Eagles training camp’s first full team practice is set for a month from Tuesday. (The first open practice is two days later, July 29, take note.) While there will be competition for starting spots, there will also be fierce competition much lower on the depth chart for roster spots. Each year, tens of players leave Philadelphia before the preseason closes, for a variety of reasons. Some will be back on the practice squad. Others will find their NFL fortune elsewhere. Still others will be out of the league.
Inevitably, some good players slip through the cracks. It isn’t always catastrophic personnel evaluation that sees an NFL starter left off the 53-man roster. Sometimes a player exits because the dollar signs don’t match up. Sometimes they just didn’t perform in Philadelphia at the level they will elsewhere, and indeed, more than one of the players we’re about to run through were cut by teams besides the Eagles before making their mark on the league. And sometimes the Eagles can just hold a limited number of players at a roster spot they’re already supremely stocked in. We’ll see one very clear example of that event.
The loss of the first couple players on this list are a bad memory for everyone, but you may be surprised to learn the second half were ever Eagles. Before this offseason’s rounds of cutting begin, here are six Birds who flew the coop over the last six years.
Evan Mathis, G, Retired, Released in 2015
The first two names on this list are going to hurt. Mathis was a fan favorite who was released after a contract dispute went bad. A late bloomer, he made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014 with the Eagles, and became a 33-year-old lineman who wanted a raise to match the quality of his play. Then head coach Chip Kelly publicly declared the team had shopped Mathis and found no takers, and when Mathis skipped voluntary OTA workouts as a holdout, the Eagles released him despite Mathis’ insistence he was set to attend the mandatory camps soon to begin.
Mathis didn’t get his raise, signing a one-year deal for less money with the Broncos, but he did get a Super Bowl ring as a starter in front of Peyton Manning. Meanwhile, the Eagles were never prepared to replace the player Pro Football Focus called the best guard in the league from 2011-2013, and the loss of Mathis saw a dropoff in the play of the entire interior line in 2015.
Mathis signed another one-year deal with the Cardinals before 2016, but hurt his ankle and was placed on IR after Week 5. He retired this spring.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Released in 2014
Jackson was drafted in the second round by the Eagles in 2008, and wasted no time becoming their most electrifying weapon. He made Pro Bowls in 2009, 2010 and 2013, his best season and Kelly’s first in Philadelphia. Jackson finished with career highs in receptions (82), yards (1,332) and touchdowns (nine). He was then summarily dismissed in a “football decision.”
Immediately signing in the division with Washington, he has remained football’s most dangerous deep threat with 22 catches of 40-plus yards over the last three seasons. He topped 1,000 yards twice and particularly revelled in playing the team that turned its back on him. He is 4-1 against the Eagles since his departure, missing one contest with injury. He has three 100-yard games against the Eagles and two 80-yard touchdowns.
There was some talk Jackson could return to Philadelphia this offseason, but instead he signed with Tampa Bay.
Alejandro Villanueva, T, Pittsburgh Steelers, Released in 2014
Villanueva was a memorable presence in Eagles camp: a 6-foot-9 tackle fresh from three tours of duty in Afghanistan who spent his senior year at Army converted from offensive tackle to wide receiver. It was as a defensive end the Eagles envisioned Villanueva. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin took note of him among the opposition in a preseason game however, and when the Eagles released Villanueva, their in-state competition pounced.
He spent 2014 on the practice squad changing positions again, but started 10 games at tackle in 2015. He began 2016 as the starting left tackle, and played every game there. While 2015 ended on, and the 2016 season began to, poor reviews, Villanueva ended the year on a hot streak as part of the line responsible for the Steelers’ success. From Week 11 on through the playoffs, Pro Football Focus graded him football’s best left tackle.
Given his history as a positional vagabond, it’s not hard to realise why Villanueva took awhile to develop. The Eagles were even in a perfect position to allow that development with the corner spots presently manned by Jason Peters and Lane Johnson. It would have been nice to have a player of Villanueva’s quality here to step in for an injured Peters and suspended Johnson. But then again, were he still here, he may still be lining up at defensive end.
Patrick Chung, S, New England Patriots, Released in 2014
Chung came to the Eagles before the 2013 season as a free agent after spending the first four seasons of his career in New England. The move reunited him with Kelly, who was offensive coordinator at Oregon while Chung was playing defense there. While the team made the playoffs, Chung did not garner good reviews. He had no sacks, interceptions or forced fumbles, and started just 10 games.
The next spring he was cut, and is often a bad sign, re-signed immediately by the Patriots. Like Mathis, his exile from Philadelphia saw him immediately win the next Super Bowl. Since his return to New England he has been a constant starter in the secondary that has won two of the last three Super Bowls. The Eagles seem set at safety now with Malcolm Jenkins and Nelson McLeod, but it’s strange that this one, like many other secondary members, didn’t work out.
Brad Wing, P, New York Giants, Released in 2013
The Eagles signed Wing as an undrafted free agent from LSU following the 2013 draft. To make the Eagles, Wing would have had to beat out Donnie Jones. It seems an impossible task now, but this was Jones’ first season in Philadelphia.
Regardless, this is one parting of ways that has worked for both team and player. Jones has been phenomenal as an Eagle, averaging 44.9, 43.8, 47.0, and 45.8 yards per punt in his four seasons, respectively. Wing spent an up-and-down season punting for Pittsburgh before joining the New York Giants, where he looks set for a long term home. He was the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Weeks 14 and 15 last season.
A.Q. Shipley, C, Arizona Cardinals, Released in 2011
Before Stefen Wisniewski, the Eagles actually had another Penn State All-Star on their roster at center. Shipley was drafted by the Steelers in the seventh round out of Penn State in 2009. He spent his first season on their practice squad, and his second season on the Eagles. Prior to the start of his third season, he was one of Philadelphia’s final cuts. He spent the next three seasons bouncing between the Colts and the Ravens, and started 19, playing in 45.
Before the 2015 season, he was signed to the Cardinals by Bruce Arians, who had been his offensive coordinator in Indianapolis. In 2016 he started all 16 games, and he just signed a two-year extension in Arizona this offseason. Not a player whose exit saw him set the world on fire, but one for whom the Eagles definitely were not the last stop.