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Ten Eagles to keep an eye on during Thursday’s preseason opener against Pittsburgh

The Philadelphia Eagles are getting closer and closer to the defense of their first Super Bowl trophy.

The champs, now seven months removed from their victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, kick off their preseason Thursday night against Pittsburgh at Lincoln Financial Field. Eagles head coach Doug Pederson explained what he’s looking for out of his team.

We’re going to try to get everybody in this football game. It’s one of those games where we try to play everybody. We’re still evaluating, so it’s great to get everybody in this game. Our starters, offensively and defensively, the ones that are healthy and going to play, are going to get some good work. I want to make sure that they get a little bit of work in this game. And I want to see all the young guys perform, and they’ll get some great opportunities.

There will certainly be a lot of crucial opportunities for the players fighting for roster spots. Here are the ten Eagles I’ll have my eye on come Thursday.

1. Sidney Jones

We caught a glimpse of Jones in the Eagles’ meaningless Week 17 finale against Dallas, now we can really see what he can do.

Jones ruptured his Achilles during his Pro Day leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft, which forced him to fall into the second round. He was projected to be the first or second cornerback to go off the board and may have even went in the top 10. He missed the first 15 games of his rookie season prior to the regular season finale.

In a MMQB post in late May, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer wrote that Jones turned heads in OTAs.

If you’re looking for an area where the reigning champions could be better than they were in 2017, the secondary is one. Second-year CB Sidney Jones has turned heads early on in OTAs, showing the ability that had him pegged as a top-20 pick before he tore his Achilles ahead of the 2017 draft. And young journeyman De’Vante Bausby’s been a bit of a revelation at corner too, making for good competition at that spot ahead of training camp.

Now the question is where he fits into the equation. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills were the starters at cornerback last year and Patrick Robinson is no longer in Philadelphia after holding down the nickel job in 2017. Jones has never played the slot in an actual game, but did see time there during the spring.

To play the position in the NFL you need short-area quickness, awareness to avoid rub routes and be a solid enough tackler to hold up in run support. I’m curious to see how the Eagles handle the void. I’ve suggested that the Eagles should have Mills take snaps at both cornerback and safety. Therefore you’d have Darby and Jones as your starters on the outside and Mills being a rover and doing a bit of everything. The Eagles like to use their Big Nickel look (3 safeties) and have them slide down into the slot in coverage.

So a couple things to look for out of Jones Thursday. How often will he be lining up in the slot and how comfortable will he look playing inside as opposed to outside?

2. Dallas Goedert

Goedert has been unstoppable in the red zone, that’s what the Training Camp reports are saying.

If you watched the second-round rookie’s tape at South Dakota State, this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. The 6’5, 260-pounder uses his athleticism to leap and high point passes whether he’s working the seams or the back corners of the end zone on fade patterns. He also does a good job of using his body to box out defenders while going after the catch. Oh and he can make one-handed snags like this look way too easy.

Blocking will be the area of his game I’ll have my eye on.

Goedert possesses the frame to be a good blocker with time, just not right now. He overwhelmed defenders with his physicality as an in-line blocker while with the Jackrabbits, but this isn’t the FCS anymore and he will need refinement in his technique. Where Goedert needs to improve on is locating and blocking targets on the second level. He didn’t play with good balance and had the tendency of lunging forward.

The blocking is important because the Eagles currently don’t have a tight end that can strictly do that.

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson obviously has a plan. He wouldn’t have went the entire offseason without bringing in a blocking tight end. Does this mean that we’re going to see more of the 13 personnel packages? It’s a look that Pederson liked to use in short-yardage situations, using a pair of tight ends and the other disguised as an offensive lineman. Either we’re going to see more of this or Pederson is extremely confident in his coaching staff that they can turn Goedert and free agent acquisition Richard Rodgers into respectful blockers.

3. De’Vaunte Bausby

Nobody has received more hype during the OTAs and Training Camp than Bausby, who at only 25 is the oldest cornerback currently on the Eagles roster. This is his last chance as he no longer has any practice squad eligibility remaining.

Could he be the one to take the snaps from Robinson in the slot? Schwartz explained last week that a lot of players are getting looked at in the nickel.

We’re rolling a lot of guys through the slot. Right now [CB] D.J. [Killings] hasn’t been out there for a couple of days, but [CB De’Vante] Bausby is getting some snaps in there, [CB] Avonte [Maddox] is getting some snaps in there. Sidney is getting some snaps. When D.J. gets back, he’ll get some in there.

There will come points when you even see guys like even [CB] Jalen Mills or [CB Ronald] Darby in there, which we did in OTAs. Maybe you guys didn’t see that.

Schwartz had some very encouraging words regarding Bausby during the OTAs.

He’s a competitive player. He did a really good job for us on the scout teams last year. He was ready to play for us last year if need be. He did a great job not just on the practice field but in the meeting room, being up on the game plan. We were fortunate that we didn’t have so many injuries there that he needed to go. But he was ready, and he had the confidence of the coaching staff. He sort of spread his wings a little bit, working in some different positions. He’s a very, very competitive player. He’s got good size, but his competitiveness stands out. You guys will see that.

You didn’t see him in training camp last year. You guys will see that in training camp this year. I’m excited about him. We’re all excited about the contributions he made to our team last year, and what he can do this year. Again, his contributions were behind the scenes last year. But we have a lot of guys that have an impact on Sunday that might not be playing. He worked the offense hard last year. I think those guys have respect for him, and I know our coaches have respect for him.

We’ll find out Thursday if all of the hype was warranted.

4. Derek Barnett

How big of a leap should we expect from Derek Barnett in year two? Jim Schwartz answered that question during OTAs.

Most players make a significant improvement from year one to year two. I think it’s sort of one of the adages of the NFL. That’s where you see a significant improvement. He set that bar pretty high in his first year. Made a lot of big plays for us. Also gained a lot of experience dealing with the long season and not just four preseason games [and the regular season], but deep into the playoffs and things like that. He had some bumps and bruises just like everybody, and the experience of dealing with that stuff. But, yeah, I think he’s more seasoned now, little bit stronger now. Obviously, he’s been through the ringer, knows what to expect. I think that’s a big part of young players too. When you’re a rookie, there is so much uncertainty, and after you do it once, it settles down.

The pass rusher Barnett recorded five sacks during his rookie campaign, which was one behind Derrick Burgess for the franchise’s all-time rookie mark. Barnett bent the edge as well as any rookie I’ve seen in a while, the balance he’s able to maintain with the shoulder dipping and nearly hitting the ground is extraordinary.

The key for him in year two is to build off that move and add counters off of it. The great pass rushers have multiple pass rush moves in their arsenal, right now Barnett has one great move. Once he adds another one or two to his game, that’s when the double-digit sack totals will come. That’s what I will be looking out for Thursday, his secondary pass rushing moves.

5. Donnel Pumphrey

Mental processing. It’s the biggest leap most NFL players make heading into their second season as the game begins to slow down.

Nobody struggled with the scintillating speed of the sport more so than Pumphrey in the 2017 preseason.

Pumphrey carried the ball 26 times for only 49 yards during last year’s preseason, a putrid 1.9 yards per carry. Pederson had a lot of plans for him, lining him up in the slot, with Sproles in pony packages and in the backfield during last season’s OTAs and Training Camp. That’s a lot to digest for a rookie, something Pumphrey admitted last week week.

Last year I felt like I was thinking a lot and really didn’t know where to be. I wasn’t able to play fast.

The Eagles traded up in the fourth round to select the FBS’ all-time leading rusher in the 2016 NFL Draft. We’ll see if the speed indeed slows down for him because he’s in a tough battle with veteran Matt Jones, Wendell Smallwood and undrafted rookie Josh Adams for the fourth and final running back spot on the Eagles’ roster.

My issue with him has been his suddenness and elusiveness. Can he create separation at the top of his route in the slot, can he make linebackers miss in space consistently. This is what I’m looking out for and he needs to start showing it now!

6. Josh Sweat

According to the camp reports, the rookies have been ahead of the curve and the two who have really stood out have been Goedert and Sweat, who the Eagles took a flyer on in the fourth round.

He is and long and smooth athlete, but his knees are worrisome.

Philly, of course, has a lot of depth along its defensive line and defensive ends in particular, which is beneficial to Sweat. That dangerous conglomeration will allow Sweat to be part of the rotation and limit his snaps, thus also preventing as much wear and tear on those cranky knees.

He may not play a lot during his rookie campaign, but he’ll play a lot in the preseason and I’m curious to see if he’ll be as eye-popping as he’s been in camp.

7. Matt Pryor

Pryor is one of the two late-round linemen the Eagles drafted. The TCU product went in the sixth, while former Australian rugby star Jordan Mailata was taken in the seventh. I referenced the rookies standing out and Pryor has been another one the coaching staff seems enamored with.

8. Shelton Gibson

Despite a poor preseason as a rookie in 2017, Gibson made the 53-man roster and didn’t show much of anything in the regular season either. The go-route specialist struggled with the drops and didn’t create consistent separation.

He’s going to be in a tightly-contested race for the final couple wide receiver spots between he, Markus Wheaton, Greg Ward, Bryce Treggs and Kamar Aiken. If we see last year’s Gibson, he won’t be sniffing this football team, will we see improvements come Thursday night?

9. Nate Gerry

Gerry has been the most overlooked Eagle as we they head into their squabble with Pittsburgh. I’m curious how this weakside linebacker situation is going to play itself out following Mychal Kendricks’ release.

The weakside backer will only play 35-40 percent of the time as basically a third-down coverage specialist and the former college safety Gerry is in the mix for that vacancy along with Kamu Grugier-Hill and offseason signee Corey Nelson.

10. Jordan Mailata

Thursday will be Mailata’s first professional football game so my expectations aren’t high, but I’d still like the see how far along he is in his technique. I also wanted to find an excuse to show his rugby highlights again!


You can follow Adrian Fedkiw on Twitter (@AdrianFedkiw) and e-mail him at [email protected]. Subscribe to The Bitter Birds on YouTube here.

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