Jim Schwartz approached the podium before the Eagles’ practice Thursday, and jokingly asked reporters “What can I be evasive on?"
Turns out, the status of Derek Barnett was on the list. The defensive end has been recovering from a torn rotator cuff and ensuing surgery that derailed most of his sophomore season. The Eagles’ 2017 first-round pick was a limited participant in practice the last two days.
When asked if he was worried about whether Barnett would suit up for the season opener, the defensive coordinator was true to his opening question.
“Yeah, we’re concerned with everybody, but we got a long way to go until Sunday,” Schwartz said. “We’ll see where everybody is. We have good depth at that position. I think whoever we put out there will be able to get the job done.”
Barnett didn’t play at all in the preseason, but he was a full participant for most of the training camp practices. The former Tennessee standout had promising days in camp and is expected to assume a bigger role in his third season.
Schwartz’s comments were a shift from those of head coach Doug Pederson earlier in the week.
“I feel really, really good about Derek,” Pederson said. “He’s been probably the one that’s been practicing the most during training camp with getting more reps each and every week. So he’s in a really good spot, so I have no issues with him not playing or being there [in the preseason].”
It’s unclear what caused the change of tone, and Barnett was not available to speak Thursday. Schwartz very well could just be holding his cards close to his chest, though.
Pederson reiterated his optimism before Friday’s practice, saying he’s “still feels confident” that Barnett will be ready to go.
Barnett is entering the most important year of his young career. The Eagles rely on their defensive line to pressure opposing quarterbacks without the help of blitzing linebackers, placing a premium on pass rushers. Barnett’s role as a productive edge rusher becomes even more important since Chris Long is retired and Michael Bennett is a New England Patriot.
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman gave Barnett a subtle vote of confidence last week after passing on a trade for star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney even as the price for the three-time Pro Bowler dropped to a surprisingly small haul.
“We have to bet on our young players. We have to bet on our scouting," he said Saturday. “We have to bet on our coaching, and we are going to take that bet at that position.”
The Eagles rotate defensive linemen throughout the game regardless of injuries. They typically go four deep at defensive end, and sometimes get creative, using edge rushers as defensive tackles on passing downs.
If Barnett isn’t able to go on Sunday, or if he’s hampered by his shoulder, it’s likely that Vinny Curry will take his place. Curry, who spent last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after six seasons with the Eagles, garnered praise from Schwartz on Thursday.
“He’s an important rotational player for us and has played good, winning football for us,” he said. “We have full confidence that he can do anything.”
Curry said he’s ready to fill in if needed, but he isn’t overly concerned about Barnett’s ability to go on Sunday.