NEW DREAM TEAM, ASSEMBLE! Just kidding.
The last of the veterans report today, and tomorrow training camp in full will commence. Thus begins another season of Eagles football. Another season filled with hope, if a wee bit less hype. Another chance for this franchise to prove it is something more than the poor man's Buffalo Bills of the NFC. And for the first time in a decade, there's no excitement surrounding the Phillies to serve as a distraction. In fact, ever since it became apparent this Phillies season would have a distinct late '90s feel to it, Philadelphia sports fans have been counting down the days until Eagles training camp. We're lusting to move on from 2011, to get as far away from the Dream Team as possible. Luckily, we can now focus on becoming a dynasty! For real, would it be so much to ask for everyone associated with this team to just shut the hell up? Win something before opening your mouth and proclaiming -- even hinting at -- greatness. Better yet, don't say anything; let your play do the talking. Put together a good season, win a playoff game (or three or four). Baby steps, and it all begins at Lehigh. There are no more excuses. Not for Jeffrey Lurie. Not for Howie Roseman. Not for Andy Reid. Not for Michael Vick. Not for anyone.
I will say that this Eagles team has the most talent of any iteration since the one that went to the Super Bowl. However, as I lamented in last year's doomsday proclamation, I still need to see a change in the Eagles on the field before I'm willing to entertain the notion that this season could end differently than all the others. Namely, I want to see interminable toughness and resolute testicular fortitude. I want to see the offense that pounded the Cowboys into submission during the teams' last meeting of 2010 and first of 2011 (see: an emphatic, unwavering commitment to the running game). I want to see a defense that flies around, plays nasty, and harkens back to the days of Jim Johnson. I just want my football team to impose its will and beat the shit out of its opponent. Is that really too much to ask? What say you, Andrew Walter Reid?
Players to watch
Michael Vick - QB - Glad we got the dynasty talk out of the way early, Michael. Now, how would you feel about becoming a legitimate quarterback, staying healthy for an entire season, and writing the final chapter of your redemption story with a run to the Super Bowl? I'm looking for a reason to believe. Please, give me one.
Chris Polk - RB - Been a fan since I watched him trample Nebraska in the 2010 Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl. I tuned in originally to get a look at Jake Locker, but it was Polk who stole the show. He, Bryce Brown, and Dion Lewis are in competition for two spots.
Emil Igwenagu - FB - Despite playing just a single season at fullback for UMass, Igwenagu profiles as a better fit for the position than Stanley Havili because of his superior blocking skills. Tough and physical with a mean streak. What further strengthens Igwenagu's case is that he's a capable and smooth receiver out of the backfield too. I liked what I saw from him during the Senior Bowl.
Jeremy Maclin - WR - DeSean Jackson got his money. Maclin is next. He's a better pure wide receiver than Jackson, poses a more consistent threat, and is less likely to disappear for games on end. As far as raw numbers go, Maclin made himself one of the league's all-time most accomplished receivers before turning 24. His 2011 season was thrown out of whack before it even started due to a mysterious virus that, before it was diagnosed, prompted whispers of lymphoma. By the time Maclin was cleared to play in mid-August, he was far behind in terms of football conditioning. Even so, he still was able to put together a solid season. Jeremy Maclin is a player with game-breaking talent, and 2012 will be the season he shows the world who's the Eagles' real number one receiver.
Damaris Johnson - WR - Damaris Johnson isn't your run-of-the-mill undrafted free agent. In fact, the Eagles really wanted him, as reflected by their unprecedented financial commitment. Had Johnson not been suspended for the entire 2011 season due to a felony embezzlement charge (stemming from shopping fraud), I think it's a safe bet he would've been drafted. Hell, he set the NCAA record for all-time total yardage in just three seasons. It was in what turned out to be the last game of Johnson's college career -- when he went berserk in the 2010 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl -- that I first took notice of his skills. He was, by far, the most electric and dynamic player on the field, a threat to break a big play every time he touched the ball. Standing a shade over 5'7" and weighing 175 pounds soaking wet, Johnson's size is actually an advantage in that he uses it to hide behind blockers and skitter by would-be tacklers. He's got Darren Sproles-like ability and is very exciting to watch. I think Johnson is going to be a revelation for the Eagles in the return game and even contribute in certain offensive subpackages. This is the kind of player for whom you find ways to get touches.
Elvis Akpla - WR - I don't expect Akpla to make the team, but I do take advantage of any chance I get to show this incredible highlight. Also, his name is Elvis.
Brett Brackett - TE - Interesting player who has the size (nearly 6'6", 246 pounds) and speed (4.61) to be a weapon at the tight end position. Brackett is going to make Clay Harbor, who I like a lot, earn his roster spot.
Dennis Kelly - OT - He's 6'8", 320+ pounds, nimble on his feet, and looks like this. Oh yeah, I'm rooting for Dennis Kelly. I bet Howard Mudd is going to work wonders with him, too.
Demetress Bell - OT - Pretty self-explanatory here. Bell is only being counted upon to replace, oh, the best left tackle in football.
Brandon Graham - DE - What does Brandon Graham have in common with Michael Vick and Andy Reid? This is a make-or-break season for him. The embattled defensive end enters his third professional season, fully healthy for the first time since tearing his ACL -- and later undergoing microfracture surgery -- in December 2010. Right now, Graham is known to Eagles fans merely as the "bust" who was picked instead of Earl Thomas or Jason Pierre-Paul. Until he does something to shed that label, it will remain as a scarlet letter and be synonymous with his name in the annals of team history. I, for one, am not ready nor eager to write Graham off and still hold out hope he can be the player the Eagles -- and myself -- envisioned when they drafted him.
Phillip Hunt - DE - Loved what I saw of the former CFL star last preseason and in the limited snaps he got during the regular season. Hunt has a special kind of burst off the edge and flashes the ability to get into the backfield milliseconds after the snap. With any luck, he will morph into our very own version of Cameron Wake.
Antonio Dixon - DT - During the 2010 season, Dixon was easily one of the Eagles' most impressive players and looked like a budding Pro Bowler at defensive tackle. Once he entered the starting lineup, the run defense improved by leaps and bounds. Big, strong, agile, sudden, and quick. You simply don't find many 330-pound lineman who move like this guy can. Going into 2011, Dixon appeared poised to establish himself as one of the league's premier interior defensive linemen. Unfortunately, he arrived at training camp after the lockout out of shape and drew the ire of Jim Washburn. Then, just as it seemed Dixon was starting to find his groove, a torn triceps during Week 4's debacle against the 49ers ended his season. Time to prove 2010 was no fluke.
Fletcher Cox - DT - The Eagles are expecting big things from the rookie first round pick, even more so now that Mike Patterson will be out indefinitely and perhaps even the entire season.
Cedric Thornton - DT - A player who caught my eye during the 2011 Senior Bowl. The physical attributes and raw skills are there, they just need to be harnessed. Let's see if Jim Washburn can mold this piece of clay. He's already taken a shine to the kid, so that's encouraging.
Mychal Kendricks - OLB - I cannot wait to see Kendricks in action; this is someone whose style should make him an immediate fan favorite. (Edit: He has the speed and range to make plays all over the field. Dude is everywhere .)
Brian Rolle - OLB - I'm firmly on the Brian Rolle bandwagon. I was a fan of the pick last year after the draft, and my conviction only intensified after watching him with the Eagles. But it was the machine gun celebration that really sealed the deal.
DeMeco Ryans - MLB - The Eagles' most notable offseason splash, Ryans is the guy who's being tasked with stabilizing the linebacker corps and serving as the quarterback of the defense. He appeared to be confident and fully healed from a torn Achilles by the end of last season (had an excellent showing in the playoff game against the Ravens). There's a lot of expectations being heaped upon Ryans, but he seems like the kind of player and person capable of handling the pressure.
Ryan Rau - MLB - Relentless tackling machine and undisputed team leader during his college career at Portland State. Also a sneaky good athlete who can run (4.65) and boasts strength (28 reps of 225 on the bench) that belies his 6'0", 230-pound build. Rau won't stand out via the eye test or wow you physically, but he strikes me as the type of guy who'll overcome the odds and make himself into a special teams demon. Or he'll be among the first cuts. Whichever.
Nnamdi Asomugha - CB - The clusterfuck of 2011 was especially rough on Asomugha, the Eagles' prized free agent signing. He languished under a rookie defensive coordinator who, quite simply, didn't seem to have the faintest clue about how to properly deploy his new, shiny toy. Let's pray Juan Castillo has a better handle on things in year two. Hey, I'm willing to start Asomugha off with a clean slate now that he's actually going to be used correctly and, more importantly, knows what he should be doing in the defense. Here's to less moving around while playing off coverage, and more man-to-man while locking onto the other team's best receiving threat.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie - CB - He's back at his natural position -- where he played quite well at the end of last season -- and heading into a contract year. If Rodgers-Cromartie stays healthy, I think you're looking at a monster 2012 campaign. He certainly has the freakish natural ability to make it happen.
Brandon Boykin - CB - Something tells me I'm going to like this #22 a whole hell of a lot more than the last one. It certainly won't take much. I expect Boykin to beat out Joselio Hanson for the slot corner position and team with Damaris Johnson to form the Eagles' one-two punch at kick and punt returner.
Curtis Marsh - CB - One of my sleepers from the 2011 draft, Marsh will have a chance to prove his worth at cornerback this season, especially if Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie gets injured or otherwise falters.
Cliff Harris - CB - A player with all the talent in the world who was at one point a surefire first round pick. Unfortunately for Harris, his mental acuity and maturity level didn't match his physical gifts. More succinctly, he screwed himself over by being an incorrigible knucklehead. Have past missteps made Harris straighten up and get his shit together? First reports out of camp suggest he's been a stud performer so far.
Oshiomogho Atogwe - S - We knew it was going to be a hard sell for the Eagles to go to Lehigh with Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman, Jaiquawn Jarrett, and Tom Nelson as the four safeties on the roster. I suggested adding Yeremiah Bell -- and the Eagles were in on him -- but he chose to sign with the Jets instead. Exactly one month later, the Eagles signed Ohsiomogho Atogwe, who struggled through a toe injury in 2011 and was cut by the Redskins more because of his contract than his play. This is a quintessential low risk, high reward acquisition, and one which I endorse wholeheartedly. Assuming Atogwe is not horrific during camp, I expect him to beat out Kurt Coleman for the other starting safety spot opposite Nate Allen.
Jaiquawn Jarrett - S - Essentially all of the news we've heard about Jarrett, well, it hasn't exactly been positive. He's a player I liked coming out of college, but I had reservations regarding his NFL potential -- namely, whether his instincts would help make up for a lack of speed. So far, the answer appears to be a resounding no.
Phillip Thomas - S - If Jarrett is an utter disaster at camp while Thomas shows off the keen instincts and play-making ability that made him a standout at Syracuse, the fight for the final safety spot on the roster is going to be mighty interesting.
Projected final 53-man roster and depth chart
QB - Michael Vick, Mike Kafka, Nick Foles
RB - LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis, Bryce Brown (Side note: It would not surprise me if Bryce Brown and Chris Polk end up making the roster by outperforming Dion Lewis, who gets cut)
FB - Emil Igwenagu
WR - DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Riley Cooper, Damaris Johnson
TE - Brent Celek, Clay Harbor
LT - Demetress Bell, King Dunlap
LG - Evan Mathis, Brandon Washington
C - Jason Kelce, Julian Vandervelde
RG - Danny Watkins, Dallas Reynolds
RT - Todd Herremans, Dennis Kelly
DE - Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Phillip Hunt
DT - Cullen Jenkins, Antonio Dixon, Fletcher Cox, Derek Landri, Cedric Thornton
SLB - Mychal Kendricks, Jamar Chaney
MLB - DeMeco Ryans, Casey Matthews
WLB - Brian Rolle, Akeem Jordan, Keenan Clayton
CB - Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Brandon Boykin, Curtis Marsh, Cliff Harris
FS - Nate Allen, Jaiquawn Jarrett
SS - Oshiomogho Atogwe, Kurt Coleman
K - Alex Henery
P - Matt McBriar (signed today)
EDIT: LS - Jon Dorenbos (I'm terribly sorry for this oversight and plead for your forgivenes, dear readers. Please, accept my apology). Of course, this begs the question of whose roster spot Dorenbos will take. I'd imagine it comes down to one of the wide receivers (Cooper, McNutt, Johnson), linebackers (Matthews, Jordan, Clayton), defensive tackles (Landri, Thornton), cornerbacks (Harris), or safeties (Atogwe, Jarrett). Survey says... McNutt.
PUP: Colt Anderson
Non-football: Mike Patterson