As we get closer to game time, to prime time, to an NFC East clash that the rest of the country just may not understand, the Eagles are hopeful for good news. As Head Coach Doug Pederson announced on Wednesday, the expectation is that wide receiver DeSean Jackson, right tackle Lane Johnson, cornerback Avonte Maddox, and linebacker Duke Riley will be "available" to play against the Giants on Thursday in a game that, given the state of the division, means so much.
What will the return of those four players mean? Some thoughts …
1. The Eagles have been throwing it down the field, even with Jackson playing just 34 percent of the snaps. He's played in just three games with 10 catches for 120 yards, hardly the numbers we all expected. Jackson has increased his level of participation in practice for a few weeks now – he was a "full participant" in the team's walkthrough practice on Wednesday, but where he is, physically? That's really the question. How confident is Jackson in opening up and knowing that his hamstring will be fine?
The Eagles aren't practicing this week, per se, so it will be hard for Jackson to know how his hamstring will respond in a game situation until, you know, he's in a game situation. But having him on the field for however many reps he can give the offense will make the Giants account for his speed and deep-threat ability. It also would take some pressure away from wide receiver Travis Fulgham and provide quarterback Carson Wentz another outside threat. New York's top cornerback is James Bradberry, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level. The Eagles can send out Jackson and Fulgham and use Greg Ward inside; then incorporate John Hightower and his speed for more outside pressure on the secondary. And it could have a chance to succeed in part because...
2. Lane Johnson had a full practice, if you will, on Wednesday and his presence provides a jolt of star power and sturdiness to an offensive line that has been in constant flux. Pederson said he feels confident that Johnson can play for 60 minutes after resting his hobbling ankle Sunday against Baltimore. That would be so huge. Now, there are questions about who is playing right guard – Pederson wouldn't say on Wednesday, but with the release of Jamon Brown after his struggles against Baltimore, it would appear that Sua Opeta, who has been on the team – practice squad and the active roster – since 2019 is the leading candidate. Opeta has played in all of four NFL games. Jack Driscoll is out for this game. Matt Pryor remains on the Reserve/COVID-19 list as of Wednesday afternoon. As I wrote on Tuesday, the team that wins in the trenches, wins this game, and, truly, the best offensive line in the NFC East may be good enough to win the division.
3. Jalen Mills has bounced back and forth between safety and cornerback this year. He returned to safety against the Ravens and would likely stay there with Maddox on the field. The goal in the secondary this year, remember, was to have a lot of positionless players, interchangeable talents that Jim Schwartz can move around and give multiple looks to quarterbacks. With Maddox back, with Will Parks on the field, with Marcus Epps healthy, the secondary is finally coming together. The Eagles won't have rookie K'Von Wallace for this one, but they're going to have options in the defensive backfield.
4. Duke Riley gives the Eagles more speed and good play against the run, even as rookies Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley had some extended reps against Baltimore. The bottom line is this: The more hands on deck, the better.
5. On the flip side, the Eagles need some production from running backs not named Miles Sanders, who won't play on Thursday because of a knee injury. That means heavy action for Boston Scott and Corey Clement, and maybe some for Jason Huntley The Eagles can still promote, if they wish, running backs Elijah Holyfield and Adrian Killins from the practice squad. The strength of the Giants is the defensive line. The running game isn't always there against New York. The Giants are tough inside. Scott, however had great success against New York in 2019 – 29 carries, 113 yards with 4 touchdowns rushing, and 10 receptions for 153 yards.
6. At tight end, with both Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz out, the Eagles are going with Richard Rodgers, who has been productive, Jason Croom, and Hakeem Butler. It's crazy – Rodgers was on the streets when the Eagles signed him as the regular season began – how much the position has changed. Rodgers has nine receptions for 99 yards this season and has already played 119 snaps, far more than his 2018 and 2019 seasons combined – 47 snaps. Croom had twice been promoted from the practice squad. Per NFL rules, Croom would have been subject to waivers if he was called up from the practice squad again. Butler is a converted wide receiver who is very much learning the tight end position, but he has ability and Tight Ends Coach Justin Peelle has an excellent track record here.
7. Another player not suiting up on Thursday night: defensive tackle Malik Jackson after suffering a quadriceps injury on Sunday. The Eagles have depth at defensive tackle, and Hassan Ridgeway is going to have a larger-than-normal snap count, I'm anticipating. The Eagles need to keep their tackles fresh and they need to win in a big way against the Giants' interior.
Enough with the injuries. We're nearly there. Pederson is unbeaten in the short week, and there is really no secret behind the success. He gives his players time off. He stresses mental preparation, allowing for the body and mind to recover. It's not anything different than other coaches do. A win on Thursday would mean so much. Having a handful of players back from injury and a roster that is closer to what the Eagles envisioned is going to make a difference.