With the Eagles set to open up the preseason on Thursday night against Pittsburgh, here are the four most important things to follow throughout the game:
1. Sidney Jones performance
This is far and away the most interesting watch of the preseason. It appears (for now) that Jim Schwartz will roll out last year’s starters, Ronald Darby & Jalen Mills, as his outside corners on Thursday night. Darby and Mills were just okay last season—good enough to not warrant concern, but not quite good enough to inspire long term confidence. (It’s likely that their performances were boosted by playing behind the league’s best front-seven)
On the other hand, Jones, a first round talent coming off an achilles injury, is viewed as a our #1 corner of the future. Heading into the offseason I always figured that he would be good enough to supplant either Darby or Mills on the outside, but the team’s unresolved hole at nickel corner has complicated that conversation.
Here’s the reality: Sidney Jones could very well be the best outside cornerback on this team, and still end up starting at nickel. If neither of Darby or Mills is capable of playing inside—and the coaches determine that Jones is the only corner who can—then Schwartz is obviously going to keep Jones at nickel until they find someone they’re confident in at that spot.
For that reason, it’s hard to know if Jones is being kept at nickel because they need him there, or if it’s simply because he has yet to beat out Mills or Darby on the outside. Thursday night will give us the first real answer to that question.
He has garnered mostly positive reviews throughout training camp, and we know he has the tools and technique to become a lockdown corner in this league. If I had to guess, he’ll get some reps on the outside, but all signs point to him being the guy to replace Pat Robinson at nickel, and that’s where all eyes should fixed when the Birds first team defense is on the field.
2. Dallas Goedert in the red zone, and his development as a blocker
Goedert’s performance in the red zone has been one of the running headlines out of camp, and given his size and catch-radius that shouldn’t be a surprise; he always figured to have an immediate impact in that area. Goedert won’t start with the first team offense, but if they find their way down to the red zone then we can fully expect Sudfeld to look his way more than once.
However, anything less than being a matchup nightmare as a “move” tight end inside the 20 would be a disappointment. The real focus should be put on the rest of his game, specifically how he will fare in pass protection and as a run blocker.
How those traits have developed will go a long way in determining how much he actually sees the field as a rookie. I realize everyone loves to gush over the potential of our two-TE sets with Ertz and Goedert, but a two-TE set is only a mismatch if one or both players are a threat as a run-blocker. We know Ertz isn’t that, and Goedert was borderline terrible in that regard at South Dakota State. He has more than enough tools to develop into a menace in the run game, and I’m intrigued to see how that part of his game has progressed over the offseason.
3. Nate Gerry at WILL
It looks like Gerry will get the early nod at weak side linebacker. The other man in this competition is Kamu Grugier-Hill, who is worth watching with the second unit. While the position battle has been neck and neck all summer long, Gerry has always felt like the slight favorite here
With the Eagles—and really the entire league—using nickel and dime packages in their base defense, this spot is the least important “starter” on the team, but that shouldn’t water down the importance of it. Kendricks’ ability to step up in Hicks absence last season was crucial to our success on defense, and if a similar scenario presents itself in 2018 then we need to know that Nate Gerry is capable of shouldering that load.
4. Nate Sudfeld with the first team offense
I know, I know, who cares about the third-string quarterback, he should be an afterthought, yada-yada-yada. But in truth, this is an excellent opportunity for Sudfeld to showcase himself to the coaching staff and front office in a real game situation.
Reports out of camp have been generally positive, especially relative to third-stringers of the past (watching Matt McGloin for a full half was like getting teeth pulled). If Sudfeld shows out, does he become trade-bait? In short, no—at least not for anything meaningful. But a strong performance from Sudfeld will have an impact on the team’s willingness to deal Nick Foles.
If he’s able to make solid reads, complete the easy throws, and sprinkle in a big play here and there, then there’s no reason the coaching staff shouldn’t feel comfortable with Sudfeld as their backup heading into the season. That type of development would allow the team to more freely shop Nick Foles, and capitalize on the inevitable injury to someone’s starting quarterback this preseason.
Nobody really knows how Foles’ value will depreciate as we become further removed from his Super Bowl MVP performance, but I’m of the belief that we need to capitalize on his value before it inevitably evaporates. I understand the chorus of people who say, “what if Wentz gets hurt again?” But if Wentz gets hurt again then I’m fine with calling it a season. If you would chose to forego the possible second or third round pick that Foles can fetch us, in order to roll the dice on the off-chance that the Eagles can win back-to-back Super Bowls after a second injury to our franchise-QB, then you’re greedy, and an idiot. Not trading Foles out of a fear that Wentz will get hurt is like never leaving your house out of fear of getting in a car accident.