Good morning. The Eagles practice at 9:15 a.m. today. Offensive coordinator Mike Groh is scheduled to speak after press conference. They practice again on Tuesday before heading to New England on Wednesday for Thursday's Super Bowl rematch … er, second preseason game.
This is a training camp edition of the Early Birds newsletter, which will arrive in your inbox three days per week until the season begins. If your friends haven't subscribed to Early Birds, it's free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
The past weekend marked the one-year anniversary of the Ronald Darby trade. On Aug. 11, 2017, the Eagles dealt wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round pick for Darby.
Matthews was productive for three years in Philadelphia, and he was also liked and respected in the locker room. But the Eagles had a surplus at wide receiver and badly needed cornerback help. They paid a heavy price (when considering the draft pick) for a talented, young, cost-controlled starting cornerback. The residual effects of the trade were perhaps even more fruitful than getting Darby. By dealing Matthews, the Eagles opened playing time at slot receiver for Nelson Agholor, unlocking his talent and making the offense more dynamic. And by acquiring Darby, the Eagles shifted Patrick Robinson to slot cornerback, where he found a home and was a key part of the defense. It's not hyperbole to say it was a season-changing trade, and it was one that helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl.
"It's like I won the lotto getting traded to the team that won the Super Bowl," Darby said Sunday. "I love it here."
One year later, those residual effects of the trade are clear. What's less clear is what the Eagles have in Darby, who had an uneven first year with the team. He was adjusting to the defense and his new surroundings when he suffered a Week 1 injury. It wasn't a lost season because Darby had his moments with the Eagles down the stretch and started during the entire postseason, but by all indications, he's a different player this summer. Coaches have seen more confidence from him. He knows the defense and his teammates. He's in a contract year, too, so there's even more incentive to perform.
"You're seeing confidence, you're seeing his ability to drive on throws, the physicality out there, confidence," coach Doug Pederson said."Those are all things that come with understanding the defense and his ability and how he's overcome the injury from last year and really kind of put that behind him. … So you're seeing him go 100 miles an hour. And that's what's encouraging as a coach, to watch him play and how well he's played. Just excited for this year for him."
Matthews has had an injury-plagued post-Philadelphia career, although even if he excelled in Buffalo, the improvements to Agholor by moving to the slot ensured the Eagles weren't hurt offensively with the deal. (And by the way, I still believe Matthews would have been productive in 2017 playing with Alshon Jeffery on the outside.) One can always wonder what the Eagles could have done with that third-round pick. (That pick was No. 96 overall; Buffalo used it on defensive tackle Harrison Phillips.)
But if Darby plays the way he's capable of playing this season, the trade could prove to be even more advantageous for the Eagles. He's only 24 and can be a high-level starting cornerback. The talent is there. The opportunity is there. He'll have this season to prove it — and he'll be paid accordingly by March.
After the preseason opener, Doug Pederson said he was impressed by the offensive and defensive lines. When watching the film the next day, Pederson's positive impression of the offensive line was fortified.
"Going back and watching the offense and defensive line one more time and just watching really the entire first-unit defense, because they were kind of all intact going into the game the other night, how well and fast they played," Pederson said. "To have two three-and-outs, very outstanding. Great performance by that group.Secondly, I would say the offensive line, the starting group, did a really nice job. We were backed up. We had the 22-yard long run. We were backed up. It was great to see that run coming off the goal line."
The negatives to Pederson were the turnovers (and potential turnovers). Nate Sudfeld threw two interceptions and the team had four fumbles, although only one was lost. There were also 11 penalties charged against the Eagles.
"Those are things we have to continue to clean up," Pederson said.
Jason Peters didn't play, but it was not because he's slow recovering from the injury. Rather, it sounded like offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland can evaluate Peters' progress in practice and doesn't need to expose him to an uncontrolled environment before it's necessary.
"Right out here, we can control what's going on," Stoutland said, referring to the practice field. "We need him to be practicing, we need him to be getting his footwork back, we need him getting his hand placement and that stuff back. I know what his ability is in a game. I know that. So we have as good of rushers as anyone in this league."
Peters goes against Derek Barnett at practice every day. That could prepare an offensive tackle for the regular season. This is not to say Peters won't play in the preseason — just that the Eagles are getting their evaluation away from the bright lights.
"When you see him battling with Derek every day, he's a really good rusher," Stoutland said. "That's what I need to see."
Wide receiver is a fascinating position for the Eagles because they haven't had a full group this summer. Alshon Jeffery is on the physically-unable-to-peform list, so he hasn't practiced yet. Nelson Agholor, Mike Wallace, Shelton Gibson and Markus Wheaton have all missed time with various injuries.
I think the top four wide receivers are entrenched: Jeffery, Agholor, Wallace and Hollins. I'd put Gibson on the team, too. The 2017 fifth-round pick showed his deep speed in the preseason game, has had a good training camp, and brings special teams value. So then the question is, do the Eagles keep five or six wide receivers? That could depend on whether they keep four or five running backs. If they keep six receivers, Wheaton and Kamar Aiken bring experience. But the Eagles would also need to determine whether it's worth carrying a veteran player as the sixth wide receiver, and if that player could fill a special teams role. (And Wheaton must get healthy; he missed the first preseason game.) The Eagles have tried developing young receivers such as Greg Ward, Bryce Treggs, and Rashard Davis. So they could go that route, or they could try to stash what they can on practice squad. That will be the decision the must make.