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Can Eagles DE Genard Avery keep it going after ‘breakout’ performance? | Early Birds

The third-year end recorded a sack and five quarterback hits Sunday against the 49ers despite playing just 16 of 73 snaps on defense.

Eagles defensive linemen (left to right) Genard Avery, Josh Sweat, and Derek Barnett running at practice last Friday.
Eagles defensive linemen (left to right) Genard Avery, Josh Sweat, and Derek Barnett running at practice last Friday.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Good morning, Eagles fans! The Eagles are back in business after notching their first win of the season. And … they’re alone atop the NFC East division. It’s quite remarkable. But that’s the way the division has been the last several years, lacking quality teams and open for the taking no matter how average your team might be.

The NFC East has a combined 3-12-1 record through four weeks. There will be more wins in the division because, of course, someone has to claim head-to-head matchups. But it’s probably going to be an ugly race to the finish. The Eagles might as well win it, although I’m curious to know how fans feel about back-dooring into another division title.

Would you be OK with an 8-7-1 record — conceivably the best they can finish — and entry into a postseason in which anything can happen (although it hardly does)? Or would you like to see the Eagles fall apart, get a good draft pick, and more importantly, blow up the roster and essentially start over?

It’s not a binary argument, though. The Eagles can do both. But if they keep winning with some of the veterans in place, it might prevent younger talent from getting the opportunity to develop. It might be too early to have this conversation, but the Eagles have two difficult games coming up, with a road test at the 3-0 Steelers followed by a return to the Linc against the 3-1 Ravens.

Even if they lose those games, they’ll still be in the division race. And if they beat the New York Giants the following week to move to 2-4-1, a Week 8 matchup against the Cowboys — who face the Giants, Cardinals and Washington Football Team the next three weeks — could again vault them back into first place.

But first things first. The Eagles have Pittsburgh on Sunday and should have some positive vibes after a West Coast win over the 49ers this past Sunday.

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Could Genard Avery end up being worth that fourth-round pick?

When Genard Avery made the 53-man roster last month, it came as a mild surprise. The Eagles have great depth on their defensive line, and it wasn’t as if the 25-year-old end did much during training camp to warrant a spot. But players were clearly graded on a curve without the preseason, and Avery had another variable boosting his score: Howie Roseman traded a fourth-round draft pick to the Browns for him last season.

Roseman might come out winning this deal, or at least he won’t be embarrassed by it, based on Avery’s performance in the Eagles' 25-20 win at the 49ers on Sunday. The third-year end recorded a sack and five quarterback hits despite playing just 16 of 73 snaps on defense.

“That was sort of the breakout game we’ve been waiting for from him,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday. “He’s always been a skilled pass rusher. It’s just fitting him in with all the other stuff. I think he’s really done a good job of refining his technique and sticking with what works best for him.”

What has worked best is finding creases in the line to penetrate and get to the quarterback. Avery is undersized for an edge rusher (6-foot, 250 pounds) even in a scheme in which size isn’t paramount. He’s not going to overpower many NFL tackles. And he’s not a put-your-hand-in-the-ground rusher. He gets off much better from a two-point stance.

“I think he had too big of a pass-rush repertoire earlier in his career, and Coach [Matt] Burke and Coach [Jeremiah Washburn] have done a really good job of just sort of honing in on what works for him, and he’s starting to embrace that,” Schwartz said. “He’s certainly made a difference in this game. He was fresh when he came off the bench, which is a big thing for our guys that are coming off the bench, and he gave us that changeup and made some big plays for us in the game.”

Schwartz loves baseball analogies, but this one is apt. Avery isn’t a starting pitcher, one who typically has close to a half dozen pitches in his arsenal. He’s a reliever who relies on two, maybe three pitches. And that’s probably why Avery played only 22% of the snaps Sunday, and why he might not leap ahead of top-end guys Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat and, when he returns from injury, Vinny Curry.

Avery wasn’t even active in Week 2 vs. the Rams. So Sunday’s performance might be an anomaly. Or it might be the breakout, as much as a part-time player can break out, that Schwartz called it. He didn’t just have the sacks and hits.

He might have been nearly knocked down on a rush late in the second quarter, but he kept his balance, and pressured 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens into throwing an ill-advised pass that safety Rodney McLeod intercepted.

It “was a huge play in that game, sort of maybe flies below the radar when the game is all said and done," Schwartz said. "They were driving. They were in the red zone. We got that pressure, got that interception, and I think that that was a key turning point in that game.”

It could also be the turning point in Avery’s tenure with the Eagles.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. From Les Bowen: Jalen Mills looked better for Eagles at corner than safety on Sunday, and could see more action there.

  2. From Paul Domowitch: Five reasons the Eagles beat the 49ers, elevating them to first place in the NFC East.

  3. From Marcus Smith: Eagles coach Doug Pederson finds his mojo. Yeah, baby.

  4. The "Birds' Eye View Podcast: In first win, battered Eagles show no quit.

  5. And from EJ Smith: From Carson Wentz’s performance to Jalen Mills' success, what advanced stats tell us about the Eagles' first win.

From the mailbag

If Mailata continues to progress and solidifies LT what does the team do with Dillard?? — Jeff @PhillyFreck215 via Twitter

Jordan Mailata came out relatively unscathed in his first NFL start at left tackle. He might not have done as well as the Eagles might want you to believe, but considering it was his first start on any level of football EVER, yeah, I can understand their excitement. If Nick Bosa had been in the lineup for the 49ers, it might have been a different story. And we should get a better read on Mailata’s progress Sunday when he faces the equally-as-good T.J. Watt. But I do believe that Mailata’s performance does warrant your question.

Before we get to Andre Dillard, though, I’m not sure the Eagles will demote Jason Peters once he returns from injury. They could move him back to right guard — without the pay decrease, of course — because he would still be an upgrade over Matt Pryor. But I think it would be difficult for Pederson to bench the future Hall of Famer.

I would. Peters just doesn’t have the lateral movement to play the left flank at a consistent level anymore. I don’t know if Mailata will be better over the long haul this season, but you have to give your young guys opportunities eventually.

As for next offseason, the Eagles would say that having two starting-caliber left tackles is a good problem to have, but I can’t see them giving up on Dillard yet. They have a first-round draft pick invested in the Washington State product, after all. I’m not sold on Dillard. I think he might lack the mental toughness to play at this level or in this city. Mailata’s a good bloke, and seems to take things as they come. And he’s come a long way since the Eagles selected the former rugby player in the seventh round of the 2018 draft.

He’s got the size and athleticism. Learning the nuances of playing tackle has been a struggle. But all that hard work appears to be paying off. And who knows, maybe he wins that job outright, and the Eagles get to move Dillard for something in return.