Good afternoon, Eagles fans. I'm coming to you two days before the Eagles finally kick off the 2017 season following a busy offseason that included an active free agency period, hosting the NFL draft on the Rocky Steps, and a preseason when the Eagles barely played their starters. This is the debut of "Early Birds," the twice-weekly newsletter breaking down the Eagles. It's free to sign up here to get it in your inbox every Monday and Friday. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
The Eagles haven't had a wide receiver like Alshon Jeffery since Terrell Owens did sit-ups in his driveway, and they will make sure he's featured like the No. 1 wide receiver they desperately need.
When the Eagles open the season against Washington on Sunday, Jeffery will have a package of plays called "17 plays" — calls that are designed to go to Jeffery. The Eagles consider Jeffery a "primary playmaker," as offensive coordinator Frank Reich said, "and are going to make a conscious effort to get him the ball." Doug Pederson can call those about 10-12 times per game. The coverage might force Carson Wentz to look elsewhere, but Wentz will make sure he feeds Jeffery — more so than the Eagles did any of their wide receivers the past two seasons. My guess is the Eagles will target Jeffery 150 times this season, which will be the most by an Eagles receiver since targets were tracked. That amounts to about 9 to 10 per game. (Quick aside: Make sure you read Mike Sielski's in-depth look at Jeffery's journey to the NFL. Sielski spent time in Jeffery's South Carolina hometown to get this fascinating story.)
The matchup on Sunday is complicated by Washington cornerback Josh Norman lining up against Jeffery. The Eagles expect Norman to follow Jeffery wherever he lines up. That's how Norman covered Jeffery last season, when he had five catches (on 10 targets) for 92 yards against Norman on Christmas Eve. Pederson watched all of Jeffery's targets to see the routes Jeffery ran and the way Norman covered him. Look for the Eagles to utilize Jeffery on crossing routes, a Jeffery specialty throughout his career. The Eagles tried finding Dorial Green-Beckham on those routes last year. You saw how that turned out. How many times did you watch an Eagles game last year and throw up your hands in disgust at the wide receivers? The difference between Jeffery and Green-Beckham will show up on Sunday and exemplify why there should be optimism about the wide receivers this season.
When I watched Jeffery during training camp, what stood out was how he can make plays on the ball when he appears to be covered. There's his well-known "catch radius" — he's 6-foot-3 with 33-inch arms and a 3-foot vertical — but even more impressive is how he adjusts his body when the ball is in the air. There will be times when Wentz simply trusts Jeffery to make the play regardless of coverage. During the next few months, Jeffery will prove to be the best they've had since Owens was in Philadelphia.
Zach Berman: What makes you any more or less optimistic about this roster than your previous three years with the Eagles?
Malcolm Jenkins: "I think, honestly, optimism counts for nothing in this game. … As competitors, you don't have a chance unless you believe you can do it. But there's a difference between being prepared and just being excited. And I think that's one of the things we're trying to focus on. Even if we have some success early, it's going to be important for us to take that and focus on the task of hand. Because we know how this city is. We know how our fan base is. If we get this thing rolling and we start looking good on paper, we'll be hearing praises. And a lot of times, your potential of what you can be and the enthusiasm can overshadow the task at hand, getting better, and having to grind every week and understanding what it takes to win. So the leadership will make sure we temper expectations."
Zach Berman: The coaching staff and front office have said they like this roster more than last year. As you look around, what's better?
Malcolm Jenkins: "Offensively, you bring in Alshon Jeffery, you bring in Torrey Smith, I think that gives us confidence that it'll open for other guys. I think Nelson Agholor is playing a lot better than he was last year. We're excited about that contribution. We have some depth at running back with LeGarrette Blount, [Darren] Sproles. We have all of these young guys that all the sudden popped off the paper that we weren't expecting. Defensively, you add Tim Jernigan, who's been impressive so far. We're excited to see what that does for our front after losing a couple guys, Bennie Logan. [Derek] Barnett comes in, he's playing well as a rookie. We're looking for Brandon Graham to take over some more. We've got Ronald Darby, who we added at cornerback. You start to look at each position group-by-group, they're either going into another year at their position, a little more experienced, or we have another guy there that's showing a lot of potential on paper. When you can go down our roster on a list, we feel really good about where we are. But obviously, we'll find out what we got on Sunday."
Zach Berman: When you signed up, you thought the playoffs would come sooner. What's it going to take to make it this year?
Malcolm Jenkins: "We've just got to win the division. It's one of those things that the season is so long that you know what your goal is, but there are 16 steps to get there. And at no point can you overlook a step. Obviously, we're going to get questions about, 'What do you think of the playoffs?' But in all actuality, the No. 1 thing is winning this week. If we can do the same thing for 16 weeks, it'll take care of itself if we do that."