The Buffalo Bills head to Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday at 7:00 P.M. for a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Where an ordinary preseason game wouldn’t feature an especially compelling storyline, this match holds some special significance due to the nascent (and more aged) cross-pollination of rosters. Bills head coach Sean McDermott is a native son of Philadelphia, growing up in the area and spending thirteen seasons on the Eagles’ coaching staff. The Bills traded for superstar running back LeSean McCoy three years ago, one of the most iconic modern day Eagles. Juan Castillo, David Culley, and Leslie Frazier make up the former Eagles coaches in Buffalo, while Philadelphia’s defense is coordinated by Jim Schwartz, who spent a memorable season in Buffalo finding new heights of quarterback pressure with Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Jerry Hughes in their primes.
That’s not to mention the most notable story of all: the trade, which occurred less than a week ago, of Bills cornerback Ronald Darby to the Eagles in exchange for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a third round pick. The events lost some of their luster after Matthews suffered a chip fracture in his sternum during his first Bills practice, but Darby is already working with Philly’s first string and will play against his old team on Thursday.
Bills fans are well-versed with Darby’s ups and downs. Who else should they keep an eye on? These are the Eagles to know.
QB Carson Wentz
Philadelphia spent a ransom of picks to trade up to the second overall pick for Wentz, and the North Dakota State product had a mixed bag of a rookie season. While he completed 62.4 percent of passes and threw for nearly 3800 yards, it was at a measly clip of 6.2 yards per attempt, and he nearly threw as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (16). As a quarterback, Wentz is a tantalizing combination of size, athleticism, and arm talent, but his lack of experience reading complex defenses and refining his footwork often held him back last year.
Doug Pederson‘s offense is structured to make things easy for his quarterbacks. Using motion, misdirection, play fakes, and simpler passing concepts, he structures plays that force defenses to show their intentions and create basic decision trees for the passer. Here’s a classic example of a Pederson play, run during Philadelphia’s first preseason game of the year:
The Eagles fake a run to the left side while Matthews jets across the formation in the other direction. Wentz shows the ball, turns his back, then hits his receiver in stride with space ahead.
Wentz showed encouraging signs of his processing speed during his first game of the season. With two seconds remaining on the playclock, he successfully identifies a blitzing defender here, gets the snap off in time (barely), and delivers to the receiver vacated by the blitzer.
Wentz has had an issue, dating back to his college days, of standing like a tree in the pocket. He’ll take the snap and put down roots. The lack of footwork would make it impossible for him to accurately throw beyond his first read, or to lead defenders away from his target. Heading into his second season, it was crucial that he figure out this part of his game. Wentz only played one drive in the Packers game, but each pass he threw either put him on a bootleg to get him in space, or saw him successfully stepping around the pocket. On this play, Wentz steps up against edge pressure, uses his strength to escape a tackle, and identifies an open Matthews, delivering the ball for a first down.
Wentz’s most exciting play of the day came on his touchdown pass to rookie receiver Mack Hollins. It showed off his athleticism and his ability to create plays under pressure. Dom Capers throws a confusing look at Wentz pre-snap. Linebacker Clay Matthews is lined up as a defensive tackle, there’s a linebacker sugaring the B gap near the right guard, and safety Josh Jones is at a depth of five yards, as if he were a middle linebacker.
As the weird look indicated, this play turned into a blitz. Jones stayed in coverage, but the four down lineman, the sugar linebacker, and the slot cornerback all rushed Wentz. Matthews ran a stunt, coming behind the linebacker and getting free range at Wentz.
Wentz ducks and manages to sidestep Matthews, and keeps his eyes downfield. He notices Nelson Agholor pulling Jones to the sideline, opening up room in the middle for Hollins. Wentz delivers the ball, with Hollins making a nice grab without breaking stride, and the rookie takes care of the rest.
The Eagles signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to free agent deals this offseason, but lingering injuries have limited Jeffery’s time on the field so far. Third year receiver Agholor will see plenty of time on the field, both outside and in the slot. While he managed to outlast Matthews this season, he’ll need to cure his catching woes if he wants to stick with the team.
Agholor is a very athletic receiver — he ran a 4.42 forty yard dash at the Combine, combined with a 125″ broad jump and 6.83 three cone drill at his pro day. His combination of speed and size gives him the versatility to work inside and outside (with Matthews gone and Smith and Jeffery on the field, Agholor will likely spend large amounts of time in the slot), and he can also work as a moving chess piece in the offense. On this play, the Eagles use him on a jet sweep:
Agholor deserves credit for effective route running. Playing at the top of the screen here, he doesn’t get targeted (thanks to a sack), but watch the nuance he throws into his route:
This route begins with an in-breaking motion, and as the defender gets inside position against him, Agholor begins to bring his route toward the sidelines. As the defender turns his body, anticipating an out route, Agholor watches him flip those hips and breaks inside for easy separation.
Of course, as Lee Evans could tell you, all the separation in the world can only help if you can be trusted to come down with the ball when it’s thrown your way. Agholor’s hands have a tendency to bounce the ball away. Here, Agholor fails to haul in a potential two-point conversion following Wentz’s touchdown throw:
This is a basic modern NFL goal line pass play. Hollins, stacked ahead of Agholor, will set a pick against the close cornerback, while Agholor runs a slant pattern. The deeper cornerback will be out of position to make a play on the ball, giving Agholor a free shot at the catch. The throw is a bit high, but it careens harmlessly off of Agholor’s hands before a defender makes any contact. If Wentz wants a reliable third down receiver, he’ll be looking somewhere else.
One of the rookie MVPs from the first preseason game was Barnett, the defensive end drafted from Tennessee with Philadelphia’s fourteenth overall pick. Barnett holds the Volunteers’ career sack record, breaking the mark set by Eagles legend Reggie White. No pressure, eh? He didn’t seem fazed by that, tallying two sacks against the Packers.
Barnett isn’t an elite athlete for an edge rusher, but he has two exceptionally polished traits – his ability to bend around the edge without dropping his speed, and an array of handfighting techniques. Building on those, he can be a difference-maker on the defensive line.
Matching up against Packers 2016 first round pick Jason Spriggs, Barnett didn’t win initially. At 6’3″ 259 pounds, he’s not built to win with a bull rush. Spriggs withstood the first blow from Barnett, stayed balanced, and neutralized him.
That’s when Barnett started to take the momentum, by shifting his own momentum. On a subsequent pass play, Barnett started to the outside, clubbed Spriggs’ arms to the side, then ducked back inside. Spriggs was left dumbfounded as Barnett wrapped up Hundley on the sack.
Barnett flashed his ridiculous bend on the second sack, which was more of a lucky trip of the quarterback (but we take those!). He dips to the outside edge and uses a rip move to get underneath the 6’7″ Spriggs. Watch Barnett flex to a nearly 45 degree angle, and even more impressively, stay within about two yards of the initial depth when he began the dip-and-rip. That strength and flexibility is important in a pass rusher, and it’s something Eddie Yarbrough and Jerry Hughes can do effectively, too.
At the moment, the Eagles have Chris Long, Vinny Curry, and Brandon Graham at defensive end. They don’t need Barnett to start for them, but he’ll find his way onto the field before long if he keeps playing like this.
The Eagles spent a second round pick on Washington cornerback Sidney Jones, who isn’t expected to see the field this season after suffering a pre-draft Achilles injury. But third round pick Rasul Douglas, drafted out of West Virginia, is. Until Darby was added, there was an outside chance Douglas could find a starting role over veteran Patrick Robinson, who hasn’t had a great camp. Now, Douglas is more likely going to be used on special teams and as a backup defensive back.
Douglas stood out as a prospect after he notched a nation-leading eight interceptions in his senior season. The 6’2″ 203 pound cornerback has length to spare, and he knows how to use his body like a power forward’s to win at the catch point. On this play against Kansas State, Douglas timed his jump to the incoming pass and wrestled it away from the receiver to snag the interception:
Douglas is a smart player who worked in a mixture of man and zone coverages for the Mountaineers. He can read a quarterback’s eyes, and he took great pleasure in baiting throws that the quarterback would regret. On this play, Douglas sees BYU quarterback Taysom Hill under pressure, stays aware of the hot route, and jumps the pass for an easy pick six when Hill tries to check down.
The weakness to his game is a lack of overall athleticism. With his height and long arms, Douglas looks like an appealing cornerback prospect, but most of his workout numbers would put him closer to safety range – a 4.59 forty yard dash, 33.5 inch vertical leap, and 6.97 second three cone drill are all worse than more than two thirds of NFL cornerback prospects. Because of his lack of speed, Douglas sometimes gives larger-than-ideal cushions on deeper routes. He can also struggle to stop on a dime and contest hitch routes and other quick patterns. On consecutive plays against Kansas State, he gave up chunk yardage because he wasn’t able to stick with his receiver: