Marked by Darren Sproles’ return, Eagles roster is healthier post-bye week just in time for Cowboys
Lucky for the Eagles, the bye came at a "perfect time" according to Carson Wentz — Tim Jernigan, Nate Gerry and Corey Graham are on the field for the first time in weeks.
The Eagles practiced on Wednesday for the first time in nearly two weeks, and they welcomed more players than just Golden Tate to the field. The time away benefited what had been an ailing roster, with the Eagles noticeably healthier for the second half of the season.
Darren Sproles returned to the field for the first time since the second week, when he injured a hamstring in practice. Tim Jernigan, who remains on the non-football injury list, participated in his first official practice session of the season. Safety Corey Graham and linebacker Nate Gerry were back in uniform after missing a few weeks.
The good health news even extended to right tackle Lane Johnson, who was expected to miss time while recovering from a knee injury. Johnson is expected to play through the injury in Sunday's prime-time game against the Dallas Cowboys.
The only bad news came in the secondary, where cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Sidney Jones were the only players to miss practice because of injuries and appear unlikely to play Sunday. Center Jason Kelce was also absent, but it was not related to an injury. Although Gerry, Johnson, and Sproles were limited at practice, there's reason for the Eagles to be optimistic that they'll return from the bye week in better condition than they were when they boarded the flight home from London.
"The bye week was great, for really the entire team, it came at the perfect time," quarterback Carson Wentz said. "Middle of the season, you couldn't ask for a better bye week than that."
Sproles' return will help both the offense and the special teams. Tight end Zach Ertz compared it to a midseason trade. The Eagles didn't just add Tate as an offensive playmaker, but also one of their most versatile players who hasn't played since Week 1. The 35-year-old running back has only played four games in the past two seasons, so it's easy to forget what he can add to the team. In the locker room, though, they know Sproles' value.
"He's been one of the best returners in this league for a while, and he's a great back out of the backfield to use in a multitude of ways," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "He gives us depth. He gives us a veteran presence in the offense. He's a playmaker, so you get another weapon to use. So it's big for us as a team at a point where we need to make some things happen."
The Eagles waived DeAndre Carter on Tuesday, vacating the punt returner spot for Sproles. In Week 1, the Eagles opened the game committed to using Sproles as a runner, too. He had nine offensive touches in that game. Since then, Jay Ajayi has been lost for the season and the Eagles have turned to a committee backfield with Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, and Josh Adams splitting carries. It remains to be seen how the backfield dynamics will change with Sproles, but he's the team's best blocking running back, so he could find a big role on third downs. Although they might ease him into the rotation because he's missed time, it would not be surprising if he eventually logs the most snaps of any of the running backs.
"We've got to make sure, too, as this week goes that he's healthy, 100 percent and that he feels great," coach Doug Pederson said."We're going to just mix him in. I think we're a different team from Week 1 to now. Obviously, we don't have Jay, but Corey has done a great job, Wendell, and now the emergence of Josh, he's kind of stepped up his game and he's played well, particularly this last game. And now we get Darren back. So it's a great opportunity for him. …I've got to make sure that we have plays in for those guys and then use them in the game. I can't tell you that we're going to feature Darren. I can't tell you that we're going to feature Josh or any of those guys, but Darren is going to be a big part of the game."
There's also curiosity about Jernigan's return, although that does not appear to be coming this week. The 21-day clock to activate Jernigan from the non-football injury list started on Monday, and the Eagles want to use that time to get Jernigan back into game shape after missing the entire offseason, preseason, and start to the regular season while recovering from back surgery. When he returns, though, the Eagles will get another player they haven't had this year, and it would seem like another midseason acquisition.
"He hasn't done anything football-wise for a long time, so just want to see where he's at health-wise here each day," Pederson said.
Jernigan is not yet on the active roster, so he's not on the injury report. That list has shrunk for Pederson, whose last Wednesday practice included five players out with injuries. When Pederson makes his inactive list on Sunday night, he'll need to list healthy scratches. In recent weeks, half that list seemed determined when the Eagles declared players "out" on Friday.
This week, Jones and Mills might be the only ones who get that designation. That will force defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to make adjustments in the secondary, with Rasul Douglas likely starting in Mills' place at cornerback and the Eagles needing a new slot cornerback after cutting Dexter McDougle. Because Graham is back, one option could be playing Graham at safety and Avonte Maddox in the slot.
It's good to have options, though. Across the roster, those options seemed limited the past few games. The bye week allowed the Eagles to heal, and they're now healthier for the stretch run of the season.
"You get a couple guys back, which we're excited about," Jenkins said. "You get that break right at the midpoint of the season, so as you get ready to make this push to the back half of the season, you get a little rest. So I think it came at a good time."