Well ahead of cuts, some of Eagles' roster takes shape

Posted: August 17, 2012

EVERYBODY WANTS to know who makes the 53-man roster for the Sept. 9 Eagles season opener.

Fact is, even with the Birds having flown from Lehigh Tuesday, to resume preseason work at NovaCare Thursday, the jury remains way, way out on roster spots. The Eagles have played one of their four preseason games. Everybody - yes, even safety Jaiquawn Jarrett, child of fan and media scorn after his inept performance in the preseason opener - still has a chance at redemption.

The Eagles don't cut down from 90 to 75 players until Aug. 27, the day after the Flight Night practice at Lincoln Financial Field, and they don't have to get to 53 until Aug. 31, the day after the preseason finale.

It is possible, though, to track some developing scenarios that will affect how the 53-man group is shaped. I see the Eagles being very heavy at wide receiver and on the defensive line, particularly at defensive end. Heavy, as in, they have a bunch of guys at those spots who can play. This abundance will affect other positions - for example, we came into camp thinking there might be a spot for a third tight end, given the New England Patriots-inspired trend of using multiple-tight-end formations. But no tight ends beyond Brent Celek and Clay Harbor really have stood out, and the depth at wideout is astonishing. The Eagles aren't cutting a promising wide receiver to keep a tight end who is little more than a warm body.

I see the Birds trying to retain six wideouts. You figure, the roster has DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Riley Cooper when he's healthy, plus Lehigh standout Damaris Johnson and either Mardy Gilyard or Jamel Hamler, which would leave sixth-round pick Marvin McNutt looking at a practice-squad spot, along with Mr. Hustle, Chad Hall, who retains practice-squad eligibility, just barely. But again, a lot can change in three preseason games. Could they keep Gilyard and Hamler? I don't see how, but I'd bet that whoever gets cut makes somebody else's team, and contributes.

When camp started, wide receivers coach David Culley allowed that this might be the deepest group he's ever worked with, in terms of the skill level of the guys at the bottom of the depth chart. That hunch has been borne out - believe me, there have been years when the Eagles would have been doing handsprings if they'd seen a Johnson or a Hamler perform the way they have performed so far. Remember when Kevin Curtis and Reggie Brown were the starters? Or long before that, Todd Pinkston and James Thrash?

Before moving on to the defensive line, I ought to mention that second-year running back Dion Lewis has looked solid as the backup to LeSean McCoy, and both rookies, Bryce Brown and Chris Polk, are promising. If everybody somehow makes the team, that probably means the Eagles will not carry a fullback on the 53 to start the season. Wouldn't be a shock, though, if the Birds ultimately decided Polk's "loose" shoulder, which kept him from being drafted, needs more surgery after all, thus allowing him to be stashed on injured reserve.

The d-line logjam could affect the number of safeties on the roster (I say keep three; you can always play a corner inside in a pinch), and if I were Andy Reid, I would rather keep a good d-end than a so-so linebacker.

Given all the nickel and dime packages, do you need more than five LBs? Do you have more than five who deserve to be here? (Let's see: Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans, Brian Rolle, Jamar Chaney and either Akeem Jordan or Casey Matthews. Works for me.)

Given the level of talent at his disposal, defensive-line coach Jim Washburn ought to be a much jollier fellow than he has been so far in training camp. I suspect that in private moments, Washburn can hardly believe his luck.

The d-line is where the toughest decisions will be made. Coming out of the spring, I knew the Eagles liked Cedric Thornton, the raw defensive tackle from Southern Arkansas who spent much of last season on the practice squad, before joining the roster for the final three games, as the Birds made sure nobody else signed him for 2012. But I didn't see any way Thornton could make the team.

Some really talented players are still ahead of him, but after 3 weeks at Lehigh, and after talking to Washburn, I can't imagine Thornton will be cut. He's a 6-4, 309-pound bull-rusher Washburn likes to call "Swamp Thing." Thornton is a special Wash project.

I had similar thoughts about Phillip Hunt coming out of the spring, given that the Eagles had drafted Vinny Curry in the second round. But you know how you hear all the time about injuries to starters opening up opportunities for backups? Usually those injuries just show you why the backups are backups. Hunt, the too-short CFL veteran, took the opportunity provided by the absence of Jason Babin (calf) and Trent Cole (shoulder) and ran with it. He might have been the best player on the field Thursday when the Eagles opened their preseason against the Steelers. I don't see him getting cut, either.

"I'm better prepared to play within the scheme and play hard," said Hunt, who spent his first Eagles training camp learning the defense, the lockout having killed the rest of the offseason. "I can't focus on the numbers game, who they drafted or what people are here. I just have to go out and perform well."

Seems as if the Eagles might be able to stash Mike Patterson on PUP if they need to. That leaves you with Cullen Jenkins, Babin, Cole, Fletcher Cox, Curry, Derek Landri, Brandon Graham (who is having a good camp), Hunt, Thornton and either Antonio Dixon or Darryl Tapp. The latter two are both solid soldiers. Dixon, a key guy off the bench 2 years ago, might not be a good fit for Washburn's attacking style.

Again, Dixon has a couple of weeks and three preseason games to turn that feeling around. All kinds of things can happen to change the picture between now and Aug. 31, including injuries.


Contact Les Bowen at bowenl@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @LesBowen. For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog at www.eagletarian.com.

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