Halfway through the preseason, position battles are heating up, roster slots are slimming down and injuries are stacking up.
After two preseason games, the defense has seven sacks and nine takeaways, and the fans have a modicum of hope they might rank outside the bottom five in yards allowed for the first time since 2012. The dream team, 15th in yards allowed, still managed to allow the third most points in the league.
It’s reasonable then that most of the current concerns lie with the offense. Lane Johnson will appeal his suspension, but where does the offensive line stand without him? Rookies are standing out in preseason games and camp, but not the ones you might expect. The big news this week was new arrivals at linebacker and wide receiver; is it safe to be confident in those position groups?
Let’s start with Lane Johnson, who didn’t start Thursday against the Steelers. In his absence, Allen Barbre, previously the first team left guard, moved to right tackle and rookie third round pick Isaac Seumalo stepped in at left guard.
Johnson played with the backups in Pittsburgh. The group, perhaps for that reason, was mercifully better than in the preseason opener. A healthy Jason Peters will be the key to surviving Johnson’s expected 10 game absence, and Peters was on the field Thursday after missing the game against Tampa Bay. In that game, Matt Tobin started at left tackle.
The Eagles trade for Dorial Green-Beckham signals the coaches have confidence in the depth of their offensive line, if not the receiving unit. The player sent the other way was Dennis Kelly, one of the chief backups to Johnson at right tackle and a player who has started there for the Eagles when Johnson replaced an injured Peters on the left side.
Seumalo’s start seems to indicate he has the advantage at the moment over backup center and off-season acquisition Stefen Wisniewski.
“At the same time,” Doug Pederson said, “he hasn’t done anything to not be the starter.”
With continuity always a concern on the offensive line, the Eagles don’t have time to experiment with different starting rotations before the season begins.
“Isaac has really put himself in a good position to help us offensively and I felt like he’s getting better with every snap and with every rep,” Pederson said.
With injuries hampering or sidelining Carson Wentz, Wendell Smallwood, Blake Countess and Joe Walker, Seumalo is one of the few players from this years draft getting a chance to make an impression. That hasn’t stopped rookies of the undrafted sort from capturing the headlines in camp.
While Kenjon Barner has been taking advantage of Smallwood’s absence, Byron Marshall has gotten his hands on the ball 17 times through the first two games. Unfortunately, he’s only turned it into 51 yards.
One of the players who has been showing up, cornerback Aaron Grymes, (signed from the Canadian Football League), has also just suffered an injury. But Pederson said, “there is a lot of good competition at that corner spot.”
Paul Turner is the Birds’ leading receiver through the first two games with nine catches for 78 yards. Of course, the flip side of that is that he’s averaging under nine yards per catch, and no other receiver has more than three catches. Josh Huff, Rueben Randle and Nelson Agholor have combined for eight catches for 56 yards. Chris Givens has yet to catch a pass.
With Jordan Matthews still absent, it may well have been this lack of production that pushed the Eagles to trade for Green-Beckham. As a rookie in 2015, Green-Beckham had 32 catches for 549 yards and four touchdowns. While not Pro Bowl worthy, those numbers would have ranked second among Eagles’ wide receivers in each category.
Pederson said Monday that Green-Beckham is already a great fit, “Number one, he's eager to learn. [He’s] a great personality in the room. The guys have really embraced him here.”
Meanwhile, Walker’s newly torn ACL led to the Eagles finally signing long-term flirtation Stephen Tulloch. Tulloch played under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in Detroit and led the Lions with 107 tackles in 2015.