We knew when the 2021 NFL season started that it would be different, that it would be more of a challenge to teams navigating the continuing COVID-19 world, a new practice schedule, changes to the preseason, a 17-game schedule, and new rules in place (for example, the taunting rule) in the game. As we prepare for Week 16 amid a holiday weekend, the season has been all of that – and more. And what the Eagles are finding out is that the work they put in long ago – the meetings they had to plan for every possible scenario long in advance, preparing a rookie head coach for what might be ahead, and fortifying the roster as well as they could – has paid dividends.
The roster is the focus here, and as the Eagles have won four of their last five games and five of their last seven, they've certainly had to test the limits of their roster. Every NFL team has had the same test and has hunted for talent high and low and near and far, so the accomplishment of playing its best football in the second half of the season is not to be diminished. Here are some examples of how the Eagles have juggled the roster and gained contributions from some names who may not have been in the preseason thought process for many outside the NovaCare Complex.
There hasn't been an instance here where injuries or the virus altered the gameday roster, but the Eagles have done a nice job of working their players in practice and keeping a young group productive throughout the season. DeVonta Smith has been the go-to receiver here from Day 1, but the Eagles have gotten contributions throughout the room and some key plays in these last two months have been extremely important. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside had a huge catch to help ice the win over the Saints. Jalen Reagor was big on Tuesday night with 3 receptions for 57 yards. Quez Watkins has been a big-play receiver all year, averaging 15.3 yards per reception. Greg Ward made a terrific back-shoulder touchdown catch on Tuesday to help beat Washington. The production from the wide receiver room has been spread largely among Smith (53 receptions, 741 yards, 4 touchdowns), Watkins, and Reagor, but all five receivers have done their jobs when called upon.
Jordan Howard is having a bounce-back season, averaging a career-best-tying 5.2 yards per carry even though he bounced between the practice squad and the active roster for the first half of the season. The Eagles had vision when they loaded up their running back room, knowing that the 17-game schedule would tax this position. Miles Sanders missed three games with an ankle injury and still has 709 yards with a 5.5 yard-per-carry average. Boston Scott has had carries in six games and in that time has produced 4.7 yards per carry (285 yards) and four touchdowns, running like a man possessed every time he's had the ball in his hands. Rookie Kenny Gainwell has given the offense 447 total yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns, and he's also contributed as a return man. Running backs like action. They like to be in a flow. This group has shared the carries and the wealth and there isn't a better running back foursome in the NFL coming down the stretch of this regular season.
Sua Opeta is the third left guard the Eagles have started this season. Nate Herbig is one of four right guards the Eagles have started. Jordan Mailata has missed some time at left tackle. Same with Lane Johnson at right tackle. The Eagles have shuttled in various starting combinations and have made a bunch of in-game moves because of injuries. And guess what? The offensive line has been dominating. Early in the season, it was a bit of a work in progress, but progress has certainly been made. The Eagles have run for at least 176 yards in each of the last seven games and in five of those games the team has gained more than 200 rushing yards. The reason? The offense has been good, the playcalling fine, the backs very solid. But the main reason is an offensive line that is blowing open holes even when defenses know the run is coming.
A sixth-round draft pick who weighs 254 pounds and plays defensive end coming from Coastal Carolina, Tarron Jackson didn't project to be an immediate-impact player. He's had to work hard to earn his reps, and now that he's getting some good ones – 20 against New Orleans, 19 against both the Giants and the Jets, and then 17 against Washington on Tuesday – Jackson is making himself more and more of a productive player. He had three big tackles against WFT and is clearly finding his way around the NFL game.
It's not just there where the Eagles have shown depth. At tackle, Hassan Ridgeway and rookie Milton Williams have played quality reps all season and have allowed Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave to get some needed rest. Cox has also been able to move around the line as Ridgeway and Williams have stepped up inside.
A four-man group has certainly improved its collective play throughout the season, with T.J. Edwards leading the way as he's grown into his role as a starter and has played physical, on-the-ball football. Alex Singleton has been a tackling machine and has been able to go from starter to backup (to Davion Taylor) to starter again (with Taylor's injury) and is playing his best football right now. Genard Avery just does his job on the strong side and has been a starter with 39 total tackles while playing 34 percent of the defensive snaps. When called upon, second-year man Shaun Bradley has been productive (seven tackles in 28 snaps) on defense and is, of course, one of the best special teams players in the league. Rookie Patrick Johnson has been active for every game and has seven tackles in 53 defensive snaps, along with four tackles on special teams.
This is the way of the NFL roster now. It's not just about 53 players. It's about an active roster, a practice squad, an emergency list, and it's about spending time with every player developing their skills and making sure they are ready for action when called upon. The Eagles have done an excellent job making sure everyone is ready for duty and the result is a team that's playing its best football of the season at the most important time.