The next round of preseason football is here and the Philadelphia Eagles will play their second game on Thursday night against the New England Patriots. This after practicing against them at the NovaCare Complex twice earlier this week.
In order to preview this (mostly meaningless) matchup, I reached out to our friends over at Pats Pulpit. The brainy Brian Hines was kind enough to answer my questions. (Don’t forget to also check out my side of the Q&A exchange over at PP.)
1 - How long should we expect to see the Patriots’ starters play on Thursday, if at all? Who are the key players in/out?
The Patriots snap distribution was as expected in their first preseason game against the Washington Football Team. Quarterback Cam Newton played just two drives with the starting offensive line and projected top skill position players before handing over the keys to rookie Mac Jones – who played five series. Heading into Week 2, I would expect more Cam Newton and the starting offensive unit – especially after the shorter joint practice on Tuesday. Jones will certainly get another extended look, but perhaps after Newton handles the entire first quarter, or even more.
One name to certainly monitor is wide receiver N’Keal Harry, whose offseason trade requests still looms large. While the former 2019 first-round pick has had the most impressive summer of his career, his usage in New England’s first preseason game stood out. Harry was on the field for 36 snaps and saw only one target and reception.
On the defensive side of the ball, it was a very light day of work in Week 1 of the preseason for the starters. While New England likely will continue to not push key veterans like Dont’a Hightower of J.C. Jackson beyond a few series, perhaps they increase the workload for some of the players up front. The Patriots completely remodeled their defensive line this past offseason and have a handful of players battling for not only a roster spot but playing time. A battle could be forming between defensive tackles Henry Anderson and Carl Davis. Rookie defensive lineman Christian Barmore – who the team traded up to select in the second round – should also be making his preseason debut.
2 - Can you name an under-the-radar player on offense and on defense we should watch out for?
Wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson has been an under-the-radar player on the rise throughout training camp practices. Wilkerson spent a majority of last season on New England’s practice squad before resigning with the team this offseason. Wilkerson gained lots of steam towards a roster spot early in camp, being a popular target from both Patriot QBs and also showing his versatility on special teams. Since, the 24-year old has struggled with drops and gaining separation from defenders. He’ll likely get another extended look on Thursday (32 snaps in Week 1).
Staying with the defensive tackles on defense, defensive tackle Carl Davis’ stock has also skyrocketed throughout training camp. The six-year veteran was brought in mid-season last year to help the Patriots weak defensive line and had some exciting flashes before dealing with concussion issues. New England dished out money to add big bodies along their defensive this offseason, but Davis has often looked like the best of the bunch throughout practices. He is still battling for a spot in a crowded bunch, but he certainly has played like he is worthy of a roster spot.
3 - What are the 2021 expectations for former Eagles players on the Patriots? Mainly Jalen Mills and Nelson Agholor but feel free to mention Akeem Spence or Devin Ross.
Mills and Agholor were a part of the big offseason additions by New England, signing four-years, $24 million and two-years, $22 million deals respectively. Often throughout camp, Agholor has been the best offensive player on the field. The Patriots have not had a field stretcher with Agholor’s speed since Brandin Cooks in 2017. The threat of him on the outside will keep defenses from stacking the box to slow down New England’s run game, while also opening things up underneath for possession receivers like Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne.
Mills on the other hand has not been as impressive as Agholor. When he originally signed back in March, he projected to take on the versatile role of now retired safety Patrick Chung. But, with Stephon Gilmore (quad/contract) still sidelined, Mills has been forced into playing outside cornerback in New England’s secondary. The role isn’t ideal, as Mills has struggled in coverage, and the hope is that the eventual return of Gilmore will allow him to play more of a hybrid safety role.
The pair of Akeem Spence and Devin Ross, who have both missed time with injuries this offseason, appear to be on the outside-looking in.
4 - What’s the outlook for the Patriots this year? How many wins are you expecting? And which quarterback starts the most games?
Everything seemed to go against the Patriots last season. To start, Cam Newton was brought in in late June and had no offseason due to Covid-19 protocols to learn the offense. Their roster featured a decimated defense and perhaps the worst group of offensive skill players in the league. On top of all that, they played against a first-place schedule. With everything seeming to go against them, New England still finished 7-9 with four one-score losses.
Flipping the page to this season, the Patriots roster is completely overhauled. They upgraded their skill positions by signing Agholor, Bourne, Hunter Henry, and Jonnu Smith, while completely remodeling their front seven by adding players such as Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy to pair with the returning Dont’a Hightower.
The roster is much improved, but the quarterback position will remain in the spotlight. To me, Cam Newton will be the team’s Week 1 starter and will play the majority of the season (the hope should be that he’s good enough to play the entire year, giving Mac Jones a ‘redshirt’ season). The veteran is healthy, looks to have a stronger arm, and has looked far more comfortable within the system and with his decision making this summer. His added value with his legs is also a major factor for a team that should have a top run game in the league. Winning 11 or 12 games this season and making the playoffs should not be out of the picture for the Patriots this season.
5 - What’s one positive thing you can say about the Eagles? One negative thing?
The Eagles offensive line still looks like one of the best units in the entire league. While they certainly had their injury issues last season, a healthy version of this unit is clearly a strength of their roster. If they do face issues on the injury front again, they appear to have some solid depth behind their starters.
Where the Eagles do not appear to have much depth however is the cornerback position. While Darius Slay – who was inconsistent throughout last year – is locked into the No. 1 role and the addition of Steven Nelson will help, the rest of the Eagles depth chart looks to be full of replacement level corners. Rookie fourth-round pick Zech McPhearson is an intriguing player, but having to rely on a Big 12 tested rookie may not be the best option. While talented corners can come out of nowhere (like Malcolm Butler and J.C. Jackson from the Patriots), the current depth chart looks shaky.
6 - Wanna give a meaningless score prediction for Thursday’s game?
Good ole preseason predictions. I’ll go 23-17 Patriots with a late, go-ahead touchdown by rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson.