Eagles' preseason opener will answer some questions

Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha will be in the spotlight when he makes his Eagles debut in Thursday's preseason opener.
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha will be in the spotlight when he makes his Eagles debut in Thursday's preseason opener. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 11, 2011

No one will care who wins, and the stars mostly will hope to just emerge uninjured. But with so many changes involving the Eagles, there is significant intrigue accompanying the team's preseason opener Thursday night.

Aside from being our first glimpse of NFL football since February, the game against the Baltimore Ravens should advance the stories around the battle at center, the big expectations for some rookies, and the arrival of the Eagles' starry free-agent class.

It will be the first chance for many fans to see Nnamdi Asomugha and the rest of the team's high-profile acquisitions in green. We'll finally see Casey Matthews in a game against unfamiliar opponents, and a remade offensive line trying to improve Michael Vick's protection.

We'll begin to see whether all the new investments on the defensive line will pay off, and there will be another test for Vick's presumed backup, Vince Young.

Instead of watching the scoreboard, we will be keeping an eye on these things Thursday:

Protection. Three of the five offensive line positions will have starters Thursday night who are different from the starters at the end of last season, and there are questions around each spot. One of the most interesting battles of camp is at center, where veteran Jamaal Jackson is trying to hold off rookie Jason Kelce. Jackson will start the game, but we'll get an indication of how seriously the coaches are looking at Kelce by how quickly he gets in with the first team. At right guard, we'll see first-round pick Danny Watkins, and at right tackle Ryan Harris has a chance to build on his strong early showing at training camp. Harris will start, giving him another opportunity to wrest the job from the rehabilitating Winston Justice.

Man in the middle. Could the Eagles really plan to start a rookie fourth-round pick at middle linebacker in Week 1? So far, it looks that way. This will be another test for Matthews, a chance to see how he plays against a different offense. A bad night and maybe the Eagles have to rethink their plans in the middle.

Cornered. Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will run into Lincoln Financial Field for the first time in Eagles uniforms. But where, exactly, will they be found? Asomugha will start at right cornerback, and Asante Samuel at left. In the nickel, expect Joselio Hanson, not Rodgers-Cromartie, to come on. Where things get interesting are the ways the Eagles may try to get all three of their cornerback stars on the field at once. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo has talked about using Asomugha as a Charles Woodson-like rover who lines up inside with the ability to blitz, cover, or provide run support. How serious is he? And does Castillo use his full bag of tricks in a preseason game, or do we have to wait until September to see the real plan?

Vick insurance. Young has the bigger name and stronger resume, but so far Mike Kafka, with a year in Philadelphia under his belt, has looked much steadier running the Eagles' offense. Young has looked out of sync. Can Young improve on his showing at training camp and instill confidence that he is really the best insurance in case Vick gets hurt? Or does Kafka stake a claim over his more heralded teammate?

Attack mode. So far, the defensive linemen love the approach instilled by new line coach Jim Washburn, who just lets them attack. The team has added defensive end Jason Babin and defensive tackles Cullen Jenkins and Anthony Hargrove to improve the pass rush. Let's see whether those investments pay off. Also, keep an eye on offside calls. It's been a problem for the line at camp.

Return game. Wide receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins will get the first crack at winning the kick-returner job. Chad Hall also may get a chance. With Higgins, Hall, and Sinorice Moss battling for the last wide receiver spot, their return skills may be a key to their chances of making the team. It might be tough to make an impression, though. With kickoffs moved up to the 35-yard line, touchbacks may be all we get.

Special rookies. Kicker Alex Henery and punter Chas Henry have shown big legs at Lehigh. But how do they do in the face of a real rush at Lincoln Financial Field? Interest in these two rookies may be enough to make us pay attention to preseason field goals and punts.


Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, jtamari@phillynews.com, or @JonathanTamari on Twitter.

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