The Eagles beat Miami in a shootout, 38-31, Thursday night. Here’s what we learned from their third preseason game:
1. The offensive line hasn’t yet gelled. After two games in which the first-unit offensive line wasn’t intact, all five starters were in the lineup against the Dolphins. They were up and down, and certainly didn’t look like the elite group some have already declared them. Jason Peters struggled with an early run block. Jason Kelce might have failed to set up the proper protection on a Dolphins blitz that resulted in a sack. Lane Johnson allowed William Hayes to pressure and tip a Carson Wentz pass that was intercepted. Brandon Brooks got beat and Wentz took a shot as a result. And Isaac Seumalo looked more consistent than he had in the first two games, but there were still too many inconsistencies. There were better moments. The offense strung together a 93-yard drive when Doug Pederson went up-tempo, but it was the second time in two weeks that the Eagles coach had to go no-huddle to kick-start his offense. I can’t imagine the Dolphins spent much time preparing for tempo. But the Eagles had success, nonetheless, and the o-line opened some holes on the ground. It’s too early to be an alarmist. The Eagles have been down this road before, and I can recall a few preseasons when the o-line looked like dreck only to get its act together once the games were real. It takes time for cohesion, but time is up for the starters – at least as far as live football – and the Eagles will have to use practice to work out any kinks.
2. The outside receivers are better than last year. The bar wasn’t exactly perched high, but Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith – particularly, the former — are legitimate threats and alone should make life easier for Wentz. Thursday night offered more evidence. Smith was held without a catch in the first two preseason games – Wentz threw only 13 passes over the span – but he found the stat sheet when he pulled in a 50-yard touchdown pass. The Dolphins blew their coverage. It appeared as if cornerback Byron Maxwell and safety Reshad Jones crossed signals on who had Smith on the deep post route. But the veteran receiver had a step on Maxwell and exploded past the flat-footed Jones. Smith might not be as fast as he was even a few years ago, and I’m not sure if he’s going to be among the three most-targeted players on the Eagles, but he still poses a threat over the top. Jeffery is simply the most talented receiver the Eagles have had since DeSean Jackson and maybe since Terrell Owens. He caught two of four targets for 35 yards and a touchdown. He made a 20-yard dig — in which he had to stretch his body for the catch — look routine. Wentz can’t be perfect all the time. Having receivers who can consistently pull in passes that aren’t strikes will not only increase the quarterback’s accuracy, but it also will augment his confidence.
3. The Eagles have downgraded at slot receiver. The Nelson Agholor hype might have been simply that – overwrought puff – but he had shown improvement throughout camp. It just hasn’t yet translated to games. He caught only one pass from Wentz in three outings. The sample was small, and the quarterback and slot receiver are still working on chemistry, but Agholor hasn’t yet been the focal point that predecessor Jordan Matthews was inside. He might never be. He’s not as big of a target and Wentz should have better alternatives elsewhere (see: above and below). Matthews wasn’t likely to see as many looks, either. But he was an effective safety valve underneath. Agholor has more ability to get separation downfield, but how often will he be the first or second read vs. Jeffery and Smith?
4. Zach Ertz should compensate for the loss of Jordan Matthews. The Eagles tight end has the most to gain after the Matthews trade. He led the team in catches last season, but he might expand upon that number in 2017. All three of his grabs against the Dolphins came with some degree of difficulty. He sprawled out for an 18-yard slant. He took a Wentz dump pass and picked up a chunk of yards after the catch. And he reached back for a 12-yard grab. Ertz hasn’t blocked particularly well in the preseason. He was near the bottom of the league in yards after catch last season. But he’s among the top-five receiving tight ends in the NFL. He’s sick of the “breakout year” stories, and quite frankly, so are fans, but the ingredients are there.
5. The running game received a boost from Wendell Smallwood. The second-year running back was sidelined with a hamstring injury for the first two games. I thought he’d get a few more touches – and perhaps play with the second unit – but four carries for 28 yards made for a nice start. Smallwood picked up eight yards on his first carry when he hit the hole after a trap block. He gained an additional six yards when he followed the pulling Peters to his left. And he broke a tackle on the way to another 10-yard tote. The only knock against Smallwood came when he failed to pick up a A-gap-blitzing linebacker. It’s significant because the Eagles would love to trust him on third down. Darren Sproles, who has been put on ice for the preseason, will usually play on third down, and he’s a much better blocker. But Smallwood has pass-catching abilities. He could be a threat on passing downs. But he must get better at blocking. LeGarrette Blount rushed four times for 19 yards, with 16 of those coming on one carry. He lacks Smallwood’s burst, and with each game I keep lowering the over-under on his number of rushes for the season. It started at 170. I think I’m down to 150.
6. Ronald Darby isn’t the second coming of “Night Train” Lane. Who is? But I think some were already scheduling their trips to Canton for Darby’s induction in the year 2030 after his first game in Eagles green. Darby is certainly an upgrade over what the Eagles previously had at cornerback. But he’s going to get burned on occasion. He’s going to have poor games. Playing corner in the NFL is not for the meek. And Darby has some deficiencies. He’s not a great tackler. He tried to go high on running back Jay Ajayi’s first carry and got tossed to the turf. He’s going to have breakdowns. He bit on a Jarvis Landry double move in man coverage, and the Dolphins receiver picked up 17 yards. And he’s going to give up size in certain situations. Darby had decent downfield position on receiver DeVante Parker. But he mistimed his jump, and even if he had been on time, Parker had four inches on him. Darby, to his credit, chased Parker and prevented him from scoring. But he also got beat later and was called for pass interference in the end zone. And he appeared to be out of position when quarterback Jay Cutler threw to tight end Julius Thomas a play later. Brutal. He had a pass breakup earlier, but it was a night he’d likely prefer to forget.
7. The defensive line has gelled. Brandon Graham was out with an elbow injury, which meant that rookie Derek Barnett got his first start. He was nowhere near as disruptive as he was in the first two preseason games. Yes, he was facing a starting tackle rather than the reserves he saw most of the first two times. But Barnett also lined up on the left after spending most of the summer on the right. He’s going to take some lumps here and there. But I thought that he rushed well, overall. He just didn’t hit pay dirt. Vinny Curry did for the first time this summer. He motored by left tackle Laremy Tunsil and sacked Cutler. He stripped the quarterback, and Fletcher Cox recovered. Credit to Curry, but Tunsil is shaky and was during both intersquad practices with the Eagles. Cox had a very good preseason. He might not have been credited with any sacks, but his presence alone made life easier for every other defensive lineman. His greatest impact came against the run Thursday night. Fellow defensive tackle Tim Jernigan was called for a neutral-zone infraction on the first play of the game. He has been quiet in the preseason. I’ve liked what I’ve seen in camp, especially as a rusher, but he had trouble getting off blocks against Miami. Chris Long did strong work whenever he rotated into the lineup. The unit was light with Graham and defensive tackle Destiny Vaeao out, but coordinator Jim Schwartz must be pleased with his d-line entering the regular season.
8. Mychal Kendricks’ stock is soaring. The running joke has been that the Eagles are showcasing Kendricks to trade him before the season. How else to explain his impressive performance this preseason? The linebacker has three interceptions, one sack, and one forced fumble in three games. But aside from having him play more snaps, it would be virtually impossible for the Eagles to devise ways for Kendricks to shine. Schwartz has seemed to send him on more blitzes than usual. But Kendricks played only 15 snaps against the Dolphins. I don’t think a trade could ever be ruled out. The Eagles need depth at certain spots, and Howie Roseman is always looking to stockpile draft picks. But unless Kendricks is playing in the preseason finale against the New York Jets, I would expect him to be on the roster come Sept. 10. The Eagles can’t have enough depth at linebacker. Jordan Hicks’ absence (quad) was felt. Najee Goode is an able backup, but he’s better on the outside than he is in the middle. Joe Walker might have done enough the last two games to earn a promotion.
9. Carson Wentz is as ready as he should be for his second NFL season. I wrote more extensively on this subject for my newspaper column, but the Eagles have to feel pretty confident about their quarterback heading into the opener. I don’t think the same could be said of their backup situation. Nick Foles has yet to play in the preseason. He had a setback earlier this week, and Pederson said his elbow was once again sore after throwing so much on Monday (And, I ask, why was he throwing so often after returning from two weeks of rest?). My guess is Foles won’t play against the Jets and the Eagles roll the dice into the regular season. But can they afford to have just two quarterbacks on the roster without knowing if Foles is completely healthy, or healthy enough to play in a game? Wentz played all 16 games last season. But does Pederson want to take that gamble? I’m not sure if Matt McGloin is the third quarterback option. He hasn’t looked sharp. But there aren’t many No. 2-caliber quarterbacks on the street, and McGloin knows the offense.
10. And some leftovers: Jaylen Watkins played some cornerback and had an interception. He is squarely on the roster bubble. … Caleb Sturgis had a strong week of practice and was a perfect 4 for 4 on PATs and booted a 30-yard field goal. … I think I’ve seen enough of Donnel Pumphrey returning punts. He can’t do it — at least not yet. Overall, the rookie running back has been ho-hum. He needs work. … Trey Burton had a penalty on special teams and dropped a pass. He did catch four passes for 43 yards. … Corey Clement continued to stand out. I still think he lands on the practice squad. … Elijah Qualls and Alex McCalister teamed up for a sack.