By Dave Spadaro
It’s only a preseason game, so take it for what it’s worth, but it’s Eagles football and it’s back and Thursday night means something for a football team in the process of evaluating the current roster. What is at stake on Thursday night when the Eagles take on Pittsburgh at Lincoln Financial Field?
A lot, actually.
There are five key positions that have to be sorted out as the Eagles eventually reduce their roster to 53 players. And no, no, no, quarterback is not one of them. As the ongoing When Will Carson Wentz Play saga continues, the Eagles are turning their immediate attention to some competition that has been very apparent during training camp. With that, here are some key areas to watch as the preseason opens.
Second-year cornerback Sidney Jones is one to watch in the opener. A super-talented player who would have been a first-round draft pick in 2017 had he not blown out his Achilles tendon prior to the draft, Jones played in only one game last season as he recovered from the injury. Now Jones is healthy and pushing for a starting job. He’s played a lot inside as the team’s nickel (third) cornerback in camp as the Eagles look to replace Patrick Robinson. Jones and De’Vante Bausby are in a heated competition for that nickel job. Also keep an eye on second-year cornerback Rasul Douglas, who looks to take his next step. The Eagles had a lot of concerns about their cornerbacks last year at this time. Now they think they’ve got a deep, talented group of young players.
Lock in Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement and Darren Sproles for roster spots. Who is the fourth running back? You’re going to see a lot of Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey and Matt Jones in the preseason, and it’s likely to come down to the player who impresses the most in the games. Smallwood has been outstanding in the camp practices, but can he stay healthy and earn a job for a third season?
Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks plays for the first time since tearing his Achilles tendon in Week 7 last season. He’s one to keep an eye on, because there are few players more critical to the defense than Hicks. He’s got to stay healthy. The Eagles don’t have a clear-cut favorite to win the weakside linebacker job, with Kamu Grugier-Hill, Nathan Gerry and Corey Nelson competing for the spot. Veteran LaRoy Reynolds is a thumper who could emerge as a key player in the defense.
Starter Tim Jernigan is still out with his back injury and nobody seems to know when he’s going to be able to play. So who lines up next to Fletcher Cox? It could be veteran Haloti Ngata, who won’t play a whole lot in the preseason. It could be a young veteran like Destiny Vaoeo or Elijah Qualls. It could be that the Eagles find out in the preseason that they need to consider some help from the outside. The Eagles won along the line of scrimmage last season. They need to be even better this year against a tough schedule.
Cameron Johnston has the job. For now. He’s been inconsistent in camp and it’s really going to require a great preseason for him to make this 53-man roster. One shank in the preseason, and the Eagles might consider speed dialing Donnie Jones, who is available.
It’s preseason football. It means something to the Eagles, even if it doesn’t count for anyone else. ••