Evaluating preseason football is not easy. Forget about the score. Forget about stats. You have to focus on how things happened. You don't want players to succeed because of scheme or weak opponents. That can give you a false positive. You're looking for players who showed talent and skills.
The Eagles' coaches and scouts saw plenty to like on Thursday night, despite being on the wrong side of a 31-14 score. The team was missing the top two quarterbacks, four of the top five receivers, and other key players. There were a lot of chances for young players to prove themselves.
The star of the night was rookie Dallas Goedert. If there was any question about whether the small-school tight end's talent would translate to the NFL, the answer is a resounding yes. Goedert showed that he could be a weapon in the passing game.
Zach Ertz missed the game, so Goedert was the featured tight end. He ran crisp routes and showed a real feel for how to get open. I was especially impressed by his touchdown catch. Goedert moved away from the defender but made sure to stay in the quarterback's line of sight. He didn't panic. He didn't overreact. Those were subtle movements that left him wide open for a touchdown.
Goedert plucks the ball so naturally. He did drop one pass when he started to look upfield before securing the ball, but overall he was great at catching the ball.
As exciting as Goedert was as a receiver, I was also very impressed with his blocking. He wasn't great, but the effort was there and he showed potential. The coaches can watch the tape with Goedert and point out what he did right and where he needs to improve. A lot of young tight ends struggle to block. He still has a long way to go, but Goedert is off to an encouraging start.
Nate Sudfeld was the quarterback feeding the ball to Goedert. Sudfeld got the start and played the first half. He was up and down, but I was very impressed with the fact he got off to a slow start and bounced back from that. That showed real mental toughness.
The preseason is huge for young guys. They can put tremendous pressure on themselves to take advantage of the reps. Some of them will fall apart when things go wrong. Sudfeld threw a pair of interceptions, but also a pair of touchdowns.
The biggest takeaway for me was his ability to make good things happen. There were multiple plays where he avoided a free rusher and kept his eyes downfield. One of those was the touchdown pass to Goedert. Sudfeld also threw a beautiful deep ball to Shelton Gibson for a 63-yard score. He is light years better than Matt McGloin, who was the Eagles' No. 3 quarterback a year ago.
Gibson helped himself by hauling in that long touchdown pass. He used his speed to run right by the cornerback. Gibson tracked the ball and caught it at full speed. That was him at his best. He also had a couple of good kickoff returns.
Running back Corey Clement looked terrific. This could be a big year for him.
Let's talk about some of the guys doing the blocking. Rookie Matt Pryor played right guard. Watching live, I thought he looked good. When studying the tape, some issues jumped out at me. I don't think playing against a 3-4 team did him any favors. You could see his potential on some plays. The coaches are right to be excited about him.
Jordan Mailata is the ultimate project, and that showed in the game. He played left tackle in the second half and was all over the place. That was the first real football game of his life, so I expected him to be erratic.
While Mailata is raw and needs a ton of work, you could see his potential. He's just massive but has good feet. I've seen players with 40 college starts who didn't have the kind of footwork that Mailata did. He is gifted. The biggest issue for me is that he doesn't use his hands well. That's something that will improve with lots of practice and good coaching from Jeff Stoutland.
The Eagles had most of their starting defense on the field for the first couple of series, and that group was dominant. Fletcher Cox looked like he was in midseason form. It was great to see Jordan Hicks back on the field. He got hurt last October and missed half the season. Hicks looked healthy to me, flying to the ball and moving with ease. The defense is so much better with him at middle linebacker.
Nathan Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill have been battling for the weakside linebacker spot all summer long. Gerry got the start and seems to have the edge right now. I thought he played well against the Steelers. Gerry took on blockers, controlled his gap, and was technically sound.
Grugier-Hill stood out as the better athlete. He flew into the backfield a couple of times. He made a highlight play at the goal line to prevent a touchdown. Grugier-Hill can fly, and it showed. I thought he wasn't as consistent at taking on blockers and handling gaps. Both Gerry and Grugier-Hill helped themselves.
Sidney Jones was in the slot to start the game. He had to be on cloud nine to be out on the field in August, playing with the starters. Jones was aggressive and physical in the game, on both special teams and defense. He hurt his ankle at one point, but it's nothing serious.
None of the young defensive tackles stole the show, but Aziz Shittu was really good at times. He showed the ability to explode off the ball and be disruptive. Elijah Qualls had some good moments, but they were negated by multiple penalties.
Rookie defensive end Josh Sweat caught my eye a few times. He's another raw player who needs work, but his length and explosion are legit.
Punter Cameron Johnston has been inconsistent in camp, so the game setting was a huge opportunity for him. Johnston averaged 45.8 yards per punt on six attempts. His highlight was an 81-yard bomb that got called back due to a penalty. Johnston has a big leg and lots of potential, but his ball control and accuracy still need plenty of work.
The Eagles aren't perfect, but they sure as heck are one deep, talented team. I'm excited to see which of the young players will take a step forward in the next game.