In anticipation of tonight's all-important third preseason game, here are 10 players I'll be keeping my eye on during what is likely to be a physical, rain-soaked contest at Lincoln Financial Field.
CB Nnamdi Asomugha – We've seen Asomugha line up outside on the right and in the slot thus far in the preseason, so expect more of the same as Juan Castillo continues to search for the best way to utilize the abundance of talent at cornerback. Of note will be whether Asomugha is assigned with covering the tight end - either Ben Watson or former Eagle Alex Smith - something that the former Raider showed during training camp.
RB Ronnie Brown – LeSean McCoy is the No. 1 running back on the Eagles, without question. But with the first-team offense slated to play for the first three quarters, tonight could be a sneak peek into how much Brown, the former Pro Bowler, will be worked in with the starters. Third down especially is something to watch, as McCoy offers versatility as a receiver – he led all running backs with 72 receptions in 2010 – while Brown is considered the better of the two in terms of blitz pickup. Also, after a hint from Bobby April earlier this week, we'll keep an eye on whether Brown is used as a kickoff returner tonight.
Wide receiver Chad Hall – Most internal indications are that former Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith will be ready to contribute sooner rather than later, namely sometime early in the regular season. If that's the case, and with Jeremy Maclin's return on the horizon, the Eagles would have five roster spots accounted for at receiver with Smith, Maclin, DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant and Riley Cooper. At the moment, it may be up to Hall to make a case for why a sixth receiver is necessary. He's still jockeying for position with the likes of Johnnie Lee Higgins and Sinorice Moss, but Hall has worked with the first-team offense the most of the three and he'll have an opportunity to continue to develop a rapport with Michael Vick against the Browns.
Defensive End Phillip Hunt – Like Hall, Hunt has had a strong enough preseason that he's thrown himself into the roster mix at what promises to be a very deep position. Among the pecking order of Eagles defensive ends, Hunt falls somewhere near Daniel Te'o-Nesheim behind the likes of Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Darryl Tapp and Juqua Parker. But with Parker out and Te'o-Nesheim battling a hamstring issue, Hunt should get plenty of snaps with the first-team defense as Jim Washburn's line rotates constantly. After working primarily against second- and third-team offensive lines, Hunt faces an opportunity to show he belongs with the big boys.
Center Jason Kelce – How often does Michael Vick line up under center with Eagles fans paying more attention to the guy snapping the ball than the one receiving it? That will be the case tonight as Kelce gets his opportunity to stake a claim to the starting job as a sixth-round rookie. Jamaal Jackson turned in a solid performance, albeit in less than seven minutes of playing time, last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Kelce got the first-team snaps all week in practice as the coaches try to determine whether the former Cincinnati Bearcat can handle the job. Kelce lines up against a talented defensive tackle tandem in first-round pick Phillip Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, so he will be tested.
Linebacker Casey Matthews – While Kelce will be the focus on offense, Matthews figures to bear the brunt of the focus from Eagles fans when the defense is on the field. Perhaps unfairly maligned by some fans in the lose to the Steelers, Matthews improved throughout the second preseason game – in what was really his first extended game action at the pro level. Matthews is slated to be the starting middle linebacker come opening day, but it will important to see if he can continue an upward trend as his game experience increases. The Browns will surely feature their run game, so pay attention to Matthews' ability to shed blocks and rally to the ball.
Defensive tackle Mike Patterson – Chris highlighted Trevor Laws' push for the roster, but Laws isn't the only Eagles defensive tackle making his preseason debut tonight. Not even three weeks after the seizure he suffered at training camp, Patterson, remarkably, will be on the field for his first game action of the 2011 season. Andy Reid indicated that Patterson's snaps will be limited, but we'll be watching no. 98 while he's out there – more as confirmation of Patterson's health than to measure his performance.
Linebacker Brian Rolle – Don't overlook Rolle just because of his 5-10 frame. The former Ohio State standout will get playing time with the first-team defense in nickel situations alongside Jamar Chaney is what is surely a good sign for his roster chances. The sixth-round pick is adept at coverage and has impressed the coaches enough to get a look with the ones. Rolle is also said to be a very good special teams player, so tonight will preview what the versatile Rolle brings to the table.
Quarterback Michael Vick – After a disappointing performance last week in Pittsburgh in which he threw three interceptions, Vick should rebound tonight on the friendly confines of Lincoln Financial Field. Vick admitted that he was forcing throws last week in part because he knew the clock was ticking on how long he would be out there. With the starters expected to play into the third quarter, Vick should be able to follow the old John Woodenism – be quick, but don't hurry.
Right guard Danny Watkins – While the guy on his right looks to stake a claim to the right tackle job, Watkins will continue his NFL education with the most extended playing time of his career. He may have a flashback to practices in college as former teammate Phil Taylor lines up on the Browns defensive line, but the focus for Watkins will be on keeping Vick upright and making room for the likes of McCoy and Brown to run through. At this point, Watkins is one of the three offensive linemen, along with Jason Peters and Todd Herremans, assured of being in the starting lineup come Week 1, barring injury.