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Lawlor: Four Role Players To Watch In 2017
June 19, 2017 12:27 PM | Tommy Lawlor


The Atlanta Falcons went to the Super Bowl last year. They had a breakthrough season and should have won the big game if not for an epic collapse. The Falcons were led by veteran stars on offense like quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones. They had a pair of rookie stars on defense in middle linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal.

The Falcons also received great contributions from role players. Young receiver Taylor Gabriel averaged 17 yards a catch and hauled in six touchdown passes. Veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney only started one game but was a good situational pass rusher. He had three sacks and was disruptive off the bench. Backup running back Tevin Coleman ran for more than 500 yards. He was also a factor in the passing game, catching 31 passes and averaging 14 yards per reception. To put that in perspective, Brian Westbrook averaged 9 yards per catch for his career. Defensive back Brian Poole was an undrafted rookie who came out of nowhere to win the nickel role and become a key contributor on defense.

The Eagles will be a good team this year if Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, Fletcher Cox, and Malcolm Jenkins play well. You need a group of star players to be the foundation of your team. That's how you build a winner. In order for the team to be really good, however, you need role players to do their part. The Eagles had several role players who played well in the recent Organized Team Activities and minicamp. Let's take a look at some of them and how they could help out this year.

CB Aaron Grymes

Aaron Grymes had a strong showing last summer. He was on pace to make the roster and even get on the field. Unfortunately, he suffered a shoulder injury and that derailed his 2016 season. Grymes is completely healthy now and once again playing at a high level. Cornerback is still a question mark for the Eagles so that is an area where the team needs players to stand out. Grymes played a lot in the slot and that could be a role for him in the regular season.

Ron Brooks is the player most people have projected to be the nickel corner for 2017. Grymes is younger than Brooks. Playing in the slot is something that takes time to master. The Eagles' best nickel corners in the last decade were Joselio Hanson and Brandon Boykin. Both specialized at playing inside. If Grymes could win that role this season, he could potentially stay in that spot for a few years. That is a position where the more you play it, the better you get.

The Eagles face some really talented slot receivers. Jamison Crowder has developed into a playmaker for Washington. Cole Beasley moves the chains in Dallas. The Giants will sometimes put Odell Beckham Jr. on the inside. If you are in the NFC East, you need a good nickel corner. Grymes stood out in the recent practices because he covered well and also made plays. We know Jim Schwartz loves defensive backs with ball skills so that could give Grymes an advantage in his pursuit of the job.

T Dillon Gordon

Dillon Gordon was a tight end at LSU back in 2015. The Eagles signed him last spring and converted him into an offensive lineman. Gordon showed enough promise that he made the roster. The Eagles are trying to see if Gordon can take the next step this summer. They want him to be a key backup at tackle. This is important for a couple of reasons.

Teams only get to have 46 active players on gamedays. You have to choose your players carefully. If Gordon can prove to be an effective backup, he would give the Eagles depth on the line. The Eagles also like to use extra linemen in some offensive formations. Matt Tobin got this role last year. He lined up as a tight end and gave the Eagles six offensive linemen on the field at once. They ran behind that look and had good success. The Eagles would love Gordon to have that role this year. He would block most of the time, but because of his background, they could also throw him the ball as part of a trick play.

Gordon could also play some fullback. Most teams just can't justify keeping a fullback on the roster since three-receiver sets are the base of most offenses these days. Fullbacks don't play enough snaps to merit a roster spot. Doug Pederson would love to use a fullback in certain situations. Last year, he had Beau Allen line up as the fullback on some plays. Gordon could handle that role as well. He would offer the coaches a lot of versatility.

The coaches used Gordon creatively this spring. They gave him reps in the various roles. You can't really judge offensive linemen based on non-contact practices, but Gordon is a player they seem to like based on the way they used him. A strong showing in Training Camp would be huge for Gordon. He might once again make the roster, but this season could become a key role player and not just a backup with future potential.

RB Donnel Pumphrey

Rookie Donnel Pumphrey was the fifth player chosen by the Eagles in the 2017 NFL Draft. Normally, a player like that is trying to learn the scheme and find a role on special teams so he can get on the field. Pumphrey isn't your typical rookie. He is small, at 5-9 and 180 pounds. He is also the leading rusher in the history of college football. Pumphrey isn't the type to sit and learn. He is a playmaker and finds his way onto the field and into the lineup. This spring was no different.

Pumphrey played running back, receiver, slot receiver, and also returner. The coaches are trying to figure out exactly what he can do and how best to use him. Even though he's small and inexperienced, Pumphrey could offer impact as a rookie. He isn't going to catch 50 passes or run for 500 yards, but he can make plays. Just go ask Eagles defenders. Pumphrey burned more than a few of them in the recent practices. If you get him in space, he is incredibly tough for a defender to stop. Pumphrey is quick and elusive. His size becomes a positive when he's out in space. Defenders have a smaller target to hit or tackle.

The Eagles' offense was methodical last year. There weren't enough guys who could make things happen with the ball in their hands. Pumphrey is a weapon when he's got the ball. If he can just make a couple of key plays per game, it can really help the offense in a big way. That could be an 8-yard gain on a quick screen on second-and-7. He could run for 12 yards on a jet sweep. Pumphrey could deliver a big kickoff return to put the offense into a good position. Plays like this can help the offense to move the chains and score points.

S Terrence Brooks

Terrence Brooks hasn't even been an Eagle for a full year. He was claimed last September after the Ravens cut him. Brooks mostly played on special teams. He finished the season with five total tackles, hardly an impressive total. He did have one highlight moment. Brooks picked off Eli Manning last December to seal the win over the Giants.

2017 looks like it is going to be very different for Brooks. He had a terrific showing this spring. He made plays all over the field and looked comfortable playing in the scheme. He is chiseled and might be in the best shape of anyone on the team. Brooks is a tough, physical player so non-contact football isn't his strength, but he still stood out.

The Eagles got erratic play from their backup safeties last year. There were some really good moments and some forgettable ones as well. Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins are outstanding starters. Brooks could be the No. 3 safety. That would give Schwartz the freedom to mix up his personnel and get creative at times. Schwartz can't move Jenkins around unless he has someone who can handle that role and do it well. Brooks could be that player in 2017.

Most people are going to focus on Wentz, Jeffery, and the other stars. I get that. The beauty of football is that it is the ultimate team game. The best teams have their stars, but also role players who do their part. The Eagles look good on both fronts right now. The stars are shining and the role players are finding a way to stand out as well.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com.

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