August 9, 2012; Philadelphia, PA USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles (9) watches from the sidelines late in the 4th quarter of game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The Eagles defeated the Steelers, 24-23. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE
The Eagles played their preseason opener on Thursday night. The game was a mixed bag of results, but there were some young players who really helped themselves. Let's take a look at them.
You never want to make too much of one game, good or bad. This is especially true in the preseason. Just last summer, Jarrad Page looked terrific in exhibition games. He was so impressive that everyone bought into him as a starter. Oops.
That said, it is okay to get excited when young players have a good game. They can win a roster spot or maybe move up in the rotation to earn extra playing time. This is the fun part of the preseason...seeing the new/young guys and finding out which ones can play. The Eagles didn't get any definitive answers on Thursday night. It was just one game. There were some players who stood out and certainly are headed down the right path.
Damaris Johnson was a standout in the spring. That was good, but we had to wait and see him at Lehigh with the pads on. Could he handle the physical side of things? The answer quickly was "yes". The next test was a preseason game. Johnson passed that with flying colors.
Johnson led the Eagles in most receiving categories: targets, catches, yards, touchdowns. That's an impressive debut. He finished with four catches for 85 yards. The long play was a 70-yard touchdown. On the play, Johnson used a freakishly good move to get wide open. The poor defensive back was juked out of his mind. Nick Foles saw Johnson open and got him the ball for the long score. Johnson did have one drop, so it wasn't a perfect start, but he looks like a player that isn't just wanting to make the roster. He looks like someone who wants to play.
Special teams is a huge factor for young players and Johnson did his part to impress as a returner. He officially had one punt return for 14 yards. He almost broke another for a huge gain, but a penalty wiped that out. Johnson added a 19-yard kickoff return. Set the numbers aside. Johnson passed the eye test. He didn't look like a rookie, at receiver or returner. He was confident and skilled. And athletic. Johnson looks like an NFL player.
Nick Foles came out of nowhere to be the star of the night. He threw a pair of long touchdowns (to Johnson and Mardy Gilyard). Foles was 6-10-144. That is impressive. He was facing third string defenders so let's not get ahead of ourselves. Some in the media are ready to anoint Foles as a great quarterback. He had a terrific debut, but we need to see a lot more to put that into context. Remember, Colt Brennan was a preseason all star early on. He flamed out quickly and never played in a real game.
I liked Foles poise. He has been erratic in camp, but looked the part of an NFL quarterback on Thursday night. The most impressive throw was the pass to Gilyard. Foles threw that ball about 40 yards in the air. He put it to the outside, away from the defender. That throw was accurate and had good touch. Foles could challenge Mike Kafka for the backup spot, but he will need more games like this before that is really a true competition.
Rookie runner Bryce Brown is another guy that has been impressive all spring and summer. He had a 33-yard run in the game that showed off his skills. The play was a draw to the weakside. Brown ran through a tackle about eight yards upfield. He then bounced the play to the sideline and used his speed. Another defender came up and Brown put a wicked cutback move on him that sent the guy flying. Brown is a 225-pound runner. He was fast, quick, tough, and elusive on that run. Not just any running back can pull that off. Brown had two other runs in the game. They got him no yards so he's still got a lot of room for growth, but the physical ability he showed on the long run was special.
Dion Lewis is one of the stars of training camp. He has made play after play. I was curious to see how he'd look. Lewis finished with 22 yards on four carries. He was good on inside runs. His cutback moves were very effective. Lewis then hurt his hamstring and had to leave the game. I was really hoping to see him on a screen pass, but that didn't pan out. Good start for Lewis, assuming the injury is just minor and he's back in action for the next game.
Time to jump over to the other side of the ball. Defensive tackle Cedric Thornton gets lost in the shuffle a lot. People tend to focus on the rookies or players making a comeback. Thornton was a rookie last year, but spent most of the year on the practice squad adjusting to the NFL and learning the Jim Washburn system. I can safely report that Thornton was paying attention to what Washburn was teaching him.
Thornton had four total tackles, including a sack and tackle-for-loss. He was regularly disruptive. He used his quick first step to get off the ball and throw off the blockers who were trying to contain him. Thornton was very raw last summer. His technique is much, much better this year. He also is stronger. I think the coaches would have a hard time cutting him, assuming he continues to play like that. Excellent start.
Rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks was up and down, but his mistakes were simple and correctable. The thing I liked was that he played fast and looked comfortable. He wasn't overwhelmed by anything. Kendricks mistakes involved letting players get too wide on him. He could do that in college and use his speed to still stop them. This is the NFL. You don't want to give an extra step to anyone. Kendricks had a pair of impressive tackles on consecutive plays. Both were for a loss. He finished the night with four total stops. I loved his motor. Even on plays where Kendricks made a mistake, he never gave up and made sure to get in on the stop. He also pursued well on plays away from him. I think he is going to be a good starting linebacker this year.
Phillip Hunt had a good showing last summer and then was used off and on during the year. Hunt's goal now isn't to simply make the roster. He wants playing time. Based on what we saw against the Steelers, he should get it. Hunt was very disruptive whenever he was on the field. He flew off the edge on pass plays. He pursued well on runs. Hunt had a pair of sacks and a forced fumble. He gave the Steelers fits by staying low and flying up the field. I was impressed by how he used his hands. Hunt was able to keep blockers off his body and knocked the ball away from the quarterback.
Vinny Curry made his Eagles debut a memorable one. He ran with the backups, but did what he was supposed to in that case - he stood out. Curry had more talent than the guys blocking him and it showed. He led the Eagles with five solo stops, three of them for a loss. Curry used speed and strength to get the best of the guys trying to block him. He also showed good awareness. Eagles ends are taught to play the run on the way to the quarterback. Curry was able to read plays as he headed upfield and then adjust and go get the ball. Pittsburgh went with a conservative offense in the second half so that limited Curry's chances as a pass rusher. He'll have to show what he can do there next week. Great start for the rookie.
This year is all about redemption for Brandon Graham. He wasn't playing last summer, as he worked his way back from a torn ACL. He's now healthy and in excellent shape. The time is now for him to show the Eagles what he can do. Graham was very good, notching a sack and a tackle-for-loss. He had a chance at another sack, but Derek Landri got penetration and actually shielded him from getting to the quarterback. Graham showed great hustle by then going in pursuit of the ball and getting in on the tackle, 15 or so yards downfield. Graham was fast off the edge. I was just as impressed by his power. There were several plays where he drove the blocker straight back. This helped other guys pressure and/or sack the quarterback. Welcome back, Brandon Graham.
The 2011 Eagles struggled mightily with kickoff returns. Brandon Boykin was drafted to help with this problem. He took his first kickoff as an Eagle and ran it back 46 yards. Nice, huh? Boykin caught the ball eight yards deep in the end zone. He showed excellent speed as he ran the ball out. I also liked his confidence. There was no hesitation. Boykin was a very good kickoff returner in college. He's adjusting to the NFL, but the foundation is there. He knows what he's doing. For the night, Boykin averaged 29.7 yards on three returns.
The Eagles still have some important questions to answer, but it was good to see some young guys step up and show they are ready to contribute in 2012