The busiest and most significant portion of the Eagles’ offseason program begins Tuesday when the Eagles take the field for the first of 10 voluntary organized team activities during the next three weeks, followed by a mandatory mini-camp.
After spending the past three months bolstering their roster to try to prolong their Super Bowl window, the beginning stages of the 2019 roster will finally be on display.
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Here’s what will be closely watched on Tuesday:
More than five months have passed since Carson Wentz last played in a game and started the recovery process for the stress fracture in his back. That would seem to have been ample time for Wentz, who has been optimistic about a full offseason workload. But coach Doug Pederson was coy earlier this month when asked whether Wentz will be participating in OTAs. He has full clearance, according to NFL Network, although his level of participation remains a question. The Eagles are more than three months away from a game that matters, so Wentz’s current status is not a harbinger of anything this season. But his status is the biggest topic of the week.
The practices are optional, and it’s common for a few veterans to be absent. It’s not common for Malcolm Jenkins to be absent. However, the Eagles’ defensive leader has bypassed the team’s offseason workouts to date, The Inquirer reported earlier this month. It’s not clear why he’s been absent, but Jenkins has dropped to the 10th highest-paid safety in the NFL and can be considered underpaid relative to his production at the position. If No. 27 is not on the field Tuesday, it would raise attention to a storyline the Eagles often want to avoid with their most valuable players. Fletcher Cox missed workouts in 2017 and the Eagles won the Super Bowl, so it won’t end the season. But a Jenkins absence would be conspicuous.
For the first time since 2013, DeSean Jackson will practice in an Eagles uniform. He’s expected to show the elite deep speed that remains even though he’s spent five years elsewhere. Jackson will line up opposite Alshon Jeffery, with Nelson Agholor in the slot. Jackson is not the only high-profile newcomer – defensive tackle Malik Jackson might have been their most significant offseason addition – yet DeSean Jackson is the one who will command attention on the first day of OTAs.
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Wentz is not the only notable player on the mend. Brandon Brooks (Achilles), Cox (foot), Derek Barnett (shoulder), Rodney McLeod (knee), Jalen Mills (foot), and Ronald Darby (knee) are all returning starters who entered the offseason with injuries. Corey Clement (knee), Josh Sweat (ankle), Paul Worrilow (knee), and Mack Hollins (groin) are other notable players on this list. The Eagles must wait for training camp or potentially even the regular season for some of the players to return, but Tuesday will be the first gauge of the progress of the recovering players. The long list of absentees last spring and summer hurt the Eagles when the season started.
Pederson noted that this will be an important spring for backups and younger players who will get more work while aging and injured players aren’t participating. Matt Pryor, who didn’t play much as a rookie, will have a chance to show he should be the top replacement at right guard if Brooks’ injury extends into the season. Avonte Maddox, Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, and Cre’von LeBlanc will benefit from absences at cornerback. Same with Tre Sullivan and Deiondre’ Hall at safety, Treyvon Hester at defensive tackle, and Halapoulivaati Vatai and Andre Dillard at offensive tackle. The Eagles know what they can expect from many of their established veterans; they need to see marked improvement from some of their up-and-coming players.
This is a critical season for Jones’ development after missing almost the entire 2017 season while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and seesawing in and out of the lineup in 2018 with additional injuries. The Eagles remain bullish on Jones’ potential, but they’re going to need see consistent production – and consistent health. If the Eagles accepted that his rookie season was a wash, then it’s fair to expect a big jump this offseason. It must start this week.
There aren’t many positions where the Eagles have true competitions for starting spots, but linebacker is wide open. Nigel Bradham is entrenched as one of the starters. Kamu Grugier-Hill is also a returning starter, although he doesn’t yet have the entrenched status of Bradham. Zach Brown signed with the Eagles earlier this month and comes with significant starting experience (and has even been a Pro Bowler). The Eagles are excited about the addition of L.J. Fort. Worrilow, a free-agent signee a year ago, will try to show he can be a factor after tearing an ACL on the first day of OTAs last spring. Nate Gerry, now in his third year at linebacker, will also push for playing time.
After the Eagles traded Michael Bennett and Chris Long retired, they lost significant production at defensive end. They’ll rely on Brandon Graham and Barnett as the two starters and Vinny Curry will be the No. 3 defensive end, but there’s a rotation spot that will go to an emerging player unless the Eagles feel the need to sign a veteran before the season. Sweat, a 2018 fourth-round pick, has the physical tools to help the Eagles as an edge rusher, but he did little as a rookie. Shareef Miller, a 2019 fourth-round pick, will compete with Sweat for playing time. Watch out for practice-squad holdover Joe Ostman and late-season addition Daeshon Hall, too.
No position improved more from the end of last season to the start of OTAs than running back, where the Eagles traded for Jordan Howard and drafted Miles Sanders in the second round. Howard, who has averaged 1,123 yards and eight touchdowns in his first three seasons, gives the Eagles an established early-down running back. Sanders is the biggest investment the Eagles have made in running back since LeSean McCoy. Those two are expected to be atop the depth chart this season, but the Eagles still have Clement, Josh Adams, and Wendell Smallwood returning from last season. There will be heavy competition for roster spots, but it’s a good sign for the Eagles’ 2019 depth that their two top rushers from last season (Adams and Smallwood) are trying to win roster spots for this year.
The Eagles will determine Nick Foles’ replacement during the next few months. Nate Sudfeld is the front-runner after spending the past two seasons with the Eagles, although he has only 25 career regular-season pass attempts. Cody Kessler arrives with 12 career starts and was a third-round pick the same year Wentz went No. 2 and Sudfeld went in the sixth round. Then there’s fifth-round rookie Clayton Thorson, who’s likely more of a developmental prospect. But he enters OTAs in the mix with Sudfeld and Kessler. Given Wentz’s injury history, this is one of the most important roles on the roster.
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