Running back wars and rampant receivers: Five things to watch in Eagles preseason opener

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It’s gameday! Football is FINALLY back and for the defending World Champions, there is plenty to look forward to. Here are the five key areas to keep your eyes glued to at 7PM tonight.

 

Running back wars:
The first three spots on the running back depth chart may be neatly tied with a bow, but the remaining role or two remain completely up in the air. The Eagles have been giving Wendell Smallwood a huge chunk of first-team reps in Training Camp which has likely been done so they can try and gauge where he is in his development and what he brings to the offense. Meanwhile, Donnell Pumphrey’s bid to make up for lost time will be clashing with an undrafted rookie in Josh Adams, who is looking to do the same. Matt Jones brings a similar skillset to Adams but of course has NFL experience on his side.

All of the backs mentioned bring something slightly different to the table, which makes for an extremely interesting stage for Thursday night. Will Pederson give that opportunity to Smallwood to see if he can flash some of the form he has proven to be capable of before, or will he instead see how many ways he can utilize Pumphrey? How will the two long shots fare? Only time will tell, but the backfield will be an area drawing plenty of attention when the Eagles offense is on the field.

 

Nickel cornerback
We’re less than 30 days away from kickoff and the Eagles still don’t have a definite solution to the looming nickel cornerback conundrum. The lead contenders seem to be Sidney Jones and De’Vante Bausby, but both have proven themselves to be more than capable playing on an Island during Training Camp. Fourth-round selection, Avonte Maddox, stands a little shorter at 5’9 and is physically more suited to the role, but some teething pains early on have leant the starting opportunity to both Bausby and Jones who have done nothing but impress all Summer.

The nickel victor won’t be decided after one preseason game, but we will definitely see a lot of rotation. Expect the duo of Jones and Bausby to see plenty of time both in the slot and outside, while Maddox could be poised to rotate into those pictures too, filling whichever position isn’t occupied. If Bausby can continue his breakout, it’s going to make life very difficult for the heralded Sidney Jones to carve that starting role in his second season. 

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Sudfeld’s spotlight:
The likelihood is that Carson Wentz and Nick Foles will both be sidelined during the preseason, for week one at least. This means that Nate Sudfeld will be splitting quarterback reps with Joe Callahan, who has understandably been a step or two behind the Eagles QB3 all offseason. After impressing with his accuracy and decision-making in week 17 of last season, this is the perfect time for Sudfeld to go out and build on that performance, as well as prove he can lead a team.

Nick Foles may not be back with the team next season if the Super Bowl 52 MVP does wish to be an NFL starter again and if that’s the case, Sudfeld will be called upon as the backup to Carson Wentz, highlighting why Pederson wanted to groom a third quarterback from the moment he walked in the door. This game will go a long way in showing how far Sudfeld has developed and how much confidence the Eagles can have in him should he be called on in an emergency situation months down the line.

 

Defensive tackle depth:
A combination of an injury to Timmy Jernigan, the durability of Haloti Ngata and the losing of Beau Allen to free agency, has left the Eagles in a defensive tackle spot they ideally wanted to avoid. Last season, Allen and Vaeao combined for 60% of defensive snaps and it’s likely that Vaeao and his running-mate will raise the bar once again this year.

Tonight is an opportunity for the likes of Elijah Qualls and Winston Craig to strut their stuff and earn some starting preseason reps moving forward. Efficiency and production will be key focuses for Jim Schwartz and his unit, but who is really going to shine on a stage where the Eagles need a star?

 

Rampant receivers:
Paul Turner and Rasheed Bailey are two of the more recent preseason standouts who never really got their shot at making a regular season impact. Things could be very different this time around, with a flurry of wideouts benefitting from some elevated reps due to the injury of Alshon Jeffery and ‘rest days’ for Mike Wallace. Thursday night will probably see plenty of young guns firing on all cylinders, but can somebody like Greg Ward Jr. or Rashard Davis really separate from the receivers nipping at their heels for a roster spot?

 

Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

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