The Buffalo Bills are sticking in the NFC for their second preseason game this year, as they take the road to face the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night at 7 PM Eastern. It’s been two years since the Bills dropped a 23-20 decision to the Eagles in LeSean McCoy’s return to Philly. We took the opportunity to chat with Bleeding Green Nation’s managing editor Brandon Gowtin to see what’s up with the Eagles, especially after the trades from last week.
1) Carson Wentz had something of an up-and-down rookie year but looked like a franchise quarterback for the most part. What do you expect out of him this year?
For the most part, Wentz has looked pretty sharp in training camp and the preseason. He hasn’t been perfect by any means, which is a reminder that he’s not a finished product yet. But there’s been more good than bad, and that’s what the expectation is heading into year two. Wentz’s supporting cast is overall improved, even despite the Jordan Matthews trade. Wentz should be playing well enough that the Eagles can compete for a playoff spot. If he’s holding the team back, that’s obviously a huge problem.
2) After acquiring Ronald Darby, the Eagles' defense adds on yet another former Bills player. How have Nigel Bradham and Ron Brooks been doing, and what's been your initial impressions of Corey Graham and Darby?
Jim Schwartz’s Buffalo Bias is for real. He was gone before Darby was drafted, of course, but the rest of those players played for Schwartz.
Bradham quietly had a really good season last year. I don’t think Eagles fans really knew what to expect out of him at first, but he put together a strong season. His stats in 2016 were nearly identical to the numbers he put up in Buffalo in 2014. He’s clearly just a good fit for Schwartz’s system. Bradham and Jordan Hicks combine to form one of the best linebacker corps in the league.
Brooks only played in six games before suffering a season-ending quad injury. He was the team’s starting nickel cornerback before going down for the year. Brooks wasn’t awful but he wasn’t great. He seemed like JAG (just a guy) out there. He wasn’t insignificant to the Eagles’ defense, though, because his absence caused Philadelphia to move Malcolm Jenkins in the slot. It seemed like the defense started to fall off a bit once that happened.
Graham has looked good in practice. He shows range in coverage and he hasn’t been afraid to get physical. He obviously has fresh legs since he only joined the team recently. Graham projects to be the team’s No. 3 safety behind starters Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. The Eagles might also use him in a nickel cornerback role at times. He’s a nice piece for Schwartz to move around the defense in certain situations.
So far, so good with Darby. The Eagles threw him into the fire immediately by running him with the first team. He’s responded pretty well. I haven’t noticed him get beat badly at all. Every pass thrown his way has been contested, broken up, or intercepted. Philadelphia’s secondary as a whole suddenly looks a lot better with him in as opposed to Patrick Robinson, who was getting burned daily.
3) Derek Barnett had a strong debut, notching two sacks in second-team duty against the Packers. Do you see him picking up a starting role in Jim Schwartz's defense anytime soon?
It’s going to be hard to keep Barnett off the field if he continues to impress. It wasn’t just one good game, either. Barnett has been standing out in practice as well. Being a “starter” doesn’t necessarily mean a lot in Schwartz’s scheme, as I’m sure you’re familiar with, since he likes to heavily rotate his defensive linemen. I wouldn’t rule out Barnett starting games this year, but even if that’s not the case he still figures to see significant playing time.
4) Who impressed you from the second half against the Packers? Who are you hoping to see more out of from the third-teamers against the Bills?
Barnett obviously looked good. Undrafted free agent safety Tre Sullivan was dishing out hits so hard that one Green Bay player had to be stretchered off the field (never a sight you want to see). Bryce Treggs had a nice night and could be pushing for a depth job at receiver.
I want to see more out of Donnel Pumphrey. He fumbled on a run up the middle and muffed a punt last week. The Eagles’ offensive line as a whole didn’t get a lot of good push since the Packers were blitzing all game. Hopefully the Bills don’t do that as much because it’d be nice to evaluate the Eagles in a more normal setting.
5) After a 3-0 start gave way to a disappointing 7-9 finish, do you see the Eagles improving their record this year? Is a playoff spot in the cards?
The 2016 Eagles were better than their record would indicate. Philadelphia finished tied for 9th in point differential. They finished fourth in DVOA. The Eagles lost a lot of close games, which suggests they got unlucky to some extent. They were closer to being an above average team last year than they were a flat out bad team.
In that vein, teams who historically underperform their record are bound to see an increase in wins the next year. I do think the Eagles are bound to improve in 2017. They’ve upgraded most of their roster, on paper at least.
Ultimately, though, it all comes down to Wentz. He’s the X-factor for this team. If he doesn’t take the next step, the Eagles won’t be able to either.
At the very least, I believe the Eagles will be in the mix for the NFC East crown this year. The rest of the division has seemingly taken a step back while the Eagles have progressed forward. It should be an interesting year for the Birds.