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Most years, a draft choice really has to stink not to be kept around. A couple of undrafted free agents usually find a way to stick, at least on the practice squad. A veteran surprise might get cut. But that's about it. The notion of starting jobs being won and lost in an NFL training camp, once so common, is now pretty rare.
The salary cap pretty much demands that a lot of these calls be made earlier. Training camp has become a lot more about conditioning and bonding than about job-winning. Exhibition games have become a lot more about playing the key players as little as humanly possible and keeping everybody healthy than about determining who will fill out the starting units.
It is often a bore, honestly.
But not this year, not for the Eagles.
For the first time in years, this football team has some important decisions to make, decisions that will take place on the playing fields of Lehigh and at the exhibition games. Forgetting quarterback for a second, which really will be quite unforgettable, there are issues on the defensive line and at linebacker, important issues, that will not be settled until August.
This really is a little different. The exhibition games this summer are really going to matter.
"At that position, yes, it will be tough competition," Eagles coach Andy Reid said, when asked about his defense. "It will be hard for the coaches to make that decision. I'm sure, unless we have a bunch of injuries, there could be some tough decisions to make, and that's a good thing. You want to make sure that players play hard and coaches evaluate players on a daily basis."
Everybody knows the drill at this point. At defensive tackle, all eyes will be on second-year player Brodrick Bunkley. After a wasted rookie season, he either steps up and becomes a starting-level player, a major part of the tackle rotation, or this team struggles again on defense. At defensive end, there are about 110 guys on the roster right now, but they all can't be there at the end. How that one plays out will be fascinating.
Then, linebacker. What happens if Chris Gocong can't handle the strong side? What to do with Omar Gaither, who played so well on the weak side in his rookie season and is now backing up in two spots, behind Takeo Spikes on the weak side and Jeremiah Trotter in the middle? And what of Trotter, he of the newly slimmed frame? The dominoes here could fall a lot of different ways.
Then there is quarterback, where McNabb will feel his way through and around the obstacles of two-a-day practices, and then the exhibition games themselves. He will be a story every day this summer. He will be everybody's first check. You walk into Wrigley Field on a game day, the first thing you do is check which way the flags are blowing. You walk out onto the practice field of Lehigh this summer, the first thing you do is check whether No. 5 in the red jersey is out there.
Most camps are not like that. Reid was saying yesterday that you usually have a decent feeling about where things are headed by this time of the offseason.
"You have a good idea," he said. "I think what takes place up at Lehigh is you build a little more personality. You get into that second week and beating each other up a little bit, you realize who the guys are that are going to step up at that time. Your body, and your mind, isn't feeling quite as good as it did at the beginning. So that's where I have a better idea."
But it will be more than that. Jobs will be won this summer. Real decisions will be made. The exhibition games might actually be worth the money people are blackjacked into paying for them. Imagine that. *
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