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By: Ben Natan
At long last, some sort of Eagles football is upon us with the preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The game might not tell us much about what’s on the horizon for the Jalen Hurts era or the Nick Sirianni era, but these games will always give everyone a good look at the young guys the Eagles have in the fold.
Spotlight on the Late Round Picks
In a perfect world, this article would kick off with some excitement about DeVonta Smith’s NFL debut. However, the Eagles first round pick is still dealing with an MCL sprain suffered in practice. While the team has been optimistic about his return, I can be a bit bummed about waiting a while longer to watch him play. Philly’s second round pick, Landon Dickerson, is also working his way back from injury, so the team won’t see him in action either. All of this is to say that the rookie focus of the evening will be on the mid and late round picks, as well as some UDFAs.
Rookies in the Defensive Trenches
As the roster stands now, the Eagles have five rookies who will be playing with their hand in the ground on defense. Milton Williams and Marlon Tuipulotu are both mid round defensive tackles while Tarron Jackson and Patrick Johnson were late round role players who can rush off the edge. Then the Eagles signed JaQuan Bailey as an UDFA. The high productive pass rusher out of ISU figures to be on the roster fringes but still could find himself on the field in the second half of these preseason games.
The Eagles are always deep on the defensive line and this year is no different. These young guys are going to have a hard time cracking the starting lineup during the regular season, so making an impression during these games will be crucial. The Steelers are fielding a potent offense and have a lot of quality players along their offensive line. These rookie defenders will be tested when they see the field, which also gives them a chance to make a big, impressive splash.
The Zech McPhearson Campaign
It is no secret that the Eagles are in a tough spot in the defensive backfield right now. The cornerback situation is thin, even with the Steven Nelson signing. Rodney McLeod is injured, K’Von Wallace is injured. It ain’t pretty on the back seven for the Philadelphia Eagles.
One bright spot in practice has been Zech McPhearson, the day three pick out of Texas Tech. McPhearson hasn’t been phased by NFL competition, so his confidence and skill have yielded some impressive play.
McPhearson will have his work cut out against a Steelers team with a handful of explosive pass catchers. Even if McPhearson is running with the second team, he will have plenty of chances to continue impressing the staff while hopefully assuaging concerns about depth in the defensive backfield.
Kenneth Gainwell to the Rescue
With DeVonta Smith out of the lineup, there is simultaneous disappointment about the rookie debut of an exciting offensive player and the concern that the Eagles are thin when it comes to playmakers on that side of the ball.
Luckily, Kenneth Gainwell has reportedly been a spark in practice and the offensive staff is comfortable moving him around and deploying him all over the field. Gainwell has stood out as a pass catcher, both out of the backfield and lining up as a receiver. Even with the Eagles deep backfield, Gainwell should see plenty of time on the field against Pittsburgh. The question will be how creative they get with his usage and what he does when he sees the football.
Hopefully he can reignite some excitement about having young playmakers while providing a valuable piece to the offense.