The Philadelphia Eagles are playing a football game tonight! A real, live football game!
It’s only preseason, sure, but it’ll still be interesting to see how certain players perform. There are roster spots and position battles to be won/lost leading up to roster cuts.
With that in mind, here are the most especially interesting Eagles players to watch during Thursday’s matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Keep in mind the starters might only play for a series or two (at most). For your convenience, I’ve listed jersey numbers next to the names.
1 - Jalen Hurts - #1
We begin with the most obvious player to watch. Hurts has been up and down in training camp. He just doesn’t look drastically different than the player we saw late during the regular season last year. In fairness, Hurts can’t fully showcase his talents in practice settings since it’s not like there’s a lot of value to constantly running when the defense can’t even get near him. Even so, Hurts must improve as a passer, and he’s essentially admitted as much. In succinct terms, he said his goal for Thursday night was to “be efficient.” We need to see Hurts avoid holding on to the ball forever and demonstrating repetitive accuracy. He figures to have a decent test from the opponent since the Steelers had one of the best defenses in the NFL last year. It’d be nice to see Hurts lead a smooth-looking touchdown drive or two before leaving the game for the rest of the night. It’ll be concerning if the offense, which has struggled in training camp, continues to look disjointed and out of sorts with Hurts at the helm.
Side note: Since this post is about players, Nick Sirianni isn’t making this list, but it’s obviously going to be interesting to see what — if anything — we can glean about the new head coach’s scheme and game plan approach. Same goes for Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.
2 - Tyree Jackson - #80
Jackson has been one of the biggest standouts in camp, especially on offense. The former college quarterback is further along at tight end than most probably thought he’d be at this point. He’s been a go-to guy for Joe Flacco and we could see that continue in preseason games. There’s already a comfort level with Jackson’s pass-catching talent. But can he do the necessary dirty work when it comes to blocking and playing special teams? We’ll learn more about that in the preseason.
3 - Zech McPhearson - #27
The Eagles’ rookie fourth-round cornerback has stood out in practice with sticky coverage and pass breakups. How will he hold up in game action? With Darius Slay, Steve Nelson, and Avonte Maddox likely ensconced (shout out Cary Williams) as the top three corners, ZMP isn’t likely to push for a starting job. But he can instill confidence as a quality backup and future starter with a nice summer.
4 - Steve Nelson - #3
The artist formerly known as Steven Nelson with the Steelers (and Kansas City Chiefs) is facing his former team on Thursday evening. I wonder if Pittsburgh might try to go after him a little. If so, it’ll be concerning if he’s getting beat on throws made by Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins. On the flip side, he could make a good first impression in front of Eagles fans at the Linc with a pick or PBU.
5 - Josh Sweat - #94
Sweat has been dominant in training camp. I can’t imagine the Eagles will want to play him much tonight but he still might be able to produce a sack or big quarterback hit in limited snaps. It’ll also be interesting to monitor if he officially starts the game or if it’s Derek Barnett instead.
6 - Milton Williams - #93
With DeVonta Smith and Landon Dickerson out, Williams is the highest pick from the Eagles’ 2021 NFL Draft class playing in tonight’s game. He’s had some flashes in camp as Philly has been splitting him between defensive tackle and defensive end. It bears watching how the Eagles will utilize him during game action, especially as it relates to the different defensive fronts they might be playing. We could see a mix of 3-4 and 4-3.
7 - Eric Wilson - #50
Wilson is a candidate to lead all Eagles linebackers in snaps played this season. We know he has the ability to cover. Will he hold up in run support, which has been an issue for him in the past? It’s not like we should reasonably expect him to suddenly be the best tackler ever but it’ll be concerning if his tackling is obviously horrendous.
8 - Kenny Gainwell - #14
Other than Elijah Holyfield, who appears to be last in the running back pecking order, Gainwell has stood out the least of all the Eagles’ backfield members in camp. He’s had a nice moment here and there as a pass-catcher but he hasn’t shown anything as a runner. It’d be nice to see Gainwell stick out a bit more during game action.
9 - Kerryon Johnson - #34
It’s hard to figure out if the Eagles will actually keep Johnson or not. It seems like he might be behind Jordan Howard on the depth chart. But Johnson’s arguably the team’s best pass blocking running back and he has some pass-catching ability. The preseason games should give us a better way to gauge the running back battle.
10 - Jason Huntley - #32
Three running backs in a row? Yep. It’s an interesting competition! And Huntley has looked too intriguing in practice not to keep around. He hasn’t consistently dominated by any means but he’s been able to break off some really big touchdown runs. Huntley will also likely get some chances to show what he’s got as a kick returner.
11 - Elijah Riley - #39
With Rodney McLeod still on active/PUP and K’Von Wallace “week-to-week” with a groin injury, the Eagles are starting Anthony Harris and Marcus Epps at safety. Who is the top option behind them? It could be veteran defensive back Andrew Adams. Or it could be Riley who steps up. The former will be 29 this season while the latter is only 23, so one would prefer to see Riley put some good things on tape.
12 - Brett Toth - #64
I didn’t include Jordan Mailata on this list because he’s looked good in training camp and he’s already won the starting left tackle job. He shouldn’t play more than any other starting offensive lineman plays. With Andre Dillard injured, however, there is a serious question about Mailata’s top backup. Toth figures to get the first crack at that spot. Based on what we’ve seen in training camp, I’m not extremely encouraged about his outlook. The Army alumnus has the opportunity to calm any qualms by going out and looking like he belongs.
13 - Jack Driscoll - #63
The Eagles recently shifted Driscoll to right guard after previously only having him line up at right tackle. Driscoll didn’t fare as well moving to the interior. Where all will the Eagles line him up against the Steelers? And might he get any looks at left tackle given the lack of depth there? iWorth watching.
14 - Quez Watkins - #16
With Smith not practicing, Watkins has been the best wide receiver in Eagles training camp. He dazzled fans with highlight catches at the Linc during Sunday evening’s public practice. It won’t be surprising if he similarly makes some big grabs against the Steelers. If Watkins continues to thrive, the Eagles aren’t going to have a choice but to play him.
15 - Arryn Siposs - #8
Tonight will likely mark the first time Siposs punts in an NFL game. As giant nerds, we’ll be monitoring his hangtime and directional kicking. Though he might be running unopposed, Siposs is in jeopardy of losing the punting job if he doesn’t look good during game action.