Eagles Pre-season positional preview: Offense edition

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The Eagles are just two days away from hosting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to officially start their pre-season campaign. With so much to be looking out for and competition at every position on the roster, it promises to be an exciting few weeks for the Eagles..but it’s easy to overlook some of the most important stories through all the noise. This is where this handy guide comes in. Part one features a detailed rundown of what to look for in every Offensive position, a key player to focus on and something to watch out for that may well be overlooked by many.

 

Quarterbacks:

What to expect:
The big thing here is obviously how the Offense looks. The Eagles are going to be splitting reps between all four of their quarterbacks with Carson Wentz seeing a “bulk” of reps in the second half.

Expect a game of experimentation. This is Pederson’s first opportunity to see how his Eagles Offense looks against another NFL team in a live game environment, so we’re really looking to see how each quarterback fares in his hybrid Offense.

Will the Eagles run the ball more when Wentz is under center, or will they be more aggressive and utilize his athleticism?

Will Sam Bradford look to air it out to Chris Givens frequently or instead look to run the same “check down” offense that Alex Smith was unfairly scrutinized for last year?

With Chase Daniel knowing the system better than any QB on the roster, will his snaps see some different, more intricate looks..or will Pederson use him as he always has, as a reliable short yardage quarterback?

These are all things to keep an eye out for, but really..we’re just looking to see how each of the Eagles signal callers fare in their first pre-season game. Decision making, completion percentage, presence in the pocket, footwork and if any of the habits (be it positive or negative eg; Wentz’s accuracy issues) follow them into pre-season. While looking at the deeper aspect of the game, it’s also important to look at face value. How confident is Wentz? How comfortable is Bradford? Are the quarterbacks game managers or gunslingers?

Player to watch: 
This one’s easy because it’s what every Eagles fan is looking forward to seeing. Rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. The NDSU product has had an interesting Training camp, ranging from some stunning completions and athletic plays to some questionable decisions and inconsistencies. It’s the first time we’ll see Wentz in a live NFL-game situation and the first chance to see how close he really is to playing at the level of which a starting QB needs to perform.

Beneath the surface:
One of the big advantages of Pederson’s Offense is quarterback control. Audibles were non existent under Chip Kelly but Pederson has handed the reins over to his quarterbacks, giving them the opportunity to improve their leadership and help run the Offense by calling audibles. It’s something Sam Bradford applauded earlier this year, so it will be interesting to see how many times the quarterbacks call an audible and once again become the heartbeat of the Offense.

 

Running backs:

What to expect:
The Running back position was always going to be one of interest heading into Pre-season, but it becomes even more so considering the Eagles injury situation. Fifth round draft pick Wendell Smallwood won’t be playing on Thursday due to injury and Kenjon Barner is currently being evaluated for a Quad injury. If he’s good to go on Thursday, he’ll be returning punts according to Doug Pederson.

What does this mean? Luckily, Ryan Mathews returned from injury this week..but with Darren Sproles off of return duties in a bid to keep him at 100% for the regular season, the Eagles will almost definitely look to implement the same plan when it comes to the backfield itself. Mathews and Sproles will likely start the game off, but look for Barner (if healthy), and UDFA’s Byron Marshall and Cedric O’Neal to be taking a large portion of the running back snaps.

Not all of the snaps are going to be straight rushes either. Sproles may not see much in the way of rushing attempts, but could instead be utilized much more as a pass catcher out of the backfield..as could former Oregon Duck Byron Marshall.

The Eagles backfield is primed to be one of the most dynamic and unpredictable in the NFL and Thursday night could provide our first glimpse into just how elusive this backfield can be.

The absence of Wendell Smallwood and uncertain status of Kenjon Barner open up an even bigger window for the likes of swiss-army knife back Byron Marshall and the more physically imposing Cedric O’Neal. It’s unclear how many backs Pederson plans to keep on the roster..but with so many weapons at his disposal, the rushing attack is likely going to play a big part in Thursday’s game. From dives up the middle to screen passes, bounces to the outside and running backs in the slot, we could see it all.

 

Player to watch:
Byron Marshall is the player that stands out here. From the absence of Mathews in training camp to Smallwood’s injury, the stage has constantly been set for Marshall, but now he could be presented with an even bigger opportunity to show his value in Pederson’s Offense a his involvement could become more pivotal on Thursday. Marshall’s versatility has been a huge asset during Training camp and with a few of his weapons sidelined or being conserved for the regular season, it will likely prove to be a huge asset here as well.

 

Beneath the surface: 
We know that the Eagles have been looking at different formations in Training camp, from pistol formations to those involving 3-TE’s. Pass protection is going to be a key part of the Eagles Offensive success this year and some of that responsibility is going to fall to the running backs. Look for the occasional backfield block as well as some surprising lineups when the Offense takes the field. Two, maybe even three running backs could end up on the field at any one time depending on what Pederson’s trying to achieve and with versatility being such a key focus this offseason, look for him to exploit it in every way possible to become the backbone of his Offense.

 

Offensive Line:

What to expect:
There are plenty of questions facing the Eagles Offensive line heading into pre-season and with Jason Peters missing the opening game, it’s a chance for the rookies and backups to try and cement their place on the roster.

Things are even spicier now however with the potential ten game suspension facing Lane Johnson. Will the Eagles approach Pre-season in a different manner, trying out different players at the RT position? Will backup Dennis Kelly see more playing time as a result, to ready him for the schedule ahead?  The direction that the Eagles take on Thursday night will also be indicative of how they feel the reported “appeal” will pan out, if the situation is not resolved by then.

The main thing to look for here is how the Line copes with the new zonal blocking scheme. Jason Kelce reportedly looks lighter than last season which could be to meet the demands of the new blocking scheme that involves plenty of pocket manipulation.

Opening holes is absolutely crucial if the Offense is to be successful this season and with Brandon Brooks back in full force, it will be interesting to see what kind of impact the free agency addition has on a Line that struggled in doing so last season.

If there’s one thing to expect with confidence, it’s a lot of rotation. The Eagles have an abundance of young talent on their roster, partnered with backups who are competing for starting roles. Isaac Seumalo is looking to assert his authority on the line while Stefen Wisniewski has seemingly secured his role as a backup C/RG..not what he wanted coming into camp. Halapoulivaati Vaitai has had a quiet Training camp, something that was reflected in the first unofficial depth chart. He’ll be looking to make an impact where possible on Thursday.

With so much talent on hand and the cornerstone starting positions on the line (C/RT/RG) secured heading into next season, the Eagles will be keen to rotate these to ensure they have the most capable backups come week one.

 

Player to watch:
Isaac Seumalo is currently listed as a backup to Allen Barbre at LG while Wisniewski is listed as the backup to both Kelce and Brooks. This is interesting considering that one of the main reason’s behind drafting Seumalo was his experience across the Offensive line. Expect the former Oregon Lineman play in a few different positions on Thursday..but for his main impact to be at the LG spot..a spot where he’s really competing to earn the starting role.

 

Beneath the surface:
To quote an article I wrote 8 days ago, of the 104 total penalties the Eagles were handed last year, 55 of them were Offensive penalties..and of those 55, 34 were down to a problem on the Offensive Line. Those 34 penalties lost the Eagles 258 Offensive yards in 2015.

The problem seems to have plagued the Offensive line yet again in Training camp so far, with jump starts being a constant concern. Considering that Lane Johnson and Jason Peters both ranked inside the 15 most penalized players in the NFL last season, it’ll be key to keep an eye on the Offensive penalties..and see the line can find a new level of discipline under Doug Pederson.

 

Tight ends:

What to expect:
Brent Celek may be listed as the number one TE on the roster still, but Zach Ertz is going to become a huge focal point of the Offense as time goes on. In terms of what to expect in the team’s first pre-season game on Thursday however, you need to look a little bit deeper.

The Chiefs relied on Travis Kelce heavily in 2015, not just as a dominant receiver, but as a pass-blocker and someone who can line up all over the field. While Ertz’s involvement on Thursday may be slightly reduced to keep him fully healthy for the remaining three games, look for Ertz to be making an impact even when he isn’t catching the ball for a big gain.

It will be interesting to see how often the Eagles QB’s target Brent Celek in comparison to Ertz and in junction with that, how Celek is utilized overall. If Ertz is expected to become the “Travis Kelce” of the Eagles Offense, will Celek emerge as a Demetrius Harris, assuming a more concealed blocking role?

Expect a lot of rotation here as well. Training camp standout Trey Burton is probably going to see a LOT of playing time on Thursday night..but in what capacity? Will he line up alongside Ertz in TE crossing routes, join Celek and Ertz in 3-TE sets or a combination of both of these as well as taking some of Celek’s reps? Either way, he’ll be a big focus.

 

Player to watch:
Trey Burton, this goes without saying. After starting the Burton hype train before OTA’s even started, writing numerous articles and recording various podcast segments, his ability as an under utilized pass catcher really stood out to me in 2015.  After an unbelievable camp that came as a surprise to many, Burton looks primed to see an increased role Offensively under Doug Pederson..and that all starts on Thursday as mentioned above.

 

Beneath the surface:
What’s really going to be standing out for me here is how the Eagles balance the scales. There’s been a recent focus on 3-TE formations..but in what regard will the Eagles utilize them? Will they just be used on the goal-line to help the rushing attack or will Pederson instead choose use all three as viable passing options in a slightly riskier deep attack? The Eagles Tight ends are set to become pivotal pieces in Pederson’s Offensive plans..but just how many ways will Pederson look to utilize the impressive and varied skill sets of his Tight ends? Will Chris Pantale line up as a fullback despite a disappointing camp so far? Could McFarland get reps on the O-Line as a guard regardless of some intense competition? These are all important questions that will be answered in two days time.

 

Wide receivers:

What to expect:
With Jordan Matthews sidelined due to injury, an increased role for Reuben Randle and Nelson Agholor is imminent. This is important considering the rollercoaster training camp the sophomore receiver has endured. After a tough rookie year in which you can argue he was under utilized, Agholor is looking to rebound in an Offense where he seems an idyllic fit..he’ll get his first chance to showcase the route running ability and acceleration that we were all excited about a year ago, in two days time.

Randle will see a large chunk of snaps purely because he’s easily been the most reliable pair of hands at Training camp..something that’s needed if Carson Wentz is to find his groove and settle in to the Offense. Not to mention the positive effect it will have for Bradford.

Josh Huff will be an interesting name to keep an eye on and another player who is likely to see more playing time. Along with T.J Graham and the group of hungry undrafted rookies, some of whom run back to the LOS to complete pressups upon a drop, Huff will be competing to keep his spot on the final roster and is absolutely in need of a big performance. His return duties should help him out here, but expect to see a lot of Huff on Thursday.

Chris Givens is another man to keep an eye out for considering the Eagles desperate need for a deep threat. I posted an article yesterday, claiming how Givens needs Bradford just as much as Bradford needs Givens..but that’s not to say his skill set can’t compliment the Offense in general. His route running has always been impressive and in a free-flowing Offense, Givens could shine. If the birds are going to air it out..Givens is public enemy number one for the Buccaneers.

In terms of the undrafted rookies, Hunter Sharp and Marcus Johnson have both been ruled out due to injury..opening the door for Xavier Rush and Cayleb Jones. Jones has been the more impressive of the pair in camp but never rule out Paul Turner or former QB and newly turned receiver, David Watford.

From a play-calling perspective; expect the chains to be lifted from the Chip Kelly era. No longer are there going to be just one or two guys open with the quarterback knowing that he’s only looking at one receiver..the routes that Pederson deploys in his West-Coast Offense allow for much more creativity from the wideouts, resulting in bigger plays, bigger yardage and more freedom for both the receiver and the quarterback.

Curl routes, seams, short passes over the middle, plenty of fades and comebacks are all going to be key features in Pederson’s attack. It will be interesting to see how the receivers adapt in a more demanding yet expressive scheme.

 

Player to watch:
I think it’s difficult to look at this without saying Josh Huff. A man on the bubble who is going to seeing a lot more of the ball due to the bruised knee that Jordan Matthews suffered. Huff has struggled with drops all through camp..but now has a chance to redeem himself where it really matters, on the field.

 

Beneath the surface:
Drops. It’s going to be something a lot of people pay close attention to, but this is something that’s haunted the Eagles through training camp as it did in 2015. The Eagles have to work on their communication issues and overall reliability..especially now the spotlight will be focusing heavily on them.

 

Photo credit: AP

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