Bob Ford: I understand that it takes a long time to master a position like defensive end in the NFL, particularly for a young player who really needs to improve his strength for the battle against the behemoths of a good offensive line.
That said, I see a window for Shareef Miller, the 2019 fourth-round pick to become an interesting part of the defensive line rotation. The Philly kid who went to Frankford High and George Washington High before three strong seasons at Penn State is very quick, very intuitive, and capable of being what the scouts like to term “disruptive.”
There is also some opportunity for him. The team brought back Vinny Curry this season, to spell starters Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett, but it’s worth wondering how much Curry has left in the tank. There is also Josh Sweat in the mix, a fourth-round pick in 2018, and the coaches like him a lot.
But it is a long season, and Miller is going to get some reps. It may take a while to fully transition from the college game to the speed and physicality of the NFL. Still, there is real skill and drive in Miller, and those 7.5 sacks and 15.0 tackles for losses last season for the Nittany Lions jump off his bio page.
Breakout might be overstated for what his rookie season will become, but I wouldn’t bet against him.
Mike Sielski: Malcolm Jenkins was the Eagles’ most important defensive player last season, holding together a secondary that struggled after Rodney McLeod’s knee injury. But one of the reasons, apart from Jenkins’ leadership and intelligence, that the secondary didn’t fall apart was the emergence of Avonte Maddox. A fourth-round pick in last year’s draft, Maddox was the Swiss Army knife of the defensive backfield. He intercepted two passes, deflected four more, and played three positions. “How many rookies can you guys recall — I don’t know any — [who] started a game at safety, nickel, and corner in the same season when they were a rookie?” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “It’s tough duty.”
Things should be easier for him this season, and in turn, he should be better and more productive. With a season of NFL experience under his belt, Maddox should continue developing into one of the league’s better slot cornerbacks. His size (5-foot-9, 184 pounds) makes him a natural for the position, and with McLeod back and the rest of the secondary healthier, it shouldn’t be necessary for Maddox to ricochet from spot to spot. “Wherever he is on the field,” Schwartz said, “we have confidence that he can get the job done.”
Paul Domowitch: Wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. The second-round rookie has had an impressive summer. He caught eight passes for 94 yards and a touchdown in the Eagles’ third preseason game, against Baltimore, and has given every indication he’s not going to be a deer-in-the-headlights NFL rookie.
While he will enter the season as the No. 4 wideout behind Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, and Nelson Agholor, I think he’s going to have a much bigger impact on the offense — and play more snaps — than most No. 4 receivers, particularly in the red zone. His size (6-2, 225) and contested-catch ability figure to be huge assets for an offense that fell from first to 17th in red zone production last season.
I’m expecting Doug Pederson to use a lot of “12″ personnel groupings in the red zone with tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert along with Arcega-Whiteside and Jeffery. I think he’ll also go with a lot of empty-backfield, two-tight end, three-wide receiver sets inside the 20, featuring Arcega-Whiteside, Jeffery, and Agholor.
Arcega-Whiteside is an aggressive, sure-handed receiver who feels he has a birthright to every pass thrown in his direction. “You have to have the mentality that when the ball’s in the air, it’s yours,’’ he said after catching eight passes against Baltimore.
I don’t think he’s going to have a huge reception total. Carson Wentz has too many other receiving options this year. Maybe 30-35 catches. But I think he’s going to catch six or seven touchdown passes, most, if not all, in the red zone.
Les Bowen: I will take Sidney Jones, who ought to play a lot this season, ideally on the outside at corner. He has worked hard to get healthy. He still has the quickness, length, and smarts that had him tabbed as a high first-round pick in 2017, before an Achilles tear dropped him to the Eagles in the second round.
Jones is a relentless worker. He’s never going to be the kind of big-hitting corner fans want to see since he doesn’t have the frame for that, but he is going to be good, probably the most talented corner on the team. Rasul Douglas might get more interceptions — Douglas has receiver instincts and timing — and Avonte Maddox might be more versatile. But Jones, at some point, is going to be the guy who covers the other team’s best receiver. He might have to wait on that. Ronald Darby has dibs, but is Darby, returning on a one-year deal, going to be as fast as he was before he hurt his knee? I’ll take Jones, in the long run.