Thursday, August 10, 2017

Five things to watch for during Eagles preseason games

The Eagles play a real football game tonight in Green Bay against the Packers at Lambeau Field.  Here are five things to look out for in the four preseason games leading up to the September 10 season opener on the road against the Washington Redskins.

                                                                       Chris Szagola/AP
Mills will be counted on to step up either as a
slot corner or on the outside in 2017.
Cornerback play: This is clearly the most glaring hole on the roster for the Eagles entering the 2017 season. Fans are hopeful Sidney Jones is the shutdown corner the team has lacked during the last ten years, but that question surely won’t be answered this year with Jones still recovering from an Achilles injury.  There isn’t much to be excited about regarding the rest of the cornerbacks on the roster, although rookie Rasul Douglas and second-year corner Jalen Mills will certainly get plenty of opportunities to prove their worth. Rumors have been swirling about recently-signed veteran safety Corey Graham being moved to cornerback and Patrick Robinson is on a cheap one-year deal. Many expect the position to be a revolving door for the Eagles this season. Consistent play from Douglas or Mills would have everyone feeling more optimistic about the team’s cornerback situation going into 2018 when Jones figures to be healthy.

Slot Receiver: With the future of Jordan Matthews beyond this season up in the air, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah reported that Nelson Agholor will be the Eagles’ slot receiver in 2017. This is a role Matthews has occupied in the first three seasons of his career.  However, with the Vanderbilt product entering the final year on his rookie contract and Agholor generating lots of buzz early on in training camp, it will be interesting to see the snap counts of both wide receivers in these preseason games and early in the regular season.

Running back rotation: Going into the offseason, it was no secret the Eagles had to address their running back situation. The team drafted San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey in the fourth round and later signed free agent LeGarrette Blount. Darren Sproles has made it known that 2017 will be his last season in the NFL while Wendell Smallwood enters his second season. Pumphrey is expected to be the heir apparent to Sproles as a passing down back and potential punt returner. Smallwood could push Blount for carries as the year goes on but Blount is coming off a career year in New England and should get the bulk of the work on early downs. Nevertheless, there isn’t a workhorse type of three-down back on the roster therefore how the Eagles manage the snaps of all four players is worth monitoring. With Sproles’ retirement on the horizon and Blount on a one-year contract, running back could need to be addressed again before 2018.

Linebacker depth: Third-year linebacker Jordan Hicks is one of the best players on the defense. Nigel Bradham had a good first season with the in Philadelphia in 2016. However, Hicks has struggled to stay healthy going back to his college days at Texas and Bradham can become a free agent at season’s end. Mychal Kendricks has been with the Eagles his entire career but admitted to requesting a trade in the offseason and doesn’t seem to be the best fit as an outside linebacker in Jim Schwartz’s defense. Kendricks has also had his fair share of injuries since being drafted in the second round in 2012. This makes fifth-round pick Nathan Gerry one of the more intriguing preseason players to watch. Gerry played safety in college at Nebraska but was moved to linebacker in the offseason and is listed as the backup behind Kendricks on the team’s first depth chart.  Another name to keep an eye on is Joe Walker who was picked in the seventh round in 2016 but missed the year rehabbing from a torn ACL. With the futures of Kendricks and Bradham unknown, it would be helpful if someone lower on the depth chart emerged at linebacker.

Pass Rush from front four:  This is going to be something to watch all season. The defensive line is the best position group on the roster for the Eagles and expectations are high. Acquiring defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan from Baltimore and spending a first-round pick on Derek Barnett showed a commitment to getting to the quarterback without always needing to blitz. Brandon Graham had his best season in the NFL last year and Fletcher Cox is arguably the best player on the roster. Vinny Curry was disappointing in the first season of a big contract last year and Barnett could push for more snaps opposite Graham as the season goes along. Chris Long was also brought in as a situational pass rusher. With the cornerback play likely suspect all season, the defensive line must hit opposing quarterbacks early and often all year long.

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