Eagles: 5 defensive players to watch during first preseason game

The Philadelphia Eagles are just over 24 hours away from their preseason debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yesterday, we took a look at five offensive players to keep an eye on during Thursday’s contest. Today, it’s time to focus in on the defensive side of the ball.

Here are five defensive players to keen in on Thursday night.

Milton Williams

The rookie third round pick has been impressive through training camp so far. He’s lined up at both defensive tackle and as an edge rusher in Jonathan Gannon’s defense. In the team’s initial depth chart released by the PR team, Williams was listed as a backup to Cox as a three-tech interior lineman.

It’ll be interesting to see where exactly Williams lines up on Thursday night and which position he’s the most effective from. We know Gannon is going to utilize a hybrid front with multiple roles for each player, but the specifics of this scheme are still largely unknown.

We won’t get the full picture on Thursday, but we’ll certainly get a glimpse. Williams’ alignment will be telling, even in the first game of the preseason.

Josh Sweat

Josh Sweat has been the talk of training camp this year. Most reporters at camp have crowned Sweat as the most impressive player on the roster, including Philly Voice’s Jimmy Kempski, who writes, “I think Sweat has had the best camp of anyone on the team.”

Firstly, I’m anxious to see if he gets on the field first over Derek Barnett. The two edge rushers have been splitting time with the first team throughout camp. But whenever he’s on the field, I want to see just how dominant he can be. Pittsburgh doesn’t have a great offensive line, so Sweat should feast in the limited time he’s on the field.

Sweat should have an impact on this game, even if he only plays for a series or two.

Genard Avery

To my surprise, Genard Avery was listed as the starting SAM linebacker on the Eagle’s depth chart. It appears this linebacker position will be utilized in pass rushing situations, as Avery, along with the players listed behind him, all have pass rushing traits.

Focusing in on Avery should tell us a bit about Gannon’s philosophy with this new hybrid front. How often he sees the field, where he’s lined up, and what his role looks like post-snap will all be telling.

Avery rarely had an opportunity to shine under former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. There just wasn’t a role for him in that defensive system. Now with Gannon at the helm, perhaps we’ll see why the team traded a fourth round pick for the linebacker a few years back.

Avonte Maddox

Avonte Maddox will be the starting nickel corner Thursday night. While we’ve pointed out numerous times this offseason that the nickel is his natural position, he’s rarely played at that spot during his NFL career. In his rookie season, he saw playing time at safety, nickel, and outside corner. And every year since, he’s almost been exclusively an outside corner.

That was due to circumstance more than anything else. The team didn’t have any qualified corners to step in as a starter on the outside, leaving Maddox as the only one for the job. Now with Darius Slay and Steven Nelson manning the outside positions, Maddox will have an opportunity to really shine in this new role.

If he can cement his status as a solid nickel corner, this secondary should be formidable in 2021.

Zech McPhearson

There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding rookie cornerback Zech McPhearson during camp so far. Aside from Nelson and Slay, he’s been arguably the best outside corner on the team.

He’s listed as the third corner on the Eagles depth chart heading into Thursday night. He and Michael Jacquet will likely be the first two outside corners off the bench whenever Slay and Nelson are done for the night.

The transition the NFL is tough for any rookie corner, especially someone who was drafted in the fourth round like McPhearson. He’ll have the luxury of sitting behind Nelson and Slay during the regular season, but his development will also benefit from these preseason games. The more action he gets during these contests, the better.

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