Four unheralded Eagles poised for prominent roles in 2020
On Thursday, the Eagles announced they will be re-opening the NovaCare Complex and Lincoln Financial Field on Monday, June 8. Though a limited number of the team’s staff is eligible to return on Friday, June 5, coaches and players are expected back in late July for the start of training camp, as reported and detailed on the latest episode of the Inside the Birds podcast. The team has opted to continue their virtual offseason program in the interim.
With the NFL taking a big step towards returning from a hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the prospects of training camps beginning on-time suddenly becomes a distinct possibility. With "grass time" expected in the coming months, let's take a look a four unheralded players poised for prominent roles in 2020.
A year ago, Boston Scott was merely an afterthought in the backup running back battle, buried behind Jordan Howard, Miles Sanders, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, and Josh Adams. The diminutive runner predictably fell victim to a numbers game, and failed to make the final roster. The Louisiana Tech product spent the first six weeks on the Eagles' practice squad last season, however, before an injury to fellow running back Corey Clement created a vacancy on the active roster. Scott seized his opportunity over 11 games, carrying 61 times for 245 yards and five touchdowns, while contributing 24 receptions for 204 yards in the passing game, finishing third on the team in all-purpose yards.
When Jordan Howard departed for the Miami Dolphins in free agency -- and the team decided against addressing the position in April's draft -- it appears that Scott will enter training camp with the inside track to a backup role behind ascending sophomore Miles Sanders. Though the 5-foot-6, 203-pound pinball is best-equipped to handle the No. 3 running back duties, rather than serve as Sanders' immediate backup, Scott proved he could pick up tough yards when called upon and aid in the passing game -- where his ability to maneuver in space adds another dimension to a suddenly talented-infused Eagles' offense.
Pryor, the Eagles' sixth-round pick in 2016, largely spent his first two seasons toiling in relative anonymity on the scout team. The 6-foot-7, 332 pounder, who started 31 games between guard and tackle at TCU, saw his first game action in 2019 after essentially redshirting as a rookie. Appearing in 12 games, Pryor was called on to start the Eagles' Wild Card game at right guard in place of an injured Brandon Brooks. Despite the much-needed experience, however, Pryor enters his third season with just 79 offensive snaps to his name.
When veteran swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the Detroit Lions in March, that left a sizeable void on the Eagles' offensive line -- and perhaps the most significant hole of the offensive side of the ball. Vaitai, of course, appeared in 55 games (20 starts) over his four seasons in Philadelphia, lining up at both tackle spots and right guard during his tenure. While the versatile lineman undoubtedly had bouts with inconsistency, it was his admirable 13-game stretch in 2017 that will be most remembered.
Now approaching Year 3, Pryor will likely be given every opportunity to prove he can fulfill a crucial role in 2020, but I suspect the team will add a low-cost veteran to the mix for competition purposes.
One of the more intriguing position battles to zero-in on this summer will be for the all-important No. 3 defensive end role, where all eyes will be on third-year pro Josh Sweat. Sweat, the Eagles' fourth-round pick in 2018 by way of Florida State, was limited to nine games (68 snaps) in his first season, before an ankle injury ended his rookie campaign prematurely.
Returning for his second training camp fully healthy -- and noticeably bigger and stronger -- Sweat managed to stave of a surging Daeshon Hall to earn the hotly contested fourth defensive end role. Sweat contributed 352 snaps in 16 games, producing 4.0 sacks and providing juice from the interior as well as off the edge.
Much has been made of the lack of a veteran presence behind starters Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett. Last season, veteran Vinny Curry -- still unsigned -- turned in his best season since 2014 in the No. 3 role, registering 5.0 sacks. While Curry proved to be extremely impactful as a versatile pass rusher, he played just 41 more snaps than Sweat.
After fortifying the interior defensive line over the offseason -- Malik Jackson offers the versatility to kick outside, by the way -- one could make the argument that less of an emphasis will be placed on the No. 3 defensive end role in 2020. That said, Sweat, an immensely athletic and lengthy edge rusher, has given every indication that he is poised to continue his upward trajectory. Unless Sweat demonstrates he isn't equipped to make the jump and shoulder a more prominent defensive role, the team would be best served moving forward with their promising 23-year-old pass rusher.
Beyond projected starters Nathan Gerry and T.J. Edwards, the battle for depth roles on the oft-maligned Eagles' linebacking corps figures to effectively be an open competition this summer.
Third-round pick Davion Taylor is a lock, but won't be primed and ready to play an integral role until at least next season. Free-agent addition Jatavis Brown, who offers 56 games of NFL experience, including 23 starts, will enter training camp as the favorite to become the team's third linebacker, but injuries and inconsistent play kept him off the field last season. That brings me to the biggest wild card on the bunch: Duke Riley.
Riley, you may remember, was acquired in a September trade with the Atlanta Falcons. A former third-round pick in 2017, Riley started 16 games over his first two seasons in Atlanta, before injuries hindered his progress and he ultimately became an afterthought. In Philadelphia, Riley quickly became a core special teams player for Dave Fipp, finishing fourth on the team in total snaps. In fact, when fellow linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill was placed on injured reserve in December, Riley was appointed to team captain.
Lauded for his speed, range, and coverage prowess, Riley enters training camp as the Eagles' most efficient cover linebacker. With nearly a full season to acclimate himself, the LSU product is a prime candidate to seize the role once occupied by Grugier-Hill.