale, but wasn't dominant or anything like that. I certainly didn't expect the Eagles to cut him, but rather to trade Laws. His situation is complicated by the fact that he's a free agent at the end of the year.
You always prefer to keep young players that are in the long terms plans of the team. I wasn't sure if Laws was part of the future, but by keeping him the Eagles are showing you that they want him to be. He still has to prove that he can play well in the new system. He's got the skill set to do that, but he didn't get much practice time this summer so he'll be learning on the fly to a certain extent.
As for Thornton, he made the initial roster, but then was cut on Sunday to make room for offensive lineman Kyle DeVan. The Eagles like Thornton a lot. They didn't want to risk losing him, but felt like by holding him an extra day he might make it to the practice squad, which he did. Thornton is absolutely part of the future. The Eagles are high on him. They like his frame. He's over 6-3 and has a sleek build at 310 pounds. He can add bulk if they want that without sacrificing too much athleticism. Thornton also has excellent quickness. He can fly off the ball. The problem with Thornton is that he's raw. He was dominant in college due to his size and athletic ability, but that was against lesser competition. He's got to learn technique to make it in the NFL. He needs coaching and practice.
Another position that generated discussion was return specialist/sixth wide receiver. The Eagles decided to stick with just five receivers, but their actions would tell you they wanted someone to emerge. The team added Sinorice Moss prior to the lockout. They signed Johnnie Lee Higgins on the first day of the official offseason. They also had Chad Hall returning from last year. All three are small guys that can be role player receivers and return specialists. Moss was the best of the trio, but doesn't exactly have a sterling track record. The Eagles could look to bring him back after the opener since he is a vested veteran. That move would make a lot of sense with Steve Smith coming off a severe knee injury. There are no locks that Smith will be anywhere close to 100 percent or that he'll make it through the whole season.
The Eagles thinking for now was that receiver was already a strength so keeping a sixth would be a luxury. Since no one stood out, why cut a player at another position who did play well? The team has DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin as punt returners. The goal was to find another player to handle those duties on a regular basis and then mix in Jackson in key situation. I'm sure Matt Dodge and Tom Coughlin could expand on that theory if you have any additional questions. Again, that is a luxury move. The Eagles are set at punt returner. They just wanted an even better situation.
Kickoff returner is more up in the air. The team mixed in rookie Dion Lewis this summer. He had limited reps in the preseason games (the downside of a stingy defense). Lewis ran back a kickoff 40 yards in the preseason finale and looked natural in doing so. One of the reasons for using Lewis on kickoffs is that it is a way to get him touches. Touchbacks will likely be at an all-time high, but there will be some kicks that are returnable. The Eagles are excited about Lewis and want to get him the ball, but they can't take touches away from Shady McCoy and Ronnie Brown. It's possible that down the road Lewis even gets a shot at returning punts, something he did well in high school.
One of the reasons the Eagles went light at receiver is that they wanted to keep a fifth safety, namely Colt Anderson. He was the best special teams player last season and had a good summer at covering kicks. There was some question as to whether the new kickoff rules would negate the need for a player like him. The Eagles feel like Anderson is a difference maker and that makes him worth keeping around.
The Eagles kept five defensive ends as well. There was some question about Juqua Parker making the team since he's older and had missed a lot of time with a calf injury. He made it. The Eagles are hoping that Parker thrives in the new system, where he's a backup and used in a rotation. Parker is at his best when playing limited reps. Phillip Hunt also made the team. He had a good summer and preseason showing. He didn't just earn a spot, he might have earned playing time. Daniel Te'o-Nesheim didn't have a bad summer, but Hunt clearly out-played him. Roseman was willing to cut a third round pick and go with Hunt. Luckily, Te'o-Nesheim was added to the practice squad and he still has a chance to make it in the league. He has shown some potential.
The Eagles did cut one defensive back that caught some by surprise. Joselio Hanson was let go. This didn't surprise me all that much. Hanson was a good nickel corner, but isn't good on the outside. He's older and had a decent salary. The Eagles tried to trade him for several days, but teams felt the Eagles would cut him because of the depth the team had at corner. In his place, youngsters Brandon Hughes, Trevard Lindley, and Curtis Marsh filled out the cornerback depth chart.
There were no surprises at linebacker. The same is true for quarterback and running back. The Eagles would love to have kept tight end Donald Lee after his strong showing, but the team is built more on receivers than tight ends. He simply got caught in a numbers crunch.
The offensive line featured a couple of interesting moves. The most important move was activating tackle Winston Justice from the PUP list. He's now eligible to practice and play. There was some thought he'd stay on the PUP list until midseason. By adding him to the roster, that meant Reggie Wells had to go. Wells had shocked everyone by proving to be adequate at right tackle (does that tell you how bad he was last year?). Mike McGlynn was cut. This should have been an obvious move to anyone who watched him closely in the preseason games. McGlynn struggled in Howard Mudd's new blocking system.
The Eagles kept Jamaal Jackson. There were reports that teams called about him as a trade target, but the Eagles had no interest in dealing him. They want Jackson as the top interior backup. Jackson had mixed feelings. While staying with the Eagles is a good thing, he wanted to play. The Eagles added DeVan when the Colts cut him. DeVan started 21 games at right guard over the last two years. He knows that spot in the Mudd system really well. He can step in and start if needed. He can also help to teach Danny Watkins.
Overall, this is a deep, talented roster. There is a mixture of veteran stars and young talent. I don't think enough people appreciate the need for balance. The Skins loaded up on star players for much of the last decade, but always neglected to build the core of the team. The Eagles have kept the roster young. Almost half of the roster has three years of experience or less. Ten rookies made the final roster. The Eagles want to challenge for the Super Bowl this year, but they aren't going to just load up on older guys. The Eagles really value a balance of youth and experience.
This roster is built to throw the football and score points. It is built to cover receivers and rush the passer. Could linebacker be better? You bet. The Eagles expect to be playing with a lead quite a bit. They expect the nickel defense to be on the field a lot. The defense has the pieces in place to do these things quite well. There is a plan. There is a method to the madness. Starting on Sunday, we'll see if the Eagles line of thinking works and just how good the plan is.