Rookie of camp. Yeah, it’s early. The Eagles have been in pads for only two days. And they’ve yet to face an opponent wearing a different uniform. But Zech McPhearson has emerged as the rookie most likely to exceed expectations. The fourth-round cornerback has handled most of what coaches have thrown at him, and on a day when starter Darius Slay was resting, McPhearson made the most of his first-unit opportunities. He’s sticky in man coverage, but what has stood out are his instincts. I haven’t seen him make any glaring mental errors. Case in point, on misdirection runs or run-pass option plays, which are designed to take advantage of a defender’s natural tendencies, McPhearson has often correctly read his keys and been in position to make stops. There was a misdirection pass play to Boston Scott that failed to fool him and left nearby assistants and other defensive backs on the sideline jumping with glee. McPhearson could have decapitated the running back, but he simply two-touched Scott as if to make his point. The dog days of camp are coming, along with actual games, so it’s possible McPhearson has some setbacks. But the kid can clearly play at the NFL level.
Hightower goes high. John Hightower had his best moment of camp — similar to one of the plays we might have seen daily from him a year ago — when Jalen Hurts hit him on a 25-yardish fade route. The second-year receiver didn’t have much separation — McPhearson was in coverage, of course — but he outstretched his competition for the ball and got both feet inbounds. Hurts displayed a deft touch, but Hightower needed that completion more. He has been struggling in camp. A little later, he missed a block on a swing pass and compounded the mistake by committing a holding penalty.
Receiver race. While DeVonta Smith’s absence for a sprained MCL has allowed various receivers to get more first-team looks, it’s not as if it will create room on the 53-man roster. Jalen Reagor will be back, but I don’t think any of the remaining receivers are assured a spot. Reagor, to be frank, has shown little to suggest he has taken a second-year leap. I’ve reported on his struggles this summer, but the sense I get is that there’s more to his underperformance than just the recent death of his friend, or his learning a new system. The former first-round pick was just the latest receiver to get an earful from coach Nick Sirianni. I don’t know what Reagor did — he probably lined up wrong or ran a poor route — but pass game analyst Kevin Patullo barked at him before Sirianni got in on the action. Reagor later caught a bubble screen during team drills, but McPhearson blew up a block and made the stop in the backfield.
O-line depth. The Eagles have depth up front, but it was tested with four starters out. Guards Isaac Seumalo (hamstring) and Brandon Brooks (hamstring) were still out, and center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson took veteran rest days. Luke Juriga did fine as Kelce’s replacement — and, overall, he has looked competent in camp — but undrafted rookie Harry Crider had a couple errant snaps that second-team quarterback Joe Flacco couldn’t handle. When practices are only 75 minutes in length, you can’t waste plays. The Eagles spent much of practice working on the run game, and there just weren’t many holes for the running backs. Scott had a few gainers, but it was mostly tough sledding. There was no real update on the left tackle competition. Andre Dillard took his turn with the first unit, while Jordan Mailata ran with the twos. It remained status quo with the latter still ahead of the former.
Stevens shows up. I had forgotten all about JaCoby Stevens. Well, not completely. But I couldn’t recall a single moment when I wrote his name or number in my notebook during the first week. That’s not good, but it isn’t bad either. His first entries came today, though, and both were for positive plays. Stevens jetted into the backfield for a tackle for loss during one team set. And then just a few plays later, he skied for a Hurts pass and secured the interception. Hurts apparently didn’t see the backer drop into coverage. Stevens has played exclusively at linebacker in camp. A college safety, the Eagles have him listed at 212 pounds, which is light for the position. The team’s record in converting safeties to linebackers has been spotty — I see you Nate Gerry — but that has long been the trend around the league.
Ahem … injuries. Davion Taylor was back on the injury list with a new ailment: a calf strain. And the linebacker, who had been limited earlier with a quadriceps strain, is slated to be out on a week-to-week basis. Certainly not good for a young, inexperienced player’s development. Smith and Seumalo were still listed with week-to-week injuries. Defensive end Ryan Kerrigan (thumb) was limited. Tight end Jason Croom, receiver Michael Walker and Brooks were still day-to-day. Aside from the offensive linemen and Slay, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Zach Ertz were given veteran maintenance days. That’s two old-dudes days off in the first seven days. Defensive back Nate Meadors was waived/injured. Safety Andrew Adams was officially off the COVID-19 list and practicing. And linebacker Alex Singleton began his ramp up after being on the COVID-19 list.
The other Singleton. New running backs coach Jemal Singleton has been around a long time, but he’s new to Philly, and having a new face there after so many years of Duce Staley has taken some adjustment. It’s unclear how the change has affected returning running backs such as Miles Sanders or Scott, but Singleton clearly has his own way of doing things. He has focused a lot on ball security in individual drills. (Staley did, as well.) One of his tactics is to take a boxing glove and try to punch the ball out of his charges’ hands. The glove is gigantic and looks like it once might have been worn by Joe Louis. Singleton also does the ball-at-the-end-of-the-string drill, where he pulls on it with force during a carry. He jokingly hit Sanders over the head with it before the start of the drill Wednesday.
Sanders security. Ball security has been a point of emphasis for Sanders since his rookie season, but securing it in the pass game has become more of an issue. He led the Eagles in drops last season, and that shouldn’t be the case for a running back. He has bobbled a few in camp, but he had his first flat drop during seven-on-sevens. Sanders’ regression in the passing game last season was a shock because of how well he caught the ball as a rookie. He can be Hurts’ best safety valve if he’s consistent this season.
Other highlights. Hurts had a tight toss to tight end Dallas Goedert near the sideline after he was flushed from the pocket in team drills. Adams notched a tackle for loss on a Jordan Howard carry. Hurts hooked up with Goedert again, this time in the end zone during seven-on-sevens. Defensive end Derek Barnett disposed of a Richard Rodgers block and forced Hurts to throw errant and out of bounds to receiver Greg Ward. Linebacker T.J. Edwards read a screen and kept Jason Huntley from breaking upfield. Adams tallied his second tackle for loss, this time on running back Kenneth Gainwell. Hurts hit Ward over the middle on what appeared to be a run-pass option.
And a few leftovers … The following fielded kick returns (in order of appearance): Scott, Quez Watkins, Hightower, Huntley and Gainwell. … Towards the end of the practice, the ball was placed on the 1-yard line for goal line drills. I thought to myself — and said to a nearby reporter — “Nick may go live here.” The Eagles coach said Tuesday that he had yet to decide if he would allow tackling in camp. Goal line, or short yardage, is often the best chance to practice tackling because, well, it’s good practice for both sides, and because injuries aren’t as likely to occur. But when the whistle blew the Eagles went through the motions like a walkthrough. It was about as far from a live drill as possible. My heart sank. Times have changed.