Normally the third preseason game is a team's dress rehearsal for the regular season. Due to a bizarre preseason schedule, the Eagles played that game on Monday. Tonight's game against the Browns will be less important. Still, the sloppy nature of the first two games means that Andy Reid, his assistants, and the players can't just relax and coast through this game. The starters need to come out and look sharp. They need to eliminate dumb mistakes. The starters will only play a quarter since they were on the field so much on Monday. If they look good, Reid might not even play them that long.
There will be plenty of players who see the Browns game as being very important. You obviously have to start with Nick Foles, possibly the greatest Philadelphia Eagle of all time. Too soon? Yeah, probably. Folesmania is in full swing and that's okay. The rookie leads the NFL in passer rating and has been lights out in his first two games.
The Browns will be his toughest test yet. Foles will actually face a starting defense for the first time. Joke if you like, but the Browns posted good defensive numbers last year. The offensive problems overshadow a solid defense. Joe Haden is a great young corner. Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson is a very good player. The line features good talent with Ahtyba Rubin and Jabaal Sheard. And we can't forget former Eagles Juqua Parker and Sheldon Brown. This is a good group.
Foles needs a test like this. He lit up third stringers in the Steelers game. The Pats played starters and key backups, but sat their star players. Foles needs to see an actual starting defense that has some talented pieces. If he struggles, that's okay. The point is to find out exactly where in his development Foles is. Right now he's the backup quarterback for the Eagles. That means he is always a snap away from taking the field. You don't want a rookie out there unless you see he can handle the situation.
If Foles has a terrible game, it will tell us that he isn't ready right now. Long term, I think everyone definitely believes in him. If Foles is up and down, that tells you he still needs work, but might be a good enough to manage a game or two. You can always build a gameplan to protect a young guy. You just need to know what exactly he can do well and what areas you need to be careful with.
Good or bad, the Eagles will learn even more about Foles tonight. He'll play the first half. In the first quarter, Foles will be with the starters. After that, he'll play with the backups. Both groups will face the Browns starters. It will be interesting to see how Foles performs with each group.
So what am I looking for? More of the same. Foles has handled the speed of the game very well so far, but the Browns starters will take things up a notch. I know Foles has the skills and temperament to play. I just need to see if he can handle the game when the pass rush is faster, the passing windows are smaller, and the defenders are able to break on the ball quicker. He stepped his game up on Monday in a big way. Can you imagine how crazy Eagles Nation will go if Foles does that once again?
Foles won't be the only rookie starting. Todd Herremans is headed to a funeral (anything to avoid going to Cleveland, huh?). That means Dennis Kelly will be the starting right tackle. The Eagles, especially Howard Mudd, love Kelly and the potential that he's shown. That doesn't mean that he is ready to be on the field. This is going to be a good test for him.
Kelly is gifted. He's huge at 6-8 and 320 pounds. He's athletic and has excellent movement skills. The problem is that he's new to playing right tackle and he's still adjusting to NFL speed. Kelly got beat to the inside a couple of times last week. He cannot let that happen. That's a sure way to get Foles knocked down. You must protect the inside. That's easier said than done because speed rushers fly off the ball and attack the edge. Blockers get caught cheating to the outside and that's when they become vulnerable to inside moves. Kelly will have his hands full with trying to protect Foles. I'm sure the coaches will help him out with tight ends and chip blocks from the running backs.
The coaches do want to get a feel for where Kelly is in his development. They'll leave him on his own a fair amount to see if he sinks or swims. They need to know this so that they can figure out if he will be active on gamedays as a backup tackle or if they see he isn't ready and is more of a long term project.
Fullback Stanley Havili really emerged last week. He was a non-factor in the opener and that made me question what the Eagles were going to do at fullback. Havili was on the field a lot more against the Patriots and took advantage. He looked good as a blocker and runner. He also stood out on special teams. Havili can fully claim the fullback job with another strong showing. Tonight is a big game for him.
Jamar Chaney is another player who would love to have a big game. He sat out Monday due to an injury. Chaney had a good training camp, but hasn't played yet in the preseason. He is dying to get out there and compete. The Eagles want him to challenge for the starting spot at weakside linebacker, but Chaney has got to get into a game and play well. Brian Rolle has been solid so far. He's good enough to keep the job, but the door is still open for Chaney.
It is also possible that Chaney will get some snaps in the middle. Casey Matthews is battling a high ankle sprain. He missed Monday's game and will sit out tonight. The Eagles need a good plan behind DeMeco Ryans. Chaney started in the middle for most of last year and part of 2010. I think the coaches would be wise to play him some on the inside in case Matthews isn't ready by the opener.
Another young player fighting for a job is Brandon Boykin. He wants to be the nickel corner. Right now Joselio Hanson has the job, but Boykin is pushing him. Boykin is much more naturally talented. He just lacks experience. Boykin has played well in the first couple of games. The one problem is that he hasn't had passes come his way. It would be good to see him tested. That would help the coaches to see him play the ball and make tackles in space. Boykin has impressed on special teams, both covering and returning kicks.
Rookie Damaris Johnson looked great in the opener, but took a step back last week. Tonight is important for him. I think Johnson is basically a lock for the roster. He needs to show the coaches that they can trust him. Johnson has a drop in each game. He also has an impressive catch in each game. The coaches love his talent and potential, but need to be confident in him. You don't want Johnson on the field on third downs unless you think he's going to catch the pass if it comes his way. If he can avoid drops tonight, that will help his cause a lot.
Fellow rookie receiver Marvin McNutt has been very quiet in the preseason. He just hasn't had throws coming his way. McNutt has stood out as a blocker. He still has a strong chance to win a roster spot, but McNutt must pick up the pace. I know he can't throw himself the ball. He's got to get open and hope that Foles and Trent Edwards find him. The coaches need to see him make plays in a game.
Steve Vallos isn't young, but he lacks ideal experience. That's a no-man's land that is tough on players. You don't have upside, but also aren't an established veteran. You must impress the coaches that you are ready to play right now. Vallos impressed Mudd enough that he got to be the backup center on Monday. I'm assuming Vallos will get that chance again tonight. He has the size and skill set to play in Mudd's scheme. On Monday Vallos was okay. He needs to play better in order to win the job. The Eagles aren't afraid to go looking for help elsewhere if the current guys aren't getting the job done. Vallos can win the backup center job with a good showing. He should play a lot so tonight is critical for him.
Jaiquawn Jarrett is absolutely a player on the roster bubble. He looked awful in the opener, but then bounced back on Monday and played pretty well. Tonight's game will have a major impact on his future. Jarrett will play a lot. If he doesn't impress, the Eagles have to start looking at other safeties. If Jarrett does play well, he could put himself back into position to make the team. Tom Nelson is hurt. Colt Anderson may start on the PUP list. There is a spot for a fourth safety. Jarrett can be that guy, but he must have another good game.