McMullen: Learning Curve Has Been Steeper than Expected for Eagles Rookie Playmakers
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Turns out Miles Sanders isn't Christian McCaffrey or Dalvin Cook, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside isn't the cheaper, younger version of Alshon Jeffery ... at least not yet.
When it comes to rookies in the NFL there is one trait that any draft guru can populate into his projections, they're going to make mistakes early in their careers.
Some are so gifted the talent overshadows the hiccups but the miscues remain ever-looming and are a major reason why so many NFL coaches believe having a bottle of TUMS in the desk is always a worthwhile investment.
In the case of the Eagles' two second-round picks, Sunday wasn't a good day with Sanders putting the football on the turf twice and Arcega-Whiteside whiffing on what he's supposed to do best at the game's biggest moment, hauling in contested catch on a desperation 4th-and-15 heave that would have won the football game for Philadelphia.
Instead the Eagles lost 27-24 to fell to 1-2 on the season with a short week upcoming and 3-0 Green Bay next on the docket at historic Lambeau Field, a short-term conundrum that has many of the irrational contemplating a swan dive off the Ben Franklin may be a better option than watching Aaron Rodgers carving up a defense with an impotent pass rush.
Coaches, though, have to be more even-keeled and you also got to see why the Eagles keep giving more looks to Sanders over veteran Jordan Howard, his ability as a receiver in the passing game which produced gash gains of 40 and 33 yards against the Lions.
In the cost-benefit analysis Sunday the negative outweighed the positive, however. In the case of Sanders, two fumbles over a stretch of four plays, and Arcega-Whiteside looking lost on the Eagles’ final offensive play, a jump ball that should have been his.
Doug Pederson and the Eagles are staying disciplined. They didn't get into these markets for short-term gains, it's about long-term yields.
“We drafted both of those guys for a reason: to come in and help us win games,” Pederson said at his Monday afternoon press conference. “Both of them had opportunities early in the season to play but i think it’s a great experience for both of them.”
The rookies weren't the only reason the Eagles lost as proven players like Nelson Agholor and even Zach Ertz contributed to the drop parade while the normally solid special-teams coverage gave up a return, and that aforementioned pass rush has been dead on arrival early in the season.
Arcega-Whiteside, meanwhile, is only getting extended playing time because of short-term injuries to DeSean Jackson and Jeffery so that issue may fix itself quickly but the Eagles might be skipping steps with Sanders because there is another avenue in Howard.
Sanders offers more explosion and big-play ability than Howard and the coachings staff likes that home-run ability rather than the singles and chain-moving Howard provides.
Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise because the reason Howard was on the market in Chicago was that Matt Nagy, another Andy Reid-acolyte like Pederson, wanted a more explosive option.
To date, Sanders leads the RB-by-committee over Howard and Darren Sproles with 95 offensive reps and 40 touches. His work as a runner has been less than stellar with 106 yards on 34 carries, a dismal 3.1 yards-per-rush marred by uncertainty and a failure to put his foot in the ground and make NFL-like decisions.
There were at least hints of a sea change during prep for the Lions with both Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh acknowledging Sanders needed to be more decisive in his running style.
That' evidently changed, however.
“He is young," Pederson acknowledged. "... There are gonna be a few growing pains with him but the more we put him out there, the better he’s gonna get.”
Hope is typically not a plan in this league but Pederson insists his decisions are not based on hunches.
“The way he’s handled his business from the Xs and Os standpoint, handled the offense, how he’s run in practice, how he’s caught the ball out of the” backfield. All those things that we’ve seen him do have really given us the confidence to play him," the coach explained.
Arcega-Whiteside, on the other hand, will be back on the bench when the Eagles get healthy and an extended opportunity without Jeffery and Jackson on the field has him going backward, falling behind Mack Hollins for the No. 4 spot after 127 offensive snaps in two weeks produced only two receptions in six targets for 14 yards.
The Stanford product isn't getting separation against NFL-level cornerbacks and the perceived contested-catch strength hasn't shown up.
“JJ is going to get better every time he takes the field,” Pederson said. "[He is] just learning the game and learning how to prepare mentally, how to study defensive backs."
Maybe so but if the Eagles are being honest, the learning curve is steeper than expected and maybe a move back to the remedial courses and not the accelerated curriculum is the answer here.
“Both of those guys are going to be fine,” Pederson insisted. “I’m excited about their futures.”
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen