Philadelphia Eagles: What to Watch for in Preseason Game Action
After seven long months, the wait for Philadelphia Eagles football finally ends this Friday. Year two under head coach Chip Kelly gets underway with preseason action at Soldier Field against the Chicago Bears.
Of course, this is only the first of four exhibition games, so it's not exactly the real thing quite yet. Kelly said he expects his starters to play 10-15 snaps in the opener, which equates to one or two series—maybe three if things go poorly.
While the final outcome may be irrelevant, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to watch. Aside from the sheer enjoyment of hearing the clash of pads and helmets against one another, plenty is on the line over the coming month.
Obviously, these games will go a long way in determining starting jobs and roster spots, which to some is reason alone to follow the action. Those battles highlight just a few of the storylines we will be keeping an eye on as the Eagles get set to return to the gridiron this week.
It goes without saying that all eyes will be on slot receiver Jordan Matthews. The second-round pick out of Vanderbilt has been the unequivocal star of training camp.
Naturally, there’s a fair amount of intrigue surrounding Marcus Smith as well. The outside linebacker’s progress has been difficult to track due to the limited contact at Chip Kelly’s practices, so we’re still trying to catch a glimpse of what made the Louisville product worthy of a Round 1 selection.
In all honesty, though, it should be exciting to watch the entirety of the Eagles’ 2014 draft class compete in their first NFL action. Any of wide receiver Josh Huff, cornerback Jaylen Watkins, defensive end Taylor Hart and nose tackle Beau Allen has the potential to become a building block of the franchise’s future, and they can begin climbing the ladder on Friday night.
There are another 16 undrafted rookies preparing to slug it out for roster spots, too.
Since none of the club’s rookies are currently starting, that means we should be treated to a healthy dose of each of them over the course of the Birds’ first exhibition game. For my money, that’s reason enough to tune in.
Mark Sanchez vs. Matt Barkley
There’s absolutely no evidence based on training camp that there is a legitimate competition between Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley for the backup quarterback job. Yet regardless of which one is No. 2 and which is No. 3, there are plenty of question marks surrounding these understudies.
Sanchez may have a winning record through 68 starts in the NFL after five seasons with the New York Jets—including six in the playoffs—but the numbers are not particularly good. Most troubling are a career 55 percent completion rate and more interceptions than touchdown passes during the regular season.
Confidence in Barkley isn’t any higher. The 2013 fourth-round pick tossed four interceptions to zero touchdowns over three relief appearances as a rookie. At best, he remains a total unknown.
That being said, Sanchez and Barkley have looked sharp throughout camp. There’s also reason to believe they can improve. Sanchez was never surrounded by so much talent in New York. Barkley’s development should continue in year two, not to mention he should be fully recovered from the broken collarbone he suffered his senior season at USC.
The appearance of an actual competition between the two aside, preseason games could serve to distinguish the two or perhaps elevate both. Either way, it should be interesting to watch unfold.
The Wide Receivers
Nary a game has been played, exhibition or otherwise, and the Eagles’ wide receiver depth has already been tested at training camp.
Riley Cooper has spent most of the summer in a walking boot and is not expected to play on Friday, according to Chip Kelly. Top wideout Jeremy Maclin and reserve Jeff Maehl—who was filling in for Cooper on the first-team offense—should be available for Friday’s game, but they have missed time as well. Maclin, of course, is coming off of a torn ACL.
The various absences led to some unique “first-string” personnel groupings. Ifeanyi Momah, Arrelious Benn and Will Murphy are among the players who ran with the ones over the past week. They’re competing against the likes of Damaris Johnson, B.J. Cunningham, Quron Pratt and Kadron Boone over one, maybe two roster spots.
Meanwhile, veteran Brad Smith is somehow holding off Matthews as the No. 1 slot receiver.
At this point, how the depth chart will shake out is something of a mystery. Maclin, Cooper, Matthews and Huff are locks to make the roster. Two of the four are already banged up, though, and the other half is made up of rookies.
That means the remaining receiver or receivers on the roster, whoever he is or they are, will likely play an incredibly important role from the outset of this season. The evaluation process begins in earnest against Chicago.
Allen Barbre vs. Lamarr Houston
Can the Eagles survive four games with Allen Barbre starting at right tackle? Friday’s game could offer some clues.
Barbre’s first test is no cakewalk. He’ll be going mano-a-mano against Bears defensive end Lamarr Houston, signed from the Oakland Raiders during free agency. Houston is 6’3”, 300 pounds and finished with 6.0 sacks in 2013.
It’s not necessarily pass protection we should be concerned about, though. The Eagles can negate some of that by employing quick passes or having tight end Brent Celek help out if need be.
Where this matchup could reveal a lot is with regard to the Philadelphia’s ground attack. Houston is one of the premier run defenders from the defensive end position in the NFL. He would be a load for any offensive lineman, let alone a journeyman veteran such as Barbre.
The Eagles don’t exactly have any other options. 2013 fourth overall pick Lane Johnson is suspended for Weeks 1-4, and Barbre is the club’s most experienced backup. Unfortunately, most of those experiences have been poor.
Barbre filled in nicely when called upon last season, but the sample size was small. We’ll get a sense of just how challenging these first four games are going to be based on how he handles Houston.
For all of Chip Kelly’s talk of commitment to building a strong special teams unit, the lack of improvement in those phases of the game effectively ended the Eagles’ 2013 season.
Darren Sproles’ 39-yard kick return for the New Orleans Saints late in the fourth quarter of their first-round playoff win over the Birds set up an easy game-winning drive. Alex Henery’s missed field-goal attempt from 48 yards earlier in the 26-24 loss helped doom the Birds as well—we can all count; those points would’ve helped.
Kelly went about trying to solve both issues during the offseason.
The Eagles signed linebacker Bryan Braman and safety Chris Maragos during free agency, though their defensive positions are relatively unimportant. Neither has started a game in the NFL, but both should go a long way toward improving the kick-coverage units.
The team also brought in undrafted rookie Carey Spear out of Vanderbilt to push Henery for the kicker job. While it’s clear Henery has been head and shoulders better than Spear in camp, you never know if preseason performances will tilt the competition.
There are also wide-open battles for both the kick- and punt-returner jobs, which were equally as underwhelming as other areas on special teams last season.
Clearly, you can’t overlook special teams, or it will cost your team games. That’s not to say Kelly did that last season, but the continued emphasis on upgrading that aspect of the team can only help. We’ll be trying to spot the difference on Friday night.
All comments and observations from Eagles training camp were heard or witnessed firsthand by the author, unless otherwise attributed.