Wow. Whoa. The hits just keep coming, don't they? It is a lengthy injury list for the Eagles as they prepare for Sunday night's game against San Francisco. Yes, it will take a remarkable effort to win a football game across the country against the defending NFC Champions. How do the Eagles overcome all the wounds? Let's take a look …
(Editor's note: This was originally posted Saturday morning, but updated following the team's roster moves in the afternoon.)
At cornerback, the numbers are thin
Starter Avonte Maddox (ankle) is out for the 49ers game, as is backup Trevor Williams (rib), who was placed on Injured Reserve on Saturday. OK, so we know that Darius Slay is one starter and that Nickell Robey-Coleman is healthy and in position to line up at the nickel position. Cre'Von LeBlanc showed in the playoff game against Seattle that he can move outside and play in a pinch, so that is one direction the Eagles can take.
Safety Jalen Mills started for four seasons at corner, of course, so that's an option for this game as well, and the Eagles could use Marcus Epps as a hybrid safety/cornerback and insert Rudy Ford into the safety position. Rookie K'Von Wallace has been coming along as he learns the defense, so maybe there is a place for him in the secondary rotation against a versatile and explosive San Francisco offensive arsenal. Rookie free agent Grayland Arnold was called up from the practice squad again after making his NFL debut on special teams last week.
No doubt, though, the ranks are extremely thin for an Eagles secondary that hoped that the depth they acquired in the offseason – including the signing of free agent Will Parks, who is on Injured Reserve – would provide multiplicity and constantly changing looks for quarterbacks to think about. Instead, the Eagles are hoping that they can move some pieces around and play productively. This is going to be very interesting to see how Jim Schwartz employs his personnel in the secondary. We could see some unusual combinations.
The tight end picture
It's going to be important that Zach Ertz gets his targets and touches against a San Francisco defense that is sure to pay maximum attention to No. 86. He will see bracket coverage, double coverage, and anything to keep Ertz from inflicting damage in the passing game. The challenge for the Eagles is that the usual potent tandem of Ertz and Dallas Goedert won't have Goedert (ankle) for several weeks, so the Eagles have to rebrand the tight end position. Veteran Richard Rodgers is the No. 2 here and he's a strong in-line blocker who can help in the passing game, but not to the athletic level that Goedert brings to the table.
The Eagles added Hakeem Butler during the week from Carolina's practice squad and he certainly is an athlete – a former speedy, big-play wide receiver from Iowa State who was the 103rd selection in the 2019 NFL Draft by Arizona and missed his rookie season with a broken hand. He was on the Panthers' practice squad as a wide receiver and now the Eagles are transitioning the 6-foot-5, 227-pound Butler into a tight end. Butler has had very little exposure to the Eagles' offense, so don't expect him to make an impact in this game.
Offensive line, updated
This is an iffy picture because left tackle Jason Peters was placed on the Injured Reserve list Saturday with a foot injury. There are some scenarios to consider here against a San Francisco defensive front that has suffered significant injuries – the losses of ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford and tackle Solomon Thomas – but that still has impact players like Arik Armstead on the edge and rookie Javon Kinlaw inside. The Eagles have Jordan Mailata at the ready, with rookie Jack Driscoll, who has to prepare, basically, at four positions, also prepared for emergency duty. Or that the Eagles shake it all up and start Driscoll – who could also play right tackle if the Eagles wanted to go all-out change and move Lane Johnson to left tackle.
It's unsettling, but that's been the nature of an offensive line that has been roiled by injury since guard Brandon Brooks suffered his torn Achilles tendon in the spring, followed by Andre Dillard's torn biceps, then Isaac Seumalo's knee injury, and now Peters' foot injury. Stability has gone out the window in 2020 and credit goes to the coaching staff and some young players – notably someone like Nate Herbig – for the adjustments made in the last couple of weeks. What's another challenge? No biggie, right?
Who are the wide receivers?
Um, this is interesting. To say the least.
DeSean Jackson (hamstring) isn't playing. Jalen Reagor (thumb) isn't playing. Alshon Jeffery (on the mend from 2019 foot injury) isn't playing. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (calf) is doubtful.
So, who is?
You're going to see a lot of Greg Ward. Like, tons of him. Rookie John Hightower missed practice time during the week with an illness, but he had a full practice on Friday and is going to be ready to go. Ditto Deontay Burnett, who was called up from the practice squad on Saturday. Same with Travis Fulgham, who was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster. He's got some NFL game experience – exactly three games, 63 offensive snaps with zero targets, 26 special teams snaps – so that puts him ahead of the rest of the group. Rookie Quez Watkins is in the 21-day practice window but is not ready to be activated from the Injured Reserve list. The Eagles also promoted Adrian Killins from the practice squad to the active roster. The electric 5-8, 177-pound rookie free agent accounted for 864 receiving yards at Central Florida, so he has to be mentioned here as well.
However it plays out for Sunday night, it's certainly not the scenario the Eagles envisioned when they put this roster together. And it puts maximum focus on quarterback Carson Wentz. As you evaluate him, keep in mind the group he has at wide receiver. There just hasn't been a lot of reps with the receivers available – outside of Ward – and that isn't easy on a quarterback who is doing everything he can to get back on the right track.
Guarded view of the defensive line
After an eight-sack performance against Cincinnati, the Eagles' defensive line is looking for more against the 49ers and an offense that runs the ball very well, plays excellent team offense, and is coordinated in its blocking schemes in front of quarterback Nick Mullens. Here is the guarded view: defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is still managing his abdominal injury and limiting his time on the practice field to make it to gameday. He played well against the Bengals and the Eagles need another gigantic effort from Cox and Javon Hargrave and Malik Jackson and everyone up front. The defensive line has to win the game here and help the secondary that is injury stressed.
Miles Sanders, 100 percent
The second-year running back said on Friday that he's "100 percent" after missing some practice time with a glute injury suffered in Sunday's game against the Bengals. You could see, upon replay, Sanders breaking stride just a bit on that wheel route which he was open as Wentz's pass missed him by a yard or so last Sunday, and now we know why. The Eagles need all of Sanders in every phase of the game. He's going to get touches running the football as the Eagles try to establish the line of scrimmage and, boy, do the Eagles also need Sanders in space in the passing game. Sanders is the most dynamic weapon the Eagles have. He has to be great at San Francisco.
And the rest of the roster?
Well, there isn't a whole lot left here. I'm looking at the Injured Reserve list as I type this and there are names not mentioned here who sure would look good if healthy – Vinny Curry at defensive end, Craig James at cornerback, Joshua Perkins at tight end. Injuries are part of the game, blah, blah, blah. Can't the Eagles just get a couple of breaks here? Please?