Good morning. The Eagles will play their first game since Feb. 4 on Thursday. You might remember a few details from that last game. The memories won't be as lasting from Thursday's preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it's nonetheless important as the Eagles start considering how they'll pare the roster from 90 to 53. You can find all the coverage on Philly.com.
This is a training camp edition of the Early Birds newsletter, which will arrive in your inbox three days per week until the season begins. If your friends haven't subscribed to Early Birds, it's free to sign up here. 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
What to watch in the Eagles-Steelers game
Who's playing?: Doug Pederson would not reveal the playing time distribution for the preseason opener or who will be sidelined because of injuries. The healthy starters will play early in the first quarter. Last season, the starting offense played the first drive in the preseason opener, lasting 11 total snaps, including a penalty. The first-team defense played together for five snaps over two series. (Some players stayed in longer.) The Eagles will be undermanned at quarterback with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles both expected to miss Thursday's game, and they practiced Tuesday without their top three wide receivers. Two notable players expected to be in the lineup Thursday will be linebacker Jordan Hicks and cornerback Sidney Jones. Hicks, who tore his Achilles tendon in October, has done everything this summer and is eager to show he's back. Jones missed almost all of last season while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and will have the chance to play at full health in front of Eagles fans. It will be tight end Dallas Goedert's first game in an Eagles uniform, so the second-round pick will also be a player of interest.
Competitions for first-team lineup spots: The Eagles don't have many true competitions for starting jobs, but they're still trying to find their top weak-side linebacker and slot cornerback. At weak-side linebacker, Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill appear to be the front-runners to replace Mychal Kendricks. Free-agent acquisition Corey Nelson is behind them. Pay attention to who lines up with the starters, and how Grugier-Hill and Gerry play under the lights. At slot cornerback, the Eagles have tried multiple combinations this summer, although Jones and DeVante Bausby have received most of the work. Bausby, who was on the practice squad last season, can solidify a roster spot with strong showings in the preseason. It's likely that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will wait until the third week of the preseason to settle on his top options, but Thursday's game offers a big chance to make a favorable impression.
Nate Sudfeld's progress: Wentz is out and Foles is likely to miss the game, too, so you'll see a lot of Nate Sudfeld on Thursday. This is a big opportunity for the 24-year-old quarterback, who was not in Philadelphia for the preseason last summer. Sudfeld has spent the past three days with the first-team offense, priming him for what's to come. The Eagles have been eager to get a gauge on Sudfeld's development this summer after he impressed them last season – first on practice squad, then as the third-stringer, and eventually as the backup after Wentz's injury. Sudfeld has much riding on this preseason. He can prove that he's a worthy eventual replacement for Foles as Wentz's backup. As a restricted free agent after this season, though, Sudfeld could also boost his value around the league. Barring injury, Sudfeld will receive plenty of work in all four preseason games.
Reserve running backs: The Eagles' top three running backs are set in stone: Jay Ajayi, Darren Sproles, and Corey Clement. But the spot(s) behind them is/are wide open. The Eagles kept five running backs at the start of the season last year. They usually carry four. Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey, Matt Jones, and Josh Adams are competing for those spots. Smallwood and Pumphrey are recent draft picks who need to show improvement. Smallwood, a 2016 fifth-round pick, is running out of chances after he fell down the depth chart last season. Pumphrey was stashed on IR last season after a disappointing preseason. He's looked better in camp, and preseason will be critical for the 2017 fourth-round pick. Jones was a starter in Washington only two years ago and once rushed for 135 yards against the Eagles. Pay attention to Adams, an undrafted rookie from Notre Dame who has intriguing tools. The Warrington native will try to be this summer's version of Clement. Running back is a position that shows better in games when they can try to elude/break tackles. Count Wentz among those interested in this competition.a
Do the Eagles have a punter?: It was a mild surprise that the Eagles did not bring in competition for punter Cameron Johnston, who is the only punter on the roster and has never punted in a regular season game. The team sounds confident in Johnston, who has not always looked the part this summer. The Eagles can always scan available punters elsewhere, but it seems they're giving Johnston every chance to win the job to replace Donnie Jones. "Extremely high," Pederson said of his confidence in Johnston. "You watch him, he'll have four or five really good kicks. There will be an occasional one that will go awry just a little bit. But that's all part of his plan, too. Part of his progression with what we're asking him to do directionally, right, left, try to get him outside the numbers. It's all new. So, he's learning that and done a good job." Johnston can boom the ball – he must show he's consistent, and he also must be a reliable holder for Jake Elliott.
What you need to know about the Eagles
From the mailbag
Good question. Darren Sproles has returned only three kickoffs since 2013, but I expect him to be the primary kick returner this season. The new rules will likely open more space on kick returns, and that's where Sproles thrives. He's listed as the No. 1 kick returner on the unofficial depth chart and he's taken kick returns throughout the summer. I wouldn't expect to see much of him there in the preseason, but my guess is he's there Week 1. Like you mentioned, it will also help him in his quest to move into the top five on the all-time list of all-purpose yards.