Five Eagles to watch in season-opening divisional clash against Washington

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The Eagles season opener is just two days away and excitement levels are at an all-time high. There is a lot of anticipation surrounding the Birds’ this season and their bid for the NFC East Crown begins with a team that they’ve failed to defeat in five consecutive games. So who are the game-changers going to be on Sunday afternoon? Here are five Eagles to watch when they storm into Washington this weekend.

 

Derek Barnett
It goes without saying that the team’s first-round pick brings with him a lot of intrigue, but after an explosive preseason and a Training Camp in which his explosive first step and ankle flexion were consistently on show, it’s led many to wonder just how many snaps the man who broke Reggie White’s Tennessee sack record will see.

The Eagles have a copious amount of depth at defensive end and the pass-rusher with the most upside could well be named as a starter before the season is over. At 6’3, 270 lbs, Barnett has a thick base and plenty of electricity when setting the edge. Against a Washington offensive front that has to worry about more than just the pressure coming from the outside, Barnett’s first taste of NFL action could do way more than just wet the appetite.

 

Alshon Jeffery
Pederson’s newest wide receiver toy has all the tools he needs to replicate what was a dominant 2013 season in which he had 89 receptions,1,421 yards, and 7 touchdowns. With a franchise quarterback ready to sling it deep and allow Jeffery to go up and snag it, the prospect of finally seeing another number one wideout in Philadelphia sends chills down the spines of many.

To kick-start his career in midnight green, Jeffery faces an old foe in Josh Norman. Jeffery was targeted ten times in the week 3 defeat to the Redskins last year, with the duo trading blows throughout the game. Jeffery ended the day with 92 yards on five catches, but Norman’s pair of interceptions were enough to turn the tide.

This time however, things are set to be different. The Eagles Offense is built with optionality in mind. From a flurry of versatile running backs, to a talented receiving corps that was created to take the top off of opposing defenses, team’s cant afford to stack attention on Alshon Jeffery. It’s a rock and a hard place. Do the Redskins want to allow Jeffery a huge cushion and run rampant, or will they instead attempt to shut him down and risk the likes of Zach Ertz punishing them? Either way, Sunday’s game is likely going to be our first real insight into what we can expect from the Eagles flashiest wide receiver.

 

Carson Wentz
A lot has been said about Carson Wentz since the end of his impressive rookie year. Whether it’s his improved mechanics and footwork displayed in preseason, his ability to overcome the “rookie wall” or simply the physical and mental traits that shine through on a game-by-game basis, the one thing we can say for sure about the face of the franchise is that he has all the pieces in place for a big year.

Even if we strip back the new talent on offense and the leaps Wentz has taken since that final snap of last season, there’s one very prominent area to be excited about, his confidence in and out of the pocket. In the opening eight games of the season, Wentz rushed for 36 yards. In the final eight? Wentz rushed for 114 yards and 2 touchdowns. If all the attention is now being placed on the likes of Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, and Donnel Pumphrey, teams may not naturally account for the rushing threat that Wentz brings to the table.

Away from the rushing, there’s his ability to read defenses and lead his receivers into open space that has significantly improved since his rookie year. Carson Wentz threw the football 607 times in his rookie season, which was an NFL record for a rookie. Those 607 attempts ranked 5th highest in 2016, which is bizarre when you factor in who Wentz was throwing to, and him being a rookie. Throwing the football 38 times a game isn’t bad if you have Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees behind center, but asking your rookie QB to do so and do it with success is a tall order. This season, with a balanced offense and a flurry of playmakers surrounding him, Wentz could be primed to take the next step. Getting a win over a team where he’s fallen just short of the mark on both occasions would be the perfect way to make that statement.

 

Ronald Darby
The Eagles made a late addition to their secondary in trading for cornerback Ronald Darby. The former Buffalo Bill made a strong impact in his first preseason game, picking off a pass and showing his ability to jump routes instinctively. Against the Redskins, the Eagles number one corner will have some tough matchups.

DeSean Jackson’s speed may not be haunting the Eagles anymore, but the presence of Josh Doctson and the near-uncoverable Terrelle Pryor has the potential to still give a very young Secondary more than a few problems. Darby will be looked upon to carry the torch and make sure that the number-one receiving option is kept under wraps early and often.

The decision to trade Jordan Matthews away was a controversial one, but will it pay dividends? An explosive receiving corps will put that to the test in week one.

 

Jordan Hicks
After his stunning rookie season was cut short by the durability concerns that followed him throughout college, Hicks bounced back assertively last year. The former Texas Longhorn exceeded expectations and was able to stay on the field for all 16 games. He finished the season with 85 tackles, one sack and led the team in interceptions having five of them.

Hicks happens to be the first linebacker since Jack Ham to record 11 or more takeaways in his first 24 games. He also is the fifth linebacker in NFL history to have seven interceptions in his first two seasons.

Hicks enters the season with a reputation as a ballhawk, coverage specialist and one of the most efficient linebackers in the league. Will he be able to punish Kirk Cousins and contain one of the most prolific receiving tight ends in the league once again? We will find out on Sunday as Simba’s rule over the Animal Kingdom takes new shape.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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