As Quez Watkins stood in the shadows of the postgame podium, Jalen Hurts lamented what the Eagles’ preseason opener had revealed to the rest of the NFL.
“You’re not a secret anymore,” the quarterback said of/to Watkins. “So that’s unfortunate.”
To keen followers of training camp, and to fans who caught the Eagles’ first open practice at Lincoln Financial Field Sunday, the word was already out on the second-year receiver. Watkins was emerging as a legitimate weapon in new coach Nick Sirianni’s offense, and not just based upon his speed.
But Thursday night offered the first televised glimpse that a sixth-round receiver in the 2020 draft, and not a certain first-rounder, might provide a boost to a position that has long needed positive news.
Watkins caught only one pass in the Eagles’ 24-16 loss to the Steelers. But it was a dandy: a perfectly executed bubble screen that he took to the house for 79 yards. He also got behind the Pittsburgh secondary on an earlier play and would have likely hit pay dirt had Hurts not missed his target.
And while the small sample and lack of preseason competitiveness provide necessary qualifiers, there is little doubt that Watkins will at least improve upon a rookie season that offered only a few late-season hints of his potential.
“I guess the cat’s out of the bag,” Watkins said moments after he took Hurts’ spot on the podium at the Linc.
But now that he’s out, how much will he be fed? The Eagles expended their last two first-round selections on receivers. DeVonta Smith, the latest, would seem to be guaranteed one of the starting outside spots. And Jalen Reagor, the aforementioned 2020 edition, will likely be given first crack at the other side.
Smith, though, has been sidelined for two weeks with a knee sprain and might not play in the preseason. And Reagor’s inconsistencies as a rookie haven’t disappeared, as evidenced by an early drop against the Steelers.
Watkins, meanwhile, has been one of the stars of camp. Sure, he’s flashed his 4.3-second 40-yard dash speed, but the Southern Mississippi product has made tough catches in the air and near the ground, and has taken strides in his route running.
“This whole offseason, I just made everything personal,” Watkins said. “Everything people said I couldn’t do, [that] ‘I was only fast.’ ”
Watkins isn’t big. The Eagles list him at 6-foot, 193 pounds. Opposing cornerbacks will try to be physical with him at the line of scrimmage. Safeties will try to punish him when he goes over the middle. Sirianni had praise for his receiver, but he was more prudent than Hurts.
“He got behind the defense on the one, made the run after a catch, and that’s what you look for,” Sirianni said. “Now we just want to see him separate in the intermediate game, too.”
The bubble screen will be a staple of Sirianni’s offense. It can be a frustrating pass play that hardly ever works until it does, but when it does, it can be beautiful. Backup quarterback Joe Flacco checked to the slot bubble late in the first quarter when he noticed the nickel cornerback showing blitz.
“As soon as he checked to it ... I just started smiling,” Watkins said.
Tight end Richard Rodgers sealed the outside with a block, and Watkins had a lane into the secondary. He hit the afterburners and jetted past safety Tre Norwood. Hurts and Watkins hit on a similar screen last year in Arizona.
Watkins started last season on injured reserve and when he returned was mostly inactive. The Eagles had favored fellow late-round rookie John Hightower during that span, but by December Watkins had supplanted him. The gap has only expanded eight months later.
The question how prominently Watkins will be featured in the offense. His skill set would seem to make him better suited to the boundary. Sirianni’s offense requires all his receivers to be cross-trained. There will be movement, but having Reagor more in the slot might be an option.
Reagor has had highlights in camp. But he showed up out of shape, and for every step forward, there has been a step back, or vice versa. He had a low Hurts pass sail through his arms on the Eagles’ opening drive Thursday. But he picked up 7 yards on a bubble screen, and spun a cornerback with a 13-yard out.
“It was great to see him respond,” Sirianni said of Reagor. “He ran a great route on that bench route.”
Hurts had a solid two drives with the first-team offense. He drove the Eagles into field-goal range on the first and could have netted more than three points had Reagor and tight end Zach Ertz held onto catchable throws. He was throwing out of his end zone on Watkins’ deep route, but he had a clean pocket and missed a gimme. The Steelers also had only 10 men on the field, according to Sirianni. Hurts bounced back with a tight-window toss to Ertz. But the offense stalled, and that was it for the second-year quarterback. One area to monitor is Hurts protecting himself. He took two hits that could have been avoided. The first wasn’t egregious. Hurts did rightfully throw the ball away when pressured, but he waited a tick and took an unnecessary shot. A play later, Hurts scrambled on third down. The Steelers had him contained short of the markers. His instincts took over, and he ran into two tacklers. “I slid. I thought I slid. That was a slide, right?” Hurts said. (It was not a slide.) “I knew I was coming out so I was trying to get the first,” he added. “Live to see another day, I guess.” Hurts’ aggressive mentality is endearing, but there is a time and place for it, and the preseason — see: Carson Wentz — isn’t it. Overall, Hurts looked poised.
Four of Hurts’ attempts were to his tight ends. Ertz caught two of three targets for 20 yards. Dallas Goedert reeled in a 34-yard catch-and-run after Hurts switched out of the initial call. “Based off the shade it looked like the edge was coming so it looked like the linebacker had to carry No. 3 vertical,” Hurts said, “so I checked to a different concept and we hit it.” Sirianni favored three-receiver personnel with the first unit, but if Ertz isn’t traded, it’ll be hard for him to bury his two-tight-end package. It should give Hurts his best options if he wants to work the middle. Miles Sanders was a non-injury scratch, per Sirianni. He does need work in the receiving game, but it’s hard to argue with resting the lead running back. Sirianni’s play calling was relatively vanilla. He did utilize some two-back looks with the third unit, but he was wise to keep it simple in his first official game as a play caller.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon took a similar approach. He mostly employed a base 4-3-under front, didn’t blitz, and dropped his secondary into shell zones. Of the starting linemen, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave stood out. He was credited with a pressure. Derek Barnett started at right end ahead of Josh Sweat and drew a holding penalty. For as much as Gannon has practiced with odd-man fronts in camp, he kept that alignment on the back burner. Joe Ostman got his first NFL action at strong-side linebacker. Rookie Milton Williams got an assist on T.Y. McGill’s sack with the second unit. All of Williams’ snaps came at left end. “I kind of expected it,” Williams said. He isn’t likely to play outside exclusively. Williams will continue to also get practice repetitions at tackle.
Of the rookies, Williams had the most notable preseason debut. Cornerback Zech McPhearson has stood out in camp, but he got handsy in the end zone vs. a receiver and was flagged for pass interference late in the second quarter. He had tight coverage on a couple of other passes and finished with four solo tackles. Running back Kenneth Gainwell found daylight on a couple of rushes and caught two passes for 16 yards. He dropped a short pass, but otherwise made an impression. Of the third-day draft picks, Patrick Johnson fared the best. He’s converting from end to linebacker, and will be adjusting, but he was around the ball a few times. Offensive lineman Kayode Awosika is the undrafted rookie with maybe the best chance of making the roster. He played only seven snaps at guard, which suggests the Eagles might hope to sneak him onto their taxi squad.
Sirianni’s description of the game — “Crisp first half, sloppy second half.” — was relatively accurate. While the performance of his first and second units should be taken with a healthy dose of salt — the Steelers sat a number of their starters, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — they each outplayed their opposition. The Eagles’ third unit on both sides was thoroughly beaten. As much depth as the defensive line has, it seems to end after the top eight. The third group applied little pressure on Pittsburgh’s reserve quarterbacks and was steadily driven back in the run game. There were holes in the secondary, and on one Dwayne Haskins touchdown pass, a blown coverage. The third-team offense, meanwhile, was dreadful and didn’t garner a single first down in the final 30 minutes. Quarterback Nick Mullens played a large role in the ineffectiveness. He completed just 1-of-5 passes for 4 yards, tossed two ugly interceptions and scored a Blutarsky-like 0.0 passer rating.
Tyree Jackson. Flacco’s favorite target caught two passes for 32 yards and continued to make a strong case that he belongs on the 53-man roster. The Eagles will not be able to hide the tight end on their practice squad. Jackson has too many natural abilities. The converted quarterback is a big target at 6-7, is quick enough to beat most linebackers in man coverage, and has soft hands. He still needs work. He could have reeled in a third-down Flacco throw that was slightly underthrown. But he could force the Eagles to keep four tight ends if Ertz stays.
Joe Flacco. The rumors of Flacco’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. His job was never threatened by Mullens. He had shaky moments in camp, but he had been trending up in the last week and carried that into the preseason. Flacco had a couple leaky throws, but he executed the offense in rhythm and played like a seasoned veteran — which he is.
Elijah Riley. He was gifted an interception, but the safety was in the right spot after reading quarterback Joshua Dobbs’ eyes. Riley’s greatest contribution and maybe his best path to the 53-man roster came on special teams with a kick-return tackle.
Nick Mullens. The Eagles won’t be keeping three quarterbacks, or at least this one. Mullens got a little unlucky on his first pick. The safety-valve running back tripped and he rushed a throw to Jackson. But the second interception was decision-making at its worst. “I would like to see him hit the checkdown, and he wants that one back, too,” Sirianni said.
JJ Arcega-Whiteside. He ran with the third unit and didn’t catch a single pass. The Eagles’ 2019 second-rounder has moved to slot and added special teams to his responsibilities, but he appears to be on the wrong side of the roster bubble.
Marlon Tuipulotu. The sixth-round defensive tackle played 52 snaps of little consequence. He was absent from the stat sheet, and the film backed it up. Tuipulotu got relentlessly pushed around.
By the numbers
Jake Elliott had a successful start to his preseason. The kicker went 3-for-3 on field goals, hitting from 47, 47 and 50 yards. Elliott, like many Eagles, had his worst season in 2020. Midrange kicks weren’t the problem, though. He made all 11 tries on field goals between 30 and 49 yards. But he was 1-for-3 under 30 yards — including a missed extra point — and was 2-for-5 from 50-plus. Did not having a preseason affect Elliott last year? “I think getting some game reps in before you start is really valuable,” Elliott said.
“Like Novocaine, give it time, it’ll always work.”
— Hurts on offensive chemistry