Five Things to Watch at Eagles Training Camp
The 2021 Eagles enter training camp on Tuesday without a ton of expectations. On many fronts, many of the fans and pundits see a team with plenty of warts and very few remedies to fix them.
Their head coach is brand new and is a total unknown, after replacing the only coach to ever capture the Lombardi Trophy, Doug Pederson.
Their defense has some high-priced veterans, mixed in with a ton of unknown commodities, including their new coordinator, Jonathan Gannon. Their offense is made up of a veteran offensive line and mostly of young unproven skill players players.
In the NFC East, if all the chips fall their way, they could compete for a playoff spot or they could finish in the cellar if they are met with another season filled with injury and inconsistent, underachieving play.
In order for the team to be in the mix for a playoff berth, there are a few things that have to happen.
Heading into training camp, here are the five things that have to transpire between now and the season opener for Philadelphia to make a return trip to the playoffs:
1. Someone has to win the left tackle battle
When the 2020 training camp opened, former first-round pick Andre Dillard was penciled in to be the teams left tackle, but that never happened after a torn biceps injury, ending his season.
Former seventh-round pick Jordan Mailata was given his first opportunity to show what he can do at the NFL level, after an injury to Jason Peters, and impressed enough to be considered the favorite by many to win the job in 2021
“They’re going to both be given an opportunity," Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said back in June.
It’s likely the most-important storyline of Eagles training camp.
If neither tackle shines, it would be interesting to see who the coaching staff goes with, a former first-round pick or a former seventh-rounder.
But if either player goes out and clearly wins the job and becomes the potential “left of the future” the Eagles could have one of the better offensive lines in football, if they can stay healthy.
To some extent, it doesn’t matter who wins the competition. What’s important is that one of them actually goes out and becomes a solid contributor to what should be a very good offensive line, not a weakness.
2. Defensive line must continue to be a strength of the team
There’s are some things to like about the Eagles defense and one of those things is their defensive line. The core group of Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave is one of the best in the NFC East.
Add in former first-round pick Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat and free agent acquisition Ryan Kerrigan, the Washington Football Team's all-time sack leader, and the team has some nice depth at the position.
For the defense to succeed, the Eagles need that group to generate a pass rush, forcing opposing quarterbacks into mistakes, taking the pressure of their their suspect secondary.
If they can’t, the Eagles secondary, which added veteran Steve Nelson on Sunday, will be tested.
But the pressure has to come from Graham, Cox, and Hargrave to help make the defense the best version it can be. The Eagles group of pass rushers have the potential to be a great, but age in healthy will be a big factor.
Graham and Cox have both stayed relatively healthy, but are both over the age of 30. Graham is now 33, and has played at least 15 games in 10 of his 11 NFL seasons. Cox, 30, has played in at least 14 games in all of his nine seasons. Kerrigan is 32 has played in 16 games in nine of his 10 NFL seasons and Hargrave, 28, has played in at least 15 games since being drafted by Pittsburgh in 2016.
We will see how Gannon utilizes his defensive front to maximize the group.
If this groups can stay healthy and continue to remain productive, that could be a key factor in the Eagles defense having a solid year. Generating a pass rush is a key to helping their secondary, which is a big key to the success of the team.
3. What does DeVonta Smith add to the offense
On paper, the Eagles have an intriguing collection of skill player. But what type of player No. 10 overall pick DeVonta Smith turns out to be, could be the key to the offense.
Jalen Hurts is a unproven second-year player, adding key weapons for him, to help the team make plays, could go a long way in his success as the starting quarterback in Philadelphia. If they produce, it could the team make a strong evaluation on Hurts, if they struggle, it could be a quick exit for the former second-round pick.
If Smith is able to give the Eagles the kind of production he produced at Alabama, things map out well for Philadelphia. That could help jump-start Jalen Reagor as their No. 2 wideout, and could give the team a dynamic duo of wide receivers. The complementary pieces of Travis Fulgham, Greg Ward and guys like J.J Arcega-Whiteside, Quez Watkins and John Hightower will make for an interesting training camp battle.
But if Smith isn't as advertised, things don’t look quite as good. Reagor battled through injuries and inconsistent play last season and wasn't really used well in the Eagles clunky offense. If Smith doesn't show the same ability he did in college and isn't ready to be the No. 1 guy, the team would likely turn to tight end Dallas Goedert to be the top pass catcher in 2021.
4. The health of the offensive line
When people look at the Eagles offensive line, there is a lot of what ifs. If the line can stay healthy, they could be one of the better units in football this season. Guys like Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks and Jason Kelce are each considered some of the top guys at their respective positions.
The team had a disastrous 2020 season, filled with injuries from the outset.
As noted above, Andre Dillard was lost at left tackle before the year even started. Jason Peters was signed to play right guard, but was pushed out to his familiar left tackle spot, before going down with injury. Jordan Mailata settled in and played well, and is now considered a favorite to win that position.
Isaac Seumalo missed time with injury, Brooks missed the entire season and Johnson was in and out of the lineup, before calling it a season after appearing in just seven games in 2020.
As a result, the team got to see some young faces in multiple places. Guys like Nate Herbig and Jack Driscol were given the opportunity to play and showed they belonged.
Now if an injury occurs the team will much more equipped to handle the situation.
Second-round pick Landon Dickerson is a wild-card. The Rimington Trophy winner and first-team All-American could challenge to play left guard and provide depth at multiple positions across the offensive line if he is healthy and ready to play when the season starts on Sept. 12.
5. Zach Ertz
What happens with Zach Ertz will be a big storyline to keep an eye on these next few weeks. Will the team try and move on from their star tight end? Will they just keep him? If so, how will he fit into their offense this season? Does he still have the same abilities that made him one of the best pass-catching tight ends in football, catching over 70 passes for five straight seasons from 2015-2019.
The team was able to figure out a way to keep Ertz and add Steven Nelson to the roster, but if Howie Roseman can spin Ertz for something of value or clear out more cap space, the team could take another step forward to competing sooner than later.
If these things can happen, the Eagles can challenge for a playoff spot in 2021. If they don’t, the team could be looking at its first back-to-back losing seasons since the 2015-2016 season, when the team went 7-9 and 7-9 in consecutive years.
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