6. Will any of Philadelphia’s top quarterback options separate themselves?
Three quarterbacks should see action for Philadelphia in an attempt to sort out their ongoing quarterback battle between Michael Vick, Nick Foles, and Matt Barkley. Vick ranked just twenty-sixth in yards-per-attempt among quarterbacks taking at least 25% of their team’s snaps in 2012, completing only 58.1% of his passes. Splitting time with Vick in 2012 was Nick Foles, who struggled over six starts and one additional appearance en route to 6.41 yards-per-attempt. Vick will ultimately begin the game as Philadelphia’s starting quarterback, but Foles figures to be heavily factored into the gameplan as well; it will be interesting to see how he fits into Kelly’s offensive scheme.
The same can be said for Matt Barkley, who unexpectedly fell into the fourth round of April’s draft after entering the season projected as the number one overall pick; Kelly has understandably pointed to the choosing Barkley as evidence of his willingness to tailor the style of his offense to available talent. Although the University of Southern California star is expected to begin the season as Philadelphia’s quarterback, it is possible that he’ll see playing time as a rookie thanks to the overall uncertainty at the position; he is expected to play the second and third quarters tonight. It would come as no surprise if Dennis Dixon ends up appearing in tonight’s game as well.
7. Will New England be able to manufacture consistent pressure?
Among Chip Kelly’s foremost accomplishments as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles have been his shrewd personnel decisions along the offensive line, which will additionally benefit from the return of left tackle Jason Peters, who tore his Achilles on two separate occasions last year; fortunately, however, Allen Barbre should start in Peters’ place tonight. He will be joined by elite left guard Evan Mathis, intriguing young center Jason Kelce, right guard Todd Herremans (who played well over eight games as the team’s starting right tackle), and fourth-overall draft pick Lane Johnson at right tackle; disappointing 2011 first-round pick Danny Watkins and reserve center Dallas Reynolds are mercifully running with Philadelphia’s second-team, while Jake Scott is now a member of the Detroit Lions.
The game should also help create a clearer picture of how New England currently views their defensive end depth chart, which is well-stocked with intriguing reserve options behind starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones; the top seven candidates each have a legitimate chance at earning a roster spot. 2012 undrafted free agent Justin Francis has impressed Belichick’s coaching staff, while former second-rounder Jermaine Cunningham was on the field for 487 snaps last year. 2012 third-rounder Jake Bequette has not been showcased by the team in much depth, so he and 2013 seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan, considered a draft-day steal, will be players to look out for. Free-agent signing Marcus Benard has a legitimate chance to unseat Cunningham for a roster-spot.
8. Are New England’s defensive backs prepared for Philadelphia’s receivers?
New England’s defensive backs appear to have caught a bit of a lucky break thanks to the unfortunate ACL tear sustained by Jeremy Maclin, his second injury of that sort; Philadelphia will also be without Arrelious Benn for the same reason, the latter of whom is the type of big, strong receiver who could have given New England’s corners a challenge. Projecting the playing time of fellow starter Riley Cooper following his brief separation from the team is also difficult. However, the Eagles still have an interesting set of receivers remaining on roster, a list which is obviously headlined by big-play threat DeSean Jackson but which also includes Jason Avant and Greg Salas.
Avant caught fifty-three passes for the Eagles over 670 snaps last season and figures to be a highly-visible member of their offense in 2013 as well. Salas lined up as a member of the Patriots for six snaps in an appearance vs. the Indianapolis Colts this season, his only game-action of the year. Former LSU Tiger Russell Shepard, an undrafted free agent, has reportedly been impressive in practices as well; he should receive plenty of opportunities with reserve units.
9. Will last season’s struggles against tight ends continue tonight?
Chip Kelly thus far can be said to have dedicated significant resources to upgrading the team’s h-backs and tight ends, including the team’s second-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, number thirty-five overall, used to select Stanford tight end Zach Ertz, who lined up all over the field for the Cardinal en route to a 69-catch, 889-yard, six-touchdown junior season; they also secured fullback/tight end James Casey via a three-year, $12 million pact. Twenty-eight year old starter Brent Celek didn’t have quite the same impact in 2012 as he did with the club in 2011, but he is the type of athletic, high-percentage option that could give New England trouble; despite finishing with just one receiving touchdown, ProFootballFocus credits Celek with catching 68.7% of his targets last year.
2010 fourth-round pick Clay Harbor resides at second on the depth chart at tight end, while Emil Igwenagu saw action at both tight end (twenty-four snaps) and fullback (twelve snaps.) It will be interesting to see what types of personnel formations New England employs against what projects as a base formation which will likely include at least two options of that variety.
10. Will New England’s logjam at safety be resolved to some extent?
One position on New England’s roster which projects to be particularly competitive is the safety spot, where six players have a legitimate chance to end up on the team. Standout defensive back Devin McCourty, 2012 second-rounder Tavon Wilson, and 2013 third-rounder Duron Harmon can safely be assumed to earn spots on the final roster barring injury, while the versatile Steve Gregory was a respectable starter with the team last season.
However, Gregory will be challenged by recent free-agent signing Adrian Wilson, whose play declined last season but still offers physicality and leadership in the secondary, two much-needed traits considering the team’s youth at the position; at this point, Wilson appears more likely to make the team. Nate Ebner, a sixth-round pick in last year’s draft, could also earn a spot for his contributions on special teams. In order to develop chemistry in the secondary, it would be wise to investigate a number of combinations at the position during the preseason in order to find the most efficient pairings before the regular season begins.