Watching Training Camp practices, some positions are a bit easier to judge and evaluate than others. Can a cornerback or a wide receiver run? Is a quarterback accurate? Can a linebacker play in space? Can a tight end get in and out of a route break? Those are questions you can answer with players in shorts and limited contact in practice.
Other positions, however, are tougher to evaluate. Tackling, across the board, is going to be under more scrutiny. Running backs have the ability to make live defenders miss (as opposed to just running through a two-hand touch at the line of scrimmage). Trench players, on both sides, take the intensity level up a notch when the lights are on and the action is "real." It's that last group of players that I want to focus on in this piece, as I studied the young defensive linemen on the Eagles' roster and how they performed in Thursday's game against Tennessee.
To start things off, I want to take a closer look at second-year defensive end Josh Sweat. The team's fourth-round pick in 2018, Sweat finished the season on Injured Reserve as a rookie after a less-than-impactful start to the season. One offseason later, he's generated some buzz locally, as teammates and media alike have lauded the former five-star recruit's improvement from Year 1 to Year 2. This was the first time we got to see that step-up in live game action.
Watching Sweat during his college days at Florida State, two things stood out to me -- his motor and his ability to defend the run. He looked the part at 6-5 and just over 250 pounds with a freakish wingspan. He flashed an explosive first step, but he was not a one-dimensional player. In fact, it was his ability to get after the quarterback that I thought needed the most work. Sweat loved using a chop move as a Seminole, slicing his hands down across the opposing offensive tackle's punch to keep himself clean as he tried to turn the corner. He flashed a couple of other moves as well, but he was not consistent with his hands, and struggled to counter an opponent when his first move was blocked. Sweat has been one of the toughest linemen to block during Training Camp. Has the hype train gotten a bit out of hand? I would argue that we should keep our expectations tempered for a second-year player, but we can't deny that Sweat continues to flash. Would that transition to the preseason games? That was one of the things I was most excited to see on Thursday night.
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This was a four-play sample of what we saw from Sweat, and it was really encouraging. Keep in mind, that Sweat saw his reps against the Titans' first- and second-stringers, with a majority coming across "backup" left tackle Taylor Lewan. Why is the Pro Bowl tackle working with Titans backups? Because he is suspended to start the season. The team wants former Eagle Dennis Kelly to get the first-team reps during the preseason to maintain continuity up front.
"He's had a great OTAs, great camp," defensive line coach Phillip Daniels said. "He's doing really well. I thought it was good work for him yesterday going against a guy like that and he did a good job. He went out there, didn't back down. Josh is one of those guys who wants to be good and he will."
That first play came on the second defensive snap, and this motor is exactly what I saw from him at FSU as well as every day at the NovaCare Complex during camp. Sweat has been seen chasing plays down in the flats and following the play to the sideline it seems like in every practice. Here, Sweat chases Adam Humphries down on the quick screen to his side, stopping him after an 8-yard catch-and-run.
The second snap was in the second quarter when he was matched up with Lewan. On this "lead" play, Lewan tried to get outside of Sweat and pin him inside, and on the first step it appeared that he won. This is where Sweat's natural power was put on display, as he collapsed the three-time Pro Bowl tackle backwards, to put the running back in a tough spot. His path was blocked, so did he cut back against the grain or "ride the hump" and carry the run to the sideline? He chose the latter, and after he got outside of Sweat, Daeshon Hall cleaned up from the back side. Hall got credit for the tackle, but this play started with Sweat and his penetration on Lewan. Sweat and Lewan won their share of snaps against each other. It was a fun battle to study in the second quarter of Thursday's game.
The third rep happened in the third quarter. It's third-and-4, and Sweat relied on a powerful long arm move to violently collapse the pocket before exploding into the quarterback just as he released the ball. Sweat flashed the use of this move in college, but not to this level, as he made mincemeat of tackle Austin Pasztor, a former starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The ball was nearly intercepted by Orlando Scandrick, but the tipped pass instead was caught for a first down.
Later in the series, on third-and-12, Sweat busted out that long arm move again, forcing his way through Pasztor's outside half to find the shortest path to the quarterback who had to step up in the pocket. This allowed Daeshon Hall, who used a combination of moves to beat the right tackle, to get home for a strip-sack.
Throughout the course of the night, Sweat tried to work on stringing multiple moves together. He won high side (meaning on the offensive tackle's outside shoulder) and low side (inside shoulder), impacted the run game, and showed off the motor and athleticism that made him one of the most intriguing defensive prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft. I love watching young players develop, and watching Sweat make these steps in the right direction is a lot of fun to see.
"I always tell Josh keep doing the little things and the little things will add to bigger things," Daniels said. "He'll be somebody who will help us a lot down the road here."
Next, let's look at the performance of Hall, another player who I happened to really like coming out of college back in 2017. Hall played opposite No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, but I always thought he was a really interesting player on his own accord because of his ability to defend the run and because of the variety of ways he attacked offensive tackles. We saw both of those traits on Thursday night.
Hall came out of college listed at 6-5 and over 265 pounds with long arms after a fairly productive career with the Aggies. One thing that stood out while watching him was that he wasn't the quickest or the most powerful rusher, but he was a hand fighter who looked to out-technique the man across from him on a down-in, down-out basis. He became a third-round pick of the Carolina Panthers, and didn't last long in Charlotte, but I still buy into his skill set.
"I can see what made him a third-round pick. I watched him when he was coming out. I thought he was a good player," Daniels said.
"He has a motor. He's always going to be around the ball. He just keeps improving. He's a guy you can count on to go out there and make plays."
Watching him against Tennessee, I saw some of those things that made me like him in college. On that first rush, Hall got some initial movement with his bull rush before transitioning to a rip move and attacking the throwing arm with his outside hand, nearly getting a strip-sack (remember that he later got one on the play I showed above that was set up by Sweat).
On the next play, Hall notched a tackle for loss by just "ole-ing" the offensive tackle, who tried to get into him quickly. Hall sidestepped the block, slipped into the backfield, and came up with the tackle for loss.
Later in the game, Hall transitioned from left end to the right side, and he picked up some production over there as well. First, we saw him make a play as a backside run defender, chasing the tight end on this counter run play. When you're unblocked like that, you really HAVE to make the play, and Hall did that here.
Defensive line play isn't just about getting after the quarterback because you have to be reliable against the run as well. The tackling at the second and third level was not consistent on Thursday, but up front on the defensive line I thought these young guys really flashed.
Whether it was Sweat, Hall, Shareef Miller, Treyvon Hester, Bruce Hector, or Hassan Ridgeway, this whole group was really impressive in the ground game. The group worked hard to stay in their gaps, competed well at the point of attack, got off blocks, and rallied to the football as a unit. It was fun to watch the film of that group work on Friday morning.
Lastly, we should give some love to Hester, who showed up on special teams. This harkened back to his huge play in the Wild Card win over Chicago in January, when Hester got a fingertip on the famed "Double Doink" field goal attempt that led to an Eagles victory, but Hester shouldn't receive all of the credit.
Bruce Hector lined up to Hester's left and flew off the ball so well that the two team up to knock the right guard backwards on contact. This allowed Hester to penetrate the A gap, get a hand up, and knock the football down.
Every team needs depth along the defensive line, especially in today's NFL. The Eagles have a lot of young players up front, and they're working with a new position coach in Phillip Daniels. So far this summer, that coaching seems to be paying dividends. I'm excited to watch this young group of backups continue to grow behind established veterans such as Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson, Vinny Curry, and Tim Jernigan.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominatedEagles Game Planshow which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts,Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as theJourney to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices, and opponents.