7 Eagles players to watch in Sunday’s Patriots game

Patriots

The Eagles arguably have the strongest roster in the NFL, holding several players on both sides of the ball with Pro Bowl potential.

Jalen Hurts might be the engine of the Eagles’ offense, but DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown are integral to the unit’s success. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

The Patriots officially kick off the 2023 season Sunday when they host the Eagles.

Many Patriots fans’ eyes will be on quarterback Mac Jones and the offense to see if he and the rest of the unit have made any improvements under Bill O’Brien. On the other side of the ball, highly touted first-round pick Christian Gonzalez will make his NFL debut.

And, of course, Tom Brady is back in town as he’ll be honored during Sunday’s game.

But the Eagles might have the most talented roster in the NFL. The reigning NFC champs are coming off a dominant 14-3 season and have several players with Pro Bowl upside on both sides of the ball. Here are seven Eagles in particular for Patriots fans to keep an eye on Sunday.

Jalen Hurts

Can the Eagles quarterback replicate his breakout 2022 season and have an even better 2023 season?

The answer to that question will more than likely determine Philadelphia’s status as a Super Bowl contender this year. Hurts has a chance though to put away any further doubt on Sunday when he faces a Patriots team that statistically had one of the best defenses in the league last season, but struggled against top quarterbacks.

In addition to the Patriots’ inability to slow down elite quarterbacks, they’ve also had a tough time stopping mobile quarterbacks over the years, with Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Justin Fields among those having big days on the ground against New England in recent memory.

Hurts might be better on the ground than all of them. His 760 rushing yards last season was the fourth-most among all quarterbacks, but he trailed second place by just four yards. He also rushed for 13 touchdowns, which was tied for second among all players in the league. His quarterback sneaks are almost unstoppable, similar to Tom Brady’s, as he’s able to use his size and the Eagles’ strong offensive line to his advantage.

Hurts is also an efficient passer, or at least he was last season. He completed 66.5 percent of his passes in 2022 for 3,701 yards with 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions. His 101.5 passer rating was the fourth-best mark in the league, too.

What’s even crazier to think is that Hurts arguably had the best game of his MVP runner-up campaign in the Super Bowl. He completed 27 of 38 passes for 304 yards with a touchdown, adding 70 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns to become the first quarterback with three rushing touchdowns in a Super Bowl.

If the Patriots are able to slow down or even stop one of the favorites for MVP in 2023 on Sunday, it could be a sign that they’ve turned the corner defensively to prove themselves as one of the league’s elite. If they’re not, it could be the start of a long season as Hurts is just the first of many top-tier quarterbacks on the Patriots’ schedule this season.

A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith

Hurts is obviously a really good player, but he also benefits from an extremely talented Eagles offense around him.

Quite possibly no quarterback has a better receiver duo to throw to than Hurts, too. Brown and Smith were arguably the top receiver duo in 2022, with both players recording over 1,000 receiving yards and 85 receptions. Brown was among one of the league’s best, ranking fourth in receiving yards (1,496), tied for third in receiving touchdowns (11), and 13th in receptions (88).

Smith, who won the Heisman Trophy catching passes from Mac Jones in 2020, wasn’t too far behind his Eagles teammate. His 95 receptions were the 11th-most in the league while he was ninth in receiving yards (1,196) and tied for 15th in receiving touchdowns (seven).

Just as how the Patriots have struggled against elite quarterbacks in recent seasons, they’ve also had a tough time slowing down some of the game’s best receivers, too. Stefon Diggs, Justin Jefferson, Tyreek Hill, Tee Higgins, and others have all had big days against the Patriots over the last two seasons, proving to be a big part of New England’s losses in those games.

Christian Gonzalez was drafted to at least help slow down those kinds of receivers. The 2023 first-round pick couldn’t have asked for a much tougher challenge NFL debut than the one he’ll get on Sunday. If he’s able to stand up to the challenge, the Patriots can possibly start thinking that they might have their next elite corner in a long line of them in the Bill Belichick era.

The challenge of slowing down Brown and Smith was made tougher for the Patriots in recent days though. Jack Jones suffered a hamstring injury at practice and won’t suit up for Sunday’s game, leaving New England with little depth behind its likely starting corner group of Gonzalez, Jonathan Jones, and Marcus Jones.

Haason Reddick

Whoever the Patriots opt to play at right tackle on Sunday will likely go up against one of the league’s best pass rushers.

Reddick was the top dog for a Philadelphia pass rush that led the league with 70 total sacks last season. He was responsible for 16 of them, which was tied for the second-most in the league. He was also credited with 68 total pressures (via Pro Football Focus) en route to forcing a league-high six fumbles.

Reddick did much of his damage when lined up against the opposing team’s right tackles last season. However, he was also sometimes used on the opposite side of the line and even blitzed up from up the middle to create pressures and sacks.

In what could be a sign of luck for the Patriots, Reddick had thumb surgery last month. While he was a full participant at practice this week after missing time in the previous few weeks, Reddick is still recovering from the surgery.

“You take the hand, hey, wrap it up, we’ll find a way,” Reddick told reporters on Thursday. “We’re going to be adaptable to that. At least, I have to be. That’s what it means to be adaptable. Go out there, whatever is thrown your way, don’t get flustered. Don’t get frustrated about it. Find an answer to it.”

Jalen Carter

The Patriots’ offensive line, which was their most questionable unit during training camp and the preseason, will be tested all around on Sunday.

In addition to Reddick, the Eagles boast several other top defensive linemen. Defensive ends Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham have been viewed among some of the best at the position over the last few seasons while Fletcher Cox might be the best defensive tackle in the game over the last decade.

There’s a new intriguing player to add to that group of defensive linemen: Jalen Carter. The Georgia product was touted by many scouts and draft analysts as the top player in the 2023 NFL Draft. But his involvement in a speed racing incident in January that led to the deaths of two people (among other concerns) caused Carter to fall to the No. 9 pick, allowing the Eagles to trade up a spot to draft him.

The unanimous first-team All-American last season was a major reason for the Bulldogs’ historic defenses over the last two seasons. He recorded 69 total tackles, six sacks, and 15.5 tackles for loss over Georgia’s two national championship-winning campaigns in 2021 and 2022.

As the 6-foot-3, 314-pound behemoth in the middle embarks on his NFL career, Carter’s earned rave reviews from Eagles teammates so far. Edge rusher Nolan Smith, who played with Carter at Georgia, said Carter’s “a monster” defensively while cornerback Darius Slay called him “baby rhino” during training camp.

Carter only played nine snaps during the preseason, so he hasn’t really even gotten much of a test run in the NFL yet. So, Sunday’s game could be the way he introduces himself as a potential stud for offensive lines to deal with for years to come.

Darius Slay and James Bradberry

The Eagles nearly said goodbye to one of their Pro Bowl corners over the offseason, giving him a last-minute contract restructure to avoid having to release him to clear up cap space.

Now 32, Slay’s consistently been one of the game’s best corners dating back to his days with the Detroit Lions. He’s recorded three interceptions in each of the last two seasons as quarterbacks have struggled to generate big plays when throwing in his direction. Opposing quarterbacks completed 41 of 75 passes (54.7 percent) for 504 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions with a 76.8 passer rating when they targeted Slay in coverage last season, per PFF.

As Slay was nearly shown the door, the Eagles gave Bradberry a big contract over the offseason, signing him to a three-year, $38 million deal with $20 million guaranteed.

Bradberry had a standout season in his first year with the Eagles in 2022 after he was released by the Giants, recording three interceptions as quarterbacks completed fewer than 50 percent of their passes when targeting him in coverage, per PFF.

But many NFL fans likely know Bradberry for the blunder he made in the Eagles’ Super Bowl loss last season. He committed a holding penalty while covering now Patriots receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, which allowed the Chiefs to run the clock down before kicking the game-winning field goal.

Smith-Schuster poked fun at Bradberry for the play a couple of days later as he got into a social media spat with Slay and other Eagles players. However, Bradberry gave up just two receptions on three targets for 16 yards when he covered Smith-Schuster in the Super Bow, according to PFF.

We’ll see who’ll get the last laugh between Smith-Schuster and the Eagles’ secondary on Sunday.


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