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The Preseason Opener, And What It Means

Doug Pederson is in his NovaCare Complex office in a rare relaxing moment on an always-busy day. The preseason opener is in sight. It's his first NFL game as a head coach, albeit a preseason one. Pederson has a lot going on in his mind and the first preseason game is one that can quickly morph into chaos on the sidelines with the mass substitutions that come with a 90-man roster.

For the first time, Pederson will have control of the entire roster in an NFL game situation.

"I'm going in with a lot of excitement," Pederson said. "There is a lot going on during a game, a lot of moving parts, and we have four games to work at it and get ready for the regular season in every phase of our football operation."

Describe this as a "work-in-progress" preseason opener for a team that clearly has a lot of questions to answer. Let's delve into some of the topics that most definitely will be on the docket on Thursday night (7 PM kickoff vs. Tampa Bay, Comcast SportsNet, Cozi TV) …

  • As we all wait to learn more about Wednesday's reports that right offensive tackle Lane Johnson will be suspended by the NFL for a failed drug test, the offensive line will very much be tested against Tampa Bay and the structure moving forward is going to be one to watch. Matt Tobin starts for Jason Peters - who will take pre-game warmups to get his work in - at left tackle on Thursday night. There has been no indication that there will be any other changes to the projected starting line, so the assumption is that Johnson starts at right tackle, Allen Barbre starts at left guard, Jason Kelce is at center and Brandon Brooks gets the nod at right guard. Given the uncertainty at the tackle positions in the big picture, the Eagles need to develop some depth in these preseason games. Line coach Jeff Stoutland has been pleased with his group since the spring and he'll have some options should he need to use them behind the projected starters.
  • What kind of offensive game plan will the Eagles use? They're going to be aggressive and throw the ball around and get some timing down. Don't be surprised to see the offense take some shots down the field. Just so you know, Pederson is calling the plays and will communicate directly to the quarterback. He's very well aware of the importance of getting the plays into the quarterback quickly and to manage the clock wisely. This is one of the areas that fans will watch closely in Pederson's first season, and he knows it.
  • Who makes the roster at wide receiver? You can pretty much pencil in Jordan Matthews, Rueben Randle, Nelson Agholor, Josh Huff and Chris Givens. That's five. Paul Turner has played well in Training Camp and will get his chances in the preseason. Cayleb Jones has made some plays in camp. So if the Eagles keep four tight ends, which is very much a possibility and they go with four running backs – Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles, Kenjon Barner and Wendell Smallwood – can the Eagles afford to keep six receivers on the 53-man roster?
  • Thursday is a terrific challenge for the Eagles' cornerbacks going up against Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans and a talented Tampa Bay receiving corps. Leodis McKelvin has been a starter since the first day of practices in the spring and he's in line to start. Who earns the other spot? Could be Nolan Carroll, who has come a long way after his ankle injury last season. Ron Brooks will be a part of the picture here, too, certainly in the slot and perhaps also outside as well. Jalen Mills has a good test Thursday as he tries to build on his camp success. And Eric Rowe is working on getting back to the top of the rotation after starting in the last month of 2015 and falling down the depth chart a bit in the spring and summer. There is some good competition here. Maybe no superstars at the moment, but a group that's going to work hard and compete.
  • Who emerges at linebacker behind starters Jordan Hicks, Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham? Najee Goode starts for Kendricks on Thursday night and the Eagles feel that Goode can back up at all three positions and play well. After that? Players like Deontae Skinner, Joe Walker and Myke Tavarres have their first preseason game situations to really show up. Skinner impressed the Eagles on the practice squad last season and he played in seven games for New England in 2014, and he's got a real chance to make this roster.
  • Defensive end Marcus Smith is still going through the concussion protocol so he won't play in this game, and that's a blow for him. He needs the reps. The Eagles need a fourth defensive end to emerge. Steven Means looks the part and has done a good job in camp, so keep your eyes open for No. 51 against Tampa Bay.
  • Caleb Sturgis has kicked more effectively than Cody Parkey in practices at the NovaCare Complex. Now comes the game challenge. Parkey needs to have confidence in his surgically repaired groin and let it rip. Sturgis has showed more distance and accuracy in the summer but this competition will come down to the game performances.
  • Finally, the quarterbacks. Can't wait to see Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel and, of course, Carson Wentz. Pederson isn't going to baby any of them, but he isn't going to be foolish, either. "A lot depends on what the other 10 guys around them can do as far as calling which plays," he said. "You want to play to the strengths of those players on the field." Wentz will play most of the second half. Get your popcorn ready. 
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