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August 16, 2023

Mailbag: Is the Eagles' lack of experience along their interior defensive line cause for concern?

Jimmy Kempski answers more fan questions as the second preseason game against the Browns approaches.

Eagles NFL
Milton_Williams_Eagles_Giants_1226211_Kate_Frese44.jpg Kate Frese/For PhillyVoice

Eagles DT Milton Williams

Earlier this week, we solicited questions for an Eagles mailbag via Twitter. Thank you as always for doing half the work for me. This is Part I of a two-part mailbag. Let's just get right to it.

Question from @JackDespeaux: 3-part question on Jalen Carter: (1) He only played 2 snaps against the Ravens. Is he a lock to be a starter? (2) He dusted Ben Cleveland, how much should I overreact about that? (3) How good is Cleveland, was that an achievement?

My defensive depth chart looks like this: 

LDE Brandon Graham Janarius Robinson Tarron Jackson  
DT Jalen Carter Milton Williams Kentavius Street  
NT Jordan Davis Marlon Tuipulotu Noah Elliss Olive Sagapolu 
DT Fletcher Cox Moro Ojomo 
RDE Josh Sweat Derek Barnett 
SAM Haason Reddick Nolan Smith Patrick Johnson Kyron Johnson 
LB Nakobe Dean Zach Cunningham Myles Jack 
LB Christian Elliss Nicholas MorrowBen VanSumeren  
CB Darius Slay Josh Jobe
Eli RicksGreedy Williams 
Reed Blankenship Terrell Edmunds Justin Evans
K'Von Wallace Sydney Brown Tristin McCollum
CB James Bradberry Kelee Ringo Mekhi Garner
SCB Avonte Maddox Zech McPhearson
Mario Goodrich Josiah Scott 

That depth chart shows 13 starters, so depending on what personnel package the Eagles are rolling out two of those "starters" won't be in the game. #Analysis. I do think that it's more likely than not that when the Eagles' defense takes the field for the first time Week 1, Carter will be out there. But certainly you can expect to see a D-line rotation that includes at least nine players and possibly even more.

As for Carter's pressure against Ben Cleveland Saturday night, Cleveland was a third-round pick in 2021. He has played in 21 games, and started five. 459 career snaps in the regular offense. He's a legitimate NFL player who is likely to make the Ravens' roster, but is not projected to start.

I think more importantly than who he beat is how he looked. He was viewed as the most talented player in the 2023 draft because of his blend of strength, power, and change of direction skills. We've seen that talent throughout camp, and he showed some of that ability on that play. Frankly, I was more impressed by Carter putting elite OG Joel Bitonio on his ass in practice yesterday.

Question from @EmmGrizzle: Am I crazy to be more concerned with the interior D-Line than I am the LBs? It's a much more important position, and while there is a lot of talent/hope, not a lot of NFL experience/production.

You are indeed crazy. 😉

I think they keep six iDLs — Fletcher Cox, Jalen Carter, Jordan Davis, Milton Williams, Marlon Tuipulotu, and Moro Ojomo. That's one old guy, and five guys who are 24 years of age or younger. I think you can look at those players individually and come up with concerns for each of them, but you can also make compelling enough cases for why they'll pan out. Some of them will hit, and Carter has a chance to hit big. And Williams feels primed to make a leap. We'll see.

At linebacker, yes it's not as important of a position, but they can still be exposed if they can't achieve some level of competency. Never forget the Nate Gerry season. As of today, there are a lot of iDLs you can reasonably feel pretty good about. Can't really say the same for the linebackers.

Question from @casualpunisher: With the lack of linebacker depth, do you think the Eagles will deploy a more hybrid style safety/linebacker rotation, bringing guys like K’Von Wallace and Sydney Brown down into the box more often?

Yes, they have done a lot of that in camp so far. It has mainly been Wallace and Terrell Edmunds assuming that role. I don't think they'll try to put too much on Brown's plate as a rookie, but he was a great box safety in college as well. Maybe they'll ask him to do some of that down the road, but for now he's playing more of a straight safety role.

Question from @D_Tomei: God forbid if Jason Kelce goes down, do they bump Jurgens from RG to C and plug in Tyler Steen / Jack Driscoll at RG to maintain mobility at C? Jeff Stoutland does not like subbing two guys to replace one.

If Kelce were to miss full games and the Eagles have a week of preparation, it would be an easy decision to start Jurgens to C and have someone fill in at RG, with Steen likely being the top choice. 

It's when players go down in-game that Stoutland typically doesn't like to shake up the line too much. However, in the in-game scenario, who plays center? Is it Josh Andrews? Is he good enough? I'm not sure. Like, is Andrews at C and Jurgens at RG better than Jurgens at C and Steen at RG. I think my preference would be the latter, even if it requires subbing two guys to replace one.

Question from @DrewSportsNews: Can you think of an Eagles player who you remember having an AWFUL training camp, then somehow had a surprisingly productive season?

Patrick Robinson was tuuuurrrrible the first couple weeks of camp in 2017 so much so that he was fighting back tears during an interview session one day after a particularly bad practice. And then they moved him inside to the slot, he started playing better, made the team, and had a fantastic season in his role. He's probably the best example of that guy in the 10 previous camps I've covered.

Question from @7he_Reason: Are there any players on the Browns this joint practice you think Howie may have an eye on?

Back in 2017, the Eagles felt really comfortable dealing for Jay Ajayi at the trade deadline partly because they had tape of him from joint practices that summer. Because the Eagles' roster is so loaded, it's tough to project where they might need more players due to injury or underperformance, other than at linebacker. But I do think that one player they could feel really comfortable adding if they needed help at safety is old friend Rodney McLeod. 

(I'm aware this is a boring answer, but I thought it was at least worth publishing since joint practices did help lead to a notable trade later in the season once upon a time.)

Question from @EaglesTampa: Why does this team not want Greg Ward? It seems that he always makes the most of his opportunities and he gets passed over again and again.

Ward is a good story and he has had some moments, but ultimately we're talking about a guy here who is averaging 8.7 yards per catch, 5.9 yards per target, and 5.7 yards per punt return over his career. He's just not a threatening player, and at 28 years of age, nobody around the league is claiming him. He's a player the Eagles can safely bring back to the practice squad and call up to return punts should Britain Covey be unavailable due to injury.

Question from @KodyCotrufello: Why is Britain Covey a lock to make this team? I understand the return duties but he didn’t even look great doing that. Greg Ward is much more reliable, or maybe go for someone else with more upside?

I have called Covey a lock in some recent articles, and have gotten some pushback on that.

There seems to be a perception that Covey was a bad returner last season as a rookie, which I suppose I understand since he got out to a shaky start. However, as we pointed out in our review of him this offseason, Covey had a very good second half of the season.

 Britain CoveyPunt returns Yards YPR Fumbles 
First 10 games 19 130 6.8 
 Last 10 games 16 213 13.3 

Covey's best game came against the Titans when he had returns of 11, 20, 16, 27, 25, and 6 yards. He also had a good showing in the Super Bowl, returning two punts for 35 yards. In fact, 11 of Covey's 16 returns during the last 10 games of the Eagles' season went for at least 10 yards. He did a much better job of (a) getting the yards that were there instead of running horizontally, and (b) making the first guy miss.

His 9.3 yards per return were 11th in the NFL among 27 players with at least 15 returns. The top returner in the NFL (minimum 15 returns) was Marcus Jones, with 12.5 yards per return. Covey's second half of the season beat that.

As noted above, Ward has averaged 5.7 yards per punt return over his career. That is more than a yard worse than the bad part of Covey's rookie season. Ward is not a better returner than Covey. As for a returner with more upside, the only two guys I can think of are Quez Watkins and DeVonta Smith. I wouldn't risk injury to Smith, and while Watkins returned some punts in college, he has never done it in the pros.

Covey is totally fine as a returner, and he counts for $870K on the cap. He's a lock.

Question from @AdamMcJohn: Is Tanner McKee already a better passer than Marcus Mariota?

Mariota can do a lot of things than McKee cannot and right now is a better overall player, but yes, McKee is pretty clearly a more accurate downfield passer.

Question from @DaveHarris73: Is there anything more lame than saving your No. 2 QB to play the 2nd half against scrubs to preserve a preseason win streak, going so far as to keep him in the game after he tweaked a hammy?

Yeah, to some small degree they're playing with fire. I remember back in the day the Jets kept Mark Sanchez in a preseason game to get extra snaps when he was their starter, but they didn't also keep the starting offensive line in there as well. Sanchez got hurt, and Rex Ryan rightfully got destroyed by their media for it.

This isn't quite on the same level, but John Harbaugh was arguably putting Snoop Huntley at risk on Saturday, especially keeping him in the game after he very clearly tweaked something, as you noted. It's such a stupid streak to try to preserve.

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