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Dolphins vs Eagles preview: Carson Wentz growth, Ronald Darby fit, LeGarrette Blount struggles

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Philadelphia Eagles will host the Miami Dolphins Thursday night in a Preseason Week 3 contest. Both teams are expected to play the majority of their starters longer in this game than at any other time during the preseason. The two teams spent Monday and Tuesday practicing together, with the coaches seeming to look at the opportunity as an extended scrimmage against each other - leading into tonight’s full speed contest.

The biggest storyline for both teams on Thursday will likely be focused squarely on the quarterback position, where the Eagles have second-year passer Carson Wentz while the Dolphins are working new starter Jay Cutler into the offensive system and building relationships between the quarterback and his receivers. With the the expected extended playing for both, this game will likely be the best opportunity to see exactly how ready they are for the regular season.

To get a better look at the Eagles heading into the game, I spoke with Brandon Lee Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation. Make sure you check out my answers to some questions he had about the Dolphins over at their site as well.

1. What are you seeing in the growth of Carson Wentz as the quarterback for the Eagles?

Wentz has had a pretty good offseason. It’s only “practice” (shout out to A.I.) but it’s still encouraging. Wentz just seems to have a better command of the offense. He’s showing more consistency. His accuracy has improved. Wentz hasn’t been perfect by any means — he’s still a work in progress. But there’s no question the good has outweighed the bad. Based on what he’s done in practice, I feel relatively encouraged about his progress heading into Year 2.

2. With this week being the third preseason game, which typically means the "dress rehearsal" game, what are you expecting to see from the Eagles? How long will the starters play and is there anyone who you think will be held out of the contest?Starting defenders Brandon Graham and Jordan Hicks got banged up in practice this week so it sounds like they won’t go. Those are two of the team’s best defensive players so Philadelphia’s defense.

As for the starters who WILL play, it’s not exactly clear how long they’ll be in the game. Doug Pederson declined to reveal his game-plan in his final press conference before the game.

My educated guess is that most starters will play at least the first half. Last preseason, the Eagles’ starters played a little into the third quarter during the third preseason game.

3. This marks the second-straight game for the Eagles against an AFC East team, and one with whom you made a surprising trade. Last year, it was obviously the trade with the Dolphins to send Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell to South Florida. This year, it was the move to send Jordan Matthews to the Buffalo Bills, while receiving Ronald Darby in return. (Not to mention the 2015 trade with the Bills sending LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for Alonso - the Eagles like trading with the AFC East, don't they?) How is Darby fitting in and why was Matthews available for the Bills? And speaking of the wide receivers, how is Alshon Jeffery progressing with the Eagles?

Darby has instantly improved the Eagles’ defense. Seriously, the whole secondary suddenly looks a lot better with his presence. Instead of Patrick Robinson getting burned on every play, now the Eagles’ defensive backs can actually defend the team’s wide receivers. Darby almost had a pick-six on one of the first passes thrown his way last Thursday against the Bills. He came up with an actual interception later in the first quarter.

Matthews was available because his production was inflated, as I explained two months before the trade even happened. He’s going to be a free agent after this season and he’s not going to be worth what his camp will push for. The Eagles likely wouldn’t have been able to pay him because they already have to pay impending free agents such as Jeffrey, Tim Jernigan, Nigel Bradham, etc. Philadelphia projects to have a relatively limited amount of cap space next offseason so they can’t just pay everyone.

Jeffery is looking pretty good. Apparently he’s gotten the best of Maxwell a number of times this week. The Eagles’ wide receiver coach called out Jeffery for being “behind” after missing some practice time but I think that’s more of a motivational factor than anything. Jeffery is catching everything thrown his way. He makes contested catches look easy. He’s a huge upgrade over what the Eagles had last year, which isn’t saying much.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby (35) runs with the ball after an interception against the Buffalo Bills at Lincoln Financial Field.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

4. What has been the biggest story of training camp/preseason? Who is surprising and who is disappointing?

The biggest story of camp, other than the Matthews trade, is the development of Wentz. He’s clearly the most important member of the team.

A number of the Eagles’ wide receivers have been pleasant surprises. Torrey Smith doesn’t look like he’s cooked despite a couple bad years with the 49ers. Young, unheralded players such as Marcus Johnson, Mack Hollins, and Greg Ward have stepped up which is part of why the Eagles felt comfortable shipping out Matthews.

The running back position features a number of disappointments. LeGarrette Blount hasn’t played well in the preseason. Wendell Smallwood has looked good in practice but he hasn’t been able to consistently stay healthy dating back to last year. Donnel Pumphrey is a player the Eagles really liked in the 2017 NFL Draft; they traded up in the fourth-round for him. But the 5-9, 170 pound rusher hasn’t really shown any explosiveness and he’s had ball security issues.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) hands off to running back LeGarrette Blount (29) against the Buffalo Bills during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

5. Last year, the Eagles finished the season 7-9, but they actually flashed as a better team than their record suggests. Was it mostly just a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach and the growing pains that comes with that, or was there some other issue holding back the 2016 Eagles? Are they ready to turn those flashes into who they are in 2017?

Thank you for bringing this up! I say all the time that the Eagles were better than their record last year and no one seems to want to believe me. Philadelphia finished with the best DVOA rating ever for a team with a losing record

That’s not to say the team was without issues. Having a rookie QB and HC definitely factored in to the equation. The defense fell apart later on in the season. Wentz’s supporting cast was abysmal.

But I think part of why the Eagles weren’t better in 2016 is simply due to bad luck. They lost a lot of close score games. A bounce of the football here, a tip of a pass there, and things could have been a lot different.

I do think the Eagles are bound to improve a little in 2017. I project the Birds to go 9-7, which is a two-win improvement from last year. I think that’s reasonable.