Good morning. The Eagles' final practice of the week will be today at 11:50 a.m. They will leave for New Orleans on Saturday. Doug Pederson’s final press conference this week will be at 10:30 this morning.
This is a Friday edition of the Early Birds newsletter, but it will not be the game preview that is typically found in this space on Fridays. There will be a special bonus edition of Early Birds on Sunday morning to get you ready for the game, so make sure you check your inboxes then.
— Zach Berman
One of the Eagles’ lessons about the 2017 roster was that roster building is not confined to the first week of free agency, draft weekend, and when rosters are cut to 53 before the season. The team must improve throughout the season when necessary. Some of those can be high-profile moves – think trading for Golden Tate this season and Jay Ajayi last season – but most of them are under-the-radar transactions that don’t garner headlines and include names unfamiliar to most fans.
So when Cre’von LeBlanc is claimed off waivers and becomes the slot cornerback (check out Les Bowen’s story on LeBlanc); Treyvon Hester joins the practice squad and then earns a promotion and eventually blocks a field goal to save the season; Jordan Matthews, a player fans know well, is signed off the street and contributes at wide receiver; Boston Scott is signed off a practice squad to become the kick returner (check out Bob Ford’s column), it’s not a shot in the dark. It’s the front office – and especially the pro scouting staff – at work.
“They are the ones looking and constantly checking rosters and waiver wires and things like that for players that we can add depth to a position,” coach Doug Pederson said. “And then if there is a player or two of interest, they will bring it to myself and then of course we put it off on the position coach to take a look at, and see if that athlete has an opportunity on our roster. So it’s a great process. We do … spend a lot of time letting the personnel side kind of handle it, but coaches have a little part in making that decision, as well.”
Howie Roseman oversees the Eagles front office and Joe Douglas is in charge of the personnel department. Andy Weidl, the director of player personnel, also carries significant responsibility. The pro scouting staff is directed by Dwayne Joseph. Brandon Brown is his top assistant.
“Guys like Howie and Joe, they are up front, but some of those guys that work in those back rooms without a light, without a window and stuff like that and they are poring over all these guys that get cut or go somewhere else,” said defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who conceded he didn’t know of Le’Blanc until Douglas came into his office to talk about the cornerback. “… Honestly, coaches really had very little to do with that. That was our scouting staff and particularly some of those pro scouts that aren’t guys that are up on podiums a lot of times. We owe a lot of our season to that.”
In 2017, the Eagles added Jake Elliott off Cincinnati’s practice squad during the season. He helped them win a Super Bowl. Nate Sudfeld, who is one hit away from playing quarterback for the Eagles, joined the Eagles roster before Week 1 last year, too.
Some of the moves come and go with little resonance. But other times, the Eagles can find a player who can help them get by during the season – and if they’re lucky, can remain with the team long-term.
Jason Kelce left the first Saints game after only six snaps – a big loss in any circumstance, considering he’s an All-Pro center, but an especially crippling loss in a road game in a hostile environment. It gets loud at the Superdome and communication is so important for the center, with the Eagles working on a silent count and adjustments required at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s crucial,” Kelce said. “That’s why we practiced with sound. We try to make sure that we try to replicate the situation as much as we can before the game. It’s going to be loud. It’s a dome; it’s a playoff situation. This is about as hectic of a game, of a crowd, as you’re going to get. It takes attention to it. You have to make sure you’re communicating, you have to make sure you’re loud, you’re looking and communicating with the guy next to you, getting the call.”
In offensive situations during practice before these games, the team pumps in artificial noise to try to help the players prepare. But game day is a different animal, as Kelce knows. That’s why it helps to have Kelce back on the field this week.
Pay attention to wide receiver Nelson Agholor on Sunday. Few players played well in the first Saints game, but it was the only game this season in which Agohlor failed to record a catch. (He was targeted only twice.) Agholor finished the season with three touchdowns in the last two games and played well in a three-catch performance last week. If he can play up to his standard Sunday, the offense will be better.
“I definitely want to play a lot better,” Agholor said. “That’s on my mind, as an individual. I think me playing a lot better puts us as a team in a better position.”
The Saints have the NFL’s 29th-ranked pass defense, so there should be opportunities to move the ball through the air. Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery will be involved, but dynamic plays from Agholor give the Eagles the firepower they need.
Might the focus on red zone defense backfire against an offense like the Saints' because knowing this tactic, they will focus on long throws from mid-field which can become non-red zone touchdowns, capitalizing on our weakened corner-back squad? -- E. Kent, via email
I don’t believe so. If the Saints are trying to score on big plays, so be it. Most teams would take their odds with that, I imagine. The Saints can be explosive, but it’s hard to score four or five touchdowns on big plays. More than likely, the red zone will be critical.
The game will be won on third downs and in the red zone. Situational football is critical. It’s an emphasis, and the Eagles excelled in those areas during their winning streak. They were bad in those areas against the Saints.