The final 2017 preseason tune-up was much shorter than anticipated for the Eagles' starters. They usually go 2½ quarters in the third preseason game. This time, they went one quarter.
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The final verdict with 2½ weeks to go before opening day?
Some good, some not so good. More good than bad but enough bad for concern.
So here are Thursday's 10 instant observations off the Eagles' 38-31 preseason win over the Dolphins at the Linc (see Instant Replay).
1. Very interesting for Doug Pederson to yank Carson Wentz after only four possessions and one quarter. Almost always, the first offense and the starting quarterback play not only the first half but into the second half. Well into the second half. But I'm OK with it. Wentz engineered two TD drives, he connected with Torrey Smith for the first time on a big play, he hit Alshon Jeffery for completions of 15 and 20 yards (see story), he found Zach Ertz three times for 12, 14 and 18 yards, he got the ball in the end zone a couple times, and he did it all behind an offensive line that still looks shaky. Ideally, you'd like to see Wentz out there a little longer building chemistry with his new weapons. He threw only 23 passes in the entire preseason, but I saw enough. More importantly, Pederson saw enough. He's ready. The No. 1 goal of this preseason was to get Wentz to FedExField healthy on Sept. 10. Goal accomplished. Let's get the Jets out of the way and head down to Landover!
2. Speaking of that offensive line … the inconsistency is troubling. There are plays in which these guys are destroying people. Opening up nice running lanes and giving Wentz time to chuck the ball down the field. Then there are plays in which they just look disjointed and they get overwhelmed. That's going to be the nature of the preseason, but by the third preseason game, you expect a higher measure of consistency, especially from a group that other than left guard has been together for a couple years now. I really got the sense that one of the reasons Pederson gave Wentz the early hook was because he just doesn't want to get him hurt. But in 2½ weeks, he won't have that luxury. I really thought the O-line was going to be a strength of this team, but right now, it's more of a concern than anything.
3. On the list of positives to come out of this game, seeing Smith run under a deep ball from Wentz and reel it in for a 50-yard touchdown is pretty darn high up. Why is that so notable? For starters, because Smith hadn't caught a pass - or even been targeted - in the first two preseason games. And, really, nobody quite knows what to expect from Smith, whose numbers have dropped steadily the last few years. But most importantly, because Smith - whose 17.0 career yards per catch figure is second highest among active receivers (behind DeSean Jackson) - gives Wentz and this offense a dimension that was so lacking a year ago. Speed. The last time the Eagles had a 50-yard TD play to a wideout in a real game? It was thrown by Sam Bradford and caught by Jordan Matthews. The longest TD catch an Eagles wideout had last year was Nelson Agholor's 40-yarder against the Giants. You can't play football that way, trying to drive 80 yards in 12 plays all the time. Wentz throws a beautiful deep ball. And if Smith can be the player he looked like on that first drive Thursday night, he'll finally have somebody to catch them (see story).
4. To those who believed Wendell Smallwood was on the roster bubble, this is why he never was. He's a solid back. Smallwood is faster, fitter and smarter than last year, when he averaged 4.1 yards per carry and had big games in wins against two pretty good opponents - the Steelers and Falcons. Corey Clement is a nice story, Donnel Pumphrey may one day blossom and Darren Sproles is explosive but on a pitch count. Smallwood is a complete back and while he's not the best blocker in the world, he'll give you an honest effort. I wish he had gotten more than four carries against the Dolphins, but he turned them into 28 yards. He ran hard and looked fast in his first preseason action of the summer. LeGarrette Blount may still be the Eagles' lead back, but I think when all is said and done, Smallwood will be right there in terms of snaps, touches and production.
5. Ronald Darby came back down to earth a little bit, giving up that 72-yard pass from Jay Cutler to DeVante Parker and then committing a 42-yard pass interference penalty on the bomb to Kenny Stills in the end zone. Darby had good coverage on Parker but just mistimed his jump against a guy four inches taller. He didn't have bad coverage on Stills either but just clobbered him early in the end zone when he probably didn't have to. Darby isn't as good as he looked last week against the Bills, his former team, and he's not as bad as he looked Thursday night against the Dolphins, another team that knows him well. Hopefully for the Eagles, we see a lot more of last week's Darby than this week's Darby.
6. Mychal Kendricks. OK, I'm not trading him unless I'm getting at least a second-round pick back. Kendricks is playing great football right now, the kind we haven't seen him play in a few years. Is it a fluke? If this was a rookie playing against third-stringers, you'd take it with a grain of salt. But this is what we saw from Kendricks his first couple years - an athletic playmaker - and what we've always known he was capable of doing if healthy. The Eagles have so little depth at linebacker, they just can't afford to give Kendricks away. I know he's got that price tag - $4.85 million base salary this year, $6.6 million cap hit - but the way I see it, he earned himself a job with his play this preseason. I want him here.
7. I've been saying since January that Ertz is going to have a big year and I'm sticking with my prediction - 96 catches for the fifth-year tight end. Ertz caught 78 last year in 14 games, and that's 5.5 catches per game. Just by projecting that over 16 games, you're looking at 89. And factor in the increase in accuracy I expect from Wentz - let's say 62.4 percent to 65.4 percent - and I really think Ertz will be in the mid-90s. He and Wentz really have a strong connection, and you saw it Thursday night in the brief time they were on the field together. Ertz and Matthews were Wentz's comfort zone last year, and Matthews is gone. If he stays healthy - and he's missed only three games in four years - Ertz is going to put up monster numbers this year.
8. For those who think the Eagles are going to cut Pumphrey, ain't happening. This is a rookie fourth-round pick and the plan was never to give him a major role in the offense this year. So certainly a couple ineffective preseason games in his rookie year aren't going to change the Eagles' feelings about the all-time college football rushing leader. Pumphrey looked a little better Thursday night with 37 yards on 12 carries (and a nice gain wiped out by a Mack Hollins hold) and five catches for 37 yards. Hey, that's an upgrade from the first two games in which he gained two yards on seven carries. Pumphrey is a guy people need to be patient with. Remember, LeSean McCoy averaged 3.3 yards per carry in his rookie preseason back in 2009. I don't know if Pumphrey will ever be a special player, but I do know it's too early to determine a month into his first preseason that he's not.
9. Some thoughts on the first defense. I think it's going to be really fun to watch. It played Thursday night without Brandon Graham and Jordan Hicks, two of its most talented players, but still looked fast, physical and aggressive. It did give up 14 points in that first quarter but the one drive was just a two-yarder after a turnover. The big play from Cutler to Parker to set up the other TD wasn't good, but overall I see a lot more positives than negatives from this group. Heck, even Vinny Curry got a sack Thursday night. Right now, this is a group that's forcing turnovers, getting to the quarterback, just playing well together. The question mark is always going to be the deep secondary, especially in this division. And that's a question this group still must answer. But overall, I like what I see.
10. Final thought on defensive end Steven Means. If I'm putting together a 53-man roster, I'm finding a spot on there for Means. I just like the way he gets after it. Means is in his fifth NFL season and has played 20 games for three teams, including eight for the Eagles last year. Remember his sack and forced fumble on Bradford in the win over the Vikings? I like that Means - at 6-3, 265 pounds - can play outside or swing inside and allow Fletcher Cox to move outside. Means isn't a guy who's going to ever start, but I feel like he can be productive with 10 to 12 snaps a game behind Graham, Derek Barnett, Curry and Chris Long and lots of special teams work. I just like the way he plays.