This week, the Eagles opened organized team activities — can the NFL just call OTAs practices instead? — and they opened Friday’s workout to the media. It was our first look at the 2022 team, although practice was light and various players were missing. Let’s get to the action:
Roll call. OTAs are voluntary. Coach Nick Sirianni said last month that the early phases of the offseason program were well attended. That doesn’t mean players didn’t miss time or that some veterans opted to stay away from the NovaCare Complex, as is their right. I tried my best to account for every man on the 90-man roster on Friday. The Eagles weren’t wearing their traditional green-and-white practice jerseys and instead donned black-and-gray shirts with orange lettering to honor victims and survivors on national gun violence awareness day.
The following returning players were absent: center Jason Kelce, tackle Jordan Mailata, tackle Lane Johnson, wide receiver Jalen Reagor, receiver Quez Watkins, and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Offensive lineman Brett Toth, who was holding his wedding reception in Tennessee on Friday, was also out, which also likely explained why others from his position were missing. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland was absent, as well, although a team spokesman said he may have stayed away because of an illness.
Ahem, injuries … The Eagles won’t provide a daily practice report until training camp, and it’s possible that some of the above players were missing because of various bumps and bruises, but several with apparent injuries were present and didn’t practice. They were tight ends Tyree Jackson and Richard Rodgers and receivers John Hightower and Keric Wheatfall. Jackson, who suffered a torn ACL in last season’s finale, wore a large brace on his right knee. He is unlikely to be ready for the season and could open camp on the physically unable to perform list.
Defensive end Brandon Graham, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon rupture last September, appeared to be a full participant. He said after practice that he feels 100 percent healthy. Guard Isaac Seumalo, who was lost for the season after he suffered a Lisfranc foot fracture a week after Graham, seemed to be fully engaged. There remains some question as to whether Seumalo will remain a starter. Landon Dickerson has settled in at left guard, which would require a move to the right for Seumalo. Jack Driscoll filled the spot last season until he suffered a season-ending ankle injury. He was also back. Asked before practice who’s first on the depth chart at right guard, Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen said, “We’re working through all that stuff right now. Isaac is back obviously healthy, but he looks good right now and we’ll go from there.”
Oh, thank heaven. While the Eagles and the Bengals are the only two teams in the NFL to have as few as six practices and no mandatory minicamp, the last phase of the offseason program does ratchet up the on-field intensity. I don’t want to overstate the conditions, though, at least compared to previous regimens. The collective bargaining agreement has pecked away at how much teams are allowed to throw at players in terms of contact. But the Eagles have dialed back even more so and don’t plan to have 11-on-11 team drills this spring. They did have two 7-on-7 periods to go along with various individual and special teams drills on Friday. The length of practice didn’t even stretch past an hour. The jury is still out on whether fewer, less strenuous practices will result in healthier players, but the Eagles believe it played a role in last season’s improvement in adjusted games lost to injury.
Depth chart updates. With the absences, lack of team drills, and abbreviated practice, it was impossible to construct an accurate depth chart, but 7-on-7s did provide some idea as to how the Eagles’ defensive nickel personnel looked. On the first team, Darius Slay and James Bradberry were the outside cornerbacks, Avonte Maddox was the slot, Anthony Harris and Marcus Epps were the split safeties, and T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White were the linebackers. Linebackers Davion Taylor and rookie Nakobe Dean stepped in for a few repetitions with the starters.
The second unit had Zech McPhearson and Mac McCain as the outside corners, Josiah Scott in the slot, K’Von Wallace and Andre Chachere as the safeties, and Taylor and Christian Elliss as the primary linebackers.
Dean of students. Dean, who fell down most draft boards because of a pectoral muscle injury and other various health concerns, didn’t appear to practice with any constraints. The Eagles are far from training in pads and with contact, but the third-round rookie ran well and looked plenty able. During special teams drills, Dean engaged with a blocker, shook free, and motored up field with relative ease.
Eagles linemen mostly worked alone, and it was difficult to get a long-distance view of the defensive guys, but it wasn’t hard to spot Jordan Davis. The 6-foot-6, 336-pound rookie is arguably the largest defensive lineman the Eagles have ever had. He said after practice that he has actually leaned out a little over the last month of training, despite recently discovering the delectable joys of local institution Dante & Luigi’s cannolis.
Hurts to Smith. I may have buried the lede here, but quarterback Jalen Hurts and receiver DeVonta Smith hooked up on a couple of deep balls in 7-on-7s, which naturally suggests the Eagles are Super Bowl-bound. At the least — and that is really where the bar should be set — the connection offered further proof that Smith is unlikely to be plagued by a sophomore slump. He hauled in the first on a seam route and got behind Slay on the second, a go route.
Hurts to Brown. The Eagles’ biggest offseason addition, in terms of renown, didn’t flash as much as Smith, but A.J. Brown clearly looks like a premium receiver. The way he pulled in passes during individual drills reminded me of the first time local reporters saw Alshon Jeffery up close. They have different traits, but they share an effortless quality in how they catch passes.
Brown struggled to hook up with Hurts in 7-on-7s. He slipped out of his release on an early play. A set later, he caught a short one and jetted up field. Hurts tried to hit Brown on a back-shoulder pass, but Slay had turned in time and the receiver became a defender and denied an interception. Later, Hurts zipped a long toss to Brown on a go route, but he overthrew him by five yards or so. Brown said afterward that he told Hurts that if he misses him, miss him long. The quarterback showed some considerable arm strength with the heave, but there was little trajectory on the pass.
Hurts made mechanical changes in the offseason after working out in Southern California. Much of it, we have been told, centered on his footwork and lower body. It was hard to notice what were likely to be minor tweaks, but he was relatively consistent, as one would expect without a rush in his face. His best pass might have come when he uncorked one to crossing tight end Jack Stoll in a tight window.
Other 7-on-7 highlights. Hurts hit Deon Cain on a deep post with Slay in coverage. The corner just missed slapping the ball away, and Cain, a third-year receiver, did well to maintain his eyes. Hurts’ arm action looked a little funky, but the result was positive. McPhearson broke up a short pass by second-string quarterback Gardner Minshew. Safety Jared Mayden had a PBU, as well, when he muscled the ball out of rookie receiver Britain Covey’s hands.
Covey looked every bit of his 5-foot-8, 173-pound listed size. Rookie quarterback Carson Strong was late on a Covey hook route that allowed Maybin to knock down another pass, but the former Utah star fell rather easily to the turf, as well.
Cain had a couple of more grabs, and with Reagor and Watkins missing, took advantage of his opportunities. Running back Kenneth Gainwell was the recipient of a few check-downs. Hurts only had to scramble once, after the defense took away a two-man route concept to his left that forced him right.
And a few leftovers … To little surprise, the Eagles’ running-back order during individual drills went Miles Sanders, Gainwell, and Boston Scott. … Friday offered our first look at JJ Arcega-Whiteside as a tight end. He wasn’t targeted in 7-on-7s, but did look somewhat larger. The Eagles list him at 6-2, 237 pounds, 12 pounds heavier than he was listed last season.