August 10, 2021
The Eagles will play the first game of the Nick Sirianni Era on Thursday night when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field for their preseason opener.
There are going to be a lot of things to watch for, from the way Sirianni calls a game to how his young quarterback plays to how Jonathan Gannon's defense not only lines up but how it performs under the lights. But before we even get to that point, it's worth taking a look at the Eagles' unofficial depth chart, which was the first of training camp and was compiled and released by the public relations department on Tuesday ahead of this week's game, a game in which the Eagles are currently one-point favorites, according to Pickswise.
Here's a look:
Here’s the Eagles unofficial depth chart in front of Thursday’s preseason opener against the Steelers. pic.twitter.com/G5Sjvdc2GS— Tim McManus (@Tim_McManus) August 10, 2021
Sure, it's not official and isn't compiled by Sirianni or even his football staff, but there are still plenty of things worth discussing, especially since when you look at certain things — like the fact that they still have the left tackle spot as an open competition despite Jordan Mailata clearly separating himself from Andre Dillard at practice — it becomes clear that there was likely some advice (or at least some final approval) coming from a higher power, whether that be Sirianni, Howie Roseman or otherwise. It's likely why a starting tight end hasn't been named, even though the team has said publicly that Zach Ertz is back in the fold while privately it appears they're still looking to get a last-minute deal done before the season starts about one month from now.
But because we still have to wait two more days for the players to take the field — and because we don't even know how much some of these guys will play on Thursday night — let's take a look at some of the more interesting decisions in that above depth chart and make way more out of it than should be. Sound like fun?
We mentioned briefly in the intro the lack of a starter being named at both tight end and left tackle, but that's not really where the intrigue is. That's at defensive end, where Josh Sweat, who almost always seems to flash when he gets a chance, is locked in a battle with former first-round pick Derek Barnett for the starting job.
By all accounts, Sweat has looked great at camp again and given that he'll likely get some decent time during the preseason, you can expect to hear his name quite a bit in the coming weeks. He's had 10 sacks over the last two seasons despite playing fewer than 40% of the team's defensive snaps. Barnett, meanwhile, has 12 sacks over that same period but played nearly 70% of the team's snaps in 2019 and nearly 50% in 2020. Both players came to Philly with the picks acquired from the Vikings in the Sam Bradford trade, and now it appears the 130th pick from 2018 is closing in on passing the 14th overall pick from a year earlier on the Eagles depth chart.
It's especially interesting since both Barnett and Sweat are entering the final year of their rookie contracts, and it appears that one will cost significantly more than the other to re-sign this offseason, even though the cheaper one may ultimately be the better player. Could this be the first sign that Sweat is more central to the team's long-term plans than Barnett, the guy who was getting Reggie White comparisons coming out of Tennessee? Or are we, as we warned, reading way too much into a preseason PR depth chart? Probably the latter.
It's also worth noting that this competition is more for a ceremonial title than anything else. While at left tackle for example, one player will remain in the game for its entirety, barring injury, the defensive ends will be rotated throughout the game, so what we're really talking about here is likely the difference between hearing your name called during intros and playing 70% of the snaps or coming off the bench and playing closer to 40-50% of the snaps.
As for the other two open competitions listed, the battle for left tackle is all but over — and may officially be over after Dillard left Tuesday's practice with an injury. The starting tight end spot, however, does offer a bit more intrigue, as not many expected Ertz to still be with the team at this point. But he is, and he's the veteran. Do the Eagles give Dallas Goedert, the clear tight end of the future in Philly, the starting nod? Has that already been decided and they're simply listing Ertz as a co-starter to try to boost his value on the open market (even if that probably isn't fooling anyone) in the hopes someone bites when their own TE eventually gets injured? Or is there a legit shot Ertz will be on the field starting in Atlanta on September 12? Because $8.5 million is a lot of money to be paying a backup tight end.
I admittedly haven't been down at training camp yet this summer, but I've been reading A LOT about it, and this was the one on the depth chart that had me stop dead in my tracks, in part because I haven't been hearing a ton about Howard — running backs are obviously tough to grade during practices, the majority of which don't include live tackling — but also because coming into camp, many had Howard much further down the depth chart.
For example, Jimmy Kempski had him as RB5, behind starter Miles Sanders, backup Boston Scott, rookie Kenny Gainwell and fellow free agent signing Kerryon Johnson. Both Johnson and Howard were seen as low-risk, high-upside signings of younger guys who hadn't quite lived up to expectations but had shown flashes. But to see Howard, who was unimpressive in a previous stint in Philly, not only leapfrog fourth-round pick Gainwell but also Scott, who has served admirably as the team's backup the last two seasons, was quite surprising.
Scott was a nice change of pace to Sanders, but if that's truly what the Eagles are looking for in their backup, then Howard is certainly the better fit there, a big, bruising back who can pound the ball between the tackles and will likely be used quite a bit down by the goal line.
There's a good chance the Eagles mix and match the running backs behind Sanders based on opponent, time of game and where they are on the field, so it's probably not so much a 1-2-3-4 at the position as it is a 1-2a-2b-2c situation. That's not a bad way to roll with running backs, but with Duce Staley gone and a new running backs coach in charge in Jemal Singleton, we really don't yet know how the team plans to deploy them. The Steelers game might give us a little bit of a sample, but we likely won't know for sure until the regular season opens and everyone is available to play then entire game.
All of that being said, every indication out of practice suggests that Boston Scott is clearly the team's No. 2 running back. So this is certainly now a battle to keep an eye on down at training camp.
This one is interesting for a couple reasons, and not just because the Eagles are listing 12 players on defense (obviously, you only start 11). That's because teams now typically play just as much nickel as they do base, so it makes sense to list both 3 LB and 5 DB options since which formation you "start" with largely depends on the opponent and not your preferred scheme.
Because of that, the Eagles have both slot corner Avonte Maddox and SAM linebacker Genard Avery listed as starters.
Seeing Maddox there is not surprise, especially after the team signed Steven Nelson to start opposite Darius Slay. But it's seeing Avery, a defensive end converting to LB this offseason, at the starting SAM spot that really caught me off guard.
Alex Singleton and Eric Wilson are the other two starting linebackers, and that's surprising at all. Seeing Avery ahead of Davion Taylor and Jacoby Stevens isn't surprising either given that they won't be suiting up on Thursday night anyway and are considered week-to-week with injuries. But seeing Avery as the starter and not T.J. Edwards, who started 12 games for the Eagles last season? That's certainly surprising, even if the Birds brought in Wilson to play middle linebacker this offseason.
But what if it's technically not a linebacker spot that the Eagles are talking about here? Hear me out for a minute...
The obvious assumption is to view this as the Eagles listing two options, one for base and one for nickel. But what if that's not what they're doing? Instead, it looks more like the flip-flopping in personnel groupings may have more to do with the defensive front than the secondary. Gannon has already hinted that he's going to use different formations based on the opponent, sometimes opting for three down lineman instead of four. And it seems like that's when Avery would come into the game, as an extra pass-rushing linebacker. It makes even more sense when you realize that the guy listed behind him, Joe Ostman, is also a defensive end that the Eagles changed to a linebacker this offseason. Add in the dual Barnett/Sweat starting spot at defensive end (perhaps one a better fit when they go with three down lineman and the other better fit a more traditional 4-3 package) and it suddenly becomes quite intriguing.
In that sense, it doesn't look like Avery has jumped all those LBs listed above, but rather the Eagles have a new hybrid position they needed filled. It should be fascinating to see how all these moving parts translate to the field.
• Jalen Reagor on outside with Ward in slot — Obviously one of the starting spots on the outside was always going to belong to 10th overall pick DeVonta Smith, who is +1800 to win offensive rookie of the year, according to Pickswise. I thought there was a chance the team opted to try Reagor in the slot with Travis Fulgham occupying the other outside spot. But it seems the Eagles like what Greg Ward can do in that position even more (and it's hard to blame them for trusting the sure-handed receiver). With Quez Watkins showing out during camp, it will be interesting to see if the Eagles adjust their strategy at all in an effort to get him on the field more, perhaps moving Reagor inside on some plays to get even more speed out there. Either way, don't be shocked to see Reagor in the slot more this season.
• K'Von Wallace the starter until McLeod returns — With Rodney McLeod on IR and his Week 1 status still unknown, it appears second-year safety K'Von Wallace will be getting the starting nod on Thursday night against the Steelers. It will be interesting to see how much he's improved in the offseason — and whether or not he can take advantage of this opportunity to work his way onto the field even more. Either way, it will be nice to get the kid this experience in case injuries force him back into action later this season.
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