Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is fond of saying it takes three years to fully evaluate a draft class, to really know if the front office did a good job on a given April evening in choosing among the college products sitting on the draft’s shelves.
That’s a measured approach, and probably wise, although it does mean if the front office messed up, two more drafts will pass before you figure that out. Nevertheless, making snap judgments on rookies is a precarious business, particularly since they aren’t generally given as many opportunities as their more veteran teammates.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
And then there are the Eagles, touted as an offensive juggernaut this season, replete with weapons for quarterback Carson Wentz, who already found themselves scrambling to fill positions before summer gave way to autumn.
Against Atlanta last Sunday, tight end Dallas Goedert didn’t make it through warmups, receivers Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson left the game very early, running back Corey Clement was injured on a kickoff return, and even Wentz was banged up enough to require concussion testing that caused him to miss six plays just before halftime.
It was a scramble, one that very nearly succeeded, and two of the main cogs in keeping the offensive machinery running were rookies Miles Sanders and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who were taken just four picks apart in the second round of the 2019 draft.
That scenario seems likely to continue this Sunday against Detroit, although divining injury information from the Eagles is like climbing a tree blindfolded. Instead of three years, the team is getting three games to see what they have in the rookies, and the coaches and front office very much need their selections to have been correct.
“It’s an opportunity to show what you can do,” Sanders said. “It’s an opportunity for both of us in the regular season when it counts. That’s how I see it.”
“I felt like that was a crazy situation,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “But when adversity strikes, you’ve got to be ready to handle it. It’s an opportunity, but my mentality is not that I’m a rookie – that’s just making an excuse. I hold myself to high standards.”
Unlike Arcega-Whiteside, running back Sanders was expected to contribute from the start to some extent, but his workload has been greater than most predicted.
Jordan Howard was brought in to supposedly be the workhorse back, pounding out the tough yards between the tackles, but Sanders has carried the ball 21 times in two games, and Howard just 14 times. Sanders has played 71 snaps, compared with 35 for Howard
Whether this is a reflection on Howard, or on the offensive line’s ability to create interior running lanes, particularly without Goedert available to help, is hard to say. Sanders has been solid in augmenting pass protection, so perhaps it is as simple as that.
In any case, Sanders has gotten added playing time, although he really hasn’t done that much with it. He has 21 carries for 53 yards, but 19 of those yards came on a single play in the opener against Washington.
Aside from that carry, he has gained 34 yards on 20 tries. Sanders has a tendency to skitter along the line of scrimmage looking for an inviting gap that was a lot easier to find at Penn State than it is in the NFL. Somewhat often, what he finds is the sideline.
“That will come with me reading the defenders and seeing how they are attacking our O-line,” Sanders said. “It’s just about me being more sharp with my decisions and trusting my eyes. I’ll be getting more reps and getting more comfortable, and my decisions will be sharper.”
Arcega-Whiteside was on the field for just five snaps against Washington but was thrown out there for 75 snaps against Atlanta. He ran decoy for the most part, getting just four targets and one catch for 4 yards. Wentz stuck with Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz, mixing in some Mack Hollins as well, but Arcega-Whiteside felt ready in the situation.
“It just takes repping it and knowing where he thinks I should be and where I feel comfortable catching it,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “I have trust in him, and he has trust in me. Now we have time to get those reps together.”
For the rookies, this is an exciting moment, but for the team, having to rely on rookies, it is a nervous time. The season can still get off to a good start, adding wins that will later help postseason seeding, but Sunday’s home game against the Lions could be a fulcrum point upon which that is decided.