After watching the film of the Eagles' last two preseason games, one giant theme for me is that the 2019 Eagles Draft class has had the opportunity to stand out.
Over the last couple of weeks, each member of the draft class has produced standout moments and impressive highlights. In this piece, I'll look back at what each of those rookies has done, starting with the star of Thursday's game against Baltimore, wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
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Arcega-Whiteside excelled in the red zone, ran crisp routes, finished at the catch point, battled through contact, got off the line of scrimmage against press coverage, and contributed on special teams.
It was a complete evening for the rookie wideout, who may not play a huge part in the offense this fall, but certainly has shown that he'll be more than capable if and when his number is called. I love to see him do so many of the little things well, proving that he's not "just" a jump-ball threat. The routes that he ran on those plays were particularly impressive, whether it was throwing a little juke at the top of the corner route on his touchdown catch or attacking his vertical stem on that 35-yard catch-and-run late in the game. We haven't seen a ton of production in games from Arcega-Whiteside up to this point, but he's been doing the little things well all summer long. It was great to see it pay off in this game.
Now, let's shift our attention toward Andre Dillard. The first-round pick made his second preseason start a week ago against Jacksonville. He came off the bench in place of Jason Peters Thursday night, but we continue to see impressive play from the rookie.
Dillard has great feet, impressive hands, and he shows a savvy that you love to see from such a young and relatively inexperienced player. Dillard has flashed all of the traits that made him such a coveted prospect this spring, whether if he's matched up against fellow rookies or seasoned veterans. Has everything been perfect? No, of course not, but you love seeing these bright moments from a rookie.
The matchup between Dillard and fellow first-round pick Josh Allen, who the Jaguars selected seventh overall, was fun to watch. Allen spent most of his time matched up on the other side against Jordan Mailata, but here are a couple of times where the two top picks matched up one-on-one.
Dillard went against Allen in pass protection in the first rep. Allen led the SEC in sacks last year and is known for his ability to get after the quarterback, so this is strength on strength here. Dillard flew out of his stance, forklifted Allen's arms, and dropped his anchor to hold the corner and maintain the integrity of the pocket for quarterback Clayton Thorson.
In the run game, Dillard moved Allen and displaced him at the point of attack. I actually liked the defensive end's ability to hold up in the run game during his career at Kentucky, so this was great to see. Was this a dominant pancake with Allen ending up on his back? No. Blocks in the NFL rarely end up that way, but the rookie got good movement and more than did his job on the play.
Speaking of the run game, I want to now turn my focus to Miles Sanders, who played exactly one snap against the Ravens (a kickoff return that resulted in a touchback). In last week's win over Jacksonville, Sanders ripped off a couple of nice runs, including one on the first play of the game.
This is a "split zone" run, which is basically a version of inside zone. A tight end comes from the play side and cuts down a backside defender, creating a crease for the runner to hit downhill. Sanders takes that crease on this play, riding behind an outstanding double team from Jordan Mailata and Halapoulivaati Vaitai to get up to the second level.
Later, in a backed-up situation, the Eagles call split zone again, except this time Sanders reads the second-level linebackers who cheat inside. This allows him to bounce this run outside, as he rumbles through an arm tackle and picks up a first down.
Next, let's look back at Greg Ward's touchdown catch in the Jacksonville game. It doesn't happen without the block from Miles Sanders in the backfield. The Eagles accounted for the two linebackers in this pressure look.
How about the other rookie in the Eagles' backfield, quarterback Clayton Thorson? It was a rough start to the preseason for the former Northwestern star, who posted a 0.0 quarterback rating against the Titans, but he bounced back well. He was thrust into action early and played a large majority of the snaps last week in Jacksonville. He hasn't looked quite like Joe Montana, but he's continued to look more comfortable and confident doing the little things.
When things slow down mentally, the physical things come easier.
Thorson made one throw on Thursday night against Baltimore before the game ended due to weather. It was third-and-long. Against the blitz, Thorson threw an out-breaking route to Carlton Agudosi. He put it on the oversized wideout at the sticks for what would have been a first down had it been caught. Thorson has increasingly looked more and more confident and willing to pull the trigger since that opening game against Tennessee, both in practice and in the games.
It was great to see Thorson bounce back in his second NFL preseason game last week in Jacksonville. The rookie was more decisive against the Jaguars. There were some plays left on the field, but he definitely settled in and was able to execute the offense.
On the touchdown to Ward, the Jaguars sent an all-out blitz on fourth-and-4. That meant that one defender would be free, so the ball would have to get out quickly. I loved how aggressive Thorson was. He understood that there was no safety help, so he chose to take advantage of a favorable matchup with Ward in the slot on a vertical route. He let his playmaker go and make a play. The ball was underthrown as he fell away with a defender bearing down. However, it was completed, Ward created after the catch, and the Eagles got into the end zone.
Later in the game, the Eagles faced another fourth down where Thorson, again, just got the ball where it needed to be and as quickly as possible. It's man coverage, and two defenders ran into each other, allowing tight end Will Tye to break free in the secondary. Thorson saw it, pulled the trigger, and the Eagles converted for a big play on fourth down.
The last play happened to be another "money down," as the Eagles faced a third-and-15. Pederson responded by calling one of his staple pass plays, the Dagger concept, with a vertical route from the slot receiver (hopefully clearing out any defenders in the middle of the field) and a deep dig route from the outside receiver, which puts him right into that void between the hashes. I love that Thorson read the entire field on this play, recognizing a safety coming from the back side. Young quarterbacks are often robotic in their reads. They may see the playside safety drop deep with the vertical route from Charles Johnson and immediately think they can pull the trigger. Thorson correctly read the rotation in the secondary and hit his checkdown, living to play another day as the Eagles punt instead of turning the ball over.
All of this was a really good step in the right direction for the quarterback, who is getting his feet wet in live NFL action. I don't want to go overboard, obviously, but it's great to see steady improvement from the rookie under the lights over the last few weeks.
Lastly, let's look at defensive end Shareef Miller, who didn't play a ton of snaps in Thursday's weather-shortened action. Here are some plays from the previous week against Jacksonville. The Penn State product made plays in both the run and pass game versus the Jaguars, and has been active each time he steps on the field.
Everyone knows that the Eagles are an attacking front. They ask their defensive linemen to fly upfield and make plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. They're like sharks with blood in the water, so leaving them unblocked on the back side of running plays is a testy proposition. You're counting on them not coming from behind in pursuit and making the play. On this first play, the Jaguars are hoping for that, but are disappointed. Miller explodes into the backfield and chases the action from behind for a tackle for loss.
Now, let's look at him as he gets after the quarterback. One of my biggest pet peeves while watching pass rushers is when they race upfield past the quarterback. You can't get a sack or impact a throw if you're 3 yards behind the launch point. Watch Miller here, as he hits the right depth of the quarterback then flattens at the top of the arc, cutting back inside the tackle and getting a hit on the quarterback on a downfield incompletion. Miller tries first to win upfield on the next play, but then spins back inside and gets home for a sack.
Watching the young guys on both sides of the ball is always my favorite part of the preseason action, and this summer has been no different. Over the past two games, we've witnessed a healthy dose of this rookie class, and the early returns are extremely promising.
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.