Damaris Johnson – When training camp started, it appeared that Johnson’s best (and perhaps only) chance to make the roster would be a special-teams role. The undrafted free agent out of Tulsa, who set an NCAA record with 7,796 all-purpose yards, remains the favorite to take over punt-return duties from DeSean Jackson.
But the surprise at Lehigh has been Johnson’s ability as a receiver. In college, he caught 188 balls for 2,746 yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging nearly 63 catches per season and 14.6 yards per reception. With Riley Cooper sidelined and Jeremy Maclin dealing with a hamstring injury, Johnson’s had a chance to run with the first team, and he’s made the most of it. While not the biggest guy (5-8, 175), he seems to have picked up the offense well, especially considering he’s a rookie. In the preseason game against the Steelers, Johnson put a tremendous double-move on Keenan Lewis, leaving the cornerback on the ground and running free for a 70-yard touchdown from Nick Foles.
There are still three weeks to go, but Johnson is slated to be the primary punt returner and will add depth at wide receiver. Not bad for a guy who went undrafted in April.
Dion Lewis – The truth is his struggles as a kickoff returner probably affected his reputation as a runner during Lewis’ rookie season. But the second-year back consistently looked like a playmaker at camp, specifically in the passing game. As I mentioned yesterday, the Eagles were not particularly effective in the screen game last year, but perhaps that’s an area where Lewis can help.
Until Week 17, Lewis played just 19 total snaps last season, too small of a number to judge whether he can be effective. In the first preseason game, he looked good in blitz pickup, something that is essential to get on the field in the Eagles’ offense. The team didn’t go out and sign a veteran running back this offseason, and they waited until the seventh round to draft one (Bryce Brown). They clearly have a level of trust in Lewis and believe he can back up LeSean McCoy and spell him for a handful of snaps each game.
Mychal Kendricks – Some are getting a bit too nit-picky with the rookie linebacker. Does he remind anyone of Ray Lewis? Of course not. But based on the last three weeks, Kendricks will provide a much-needed upgrade at the SAM spot. He made a couple early errors in the first preseason game against the Steelers, but also flashed his speed and finished with four solo tackles, including two behind the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles have played their usual game of musical chairs with the linebackers in the nickel package. DeMeco Ryans has been one of them since the spring. Brian Rolle started out there at the beginning of camp. Then it was Jamar Chaney. However, with Chaney fighting through a hamstring injury, Kendricks has been given a shot. And the guess here is that he won’t be giving it up. Juan Castillo having the flexibility to keep Ryans and Kendricks on the field for all three downs will help the Eagles reduce some of the confusion and miscommunication we saw with this defense in 2011.
Jaiquawn Jarrett – The criticism is not all about his play against the Steelers. Remember, Jarrett couldn’t get on the field as a rookie. And he didn’t contribute on special teams. In the spring, while coaches were using the lockout-shortened offseason as a reason for why the team struggled in 2011, no one expressed confidence that Jarrett would really push Kurt Coleman for the starting job in 2012.
Meanwhile, the Birds added veteran Oshiomogho Atogwe, and Coleman and Nate Allen have remained the first-team safeties.
Jarrett, meanwhile, flashed his talents during one training camp practice, forcing a couple fumbles and delivering the big hits he made his name on in college at Temple. But when given the chance to make his mark in the first preseason game, he looked like the worst player on the field, taking bad angles and missing tackles.
It’s not over yet for Jarrett, and he might benefit from the Eagles not really having a lot of other options for safety depth. But he needs to get things together quickly.
Demetress Bell – As I wrote this morning, left tackle has quickly emerged as one of this team’s biggest concerns. When Jason Peters went down in the offseason, the Eagles looked wise in being pro-active and signing Bell, widely considered the best available left tackle on the market.
But after three weeks at Lehigh, Bell has been bumped on the first team in favor of King Dunlap. That whole story Andy Reid is selling about how this was a scheduled switch? Not buying it. The Eagles didn’t sign Dunlap until March 30, coincidentally the same day we found out about Jason Peters’ Achilles injury. At the time, the Eagles had no options to play left tackle, and Dunlap provided an insurance plan. He’s worked hard to carve out a spot as a backup (remember, Dunlap also played guard for a game last year), but is not someone the Eagles want to count on as a starter for 16 games.
The job is Bell’s for the taking. The question is: Will he be able to do enough in the next three weeks to show Howard Mudd he can be trusted? Remember, Mudd started Danny Watkins in camp last year, didn’t think he was ready and then replaced him with journeyman Kyle DeVan to start the season. Against the Steelers, Bell was asked to block his man one-on-one in pass protection twice. He got beat both times. And on one play, Michael Vick had to step up in the pocket to escape pressure, eventually banging his thumb against Jason Kelce’s helmet.
If Bell doesn’t improve in the coming weeks, he’ll start the season on the bench.
Mike Kafka – He was a giant question mark entering camp, and Kafka did little to alleviate concerns in the first preseason game, going 5-for-9 for 31 yards and an interception.
Granted, it was limited action, but he averaged just 3.4 yards per attempt. The question with Kafka is arm strength. The Eagles’ offense is based on getting the ball to its playmakers (DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin) downfield. If Kafka can’t make all the throws, Marty Mornhinweg and Andy Reid will have to change the offense dramatically when he enters the game.
Now that Kafka has a fractured left hand, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to participate in any of the three remaining preseason games. And while the Nick Foles love has gotten out of hand (considering it’s based on six completed passes), the rookie will now get a chance to make his mark with the second team in Kafka’s absence.
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