After looking at how the rookie class performed in the preseason, I want to now turn my focus toward the veterans on this team. There's been so much chatter about veteran players and their participation in these four exhibition games. All over the NFL, star players on both sides of the ball played very little, if at all, in live action. That begs the question, "What do vets get from the preseason?"
Before I begin to answer that question, let me first note that every situation is different. Coaches may not want established player to take what some may deem as an unnecessary risk in a game that does not count toward the regular-season standings. Coaches continue to ramp up the competitiveness and efficiency in practice during Training Camp, therefore getting the number of quality reps that a player may need during the summer without exposing them to these games. There are a lot of factors at play.
Now, let's get to what selected veterans DO get out of these four games.
1. Rebounding from injury
The preseason can serve as a good way for players coming back from injury to get their "sea legs" back under them. They've been cleared for contact, are taking part in Training Camp, but obviously haven't been exposed to a ton of live contact in practice. These preseason games offer them that opportunity to get a few hits on their body before the regular season gets underway. The Eagles have several players who fit into this category this summer.
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Rodney McLeod missed most of last season with a knee injury. He gradually worked his way back this summer, first seeing only individual work, then eventually getting reps in 7-on-7 periods, and finally getting cleared for full-team sessions leading up to the matchup with Baltimore. This was his first "live" action since his injury last September. On the first play of the game, McLeod ended up right in the mix of a pile on a play to the left side. This is often an uncomfortable situation for the player, but I'm sure part of McLeod is happy that he got to experience that early in the game. Later, he made a great tackle in the flat against an athletic rookie quarterback in Trace McSorley, as McLeod showed the ability to break down on the move, come to balance, and finish in space near the sideline. McLeod wasn't the only Eagle to make his debut in that game against Baltimore.
Running back Corey Clement also got his first stint of live action of the summer against the Ravens after ending last season on Injured Reserve with a knee injury. Clement had a couple of nice runs in the game, which was great to see in extended action over the first three quarters. However, there was another area where he shined most. I thought the third-year back crushed it in pass protection, where time and time again he showed the ability to step up and take on extra rushers from the Ravens.
This breaks into a larger discussion when it comes to backup players on a depth chart in the NFL. You have to be able to fill a number of roles as a backup player. "Anything you can do to help the team," as the saying goes. Not only can Clement carry the rock, but he can do some receiving work from the backfield (hello, Super Bowl LII), protect the quarterback, and play on special teams. On a number of reps in this game, I thought Clement really showed just how far he's come as a blocker since he entered the league out of Wisconsin in 2017.
Look at defensive end Josh Sweat as another example of injured players just trying to get their feet wet in their return to live contact. In Sweat's case, he also had plenty to work and improve on as a younger player. Coming out of college, Sweat was a big kid with a load of athletic traits who could defend the run, play with a high motor, and provide flash plays when getting after the quarterback. That being said, he was still a ways away from fully developing his pass rush plan. This summer, I've seen a guy who has taken the next step in that arena. No longer is Sweat just trying to run by or through an opposing tackle. He is working on a number of different moves, rushing with a plan, and winning in a variety of ways. When you take that piece of knowledge along with his size, athleticism, run defense, and motor, we're now cooking with gas. I'm excited to watch Sweat off the bench and see what kind of juice he can give the defense this fall.
Lastly, wide receiver Mack Hollins also was coming off of injury entering the summer, having missed the entire 2018 season. Having not seen Mack for an entire calendar year in a game, how would he look after a promising rookie campaign? Well, he showed that he can definitely be a factor on special teams, showing up as a blocker and as a gunner, particularly in the second game against Jacksonville. Hollins showed all of this while showing off some maturity as a route runner as well, where I thought he tried to do some different things at the top of his stem to create separation this summer as he advances his career as a wideout. Hollins has size and speed, and when paired with his toughness he can really be a tough matchup in the third phase of the game. Hollins certainly proved to the staff that he earned a role this summer because of the value he brings on special teams, and seeing him doing that while coming off the injury was great to watch.
2. Earning a spot on the team
Sweat and Hollins certainly weren't viewed as "locks" to make the roster, so what they put on film this summer both in practice and in games (as well as their attitude and habits away from the field) helped them earn jobs. I would say that no player, however, helped himself more in preseason games this summer than Daeshon Hall.
Hall played his way onto the Eagles' 53-man roster, make no mistake about it. He was active against the run and played like his hair was on fire, but Hall jumped off the screen as a pass rusher. The former third-round pick consistently maximized his length, getting into the pads of opposing linemen and driving them backward. He also showed a great understanding of how to mix things up with his hands, keep tackles on their toes, and beat them either inside or outside. Hall, along with Sweat, also showed the ability to utilize what is referred to as "independent hand usage," where he was able to keep himself clean at the top of the rush by using his hands to separately clear the punch of the opposing tackle and work his way to the top of the pocket. I don't expect Hall to eat up a bunch of snaps on the defensive line this fall, but if he can provide even a bit of a surge in a backup role, then it is a win for the Eagles' defense, which likes to rotate the players on the front four.
Other veterans who I thought played their way onto the roster between preseason games and their work in camp both on and off the field include defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, who I should have spent more time highlighting throughout the course of the summer, and linebackers Zach Brown and L.J. Fort. All three players showed off the reasons why the Eagles acquired them this spring, showing up in a variety of ways in the preseason games.
3. Knocking the rust off
There are just some things that can't be replicated as well in practice. If you're a position that deals with contact on a consistent basis, preseason games are valuable to knock the rust off, no matter how long you've been in the league. You can run as many drills in practice as you want, but it's tough to get true game speed in the trenches.
The Eagles could obviously do a walk-through of this in practice, and they could pick up a blitz like this in a team period, but chances are you wouldn't get this kind of speed in practice. The Ravens actually dial this up perfectly. It's a great call against the "slide" protection, as Baltimore shows pressure from one side and come from the opposite. This creates a 3-on-2 situation in favor of Baltimore, but Jason Peters and Isaac Seumalo pass this off well and keep quarterback Josh McCown clean as he delivers the ball. Well done by the veterans on the O-Line.
The run game, in particular, is also tough to replicate in practice. Everyone always asks me how the running backs look during Training Camp and, outside of the passing game and one-on-one drills in pass protection, that's often a tough question to answer! In preseason games, however, it's a much better gauge for how backs are feeling run schemes and making people miss. Same with the offensive line, you get to see guys get great movement against a defensive line that is working its tail off to stop exactly that. The Eagles' first- and second-team units all looked really strong in the run game this preseason, which is great to see. Getting added reps in the run game is huge, and I would say the same goes for defense as well.
Just like on offense, the defense doesn't get a lot of "live" reps where it tackles to the ground during camp. With that in mind, the only place where you're going to get those looks is during the preseason games. This is why you'll see defensive starters play more often and deeper into preseason games than offensive starters. That was the case with the Eagles this summer, and it's invaluable in the run game. Communication is also big on the defensive side, and that's something that can get worked out in these games as well.
Look at how both McLeod and Avonte Maddox handle the jet sweep action in the backfield on this snap against Baltimore. The Eagles work on this consistently in practice, but, again, games are different ... even if it's "just" the preseason.
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.