Eyes On Eight: Birds To Watch In Preseason Opener
On Thursday at 7:30 p.m., the Eagles will kick off their preseason with a clash against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field.
Amid the excitement surrounding a new era of Eagles football, first-year head coach Nick Sirianni and his staff will have just three games to configure a largely fluid depth chart.
With much uncertainty in crucial spots, here are eight players I will be keeping an eye on against the Steelers:
QB Jalen Hurts
The Eagles’ new QB1 has been a mixed bag this summer. To his credit, Hurts rarely flinches when faced with adversity and often responds with a positive play, in large part because of his signature poise and level-headedness.
The coaching staff has drilled Hurts on the finer nuances of the position throughout training camp, specifically footwork. As electric as Hurts was at times last season, he struggled with accuracy, ball security, and field vision.
An offseason spent building continuity with teammates coupled with a hands-on, innovative coaching staff should work wonders for Hurts’ development in Year 2. I’m not sure how many snaps he will see over the next few weeks, but I will be keeping a close eye on his altered mechanics.
RB Jason Huntley
Despite last year’s uneventful rookie campaign in which he logged just five carries for 19 yards and a pair of kick returns for 36 yards across five appearances, Huntley has hit the ground running in Year 2. Sure, he’s buried behind Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Jordan Howard, Kerryon Johnson, and Kenny Gainwell on the depth chart, but the 5-foot-9, 193-pound running back has looked springy and explosive this summer and appears to have finally found his footing. Huntley’s path to a roster spot is undoubtedly obstructed by numbers, but his third phase value as a kick returner could give him an edge.
Last season, I spoke to Huntley’s former running back coach at New Mexico State, Matt Christian, who outlined a primary area of opportunity:
“He knew pass protection was going to be the area he needed the most work at,” Christian said. “We didn’t ask him to do that a lot in college because we used him so heavily in pass concepts and wanted him out in the routes. He is willing and physical enough and understands the game and defenses well; however, he just needed reps and film to get to the level necessary to play.”
Although it was Huntley’s receiving prowess and explosiveness that initially piqued the team’s interest, his roster spot will likely be predicated on his third phase upside and pass protection.
WR Quez Watkins
Watkins has consistently remained among the team’s most consistent offensive performers throughout training camp. The second-year wideout parlayed a late-season surge and productive offseason into a stellar stretch of practices, showcasing route-running precision, soft hands, innate ball-tracking, and home-run potential.
With DeVonta Smith sidelined, Watkins has capitalized on increased reps and appears poised to carve out a defined role this season. Though it remains to be seen how Sirianni and his staff plan to exploit Watkins’ dynamic traits, I’ll be monitoring his development.
TE Tyree Jackson
A decorated college quarterback at Buffalo, Jackson’s unconventional journey through the pro ranks has taken him to the fringe of a roster spot. The former 6-foot-7, 249-pound quarterback will now look to terrorize defenses as a tight end, a conversion that has looked remarkably seamless thus far.
The big-bodied target has demonstrated soft hands, athleticism, and red zone upside and will be a tough cover for opposing defenders. Jackson has the frame to support another 10-12 pounds and is just 23 years old, but his roster spot could ultimately be determined by his blocking prowess.
Zach Ertz remains in the fold – at least for now – so Jackson will presumably be battling veteran Richard Rodgers for the No. 3 spot. Given what transpired with last summer’s project, Noah Togiai, who was lost when the Colts claimed him off waivers, Jackson will be difficult to part with if he continues to show promise.
DT Milton Williams
Hardly a household name merely four months ago, Williams has positioned himself to usurp Hassan Ridgeway as the team’s third defensive tackle following a strong stretch of practices. The former Louisiana Tech standout provides positional versatility, power, and short area burst, and it will be interesting to see if his training camp success correlates on Thursday night.
The rookie has the makings of a long-standing, disruptive force, and his inherent versatility and play strength lends itself favorably to early contributions. While Ridgeway has been effective when available, it’s tough to rely on a player who has sustained two season-ending injuries in as many seasons to inherent an increased snap share. Very interested to see how Williams responds in his first game action.
LB Alex Singleton
Singleton, a projected starter, was only activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday and hasn’t had much on-the-job training in Jonathan Gannon’s new system. With fellow linebackers Davion Taylor and JaCoby Stevens sidelined, the Eagles remain razor thin at the position, so Singleton should get an extensive look on Thursday.
Singleton burst onto the scene as the team’s top linebacker last season, but he’ll need to overcome a late start and a surging T.J. Edwards in his bid to start alongside Eric Wilson.
CB Zech McPhearson
If the team hadn’t signed Steve Nelson, McPhearson likely would’ve been given the first opportunity to line up opposite Darius Slay when the Eagles defense takes the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in four weeks.
The fourth-round rookie has been a training camp standout, regularly showcasing physicality, instinctiveness, ball skills, and supremely high football intelligence. His ability to play the boundary or kick inside only adds to the intrigue.
But instead of being forged by fire out of necessity, McPhearson will be afforded the luxury of being brought along gradually in his first season. Without any added pressure, he will be able to play free while logging valuable preseason snaps. I’m eager to see if he can build on his summer success.
S Elijah Riley
With K’Von Wallace listed as week-to-week, Riley moves up in the pecking order and will be the beneficiary of increased snaps. While third-year safety Marcus Epps presumably assumes the No. 3 safety role for the time being, his stranglehold on the position should be considered tentative at best. Epps, a favorite of the previous regime, has fallen flat in his opportunities and offers a limited upside compared to Wallace or Riley.
Riley, signed as an undrafted free agent following the 2020 NFL Draft, provides safety and cornerback versatility and could potentially fill the Rudy Ford void for new special teams coordinator Michael Clay. The 5-foot-11, 214 pound defender is a smart and physical ball-hawk who accumulated 4.0 sacks and three interceptions in his final season at Army.
The 23-year-old appeared in five games for the Eagles last season, logging five defensive snaps and 65 on special teams. Though he remains a longshot, Riley now has an extended opportunity to open some eyes as a depth defensive back and core special teams performer.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.