It seems like yesterday the NFL world was consumed with talk of the lockout, every fan, player, and coach wondering just when the dispute would be resolved and the business of football could actually commence. A few blinks later, and the preseason is officially here.
The Eagles are set to open their exhibition schedule tonight against the Baltimore Ravens at the Linc, with most players expected to see action. Eagles head coach Andy Reid laid out the playing time pretty simply — the first team will play the first quarter, the second team the second quarter, the third team the third quarter, with the scrubs and jabronies taking the scraps in the fourth.
The most notable of those who won’t be playing are wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Jackson has only been in camp since Monday after holding out the first 11 days while waiting on a new contract. He has yet to actually practice, though it’s possible he finally hits the field this weekend. In the meantime, he’ll be on the sideline tonight where hopefully he can better avoid injury than Penn State coach Joe Paterno.
For Maclin, not only is he sitting out tonight it’s possible he will miss the entire preseason as he deals with an as-yet unexplained illness. Described as mono-like earlier this year, there has still been no definitive word from the team or Maclin himself on just what is going on. At this point, hoping for a Week 1 debut may be optimistic. But like Jackson, Maclin is a veteran receiver who shouldn’t need much time to get up to speed football-wise, though the effects of the illness Maclin is suffering may prevent him from being ready physically.
That last point also describes Mike Patterson, who is dealing with the repercussions of a scary seizure suffered last week, tentatively diagnosed as AVM, a nerve issue in the brain. At first blush it’s easy to understand why Patterson is out when considering the potential seriousness of his condition. That said, Patterson and his agent are claiming the defensive tackle is pretty much ready to return and play. The Eagles are obviously hesitant to put Patterson in a situation that could lead to more episodes or even death, regardless of what the Patterson camp is saying. So while Patterson and his agent can say what they want publicly, the Eagles are set on shutting him down for the time being.
It’s a good thing the Eagles included defensive tackles like Cullen Jenkins, Anthony Hargrove, Derek Landri, and assorted rookie free agents in their recent spending spree, as the position is suddenly one with little depth. In addition to Patterson’s absence, gone is former starter Brodrick Bunkley after getting traded to Cleveland and then Denver, while Trevor Laws continues to recover from a hip flexor injury suffered last week. With Patterson’s return date unknown, Laws was likely going to compete with Antonio Dixon as well as newcomers Jenkins and Hargrove for real playing time. That’s not likely to happen now with Laws sitting on the sidelines. A player who showed barely anything in his short career, Laws can’t afford to miss much more time.
Rounding out the injured absentees are Winston Justice and Brandon Graham, who are both on the Physically Unable to Perform list as they deal with knee issues. Graham’s is more serious, and while he’s likely going to miss a chunk of the season his roster spot is secure. Not so for Justice, who even when healthy is inconsistent at best, and the Eagles signed former Bronco Ryan Harris who looks like he’s stepping right into a starter’s role. If Harris plays well tonight and into the preseason, it’s likely Justice won’t even make the team.
Also out is safety Marlin Jackson who is recovering from sports hernia surgery. Another camp for Jackson, another injury.
One guy who actually is playing is recently signed superstar cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Man, it just feels good typing that. Playing cornerback tonight for the Philadelphia Eagles is Nnamdi Asomugha. Chills.
Anyway, Nnamdi is playing despite barely practicing, thanks mainly to the NFL’s rules preventing newly signed free agents from getting on the field for almost the entire first week of camp. Regardless, Nnamdi is set to go.
“I’m ready. It’s still football,” Asomugha said Wednesday. “I think we’re all ready. None of us have really practiced that much.”
Speaking of corners, Asante Samuel looks forward to hitting the field in Juan Castillo’s new defense.
“We’re just trying to make sure everything flows together and get our communication down, and Coach Juan’s philosophy,” Samuel said. “It’s been a lockout. We had no minicamps. We have to start putting things together. Get the feel for things. Get all the wrinkles out.”
Expect Asante and new Eagles corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who unlike Nnamdi was able to practice after getting traded from the Cardinals for Kevin Kolb, to start on the outside. It’s expected that Nnamdi will get his work in as the nickel. That’s good enough for now.
Aside from the big names brought in and the DeSean holdout, the biggest topic coming into and throughout camp has been Castillo’s defense. The former long-time offensive line coach has overhauled the system, simplified calls, and looks to even be incorporating some aspects of the Cover 2 scheme. And a big part of the changes came in the form of fiery defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who brings the wide-9 defensive line technique over from the Tennessee Titans. It features the defensive ends lining up wide of the offensive tackles, requiring them to use speed and burst to fly to the quarterback. It’s a style that should fit Eagles veteran sack man Trent Cole very well.
It will also fit newly acquired free agent Jason Babin, who with Washburn and the wide-9 put up 12.5 sacks last season with the Titans. Tonight will be the first glimpse at game action of these two running in Washburn’s setup. Though Juqua Parker is technically listed as a starter at left end, it shouldn’t be long before Babin is wreaking havoc opposite Cole.
Another player to watch is middle linebacker Casey Matthews, a rookie fourth-round pick thrown into a starter’s role from pretty much day one. He’s a hard worker and deserves a shot in the NFL, but questions about his ability-level beyond special teams makes this a major question mark. He’s easy to root for, but cheers will turn to boos pretty quickly if Matthews is getting run over or spun around out there.
Regardless, Castillo sounds confident the guys he’s putting on the field will do the job.
“I think we feel really good about our young kids,” Castillo said. “They’re going to have to develop. Right now they’re progressing well. We’re going to see where we’re at on Thursday.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the focus is the offensive line, with center Jamaal Jackson seeing his first playing time in a long time coming off a torn ACL that cost him all of last season. Rookie right guard Danny Watkins will make his Eagles debut, hopefully showing why the team took him with the 23rd overall pick in this past draft. Another player to watch is rookie sixth-round center Jason Kelce, who has been splitting first team reps with Jackson and who has made a big impression on the coaches and his teammates alike. If Jackson isn’t all the way recovered there’s a chance Watkins won’t be the only rookie starter on the line.
Lastly, normally the kicking game has all the intrigue of a colonoscopy, but not so this year. That’s because Andy Reid is gambling at not one but two rookies — fourth-round pick kicker Alex Henery and undrafted free-agent punter Chas Henry. Both were highly decorated college players with loads of talent, but still. Things are going to be interesting come December when the winds are blowing and the temperature is lower than Vince Young’s Wonderlic score. Hopefully these guys have enough ice in their veins to handle what’s coming.
One last special team notes — recently signed Johnnie Lee Higgins is set to return kicks.
Game coverage starts at 7:30 tonight on 6-ABC and 94.1 WYSP. Be sure to follow the game action and participate in the PSC Eagles Gameday Thread here.
And please, no injuries.
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