The Athletic’s Bo Wulf and Zach Berman exchanged emails about the Eagles’ open public and the latest happenings with the team.
We’re sitting next to each other at the Eagles’ lone open practice of the summer, where the franchise expects around 50,000 fans to see the team on this field for the first time since the NFC Championship Game. The Eagles are scrimmaging in front of us — Jalen Hurts just ran for a touchdown from an empty formation in a goal-line drill.
The gates opened at 5 p.m., around when the Eagles agreed to terms with veteran linebackers Myles Jack and Zach Cunningham. It’s been clear to anyone watching practice this summer that linebacker is a concern, even though head coach Nick Sirianni said the signings are not a reflection of the position. Jack and Cunningham give the Eagles two experienced players (Jack, 27, has 95 career starts; Cunningham, 28, has 76 career starts) at a spot that’s bare — and where Nakobe Dean remains sidelined with an ankle injury.
What do you make of those signings? Does it say more about the depth chart or Dean’s progress? Which one has a better chance to contribute? And is there still work for Howie Roseman to do at the position?
Wulf: The signings seem entirely sensible. All expectations here should be kept in check, knowing that both players were still unsigned at this juncture for a reason. Cunningham and Jack both have quality play in their past, but the league has deemed them as replacement level at this point in their respective careers for a reason. If the Eagles end up with one of them turning into a playable No. 2 linebacker, that would be a great outcome. I think it’s probably fair to read the signings as something of an indictment of Nicholas Morrow, who has been outplayed by Christian Elliss since the spring, in my estimation.
I do also think there’s a distinction between these signings and the dual signings of Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh last year, as much as the team wants to draw that comparison. Defensive tackle is, by its nature, a one-on-one position. There was no necessary acclimation period last year for Joseph and Suh. Linebacker is self-evidently different and requires a fuller understanding of everyone’s responsibilities in the defense in order to be in the right place. That will take some time, especially since neither Jack nor Cunningham has extensive experience in a Sean Desai/Vic Fangio-style defense.
Zach Cunningham and Myles Jack… pic.twitter.com/ugzCK1z8E1
— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) August 6, 2023
I do suppose you could draw a line between the two signings if you want to lean on them coming on the heels of injuries to Georgia draft picks from 2022. I don’t think we should be worried about Dean’s injury, but I also think it’s unlikely the team would have signed both players if they thought Dean was about to have a Pro Bowl-type season. Either way, it’s another reminder that Howie Roseman will always do his best to tweak the roster where necessary. Even another addition at linebacker shouldn’t be ruled out (though I’ll still bet on the long odds that Elliss ends up finishing in the top of linebacker snaps for the Eagles this year). I guess if I had to guess which of the two is more likely to make an impact, I’d say Jack only because he seems to be healthier.
What’s your view on the signings and what they mean for the team’s view of Dean? And speaking of roster tweaks, the Eagles also brought back backup interior offensive lineman Josh Andrews while welcoming Josh Sills back onto the roster from the commissioner’s exempt list after he was found not guilty of kidnapping and rape charges. What’s your view of the offensive line picture at the moment?
Berman: My guess is this says more about the depth chart overall than Dean, and they’re basically taking two lottery tickets to upgrade the Morrow spot. The reality is the Eagles are not going to make major investments at linebacker — whether with draft picks or money. They’ll rely on drafting and developing and try to find the undervalued veterans on the open market. When it works, you end up with T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White starting. When it doesn’t, you end up with a string of misses (they cut 2020 third-round pick Davion Taylor on Sunday and have a list of linebacker signings that didn’t hit).
I admit I’ve long had a soft spot for Jack dating back to the 2016 draft. He’s started for seven seasons, been productive and once earned a $57-million contract extension. There’s clearly talent. I get that somebody available in August is available for a reason, and the durability questions that caused him to drop to the second round of the draft don’t just go away (even though he’s played 103 of 114 games in the NFL). My guess is Roseman will still see what’s available, although it wouldn’t surprise me if one of these veterans started with Dean. A Dean-Jack combination has name appeal. I believe the Eagles that these moves are not about Dean, because I think he’ll get every chance to start and be a major factor. But he needs to get on the field.
“I feel really good about Nakobe,” Sirianni said. “When he was out there, he was doing a nice job running the defense, being in position to make plays. Had a really big splash play, knocking that ball out, and has done really good as far as just in coverage and just being around the football and knowing what to do.
“…I think he’s close. And I’m not going to say, hey, this many days, because everybody’s body heals a little bit differently. We feel like it’s close and not too many more days before he’s back.”
Good point bringing up Andrews. Backup center has been a question mark for the Eagles with Brett Toth getting work with the second team. The obvious answer is Cam Jurgens is the backup center. But if Jurgens starts at right guard, the Eagles might want more insurance in case Jason Kelce goes down. That’s how I see Andrews fitting in. Howie Roseman knows the seasons that have gone awry during his time as GM occurred when the offensive line deteriorated, and it would behoove the Eagles to give offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland both veteran and developmental options to use when figuring out who to keep in reserve roles. In Andrews and Dennis Kelly, Roseman tried to do that this summer.
As for Sills, he hasn’t been around the team since January. The Eagles clearly liked him last year to carry him on the roster the entire season, although this is a complicated situation. The position of the Eagles has been to leave it in the hands of the court and the NFL. When Sills was taken off the exempt list, the Eagles welcomed him back to the roster. But I doubt he makes the 53-man roster at the end of the month.
“Obviously, we never took the charge lightly,” Sirianni said. “You’re completely aware of that and then he goes on the exempt list. We followed all the protocols there as far as just wanting to let the legal process play itself out. I think just at the end of the day, we let the legal process and the league’s decision to take him off the exempt list make our decision.
“My experience with Josh has been nothing but positive. He’s been a great teammate and done his job and guys love him on this team. …We’re happy to have him back.”
We’re an hour-plus into practice. What has stood out tonight?
Wulf: Another day, another practice with Marcus Mariota doing an awful lot of running around and missing open receivers. No bother.
We got a few reps of live tackling team drills from the third teams this evening, which is when the Eagles like to throw Kennedy Brooks to the wolves. Rookie cornerback Mekhi Garner continued a solid camp thus far with some physical play, though he was later burned deep by Tyrie Cleveland, only for Mariota to overthrow Cleveland. Kyron Johnson also blew up a pair of plays in the backfield.
There have been times this summer when Marlon Tuipulotu has looked like the Eagles’ best defensive tackle. That’s obviously unlikely to be the case come the regular season, but his power has become hard to ignore (at one point in one-on-ones, he planted Julian Good-Jones onto the ground). That’s a worthwhile reminder of the “defensive tackles take time to develop” conversation we’ve had regarding expectations this season for Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis.
With the first-team defense, injuries to Dean and cornerback James Bradberry kept things shuffling, with Elliss and Morrow working at linebacker, Josh Jobe mostly replacing Bradberry and Terrell Edmunds and K’Von Wallace continuing to share time opposite the entrenched Reed Blankenship.
As I write this, Hurts just lofted up something of a jump ball to A.J. Brown in the left corner of the end zone, where Brown made a leaping catch for the touchdown over Jobe. It was another example of the superior ball placement we discussed on Birds with Friends recently.
Finally, on the injury front, in addition to Dean and Bradberry, the Eagles were also without Deon Cain (ankle) and Patrick Johnson (ankle). Rookie defensive tackle Moro Ojomo also left practice after it looked like he was poked in the eye.
What has jumped out to you?
Berman: You nailed it. Brown’s catch was also an example of just how easy he makes it look for the Eagles.
“He’s a big man who’s really quick,” Sirianni said. “He just, man, it’s hard to say he’s getting quicker, but he is. He’s in and out of his breaks quicker, which helps you create more separation, which is going to help you get more yards after the catch, which is going to help the quarterback throw you the ball more.
“Just the way he approaches it every day. He really works hard at it, and he loves it. But I really notice his stamina and quickness in and out of breaks, that he’s really worked hard at that.”
What stood out was that Haason Reddick took 11-on-11 work. That’s a big step for the Eagles, considering he had been out or limited through the first week and a half of the summer. Speaking of edge rushers, another night when first-round pick Nolan Smith’s quickness was apparent. I’m not calling him Micah Parsons, but it’s clear Smith moves differently than your typical pass rusher. The Eagles will find a role for him this year.
It’s now effectively game week for the Eagles. They’re off Monday (on Jalen Hurts’ 25th birthday) and have practices on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — their first stretch of three consecutive practices this summer — before traveling on Friday for Saturday’s preseason opener against Baltimore. See you on the practice field in 36 hours.
(Top photo of A.J. Brown (left) and Jalen Hurts: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)
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