Is anyone else sick of the preseason yet? I thought a couple of years ago there was a hot debate on whether or not to eliminate these games. Where did that argument go?
This season, the fresh new topic of debate has been over the ludicrous ‘keep your head out of the tackle’ rule. I sincerely hope that the preseason mandate given to referees was to call the flag if the tackle looks anywhere near questionable. By the regular season, the league should have enough information to decide what is a legal hit and what is not. Well, that is the hope. The calls during the preseason have been absurd, and there were plenty of noticeable ones during the Eagles’ preseason games.
I’ve seen two flags during this Eagles & patriots matchup that should not have been flags.
— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) August 17, 2018
While I admittedly spent most of the games cussing out the referees and the NFL in a futile attempt to reform the new tackle rule, after re-watching the tape, there are a few things to note regarding the Eagles depth chart as the Birds head towards the 53-man final cut.
The wide receiving corps is finding its form without key members
Alshon Jeffery’s recovery from surgery is starting to scare me, especially after he revealed that he played through the entire 2017 campaign with a torn rotator cuff. The Eagles’ new WR1 was a vital cog in the offensive machine that fueled a magical playoff run. The coaches and management have a decision to make on whether Alshon begins the season on the Reserve/PUP list once roster cuts come. If an injured Jeffery is ruled active, the Eagles could carry six wide receivers on their final 53-man roster.
In Jeffery’s absence, other players have elevated their game in an attempt to make the final cut. Shelton Gibson, a fifth-round pick in 2017 out of West Virginia, is beginning to prove that the hype surrounding his name out of college was worthwhile. Gibson has been battling third-year receiver, Bryce Treggs, who is on his second stint with the Eagles. Thus far during preseason action, Gibson holds the advantage not only to make the roster, but also to see regular season playing time. Gibson has caught seven passes on nine targets for 167 yards and two touchdowns in two preseason appearances. However, the real reason he makes the team will be because of his special teams play. Gibson has been impressive as the primary kick returner, averaging 29 yards per return. He’s also shown value as the punt team’s gunner, utilizing his 4.40 40-yard dash speed (he ran a 4.39 at his pro day). Despite it being in exhibition games, you like to see the young receiver tearing it up with the second unit.
Shelton Gibson (2017 5th round pick) will make this Eagles roster because of his special teams value. He’s averaging 29 yards per kick return this preseason and is a speedy gunner on the punt team #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/cVld17wkWO
— Matt Martellucci (@matthewlucci_) August 20, 2018
Not to mention, @sheltongibson has been burning backup corners to the tune of 7 catches (9 targets) for 167 yards and 2 TDs. He ran an official 4.50 40-yard dash and his quickness is shown on the sluggo used to beat Jason McCourty #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/ftiJK2ZVkl
— Matt Martellucci (@matthewlucci_) August 20, 2018
Mike Wallace made his Eagles debut and did not post any catches in four or so drives as the starter. Foles targeted him three times, but their timing was simply off. Wallace will make the team, but his involvement in the offense depends entirely on his attitude and work ethic.
Seventh-year receiver Kamar Aiken Sr got the start with Wallace and did not catch anything on two targets. Aiken provides some key special teams play, but might be the odd man out of this group because of Mack Hollins. Last year’s fourth-round draft selection also provides a spark in the third phase of the game, but he has missed significant time over the last two weeks. Hollins returned to practice on Sunday and needs to get significant reps against the Browns on Thursday.
DeAndre Carter, a third-year journeyman receiver out of Sacramento State, looked exceptionally good against the Patriots. Carter showcased his run blocking while also hauling in three grabs for 48 yards. The 25-year old has shown to at least be worthy of the practice squad with the way he has performed this preseason.
Let’s talk about Big V
Halapoulivaati Vaitai played a surprising role last season in his relief of Jason Peters at the left tackle position. Big V’s play improved each week, but some inconsistencies remained. Pederson’s scheme helped Vaitai in the sense that he did not have to handle many one-on-one blocking assignments, but he truly excelled in anchoring down in passing situations.
Heading into his third professional season, Vaitai has not looked like the left tackle of the future. Veteran defensive end Adrian Clayborn beat Vaitai on bull rushes as well as inside and outside moves. I counted four hurries from Clayborn on Foles’ throws on the first three drives. The sack-fumble that forced Saint Nick out of the game was entirely on Vaitai; Clayborn quickly shook him with a move to the outside.
Strip sack! Recovery!
It’s clear that Big V has very limited bend and cannot hang with quicker rushers around the edge. However, with all the heat that Vaitai got, there were still several plays he anchored down in pass protection on Clayborn. He also never let second-year defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. get the best of him. Thursday night needs to be a learning experience for Vaitai, as he was left alone against a veteran pass rusher who finished last season with 9.5 sacks. If Vaitai’s struggles continue, it will be interesting to see what the Eagles do to fill the eventual void left by Peters.
Nate Sudfeld looks the part of an above-average backup QB
With injuries to Carson Wentz and Nick Foles, the preseason spotlight at quarterback has been on 2016 sixth-round selection Nate Sudfeld. The Indiana product has shown flashes, but needs to work on his consistent decision-making. A perfect example of this was the drive against New England to end the first half. Sudfeld made great decisions, marching the Eagles down the field and spreading the ball out to his receivers in a two-minute drill. Then Sudfeld threw a bizarre, impromptu shovel pass while pressured on fourth-and-goal to end the half. He’s an overall efficient quarterback with tremendous touch and accuracy, but tends to panic and make the wrong throws with pressure in his face.
On Thursday Nick Foles and the first-team offense managed just 48 yards on 17 plays before Clayborn’s sack-fumble prompted a Sudfeld entry. On his second drive, Sudfeld was able to work the ball down the field on the Patriots first-team defense with the Eagles second-team offense. Much of this was thanks to Patriots cornerback Keion Crossen, who had an extremely rough night. Crossen looked out of place with the first-team defense and was on the wrong end of two crucial pass interference penalties. But it wasn’t just the mistakes of one rookie cornerback that allowed Sudfeld to succeed. He faced blitzes and immense pressure with the Eagles’ backup offensive linemen in. He hung tough in the pocket and took some licks while drawing those two pass interference penalties. So far in the preseason, Sudfeld is completing over 60% over his passes for 452 yards in the air and a 5-3 TD-INT ratio.
While the quarterback group looks solid even with the ambiguous Wentz situation, the running back group is the complete opposite. Jay Ajayi looks good running — he is as tough as ever and continues to excel at bouncing plays to the outside when the hole isn’t there. However, he still needs tons of work in pass protection situations. Matt Jones was good for a few chunk runs and caught six passes as a vital checkdown for Sudfeld on Thursday. Wendell Smallwood continues to struggle in the Eagles offense, totaling just 29 yards in preseason action. The rest of the running backs not named Darren Sproles are injured.
Corey Clement is dealing with a lower body injury and is considered day-to-day. Donnel Pumphrey has yet to see any action in the preseason, and the Eagles will most likely take a pass on him. The last back, undrafted free agent Josh Adams out of Notre Dame, is dealing with a foot injury and time is ticking down for him to prove his worth on this roster. Adams has an injury history and if he cannot get on the field, Matt Jones could end up as the Eagles’ fourth running back on the active roster.
This Thursday I will be keeping a close eye on a potential Matt Jones/Josh Adams battle, as well as Mack Hollins’ role and consequent impact in his return. The Eagles play the Cleveland Browns on Thursday at 8:00 p.m. EDT on FOX. Also, since the Browns currently are featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks, you will be able to check out the replay of the game from the Browns’ perspective next Tuesday (8/28) at 10:00 p.m. on HBO.