From the moment the schedule was released back in April, fans knew that September 11 would mark the first game of Doug Pederson's tenure as the Eagles' head coach. What fans didn't know, and what the Eagles didn't even know until this past weekend, is that it will also be the first game of the Carson Wentz era.
The Sam Bradford trade on Saturday came as a shock to just about everyone, but it opened the door for Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick in April's draft, to make his NFL debut in the season opener. He'll be the first Eagles rookie quarterback to start an opener since Davey O'Brien in 1939. And how's this for intrigue: He'll make his debut against the Cleveland Browns - the team in need of a quarterback for the future that had the opportunity to select Wentz, but instead traded the second pick away to the Eagles.
Sign me up for Sunday's game.
There are so many areas of interest and questions to be answered for the Eagles on Sunday. What will the offense really look like? How much does it change with Wentz at the helm? Can the defense keep up its lights-out play from the preseason? What will we learn about Pederson as a playcaller and as a risk-taker? On top of all of those questions about what could be for the Eagles this year, there's also the raw excitement of the NFL regular season being back. Real football will be played at Lincoln Financial Field, and it should be a blast.
The Eagles and Browns will be linked for years to come because of the Wentz trade. The Eagles saw a 23-year old quarterback who they had to go all-in for. The Browns saw a chance to pick up for draft assets and build in other ways. Cleveland had a whopping 14 draft picks in the 2016 NFL Draft, and every single one of them made the 53-man roster. In the first round, they moved back again to the 15th pick and selected Baylor's Corey Coleman, the first receiver to go in the draft. In an attempt to revamp the offense, Cleveland selected four receivers in the draft, and all of them could make an impact on Sunday.
But the issue for the Browns that has lingered over them since they came back into the NFL in 1999 has been quarterback play. From Tim Couch to Brady Quinn to Brandon Weeden to Johnny Manziel, the Browns have taken their chances on first-round picks to play the quarterback position. None of them have panned out though, so Cleveland goes with another second overall pick at quarterback this year (although he wasn't drafted by the Browns) in former Washington first-round selection Robert Griffin III. The last time RGIII played in Philadelphia was in 2014, a game in which the Eagles came away victorious. He'll look to change his fortunes this time around.
Caron Wentz and Doug Pederson have been waiting for this game for a long, long time. The spotlight is on the duo heading into Sunday. The fans are ready. Time to fly.
- Alex Smith
Last Time They Met
Eagles 17, Browns 16
*September 9, 2012 - Cleveland Browns Stadium *
A lot has changed for both the Eagles and the Browns since the last time the two teams faced off in their season opener four years ago in Ohio.
On that September afternoon in 2012, neither team's starting quarterback had a stellar outing. Thankfully for the Eagles though, Michael Vick's play was far superior to that of Browns' starter Brandon Weeden. Vick finished the game 29-of-56 for 317 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. He also rushed for an additional 32 yards. Weeden on the other hand, completed only 12 passes for 118 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions with a passer rating of 5.1.
Unfortunately for Vick, his final interception of the game was his most costly. Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson's nabbed a pick-six early in the fourth quarter for a 27-yard Cleveland touchdown, the team's first of the game, and suddenly the Birds were trailing by six. However, with 6:25 remaining on the clock, the Eagles began what would result in a 16-play, 91-yard scoring drive to regain the lead, 17-16, with just over a minute to play.
From there, the Eagles' defense took the field looking to close out the game. On the first play of the Browns' final offensive drive, cornerback Kurt Coleman registered his second interception of the game when he picked off Weeden at the Cleveland 47-yard line. He returned the ball 7 yards and solidified a Philadelphia victory.
Three kneel-downs later and the game was complete, giving the Eagles a 1-0 record to start the year.
In all, the Eagles totaled 467 yards of offense compared to the Browns' 122.5 yards. The running game was a big area of success as LeSean McCoy successfully picked up 110 of the team's 150 rushing yards, averaging 5.5 yards a carry. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin finished as the game's leading receiver with seven receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown.
- Julie Bacanskas
When The Eagles Have The Ball
Since 1950, there have been only three rookie quarterbacks to play in the season opener for the Eagles. Randall Cunningham was the last in 1985. Before Carson Wentz, the only other rookie to start in Week 1 for the Eagles at quarterback was Davey O'Brien all the way back in 1939.
Wentz played all of 39 snaps in the preseason before suffering the rib injury that sidelined him for the final three games. What should we expect from the No. 2 overall pick? Wentz is not afraid to stand tall in the pocket and deliver the ball, which is how he was injured. He has the athleticism to escape the rush and keep plays alive. He boasts a gunslinger mentality - his favorite player growing up was Brett Favre - and has the arm to go along with it.
Wentz has impressed his coaches and teammates from the time he arrived in Philadelphia, but it's important to remember that he's not in this alone. The offensive line enters the season fully intact, despite reports over the past month that Lane Johnson would be suspended for 10 games for violating the league's policy regarding performance-enhancing substances. What will help Wentz is the fact that the Browns are without top pass rushers Armonty Bryant (suspension) and Desmond Bryant (season-ending pectoral injury). Rookie edge linebacker Emmanuel Ogbah had a pair of sacks in the preseason and will look to carry that success over to the regular season.
The run game, anchored by Ryan Mathews, should alleviate the pressure off of Wentz as well. Mathews looked explosive in the preseason, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Mathews was second in the NFL last season in yards per carry (5.08) among running backs. We don't know what head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich have in store for Darren Sproles, who was kept under wraps in the preseason. Pederson and Reich showed that will game plan to take advantage of mismatches on defense, and Sproles is an ideal player for the Eagles to utilize.
The Eagles traded Eric Rowe on Wednesday, but they aren't the only team to part ways with a recent high pick at the cornerback spot. Cleveland used a first-round pick on Justin Gilbert in 2014 and shipped him over the weekend to the division-rival Steelers for a late-round pick in 2018. Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden still resides over on the left side of the field, but this is a defense that ranked 27th in yards and 29th in points allowed last year. Wide receiver remains a question mark for the Eagles, but Jordan Matthews returns after missing the entire preseason with a knee injury. The Eagles will look to work Dorial Green-Beckham into the mix more after acquiring him in the middle of the preseason in a trade from the Titans. Plus, the Eagles showcased their depth at tight end in the preseason as Brent Celek, Zach Ertz and Trey Burton each have an integral role in the offense.
There is a new sheriff in town with longtime defensive coordinator Ray Horton leaving Tennessee to aid Hue Jackson. Horton will mix up 4-3 and 3-4 looks in an effort to try and keep the rookie quarterback off guard. Out of their base 3-4, the Browns have former first-round pick Danny Shelton at nose tackle and former New York Jet Demario Davis anchoring the middle of the defense at inside linebacker.
- Chris McPherson
When The Browns Have The Ball**
The quarterback picture for the Cleveland Browns in 2015 couldn't have been any foggier, but that's one area the team hopes to have solidified for the upcoming season. Back in March, the Browns signed former second overall pick Robert Griffin III following his release from Washington and named him the team's starting quarterback in the beginning of August. Sunday afternoon's matchup will mark RGIII's first NFL game action since the 2014 season.
This preseason, the quarterback played and started all four of the Browns' preseason matchups. He completed 22 of his 38 pass attempts (57.9 percent) for 313 yards and three touchdowns. He also picked up 40 rushing yards on five carries.
Griffin isn't the only new face on the Browns' offense, as the team also used its 2015 first-round pick on wide receiver Corey Coleman after trading down twice to the No. 15 spot. Coleman had an impressive career at Baylor, setting program records for career (30) and single-season touchdown receptions (20). He was also the first player in school history to record two 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Now, he'll look to bring his talents to the NFL level and be a reliable target for the new quarterback.
Coleman recorded only one catch for 10 yards in the preseason due to a hamstring injury, but the expectations are high for the rookie in 2016, especially when it comes to his scoring capabilities. In 2015, the Browns scored the third-fewest points per game (17.4) in the league, a statistic that helps explain their 3-13 record.
The team's run game also left room to be desired last season as it averaged 95.6 yards per game. Running back Isaiah Crowell resumes his starting role in 2016 and the Browns are also returning the bulk of their offensive line.
Despite the intrigue of understanding the Browns' offensive identity moving forward under new head coach Hue Jackson, the former Bengals offensive coordinator, when they have the ball eyes will also be on the new look of the Eagles' defense. Returning to a 4-3 scheme, Philadelphia's new attack philosophy is one that's going to benefit a number of players along the defensive line, including defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. In 2015, Cox went to his first Pro Bowl after registering 9.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. Now in a scheme that even more suits his playing style, the opportunities will be more frequent for him.
The Eagles' defense is also coming off a stellar preseason in which they forced nine interceptions and two fumbles for 11 total takeaways. With key new pieces on the Browns' offense and an Eagles defense that has looked the part thus far, Sunday should make for an interesting matchup.
- Julie Bacanskas
Looking ahead to the Browns vs. Eagles game this coming Sunday, check out some of the key players to watch for on the Browns roster.
1. CB Leodis McKelvin vs. WR Corey Coleman
Corey Coleman was the 2015 Biletnikoff Award winner, given to the top receiver in college football. In his final season at Baylor, he racked up 1,363 yards and a remarkable 20 touchdowns. Coleman missed a large chunk of the preseason with a hamstring injury, but he's without a doubt the Browns' top receiver as Josh Gordon is suspended for the first four games of the season.
McKelvin is also a former first-round pick in his own right, and while he has familiarity with Jim Schwartz, he's still looking to have a good first impression in front of Eagles fans for his first regular season home game. Nolan Carroll will get his chances versus Coleman as well, but McKelvin figures to see the lion's share of No. 19.
2. TE Gary Barnidge vs. LB Jordan Hicks/CB Ron Brooks
Tight end Gary Barnidge had never caught more than 13 passes in a season before 2015. Seemingly out of nowhere, he hauled in 79 passes for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns last season, earning his first Pro Bowl appearance. Cleveland has added a lot in terms of perimeter receiver threats, but Barnidge could still be the go-to weapon in the middle of the field.
He'll get some helps from slot corners and safeties, but Jordan Hicks was the Eagles' best coverage linebacker last season and figures to take on the leading role of keeping Barnidge at bay. Hicks hasn't played a regular season game since the breakout game he had versus Dallas last season in Week 9, but he can make an early mark on 2016 by limiting Barnidge in the passing game.
3. DE Connor Barwin/DE Vinny Curry vs. T Joe Thomas
Joe Thomas might be the most consistent player in football. The third overall pick in 2007, Thomas has played nine seasons in the NFL. During that time, he's never missed a game, and by the way, he's made nine Pro Bowls. It's incredible to think that a player could make the Pro Bowl every single season of his career, but Thomas has done that. Expect Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry to give him an early test though. The Eagles' defensive line was dominant during the preseason, and they'll give Thomas everything he can handle on Sunday.
- Alex Smith
Trends To Watch
9 - The Eagles' defense led the NFL in interceptions during the 2016 preseason. Eight Eagles combined to pick off nine passes.
17.4 - In 2015, the Browns finished 30th in the NFL in points per game, averaging just 17.4 points per contest. Meanwhile, the Eagles' defense led the NFL with just 9.5 points allowed per game during the 2016 preseason.
28.7 - The Eagles have won six of their last eight matchups against Cleveland (four in a row) dating back to 1982. Eagles have averaged 28.7 points in those wins.
48.57 - The last time that Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III started at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles held him to just a 48.6 completion percentage (November 2013).
- Alex Smith