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Lawlor: Positive Answers To Preseason Questions

The Eagles are bringing back most of last year's team. There is plenty of talent, and the team should once again be a title contender. The preseason is slightly different for the Eagles. Some teams are trying to build confidence by playing well. Some are trying to get a unit to mesh after bringing in a new coach or a lot of new faces. Some teams are desperately looking for talented players to emerge.

The Eagles need answers at a few specific spots. On Thursday night, they got some positive results.

Defensive tackle has flown a little under the radar. Tim Jernigan is injured, and there is no timetable for his return. Destiny Vaeao has received a lot of reps this spring and summer and has looked good at times. In Cleveland, I thought veteran Haloti Ngata played well and showed he should be starting alongside Fletcher Cox.

Ngata missed most of last season with an injury. He's 34 years old so it was fair to wonder how good he could be this year. On Thursday night, Ngata was disruptive on a regular basis. He got a sack and just missed another. He drove blockers backward with his power. He used athleticism and skill to get by opposing linemen. He looked good. Ngata isn't going to regain his Pro Bowl form of several years ago suddenly, but he showed that he could be disruptive and make plays. That's what you want from a defensive tackle playing in Jim Schwartz's 4-3 scheme. Make things happen.

Since Ngata is 34, it is possible the coaches will limit his snaps, even if he is listed as a starter. Vaeao has been solid this summer, but he's not as talented as Ngata. We know the Eagles will play different guys in the middle on some passing downs. Michael Bennett is expected to move inside a lot. It is possible Brandon Graham will see snaps in there as well. He's been a terrific inside rusher for his whole career. We haven't seen Graham play yet this preseason, but Bennett had a strong showing in Cleveland. He was in the backfield on a regular basis.

One position that has been under the spotlight this offseason is linebacker. The Eagles got some answers there on Thursday. Most of the focus has been regarding the competition to see who will get the starting job at weakside linebacker. Overlooked at times has been the return of Jordan Hicks.

Hicks was up and down in the first two preseason games. I thought he started slow, but finished well at New England. There was no slow start in Cleveland. Hicks was outstanding all game long. He had four tackles, a sack, and a pass breakup.

One area where Hicks has needed to improve is against inside runs. There is no question about his ability to cover and make plays in the passing game. Put him in heavy traffic, however, and Hicks wasn't nearly as effective. Against the Browns, Hicks stuffed a couple of runs right at the line of scrimmage. The guys up front kept him clean, and Hicks made strong, physical tackles.

If Hicks is indeed all the way back, and it sure looks like he is, that's a significant boost for the defense. Put simply, he is a playmaker. In 31 career games, Hicks has 12 takeaways, one forced fumble, two sacks, and 14 pass breakups.

Let's go back to the competition for the weakside linebacker spot. It looks like Kamu Grugier-Hill is in the lead. He got the nod on Thursday and played well. He was officially credited with three tackles, but watch the tape and he's around the ball a lot. His athleticism was also on display. Grugier-Hill has tremendous burst and range. He can cover a lot of ground in a hurry.

Grugier-Hill is at his best in space. He has struggled with shedding blocks and playing the run. We saw progress there in Cleveland. Grugier-Hill used his hands to engage and shed blocks. He was part of a tackle for loss. He helped stuff an inside run on third-and-2 that should have ended a drive, but the officials gave the Browns a favorable spot. Grugier-Hill looked like a complete linebacker.

Nathan Gerry hasn't done anything to fall behind in the competition. It's just that Grugier-Hill has done more to win it.

It appears Sidney Jones will be the nickel corner to start the season. Cleveland challenged the Eagles with several rub routes in the red zone, and Jones handled them well every single time. That had to really impress the coaches. Rub routes can give veteran defensive backs trouble. It was good to see Jones understand the situation and cover the correct receivers.

Overall, the defense had a great night in Cleveland. The offense struggled, and that put a lot of pressure on the defense. Those guys rose to the occasion every time. It is easy to be excited by the potential this defense has. It can be great.

While the overall offense struggled, there were some good developments. The Eagles love their top three running backs, but have been waiting for someone to emerge behind them. Wendell Smallwood came alive in Cleveland. He ran 12 times for 53 yards and caught a couple of passes.

Preseason stats can be deceiving, but Smallwood was impressive. He ran hard. He showed some burst. I don't think Smallwood did anything great, but that's the best he's looked this summer. He made a major push to win the fourth running back spot.

His primary competition is Josh Adams, the rookie free agent from Notre Dame. Adams had a good showing on Thursday, but you have to wonder if the coaches fully trust him to stay healthy. Adams does have a higher ceiling than Smallwood, but Smallwood has a major advantage in experience. Expect both guys to play a lot in the preseason finale.

We have been waiting for a receiver to really stand out and make a case for the team to keep six wideouts. Markus Wheaton has been hurt. Kamar Aiken hasn't been much of a factor. I really thought Greg Ward might take a step forward this summer, but that hasn't happened.

DeAndre Carter was good against the Patriots and played even better in Cleveland. He caught four passes for 73 yards. He ran a punt back 29 yards. Carter played well in the slot and outside. He ran good routes and was able to create separation. He has good hands and made impressive catches. I don't know if Carter showed enough to make the team keep a sixth receiver, but he's at least made them think long and hard about it. You love to see guys like him come from nowhere to being on the verge of making the team.

The skill players can't do anything if the guys up front don't block well. Isaac Seumalo had a really good game against the Browns. He played center, guard, and even some left tackle. That is Seumalo at his best, being a versatile piece who can help the team wherever he's needed on the line. He is a valuable role player for this team.

Seumalo stepped in at left tackle when Halapoulivaati Vaitai got banged up. Seumalo actually played pretty well there. He was also good at center and guard. Snaps were not an issue. He blocked well in both the run and the pass game. That was Seumalo's best performance in a while. Very encouraging to see him play like that.

I am floored by the progress Jordan Mailata has made. He was worlds better on Thursday than a couple of weeks ago. Mailata looked like he's played left tackle for years, not weeks. He exploded out of his stance and into his kick slide. Mailata wasn't out of control, though. He played with balance and was able to mirror rushers.

Mailata's impressive footwork and movement skills were only part of the package. He used his long arms and strong hands to keep rushers off balance and away from the quarterback. Mailata fired off the ball on run plays and got some serious movement. He is a very powerful man.

If anyone had a question about why the Eagles spent a pick on a completely raw talent like Mailata, you got the answer in that game. He has special potential. The sky is the limit for him.

Another player who had a strong performance was Cameron Johnston. We already knew he had a strong leg and saw that again when he boomed a 60-yard punt. Johnston showed better ball control and accuracy. He got one punt inside the 10-yard line. He pinned another punt along the sideline. This is exactly the kind of progress Dave Fipp wanted to see from his young punter.

The overall game was nothing fun to watch, but the Eagles got some good answers to key questions. That is fine for a team that is returning so much talent and doesn't have the kind of problems that most teams do.