Cornerback Ronald Darby and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery are scheduled to make their Eagles preseason debuts Thursday night against Buffalo, which is great for fans, but management and the coaching staff might already have a pretty good idea of what Darby and Jeffery can do, from their performances with the Bills and the Bears.
The coaching box binoculars might focus a little tighter on the unofficial debut of Nelson Agholor as the Eagles’ slot receiver, in the first game since the Friday trade that took Jordan Matthews to Buffalo, along with a third-round pick, for Darby.
If Agholor is going to start in the slot, after playing outside in his first two, extremely disappointing seasons, he is going to need some work with Carson Wentz, who will only be on the field for a dozen or so snaps, like last week at Green Bay, Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Tuesday.
Pederson said he was “just looking forward to [Agholor] playing and getting a lot of time with Carson in these next couple of weeks.”
Pederson, who deactivated Agholor for a game last Nov. 28 to get his confidence back, after the mistake-prone wideout melted down in a loss at Seattle, also said: “I think his confidence level is at an all-time high right now. It’s something that he’s worked extremely hard on.”
Agholor, the Eagles’ 2015 first-round pick, said he was “looking forward to making plays, working hard and seizing opportunity.”
Moving inside is an adjustment, but Agholor has played the slot a lot through the spring and then training camp, at first because Matthews was sitting out with knee tendinitis, then perhaps in preparation for the trade that began to seem inevitable as Matthews entered the final year of his rookie deal with no extension being discussed. Agholor also played inside quite a bit at USC.
“It’s still football, but you’re inside – spatial awareness,” Agholor said. “You have to be QB-friendly, you have to be in the QB’s eye,” as Matthews was last week at Green Bay, with Wentz looking for his favorite wideout frequently under blitz pressure.
“I think it’s a great opportunity … I enjoy it. More traffic, closer area.”
Pederson said the slot role is “something that [Agholor] has really embraced going all the way back to the spring, when Jordan missed some time … He’s also one of our better blocking receivers, so that position requires that receiver to block a little bit. He’s a physical guy. He’s learning that role … I’m encouraged by where he’s at.”
Agholor said blocking is tougher in the slot than outside because you’re likely to encounter more than just a spindly cornerback.
“You’re going against some safeties, and some ’backers might move around and cross your face,” he said. It’s a toughness thing, and I feel like I’m mentally tough enough to do what I need to do to help my team. … I don’t want to be a one-trick pony.”
Agholor said the trade “was none of my concern … Nothing’s guaranteed. I’m just going to work every day to be the best football player and help us win games.”
Matthews suffered a sternum injury in his first Bills practice, is out indefinitely, and of course, will not play Thursday night against his former team.
Does Agholor feel there is a spotlight on him now? Before Matthews was traded, Agholor was among a group of receivers behind Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Matthews. Now he is being depended upon again, though there has been talk of tight end Trey Burton and rookie Mack Hollins also playing the slot. (File away somewhere for future reference Wentz’s endorsement of Burton Tuesday: “I think I can really trust him, and that makes me play more confidently, and faster.”)
“No,” Agholor said. “I don’t worry about that.”
Agholor got just one chance to catch a pass in the preseason opener, a two-point conversion slant Wentz acknowledged came in high. Still, it caromed through Agholor’s upraised arms.
“That’s over with, man. That’s in the past. It is what it is,” Agholor said. “It’s over with. We tried to get one in there, it didn’t work, line up again.”
“I feel he’s in a good place,” Wentz said. “I feel like there were some lessons that we all learned, that he learned. I don’t want to say I see a new guy, but I do see a more confident guy.”
Agholor resisted the notion that he was becoming “comfortable.”
“Familiarity helps you move a little quicker, but I don’t feel ‘comfortable’ at all. I mean, that’s not a good place to be,” he said. “I work every day with Carson, I communicate with Carson, and the dialogue’s going well, and I talk with Doug, just to learn more football and be a better football player.”
Last week, Wentz didn’t get any snaps with his designated starting offensive line – Chance Warmack subbed for Brandon Brooks (ankle). It seems likely Brooks will be sidelined again, and left tackle Jason Peters will miss the game while attending to a personal matter, Pederson said. This means Lane Johnson at left tackle and utilityman Matt Tobin in Johnson’s usual right tackle spot.
“Yeah, that would be nice,” Johnson said, when asked if having the real starting o-line work together in a preseason game might be optimal. “I’m sure we’ll see it by next week” when the Eagles host the Miami Dolphins after a few days of joint practices. “I’m not really worried about it.”
Wentz said his sense was that he might play “a little more” than last week’s one scoring drive, which Wentz said contained “some sloppy plays.” He acknowledged he was eager to work with Jeffery in a game.
“It seems like it’s been a long time coming with him,” Wentz said.