There is time to get it right. The Eagles will have the players back on the practice fields at the NovaCare Complex on Sunday with Thursday night's ugly offensive performance in Cleveland a thing of the past. A learning experience, to be sure, but one the Eagles will have moved beyond. It's time to look ahead, not back. What happens in the preseason is so often a mirage – a tip of the hat to you, Henry Josey, after leading the NFL in yards-per-carry average (6.6) in the 2014 preseason and also one to you, Raheem Mostert, for tearing it up one summer later as the league's leader in yards from scrimmage – that we tend to forget the real purpose of the preseason.
All of this is done, from the time OTAs begin in the spring through Training Camp and the preseason, to take a 90-man roster and make it the best 53-man unit possible. If a team happens to win along the way, it's great. It's certainly better to win than it is to lose. Winning just feels better.
But in the big picture, the most important task is to find the right 53 men for the season ahead. And the Eagles are nearly there. With one preseason game remaining, Thursday at 7 p.m. against the visiting Jets, the Eagles probably have, what, two or three roster spots still in debate? Could be more, could be fewer. Whatever, the Eagles have a final game to give players on the "bubble" a chance to prove themselves with extended playing time and show off to this team, and to 31 other teams, what they can do.
In many ways, this has been the most unique preseason in Eagles history. Coming off the franchise's first Super Bowl victory, the Eagles have had to balance quite a bit in the last several months. Head coach Doug Pederson has been extremely aware of the long 2017 regular season and postseason, so he's tried – and done so successfully – to give some veterans a breather here and there in practice and in the preseason games. The goal is to get his players all the way back from the rigors of winning the Super Bowl, so players like running back Jay Ajayi and tight end Zach Ertz and many others have enjoyed some breathing space in the preseason. Veterans like left tackle Jason Peters and running back Darren Sproles have remained on the sidelines during preseason games after, it must be noted, extensive workouts in the pregame warmups that actually have a lot of value.
At the same time, Pederson has challenged his players and, combined with an aggressive offseason of player acquisition, seen the needed roster competition across the board. The result is that the Eagles have down-to-the-wire starting battles at WILL linebacker (Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nathan Gerry, with Grugier-Hill starting Thursday night in Cleveland) and at the nickel cornerback spot (Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox) along with roster battles at running back, at offensive line, certainly along the defensive line, and in the secondary.
It's been an extremely competitive summer, and it's also been a successful one despite an offense that has misfired on too many occasions and an 0-3 record heading into the preseason finale. You wonder how I can term this a "successful" preseason? Let me count the ways …
1. There have been no major injuries to projected front-line players (and I write this as I knock furiously on wood). The Eagles lost linebacker Paul Worrilow in the spring, an unfortunate injury to a free agent signee who would have competed for the starting job at the WILL position. Tight end Richard Rodgers has a knee injury that is "week to week," according to head coach Doug Pederson, and while that could drag into the regular season, the Eagles feel great about the progress made by rookie Dallas Goedert as the other half in what should be a devastating 1-2 combination at tight end with Ertz. Center Jason Kelce went down on Thursday night and it was scary for a moment, but he actually re-entered the game and, while he walked with a heavy limp in the locker room after the loss, Kelce should be OK. No projected starters are expected to play on Thursday. Ah, the beauty of a single cutdown date this year in the NFL. It's a big benefit for the Eagles.
2. The injured players from last year are making great progress. Defensive end Brandon Graham is already back on the practice field. Quarterback Carson Wentz looks absolutely great and should make a quick and successful transition to the starter's role when the medical team gives him the final green light, whenever that is. Alshon Jeffery is all kinds of bulked up as he recovers from his rotator cuff injury and the Eagles are excited to get him back in the offense. Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan remains the biggest mystery after having back surgery, but wouldn't the Eagles have gone out and added to the position if they thought Jernigan would be out for an extended period of time into the regular season?
3. The rookie class holds some serious promise. Goedert is going to be an immediate contributor. Maddox is making terrific strides and is going to help this secondary and these special teams for years to come. Defensive end Josh Sweat looks like he's going to be hard to keep off the 53-man roster. Young offensive linemen Matt Pryor and Jordan Mailata have made a lot of progress and are strong contenders for the 53. Undrafted running back Josh Adams has talent and is very much in the mix for the fourth running back spot with young veteran Wendell Smallwood.
4. There have been nice jumps from some young players, notably Jones at cornerback, Shelton Gibson at wide receiver, and Nate Sudfeld at quarterback. This is good to know as the Eagles take pride in their development program.
5. For those wondering how the Eagles could possibly replicate last season's incredible locker room chemistry, well, adding veterans like Haloti Ngata, Michael Bennett, and Mike Wallace in the free agency period has only improved the camaraderie. All three are a breath of free air, independent thinkers, and great adds to the locker room and on the field. Ngata had a big game in Cleveland, Bennett is an impact defensive linemen, and Wallace, while not productive enough in games, has been strong in practice.
6. The punter situation, one of the big concerns heading into Training Camp, has been handled very capably by Cameron Johnston, who has averaged nearly 48 yards a boot in 17 punts, with a net of 45 yards and six of his punts inside the 20-yard line. He's done exactly what he needed to do to earn the confidence of the coaching staff. We'll see what happens next, but the Eagles are dealing from a position of strength here.
Those are six "winning" points from the preseason. This is not to dismiss the lack of offensive punch, because the Eagles have work to do, and quarterback Nick Foles needs to get back on track, but there is every reason to think that will happen. Who starts at quarterback on September 6 remains the raging question as we move ahead.
But in the overall tenor from the preseason, despite the 0-3 record, is exceedingly positive. The Eagles are in a great place with one preseason game to go.