In part two of the “Preparing for Training Camp”, let’s take a look at the Eagles running backs and receivers. Similar to the quarterback position, most of the depth chart is pretty self explanatory at these two positions. They are without question the youngest aspect of the team, as the average age for the starters is 23.8 (McCoy-22, Weaver-27, Celek-25, Jackson-23, Maclin-22). However, this is also the strongest and most reliable aspect of the team.
Barring any injuries, these five players will keep their starting roles come opening day. McCoy set the Eagles rookie rushing record last year with 637 yards (955 from scrimmage puts him second all time in franchise history as a rookie). Coming into the 2009 season he was expected to share a workload and take a backseat to Brian Westbrook, but injuries quickly catapulted the former Pittsburgh Panther into the starting role for the remainder of the season. A combination of Andy Reid’s west coast offensive mind and the lack of supporting cast behind Shady was one of the biggest problem areas the Eagles faced in close games down the stretch. Since the Duce Staley era when the Eagles had the infamous “three-headed monster” in Staley, Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter, Reid has been hesitant to turn to his running game.
This offseason, Reid made a great acquisition in signing former Saint’s running back Mike Bell. Last year with the Saints, Bell led the team in carries (172) and finished the year with 654 yards and five scores. At the age of 27, Bell has a lot of experience in the league and should be able to take a lot of pressure off of McCoy in both training camp and during the regular season.
The addition of Bell also enables fullback Leonard Weaver to focus more on his blocking and short yardage plays rather than have to worry about taking 12+ snaps every game. Weaver was one of the few Eagles to make the Pro-Bowl last season, in turn leading to a three-year contract extension for $11 million this offseason.
Aside from McCoy, Bell and Weaver, there are a lot of new Eagles waiting to prove themselves starting Monday. At the running back position, Eldra Buckley is going to be battling with Martell Mallet (second season- claimed off waivers) and former LSU standout Charles Scott (selected 200th overall in the 2010 draft). Buckley made the final roster last season for his hard work during training camp and ability to help out on special teams, but failed miserably at the running back position during the regular season (averaged 2.9 yards per carry). I think Reid is hoping the Mallet or Scott can end up filling or taking over Buckley’s spot as a running back on the 53-man roster.
Coming into training camp, there are 10 wide receivers listed on the depth chart: DeSean Jackson (3rd year), Jeremy Maclin (2nd year), Jason Avant (5th year), Hank Baskett (5th year), Riley Cooper (R), Chad Hall (1st year), Jordan Norwood (1st year), Dobson Collins (1st year), Blue Cooper (R), and Kevin Jurovich (R).
Jackson, Maclin and Avant are obviously all locks at their starting positions. Jackson had a Pro-Bowl caliber season last year (which is still not deserving of a new contract for some odd reason). He tied the NFL record for most TD’s of 50 yards or more with eight and finished the year with 1,156 yards. Maclin settled in and had some big games as a rookie, grabbing 56 receptions for 773 yards (fourth among rookies last season) and five touchdowns (fifth among rookies last year). Avant set personal records in all three categories last season and was elected to the 2009 USA Today’s All-Joe Team, which is given to NFL players whose “work doesn’t necessarily garner headlines, but is integral to the success of the team”. The Eagles awarded him with a five-year contract on March 8th.
The matchup between Hank Baskett and Riley Cooper is going to be the main position battle at Lehigh. They both have very similar statures, but Baskett’s main advantage is that he’s been in the league for four years and with the Eagles for three of them. Cooper is coming in as an unproven Florida Gator, who had a breakout senior season and finished his collegiate tenure with 81 receptions for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns. While Cooper was catching passes, Baskett was balancing a football career with the Indianapolis Colts (where he only caught 5 receptions for 36 yards) and his celebrity lifestyle with his Playboy bunny wife Kendra. As of now, Baskett has the edge based solely on experience in the NFL and with the Eagles, but don’t be shocked if Cooper continues to open eyes and slips in as the fourth wide receiver on the depth charts.
For the rest of the guys, it almost seems like it’s going to take a miracle to make the 53-man roster. Considering how many defensive prospects there are coming into the season and the need for a deep defensive core, I would be shocked to see Reid take more than five wide receivers. Even though both Chad Hall and Jordan Norwood have impressed coaches with their hard work in the minicamp sessions, I can’t imagine they will compete with the top five guys unless the injury bug strikes.
This could quite possibly be the Eagles deepest position heading into training camp. Brent Celek proved that he can be one of the top five tight ends in the league and it’s exciting to have a tight end that doesn’t drop or fumble every ball they touch (cough…L.J. Smith). Celek finished 2009 with a Pro-Bowl caliber season, ranking fourth in the NFL in both touchdowns (8) and yards (971) for tight ends. Last season, Celek, Jackson and Maclin became the first trio aged 24-years and younger in NFL history to post 50+ catches, 750+ yards and 4+ touchdowns. On top of all of his statistical accolades, Celek was also honored by the USA Today on the All-Joe team. I think last season speaks for itself in saying that Celek will be starting this year and should hold his reign as one of the top tight ends in the NFL in 2010.
The most intriguing aspect of the tight end group will be Cornelius Ingram. Coming into last season, the Eagles had high hopes for the former Florida Gator. Unfortunately, like many other Eagles last training camp, Ingram suffered a season ending ACL injury. He is still a favorite to line up on the opposite side of Celek during two tight end formations, but there are a lot of questions about how he will rebound after such a serious injury.
The other two tight ends headed to Lehigh are Martin Rucker, who was acquired from free agency last season, and Clay Harbor, the Eagles 125th overall selection during this years’ draft. Both Rucker and Harbor have a lot of talent and are expected to keep Celek and Ingram intact during training camp. Rucker was promoted to the active roster in December of 2009 after spending the first 13 weeks of the season on the practice squad. His only game action came with Cleveland in 2008, where he spent his rookie season after being drafted by them in the fourth round. Harbor was a stud for the Division 1-AA Missouri State Bears, finishing his tenure with 150 receptions for 1,906 yards and 10 touchdowns. He converted from a wide receiver to a tight end in college, which proves his versatility and athletic stature. Scouts praise his hard work and motivation on the field, which is exactly what the Eagles are looking for when trying to keep Celek and Ingram game ready. Don’t count out either Rucker or Harbor for that second tight end spot because anything can happen in training camp.