Finally, we get to see the Eagles go up against another team. It seems like forever since the Eagles walked off the field in Arizona after suffering a tough loss in the NFC Championship game. I'm pretty excited to see the guys finally back in action.
Let's talk about preseason games in general for a minute. Winning and losing isn't important. You prefer the team to win any time they take the field, but this game is more about players and units than what the whole team does. The first preseason game is often a sloppy affair. Players have spent the spring and summer practicing and scrimmaging. Playing in an actual game is quite an adjustment. It is also exciting for the players. They are tired of hitting each other. It feels great to finally get to play in a game.
The area that we'll all be focusing on is the offensive line. We won't get to see the projected starting group, but there is still plenty to watch. New left tackle Jason Peters makes his Eagles debut. Keep the expectations realistic. Peters could be a bit rusty because he's been in and out of practice this summer due to injury. The first two games are his trial and error period. Week 3 is the dress rehearsal for the season and that is when Peters needs to play well.
Todd Herremans is out due to an injury. Nick Cole will take his place in the starting lineup. Jamaal Jackson and Max Jean-Gilles are back as the center and right guard. We know what those guys can do. There is nothing special to look for from them.
Winston Justice will man the right tackle spot. This is a huge game for him. He has been all over the map. He went from promising prospect to bust to forgotten in the span of a couple of years. Now Justice finds himself in the starting lineup. He's there for a couple of reasons. First, injuries have kept the Andrews brothers from playing much this summer. That created an opportunity. The second part of the equation is that Justice has played pretty well. He took advantage of the opening.
Now comes a huge test for Justice. He's not just fighting for a spot on the Eagles. He is auditioning for all 32 NFL teams. People don't remember Justice playing almost the entire 2007 season finale against Buffalo. All they remember is the disaster against the Giants. Starting against the Patriots gives Justice a chance to show what he can do. Or not do. Playing well at Lehigh does not guarantee that he'll play well in a game. A good showing would be a big boost to Justice's confidence in himself, as well as the rest of the team's confidence in him. Good games will get people's attention.
There is one backup lineman that I'm really interested to see. King Dunlap is a second-year left tackle who is fighting for a roster spot. He showed good potential last year. I'm curious to see what kind of progress he's made since then. Rookies can get by with showing potential. Guys in their second or third year have to show improvement. If a young fringe player isn't getting better, then he's probably not worth keeping around. We'll get to see whether Dunlap is improving or just treading water.
The offensive player I'm most excited to watch is running back LeSean McCoy. He should be on the field with the starters since Brian Westbrook is still sidelined. McCoy had a terrific showing at training camp. He looks to be the best rookie running back since Correll Buckhalter in 2001. (Westbrook was the No. 3 back when he was a rookie and didn't really emerge until the following season).
McCoy has stood out as a runner, receiver and blocker. Rookies normally don't handle all three areas so well. That is very encouraging. Now we get a chance to see what McCoy can do in a game. I'm sure that the coaches will feed him the ball so that we can see how he performs. You can also bet that the Patriots will blitz. That will give us a chance to see his blocking. As far as his running goes, I'm going to focus on whether McCoy gets directly up the field or tries to go wide a lot. We want to see him stay north-south as much as possible. Taking too many runs to the outside is a common rookie problem.
The other running back I'm curious about is Eldra Buckley. I want to know if he's got a legitimate shot at making the team. I know Buckley is tough and will run hard between the tackles. I want to see how athletic he is. I'm also interested to see how he does as a receiver. Buckley has been around the league for a couple of years. He just doesn't have much game experience.
I know many people are going to be focused on Jeremy Maclin, this year's first-round pick. It will be fun to see what he can do. Maclin is going to play with the backup offense and may see some snaps with the first unit. Last summer, we could immediately see how good DeSean Jackson was. We hadn't seen a rookie quite like that. I'm not sure that Maclin will be at that level yet, but it will be good to find out how he compares to Jackson.
My focus on defense will be middle linebacker Joe Mays. I think most people will be checking him out. We all want to see if he can fill Stewart Bradley's shoes as the starter in the middle. Mays looked great in last year's preseason games. We need to see what kind of progress Mays has made. His game needs to be polished. He needs to be in the right place. You don't want the middle linebacker overrunning plays and being too aggressive.
The Patriots hopefully will mix in a good deal of passes. That would help us to get a feel for Mays' coverage skills. That is the one area where he is a bit of a mystery. No one expects Mays to show the cover skills of William Thomas or Seth Joyner. We do need him to be better than Barry Gardner.
The other linebacker I want to check out is rookie Moise Fokou. He started off on the weak side, but has been promoted to the backup SAM. The coaches obviously like what they are seeing from him. If Fokou plays well on defense and special teams he could win a roster spot. I was projecting him as more of a practice squad type. It is always good when guys overachieve as rookies.
There aren't any starting defensive linemen that have major questions to answer in this game. We know what the guys can do. There are some backups I'm interested in. Defensive end Chris Clemons reportedly had a terrific training camp. I want to see if he plays like that in a game. Clemons really got better as the season went along last year. He started slow because he had trouble adjusting to the scheme and also had been hospitalized due to dehydration. This year there were no issues. Clemons played well and looked fast and athletic. Let's hope that carries over to the games. Clemons could be a key backup for us this year.
Rookie Josh Gaines has had an interesting spring and summer. He wasn't drafted. Gaines lacks the ideal size and athletic ability. He's tough and a hard worker, but that stuff will only get you so far in the NFL. He came to the Eagles as a defensive end, which is what he played for the Nittany Lions. At some point Gaines was given a shot to move inside to tackle. He's played pretty well in there. Gaines is now listed as a backup defensive tackle on the depth chart. I'm looking forward to seeing how Gaines does as a backup tackle. He is undersized, but his level of quickness and athleticism are more likely to be effective on the inside.
Bryan Smith was a third-round pick in 2008. I've heard all kinds of things about him this summer. I want to see how Smith looks in a game. Some guys don't practice as well as they play in a game. Smith was really good in the preseason finale against the Jets last year. I'd love to see him look anything like that.
There is a pair of defensive backs that I'll be checking out closely. The one player on the starting defense aside from Joe Mays that will get the most attention is Quintin Demps, our new free safety. Demps has played well up at Lehigh. Now it is time to see how he does in a game. Demps made great strides last year with his hitting and tackling. Hopefully, he'll be even better this year. Demps will be the fastest guy we've had at safety in a long time. I'd like to see him show good range.
Jack Ikegwuonu is the other defensive back I'm curious about. He missed all of last year while recovering from a terrible knee injury. He reportedly had a solid training camp. This will be Ikegwounu's first chance to face another NFL team. I want to see how his knee looks. Is he still fast and athletic? Ikegwuonu is in a tough roster battle with Dmitri Patterson for the final cornerback spot. Ikegwuonu needs to play well. At Wisconsin, he was a tough, physical and very confident cover guy. That's the guy I want to see on the field for us.
A month from now we'll have real games. Between now and then the fortunes of quite a few guys will hinge on how they perform in the preseason. We always hope for the best, but the sad fact is that some guys will disappoint. The flip side of that is that a couple of players will really stand out. No matter what happens, it is great to actually have a game to watch.