It might’ve only been a preseason game in mid-August, but Thursday evening marked the beginning of a new chapter for the Eagles and rookie wide receiver DeVonta Smith.

Smith, whom the Eagles tabbed with the No. 10 pick in this year’s NFL draft, suffered a sprained MCL only a few days into training camp. He was sidelined for a couple of weeks and missed the team’s first preseason game before returning to practice on Monday. Smith played the entire first half versus New England, recording two catches on four targets for 19 yards. The Eagles lost to the Patriots, 35-0.

It didn’t help Smith that quarterback Jalen Hurts missed the game with an illness. Backup Joe Flacco’s unfamiliarity with the starting unit was most evident – he lacked timing with the receivers and often held the ball too long when he faced pressure.

When Smith was on the field, he exuded quickness and crisp route running. The most important takeaway? He didn’t seem slowed by his knee injury. Flacco might’ve only found him twice, but Smith consistently won at the line of scrimmage by defeating his defender and creating space. This should serve as welcome news for a wide receiver group that combined for only 166 catches and 14 touchdowns last season.

During his final season at Alabama, Smith caught 117 passes for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman Trophy award.

Hurts sits with an illness

Leading up to kickoff, Hurts appeared to be in good spirits. The second-year quarterback took every snap with the first-team offense during warmups, and he danced in rhythm to the music blaring across the speakers at Lincoln Financial Field.

But after the Eagles won the coin toss and elected to receive, Hurts was nowhere to be found in the huddle. Instead, it was Flacco under center. Moments later, the team announced Hurts would miss the game due to an illness that was not related to COVID-19. After the game, coach Nick Sirianni said Hurts went to a hospital to have his abdominal pain evaluated and that he was “fine” and “doing OK.”

“We just decided that it wasn’t in his best interest to play with what he was feeling,” Sirianni said.

“For a guy like that to tell us, he’s a tough guy, and so it must have been hurting him pretty good for him to let us know about that.”

During a pair of joint practices earlier in the week at NovaCare Complex, Hurts enjoyed his best stretch of training camp. He threw two interceptions during a 7-on-7 period Tuesday, but Hurts regularly made plays with his feet and throwing arm, as he diced through New England’s defense during full-team sessions. With only one preseason game remaining, the coaching staff will need to decide whether or not Hurts needs more in-game reps next Friday against the Jets.

Besides Hurts, several other starters sat out, including center Jason Kelce, right guard Brandon Brooks, right tackle Lane Johnson, cornerback Darius Slay and defensive linemen Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat, Brandon Graham and Ryan Kerrigan. Kicker Jake Elliott also did not play due to an ankle injury.

McPhearson has a rough night

Another rookie who saw a boost in playing time was defensive back Zech McPhearson, who started in place of Slay. McPhearson has flashed in camp, but he suffered from multiple miscues against the Patriots.

He was beat by wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Jakobi Meyers on consecutive receptions that combined for 33 yards during New England’s second drive. The following series, Patriots quarterback Cam Newton zipped a pass to Meyers, who jetted up the left sideline. McPhearson had a chance to shove Meyers out of bounds, but he whiffed and Meyers sneaked into the end zone.

McPhearson’s highlight of the night was a pass defensed versus Kendrick Bourne on a two-point conversion attempt in the second quarter. Bourne used his frame to jump in front of the pass, but McPhearson reached across his body to force the incompletion.

McPhearson was drafted in the fourth round (No. 123) out of Texas Tech.

Troubling trend

After the Eagles failed to convert a single third down in the preseason opener, they went 2-for-9 in their second exhibition. Before the backups were substituted in, the Eagles converted just 1 of 5 attempts on third down in the first half. Philadelphia also failed to convert both of their attempts on fourth down.

Sure, it’s only the preseason. But at some point, the offense will need to start stringing together consistent performances, especially in clutch situations.

Starters typically don’t play in the final game of the preseason finale. But the Eagles might benefit from trotting out Hurts and Co. for a series or two next week, in effort to improve their efficiency. Through two preseason games, Philadelphia is 2-for-18 on third down.