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Eagles Rookies And The Roster

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Thirteen draft picks are headed to Lehigh to try and make the team and fight for playing time. Who is safe and who needs some luck? What will happen to the late rounders?

The Eagles drafted 13 players back in April. A normal draft class should be 7 players so the Eagles have a lot of bodies to work onto the roster. I've had some people ask me recently if the Eagles were wrong to use so many picks and what to look for in regard to the rookies and roster spots. Now that the mini-camps and OTAs are over we should have a better feel for what's going on as we head into training camp. Let's take another look at the overall class before we get into specifics.

1st Round - DE Brandon Graham - Michigan
2nd Round - FS Nate Allen - USF
3rd Round - DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim - Washington
4th Round - CB Trevard Lindley - Kentucky
4th Round - LB Keenan Clayton - Oklahoma
4th Round - QB Mike Kafka - Northwestern
4th Round - TE Clay Harbor - Missouri State
5th Round - DE Ricky Sapp - Clemson
5th Round - WR Riley Cooper - Florida
6th Round - RB Charles Scott - LSU
7th Round - LB Jamar Chaney - Mississippi State
7th Round - DT Jeff Owens - Georgia
7th Round - SS Kurt Coleman - Ohio State

The first thing to understand is which players are virtually locks based on draft position. No team has ever come right out and said that picks in "these specific rounds are safe", but we have a pretty solid idea based on history. Players taken in the first 3 rounds are virtual locks. Those are usually Top 100 picks and the kind of prospects that a team really likes. Even if they struggle out of the gate you want to be patient because they have such a high ceiling.

I think picks in the 4th round are pretty close to automatic. These are guys that you expect to challenge for starting roles in a few years, but at least be solid role players pretty early on. Players in the 5th round are generally expected to make the team, but aren't automatically safe.

I've always looked at players in the 6th and 7th rounds as the types who you are comfortable with as challenging for roster spots or putting on the Practice Squad. One aspect of the situation to keep in consideration is that a player taken in the 4th or 5th round has a good chance to be claimed on waivers if he's cut. Guys taken late in the draft were passed on by teams multiple times in the draft so you feel safer cutting them and hoping to get them through to the Practice Squad.

Based on what I've said here's the way the situation should break down as of now:

Locks:    Graham, Allen, Te'o-Nesheim
Shoulds: Lindley, Clayton, Kafka, Harbor, Sapp, Cooper
Maybes:  Scott, Chaney, Owens, Coleman

With all of this in mind, let's now move on to specifics.

Brandon Graham will go to Lehigh as the backup at LDE. He's got a chance to win the starting role if he can outplay incumbent Juqua Parker. Graham will get a good amount of playing time in Nickel and Dime situations, possibly at both LDE and DT. He saw reps on the inside at Michigan in some passing situations and I'm sure Sean McDermott will experiment with Graham on the inside if thinks that could pay dividends. The key to all of this will be Graham signing soon so he's either at camp on time or misses as little of it as possible.

Nate Allen is the starting FS. Part of that is because he earned the job, but we also have to acknowledge that he wasn't facing the stiffest competition. The Eagles had every hope that Allen would be the starter when they used the 37th overall pick on him. He's not a project in any sense of the word. Nate knows how to play FS. He started there for 3 years at South Florida. He's got size and athletic ability. He's good against the run and pass. All he needs are practice reps so that he can adjust to the NFL and get game-ready. There is hope that he'll sign his deal this week and report to camp on time.

In the 3rd round the Eagles took defensive lineman Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. He comes to Philly not to contribute at LDE or RDE so much as to replace Darren Howard on the inside. Daniel played some DT at Washington in passing situations so he understands what the Eagles are looking for out of him. Because of Trent Cole, Darryl Tapp, Parker, and Graham it will be hard for Daniel to get reps on the outside - barring injury of course (go knock on wood, please). Daniel isn't just thinking about making the team. He wants to be active on gameday and part of the rotation in passing situations.

The 4th round is where things start to get more interesting. Trevard Lindley could challenge for the starting spot at RCB or he could be stuck on the sidelines all year. I don't think there is much question about him making the team. He's a good SEC player who is healthy and has NFL measureables. Those guys have to struggle big time to get a ticket out of town.

LB Keenan Clayton, arguably our most interesting draftee, was the next pick. Originally I thought of him as a WLB. The OTAs certainly changed things for Clayton. None of the other backups at SAM played particularly well so Clayton moved over to that side. We're trading size for cover skills. That'll be great on passing downs, but running plays will suddenly be very interesting. I don't know that Clayton would ever take the field as the backup SAM in more than an emergency situation. We'd probably shift Omar Gaither or Akeem Jordan there to start. Clayton is a very productive, very athletic LB that we need to find a home for.

QB Mike Kafka was the next choice. We all know that QB is very much a developmental position. Kafka isn't a lock to make the team, but he would have to look physically over-matched in order to get cut. I don't think that will be the case with him. Kafka had a good senior season and good workouts. The Eagles know that he's going to need a lot of work as he adjusts to the NFL and a pro style offense. Kafka was brought here with the big picture in mind.  Time is on his side.

Clay Harbor was the last of our 4th round picks. He faces a challenging situation. I think Harbor is the favorite for the #3 TE spot, but he's got legitimate competition in Martin Rucker. Harbor is the better athlete by far, but Rucker was incredibly productive as a pass catcher at Missouri. He's also got Practice Squad experience and knows his way around the NFL. Harbor is coming here from Missouri State. He's faced very little NFL type competition in his football career. Harbor is the first of our picks that can't really afford too many bad days.

Ricky Sapp shocked everyone by falling to the 5th round. The Eagles were very surprised to see him there and felt he was too good to pass up. Now the challenge is figuring out what to do with him. Sapp is 6'4, 252, but looks more like a LB than a DE. The Eagles used him some at LB and Sapp looked lost, as you might expect. They now are going to move him back to DE for the time being. Sapp is a good pass rusher, but I think he lacks the functional strength to play the run as a DE. The Eagles are likely to be creative with him this summer to see what all he can do. They'd love for him to be a backup at SAM, but my guess is he'll end up in a Chris Clemons role for now. Sapp will play DE in some 3rd/long situations and will spend some time as The Joker in our Okie Package. The x-factor with him is that he had a knee injury late in 2008 that he's still not completely over. The Eagles would be smart to "stash" him on injured reserve and focus on him getting ready for 2011.

The other 5th round pick was used on Florida wideout Riley Cooper. He might be a lock for the team based on the way he played in the OTAs. Cooper was big and physical. He ran well and caught everything that came his way. The West Coast Offense loves big receivers and Cooper is just that. He goes 6'3, 222 and plays up to that size. Some big receivers think they are smurfs and don't take advantage of their size (right Hank Baskett?). Cooper is big and plays big. He's also a willing Special Teams player. That could help him make the team and even be active on gamedays. If Riley has a great summer it is possible he could challenge Baskett for the #4 WR spot. I doubt that happens, but Cooper has been lights out so far and rookie receivers have surprised me the last couple of years.

RB Charles Scott was our 6th round pick. On the surface that may sound bad for him, but he's actually in a favorable situation. LeSean McCoy will be the primary RB. Mike Bell is the backup. Things are wide open after that. Leonard Weaver has been told he's not going to run as much this year. Eldra Buckley is still around and will do everything he can to win the #3 RB job. The problem with Buckley is that he's just not overly talented. We all love blue collar, effort guys, but talent wins out in the end a lot of times. As long as Scott doesn't pull a Tony Hunt on us I expect him to be the #3 RB. All the reports coming out of the OTAs were positive and Scott isn't ideally suited for those kind of practices. He's best in a physical environment when he can attack defenders and run over them. I can't wait to see him at Lehigh.

We had 3 picks in the 7th round. First up was LB Jamar Chaney. Initially I had him pegged as a backup at MLB, someone to challenge Joe Mays for a roster spot. Chaney did begin his Eagles career inside. Later in the OTAs he moved out to WLB. Chaney did start at WLB for a year at Mississippi State so it isn't completely foreign to him. I think he can play there or the middle in our system. Since Chaney was a late pick and has already been moved it is hard to say that he should feel good about his chances of making the team. At the same time, the Eagles did trade to get a pick so that they could take him. Chaney is a player they liked. Apparently medical concerns moved him down the draft board for quite a few teams. If Chaney holds up medically and plays well he will present the coaches with a problem. Do they keep him. Do they go with 6, 7, or 8 LBs? Does Joe Mays make the team? Jamar needs a good summer so that he doesn't get caught up in a numbers crunch. He also could be a good Practice Squad candidate.

Late in the 7th we took Georgia DT Jeff Owens. He's here to challenge Trevor Laws for the #4 DT spot. I doubt we keep 5 DTs with the amount of guys we like at DE and the way we use them on the inside on passing downs. Laws will have a lot to say about this situation. If he has a strong camp, Owens will be facing a major uphill battle. Owens can get a spot on the Practice Squad as long as he is solid. Should Laws struggle (due to injuries or performance), Owens has a legit shot at winning a roster spot. He has the kind of skill set we like in a DT. Owens then would be angling to be active on gamedays.

Safety Kurt Coleman was the final pick, but don't feel sorry for him. Kurt has a very real shot to make the roster. Numbers will play a big part in what happens to him. We normally like to keep at least 4 Safeties. Now we have Quintin Mikell, Quintin Demps, Allen, and Coleman. I'm leaving out the UDFAs. Coleman has a very favorable position when you look at the numbers. There is an x-factor here - Macho Harris. He was the FS most of last year. This year he's moved back to CB, but we could go with only 3 Safeties on the roster and then count on Macho to be a swing guy and play wherever he's needed. I'll be very disappointed if Coleman doesn't at least make the Practice Squad. I think he's going to end up starting in the NFL in a few years, whether here or elsewhere. Kurt really grew on me when I studied him for the draft. If he was a little bit bigger he would have gone much earlier.

When we talk about roster projections the thing we always have to keep in mind is that football is a game of attrition. You want 60 good players on your roster heading into training camp because you know injuries will claim a few guys. The goal is to have 55 or 56 players you really like at the end so that making cuts is painful. I remember back in 1998 and 1999 when we had 50 guys we liked and were waiting for the other teams to make cuts so we could go find players. We still look for players of interest today, but that is far different than needing guys to fill out your roster.

I also think it is important for there to be competition at training camp. Players need to feel pressure to perform. Some players are self-motivated, but there are plenty of others who need to be pushed to deliver their best. Training camp is an odd time. Coaches are teaching technique, which means players are out on the field learning the subtleties of their position. Players also spend time in a classroom setting, learning the playbook and scheme. That can either be boring or overwhelming to some guys. Then those same players are expected to go out in team sessions and play football and fight for their jobs. Guys are mentally exhausted, physically exhausted, and some are emotionally strained. One of the best ways to keep players focused is through competition.

In this sense I like the fact the Eagles have such a big draft class. There are plenty of reasons to hate former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, but he was a master at working the draft. He liked to bring in a big class as often as possible. That meant that he had good competition in the spring and summer. It was hard for players to get complacent. Also, just think simple numbers. Jimmy thought it made sense to use 10 picks to find 6 players instead of using 7 picks. Every team has failures in the draft. You have to know that and draft accordingly. The Eagles had a lot of openings on the roster so using 13 picks was wise.

The final consideration is whether the young players will get the coaching that they need in order to challenge for the roster and/or contribute this year. I don't think that will be an issue. The Eagles didn't pick any underclassmen. They didn't take guys that are considered major projects. The focus this year was on finding high character, productive, senior players. Those guys have an easier time transitioning to the NFL. The assistant coaches will get help from veteran players as they teach the new guys what to do. The veterans know this is a young team that will need the rookies to help if we're going to return to the postseason.