There’s nothing to play for besides knowledge, pride, and the Dallas Cowboys. Good riddance, 2020.
The four-win Eagles host Washington on Sunday night with the responsibility of putting their best team on the field so as to ensure competitive balance for the Cowboys, a six-win team that needs help to reach the playoffs. Well, six-win teams don’t deserve insurance. Also, they are the Cowboys.
The Eagles’ only responsibilities in Game 16 are to 1) learn as much as they can about certain players on their own team and 2) ensure no significant piece of their 2021 team gets hurt.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox can’t be in the discussion to play after leaving Sunday’s game with an aggravated neck injury. It makes no sense to risk injury to Miles Sanders, a franchise back in his second season. But, remarkably, Sanders and Cox really are the only no-brainers. In order of importance...
Start the rookie, no matter what
You might be tempted to sit Jalen Hurts after an incandescent beginning to his NFL career, but he’s got less than 3½ games of every-down experience, and it shows. He has ball security issues; his nine fumbles in 284 snaps dwarfs Wentz’s 10 fumbles in 809 snaps. He needs to be sharper: he’s completed 54.8% of his passes in his three starts, which isn’t good enough even though about a dozen of his incompletions were throw-aways to avoid sacks. He’s too quiet; the Eagles have 13 false starts in his 14 quarters while playing in virtually silent stadiums. Hurts is valuable, and he got hurt a little Sunday, but the kid needs the work.
Don’t dress Carson Wentz
Nate Sudfeld, find your mouthguard. There’s no reason to endanger Wentz, injured in each of the past five seasons dating back to his senior year at North Dakota State (wrist, rib, knee, back, concussion). He’s either going to be your franchise quarterback in 2021, your overpaid backup in 2021, or trade bait. If he shreds his knee Sunday night he’ll be none of those.
The ironman center has started 104 consecutive games, but streaks are dumb. Kelce injured his elbow six games ago. He’s 33. He’s been a Pro Bowl player, an All-Pro, or both in five of the last six seasons, including this one. Given Hurts’ inexperience and Wentz’s mule-headedness, Kelce is the most irreplaceable player on the team – especially since he’ll cost just $5.5 million next season. So, make sure he gets to next season.
Sit Goedert, play Ertz
For a tight-end-centric offense like Doug Pederson’s, Dallas Goedert, a top-five all-around tight end, might be the most important component in 2021, his fourth season. Zach Ertz, meanwhile, will one day be in the Eagles’ Hall of Fame, but this season he has one touchdown, just 33 catches, and missed five games. He’s 30 years old and costs $8.25 million in 2021, so he won’t be back. Pair him with Richard Rodgers, give Big D the day off, and let Ertz convince some other team to sign him for two years and $16 million, like Jimmy Graham got from Da Bears when he was 33 last March.
Derek Barnett needs to show up
The first-round end in 2017 who broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee recovered a key fumble in Super Bowl LII, but he’s managed just 19½ sacks, he’s missed time due to injury, and he takes dumb penalties. Barnett is only 24, he’s just finished growing into his body, and he’s at the point where defensive ends tend to blossom or plateau: Brandon Graham had just 11½ sacks after four seasons but has averaged 6.8 in the seven seasons since. A big finish for Barnett on Sunday might sway the Eagles toward keeping him and his $10 million salary for at least one more season.
Sit Greg Ward (Greg Ward?) and Jalen Reagor
Ward is the team’s most polished receiver. He has a catch in every game since he became a starter 22 games ago, including playoffs. That totals 83 catches in that stretch, including seven touchdowns. Jalen Reagor is this year’s first-round pick, but he missed five games due to injury, and he’s played in the last seven. That’s enough. Don’t risk him.
On the other hand, both DeSean Jackson, 34, and Alshon Jeffery, 30, are entirely expendable. They will carry painful salary-cap hits when the Eagles cut them, but for now they’re the sort of veteran targets Hurts needs, and they’ll be eager to put good work on tape for the 2021 suitors who sign them for next to nothing.
Spotlight: Jordan Mailata
The converted rugby player has a legion of fans hoping he makes it big but the giant Aussie has surrendered seven sacks in 729 snaps at tackle, fourth-most among players who didn’t also play a significant amount at guard. A big game Sunday night might give Mailata an edge over 2019 first-round pick Andre Dillard, Jason Peters’ ordained successor, who was lost to injury just before this season started. A bad day, and it will be Dillard’s job to lose next year. Pedigree trumps mediocre performance.
Who is Jalen Mills?
After playing four seasons poorly at cornerback, the Eagles signed Jalen Mills to return as a safety. There, again, he played poorly. However, when pressed into service as a cornerback this season, Mills performed better. Idea: Start Mills at corner Sunday and see if his improved cornerback play was a mirage. If it wasn’t, maybe bring him back again as a corner. He’s a high-character leader, if nothing else.
Also: Great hair.