The Eagles sprinkled in a few more starters in their third preseason game against the Ravens on Thursday night. Most of the first half was dreadfully played, particularly on offense, but new quarterback Josh McCown kicked the unit into gear after the break.
The Eagles lost, 26-15, in a lightning-shortened game, but there were still bright spots. Here’s what we learned:
1. Rodney McLeod is ready to go for the opener. Since the spring, McLeod has been a step ahead of most of the Eagles coming off surgery. But it was a bit of a surprise to see the safety in the lineup since Doug Pederson has taken a conservative approach with his injured players. But it was good news on multiple fronts.
McLeod’s appearance meant that he’s on track for Sept. 8. He didn’t suffer any apparent setback. And to the naked eye, McLeod didn’t look hindered by the torn ACL that ended his season last September. It was just a small preseason sample. But McLeod recorded three tackles in 14 snaps and flashed his lateral quickness when he dropped Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley for a loss on a designed run.
Three-fifths of the Eagles’ regular offensive line started. Left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce had little reason to play, but the veterans logged 18 snaps, along with left guard Isaac Seumalo. They haven’t worked much with quarterback Cody Kessler or McCown, so there was some sloppy play, but there were also positives. Mostly, Peters and Kelce got to knock rust off. The same could be said for receivers Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Nelson Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz. The latter two were the only ones to catch passes, but they got hit and survived.
On the defensive side, the starting unit look relatively the same as it did a week ago. Safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Brandon Graham played again. Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan was back after missing a week. Graham read a jet sweep and notched a tackle for loss. Defensive end Vinny Curry blew up a later run with penetration.
The cornerbacks did fine, although Rasul Douglas got turned around by rookie receiver Miles Boykin and then knocked over the pursuing Jenkins when he missed the tackle. But, overall, the first-unit defense did well, holding the Ravens to 68 yards on three drives.
2. Corey Clement will still have a role in the backfield. Most assumed Clement would make the roster and be part of the running-back rotation, but nothing was certain coming off knee surgery. He was featured prominently during scrimmages with the Ravens, something I took to mean that he wouldn’t play in the preseason. But it was the opposite.
Clement started while Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders were given the night off on offense. He had some runs. He hit the hole off the right end for 11 yards behind right tackle Jordan Mailata and later zig-zagged up the middle for 5 yards. But there were also a few times when I thought Clement just needed to plow ahead rather than bounce outside. He doesn’t have that kind of speed. I like when Clement get his pads square and hits the hole north to south. He’s not a workhorse-type back, but he won’t have to be in this offense.
Darren Sproles wasn’t active again. He hasn’t played in the preseason since 2016. No matter, he’ll be on the 53-man roster. Right now, I think the Eagles will keep only four running backs. If it comes down to Josh Adams or Wendell Smallwood vs. a sixth receiver, I’d go with the latter. Adams is a solid runner, but he adds little value elsewhere, as evidence by his drop on a would-be touchdown pass from McCown. Smallwood didn’t log a carry before the storm blew in. Pederson likes him and he always runs hard, but his days in Philly could finally be numbered.
3. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside could have a bright future. The receiver has had an up-and-down training camp, as you would expect for a rookie. But it’s been encouraging that he’s consistently bounced back. Arcega-Whiteside isn’t going to stand out because of his speed or size. He’s got a decent combination of both, though, and seems to excel at some of the finer points of playing receiver.
The route he ran on his 20-yard touchdown pass was exquisite. He released inside off the line to get the cornerback on the outside. He then used his eyes to get the free safety to think that he might be running a post. But alas, he turned toward the corner, and McCown dropped a teardrop. Arcega-Whiteside had a little work left, but he reached out and pulled the ball in with his fingertips.
He had several other highlights. There was a grab over the middle that went for 18 yards after he squirted out of sandwiched tacklers. There was a 35-yard catch on fourth down that was thrown behind him, but Arcega-Whiteside used the reversal of momentum to turn away from a defender and picked up 20-plus yards after the catch. All told, he finished with eight catches for 104 yards.
Even if Arcega-Whiteside is the fourth receiver, his time on offense will be limited. But he should get enough of a taste to aid his development. But I’d use him more in the red zone than Jackson, for instance.
The next few receiver spots are up for grabs, but Mack Hollins is likely to be the fifth receiver, and if there’s a sixth, my money’s on Greg Ward. Hollins has been inconsistent in camp and hasn’t looked as explosive as before his groin injuries. But the Eagles like his special-teams capabilities and are probably willing to allow him time to work himself back into his old self. Ward had another strong outing. He caught four passes for 45 yards, the first a nice 15-yard sideline grab that McCown said helped kick-start his night.
I had much more to say about McCown, his first game with the Eagles, and his prospects as the backup to Carson Wentz in my story off the game.
4. There were good, bad, and ugly from the Eagles reserves. Mailata got the start and continued his education. He played more snaps (60) than anyone else on offense. He needed them. He had some nice moments, but there were as many mistakes. He was called for several penalties, although he wasn’t the only one.
The Eagles committed 15 overall and had three false starts during one four-play span. I have to think that there was an issue with McCown and the snap count. Andre Dillard had a couple of penalties, a hold and a false start, but there’s still a lot to like about the rookie left tackle.
Stefen Wisniewski wasn’t at center with the second unit. He has struggled with his snaps all summer, but the Eagles might have been giving Nate Herbig more playing time at a position he had never previously played. Linebacker L.J. Fort has the roster made for special-teams reasons alone, but he could enter the argument for more time with the defense. He cleaned up after Curry’s penetration and has covered consistently.
Defensive end Daeshon Hall’s push to make the team is nearly complete. He didn’t notch a sack this week, but he was disruptive. I like the effort tight end Alex Ellis has given. He’s not flashy, but he’s consistently shown up on film. I’d take him ahead of Josh Perkins, who dropped another pass, as the third tight end.
The less said of the Eagles’ deep cornerbacks, the better.
5. The Eagles are healthier than they were this time a year ago, but they still have some question marks. The following coming-off-surgery players warmed up in pads before the game but didn’t play: defensive end Derek Barnett (shoulder), cornerback Ronald Darby (knee), and guard Brandon Brooks (Achilles). The educated guess here is that Barnett is ready for the season and that decisions on Darby and Brooks will come down to the wire.
These injured players didn’t warm up: defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (foot), linebacker Nigel Bradham (foot), tackle Lane Johnson (knee), tight end Dallas Goedert (calf), and receiver Charles Johnson (ankle). The first four have all said they expect to be ready by the opener. The educated guess here is that it won’t be a formality for some.