You couldn't blame the Philadelphia Eagles for losing to the Arizona Cardinals by a final score of 40-17. One look around the field, and you could see they were relying on contributions from late-round or even undrafted talent at key positions.
Matt Tobin is starting at right guard. Taylor Hart is taking a significant number of snaps at defensive end. Jaylen Watkins was pressed into action at cornerback. Ed Reynolds is constantly on the field at safety. Tight end Trey Burton is an important cog on special teams.
Then again, if you look at how that game played out, those players weren't necessarily the problem. Yet at the same time, you can understand why the club's record isn't what some imagined it would be.
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One thing the Eagles have done a nice job of under head coach Chip Kelly, even in this difficult season when the team is 6-8, is developing fringe NFL talents. Watkins was a fourth-round pick in 2014, with Hart and Reynolds both selected in the fifth that year. Tobin and Burton went undrafted.
All but Hart and Burton have spent time on the practice squad. Heck, Watkins and Reynolds were serving on scout teams up until a few weeks ago. Suddenly, all five players have major roles on game day.
These young men aren't necessarily all-stars, but the Eagles are squeezing everything they can out of them right now. They have to. Be it because of injuries or issues with depth, the late-round and undrafted guys are getting a shot to play.
And they've all had their moments.
Tobin has been the starter at right guard ever since Andrew Gardner was lost for the season in Week 3. He's a player the Eagles have been coaching up since 2013, serving almost the entirety of his first year on the practice squad, then last year as a reserve and now, out of necessity, a mainstay in the lineup.
Tobin has taken his lumps at times this season, but the offensive line as a whole has been inconsistent—not just him. He's hung in there and made the best of the situation, helping to keep quarterback Sam Bradford upright more weeks than not.
Hart spent all of last year on the 53-man roster but was not active for a single game, essentially redshirting the season. Now he's playing 20 to 30 snaps per game, giving breathers to guys such as Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton.
You can see Hart progressing as the season goes along. In his first four games, he managed to record just four tackles. Over his last eight, he has 19 with four games of three tackles or more.
Watkins initially didn't make the roster out of training camp and wound up landing on the Buffalo Bills scout team. When Nolan Carroll was lost for the season on Thanksgiving, the Eagles quickly scooped Watkins back up because of his familiarity with the defense. Next thing you know, he's playing the Cardinals on Sunday.
Watkins actually held his own in coverage working against dangerous Arizona receivers John Brown and Michael Floyd, getting credit for three pass breakups in the game. With Byron Maxwell's and Eric Rowe's availability for next week's game unknown, Watkins might be preparing to make his first NFL start.
Despite a strong preseason, Reynolds began the year on the practice squad for the second time in a row. Since his promotion, his role has only grown in the defense. With starting safety Malcolm Jenkins the defense's primary slot corner, Reynolds enters the game in the Eagles' nickel package.
Reynolds was on the field for nearly the entire game against the New England Patriots in Week 13, and the following week, he recorded the game-winning interception over the Bills.
Finally, Burton has been on the roster for two years now, but his impact on special teams is only growing. He actually leads the Eagles with 17 tackles in that phase, which is three more than safety Chris Maragos and eight more than anybody else.
Burton doesn't see much playing time on offense, but he wasn't a tight end before arriving in Philly, either. That being said, he has the athleticism to become a productive player.
On one hand, it's a credit to the Eagles as an organization that they've been able to keep these guys around and mold them into contributors. None of them is likely to ever become a full-time player, much less a star, but they're giving the team crucial reps down the stretch.
On the other hand, you can very easily look at this group of players and point to it as a reason the Eagles are struggling, particularly on offense and defense. Tobin, Hart, Reynolds and Watkins might not see nearly as much action on some of the better teams in the NFL, while the Eagles are depending on them.
It's nice that the Eagles have been able to find so many diamonds in the rough and develop them into pieces. Unfortunately, they probably have far too many of them in the game at the moment.