JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Eagles looked much better in their second preseason game, beating the Jaguars, 24-10, Thursday night.
A bunch of regulars didn’t play again, but several key players did and made contributions. There were also some bright spots among the bubble roster candidates.
Here’s what we learned:
1. The Eagles need to add another quarterback. The big news from the game, of course, was yet another quarterback injury. Cody Kessler left with a concussion after defensive end Datone Jones pummeled him from the blind side. Left tackle Andre Dillard has shouldered a lot of blame for allowing Jones a free pass at Kessler, but coach Doug Pederson said that the rookie pretty much did as he should, which was help against the blitz. The Jaguars were sending six vs. the Eagles’ five blockers, so it was incumbent upon Kessler to reset the protection pre-snap or know that he was “hot.”
“They pressured there. You really would like the quarterback to see that and get that quick throw,” Pederson said. “He held the ball a touch. We needed to get the ball out.”
It was only seven plays, but Kessler was once again shaky. He completed just 1 of 4 passes, a screen for 11 yards. Kessler is in the concussion protocol, so his availability for practice and the third preseason game Thursday is in question. Pederson said that he could get by with just two healthy quarterbacks (Carson Wentz and Clayton Thorson), but my concern would be for the three or so weeks until Nate Sudfeld returns in the regular season. The Eagles appeared to have made their backup decision by sticking with Kessler after Sudfeld broke his wrist, but his concussion could offer them the opportunity to bring in someone else.
Kessler has months in the offense, but he continues to struggle in practice, and it’s not just because he lacks arm strength. He’s a fairly athletic guy, as his 14-yard scramble on third down displayed, but the strengths essentially end there. If Kessler isn’t ready by Thursday, and the Eagles don’t add another arm, Thorson would likely have to play the entire game. Pederson all but said that next week’s scrimmages against the Ravens will be enough competition for Wentz before the opener. I’m not sure about that, but there is virtually no reason to risk playing him at this point.
2. Thorson redeemed himself with a much better outing than his preseason debut. He looked significantly more comfortable and led the Eagles on scoring drives of 90, 87, and 58 yards. He had only one place to go after last week’s 0.0-passer-rating performance, and there is still a lot to improve, but he made some nice throws and even better decisions. The rookie completed 16 of 26 passes for 175 yards, with both a touchdown and interception. He had a 78.2 rating.
Thorson’s best moments came when he tossed up jump balls or back shoulders. That isn’t necessarily a long-term recipe for success, but he identified single coverage in most situations and gave his receivers a chance. The touchdown pass to Greg Ward, after he had gotten behind the cornerback, was underthrown, but Thorson was under duress against the blitz and felt pressure coming from the backside.
I’m not about to crown Thorson as the solution to the Eagles’ backup woes. But he started to validate the fifth-round draft price and showed that he might be a developmental project worth salvaging. It would be far too early to give up on the rookie in the first place, but Thursday night’s outing was another reminder that patience is often as much a part of the evaluation process as anything.
3. The Eagles’ second- and third-unit receivers acquitted themselves well. The group rewarded Thorson with some nice grabs, although there were still a few things to clean up. Ward carried his camp heroics into the preseason with a nifty, catch-and-juke-a-few-defenders 38-yard touchdown. I got to think he’s the odds-on favorite to win a roster spot if the Eagles keep six receivers. Pederson confirmed that Ward was the emergency quarterback had Thorson also been injured. If his pass on an option play was any indication of his throwing prowess, I can’t imagine he would have done more than hand off had he been called upon
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will be on the roster, and could see time as the fourth receiver, but he remains a work in progress. He caught only 2 of 7 passes for 20 yards. Thorson gave Arcega-Whiteside a chance on a back shoulder, but the pass sailed through his hands. Mack Hollins played for the first time in a year. He had one catch for 5 yards and drew a penalty as the gunner on punt coverage. Hollins still doesn’t look as explosive as he did pre-groin injuries, but I still think he makes the team, if only because of his specia- teams skills.
Marken Michel didn’t break out like he did with last week’s 75-yard touchdown catch, but he flashed with a 12-yard grab, most of the yards after the catch. Charles Johnson did the same on an early bubble screen from Kessler. Carlton Agudosi had two catches for 18 yards. The Eagles have depth at receiver, but there might have been concern from some that they wouldn’t be able to exhibit their wares with Kessler and Thorson at quarterback. The latter quarterback, as least, gave them the opportunity.
4. There was improvement up and down the roster. I wrote about how some of the starters and regulars who did play gave fans reason to not worry about the Eagles’ prospects for my column off the game. But Miles Sanders was the headliner because most outside the team haven’t yet seen what the running back may be capable of as a rookie. It was a small sample, but he rushed five times for 31 yards and had two impressive carries. The highlight may have been his blitz pickup on the Thorson-Ward touchdown.
But there were also positive signs from some of the Eagles’ unheralded players (read: those who may not make the 53-man roster). Running backs Boston Scott (7 carries for 43 yards) and Donnel Pumphrey (5 carries for 29 yards) had all the yards on the ground on the Eagles’ last touchdown-scoring drive. They each made defenders miss in the open field. Neither really has a shot of making the team, but they may have inched closer to Josh Adams (5 carries for 7 yards) and Wendell Smallwood (3 carries for 3 yards) if the Eagles are to keep five running backs. Scott didn’t fare particularly well as a returner, though. He let a punt land around the 12-yard line when he should have fair-caught it. Adams, it should be noted, had a nice 19-yard catch and run.
5. The Eagles dominated on the line of scrimmage. The entire first offensive line sat, as did several key defensive linemen, but the Eagles’ depth up front was evident. The second offensive line with Dillard, Matt Pryor, Stefen Wisniewski, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, and Jordan Mailata has to be among the best in the NFL. It wasn’t perfect Thursday night. Vaitai and Pryor took penalties and had a few missed assignments. And Wiz’s poor snaps continue to befuddle. But Thorson had time for the most part and the run-blocking was markedly improved.
There are still legitimate questions about the top of the defensive end unit, particularly compared with last year’s group, but they have some strong candidates for the Nos. 4-5 spots. Daeshon Hall had his second two-sack outing and forced another fumble. A turnstile might have impeded Hall and other Eagles rushers more than Jaguars left tackle Leonard Wester. I’m not sure he’s moved ahead of Josh Sweat as the No. 4 guy, but he’s making a strong case. Rookie Shareef Miller notched another sack with a spin move and added a tackle for a loss. Eli Harold and Kasim Edebali, both added during camp, had some strong rushes, as well.