With the Eagles season only a few days from kicking off, there are plenty of questions about what the team will look like this year. The Eagles are a team of many unknowns, and a large part of that is how their rookie class will contribute in their first year. With Philly starting their season against Atlanta, there are a few things to keep track of as these rookies have their NFL debut.
DeVonta Smith, duh.
The moment of truth is almost upon us, kinda. DeVonta Smith became the Eagles’ top receiver as soon as he walked up to the podium after Roger Goodell called his name. The thing is, we did not see much of the 10th overall pick during the preseason. Smith was dealing with a knee sprain that kept him out of the preseason opener and a few weeks of practice. Even when he did see the field against the Patriots, he was catching passes from Joe Flacco instead of Jalen Hurts.
So, the Atlanta game is the first time we get to see Smith for four quarters, in this offense, with the starting quarterback throwing to him. Hard not to be excited, right?
The Falcons’ defense is not exactly stalwart and this will be their first regular season game under Arthur Smith head coaching and with a lot of young guys in the secondary. The Eagles offense and Falcons defense are two young, relatively unproven units both working in new schemes. Smith has a great opportunity to see a bulk of the targets in the passing game, and everyone will be watching to see what he does with those opportunities.
Milton Williams cracking the line up.
No defensive Eagles rookie has garnered as much excitement as Milton Williams. The versatile, athletic defensive lineman out of Louisiana Tech played all over the formation in preseason and held his own from every position. His next test will be breaking into the Eagles defensive line rotation.
The Eagles are deep in the trenches with a handful of proven difference makers. It is going to be hard for Milton Williams to gain early entry into the group, but he certainly has the talent for it.
Jonathan Gannon has made it clear that his defense will be multiple: Three man fronts, four man fronts, one gapping, two gapping, all front seven guys standing up, etc, etc… This aspiration for a versatile and unpredictable defense will a challenge for the personnel and Williams has already shown his ability to be deployed in various ways while still being disruptive.
Against Atlanta, keep an eye on how much Williams sees the field against the veteran, explosive offense. It will be a great indicator of what his role could look like through the rest of the season. If he makes big plays in the few moments he is on the field, expect his role to grow.
Kenneth Gainwell in the passing game.
The Eagles have a dangerous backfield. Miles Sanders is a proven playmaker with the ball in his hands, Boston Scott is viable pass catching running back and Jalen Hurts is one hell of a runner if he decides to tuck the ball and leave the pocket. New to the party is Kenneth Gainwell, who had some bright moments in preseason.
Now, one of the weaknesses of the backfield right now is the Eagles top back, Miles Sanders, is not dependable as a pass catcher. That could change, but right now, the Eagles need guys who can make plays in the passing game coming out of the backfield. Boston Scott has shown in the past he can be that guy, but the Eagles will need more than that.
In Indianapolis, Nick Sirianni regularly had more than one back on the field at the time. Sometimes he would have two guys in the backfield or sometimes he’d have one guy back there with another running back lined up inline, in the slot or out wide.
Kenneth Gainwell has already shown he has the ability to fill that role, but the question is if the Eagles want to make the day three rookie an important piece in their offense this early in the season.
Expect Gainwell to see a few snaps on offense, but for those chances to use him as a chess piece and see how he impacts the defense.
Giving Patrick Johnson a chance.
Patrick Johnson had an under the radar preseason. The rookie linebacker consistently made plays against the run and held his own as a pass defender. With the regular season here, the former pass rusher from Tulane is not guaranteed any snaps on the defense. However, the Eagles lack of depth at the linebacker position could eventually create an opportunity for him.
The Eagles are going to trot out Alex Singleton and Eric Wilson as their starting linebackers, most likely. That is doubtfully the team’s long term plan at the position however, given that Eric Wilson has never really been a difference maker at linebacker. If his play falters, the door could swing open for Johnson.
Given Johnson’s experience playing with his hand in the ground and the fact that he played so well off-ball in preseason, he makes sense as a role player in Jonathan Gannon’s defense. He can be moved around the formation and keep offenses guessing if he will be dropping to an off-ball position or coming after the quarterback.
Johnson’s NFL career is going to likely start on special teams, but do not be surprised if he makes the most of a few snaps and leaves a good impression with the staff this Sunday.