The sound of pads popping will return to the Eagles’ practice facility Monday morning for the first time in months. It’s a sound that’s a few weeks late, but a welcome milestone for the Eagles nonetheless as the coronavirus-altered training camp enters the next phase.
The practices in pads over the next four weeks will almost exclusively determine which players make the trip down I-95 to face the Washington Football Team for the season opener on Sept 13.
- Lane Johnson says his coronavirus symptoms were mild; now he and the Eagles are ready to put on the pads
- Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson, and Javon Hargrave. Do the Eagles have the best interior pass rush in the NFL?
- You might not think much of the Eagles’ wide receivers, but Aaron Moorehead likes them a lot
Here are three story lines to watch ahead of the first padded practice:
There’s been significant turnover at the receiver position this offseason and for good reason. The team’s receiving corps combined for 146 catches and 1,647 yards last year. New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas had 149 catches for 1,725 yards by himself.
Injuries decimated the position and forced the Eagles offense to sustain long drives in order to score. They averaged 6.2 plays per drive, which was 10th in the league according to Football Outsiders.
With a highly regarded draft class of wideouts coming in, the Eagles chose to forgo a proven free-agent solution and instead addressed the problem in the draft with Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, and Quez Watkins, three speed receivers capable of adding some juice to the offense. The Eagles also fired last year’s wideouts coach, Carson Walch, and replaced him with Aaron Moorehead, a former NFL player and college assistant coach.
But training camp will determine whether counting on rookies to save the position will work after a virtual offseason without OTAs and rookie minicamps. If Reagor can overcome the obstacles of learning a playbook while in quarantine, he could pair with a healthy DeSean Jackson and Greg Ward to boost the receiving corps. If he and his rookie counterparts are slow out the gate, the Eagles could be leaning heavily on Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, and Miles Sanders to carry the passing game again this season.
JJ Arcega-Whiteside is the wild card in the group, and a promising training camp from him could ignite a resurgent sophomore campaign for the 2019 second-round pick.
Quotable: “We have an expectation to be one of the top groups in the league,” Moorehead said. “This group is coming out with a little bit of a chip on its shoulder, I think because of last year, and that’s a good thing. ... I know we have a really good group; it’s just on us to stay healthy and prove it week in and week out. So far they’ve taken that approach.”
The Eagles overhauled the secondary this summer, with only one returning starter expected to play the position he did last season. After trading for Darius Slay, whom the team hopes will be a true No. 1 cornerback, the Eagles’ front office and coaching staff spent the offseason building a secondary capable of moving around as Slay shadows the opposing team’s best receiver.
Jalen Mills will get his first live reps since moving from cornerback to safety to replace Malcolm Jenkins, who returned to the Saints after spending six seasons leading the Eagles defense and playing multiple positions — safety, slot cornerback, and pass-rusher — in Jim Schwartz’s defense.
Mills’ move vacated the outside cornerback spot opposite Slay, which will be won during training camp. Avonte Maddox, Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, and Cre’Von LeBlanc will all be competing for the starting job. Rounding out the group is Nickell Robey-Coleman, a well-established slot cornerback who came to the Eagles after three solid seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.
Rodney McLeod is the lone returning starter who didn’t spend the offseason learning a new position, although he’s assuming more of a leadership role with Jenkins gone.
Quotable: “There will be an open competition [for outside cornerback opposite Slay,]” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “We’ll have a lot of different guys. One of the things that’s happened to us over the last few years is we’ve had a lot of different guys play because of injuries in the secondary. That’s tough during the season, but what it’s done is give us a lot of different options.”
For more than a decade, the Eagles have had the luxury of stability at left tackle. Jason Peters, the force that granted Eagles quarterbacks comfort on the blind side for the last 11 years, is still on the team’s offensive line, but as a 38-year-old converting to right guard.
Andre Dillard, the team’s 2019 first-round pick, will take over at left tackle as the heir apparent to Peters, who is stepping in for Brandon Brooks at guard after Brooks tore his Achilles tendon. Dillard started four games for the Eagles last year, three in place of Peters when the veteran had a knee injury that required surgery, and one for Lane Johnson when Johnson missed time with a concussion.
The early returns on Dillard were mixed as he showed promise at times but struggled at others. Against the Seattle Seahawks, he played right tackle for the first time in his career and was benched at halftime.
Now, he’ll be thrust into the spotlight with Peters peering over his shoulder during practices. Consequently, an uneventful training camp for the Washington State product would go a long way toward boosting his confidence heading into season opener. Dillard will get tested early, with Washington’s stable of edge rushers led by Ryan Kerrigan and this year’s No. 2 overall pick Chase Young, who had 16 ½ sacks at Ohio State last year.