When he arrived at training camp last year, Moise Fokou was a seventh-round draft pick, the last player the Eagles had selected, and battling to make his first NFL roster.
He enters training camp 2010 as the front-runner to start at strong-side linebacker, hoping to help stabilize a linebacking corps marked by upheaval in 2009.
In one of the many signs showing how much the Eagles are relying on youth this year, the players immediately behind him are two rookies: fourth-round draft pick Keenan Clayton and fifth-round selection Ricky Sapp, though veterans Akeem Jordan and Omar Gaither are also potential competitors on the strong side.
They are all part of a crowded field at linebacker, including new faces – draft picks Clayton, Sapp and Jamar Chaney, trade acquisitions Ernie Sims and Alex Hall, and undrafted free agent Simoni Lawrence – and two players returning from injury: Stewart Bradley and Gaither. Add veteran Joe Mays, and the team has a glut of linebackers.
“It’s open competition,” coach Andy Reid said. “We can’t keep ’em all.”
With Sims and Bradley likely to start on the weak side and in the middle respectively, the biggest competition figures to play out at strong-side linebacker, where Fokou is aiming to hold on to a job he took over late last season.
In Fokou, Reid sees a physical battler who uses long arms to fend off blockers. What might seem like a simple skill, Reid said, is difficult for many defenders, who prefer to have the game played closer to their bodies.
“Keeping those arms out there and keeping people off your body is a big part of playing linebacker,” Reid said. “[Fokou] does that very well. He’s a physical player. Those are his primary strengths.”
Rookies Clayton and Sapp played with the second- and third-team units during the Eagles’ May and June practices. Jordan has primarily played weak-side linebacker and Gaither in the middle, but Reid has praised their versatility. If Fokou struggles, one of the veterans – more likely Jordan – could slide over.
“We’ll always go off the premise we’ll try to get our best players on the field,” Reid said.
He later added, “As long as they can all play, it gives you some flexibility.”
Jordan said the adjustment would not be difficult. He said all the linebackers would push each other in competition.