The preseason is often joked about as meaningless, but it does carry huge implications if you look hard enough. You don’t have to search far to find a case like that with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Breaking news: this offseason the Eagles’ backup quarterback role was vacated by Nick Foles. With him left one shiny Super Bowl ring. Foles demonstrated the value of having a reliable, break glass in case of emergency axe of a backup. It’s not a lesson the Eagles will be quick to forget. How could they? Their franchise quarterback, Carson Wentz, has ended two consecutive seasons on injured reserve.
The Eagles brought in two new quarterbacks this offseason. Playing for three different teams in four years, Cody Kessler is becoming quite the young journeyman. Drinking water through a fire hose with a straw is the rookie Clayton Thorson, who by all accounts has bumbled his way through training camp.
The battle between those two for a permanent locker is an interesting one. Kessler started his career 0-8 under the hapless Hue Jackson in Cleveland. That’s bad, but those starts as a rookie were under abysmal circumstances with horrendous coaching and a rebuilding roster.
When we talk about spot starters, what are we asking? If they’re forced to play four games, we typically ask them to win two. Playing for a defanged Jacksonville Jaguars, Kessler did just that. He went .500 as a starter. Quarterback wins aren’t everything but it’s not nothing.
Put an appropriate level of respect on Cody Kessler's name just don't go overboard - pic.twitter.com/Mj3SsDABbs— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) May 16, 2019
Let’s not lose an arm pounding the table for table for the guy though. In the five total games he played, the Jaguars average an anemic 10.4 points. He threw two touchdowns and two interceptions for a dreadful 5.4 yards per attempt. If Kessler is the emergency axe, he’s a dull one.
The man tasked with fending off Kessler is Thorson, who you would assume has an inside track to a roster spot. The Eagles spent a fifth-round selection on the Northwestern product, which is not insignificant. Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy revealed that many teams had a third-round grade on Thorson.
I'm not saying Clayton Thorson is Peyton Manning— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) May 4, 2019
I'm not saying Clayton Thorson is Peyton Manning
I'm not saying Clayton Thorson is Peyton Manning
Have we ever seen them in the same room together? pic.twitter.com/kQe8g2Rqom
Despite the perceived value, Thorson has struggled to prove that he’s a steal. Taking it a step further, he’s struggled to show he’s got real NFL chops. His training camp has had some real low-lights, but he has the chance to rectify that in preseason action.
“Thorson has the ability to hit rhythm throws and illustrates a quick trigger to be proficient in a west coast scheme that features timing throws. In terms of working his progressions, ball placement, arm strength and handling pressure, Thorson is a limited prospect which inhibits the notion that he has starter potential. By year three, Thorson could be a No. 2 quarterback but major growth is needed.” – Joe Marino, The Draft Network
Neither Kessler nor Thorson are plus options as a number two right now. There’s no problem with that if Nate Sudfeld proves he’s the guy. The former Washington sixth-round pick was poached by the Eagles when they tried to slot him on the practice squad. Was it a mistake by Washington? With the way the Eagles coaching staff has talked up Sudfeld, it appears so. The question is, how much of that is coach speak?
Coming out of Indiana some felt it would take some time, but that there was a real shot for Sudfeld to develop into a starter.
“Sudfeld is a developmental NFL project. Because of his prototypical size and arm strength, he is more than likely to be in an NFL camp next season. If given the chance to sit and learn for a season or two, he could develop into a long-term 3rd or 2nd string quarterback in the league. In the most ideal of situations, he could be a future starter if everything breaks right for him.” – Mark Schofield
Sudfeld now enters his third year with the Eagles and if the above projection is correct, this is around the time where he should start to show that he’s a capable spot starter.
Situation is often underrated when projecting the career arc of a quarterback and Sudfeld has found himself in one of the best environments possible. The Eagles turned Carson Wentz into a bonafide star by year two and resurrected Nick Foles’ career. Doug Pederson has proven to be one of the few coaches in the NFL that can shift his offensive scheme after catastrophe strikes and still produce winning results.
Where can Sudfeld improve at this stage of his career? Processing speed and consistency. His biggest flaw to this point has been how fast he takes in and reacts to information post-snap. The key for Sudfeld will be limiting his mistakes and staining stretches of solid play. While his preseason in 2018 produced five touchdowns (t-1st), his interceptions also came in volume (3, t-2nd).
The interceptions weren’t all his fault; one came after Sudfeld correctly processed an Eagles staple, mesh-sit wheel, but running back Matt Jones bounced it right to a waiting defender. Another looked like a miscommunication with Bryce Treggs, who had 8 career receptions.
The third interception, on the other hand, was a classic case of taking the cheese. Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive coordinator Keith Butler is known for his trap coverages, including the “2-Read” or “ 2 Trap” shown below.
From my article breaking down the play:
“The outside cornerback, veteran Coty Sensabaugh is going to initially carry the vertical route from Mack Hollins, but he’s reading through the #2 wide receiver Greg Ward Jr. the entire time. If Ward snaps his route off to the outside, Sensabaugh is jumping all over it. If Ward stays vertical, Sensabaugh will stay on Hollins.”
Preseason games aren’t known for exotic coverages, but my hope is that the Tennessee Titans experiment a little. If Sudfeld can leave the cheese alone and pair his solid pre-snap processing with speedier processing post-snap, it’ll be a sign that he’s taken a step in developing his mental game.
On the positive side, the overall picture shows that Sudfeld produced and played well last preseason. PFF ranked him 10th out of 94 qualifying quarterbacks in passing grade (80.1) with a solid adjusted completion percentage (74.2%). He did this while being pressured one of every two dropbacks.
It’s even more impressive that Sudfeld wasn’t your typical shell-shocked, dink and dunk preseason quarterback. One in every five throws traveled over 20+ yards in the air and he ranked second for both deep passing yards (222) and touchdowns (3).
Sudfeld shares a tendency with three other quarterbacks I’ve studied, those being Nick Foles, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Trevor Siemian. If they diagnose press coverage on the outside with a single high safety, they won’t hesitate to rip deep. Sudfeld isn’t any of those three quarterbacks; it’s not a comparison. Still, in this singular aspect they all share a willingness to let ‘em hang.
At the very least, Sudfeld’s moxie will make his preseason entertaining for good or ill. The Eagles are less concerned with entertainment and more concerned with the results. The backup quarterback position needs to be settled now and for the foreseeable future.
Sudfeld needs to show he can be a competent starter if they need him for a stretch. This training camp and preseason will go a long way in proving that. If not, Sudfeld could find himself looking for employment once his contract expires after this season. If he shows he’s the solution, it means the Eagles will have a problem that they’ve gotten used to at this point: having another talented player to pay.
Is Sudfeld the emergency axe the Eagles need? I’m not narcissistic enough to pretend to know that answer; the Magic 8-Ball is far too cloudy at this point. The next four weeks could go a long way in revealing the future.