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Eagles OTAs: These 6 players have the most to prove, including 3 coming off poor '23 season

PHILADELPHIA − The question was an innocuous one to new Eagles defensive coordinator Vic Fangio when he was asked recently about the most important elements of his defense.

"Good players," Fangio replied. "And I'm not trying to be a wise guy with that."

We're going to start finding out if the Eagles have good players, especially on defense, as the Eagles begin two weeks of organized team activities followed by a mandatory minicamp from June 4-6.

Last season, the Eagles defense ranked 31st in pass defense and 30th in points allowed per game. Defensive coordinator Sean Desai was fired late in the season and his replacement, Matt Patricia, wasn't retained either.

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In came Fangio, the 65-year-old defensive guru who was with the Dolphins last season. The Eagles then signed free agents at all three levels − edge rusher Bryce Huff, linebacker Devin White and safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson − in addition to drafting cornerbacks in the first two rounds in Quinyon Mitchell and Cooper DeJean.

Fangio's "good players" mantra applies to the Eagles' offense, too, even though they were ranked in the top 10 in the NFL last season in most categories. But the offense sputtered down the stretch last season in the 1-6 collapse, and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson was fired and replaced by Kellen Moore, who brought quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier with him.

It'll be a new scheme for quarterback Jalen Hurts, and he's doing it with a new center in Cam Jurgens, who's replacing legend Jason Kelce, and a new right guard to replace Jurgens, who played there last year.

"I’m excited to work with them," Hurts said recently about Moore and Nussmeier. "I’m just all ears. I’m a sponge, and I think there’s some beauty in that."

Here, then, are six players who have the most to prove during OTAs and the spring practices:

Mar 14, 2024; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Saquon Barkley speaks during a press conference after signing with the team.
Mar 14, 2024; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Saquon Barkley speaks during a press conference after signing with the team.

Saquon Barkley, running back

Barkley doesn't have much to prove with regards to his ability. After all, he has had two seasons of at least 1,300 rushing yards. But those were with the Giants, and he has also had injury issues throughout his six seasons.

In addition, Barkley is learning a new offense on a new team. Granted, players will be in shorts for the OTAs, so Barkley won't get hit.

But Barkley does have to prove that he can fit in. By all accounts, Barkley has set the tone with his work ethic since spring drills began last month. That can go a long way on the field, too.

"I think he’s a helluva player," Hurts said about Barkley. "He’s on this side now, so that’s cool, and I think for him, even in the short time of us having OTAs, you hear about the type of person he is, the type of leader that he is in the room, and the energy he brings to a room.

"Those are the things that set the thermostat for what we’re going to follow ... I’ve built a good relationship with him just in the short (time), and we’ll continue to build on that."

Nakobe Dean, linebacker

Perhaps no one had a more disappointing 2023 season than Dean. Drafted in the third round in 2022, he was expected to take over at linebacker following the departures of T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White from the 2022 Super Bowl team.

But Dean had two stints on injured reserve and played in only five games, and he didn't play particularly well when he did play. The Eagles, however, doubled down on Dean. They still expect him to start even after signing White and drafting Jeremiah Trotter Jr., in the fifth round.

"I haven’t really been listening to (naysayers)," Dean said. "I know I’ve been out of sight, out of mind because of the injury. But I’m here now."

Aug 3, 2023; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles guard Tyler Steen (R) and offensive tackle Fred Johnson (50) run drills during practice at Novacare Complex.
Aug 3, 2023; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles guard Tyler Steen (R) and offensive tackle Fred Johnson (50) run drills during practice at Novacare Complex.

Tyler Steen, right guard

A lot has been made about Jurgens replacing Kelce, a 7-time Pro Bowl player. No doubt, that is a big question for the Eagles. But Jurgens was drafted two years ago as Kelce's heir apparent, and with Kelce's blessing.

Steen, meanwhile, was drafted in the third round last year as a left tackle. He had never played guard before the Eagles moved him there last summer. It didn't go well. Steen started one game at right guard last year while Jurgens was on IR, and he never started there again while Jurgens was injured. Journeyman Sua Opeta did.

But Opeta left in free agency, and the Eagles only drafted a guard in the fifth round in Trevor Keegan. So Steen is getting the first crack as the starting right guard.

If that doesn't work, the Eagles will need a Plan B, whether it's veteran Matt Hennessy, recent signee Mekhi Becton, a career guard, or even Keegan.

Dawand Jones of the Cleveland Browns attempts to block Nolan Smith (3) of the Philadelphia Eagles in the first half of the preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 17, 2023.
Dawand Jones of the Cleveland Browns attempts to block Nolan Smith (3) of the Philadelphia Eagles in the first half of the preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 17, 2023.

Nolan Smith, edge rusher

Smith, of course, could give Dean a run for his money when it comes to disappointments in 2023. As a first-round pick (30th overall) last year, Smith didn't get on the field much, and had just one sack.

The Eagles didn't do much to fortify the edge rusher position, signing free agent Bryce Huff before trading sacks leader Haason Reddick. The only drafted player added was third-rounder Jalyx Hunt, who is considered a project. So the Eagles are counting on Smith to become a major part of the rotation.

"I think he's letting the doubts fuel him," veteran edge rusher Brandon Graham said about Smith. "Like I told him, take one day at a time. You can’t worry about what people are saying because when you start to perform, everything will change."

Quinyon Mitchell and Cooper DeJean, cornerbacks

These spring practices will mark the first team that Mitchell and DeJean are going against wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. And this will be where the Eagles will begin to get an idea to see if either or both can be ready to start Week 1.

For Mitchell, that would mean unseating veteran James Bradberry, coming off a disappointing 2023 season. For DeJean, who has the versatility to play any of the defensive back positions, that could mean beating out Avonte Maddox at nickel.

DeJean, at least, could be trying all DB positions this spring to see where he fits best.

"A lot of (positions) run together," he said. "A lot are the same movements, just different spots on the field. It’s really just training for every position, the different movements, inside, outside, or safety, whatever it is. So just trying to stay ready for whatever position they put me in."

Contact Martin Frank at mfrank@delawareonline.com. Follow on X @Mfranknfl.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Philadelphia Eagles OTAs: These 6 have the most to prove