Tre Sullivan

10 non-rookies with something to prove at Eagles OTAs

10 non-rookies with something to prove at Eagles OTAs

These practices don’t have pads or hitting or even anything that really resembles real football.

It’s still a chance for players with plenty to prove.

The Eagles kick off OTAs this week and we already know the rookie class will want to prove they belong in the NFL, so we’re taking them out of our thought process for a moment. Because OTAs can also be a proving ground for guys who have already been in the league.

Here are 10 on the Eagles’ roster:

Nate Sudfeld
The Eagles brought in Cody Kessler to compete with Sudfeld, but Sudfeld is entering his third season with the Eagles, while this will be Kessler’s third team in three years. The Eagles already paid Sudfeld $3 million for this season, so they have a vested interest in his winning the backup job. And Sudfeld should have an advantage based on his familiarity with the offense. He should come out in these OTAs and be wayyyy ahead of Kessler, building a lead that can’t be overcome.

Tre Sullivan
The Eagles signed Andrew Sendejo and claimed Blake Countess, but Tre Sullivan still has a chance to win the Eagles’ pretty important third safety job. Undrafted out of Shepard in 2017, Sullivan played important snaps late in 2018 and might have more room to grow. Sendejo isn’t a lock for the team and Countess hasn’t played a ton on defense in the league.

Cre’Von LeBlanc
One of the big revelations of last season was LeBlanc, whom the Eagles claimed off waivers in November. He shored up the nickel cornerback spot and now "Strap" has a chance to win a job again this season, but there’s some competition. LeBlanc needs to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.

Mack Hollins
After a decent rookie season for a fourth-rounder, Hollins lost his 2017 season in mysterious fashion. A few days after he said he was healthy, the Eagles put him on IR and we haven’t seen him since. He’s presumably healthy now and he needs to prove it.

Braxton Miller
He came aboard during last season as a practice squad player but might still have upside. The former third-round pick is 26 but is relatively new to the receiver position. Doug Pederson has talked up Miller this offseason, so maybe he could find a role as a gadget player/return man on the roster.

Treyvon Hester
The Eagles added Hassan Ridgeway in a trade but Hester can still fight for playing time, which will be somewhat limited behind Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson and Tim Jernigan. Hester should have an advantage because he’s been in the defense for a while and already gave the Eagles solid snaps last season.

Josh Sweat
It was a disappointing rookie season for Sweat, who played just 68 snaps with four tackles before ending the year on IR with an ankle injury in December. But he certainly looks the part and important spring and summer camps await him as he battles for a roster spot. 

Greg Ward
After a brief stint in the short-lived AAF, Ward has another shot at an NFL roster. The former college QB is another one like Miller who could become a gadgety/return man in the NFL, but his chances are running out.

Nathan Gerry
A fifth-round pick in 2017, Gerry hasn’t gotten many opportunities on defense, but he did play 134 snaps last season. He’ll be fighting for a roster spot with Paul Worrilow, T.J. Edwards and B.J. Bello. The thing to remember about Gerry is that he’s making a position switch from college safety and is more athletic than those guys. I still like his chances.

Blake Countess
The Eagles claimed Countess and then extended him for a year but that extension also included a pay cut for 2019. So how much do they really like him? We’ll start to see that pretty soon. First, Countess will need to show he’s learned a thing or two in his years away from the Eagles. Like Tre Sullivan, he will be fighting for playing time this year if he makes the team.

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NFL free agency 2019: A comprehensive look at Eagles' safeties

NFL free agency 2019: A comprehensive look at Eagles' safeties

Reuben Frank, Dave Zangaro and Andrew Kulp continue the 2019 edition of Stay or Go, trying to figure out the future of the Eagles. 

Today, they look at the safeties. 

Malcolm Jenkins

Roob: After five seasons, three Pro Bowls, zero missed games, a Super Bowl and half a decade of leadership, it’s safe to say Malcolm Jenkins is an all-time great Eagle. Definitely headed for the Eagles Hall of Fame. This may have been his best year as he held it down as the only constant in a chaotic secondary. Hope he finishes his career here.

Verdict: Stays

Dave: It’s hard to imagine where the Eagles would be without Jenkins. He plays every snap, he plays multiple positions, he was the veteran force on a secondary that was decimated by injuries. He’s one of the most important players on the team. It’s hard to overstate how important he is. 

Verdict: Stays

Kulp: The heart and soul of the Eagles’ defense, Jenkins played every snap this season. He’s indispensable, both on the field and as a locker room leader. And in case anybody feels different about Jenkins at 31, trade or release only creates about $2 million in savings.

Verdict: Stays

Rodney McLeod

Roob: This is one of the tougher calls of the offseason. McLeod is really solid and forms a great safety tandem with Malcolm Jenkins. And he’s only 28. But he’s coming off a season-ending injury, he’s got that $7.5 million salary and $9.9 million cap hit and the Eagles need cap space. Will they cut ties with him? Bring him back at a lower salary? It’s going to be tempting to move Avonte Maddox to safety, cut ties with McLeod and clear much-needed cap room. Tough call. 

Verdict: Goes

Dave: This is a tough one because McLeod’s cap hit is over $9 million in 2019 and that’s a lot for a player coming off an ACL tear. But I think he and the Eagles can figure something out to keep him around. Losing him last season was a big loss. He’s still just 28 and has some good football ahead of him. 

Verdict: Stays 

Kulp: McLeod is somebody fans might’ve taken for granted prior to this season, but you saw what a mess the secondary became after he went down in the third game. He provides a lot of stability on the back end. The Eagles only save $5 million or roughly half of McLeod’s cap hit in the event of his trade or release, so knowing what we do now, I would be real hesitant to move on. 

Verdict: Stays

Corey Graham

Roob: Graham played way more than he could have imagined when he re-upped with the Eagles a week into training camp. There was 4th-and-15 against the Titans, but as the year went on he played better. But Graham turns 34 before training camp starts and has 12 years in the books. I think he calls it a career.

Verdict: Goes

Dave: He was pretty close to retiring after the 2017 season but decided to come back and eventually played well in 2018 after that 4th-and-15 in Tennessee. But he made it pretty clear throughout the season that he wasn’t going to play much longer. I think he retires. 

Verdict: Goes

Kulp: Was solid as the Eagles’ third safety in 2017, looked like a 33-year-old defensive back in 2018. Graham simply doesn’t possess the range he used to, and the diminished athleticism got him into trouble a few times last season. He’s a free agent, and I imagine headed for retirement unless another team is in really dire straits. Avonte Maddox is the new third safety.

Verdict: Goes

Deiondre’ Hall

Roob: Hall barely played on defense — six snaps all year — but was a core special teamer for Dave Fipp and is under contract at minimum-wage $720,000 in 2019, so unless the Eagles draft a safety to play that fourth safety/special teams role — which is certainly possible — I’d expect Hall to be back next year simply because of his special teams ability.

Verdict: Stays

Dave: It was telling that even when the Eagles needed help at safety, they refused to play Hall. But he’s a big special teams guy and you need to have a few of them. 

Verdict: Stays 

Kulp: Played only six snaps on defense, which is kind of incredible given all the injuries in the secondary. But Hall became a major contributor on special teams as the year went on, which is apparently what the Eagles were hoping when they traded a seventh-round pick to the Bears in September. He’s under contract and inexpensive for one more year.

Verdict: Stays

Tre Sullivan

Roob: Sullivan went from the practice squad to barely playing to a key rotational d-back during the course of the season, and by the postseason was playing at a high level and getting than 60 percent of the defensive snaps while continuing to take a huge load on special teams. He really showed tremendous improvement as the year went on. These are the kind of guys you need on the roster — talented and cheap ($570,000 salary next year).

Verdict: Stays

Dave: Kind of a crazy season for Sullivan. He made the initial 53, but then lost his job when Hall came off suspension. But by the end of the season, he was back on the 53 and contributing on defense. The Eagles probably need some more help at this position, but either way, I think Sullivan has the inside track on a roster spot. 

Verdict: Stays 

Kulp: Sullivan was on the field quite a bit during the Eagles’ stretch run — surprising considering some of the bonehead plays he made earlier. Yet, by the end, he seemed to be doing a decent enough job. If nothing else, Sullivan will enter his second NFL season as a cheap backup with regular season and playoff game experience.

Verdict: Stays

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Upon further review, Eagles' young DBs can flat-out play

Upon further review, Eagles' young DBs can flat-out play

Cre’Von LeBlanc is 24 years old, undrafted, released by three teams before the Eagles snapped him up on the waiver wire.

Tre Sullivan is 24 years old, an undrafted rookie and began the year on the practice squad.

Avonte Maddox is 22, a rookie fourth-round pick, missed a month of the season with injuries.

Rasul Douglas is 23, began the season buried behind Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby and Sidney Jones in the Eagles’ cornerback hierarchy.

This unlikely collection of no-name defensive backs that nobody else wanted — “The Legion of Whom,” as Twitter has taken to calling them — is one of the biggest reasons the Eagles are still playing football.

It took a while. The Eagles signed and released defensive backs all year before figuring this thing out.

But they return to New Orleans with a secondary that bears little resemblance to the one that began the season.

They’re really good, and Malcolm Jenkins knows it.

We have so many young guys who are contributing, and all of them have really been forced to elevate their games. They’ve been in the fire and they’ve been learning. … I think it’s a credit to those individuals and the time they put into it, how much it means to them. I’ve seen young guys come into the league and not really understand the magnitude of having to be consistent every single week, to detail your preparation every single week, to take care of your body every single week and find something to get better at every single week. That endurance is usually kind of short with young guys, but they’ve done a great job of really I think finding their role, improving and not trying to do too much but steadily (gone from) one of the areas that everybody kind of identified as the Achilles heel and have been playing well and it just elevated our entire team, our entire defense.

Those four defensive backs, Sullivan, LeBlanc, Douglas and Maddox, played a combined 228 of 256 snaps Sunday in the win over the Bears. Douglas and Maddox never left the field.

To watch their progress has been remarkable.

“Over the course of this entire season we’ve had a lot of young guys contribute, especially on the back end, and they’ve been thrown into the fire,” Jenkins said.

“Whether it was a good game or a bad game they’ve learned over time and gotten a ton of experience and I think grown substantially each week. We’ve seen that — and I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to excel as a team, especially on defense — these young guys getting that experience.”

The Eagles won a Super Bowl last year with Mills, Darby and Patrick Robinson playing virtually all the cornerback snaps.

Now they’re in the conference semifinals with an entirely different group of corners.

Without someone like Sullivan coming into his own, Jim Schwartz wouldn’t have been able to play six-DBs on nearly two-thirds of the Eagles’ defensive snaps Sunday in Chicago.

Without that flexibility, the Eagles probably aren’t still playing football.

Secondary coaches Cory Undlin and Tim Hauck deserve a ton of credit for coaching these young guys up and keeping them engaged and confident when the season looked lost.

They all survived 48-7 the first time around in New Orleans and instead of crying or pouting or giving up, they just rolled up their sleeves and worked harder.

And look where they are now.

We’re a prideful group, which is one of the reasons we’ve been able to even keep it together,” Jenkins said. “Because you’ve got guys that actually care about what we’re doing, that care about each other, that care about what they put out on the field and take pride in their preparation and pride in the way that they’re going to compete … and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to turn it around. It’s something we’re very proud to be a part of. It wasn’t what we planned, but we’re right where we wanted to be.

There’s an important lesson here for all of us. It’s not all about what you see at the beginning of the season or the middle of the season.

Things change. Players grow. Teams evolve.

It’s all about how you deal with adversity, and it’s hard to imagine this group of young defensive backs dealing with it any better.

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