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August 12, 2021

Five things to watch in the Eagles' first preseason game vs. the Steelers

Eagles NFL
Jalen-Hurts-Eagles-Camp_080321_Frese Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts.

After 11 training camp practices and one walkthrough, the Philadelphia Eagles will have their first opportunity this offseason to work out the kinks in front of a wider audience when they take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in their first preseason game. Here are five things to watch.

1) How does Jalen Hurts look?

Duh. In his four-plus games in 2020, Hurts displayed some positive traits, such as his running ability, poise, leadership skills, and other intangibles. He also showed that he needs drastic improvement in other areas, most notably passing accuracy, and quicker decision-making.

In 2021 training camp, Hurts has been up and down. The accuracy concerns persist, and he has continued to hold onto the ball for a long time. In fairness, he has not been as quick to tuck and run when his first read or two isn't there, at least in comparison to his training camp a year ago. He seems to recognize his deficiencies, and he is working to correct them. Generally speaking, he has gotten better as camp has progressed, but he still has a ways to go.

It should be noted that training camp practices do not accentuate Hurts' skill set. Quarterbacks who sit in the pocket and get the ball out quickly and accurately are set up to look better than those who rely on their athleticism to make plays. That is why Sam Bradford often looked like a stud in practice, while Michael Vick did not. In a game setting, Hurts will have a chance to allow his athleticism to shine.

The unfortunate reality for Hurts is that he likely does not have the same leeway to grow as a quarterback over time, like many other quarterbacks drafted highly. The Bills' Josh Allen, for example, struggled for two seasons before he finally broke out in a big way in his third. Hurts has a much tighter window to prove that he is "the guy," as a bounty of 2022 draft picks are earmarked for a new quarterback, whether that be via trade or the 2022 draft, unless Hurts can definitively prove they shouldn't be.

Hurts will play in the first preseason game, per Nick Sirianni, as he obviously should. How will he look?

2) Can a receiver or two help Hurts out?

With DeVonta Smith sidelined for this game, and likely for the second preseason game as well, guys like Jalen Reagor, Travis Fulgham, Greg Ward, Quez Watkins, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will have opportunities to make plays. Guys like Reagor, Fulgham, Ward, and Watkins are competing for playing time, while Arcega-Whiteside and John Hightower (who very likely won't play tonight) are fighting for roster spots.

Watkins has been one of the standouts of camp, and he will look to continue making plays, but there will be more eyes on Reagor, the team's 2020 first-round pick who had a disappointing rookie season, failed a conditioning test when he showed up to 2021 camp, and aside from one stellar catch has not done much in practice.

Can someone step up?

3) Jordan Mailata, it's your show

Mailata entered camp set to battle it out with Andre Dillard for the starting LT job, and it became very clear very quickly that Mailata is a much better football player. After 10 brutal practices, Dillard sprained his knee in the 11th, and is now "week-to-week" with that injury. 

Assuming he stays healthy, there's zero question that Mailata will be the starting LT in Atlanta Week 1. In 2020, Mailata played in 13 games, starting 10, and steadily improved as the season progressed

In 2021 training camp, Mailata did not just win his competition against Dillard because Dillard faltered. He has legitimately looked very good, and the Eagles may very well have found their long-term LT. A wider audience will have a chance to see his progression tonight.

4) How will the back 7 look against a fresh set of faces?

The Eagles have three new starters in their back seven, including LB Eric Wilson, CB Steve Nelson, and S Anthony Harris. All three players have done nice things in training camp, and generally speaking, the Eagles' defense has dominated the offense.

Is it because the defense is better, or is it because the offense just isn't very good? (It's probably both.)

On Thursday night, we'll get to see the defense go up against a Steelers offense with some serious talent.

5) And finally, the coaching staff

How aggressive will Nick Sirianni be on 4th down and other game management decisions? How does he manage time near the end of the first half and the end of regulation? What is his demeanor on the sidelines during the game? We'll get our first taste of that stuff with the first-year head coach.

And then defensively, Jonathan Gannon has shown a variety of schematic looks and personnel packages in camp. How much will he put on tape for the rest of the NFL to see?

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