All eyes will be focused on Andy Reid on Thursday night. Just four days after the death of his son, Garrett, Andy Reid will be back on the Eagles’ sideline for their initial preseason game (7:30 p.m.), against the Pittsburgh Steelers, at Lincoln Financial Field.
But Reid’s eyes will be on the football field. He will be watching players and making evaluations regarding who will start and who will make the team.
As human beings, we’ll focus on Reid, including the fans’ reaction to him. If we want to watch the game as coaches, however, the following are some areas to watch.
Mat McBriar is listed as the first-team punter on the depth chart released Tuesday. Second-year punter Chas Henry, who was inconsistent last season, must fight for his job. Keep an eye on the performance of both punters against the Steelers.
Sticking with special teams, keep an eye on the return game. Damaris Johnson is listed as the first-team punt returner and the second kick returner, behind rookie Brandon Boykin. Chad Hall and rookie Bryce Brown are listed as second-team kick returners. Hall is listed as the backup punt returner, followed by Boykin and Cliff Harris (who will not play Thursday).
All of these players are listed as second-, third- or even fourth-team at their respective positions. A solid performance returning kickoffs or punts could be the difference between making the team and being cut. Players on the bubble can’t afford bad judgments and turnovers.
With Jason Babin sidelined by a calf injury and Trent Cole coming off a shoulder injury, expect to see the backups receive plenty of time to demonstrate their value. Former first-round draft pick Brandon Graham and veteran Darryl Tapp should see plenty of action Thursday, as should Phillip Hunt and rookie Vinny Curry. Graham, in particular, is on the hot seat after two unproductive seasons caused, in part, by a major knee injury.
This is first-round draft pick Fletcher Cox’s first game as an Eagle. Also keep an eye on Derek Landri, who is starting in place of Mike Patterson, who hasn’t been cleared for contact yet after undergoing offseason brain surgery. New to the team is John Gill, who may see some action and may make the team now that the NFL’s injured reserve rules would allow Patterson (as a designated “marquee player”) to begin practicing with the team after week 6 and play in games after week 8.
Veterans usually don’t have a lot to prove, but the spotlight will certainly be shining on middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans. At issue is whether the former Pro Bowler still has the quickness and instincts to make an impact.
Also keep a close eye on second-year player Brian Rolle and rookie Mychal Kendricks, who are listed as starters. If they falter, players such as Akeem Jordan, Casey Matthews and the newly signed Adrian Moten are poised to jump at any opportunity – while Jamar Chaney will have to find playing time in one of the next three games as he nurses a sore hamstring. There are questions about how many linebackers the Eagles will keep, so there will also be linebackers battling to make the final roster.
Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman are the starters, though Allen will sit out the preseason opener due to a minor hamstring issue. Watch the other safeties to see if anyone can challenge these incumbents, who many feel are starters by default rather than on merit.
Nnamdi Asomugha and Doiminique Rodgers-Cromartie have the starting positions locked up. The intrigue is to see who gets the most repetitions in the slot. Will it be veteran Joselio Hanson, Boykin or Curtis Marsh? Brandon Hughes and Trevard Lindley also are in the picture, while rookie Cliff Harris is not expected to play this week.
With Brent Celek having missed most of training camp thus far with knee sprain, watch the performances of Clay Harbor, Brett Brackett and rookie Chase Ford. Harbor should earn a roster spot and may end up a starter depending on Celek’s health, while Brackett and Ford’s special teams play may be the deciding factor on whether either are kept.
LeSean McCoy is the starter. Dion Lewis, Bryce Brown and Chris Polk are battling to be McCoy’s backup. Fullback Stanley Havili has the inside track to start at fullback, assuming the Eagles keep a fullback.
Watch to see if Demetress Bell, filling in for the injured Jason Peters, needs help from tight ends and running backs to keep opposing rushers away from Eagles quarterbacks.