Going For Two: Some Birds Under Radar For Preseason Encore
The Eagles resume preseason play Thursday at 7:30 p.m., hosting the New England Patriots at Lincoln Financial Field.
With the start of the regular-season less than one month away, the Eagles’ starting units inspired optimism with an impressive – albeit brief – showing against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.
However, several depth jobs remain unsettled, and the next two weeks will ultimately determine the final roster spots.
Here are seven players to keep an eye on against the Patriots:
QB Jalen Hurts
Hurts took the reins for the first two series last week, finishing 3-of-7 for 52 yards, including a 34-yard connection to tight end Dallas Goedert. The second-year quarterback was notably victimized by a pair of drops from Zach Ertz and Jalen Reagor, and overthrew a streaking Quez Watkins down the left sideline.
Overall, Hurts performed well in his brief appearance, demonstrating decisiveness, poise against an aggressive front and delivering the football with anticipation. This week, I’ll be looking for Hurts to establish an early rhythm, continue to make sound decisions, while developing timing and accuracy on the deep ball.
WR John Hightower
The clock is ticking on Hightower’s immediate future. The second-year pass-catcher returned to practice Tuesday from a lingering groin injury that sidelined him from the preseason opener. Hightower offers blazing speed and route-running prowess but has endured bouts of inconsistency for stretches. The 25-year-old will likely need to stave off J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and others to make the team. Ironically, the slender-framed receiver has had little trouble getting behind defenses. But when it comes to tracking the football and finishing the play, Hightower has routinely underwhelmed. He will need to consistently showcase his game-breaking qualities while demonstrating his third phase value to force the team’s hand.
WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside
Arcega-Whiteside isn’t yet out of the running for a roster spot. The big-bodied receiver has come on late and could conceivably carve out a role as the team’s top contested-catch specialist if he continues his upward trajectory. The former second-round pick is undoubtedly buried on the depth chart – his opportunities to showcase his progress will be scarce – so it could ultimately be his strides made on special teams that set him apart from his competitors. Perhaps this wide receiver-centric group of offensive coaches can salvage Arcega-Whiteside’s future here. The Stanford product will likely be afforded every opportunity to stake his claim on a final spot.
TE Jack Stoll
With training camp phenom and fellow tight end Tyree Jackson on the mend for the foreseeable future, the door is open for Stoll’s once-bleak roster hopes. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound prospect is the team’s most efficient blocker at his position behind Dallas Goedert, which would seemingly pave a favorable path to the 53. The Nebraska product, built in the mold of an H-back, amassed 61 receptions for 657 yards and six touchdowns in 29 games for the Cornhuskers. For comparative purposes, think obscure Eagles alum Stephen Spach. Expect Stoll and veteran Jason Croom to assume the majority of TE reps against the Patriots after the starters are pulled.
DE Tarron Jackson
Accounting for 70 percent of the team’s defensive snaps against the Steelers, Jackson’s burst off the line, power, urgency, and effort was apparent. His highlights of the night were a nifty spin move executed against Steelers LT Chukwuma Okorafor and a tackle for loss. With the Eagles likely to have Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, and Josh Sweat on a pitch count, they’ll afford Jackson all the snaps he can handle. The Coastal Carolina product has an uphill climb to make the roster and must clean up certain areas of his game but possesses a translatable skill set and offers upside as a rotational defensive end. I’ll be keeping a close eye on his run defense.
LB Patrick Johnson
Don’t look now, but the Eagles suddenly have a plethora of intriguing young linebackers vying for depth roles. Johnson, a seventh-round rookie, contends with Genard Avery, Joe Ostman, and JaCoby Stevens for one of those final spots. Working in Johnson’s favor, however, is his pass-rush prowess. He spent the past four seasons starring as a prolific edge rusher for the Tulane Green Wave defense, notching 21.0 sacks in 41 games. But his 6-foot-2, 248-pound frame is suboptimal for a defensive end at the pro level, prompting a transition to strongside linebacker. Johnson finished second in snaps among linebackers against the Steelers, logging 46 snaps and accounting for 55 percent of the total. The 23-year-old has enjoyed a productive summer, showcasing innate instincts and football IQ. He’ll get an extensive look on Thursday night.
CB Josiah Scott
Scott had an active first game, registering three tackles and a pass defended in 36 snaps. The diminutive corner swarmed to the ball and showed his willingness as a tackler. The reserve nickel corner currently has an inside track to one of the final cornerback spots and could become a vital cog to a revamped secondary. With Scott’s ability to adequately defend the slot, defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon could have the optionality to deploy the versatile Avonte Maddox all around the defense. Scott must continue to exhibit signs of progression and prove his value to special teams coordinator Michael Clay, but it appears the Eagles have a prospect worth developing at a position of need.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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