With three weeks (gulp) to go until the Eagles open the regular season at Washington, there is plenty of work to do. The roster needs to be trimmed. The practice squad must be established. With Training Camp in a new phase – this week, the practices run through Thursday with not as much in-pads work as last week, we're getting to that point. You know the point where you say, "We've got to get this group ready to win in Week 1."
Given everything, the Eagles have done a marvelous job reconstructing the NovaCare Complex and creating an extremely competitive – and COVID-19-safe – Training Camp, even without the fans (a point that defensive tackle Malik Jackson pointed out to wide receiver Deontay Burnett after Burnett made a nice catch in traffic on Sunday and then strutted for the non-existent crowd. "There's nobody here, 16," Jackson shouted from the defensive sideline.
The Eagles look good, even with some hiccups and wrinkles to be smoothed out. Some observations …
1. The defense is for real.
It's Training Camp, so I'm just telling you what I see. And what I see is a defensive line that is deep and powerful and extremely fast even with end Derek Barnett (lower body) and tackle Javon Hargrave (upper body) out. The guys are ballin' up front and Jackson is one of the players leading the way. He and Fletcher Cox have been unblockable in drills. Hassan Ridgeway has moved the line. The edge rushers – Josh Sweat looks outstanding, for a name that isn't mentioned much – have shown real burst. It's more than that with the defense, though. Cornerback Darius Slay changes the whole complexion of the secondary and nickel corner Nickell Robey-Coleman is going to be one of those under-the-radar signings that pays off in a big way. Jalen Mills appears, and it's very early I know, to be a natural fit at safety and the communication on the back end seems to be solid. Somehow, Will Parks is going to play a lot of snaps and have a positive impact this season on the defense. Avonte Maddox has taken the reps as the starter opposite Slay. At linebacker, Nathan Gerry and Duke Riley and T.J. Edwards are making good progress and getting to the football quickly and rookie Shaun Bradley is all over the field. All in all, a good start for the defense.
2. With new starters at two positions, the offensive line is coming together. Andre Dillard has been the starter at left tackle, and Jordan Mailata when Dillard walked off the field and into the athletic trainer's room on Sunday. Jason Peters is finding his comfort level at right guard. Matt Pryor looks good as a backup guard who can play tackle in a pinch. Nate Herbig is making strides at right guard and center, and rookies Jack Driscoll and Prince Tega Wanogho have promise.
3. When the line starts to mesh, the offense is going to be dangerous. Tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert are matchup nightmares, we know. DeSean Jackson just looks so smooth and fast and catches the ball effortlessly and he and quarterback Carson Wentz connected on a timing throw to the sideline on Sunday that was a thing of beauty. Alshon Jeffery remains on the Physically Unable to Perform list, so we're still not sure when he's coming back, but in the meantime J.J. Arcega-Whiteside has made noticeable improvements in his quickness and confidence and with the sharpness of his routes. He was effective in the red zone on Sunday. First-round draft pick Jalen Reagor twisted Parks all up with a couple of sweet moves in the red zone on Sunday. Greg Ward is more confident and every bit as reliable in his second season of real football action in the slot. He had a red zone touchdown catch on Sunday. Miles Sanders remains out with a lower-body injury, but Boston Scott was back on Sunday and Elijah Holyfield and Corey Clement (prior to his illness) have given the offense some sizzle running with the first-team offense.
4. Wentz has been on point at quarterback. He has shown trust throwing early to his receivers and they've run to the open spots and been consistent catching the football. Nate Sudfeld had his best moment of camp so far on Sunday with a red zone touchdown pass in traffic as he moved away from pressure. Jalen Hurts has a big arm, has been developing his consistency, and is a big play waiting to happen if he tucks the football and runs with it.
5. Nobody talks about the special teams a whole lot, but the operation is back and intact and that's making a difference. Jake Elliott is crushing his kicks – he had a 57-yarder the other day – as is punter Cameron Johnston. Pro Bowl long snapper Rick Lovato is good to go. Jalen Reagor, Ward, and Jackson are in line for punt-return duty. The coverage units should be extremely sound.
6. What else is there? The Eagles are going to have to make sure they have backups to backups to backups on the practice squad. As large a role as it played last season when the Eagles won four straight games to capture the NFC East, the practice squad is even more vital now. Where are the best roster battles? Wide receiver is one – how the can the Eagles keep some of these young prospects? – and defensive end is another – there is some talent here, gang. The younger running backs, Holyfield in particular, are showing up. Defensive backs is a group of strength.
7. Let's talk about health with the opener three weeks away. Barnett, Hargrave, and Jeffery are three key pieces and none of them has taken a practice rep and there is no word on when they will return to the field. Tight end Joshua Perkins (upper body) is out indefinitely, whatever that means. Three weeks is going to be here before you know it. How healthy will the Eagles be heading to play Washington?