The Backup Plan
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) — Insurance can be an annoying luxury right up until you need it.
The bills keep coming in the good times and there is nothing tangible garnered by your outlay until the bad times show themselves. There is always, however, a positive intangible quality from having insurance -- peace of mind.
The Philadelphia Eagles had the best of both worlds with Nick Foles, the comfort of knowing an experienced veteran was in the bullpen when Carson Wentz was slinging the football and the actual piece of hardware that now calls the NovaCare Complex lobby its home after Foles was forced into action in the 2017 season, taking the ball from the injured Wentz and delivering the first pro football championship to the City of Brotherly Love since 1960.
Ignore any revisionist history, hindsight reveals the formula of Wentz, the leading candidate to be NFL MVP that season until tearing his ACL and LCL in December, as the starter who went deep into the game until handing things off to the closer. Think Mike Mussina going seven strong and handing the baseball to Mariano Rivera for the two-inning save.
The Eagles no longer have that proven commodity in the bullpen with Foles now slotted to be the starter in Jacksonville and instead will likely be counting on the unproven Nate Sudfeld.
When training camp kicks off Thursday the depth chart will read: Wentz, Sudfeld, Cody Kessler, and rookie fifth-round pick Clayton Thorson.
Ostensibly, Kessler, a 2016 third-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, was signed by the Eagles back in May to provide some competition for Sudfeld. Kessler isn't Foles but he has amassed 12 career starts with the Browns and Jaguars, a step up from Sudfeld's 25 career NFL passes.
Maybe things change over the summer but in the spring Sudfeld clearly lapped Kessler although neither option was without his flaws with the former showing the penchant for holding onto the football far too long and the latter flashing underwhelming arm strength. Thorson, meanwhile, struggled mightily and remains a developmental prospect, someone closer to the practice squad than Wentz's game-day backup.
Sudfeld has some of the traits Doug Pederson likes, starting with his frame. Like Wentz and Foles, Sudfeld is a big QB at 6-foot-6 and nearly 230 pounds. The arm strength has improved and a focus on conditioning has made the former sixth-round pick stronger and more confident in his own abilities.
That continued during the down period across the country in Oregon where Sudfeld continued his offseason work under the auspices of former New York Giants tight end Kevin Boss. What you can't gain in the gym, though, is experience.
To this point, however, it's clear Sudfeld's presence at the NovaCare Complex for nearly two full seasons trumps Kessler's work outside of it from the coaching staff's perspective.
“He’s had a pretty good seat for the last couple of years," Pederson said when discussing Sudfeld. "Now it’s time for him to really take that next step."
Some do tend to forget that Sudfeld was the backup for the final seven games of the Super Bowl season after Wentz went down and again for the tail end of the 2018 campaign.
"You try to stay involved as much as you can," Sudfeld said of the job description as the third QB. "But it’s not the same as when you’re the No. 2 and dressed and one play away. I got an opportunity to do that during the Super Bowl season. I backed up for sevenish games, and then eight or nine games last year."
He mopped up in Week 17 of the Super Bowl season against Dallas, had to enter for a play last December in a big win over Houston when Jadeveon Clowney nearly knocked Foles out, and again got some Week 17 work when the Eagles trounced Washington.
“It’s been good to get that experience," Sudfeld explained. "But there’s not a perfect formula for backing up. You just have to be ready. Nobody cares that you didn’t get any reps with the [first team] all week. You just have to perform."
When Foles first left for the Jaguars Pederson's tone was a bit more cautious when it came to Sudfeld taking the next step.
"You always want guys to compete for spots and not hand anything out," the coach assessed. "I think that's something that we will continue to explore, but we are really comfortable with Nate."
Ultimately that exploration led to Kessler, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound west coast-style signal caller who was a three-year starter in college at USC, throwing for 88 touchdowns vs. just 19 interceptions.
That was good enough to turn Kessler into the 93rd overall pick by Cleveland, the same year Wentz went No. 2 overall and Sudfeld was snapped by Washington in the sixth. More so current Eagles vice president of football operations Andrew Berry was in personnel with the Browns when Kessler was drafted.
He started eight games with Cleveland as a rookie and had four more starts with the Jaguars in 2018, going 0-8 with a dismal Browns team and a more manageable 2-2 as the starter in Jacksonville.
Although having the lesser pedigree, Sudfeld is the clear leader in the clubhouse over Kessler. A long-time former backup himself during his playing career few understand the balancing act of the job better than Pederson and he sees many of the traits of a successful backup when observing Sudfeld.
“I think he’s got the right demeanor," Pederson said. “He’s perfect for that role from the standpoint of when he’s in there, he steps up and leads. But he’s not looking to push Carson aside and be the guy. He’s there to help Carson and to help him be as successful as possible."
Of course, neither Sudfeld or Kessler is Foles but like everyone else, the 2019 Eagles got the insurance policy they could afford and the best-case scenario would be never having to use it.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen